Thursday, September 22, 2016

St. Wigbert: A 2nd Chance to Spread the Gospel?

by Kim Rendfeld

As the pagan Continental Saxons burned their way through East Francia in 774, the residents of the Abbey of Fritzlar feared for their church and their lives. When they left, they took a cherished possession with them to the hilltop fortress of Büraburg: the relics of Saint Wigbert.

The fortress also attracted refugees from smaller settlements in the area. Help for the Franks was far away. Their king, Charles (Charlemagne) had taken the army to Italy last fall to save Rome from the Lombards and ensure his young nephews would not have a claim to the Frankish throne. The Franks who were left behind had known it was only a matter of time before Saxons sought to avenge their defeat in 772, the one that destroyed their sacred pillar.

As the Saxons attacked Büraburg and burned houses outside it, I can imagine the Christians praying to the saint for protection. The fortress withstood the attack, and the Saxons proceeded to Fritzlar and tried to destroy the church. If we are to believe the Royal Frankish Annals, the Christians in the fortress beheld a miracle: two young men on white horses appeared and struck terror into the invaders, who fled. Later, the Franks found a dead Saxon beside the church. He was squatting on the ground and looked like he was about to blow on fuel to set the church afire.

The martyred Saint Boniface, who had consecrated the church, had prophesied it would not be burned. He was the one to appoint Wigbert as the abbot of Fritzlar. The annals don’t say which saint the faithful credited with the miracle, but it’s possible they believed their act of faith in preserving Wigbert’s relics played a part.


The remains of the southeastern gate of the Büraburg (JGALoewi at the
German language Wikipedia, GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Today, we don’t know much about Wigbert, especially his early years. More than one churchman in this era had this name, and the variant spellings add to the confusion. His hagiography was written about 90 years after his death. With scant information, this post amounts to my best guess of who this saint was.

Wigbert likely was a native of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex, the same area as fellow missionaries Boniface and Lioba. Wigbert’s birth year is unclear; sometime between 655 and 665 is as good an estimate as any, if the missionary to Frisia and abbot of Fritzlar are the same person. He was older than Boniface, who might have been born between 676 and 679, and Wigbert was “venerable” when Saint Willibrord was in Ireland from 678-690.

Because Wigbert was later appointed abbot, we can surmise he likely came from a noble family. He embraced the monastic life at a young age and spent time in Ireland with Bishop Egbert. Both had forsaken homeland and family and lived cut off from the world but close to God. Wigbert had lived as a hermit and was a learned man. In the 680s, Egbert sent Wigbert to Frisia to convert pagans to Christianity.

Perhaps they had heard that the Frisian ruler, Aldgisl, had been a gracious host to Bishop Wilfrid and allowed missionaries to preach. When Wigbert arrived, Aldgisl might have been out of power, and this was not good news for Wigbert. Missionaries needed support from the people’s leaders, who would provide protection for someone telling the populace what they believe is all wrong. And if the ruler converted, his followers often did as well.

Instead, Wigbert had to deal with Radbod. We don’t know what transpired between the two men, but there is no doubt Radbod was hostile to Christianity. According to legend, Radbod once had his toe in the baptismal font and asked if he would see his pagan ancestors after he died. Told he would not, Radbod refused the rite, saying he’d rather be with his family in hell than his enemies in heaven. The details probably are a dramatization, shall we say, but the gist is accurate. After two fruitless years of preaching to the Frisians and to Radbod, Wigbert returned to Ireland.

What happened in the following decades is hazy. The Venerable Bede says Wigbert gave up missionary work altogether. If he couldn’t persuade strangers, he would benefit his own people by serving as an example and living a holy, quiet life.

Or maybe Wigbert thought that at first. Bede wrote his history in 731 and died four years later, about the same time as Wigbert’s next chapter. Or I should say his next known chapter.

Photo by Catatine (GFDL
or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0,
via Wikimedia Commons)

Enter Boniface, a disciple of Willibrord. Both men had missions to pagan lands. Boniface might have heard of Wigbert through his mentor or one of his relatives in Wessex. A letter from someone named Wigbert to monks in Glastonbury describes the warm welcome he received from Boniface upon his safe arrival in Germany, and the writer asks the monks to convey the news to Mother Tetta and her nuns at the double monastery of Wimbourne, also in Wessex. Tetta was an ally of Boniface’s and allowed nuns from her abbey to carry out Boniface’s mission on the Continent.

The year was 734, and Wigbert would have been an old man, even by our standards. The question that comes to my mind: is the missionary to Frisia and the abbot of Fritzlar the same person? The best answer I can give is: it’s possible, even though about 50 years had passed since his last mission. Age alone would not be a detriment, and he was still healthy enough to fast. Boniface needed a knowledgeable, learned man to lead the new monastery at Fritzlar, and a grandfatherly priest who had preached in foreign lands before might have filled the role well.

What went through Wigbert’s head? Did he yearn for that second chance? Did he worry about failing again? Or did he reason circumstances were different this time? Boniface’s mission, and by extension Wigbert’s, had the support of Charles Martel, the Frankish mayor of the palace and the most powerful man in the realm.

Apparently Wigbert did well at Fritzlar. Three years later, Boniface asked him to lead the monastery at Ortdorf as well.

Later, ill and sensing his end was near, he resigned his government of the abbeys. He died about 747 and was buried in the church at Fritzlar.

Six years after the scare in 774, Archbishop Lull had Wigbert’s relics translated to Hersfeld, and his shrine was adorned with silver and gold. A church was built there in 850 but burned in 1037. A new church was constructed, but a fire consumed it in 1761, taking the relics with it. A sad fate for the relics the monks in Fritzlar risked their lives to save. Sadder still is how little we know about the saint for whom they took that risk.

Sources

"St. Wigbert" by Klemens Löffler, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912.

"St. Egbert" by George Phillips, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909.

Letters of Saint Boniface

Lives of Saints, by Rev. Alban Butler

Alcuin’s The Life of Saint Willibrord

Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England: A Revised Translation with Introduction, Life, and Notes, translated by A. M. Sellar, G. Bell, 1907, pg. 319

St. Cuthbert, His Cult and His Community to AD 1200, by Gerald Bonner, David W. Rollason, Clare Stancliffe

Handbook of Dutch Church History, edited by Herman Selderhuis

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Thanks to research on this blog post, Kim Rendfeld has new material for her work in progress, Queen of the Darkest Hour, a novel about Charlemagne’s fourth wife, Fastrada.

Kim's debut, The Cross and the Dragon, in which a Frankish noblewoman must contend with a jilted suitor and the fear of losing her husband, was rereleased August 3, 2016, in print and ebook formats. You can order the book at Amazon, Kobo, iTunes, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, CreateSpace, and other vendors. Until Sept. 25, 2016, you can enter the giveaway for The Cross and the Dragon.

Kim’s second book, The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, about a mother who will fight for her children after losing everything else, will be rereleased in Nov. 2,  2016. Preorders for ebooks are available at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, and iTunes.

4 comments:

  1. I think I'm with Radbod on this matter. Those missionaries really needed to think about what they were asking of their potential converts,

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    1. Radbod probably refused more for political reasons than family sentiment. He might have justified his rule by claiming descent from a German god. He allowed his daughter to be baptized so that she could marry the son of his enemy. One of those peace-making deals.

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  2. I'm with the Saxons in this fight. They started it with desecrating an important sacred site. Christianity has never been special in my view.

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    1. The emnity between the Saxons and the Franks goes way back, but the 772 war took on a religious undertone. Both sides had their share of brutality. My first book tells about the wars from the Frankish side. I wrote the second book to give the Saxon perspective.

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