St Willibrord is the patron saint of ecumenical relationships between Anglicans and Old Catholics, manifest in the Willibrord Society, for good reason. An Englishman raised at Ripon in Deira, matured in Ireland, and Apostle to Frisia (Low Countries/ Netherlands) in his maturity. Today he is the patron saint of the Netherlands and Luxembourg, where his main monastery, Echternach, is located.
Our knowledge of Willibrord’s mission is limited. The only writings to have survived from his own hand are one or two entries in a liturgical calendar. Bede wrote about his exact contemporary in his History; Willibrord was still alive when Bede died. The Life of Wilfrid is the only source to claim that Willibrord had been raised at Wilfrid’s monastery of Ripon, and the Life tries to claim that Willibrord is continuing a mission started by Wilfrid. Alcuin wrote a hagiographical account of Willibrord in verse and prose. I will come back to Alcuin’s account on another day.
Willibrord spent about 40 years on his Frisian mission, but he remembered home on a regular basis. There are two ways to trace his contacts with England and Ireland: trace the insular manuscripts at Willibrord’s monastery at Echternach and by examining the insular figures in a liturgical calendar from his mission. Tracing manuscripts is quite a chore, fraught with highly technical arguments (that make my head just hurt), so I’ll look at the calendar here.
The calendar was written in about 702 from an Irish influenced exemplar, near the time that Echternach was founded, and then glossed over about a 50 year period. We know that Willibrord was at least one of the glossers from the language of a notation on his consecration.
The feast days for people from Britain and Ireland in the primary hand make quite a collection:
January 30: Abbot Wilgisl (Willibrord’s father)
February 1: Brigit the Virgin
February 9: Aeuda the priest (mission member?)
February 17: Wilfrid the priest (mission member?)
February 19: Swithred the priest (mission member?)
March 12: Saint Gregory in Rome
March 17: Saint Patrick the Bishop in Scotia
March 20: Saint Cuthbert the Bishop
April 29: Oethelwald the Monk
June 9: Saint Columba
August 5: King Oswald
October 4: Martyrdom of Saint Hewald
October 14: Bishop Paulinus in Kent
Four are intimately tied to the mission; three members who all died in February and then Willibrord’s father. The Hewalds (2) were English missionaries martyred in Germany. Althougth they were not with Willibrord’s mission, they would have been of interest to them.
Willibrord’s time in Ireland is also represented. Three main Irish saints — Brigit, Patrick, and Columba– are present, but note that there are no minor or local Irish saints. Nor are any Englishmen known to be in Ireland listed. Willibrord’s father Wilgils is the only insular figure (excepting fellow Frisian missionaries) that is now otherwise known, so we would not necessarily expect local Irish commemorations. Excluding those associated with his mission, the Irish represent one third (3/9) of insular figures in the original hand. The inclusion of Columba is in stark contrast to the opinions of Columba and Iona expressed by Bishop Wilfrid in both Stephan’s Life of Wilfrid and Bede’s History.
The English saints are odd. Cuthbert and Oethelwald were very newly translated when the calendar was written, so their appearance is most unusual. Knowledge of their translations and Cuthbert’s growing cult probably came from a priest of Willibrord’s who visited Lindisfarne before 705. He would have also brought news of Oethelwald’s recent death and commemoration inside the church at Lindisfarne. According to Bede, Oethelwald had spent many years as a priest at Ripon, so Willibrord or fellow missionaries may have had a personal connection to him. We know that Willibrord had a personal devotion to St. Oswald and carried a relic from his martyrdom with him to Ireland and Frisia. Then we are left with Gregory the Great and Paulinus of York, co-Apostles to Deira. We know from Whitby’s Life of Gregory the Great and Bede’s History that Northumbrians in particular saw Gregory the Great as their Apostle. This sentiment is likely to have been greater in Deira where Paulinus mission had been focused. Note the Deiran influence here and equally importantly who is missing. Neither Aidan of Lindisfarne nor Augustine of Canterbury are listed in the original hand. This is a very Deiran-centric calendar.
The glosses over the next few decades add a few more Englishmen, but the Deiran influence continues.
Saint Servantius.Sueafgild (mission members?), King Ecgfrith, Cynefrith (mission member?), King Edwin, King Oswine, Bishop Swithberht (mission member), Chad, Aidan, Archbishop Theodore, Abbess Eadburg, and Abbess Hild.
All of the kings listed in the calendar had been king of Deira and more importantly were relatives of Edwin, greatest king of Deira. Not all of Edwin’s kin are listed, though the deaths of several more must have been known in Deira. It should be noted that St-King Oswald is the only one metioned in the original draft. Just to summarize, here are the Christian kings of Deira, bold kings are listed in Willibrord’s calendar.
- Oswald – nephew of Edwin (sister’s son)
- Osric – first cousin of Edwin (apostatized)
- Oswine – son of Osric, cousin of Edwin
- Oethelwald – son of Oswald, great nephew of Edwin
- Alhfrith son of Oswiu (not related to Deiran royal family at all, patron of Bishop Wilfrid)
- Oswiu – (husband of Eanflaed daughter of Edwin, not otherwise related to Deirans)
- Aelfwine – son of Eanflaed daughter of Edwin
- Ecgfrith – son of Eanflaed daughter of Edwin
- Aldfrith – bastard of Oswiu
- Osred – son of Aldfrith
- (new Bernician lineages take over with no known links to Deira)
Paulinus and Chad are also the only Bishops of York listed in the original and glosses. Eventually Aidan, Chad and Hild were glossed into the calendar, but note that Chad and Hild were Aidan’s disciples who had been active in Deira. Its unclear who exactly Abbess Eadburgh is, but a couple southern English abbesses were active in supplying missionaries in Frisia and Germany, so she may be one of them. While maintaining a Deiran focus, the glosses do turn the calendar more toward the Lindisfarne allied churchmen who cooperated with Archbishop Theodore (who was usually at odds with Bishop Wilfrid).
Also missing from the calendar are both of Willibrord’s supposed mentors, Wilfrid of York (d. 709) and Egbert of Iona (d. 729). Even though Wilfrid had visited with Willibrord in c. 704, contact was not kept between them and Wilfrid was not added to this calendar. Needless to say, Willibrord did not remain in contact with either of these supposed mentors. There really is no evidence that either of them sent supplies to Frisia.
Willibrord’s calendar served as a constant reminder of home as insular dates came up during the calendar year. The calendar reveals a strong Deiran bias, not only of Willibrord, but also of his team members. The glosses are added in a variety of hands. The Calendar is the collective memory of his community remembering home in prayer.
Tomb of St. Willibrord at Echternach
“O Lord our God, you call whom you will and send them where you choose: We thank you for sending your servant Willibrord to be an apostle to the Low Countries, to turn them from the worship of idols to serve you, the living God; and we entreat you to preserve us from the temptation to exchange the perfect freedom of your service for the service of false gods and idols of our own devising; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the holy spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
Episcopal Church, Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2003, p. 431.