Life of St. Willibrord, Apostle to Frisia

November 20, 2014

November 7, Church Calendar, Feast of St. Willibrord (658-739), Missionary to the Frisians

St. Bede the Venerable on St. Willibrord, Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (8th century), Book V, Chapters 10 and 11:



WHEN the man of God, Egbert, perceived that neither he himself was permitted to preach to the Gentiles, being withheld, on account of some other advantage to the church, which had been foretold him by the Divine oracle; nor that Wictbert, when he went into those parts, had met with any success; he nevertheless still attempted to send some holy and industrious men to the work of the word, among whom was Wilbrord, a man eminent for his merit and rank in the priesthood. They arrived there, twelve in number, and turning aside to Pepin, duke of the Franks, were graciously received by him; and as he had lately subdued the Hither Frisland, and expelled King Rathbed, he sent them thither to preach, supporting them at the same time with his authority, that none might molest them in their preaching, and bestowing many favors on those who consented to embrace the faith. Thus it came to pass, that with the assistance of the Divine grace, they in a short time converted many from idolatry to the faith of Christ.

Two other priests of the English nation, who had long lived strangers in Ireland, for the sake of the eternal kingdom, following the example of the former, went into the province of the Ancient Saxons, to try whether they could there gain any to Christ by preaching. They both bore the same name, as they were the same in devotion, Hewald being the name of both, with this distinction, that, on account of the difference of their hair, the one was called Black Hewald and the other White Hewald. They were both piously religious, but Black Hewald was the more learned of the two in Scripture. On entering that province, these men took up their lodging in a certain steward’s house, and requested that he would conduct them to his lord, for that they had a message, and something to his advantage, to communicate to him; for those Ancient Saxons have no king, but several lords that rule their nation; and when any war happens, they cast lots indifferently, and on whomsoever the lot falls, him they follow and obey during the war; but as soon as the war is ended, all those lords are again equal in power. The steward received and entertained them in his house some days, promising to send them to his lord, as they desired.

But the barbarians finding them to be of another religion, by their continual prayer and singing of psalms and hymns, and by their daily offering the sacrifice of the saving oblation, – for they had with them sacred vessels and a consecrated table for an altar, – they began to grow jealous of them, lest if they should come into the presence of their chief, and converse with him, they should turn his heart from their gods, and convert him to the new religion of the Christian faith; and thus by degrees all their province should change its old worship for a new. Hereupon they, on a sudden, laid hold of them and put them to death; the White Hewald they slew immediately with the sword; but the Black they put to tedious torture and tore limb from limb, throwing them into the Rhine. The Chief, whom they had desired to see, hearing of it, was highly incensed, that the strangers who desired to come to him had not been allowed; and therefore he sent and put to death all those peasants and burnt their village. The aforesaid priests and servants of Christ suffered on the 3rd of October.

Nor did their martyrdom want the honor of miracles; for their dead bodies having been cast into the river by the pagans, as has been said, were carried against the stream for the space of almost forty miles, to the place where their companions were. Moreover, a long ray of light, reaching up to heaven, shined every night over the place where they arrived, in the sight of the very pagans that had slain them. Moreover, one of them appeared in a vision by night to one of his companions, whose name was Tilmon, a man of illustrious and of noble birth, who from a soldier was become a monk, acquainting him that he might find their bodies in that place, where he should see rays of light reaching from heaven to the earth; which turned out accordingly; and their bodies being found, were interred with the honor due to martyrs; and the day of their passion or of their bodies being found, is celebrated in those parts with proper veneration. At length, Pepin, the most glorious general of the Franks, understanding these things, caused the bodies to be brought to him, and buried them with much honor in the church of the city of Cologne, on the Rhine. It is reported, that a spring gushed out in the place where they were killed, which to this day affords a plentiful stream.



AT their first Coming into Frisland, as soon as Wilbrord found he had leave given him by the prince to preach, he made haste to Rome, where Pope Sergius then presided over the apostolical see, that he might undertake the desired work of preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles, with his licence and blessing; and hoping to receive of him some relics of the blessed apostles and martyrs of. Christ; to the end, that when he destroyed the idols, and erected churches in the nation to which he preached, he might have the relics of saints at hand to put into them, and having deposited them there, might accordingly dedicate those places to the honor of each of the saints whose relics they were. He was also desirous there to learn or to receive from thence many other things which so great a work required. Having obtained all that he wanted, he returned to preach.

At which time, the brothers who were in Frisland, attending the ministry of the word, chose out of their own number a man, modest of behavior, and meek of heart, called Swidbert, to be ordained bishop for them. He, being sent into Britain, was consecrated by the most reverend Bishop Wilfrid, who, happening to be then driven out of his country, lived in banishment among the Mercians; for Kent had no bishop at that time, Theodore being dead, and Berthwald, his successor, who was gone beyond the sea, to be ordained, not having returned.

The said Swidbert, being made bishop, returned from Britain not long after, and went among the Boructuarians; and by his preaching brought many of them into the way of truth; but the Boructuarians being not long after subdued by the Ancient Saxons, those who had received the word were dispersed abroad; and the bishop himself repaired to Pepin, who, at the request of his wife, Blithryda, gave him a place of residence in a certain island on the Rhine, which, in their tongue, is called Inlitore; where he built a monastery, which his heirs still possess, and for a time led a most continent life, and there ended his days.

When they who went over had spent some years teaching in Frisland, Pepin, with the consent of them all, sent the venerable Wilbrord to Rome, where Sergius was still pope, desiring that he might be consecrated archbishop over the nation of the Frisons; which was accordingly done, in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 696. He was consecrated in the church of the Holy Martyr Cecilia, on her feastday; the pope gave him the name of Clement, and sent him back to his bishopric, fourteen days after his arrival at Rome.

