“A sentence of the teacher of all nations, the celebrated Apostle St. Paul, tells us that everything helps to secure the good of those who love God. Therefore when we learned from your report that God in His mercy had loosed a great number of the German people from the toils of paganism and had brought as many as a hundred thousand souls into the Church through your efforts and those of Prince Charles, we raised our hands in prayer and thanked God, the Giver of all good, for having opened the gates of mercy and love to make known to the West the path of salvation. Glory be to Him for ever.“ (Pope Gregory III in a letter to St Boniface, October 739)
|11th century illumination showing St Boniface baptising and getting matryred|
For almost 40 years, with strong support from the mayor of the palace Charles Martel and later his sons Carloman and Pepin the Short, the bishop Wynfrid of Crediton (now Devon in England), better known as St Boniface, Apostle of Germans, attempted to Christianise Saxons and Frisians, the enemies of the Frankish empire east of the Rhine.
His best known feat is chopping down the Donar Oak at one of the most important non-christian cult sites in Northern Hesse. The act, often illustrated and celebrated as one of the major events in the process of Christianising of the Germanic peoples, was in fact done under heavy military cover by Charles Martel’s local Frankish troops to show the newly occupied territory what’s what and that old customs were not tolerated any longer by the authorities – the same was true for the new bishoprics Boniface founded from Bavaria to Saxony.
|Emil Doepler's imagination of St Boniface, holding a cross over the fallen Donar's oak towards the somewhat disgruntled Chatti|
Boniface was in his mid-70s when he ventured to a last mission to Frisia and it is quite obvious that he voluntarily sought martyrdom and the region was well known for stubbornly opposing Frankish rule and Christian religion. Saxons and Frisians still have a reputation to be a bit contrary at times. On his way to celebrate mass in Dokkum, the tall, ancient bishop was waylaid by a band of armed men. In theory a simple hold-up. Boniface seemed to have been targeted voluntarily - his assailants killed him than hacked at his gospel and subsequently nailed his holy book to his body - a way to prevent sorcerers to return from the grave - as well as the fact that he and his people carried nothing of value at least looks more like a planned execution than a random robbery. Boniface is buried in Fulda Abbey. The way his body was carried from Frisia to Northern Hesse is a pilgrimage route since the Middle Ages and St Boniface venerated as the Apostle of the Germans.
The wars in Lower Saxony and the Christianisation of the locals with fire and sword continued for the next 50 years until Charles Martel’s grandson Charlemagne could claim to rule a Christian empire from the Pyrenees to the River Elbe around the year 800.