A century after St Augustine had crossed the Channel to convert the Saxons, it was they who in turn brought the faith to their compatriots on the continent, whom we would now call Germans but then were known as the Saxons overseas.
Born as Wynfryth around 675, Boniface had been raised in the kingdom of Wessex, at that point one of the least sophisticated of the Saxon kingdoms. He would end his life in Frisia, modern-day Netherlands, the victim of a pagan reaction to increasing Christian strength among Germanic peoples. By this stage – 754 – his work was complete, and he had converted many Franks and Saxons, becoming the first Archbishop of Mainz.
Boniface was possibly born in Crediton and attended a monastery in Exeter. He then attended the Benedictine monastery close to Winchester, which had become an important centre of learning under Abbot Winbert. The incursion of St Augustine’s followers, many of them from as far afield as North Africa, had led to a revival of Latin learning in the island. Anglo-Saxon England was now experiencing something of an educational revolution.
In 716 the abbot died and Winfrid, rather than taking his position, decided to cross the sea to convert the heathens of Frisia, arriving at a particularly difficult time. Radbod, the king of the Frisians, was at war with Charles Martel, king of the Franks.
Winfrid returned to England and the following year to Rome, where Gregory II re-named him Boniface, after a fourth-century martyr from Tarsus in Syria. Boniface was appointed missionary bishop for Germany and he would never return home again.
The most famous story attached to Boniface is of the oak tree, which to the pagans was sacred and in the power of the chief god. When Boniface chopped an oak down and was not struck down the people converted, and he built a chapel dedicated to St Peter, which became a monastery. He returned to Rome in triumph in 732, and again in 737, when he was made papal legate.
Although he was successful in what is now southern Germany, the Frisians were more resistant. In 754 he set off again for the region. He was stopped by a group of angry locals who killed him on the spot, along with his companions. Afterwards, the Frisians got drunk on the wine they had taken and started killing each other.
Boniface’s cult grew soon after and today he is the patron saint of Germany.