Willibrord (DNB00)

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WILLIBRORD or WILBRORD, Saint (657?–738?), archbishop of Utrecht and apostle of Frisia, born about 657, was a Northumbrian (Flor. Wig. in Mon. Hist. Brit. i. 539 B), the son of Wilgils, who, after Willibrord's birth, retired from the world to a cell at the mouth of the Humber (Alcuin, Vit. Will. vol. i. chap. i.), where he lived the anchorite's life. His day was later observed as a feast day in Willibrord's own monastery of Echternach (ib. chap. xxxi.). Dedicated by his mother and father to a religious life, Willibrord, as soon as he was weaned, was given to the monks of Ripon, where he came under the influence of St. Wilfrid [q. v.] (ib. chap. iii.; Eddius, Vita Wilfridi in Historians of Church of York, vol. i.) In his twentieth year, the fame of the schools and scholars of Ireland drew him thither, and he spent the next twelve years (677–90) at the monastery of Rathmelsigi with St. Egbert [q. v.], who in 690 sent Willibrord, after he had been ordained priest, to preach the gospel to the Frisians.

Landing at the mouth of the Rhine, Willibrord went thence to Trajectum (Utrecht), but, finding the pagan king Rathbod and his Frisians hostile, he boldly went direct to Pippin of Herstal, ‘duke of the Franks,’ who had just (687) established his power over the Franks by the battle of Testry (ib.; Alcuin, Vit. Will. i. chap. v.). Pippin welcomed Willibrord, and thus identified himself and his house with the conversion of those parts of the German settlements which were still heathen. The alliance between Pippin and Willibrord was the salvation of the new movement. Rathbod being expelled, multitudes of the people of ‘Hither Frisia’ received the faith (ib.; Mon. Hist. Brit. i. 538 D). Willibrord went probably in 692 to Rome to obtain the consent of Pope Sergius to the mission, and in the hope of receiving certain holy relics of the apostles and martyrs to place in the churches he wished to build in Friesland (Bede, Hist. Eccl. vol. v. chap. xi.; Alcuin, Vit. Will. vol. i. chaps. vi. vii.). He obtained both, and on his return overthrew pagan idols, planted churches, placing in them the relics he had brought from Rome, and, though amid great difficulties, won the trust of the Frisians. He made a bold onset in Heligoland upon the pagan shrine of the god Fosite, who was a son of Balder, and, inviting the vengeance of the god by his infringement of the laws guarding the sacred fountain there, he won a remarkable supremacy over the minds of the pagan Frisians (Alcuin, vol. i. chaps. x. xi.). He destroyed the great idol of Walcheren, at the peril of his own life (ib. vol. i. chap. xiv.). In 714 Pippin and Plectrudis his wife gave Willibrord the monastery of Suestra (Migne, Pat. Lat. lxxxix. 547); here occurred one of a series of miracles which won for the saint among the people the reputation of supernatural power (Alcuin, chaps. xv. xvi.)

Extending his labours beyond the Frankish lands, Willibrord went to Rathbod, but failed to convert him (ib. chap. ix.), and finally, recognising that as hopeless, went on ‘ad ferocissimos Danorum populos,’ and their king ‘Ongendus, homo omni fera crudelior’ (possibly the Ongentheow of Beowulf), who was as firmly pagan as Rathbod. But Willibrord took thirty Danish boys back with him, and baptised them, hoping to train them up as Christians, and to send them when men on a mission to their own land (ib. chap. ix.). Gradually Willibrord was able to organise his great ‘parochia.’ The faithful, in their gratitude to him, offered their patrimonies, which were devoted to religious foundations (ib. chap. xii.; for the charters of the most famous of these grants see Migne, Pat. Lat. lxxxix. 535–53).

In 695 Willibrord went to Rome a second time, in order that, at Pippin's request, he might be consecrated archbishop of the Frisians by Sergius. He was consecrated in the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere on the feast of St. Clement (21 Nov.), and on consecration received the name of Clement, a name which however, never came into general use (but cf. Bede, Hist. Eccl. v. 11; Bede, ‘Chron. sive de VI Ætatt. Sæculi’ in Mon. Hist. Brit. p. 99 C; Chron. Flor. Wig. in Mon. Hist. Brit. p. 539 B). Alcuin (chap. vii.) makes Willibrord go to Rome only once, but in this he is probably wrong. He also says his consecration took place in St. Peter's (ib.), but this also seems to be a slip. Bede, who places Willibrord's second journey to Rome in 696, probably postdates it by a year (cf. Monumenta Alcuiniana, p. 46 n.) Remaining in Rome only fourteen days, Willibrord on his return received from Pippin a seat for his cathedral at Wiltaburg, a small village a mile from Utrecht. Later, in 722, Charles Martel, confirming his father Pippin's action, made a formal grant to Willibrord of Utrecht and lands round the monastery (Bouquet, iv. 699; Migne, Pat. Lat. lxxxix. 551, 552). In Utrecht Willibrord built a church of St. Saviour's (cf. Boniface to Pope Stephen III, Ep. 90, apud Migne, lxxxix. 787–9; Mon. Mog. pp. 259, 260). He built many churches and some monasteries throughout his widespread diocese (Bede, Hist. Eccl. vol. v. chap. xi.; Alcuin, Vit. Will. chap. xi.) Of the latter the most famous foundation was that of Echternach on the Sauer in Luxemburg, near Trier, which he and the abbess Irmina founded. It was richly endowed by Pippin and his queen Plectrudis in 706, and later by Charles Martel in 717 (ib. chap. xxii; Migne, Pat. Lat. lxxxix. 539–50). He consecrated several bishops for Frisia. When St. Wilfrid [q. v.] made his second journey to Rome with Acca [q. v.] as his companion, they visited Willibrord, and Wilfrid was able to see the completion by Willibrord of the work of which he himself had partly laid the foundations (ib. iii. 13, v. 19; Eddius in Historians of Church of York, p. 37). In 716, during the war between Rathbod and the Franks, Christianity in Frisia endured a time of persecution. St. Boniface in that year went to Frisia, hoping to help Willibrord and to win Rathbod's consent to his preaching. But the latter was refused. On 15 May 719 Boniface was appointed Willibrord's coadjutor, his special work being to convert those of the German tribes who were still pagan. On Rathbod's death Willibrord was joined by Boniface, and they worked together in Frisia for three years; but when Willibrord urged that at his death Boniface should succeed to his archbishopric and charge, Boniface's humility refused such honour, and he went on into Hesse (Migne, lxxxix. 615, 616; Boniface, Ep. 90, in Migne, lxxxix. 787, 788).

