There was in the island of Britain, in the province of Northumbria, a certain householder of Saxon descent, whose name was Wilgils, living a devout Christian life together with his wife and family. This fact was later borne out by miraculous events, for after he had given up his worldly career he devoted himself to the monastic life. Not long afterwards, as his zeal for the spiritual life increased, he entered with even more intense fervour on the austere life of a solitary, dwelling in the headlands that are bounded by the North Sea and the river Humber. In a little chapel there, dedicated to St. Andrew, the Apostle of Christ, he served God for many years in fasting, prayer and watching, with the result that he became celebrated for his miracles, and his name was in everyone's mouth. People flocked to him in great numbers, and when they did so he never failed to instruct them with sound advice and the Word of God.
He was held in such high esteem by the king and the nobles of that nation that they made over to him, in perpetual gift, a number of small landed properties that lie near those headlands for the purpose of building there a church to God. In this church the reverend father gathered together a rather small but devout company of those who wished to serve God, and there also, after the many trials of his spiritual labours, going to his reward, his body lies at rest. His successors, who still follow the example of his holiness, are in possession of this church to the present day. It is I, the least of these in merit and the last in time, who am now in charge of this little chapel, which has come to me by lawful succession, and I am writing this account of Willibrord, the holiest of fathers and the wisest of teachers, at the request of you, Bishop Beornrade (1), who, by the grace of God, have succeeded him in the episcopate, in the line of family tradition and in the care of those sanctuaries, which, as we know, he built for the glory of God.
Now, in order to relate more fully the facts concerning Willibrord's birth, and recall the signs which show that even whilst he was in his mother's womb he was chosen by God, I shall return to the point where I began. Just as the most holy forerunner of our Lord Jesus Christ, blessed John the Baptist, was sanctified in his mother's womb and preceded Christ, as the morning star precedes the sun and, as the Gospel tells us, was born of devout parents in order to bring salvation to many, so likewise Willibrord, begotten for the salvation of many, was born of devout parents (2). Wilgils, the venerable man of whom we have already spoken, entered upon the state of matrimony for the sole purpose of bringing into the world a child who should benefit many peoples. Thus it was that his wife, mother of holy Willibrord, beheld, at dead of night whilst she slept, a heavenly vision. It seemed to her as if she saw in the sky the new moon, which, as she watched, slowly increased until it reached the size of the full moon. Whilst she was gazing intently upon it, it fell swiftly into her mouth, and when she had swallowed it her bosom was suffused with light. Filled with fear, she awoke at once and went to recount the dream to a holy priest, who asked her whether during the night on which the vision came to her she had known her husband in the customary way. When she assented, he replied as follows: "The moon which you saw changing from small to great is the son whom you conceived on that night. He will disperse the murky darkness of error with the light of truth, and wherever he goes he will carry with him a heavenly splendour and display the full moon of his perfection. By the brightness of his fame and the beauty of his life he will attract to himself the eyes of multitudes." This interpretation of the dream was borne out by the actual course of events.
When her time was come the woman bore a son, and at his baptism his father gave him the name of Willibrord. As soon as the child had reached the age of reason (3) his father gave him to the church at Ripon to be instructed by the brethren there in religious pursuits and sacred learning, so that living in a place where he could see nothing but what was vittuous and hear nothing but what was holy his tender age should be strengthened by sound training and discipline. From his earliest years divine grace enabled him to grow in intelligence and in strength of character, at least as far as was possible at such an age, so that it seemed as if in our day there had been born another Samuel, of whom it was said: "The boy grew up and advanced in favour both with God and with men."
Hence, in the monastery of Ripon, the youth who was to prove a blessing to many received the clerical tonsure (4) and made his profession as a monk, and, attained along with the other youths of that holy and sacred monastery, he was inferior to none in fervour, humility and zeal for study. In fact this highly gifted boy made such progress as the days went by that the development of his intelligence and character so outstripped his tender years that his small and delicate frame harboured the wisdom of ripe old age.
