We know of Willibrord’s life and missionary labors through a few notes written by a contemporary, the Venerable Bede, in his The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and in a biography of Willibrord written by his younger kinsman, Alcuin. Willibrord was born in Northumbria about the year 658 and from the age of seven was brought up and educated in Bishop Wilfrid’s monastery at Ripon. On Wilfrid’s virtual deposition as bishop in 678 and his subsequent expulsion from Northumbria, Willibrord went to Ireland both for study and for voluntary exile for twelve years, where he was ordained to the presbyterate and acquired the desire to do missionary work. On his return to England in 690, he decided to travel to Frisia, a still-pagan area increasingly under the domination of the Christian Franks. With twelve missionary companions, he made his way to Frisia through the kingdom of the Franks, having obtained the permission of Pepin the Second, duke of Austrasia, who had recently conquered western Frisia, to preach among the Frisians. Bede tells us that the mission prospered, and that the companions “converted many folk in a short while from idolatry to faith in Christ.” During this time, Willibrord traveled to Rome, where he received the approbation and encouragement of Pope Sergius for the mission. Willibrord returned to Frisia and went again to Rome in 695, at Pepin’s behest, to be ordained to the episcopate by Pope Sergius, who bestowed on him the name Clement and sent him back with the definite mission to establish the Church in Frisia with a metropolitan see at Utrecht and suffragan bishoprics according to the pattern at Canterbury and elsewhere.
In 678 Willibrord established his largest monastery at Echternach, in what is now Luxembourg, where he died more than forty years later.
In the area of Frisia rule by the Franks, Willibrord’s missionary work was permanently fruitful, but his work in other areas was more sporadic. In 714 he was driven from Utrecht by Radbod, the pagan Frisian king, who had churches destroyed and Christian clergy killed. Willibrord’s work seemed largely destroyed, but in 719, on Radbod’s death, Willibrord returned, restoring the Church not only in western Frisia but also taking the mission to eastern Frisia, which he had never before entered. During these years he was joined for a time by Boniface, who he wished to succeed him, but Boniface went on to the Saxons of Germany instead. Willibrord then entered the lands of the Danes, where he bought thirty slave-boys and educated them as Christians. In Helgoland he baptized a number of the inhabitants and killed sacred cattle in order to feed his followers, and at Walcheren he destroyed an idol at risk of his life.
Alcuin described his work as based on energetic preaching and ministry, informed by prayer and sacred reading. Willibrord was always venerable, gracious, and full of joy. Though not tremendously or rapidly successful, Willibrord’s pioneering missionary work prepared the way for the successes of later English Christian influence in Germanic Europe, most notably the missionary work of Boniface. Willibrord thoroughly deserves his titles of Apostle to the Frisians and patron saint of Holland.
He died at the age of 81, on the seventh of November 739 at Echternach, and was immediately venerated as a saint. One of his most interesting surviving relics is the Calendar of Saint Willibrord, written for his own private use, which contains marginal notes in his own hand recording his consecration at Rome and other biographical details.
prepared from The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Saints
and Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980)
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 servitude to false gods and to 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.
The propers for the commemoration of Willibrord, Archbishop of Utrecht and Missionary to Frisia, are published on the Lectionary Page website.