AskDefine | Define Boniface

Dictionary Definition



1 (Roman Catholic Church) Anglo-Saxon missionary who was sent to Frisia and Germany to spread the Christian faith; was martyred in Frisia (680-754) [syn: Saint Boniface, St. Boniface, Winfred, Wynfrith, Apostle of Germany]
2 the owner or manager of an inn [syn: host, innkeeper]

Extensive Definition

For other uses of Boniface, see Boniface (disambiguation).
Saint Boniface (Latin: Bonifacius; German: Bonifatius; c. 672June 5, 754), the Apostle of the Germans, born Winfrid or Wynfrith at Crediton in the kingdom of Wessex (now in Devon, England), was a missionary who propagated Christianity in the Frankish Empire during the 8th century. He is the patron saint of Germany and the Netherlands.
He was killed in Frisia in 754. His tomb is in the crypt of Fulda Cathedral.
Winfrid was of a respected and prosperous family. It was somewhat against his father's wishes that he devoted himself at an early age to the monastic life. He received his theological training in the Benedictine monasteries of Adescancastre, near Exeter and Nursling, on the western edge of Southampton, under the abbot Winbert. Winfrid taught in the abbey school and at the age of 30 became a priest. He wrote the first Latin grammar produced in England.

First Mission to Frisia

In 716 AD, Winfrid set out on a missionary expedition to Frisia, intending to convert the inhabitants by preaching to them in their own language, his own Anglo-Saxon language being similar to Old Frisian. His efforts, however, were frustrated by the war then being carried on between Charles Martel and Radbod, king of the Frisians, and he returned to Nursling.

Thor's Oak and the Conversion of the Northern Germanic Tribes

Winfrid again set out in 718, visited Rome, and was commissioned in 719 by Pope Gregory II, who gave him his new name of Boniface. He set out to evangelize in Germany and reorganize the church there. For five years Boniface laboured in Hesse, Thuringia, and Frisia, and on November 30, 722, he was elevated to bishop of the Germanic territories he would bring into the fold of the Roman Church.
In 723, Boniface felled the holy oak tree dedicated to Thor near the present-day town of Fritzlar in northern Hesse. He did this with Elijah in mind. Boniface called upon Thor to strike him down if he cut the "holy" tree. According to St. Boniface's first biographer, his contemporary Saint Willibald, Boniface started to chop the oak down, when suddenly a great wind, as if by miracle, blew the ancient oak over. When Thor did not strike him down, the people converted to Christianity. He built a chapel from its wood at the site where today stands the cathedral of Fritzlar. Later he established the first bishopric in Germany north of the old Roman Limes at the Frankish fortified settlement of Büraburg, on a prominent hill facing the town across the Eder River.
The felling of Thor's Oak is commonly regarded as the beginning of German Christianization north and east of the old borders of the Roman Empire. From that point on, Boniface went directly to the high places of the pagans and first struck them down, which inadvertently was to cause his death. In 732, he traveled again to Rome to report, and Gregory II conferred upon him the pallium as archbishop with jurisdiction over Germany. Boniface again set out for what is now Germany, baptized thousands, and dealt with the problems of many other Christians who had fallen out of contact with the regular hierarchy of the Catholic church. During his third visit to Rome in 737–38, he was made papal legate for Germany. In 745, he was granted Mainz as metropolitan see.
Tradition credits Boniface with the invention of the Christmas tree. The Oak of Thor at Geismar was chopped down by Boniface in a stage-managed confrontation with the old gods and local heathen tribes. A fir tree growing in the roots of the Oak was claimed by Boniface as a new symbol. "This humble tree's wood is used to build your homes: let Christ be at the centre of your households. Its leaves remain evergreen in the darkest days: let Christ be your constant light. Its boughs reach out to embrace and its top points to heaven: let Christ be your Comfort and Guide".
After his third trip to Rome, Boniface went to Bavaria and founded there the bishoprics of Salzburg, Regensburg, Freising, and Passau.
In 742, one of his disciples, Sturm (also known as Sturmi, or Sturmius), founded the abbey of Fulda not far from Boniface's earlier missionary outpost at Fritzlar. Although Sturm was the founding abbot of Fulda, Boniface was very involved in the foundation. The initial grant for the abbey was signed by Carloman, the son of Charles Martel.