When this youth, as highly endowed with sacred learning as he was with self-control and integrity, reached the twentieth year of his age he felt an urge to pursue a more rigorous mode of life and was stirred with a desire to travel abroad. And because he had heard that schools and learning flourished in Ireland (5), he was encouraged further by what he was told of the manner of life adopted there by certain holy men, particularly by the blessed bishop Ecgbert (6), to whom was given the title of Saint, and by Wichtberct (7), the venerable servant and priest of God, both of whom, for love of Christ, forsook home, fatherland and family and retired to Ireland, where, cut off from the world though close to God, they lived as solitaries enjoying the blessings of heavenly contemplation. The blessed youth wished to imitate the godly life of these men and, after obtaining the consent of his abbot and brethren, hastened quickly across the sea to join the intimate circle of the said fathers, so that by contact with them he might attain the same degree of holiness and possess the same virtues, much as a bee sucks honey from the flowers and stores it up in its honeycomb. There among these masters, eminent both for sanctity and sacred learning, he who was one day to preach to many peoples was trained for twelve years, until he reached the mature age of manhood and the full age of Christ.
Accordingly, in the thirty-third year of his age the fervour of his faith had reached such an intensity that he considered it of little value to labour at his own sanctification unless he could preach the Gospel to others and bring some benefit to them. He had heard that in the northern regions of the world the harvest was great but the labourers few. Thus it was that, in fulfilment of the dream which his mother stated she had seen, Willibrord, fully aware of his own purpose but ignorant as yet of divine preordination, decided to sail for those parts and, if God so willed, to bring the light of the Gospel message to those people who through unbelief had not been stirred by its warmth. So he embarked on a ship, taking with him eleven others who shared his enthusiasm for the faith. Some of these afterwards gained the martyr's crown through their constancy in preaching the Gospel, others were later to become bishops and, after their labours in the holy work of preaching, have since gone to their rest in peace.
So the man of God, accompanied by his brethren, as we have already said, set sail, and after a successful crossing they moored their ships at the mouth of the Rhine. Then, after they had taken some refreshment, they set out for the Castle of Utrecht, which lies on the bank of the river, where some years afterwards, when by divine favour the faith had increased, Willibrord placed the seat of his bishopric (8). But as the Frisian people, among whom the fort was situated, and Radbod, their king (9), still defiled themselves by pagan practices, the man of God thought it wiser to set out for Francia and visit Pippin (10), the king of that country, a man of immense energy, successful in war and of high moral character. The duke received him with every mark of respect; and as he was unwilling that he and his people should lose the services of so eminent a scholar, he made over to him certain localities within the boundaries of his own realm, where he could uproot idolatrous practices, teach the newly converted people and so fulfil the command of the prophet: "Drive a new furrow and sow no longer among the briars." [Jer 4:3]
After the man of God had systematically visited several localities and carried out the task of evangelization, and when the seed of life watered by the dews of heavenly grace had, through his preaching, borne abundant fruit in many hearts, the aforesaid King of the Franks, highly pleased at Willibrord's burning zeal and the extraordinary growth of the Christian faith, and having in view the still greater propagation of religion, thought it wise to send him to Rome in order that he might be consecrated bishop by Pope Sergius (11), one of the holiest men of that time. Thus, after receiving the apostolic blessing and mandate and being filled with greater confidence as the Pope's emissary, he would return to Preach the Gospel with even greater vigour, according to the words of the Apostle: "How shall they preach unless they sent?" [Rom 10:15]
But when the king tried to persuade the man of God to do this he was met by a refusal. Willibrord said that he was not worthy to wield such great authority, and, after enumerating the qualities which St. Paul mentioned to Timothy, his spiritual son, as being essential for a bishop, asserted that he fell far short of such virtues On his side, the king solemnly urged what the man of God had already humbly declined. At length, moved by the unanimous agreement of his companions, and, what is of more importance, constrained by the divine will, Willibrord acquiesced, anxious to submit to the counsel of many rather than obstinately to follow his own will. Accordingly he set out for Rome with a distinguished company, bearing gifts appropriate to the dignity of the Pope.