Pepin gave him a place for his episcopal see, in his famous castle, which in the ancient language of those people is called Wiltaburg, that is, the town of the Wilts; but, in the French tongue, Utrecht. The most reverend prelate having built a church there, and preaching the word of faith far and near, drew many from their errors, and erected several churches and monasteries. For not long after he constituted other bishops in those parts, from among the brethren that either came with him or after him to preach there; some of which are now departed in our Lord; but Wilbrord himself, surnamed Clement, is still living, venerable for old age, having been thirty-six years a bishop, and sighing after the rewards of the heavenly life, after the many spiritual conflicts which he has waged.



Life of St. Wilibrord by Alcuin of York, based upon the earlier Irish “Life” of the Saint


 There was in the island of Britain, in the province of Northurnbria, a certain householder of Saxon descent, whose name was Wilgils, living a devout Christian life together with his wife and family. This fact was later borne out by miraculous events, for after he had given up his worldly career he devoted himself to the monastic life. Not long afterwards, as his zeal for the spiritual life increased, he entered with even more intense fervour on the austere life of a solitary, dwelling in the headlands that are bounded by the North Sea and the river Humber. In a little chapel there, dedicated to St. Andrew, the Apostle of Christ, he served God for many years in fasting, prayer and watching, with the result that he became celebrated for his miracles, and his name was in everyone’s mouth. People flocked to him in great numbers, and when they did so he never failed to instruct them with sound advice and the Word of God .

He was held in such high esteem by the king and the nobles of that nation that they made over to him, in perpetual gift, a number of small landed properties that lie near those headlands for the purpose of building there a church to God. In this church the reverend father gathered together a rather small but devout company of those who wished to serve God, and there also, after the many trials of his spiritual labours, going to his reward, his body lies at rest. His successors, who still follow the example of his holiness, are in possession of this church to the present day. It is I, the least of these in merit and the last in time, who am now in charge of this little chapel, which has come to me by lawful succession, and I am writing this account of Willibrord, the holiest of fathers and the wisest of teachers, at the request of you, Bishop Beornrade, who, by the grace of God, have succeeded him in the episcopate, in the line of family tradition and in the care of those sanctuaries, which, as we know, he built for the glory of God.



Now, in order to relate more fully the facts concerning Willibrord’s birth, and recall the signs which show that even whilst he was in his mother’s womb he was chosen by God, I shall return to the point where I began. Just as the most holy fore-runner of our Lord Jesus Christ, blessed John the Baptist, was sanctified in his mother’s womb and preceded Christ, as the morning star precedes the sun and, as the Gospel tells us, was born of devout parents in order to bring salvation to many, so likewise Willibrord, begotten for the salvation of many, was born of devout parents. Wilgils, the venerable man of whom we have already spoken, entered upon the state of matrimony for the sole purpose of bringing into the world a child who should benefit many peoples. Thus it was that his wife, mother of holy Willibrord, beheld, at dead of night whilst she slept, a heavenly vision. It seemed to her as if she saw in the sky the new moon, which, as she watched, slowly increased until it reached the size of the full moon. Whilst she was gazing intently upon it, it fell swiftly into her mouth, and when she had swallowed it her bosom was suffused with light. Filled with fear, she awoke at once and went to recount the dream to a holy priest, who asked her whether during the night on which the vision came to her she had known her husband in the customary way. When she assented, he replied as follows: ” The moon which you saw changing from small to great is the son whom you conceived on that night. He will disperse the murky darkness of error with the light of truth, and wherever he goes he will carry with him a heavenly splendour and display the full moon of his perfection. By the brightness of his fame and the beauty of his life he will attract to himself the eyes of multitudes.” This interpretation of the dream was borne out by the actual course of events.



When her time was come the woman bore a son, and at his baptism his father gave him the name of Willibrord. As soon as [5] the child had reached the age of reason his father gave him to the church at Ripon to be instructed by the brethten there in religious pursuits and sacred learning, so that living in a place where he could see nothing but what was vittuous and hear nothing but what was holy his tender age should be strengthened by sound training and discipline. From his earliest years divine grace enabled him to grow in intelligence and in strength of character, at least as far as was possible at such an age, so that it seemed as if in our day there had been born another Samuel, of whom it was said: ” The boy grew up and advanced in favour both with God and with men.”

Hence, in the monastery of Ripon, the youth who was to prove a blessing to many received the clerical tonsute  and made his profession as a monk, and, attained along with the other youths of that holy and sacred monastery, he was inferior to none in fervour, humility and zeal for study. In fact this highly gifted boy made such progress as the days went by that the development of his intelligence and character so outstripped his tender years that his small and delicate frame harboured the wisdom of ripe old age.



When this youth, as highly endowed with sacred learning as he was with self­-control and integrity, reached the twentieth year of his age he felt an urge to pursue a more rigorous mode of life and was stirred with a desire to travel abroad. And because he had heard that schools and learning flourished in Ireland, he was encouraged further by what he was told of the manner of life adopted there by certain holy men, particularly by the blessed  bishop Ecgbert, to whom was given the title of Saint, and by Wichtberct, the venerable servant and priest of God, both of whom, for love of Christ, forsook home, fatherland and family and retired to Ireland, where, cut off from the world though close to God, they lived as solitaries enjoying the blessings of heavenly contemplation. The blessed youth wished to imitate the godly life of these men and, after obtaining the consent of his abbot and brethren, hastened quickly across the sea to join the intimate circle of the said fathers, so that by contact with them he might attain the same degree of holiness and possess the same virtues, much as a bee sucks honey from the flowers and stores it up in its honeycomb. There among these masters, eminent both for sanctity and sacred learning, he who was one day to preach to many peoples was trained for twelve years, until he reached the mature age of manhood and the full age of Christ.


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