Born in Devon of free, land-owning Anglo-Saxon peasants, Boniface, whose English name was Winfrith, received his education in monasteries at Exeter and Nursling, near Winchester. As a monk and schoolmaster, he wrote the first Latin grammar produced in England. At thirty he was ordained to the presbyterate, and his knowledge of Scripture enabled him to be a successful teacher and preacher. He became known outside his monastery and was chosen by Ina, king of Wessex, and his synod to be their envoy to the archbishop of Canterbury.
But instead of following a promising career in the English Church, Boniface chose to become a missionary, inspired by the examples of Willibrord and others. He made his first missionary journey to Frisia in 716, and met with but little success because of the ascendancy of militant pagans in that region. He returned to Nursling and was elected abbot in 717, but he refused the position, going instead to Rome in 718 to meet with Pope Gregory the Second, from whom he received a definite mission to preach the Gospel in Bavaria and Hesse. On his way into Germany, he learned that conditions in Frisia had improved, and he joined the aged Willibrord there for three years. Boniface afterward went to Hesse. The pope consecrated him to the episcopate in 722.
Under the protection of Charles Martel, mayor of the palace of the king of Francia, Boniface evangelized Hesse. One particularly famous incident in his mission was the felling of the sacred oak at Geismar. When the pagan gods failed to avenge this outrage, widespread conversions followed. Boniface moved on to Thuringia, helped by letters of guidance from the pope and from Daniel, bishop of Winchester, about techniques of evangelization. Under Boniface’s leadership, monasteries staffed by English monks and nuns were founded in German lands as centers of Christianity and civilization, including Amoneburg and Fritzlar in Hesse and Ordruf in Thuringia.
In 732 Pope Gregory the Third sent Boniface the pallium, making him archbishop with authority to consecrate bishops for Germany beyond the Rhine. He founded bishoprics at Erfurt for Thuringia, Buraberg for Hesse, Wurzburg for Franconia, and Eichstatt for Nordgau. With Charles Martel’s defeat of the Saxons of Westphalia in 738, new opportunities opened up for the English missionaries. Boniface now wrote a letter to the English people, asking for their prayers and their material help in evangelizing those who “are of one blood and bone with you”. He received help from the English with gifts of books, vestments, relics, and the assistance of other English missionaries, but this particular opening soon closed until years later when Charlemagne reconquered the Saxons.
On a second visit to Rome in 738-9, Boniface was joined by new companions, including Romans, Franks, Bavarians, and two English brothers, Winnebald and Willibald, who had just reformed Saint Benedict’s monastery at Monte Cassino. Using his authority as papal legate, Boniface summoned a synod for all Christian Germany, established a hierarchy in Bavaria, and established eight suffragan bishops under him. Eventually he became archbishop of Mainz while retaining legatine authority that allowed him to appoint Willibrord’s successor at Utrecht.
Throughout his missionary endeavors, Boniface was hampered not only by hostile pagans but also by half-converted Christians with notorious or heretical leaders. Several Frankish rulers supported his work, and at their invitation he presided over reforming councils of the Frankish Church. But his reforming decrees were often rendered ineffective by these same Frankish leaders, like Charles Martel, under whom bishoprics lay vacant, or were sold, or were given to unsuitable laymen without training or vocation for ministry. Boniface was able to make some progress under Charles’ more pious successor, Carloman, and under Pepin. A series of reforming councils between 742 and 747 condemned prevalent abuses and established the Rule of Saint Benedict as the basic code for all monastaries of Carolingian Francia.
Nearly eighty years old, Boniface left the leadership of the reform movement to Chrodegang of Metz and the care of the diocese of Mainz to Lull. He returned to Frisia, where he not only reclaimed the part of the country that he earlier evangelized, but also moved with some success into the pagan northeast of the country. While he was waiting on the banks of the river Borne near Dokkam for a group of converts for confirmation, a band of pagans attacked and killed him and his companions. His body was taken for burial to Fulda, a monastery that he had founded in 744 near Mainz.
taken from The Oxford Dictionary of Saints
and Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980)
Almighty God, you called your faithful servant Boniface to be a witness and martyr in Germany, and by his labor and suffering you raised up a people for your own possession: Pour out your Holy Spirit upon your Church in every land, that by the service and sacrifice of many your holy Name may be glorified and your kingdom enlarged; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one god, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Boniface, Archbishop of Mainz, Missionary to Frisia and Germany, and Martyr, are published on the Lectionary Page website.