Four days before Willibrord arrived in Rome the Apostolic Father had a dream in which he was advised by an angel to receive him with the highest honours, because he had been chosen by God to bring the light of the Gospel to many souls: his purpose in coming to Rome was to receive the dignity of the episcopate, and nothing that he asked for was to be refused. The Apostolic Father, forewarned by this admonition, received him with great joy and showed him every courtesy. And as he discerned in him ardent faith, religious devotion and profound wisdom, he appointed a day suitable for his consecration, when all the people would be assembled together. Then he invited venerable priests to take part in the ceremony, and, in accordance with apostolic tradition and with great solemnity, he publicly consecrated him archbishop in the church of blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles (12). At the same time, he called him Clement and invested him with episcopal robes, conferring upon him the sacred pallium as a sign of his office, like Aaron with the ephod. Moreover, whatever he desired or asked for in the way of relics of saints (13) or liturgical vessels the Pope gave him without hesitation, and so, fortified with the apostolic blessing and loaded with gifts, he was sent back, duly instructed, to his work of preaching the Gospel.
Having received the blessing of the Holy See, the devoted preacher of God's Word returned with increased confidence to the King of the Franks. The king welcomed him with every mark of esteem and then dispatched him, armed with his authority to preach the Gospel, more especially in the northern parts of his dominions, where, owing to the scarcity of teachers and the obduracy of the inhabitants, the light of faith shone less brightly. The more clearly the man of God saw the need of overcoming the ignorance and arresting the spiritual famine in these districts, the more vigorously he preached the Word of God. How great was the success which, through the help of divine grace, attended his labours is attested even in these days by the people whom in the cities, villages, and fortified towns he brought to a knowledge of the truth and the worship of almighty God by his holy admonitions. Other evidence is to be found in the churches which he built in each place and in the communities of monks and nuns whom he gathered together in various localities.
The man of God tried also to propagate the Gospel teaching outside the boundaries of the Frankish kingdom. He had the boldness to present himself at the court of Radbod, at that time King of the Frisians and like his subjects, a pagan. Wherever he travelled he proclaimed the Word of God without fear; but though the Frisian king received the man of God in a kind and humble spirit, his heart was hardened against the Word of Life. So when the man of God saw that his efforts were of no avail he turned his missionary course towards the fierce tribes of the Danes. At that time, so we are told, the Danish ruler was Ongendus (14), a man more savage than any wild beast and harder than stone, who nevertheless, through divine intervention, received the herald of truth with every mark of honour. But when the latter found that the people were steeped in evil practices, abandoned to idolatry and indifferent to any hope of a better life, he chose thirty boys from among them and hastily returned with them to the chosen people of the Franks. On the journey he instructed the youths in the faith and baptized them, so that if they perished from the long sea voyage or through the ambushes of the savage dwellers of those parts he should suffer no loss in their regard. In this way he desired to anticipate the craft of the devil and to strengthen these redeemed souls by the sacraments of the Lord.
Now whilst this energetic preacher of the Word was pursuing his journey he came to a certain island on the boundary between the Frisians and the Danes, which the people of those parts call Fositeland (15), after a god named Fosite, whom they worship and whose temples stood there. This place was held by the pagans in such great awe that none of the natives would venture to meddle with any of the cattle that fed there nor with anything else, nor dare they draw water from the spring that bubbled up there except in complete silence. On this island the man of God was driven ashore by a storm and waited for some days until the gale died down and fair weather made it possible to set sail again. He set little store by the superstitious sacredness ascribed to the spot, or by the savage cruelty of the king, who was accustomed to condemn violators of the sacred objects to the most cruel death. Willibrord baptized three persons in the fountain in the name of the Blessed Trinity and gave orders that some of the cattle should be slaughtered as food for his company. When the pagans saw this they expected that the strangers would become mad or be struck with sudden death. Noticing, however, that they suffered no harm, the pagans, terror-stricken and astounded, reported to the king what they had witnessed.
