Project Canterbury

The Little Lives of the Saints

Told by Percy Dearmer

Illustrated by Charles Robinson.

London: Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., 1904.

St Boniface

WINFRID was born at Crediton in Devon. His parents who were great folks in those parts, hoped that he would grow up to take their place when they were old. But, when he was still quite a small boy, some travelling monks stopped for the night at his house; and the sight of their furrowed cheeks, and solemn glistening eyes, and the stories they told of their warfare for God, made him settle in his little heart that he would wear their dark uniform, and fight in their ranks in the forefront of the battle.

His father was very angry with Winfrid for wanting to throw away his life like this: and great trouble might have befallen the boy, had not a serious illness turned the father's heart and brought him to a better mind.

So very soon Winfrid took the name of Boniface, and went to a monastery at Exeter, and then to a place called Nursling, to be trained in the life of a monk. He learnt grammar, and history, and poetry, and rhetoric, and the interpretation of the Bible; he also learnt to obey orders and to sleep on a pallet bed.

By the time he was thirty he was already famous: the road to great honours lay open before him. But God had sent into his mind the thought that he would go out as a missionary.

Although England was at that time a Christian country, Germany was still sunk in heathenism. Now it was from Germany that our Anglo and Saxon forefathers had come; from that part of it which is called Friesland, a cold marshy country that lies between the Zuyder Zee and the Elbe. Therefore Winfrid longed especially after Friesland. He thought of the wild tribes that lived there, in the cradle of the English race; and he said to himself: "The children must go back and turn the hearts of the fathers." This became the object of his life; and, knowing that God meant him for the work, he bided his time.

Already some brave Englishmen had gone out to Germany; and, when Boniface was about thirty-six years old, a monk who was on his way to the mission field fell ill and could not go.

Boniface thought, "Now is the time!" He offered himself in the place of the sick monk, was accepted, and soon had crossed the sea with two comrades. But, when he reached Friesland, he found it desolated by war; a heathen named Kadbod had conquered the country, pulled down the little chapels and persecuted the Christian converts.

This Radbod had once nearly become a Christian, and he had stuck in heathenism for a curious reason. He was prepared for baptism, and the day of his regeneration arrived. But, just as he was about to step into the water, a thought struck him. He turned to the missionary, and asked: "Where are all my forefathers who have gone before me, now that they are dead?" The missionary, anxious, I suppose, to frighten him into becoming a Christian, answered: "They are all in hell." Now, the missionary had no right to think he knew how God had judged Radbod's forefathers; and, besides, it is no use trying to frighten people into being religious. So Radbod, who, like all those old Germans, was a proud as well as a brave man, drew back from the water and said: "I had rather be there with my forefathers than in heaven with a parcel of beggars."

So it was that Boniface's first missionary expedition was a failure. There was nothing for him to do but to leave the devastated country, and come back to his monastery at Nursling. What a trial that was to his courage and faith! The monks begged him to become their abbot; and a weaker man would have accepted the honour, and settled down to a peaceful life. Not so Boniface. He just prayed and waited, as strong and staunch as ever.

And that is how God sifts the chaff from the wheat, to show what stuff men are made of. Every great man has to go through difficulties like that. It is only the little men who do what comes most easily.

In two years he was off again on another big journey. This time he went to Rome, got the Pope's sanction, climbed back over the snowy passes of the Alps, and reached Bavaria. Here he heard that the stubborn old Radbod was dead and Friesland at peace again. So he went in a boat all the way up the Rhine, and found the good English bishop, Willibrord, who had been toiling away in Friesland for about fifty years. For three years he helped him there, and made friends with the Frisians. Then he went back into the central parts of Germany, converted two chiefs, and baptised thousands of people.

And now he spent thirty long years, not in his beloved Friesland, but in the more civilised, central parts. The Pope made him a bishop, and then Archbishop of all Germany, or, as he is generally called, Archbishop of Mentz. Sometimes he was at Mentz and sometimes at Cologne, and over all that huge country between the Rhine and the Danube he was set, to establish it as a proper Christian kingdom.

It was a fearful task; for the people were neither good heathens nor good Christians. Formerly the tall strong Germans had been fierce and cruel, but brave as well, and famed for their simplicity, truth and hospitality. But now they had lost their simple ways, and yet were only half-civilised. They were very like some of the coloured races in the British Empire to-day, who have given up their old religion, but have not yet learned the faith of Christ, and so have nothing to make them strong and good.