Willibrord baptised Pippin the Short, grandson of Pippin of Herstal who had first welcomed him, and he foretold that he should overthrow the shadow of Merovingian rule and become king of the Franks (Alcuin, vol. i. chap. xxiii.) In extreme old age he retired to the monastery of Echternach, where he died and was buried, aged 81, in 738 or 739. Boniface's statement of his having preached for ‘fifty years’ (Migne, Pat. Lat. lxxxix. 535) is approximate only. Alcuin (chap. xxiv.) gives 6 Nov. as the day of his death, but Theofrid gives 7 Nov., and the latter is the day kept in his honour in the Roman calendar. His remains were translated in 1031 to a new and more sumptuous church built at Echternach in his honour (Alcuin, Vit. Will. chaps. xxiv. xxv.; Pertz, xv. 1307, xxiii. 27, 34). The fame of miracles wrought at his tomb and by his relics became general (Alcuin, Vit. Will. chap. xxvi.; Pertz, xv. 967, 970, 971, 1271, &c.) Willibrord's work suffered a reaction less than fifty years after his death, when Widikind overthrew Christianity in Frisia (Pertz, ii. 410). The cause of Willibrord's success proved also the cause of his failure; his mission had depended largely for its support upon the help of the ruler of the state; once that support was withdrawn or overwhelmed, the work of the mission was not sufficiently independent to endure in its entirety. Willibrord had been not so much a missionary as the right hand of Pippin and of Charles Martel in their efforts to civilise the lower German tribes. Though indefatigable in the work of his diocese, the establishment of his bishopric at Utrecht, on the borders of the empire, and especially his frequent retirement to Echternach in the very heart of the Frankish region, emphasise this fact. It was in the wake of Frankish armies that his main work in Frisia was done.

According to a will printed in Migne's ‘Patrologia Latina’ (lxxxix. 554–6), wherein is contained a long and detailed account of all Willibrord's possessions, mainly gifts from Peppin and Plectrudis and Charles Martel, Willibrord left all he possessed to the abbey of Echternach, where he wished his body to rest. The famous ‘dancing procession,’ still held at Echternach on Whit-Tuesday, for which pilgrims assemble, from Belgium, Germany, and France, sometimes to the number of ten thousand, is said to owe its origin to a pilgrimage made in the eighth century to the relics of Willibrord.

[The chief authority for Willibrord's life is Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica, bk. iii. chap. xiii. bk. v. chaps. x. xi. xix. The earliest life was written by an Irish monk, ‘rustico stilo,’ but his name and work have perished. The latter, however, was the basis of the two lives of Willibrord by Alcuin, one in prose for use in the church of Echternach, the other in verse for the teaching of the pupils in the monastic school. Both are printed in Monumenta Alcuiniana, pp. 39–79 (vol. vi. of Jaffé's Bibl. Rer. Germ.). Alcuin wrote at the request of Beornrad, archbishop of Sens and abbot of Echternach from 777 to 797. Next Beornrad himself, at the request of Charles the Great, collected the traditions concerning Willibrord which still existed in the monastery of Echternach, and so laid the foundation of the ‘Golden Book.’ Early in the twelfth century two new lives were written by Theofrid (d. 1110), abbot of Echternach, one in prose and one in verse, together with sermons for St. Willibrord's day. Extracts from Theofrid's lives are in Monumenta Epternacensia Germ., in Pertz's Mon. Scriptores, tom. xxiii. 23–30, and the details given above are from Weiland's Introduction, pp. xi, xix. Next the abbot Theodoric, who wrote the Chronicon Epternacense, a chronicle ending in 1192, wrote much of him. Migne's Pat. Lat. vol. lxxxix. contains Diplomata ad S. Willibrordum vel ab eo collata, which give further details, as does Pertz's Mon. Scriptores tom. ii. xv. xxiii. Other lives and discussions of Willibrord, his work, relics, and commemoration, are Dederich's Das Leben des heiligen Willibrordus nach Alcuin, in his Beiträge zur römisch-deutschen Geschichte am Niederrhein (1850); Engling's Apostolat des heiligen Willibrord im Lande der Luxemburger (1863); Krier's Die Springprozession in Echternach (1870); Le Mire's Cort Verhael van het Leven van den H. Willibrordus (1613); Muellendorff's Leben des heiligen Clemens Willibrord, &c. See also Batavia Sacra; Bosschaerf, De primis veteris Frisiæ Apostolis. The most modern authority is Thijm's Geschiedenis des Kerk in de Nederlande I. H. Willibrordus (1861), of which an enlarged German translation was published in 1863. Plummer's edition of Bede gives valuable notes. Popular books of devotion are still published, such as Lebensgeschichte des heiligen Clemens Willibrord, ein Andachtsbüchlein, &c. Trier, 1854.]

M. T.