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Saint of the week

The saint who was known as the Apostle of the North

St Ansgar (February 3) saw a vision of his mother in heaven with the Virgin Mary

By on Thursday, 30 January 2014

The “Apostle of the North” was one of the most influential of the early medieval Christian evangelists. He took the faith north into areas that were still pagan – and dangerously so – at the time.

Born in 801 in Amiens, part of the Christian Frankish Empire which a year earlier had set itself as the successor to Rome when Charlemagne was crowned emperor, he was bereaved at an early age when his mother died. He was raised in Corbie Abbey in Picardy, where he showed unusual academic talent. According to a later biography it was while at the school that he had a vision in which he saw his mother was in the company of the Virgin, and he became far more devout. Throughout his life he would be guided by visions, and often make decisions based on them.

Unusually for the men who Christianised Germany and Scandinavia, Ansgar was himself a German, one of the many Saxons (from what is now the north-west of Germany) who had been converted under the often brutal rule of the Frankish kings Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, who had brought the faith to the German tribe with the sword.

Following the conversion of the Saxons Ansgar was one of handful of missionaries to be sent further north to the land of the Jutes, in the emerging kingdom of Denmark, a perilous mission at the time. Fiercely pagan, Scandinavia was also suffering from acute land shortage and social unrest that would see 250,000 people leave the region, pillaging from Ireland to Russia. Many advocates of Christianity were given short shrift.

After returning to the Rhineland, Ansgar was called in 829 for a mission to the Swedes at the behest of its king. With his assistant Witmar, he made many converts in Birka, near Stockholm, and in 831 came back to the Frankish court at Worms and was appointed Archbishop of Hamburg. He then founded a monastery and school in Hamburg, although his plans for the latter to be a springboard for the conversion of Scandinavia came to nothing.

Converting the heathens was a very risky business – most of the Anglo-Saxons who went about bringing the “Old Saxons” on the continent to the faith met violent ends – and in 845 the Danes raided Hamburg, destroying all its treasures and books.

But he did not give up. He returned to Denmark, then in the middle of a destructive war between kings, as well as Sweden, where he prevented the pagans from destroying the growing Christian community which had enjoyed the protection of the kings. After spending a couple of years there, he returned to Germany and died peacefully in 865.

Today there are statues of Ansgar in Hamburg and Copenhagen. There is also a crater on the Moon, Ansgarious, named in his honour.