Boniface and the Carolingians

The support of the Frankish mayors of the palace (maior domos) and later the early Pippinid and Carolingian rulers, was essential for Boniface's work. Monasticism went from the Celts to the Anglo-Saxons and thence to the Carolingian kings. From the Anglo-Saxons, Boniface joined the papacy and the Carolingian kings and provided education for them. Charles Martel erected four dioceses in Bavaria (Salzburg, Regensburg, Freising, and Passau) and gave them Boniface as archbishop and metropolitan over all Germany east of the Rhine, with his seat at Mainz. Boniface had been under his protection from 723 on; indeed, the saint himself explained to his old friend, Daniel of Winchester, that without the protection of Charles Martel he could "neither administer his church, defend his clergy, nor prevent idolatry." The Christian Frankish leaders desired to defeat their rival power, the non-Christian Saxons, and to incorporate the Saxon lands into their own growing empire. Boniface's destruction of the indigenous Germanic faith and holy sites was, thus, an important part of the Frankish campaign against the Saxons. However, Boniface's motives are unmistakable; he wished first to spread the gospel.
Boniface balanced this support and attempted to maintain some independence, however, by attaining the support of the papacy and of the Agilolfing rulers of Bavaria. In Frankish, Hessian, and Thuringian territory, he established the dioceses of Büraburg, Würzburg, and Erfurt. He also organized provincial synods in the Frankish church and maintained a sometimes turbulent relationship with the king of the Franks, Pepin, whom he may have crowned at Soissons in 751. By appointing his own followers as bishops, he was able to retain some independence from the Carolingians, who most likely were content to give him leeway as long as Christianity was imposed on the Saxons and other Germanic tribes!

Last mission to Frisia

He had never relinquished his hope of converting the Frisians, and in 754 he set out with a small retinue for Frisia. He baptized a great number and summoned a general meeting for confirmation at a place not far from Dokkum, between Franeker and Groningen. Instead of his converts, however, a group of armed inhabitants appeared who slew the aged archbishop. According to their own law (The Lex Frisionum), the Frisians had the right to kill him, since he had destroyed their shrines. Boniface's hagiographer reports that the Frisians killed the saint because they believed the chests he carried with him contained gold and other riches, but were dismayed when they discovered that there were only the bishop's books contained within.
His remains were eventually buried in the abbey of Fulda after resting for some time in Utrecht, and they are entombed within a shrine beneath the high altar of Fulda cathedral.

Further reading

  • Talbot, C. H., ed., The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany: Being the Lives of S.S. Willibrord, Boniface, Strum, Leoba and Lebuin, together with the Hodoeporicon of St. Willibald and a Selection from the Correspondence of St. Boniface, NY: Sheed and Ward, 1954.
English translation of original source material. Includes the first biography of St. Boniface, written by his 8th Century contemporary St. Willibald.


Boniface in Catalan: Sant Bonifaci
Boniface in German: Bonifatius
Boniface in Modern Greek (1453-): Άγιος Βονιφάτιος
Boniface in Spanish: Bonifacio (mártir)
Boniface in French: Boniface de Mayence
Boniface in Western Frisian: Bonifatius
Boniface in Italian: San Bonifacio (Wynfrith)
Boniface in Hebrew: בוניפציוס הקדוש
Boniface in Latin: Sanctus Bonifatius
Boniface in Hungarian: Bonifatius Wynfrith
Boniface in Dutch: Bonifatius (heilige)
Boniface in Polish: Bonifacy (Wynfreth)
Boniface in Portuguese: Bonifácio
Boniface in Russian: Святой Бонифаций
Boniface in Finnish: Pyhä Bonifatius
Boniface in Swedish: Bonifatius (Tyskland)
Boniface in Ukrainian: Святий Боніфатій
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