Some of these Germans professed Christianity, but went on worshipping and sacrificing in the heathen groves. There was one aged oak, especially, which was sacred to Thor, the thunder god, and the centre of heathen worship. They thought that anyone who hurt this tree would be struck dead by the terrible god. So Boniface determined to destroy it, and thus to put an end to the superstition. He gathered all the people round it; and, seizing an axe, began to hack at the great gnarled trunk. They stood round pale with fear, expecting every moment to see the bishop drop down dead from a stroke of Thor's lightning. But still Boniface swung the axe round his head, and chop, chop, it went, making a white gash in the tree. Then a gust of wind came, stirring the ancient branches so that their groaning was heard loud above the rustling of the leaves. The horror grew deeper, and the people whispered, "Now Thor is coming,'' when crash, smash, went the tree, and with a sound that was indeed like thunder, it split into four great pieces, and lay a tangle of branches upon the ground. Then Boniface called the folk to bring their hatchets, and out of Thor's oak he made a chapel to St Peter.

Through the length and breadth of the fair German land he set up his mission-stations, established monasteries and founded bishoprics. Many of his own kin came over from England to help him. For England had heard of his deeds, and was full of admiration; and, besides, the German tongue was very like that which the English spoke, so that the missionaries could easily make themselves understood. There was St. Willibald, his nephew, and Walburga from Wimborne Minster, and Tecla, both kinswomen of his, and Lull, who had been Bede's pupil at Jarrow. Presents and letters came, too, from England, a silver ink-pot from one friend, knives from another, frankincense from another; and Boniface replied with letters (some of which can still be read), and with presents of rugs. For he and his comrades lived as working-men, and weaved rugs and mats with their own busy hands.

Thus the work went on. There were heathens to contend with, and semi-heathens; and there were bad Christians too--bishops who preferred hunting and a gay life to hard work, nobles who had got hold of church property, and therefore disliked Boniface's reforms. And there were the very queerest heretics, who imposed upon the ignorant people.

There was one man, named Adalbert, who said he had a letter from heaven, and went about dedicating churches to himself! He paid a lot of men to sham blindness so that when people were about he could heal one of them; he wrote an autobiography full of marvellous miracles, and when he cut his nails he gave the parings to his followers as sacred relics.

With these people Boniface had to be severe; but he always tried to be fair, and to do nothing that was not strictly lawful. Once he was in the wrong himself. An Irishman, named Virgil, taught that the world was round, and also that baptism was none the less true when it was administered by an ignorant priest in bad Latin. Boniface thought he must be another heretic, but the Pope upheld Virgil about baptism, and everybody knows now that the world is round.

All this time Boniface never forgot Friesland. In his dreams he saw the wild waste country, and heard the voice of the fathers calling for the children.

At last, when he was seventy-five, he determined to go back there and end his life as a missionary. So he resigned his archbishopric, appointed the good Lull his successor, settled up his affairs, wrote to King Pepin and Pope Zachary, and to all his friends. He laid aside all his honours and power, and put on his old monk's dress. In his pocket he carried a Book of the Gospels and a treatise by St. Ambrose on "The Advantage of Death," and he took with him an altar-cloth, which, he said, would serve as a shroud when he was dead.

Then, with a few followers, he embarked in a boat on the Rhine, rowed slowly up the great river, crossed the Zuyder Zee, and thus arrived among the marshes of Friesland.

For some time they went peacefully among the little wattled villages, converting and teaching the people.

But one bright summer's day they arrived at a place called Dokkum, and here on the banks of the river Bordau they pitched their tents and waited. For they were expecting a company of recently-baptised Frisians, who were to come that day and receive confirmation. The day passed in happy expectation; and next morning Boniface and his priests stood by the river-bank in their vestments, prepared for the holy rites.

After a while they heard the distant sounds of men approaching. "God has sent us more converts than we had expected," they thought; for the tramp of many feet suggested quite an army.

It was, indeed, an army! As it drew nearer, the little band of missionaries could see the swords and spears glittering in the sun, and hear the shouts of war and hatred. It was a heathen army that had come to kill the Christians who had destroyed its idols, and to seize the treasures which the barbarians, in their ignorance expected to find.

Some of the younger Christians ran forward to defend the camp, their blood rising up at the prospect of a light. But Boniface stopped them.

"Spill no useless blood!" he said. "Do not return evil for evil; only be strong and of good courage. They will kill your body, but they cannot kill your soul." Then he added to himself: "This is the long-wished-for day!" In a few minutes the barbarians were upon the little band, which awaited them so calmly. The aged saint took his Book of the Gospels, laid his head upon it, and thus received the death-stroke. The others died as nobly. And indeed no useless blood was spilt; for Germany was sealed for Christ with English blood.

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