Saint of the week

St Willibrord, 7th November

St Willibrord was one of the first of the great Anglo-Saxon saints to evangelise Europe, preaching the Gospel among the often-hostile tribes of modern day Holland and parts of northern Germany and Denmark.

He founded several dioceses and monasteries in Luxembourg and Holland and became known as the Apostle of the Frisians. Today he is honoured as the Patron Saint of the Netherlands or the Low Countries

St Willibrord was, however, born in Yorkshire in 658 and was a student of St Wilfrid, having entered his monastery at Ripon at the age of just seven years old and becoming a professed monk by the time he was 15.

When St Wilfrid’s huge diocese was divided into four, St Willibrord went to Ireland to study, spending a total of 12 years there.

At the time he returned to England in 690, St Egbert, one of his companions in Ireland, had become determined to evangelise the Frisians, a Germanic tribe living along the coast of the Netherlands. But he was prevented and turned north to work in Scotland instead. St Wigbert, another companion from Ireland, was at that time already labouring among the Frisians but he returned after two years and admitted defeat.

The way was therefore open for St Willibrord to take up the challenge and he sailed down the Rhine with 12 companions to Frankish territory in Holland.

They were well received by King Pepin of the Franks who was at war with the Radbod, the pagan Frisian ruler whom he had driven from an area between the Meuse and the North Sea, and he encouraged the English missionaries to work there.

St WillibrordSt Willibrord was conscious of the need to seek permission from the Pope for this task of evangelisation and first headed to Rome where Pope Sergius, acting on the recommendation of King Pepin, consecrated him as Archbishop to the Frisians on the Feast of St Cecilia in 696, and conferred the pallium.

He was given the mission of establishing a province on the Roman model (exemplified by Canterbury) with a cathedral at Wiltaberg (now Utrecht) and with surrounding suffragan bishoprics. He also co-founded, with the abbess St Irmina, the great monastery of Echternact in Luxembourg. Most of his success was in the western part of his mission territory because Radbod held sway in the east.

Still, he went as far as Denmark before he retreated with a company of 30 boys willing to receive instruction as Christians.

On the return journey their ship was blown off course and landed on Heligoland, an island considered sacred by pagans who insisted on total silence there and who prohibited the killing of any living thing.

Provocatively, St Willibrord set about baptising people in a loud voice and slaughtered a number of animals. Radbod refused to let this go unpunished and forced the companions to draw straws and then sacrificed the boy who drew the shortest as an offering to appease his deity.

After leaving the island, St Willibrord went ashore at Walcheren and with his charity and patience made considerable conquests for the Christian cause. But again he soon came into conflict with pagans after he destroyed an idol – he was attacked and fled in fear of his life back to Utrecht.

In 714, St Willibrord baptised Pepin the Short, the son of Charles Martel and the future King of the Franks.

Then in 715, Radbod invaded Frisia, burning churches, slaughtering missionaries and forcing apostasies. St Willibrord could only watch as most of his work was undone.

Radbod was killed in 719 and at that point St Willibrord was able to return to Frisia, and free to evangelise the whole territory from east to west. He was joined by St Boniface, an Anglo-Saxon from Wessex, who spent three years with him. St Willibrord invited him to stay indefinitely but St Boniface declined the offer because he had been sent by the Pope specifically to evangelise Germany.

By then St Willibrord was an old man. Throughout his ministry among the Frisians he had made periodic retreats to the monastery at Echternacht and in his old age he made it his place of permanent retirement. He died there at the age of 81 years on 7 November 739 and was buried in the abbey church. It has ever since been a place of pilgrimage.


(Source: Butler’s Lives of the Saints)