Although the Church of Ireland was in a somewhat rough state at home, many of its clergy undertook missionary work on the Continent; and by them and others much was done for the conversion of various tribes in Germany and in the Netherlands. But the most famous missionary of those times was an Englishman named Winfrid, who is styled the Apostle of Germany.
Winfrid was born near Crediton, in Devonshire, about the year 680. He became a monk at an early age, and perhaps it was then that he took the name of Boniface, by which he is best known. He might probably have risen to a high place in the church of his own country if he had wished to do so; but he was filled with a glowing desire to preach the Gospel to the heathen. He therefore refused all the tempting offers which were made to him at home, crossed the sea, and began to labour in Friesland and about the lower part of the Rhine. For three years he assisted another famous English missionary, Willibrord, bishop of Utrecht, who wished to make Boniface his successor; but Boniface thought that he was bound rather to labour in some country where his work was more needed; so, leaving Willibrord, he went into Hessia, where he made and baptized many thousands of converts. The pope, Gregory the Second, on hearing of this success, invited him to Rome, consecrated him as a bishop, and sent him back with letters recommending him to the princes and peoples of the countries in which his work was to lie (AD 723).
The government of the Franks was then in a very odd state. There were kings over them; but these kings, instead of carrying on the government for themselves, and leading their nation in war, were shut up in their palaces, except that once in the year they were brought out in a cart drawn by bullocks to appear at the national assemblies.
These poor "do-nothings" (as the kings of the old French race are called) were without any strength or spirit. From their way of Life, they allowed their hair to grow without being shorn; and the Greeks, who lived far away from them, and knew of them only by hearsay, believed, not only that their hair was long, but that it grew down their backs like the bristles of a hog. And, while the kings had sunk into this pitiable state, the real work of the kingly office was done, and the kingly power was really enjoyed, by great officers who were called "mayors of the palace".
At the time which I am speaking of, the mayor of the palace was Charles, who was afterwards known by the name of Martel, or "The Hammer." Charles had done a great service to Christendom by defeating a vast army of Mahometans, who had forced their way from Spain into the heart of France, and driving the remains of them back across the Pyrenees. It is said that they lost 375,000 men in the battle which they fought with Charles near Poitiers (AD 732); and, although this number is no doubt beyond the truth, it is certain that the infidels were so much weakened that they never ventured to attempt any more conquests in western Europe. But, although Charles had thus done very great things for the Christian world, it would seem that he himself did not care much for religion; and, although he gave Boniface a letter of protection, he did not help or encourage him greatly in his missionary labours. But Boniface was resolved to carry on bravely what he believed to be God's work. He preached in Hessia and Thuringia, and made many thousands of converts. He built churches and monasteries, and brought over from England large numbers of clergy to help him in preaching and in the Christian training of his converts, for which purpose he also obtained supplies of books from his own country. He founded bishoprics, and held councils of clergy and laymen for the settlement of the Church's affairs. Finding that the Hessians paid reverence to an old oak-tree, which was sacred to one of their gods, he resolved to cut it down. The heathens stood around, looking fiercely at him, cursing and threatening him, and expecting to see him and his companions struck dead by the vengeance of their gods. But when he had only just begun to attack the oak we are told that a great wind suddenly arose, and struck it so that it fell to the ground in four pieces. The people, seeing this, took it for a sign from heaven, and consented to give up their old idolatry; and Boniface turned the wood of the huge old oak to use by building a chapel with it.
In some places Boniface found a strange mixture of heathen superstitions with Christianity, and he did all that he could to root them out. He had also much trouble with missionaries from Ireland, whose notions of Christian doctrine and practice differed in some things from his; and perhaps he did not always treat them with so much of wisdom and gentleness as might have been wished. But after all he was right in thinking that the sight of more than one kind of Christian religion, different from each other and opposed to each other; must puzzle the heathen and hinder their conversion; so that we can understand his jealousy of these Irish missionaries, even if we cannot wholly approve of it.
In reward of his labours and success, Boniface was made an archbishop by Pope Gregory III in 732; and, although at first he was not fixed in any one place, he soon brought the German Church into such a state of order that it seemed to be time for choosing some city as the seat of its chief bishop, just as the chief bishop of England was settled at Canterbury. Boniface himself wished to fix himself at Cologne; but at that very time the bishop of Mentz got into trouble by killing a Saxon, who, in a former war, had killed the bishop's father. Although it had been quite a common thing in those rough days for bishops to take a part in fighting, Boniface and his councils had made rules forbidding such things, as unbecoming the ministers of peace; and the case of the bishop of Mentz, coming just after those rules had been made, could not well be passed over. The bishop, therefore, was obliged to give up his see; and Mentz was chosen to be the place where Boniface should be fixed as archbishop and primate of Germany, having under him five bishops, and all the nations which had received the Gospel through his preaching.
When Boniface had grown old, he felt himself again drawn to Frisia, where, as we have seen, he had laboured in his early life; and at the age of seventy-five he left his archbishopric, with all that invited him to spend his last days there in quiet and honour, that he might once more go forth as a missionary to the barbarous Frieslanders. Among them he preached with much success; but on Whitsun Eve, 755, while he was expecting a great number of his converts to meet, that they might receive confirmation from him, he and his companions were attacked by an armed party of heathens, and the whole of the missionaries, fifty-two in number, were martyred. But although Boniface thus ended his active and useful life by martyrdom at the hands of those whom he wished to bring into the way of salvation, his work was carried on by other missionaries, and the conversion of the Frisians was completed within no long time. Boniface's body was carried up the Rhine, and was buried at Fulda, a monastery which he had founded amidst the loneliness of a vast forest, and there the tomb of the "Apostle of the Germans" was visited with reverence for centuries.