The king was roused to intense fury and had a mind to avenge on the priest of the living God the insults which had been offered to his deities. For three whole days he cast lots three times every day to find out who should die; but as the true God protected his own servants, the lots of death never fell upon Willibrord nor upon any of his company, except in the case of one of the party, who thus won the martyr's crown. The holy man was then summoned before the king and severely upbraided for having violated the king's sanctuary and offered insult to his god. With unruffled calmness the preacher of the Gospel replied: "The object of your worship, O King, is not a god but a devil, and he holds you ensnared in rank falsehood in order that he may deliver your soul to eternal fire. For there is no God but one, who created heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them; and those who worship Him in true faith will possess eternal life. As His servant I call upon you this day to renounce the empty and inveterate errors to which your forebears have given their assent and to believe in the one almighty God, our Lord Jesus Christ. Be baptized in the fountain of life and wash away all your sins, so that, forsaking all wickedness and unrighteousness, you may henceforth live as a new man in temperance, justice and holiness. If you do this you will enjoy everlasting glory with God and His saints; but if you spurn me, who set before you the way of life, be assured that with the devil whom you obey you will suffer unending punishment and the flames of hell." At this the king was astonished and replied: "It is clear to me that my threats leave you unmoved and that your words are as uncompromising as your deeds." But although he would not believe the preaching of the truth, he sent back Willibrord with all honour to Pippin, King of the Franks.
The latter was delighted at his return and begged him to persevere in his divinely appointed task of preaching the Word of God and to root out idolatrous practices and sow the good seed in one place after another. This the devoted preacher strove to carry out with characteristic energy. He traversed every part of the country, exhorting the people in cities, villages and forts where he had previously preached the Gospel to remain loyal to the faith and to their good resolutions. And as the number of the faithful increased day by day and a considerable multitude of believers came to the knowledge of God's Word, many began in their zeal for the faith to make over to the man of God their hereditary properties. These he accepted. Shortly afterwards he ordered churches to be built there, and he appointed priests and deacons to serve them, so that the new converts should have places where they could assemble on feast days and listen to wholesome instruction and where they could learn the principles of the Christian religion from those servants of God who had baptized them. Thus the man of God, favoured by divine grace, made increasing progress from day to day.
It came about, however, that Pippin, King of the Franks, died (16), and his son Charles became head of the realm (17). Charles brought many nations under the power of the Franks, and among these were the Frisians, whose lands were added to his dominions after the defeat of Radbod. At that time St. Willibrord was officially appointed to preach to the Frisian people, and his episcopal see was fixed at the fortress of Utrecht. Being given greater scope for the preaching of the Gospel, he now attempted to bring into the Church by baptism the people that had recently been won by the sword. He allowed no error or past ignorance to pass unnoticed and lost no time in shedding upon them the light of the Gospel, so that soon among that people the statement of the prophet was fulfilled: "In that place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people, it shall be said unto them, Ye are the sons of the living God." [Hos 1:10]
Many miracles were also wrought by divine power through His servant. Whilst the ministry of preaching the Gospel is to be preferred to the working of miracles and the showing of signs, yet, because such miracles are recorded as having been performed, I think mention of them ought not to be suppressed; and so that glory may be given to God who vouchsafed them, I will insert them into this narrative, and in this way what we know to have been achieved in former times may not be lost to future ages. Thus, when the venerable man, according to his custom, was on one of his missionary journeys he came to a village called Walichrum (18), where an idol of the ancient superstition remained. When the man of God, moved by zeal, smashed it to pieces before the eyes of the custodian, the latter, seething with anger, in a sudden fit of passion struck the priest of Christ on the head with a sword, as if to avenge the insult paid to his god. But, as God was protecting His servant, the murderous blow did him no harm. On seeing this, Willibrord's companions rushed forward to kill the wicked man for his audacity. The man of God good-naturedly delivered the culprit from their hands and allowed him to go free. The same day, however, he was seized and possessed by the devil and three days later he ended his wretched life in misery. And thus, because the man of God followed the Lord's command and was unwilling to avenge the wrongs done to him, he was vindicated all the more by the Lord Himself, just as He had said regarding the wrongs which the wicked inflicted upon His saints: "Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord."
On another occasion, when the blessed man was on his way to a cell belonging to him called Susteren, from the name of the stream that flows past it, he took a narrow path running through the cornfields of a certain wealthy landowner. When the keeper of the fields saw this he was furious and began to revile the man of God. Those who accompanied him [Willibrord] wanted to punish the man for insulting him, but the servant of God mildly restrained them, not wishing that anyone should perish on his account, since his whole happiness lay in bringing salvation to all. When he found it impossible to calm the fury of the foolish man, Willibrord did not persist but returned by the way he had come. Next day, however, the wretch who had not feared to heap insults upon the servant of God was struck down on that very spot with sudden death before a crowd of onlookers.
