BONIFACE, SAINT (680-754), the apostle of Germany, whose real name was Wynfrith, was born of a good Saxon family at Crediton or Kirton in Devonshire. While still young he became a monk, and studied grammar and theology first at Exeter, then at Nutcell near Winchester, under the abbot Winberht. He soon distinguished himself both as scholar and preacher, and had every inducement to remain in his monastery, but in 716 he followed the example of other Saxon monks and set out as missionary to Frisia. He was soon obliged to return, however, probably owing to the hostility of Radbod, king of the Frisians, then at war with Charles Martel. At the end of 717 he went to Rome, where in 719 Pope Gregory II. commissioned him to evangelize Germany and to counteract the influence of the Irish monks there. Crossing the Alps, Boniface visited Bavaria and Thuringia, but upon hearing of the death of Radbod he hurried again to Frisia, where, under the direction of his countryman Willibrord (d. 738), the first bishop of Utrecht, he preached successfully for three years. About 722 he visited Hesse and Thuringia, won over some chieftains, and converted and baptized great numbers of the heathen. Having sent special word to Gregory of his success, he was summoned to Rome and consecrated bishop on the 30th of November 722, after taking an oath of obedience to the pope. Then his mission was enlarged. He returned with letters of recommendation to Charles Martel, charged not only to convert the heathen but to suppress heresy as well.
Charles's protection, as he himself confessed, made possible his great career. Armed with it he passed safely into heathen Germany and began a systematic crusade, baptizing, overturning idols, founding churches and monasteries, and calling from England a band of missionary helpers, monks and nuns, some of whom have become famous: St Lull, his successor in the see at Mainz; St Burchard, bishop of Würzburg; St Gregory, abbot at Utrecht; Willibald, his biographer; St Lioba, St Walburge, St Thecla. In 732 Boniface was created archbishop. In 738 for the third time he went to Rome. On his return he organized the church in Bavaria into the four bishoprics of Regensburg, Freising, Salzburg and Passau. Then his power was extended still further. In 741 Pope Zacharias made him legate, and charged him with the reformation of the whole Frankish church. With the support of Carloman and Pippin, who had just succeeded Charles Martel as mayors of the palace, Boniface set to work. As he had done in Bavaria, he organized the east Frankish church into four bishoprics, Erfurt, Würzburg, Buraburg and Eichstädt, and set over them his own monks. In 742 he presided at what is generally counted as the first German council. At the same period he founded the abbey of Fulda, as a centre for German monastic culture, placing it under the Bavarian Sturm, whose biography gives us so many picturesque glimpses of the time, and making its rule stricter than the Benedictine. Then came a theological and disciplinary controversy with Virgil, the Irish bishop of Salzburg, who held, among other heresies, that there were other worlds than ours. Virgil must have been a most remarkable man; in spite of his leanings toward science he held his own against Boniface, and was canonized after his death. Boniface was more successful in France. There a certain Adalbert or Aldebert, a Frankish bishop of Neustria, had caused great disturbance. He had been performing miracles, and claimed to have received his relics, not from Rome like those of Boniface, but directly from the angels. Planting crosses in the open fields he drew the people to desert the churches, and had won a great following throughout all Neustria. Opinions are divided as to whether he was a Culdee, a representative of a national Frankish movement, or simply the charlatan that Boniface paints him. At the instance of Pippin, Boniface secured Adalbert's condemnation at the synod of Soissons in 744; but he, and Clement, a Scottish missionary and a heretic on predestination, continued to find followers in spite of legate, council and pope, for three or four years more.
Between 746 and 748 Boniface was made bishop of Mainz, and became metropolitan over the Rhine bishoprics and Utrecht, as well as over those he had established in Germany - thus founding the pre-eminence of the see of Mainz. In 747 a synod of the Frankish bishops sent to Rome a formal statement of their submission to the papal authority. The significance of this act can only be realized when one recalls the tendencies toward the formation of national churches, which had been so powerful under the Merovingians. Boniface does not seem to have taken part in the anointing of Pippin as king of the Franks in 752. In 754 he resigned his archbishopric in favour of Lull, and took up again his earliest plan of a mission to Frisia; but on the 5th of June 754 he and his companions were massacred by the heathen near Dockum. His remains were afterwards taken to Fulda.
St Boniface has well been called the proconsul of the papacy. His organizing genius, even more than his missionary zeal, left its mark upon the German church throughout all the middle ages. The missionary movement which until his day had been almost independent of control, largely carried on by schismatic Irish monks, was brought under the direction of Rome. But in so welding together the scattered centres and binding them to the papacy, Boniface seems to have been actuated by simple zeal for unity of the faith, and not by a conscious political motive.
Though pre-eminently a man of action, Boniface has left several literary remains. We have above all his Letters (Epistolae), difficult to date, but extremely important from the standpoint of history, dogma, or literature; see Dümmler's edition in the Monumenta Germaniae historica, 1892. Besides these there are a grammar (De octo partibus orationibus, ed. Mai, in Classici Auctores, t. vii.), some sermons of contested authenticity, some poems (Aenigmata, ed. Dümmler, Poetae latini aevi Carolini, i. 1881), a penitential, and some Dicta Bonifacii (ed. Nürnberger in Theologische Quartalschrift, Tübingen, vol. 70, 1888), the authenticity of which it is hard to prove or to refute. Migne in his Patrologia Latina (vol. 89) has reproduced the edition of Boniface's works by Giles (London, 1844).
There are very many monographs on Boniface and on different phases of his life (see Potthast, Bibliotheca medii aevi, and Ulysse Chevalier's Bibliographie, 2nd ed. for indications), but none that is completely satisfactory. Among recent studies are those of B. Kuhlmann, Der heilige Bonifatius, Apostel der Deutschen (Paderborn, 1895), and of G. Kurth, Saint Boniface (2nd ed., 1902). W. Levison has edited the Vitae sancti Bonifatii (Hanover, 1905).
(J. T. S.*)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)