St Willibrord (November 7)
Willibrord (658739) played an important part in establishing the English mission to Frisia, around the Zuider Zee, where it remained influential for 100 years.
He was born in Northumbria and raised by the monks of Ripon, The abbot was St Wilfrid, who at the Synod of Whitby (664) proved himself such a formidable advocate of Roman, as against Celtic, Christianity.
Around the age of 20 Willibrord went to study in Ireland with St Egbert, another Northumbrian by birth, who was eager to encourage missionary activity by Anglo-Saxons among their still pagan kinsmen in northern Europe.
In 690 Willibrord set off for Frisia, where the language was still close to that which the Anglo-Saxons spoke in England. He took with him 11 companions. doubtless after the example of the 12 Apostles.
As might be expected of a former pupil of St Wilfrid (who had himself preached in Frisia in 678-9) Willibrord wanted to involve Rome in his enterprise. He therefore travelled to the Holy See to obtain the blessing of Pope Sergius, and to acquire relics with which to impress potential converts.
Willibrord also shrewdly obtained the backing of the Frankish king Pepin II (687714), who was already encroaching upon the power of the pagan Radbod. the local Frisian potentate. Radbod refused to become a Christian himself, but, no doubt under Frankish duress, • allowed the missionaries to work among his people.
In 695, under the auspices of Pepin II, Willibrord paid another visit to Rome, where he was consecrated Archbishop of Utrecht. From there, Bede reports, he "preached the Word of faith far and wide, recalling many from error, and built many churches in those parts, and also a number of monasteries".
Willibrord created another centre further south, near Trier at Echternach, where he established a monastery on land given him by Pippin il's mother-in-law. The site had formerly boasted an exceptionally grand Roman villa.
Assured of Frankish support, Willibrord boldly asserted himself in overthrowing pagan shrines. When he attacked the great idol of Walcheren, however, he only narrowly escaped death at the hands of a pagan priest.
A resurgence of Radbod's power in 716 threw back the Christian advance; nevertheless, after that chieftain's death in 719, Charles Martel (714-41) restored Frankish hegemony. Willibrord successfully renewed his mission, helped for a while by another Englishman, St Boniface. In 725, however, an attempt to convert the Danes yielded little return.
"This holy man." recorded Alcuin (737-804) in his life of Willibrord, "was distinguished by every kind of natural quality: he was of middle height, dignified mien, comely of face, cheerful in spirit, wise in counsel, pleasing in speech, grave in character and energetic in everything he undertook for God."