Whilst the divinely inspired man in his urgent desire to preach the Gospel was travelling through the coastal regions where the people were suffering from the lack of fresh water he noticed that his companions could hardly bear the pangs of thirst. So he called one of them and bade him dig a small trench inside his tent. There, upon his knees, he secretly prayed to God that He, who had brought forth water from the rock for his people whilst they were in the desert, would with like compassion bring forth water for his servants from the sandy soil. At once his prayer was heard and a spring of sweet water straightway filled the trench. His followers on seeing this gave thanks to God, who in this manner had glorified His saint and condescended to hear his prayer. And when they had drunk their fill they took with them as much water as they thought would satisfy their needs on the journey that lay before them.
Again, when the holy priest of God was pursuing his way in a certain place, he saw twelve poor beggars asking alms from the passersby. Being extremely kindhearted, he gazed on them with compassion and bade one of his companions take his own flask and give a drink to Christ's poor. All the twelve drank from it as much as they would, and the remarkable fact was that as the company went on their way they found that the flask from which so many had drunk was just as full as it was before of the most excellent wine. When they discovered this they all blessed the Lord, saying: "Indeed, the saying of Christ in the Gospels "Give and it shall be given unto you" [Lk 6:38] has been fulfilled."
Once, the saintly man came to his monastery [at Echternach] (19) to make a visitation, and after praying to God, greeting the brethren and speaking peaceably with them, the holy father went round the cells of each one of the brothers to see if anything in them might be improved. On going into the storehouse, he found there only a small supply of wine in one cask, into which, as a sign of his blessing, he thrust his staff, praying the while, and then went out. The same night, the wine in the cask began to rise to the brim and then to overflow. When the steward noticed it he was astounded at the unexpected increase, and, knowing it to have been wrought by God's mercy through the blessing of His servant, he did not dare to keep it secret. Next morning, he ran after the holy father and, falling at his feet, reported what he had seen. Willibrord, as usual, gave thanks to God, but, bearing in mind our Lord's command to His disciples not to make public the glory of the Transfiguration before the day of the Resurrection he forbade the steward to speak to anyone of the miracle he had witnessed until the day of his [Willibrord's] death.
A further miracle of the same kind was wrought by Christ our God through Willibrord's blessing. On one occasion the servant of God came with his companions to the house of a friend of his and wished to break the tedium of the long journey by taking a meal at his friend's house. But it came to his ears that the head of the house had no wine. He gave orders that four small flasks, which were all that his companions carried with them for their needs on the journey, should be brought to him. Then he blessed them in the name of Him who at the marriage feast of Cana changed water into wine-and, remarkable to relate, after this gracious blessing about forty people drank their fill from these small bottles, and with great thanksgiving and joyful hearts said one to another: "The Lord Jesus has in truth fulfilled His promise in the Gospel: 'He that believeth in me will do the deeds I do, and greater than these shall he do.'"
Once, when this holy preacher was going in haste towards Frisia in order, as usual, to preach the Gospel, he wanted to pasture his horses, worn out by the fatigue of the journey, in the meadows of a certain wealthy landowner. The man, seeing horses feeding in his meadows, began to beat them and drive them out of his pastures with great arrogance. The man of God accosted him with peaceable words and said: "Brother, do us no harm. Our purpose in wishing to rest in these meadows is not to do you harm but to meet our own needs. We are under obligation to pursue the work of God, and you also might share in its rewards if, as far as lies in your power, you help us in a friendly spirit, mindful of the sweet promise of Christ: 'He that receiveth you, receiveth me, and he that receiveth me, receiveth him that sent me.' Be at peace, and rather as a friend take a drink with us by way of refreshment. Then when we have gone on our way, return to your house with the blessing of God." The man, however, persisted in his ill-will and would not listen to the reasonable words of the man of God, but, on the contrary, repeated his abuse and continued to insult him. "You ask me to drink with you," he said, "and make peace: be assured that I set no store whatever upon drinking with you." The man of God took the words out of his mouth and said: "If you will not drink with me, then do not drink at all. "Thereupon, as soon as his companions were ready, he went on his way. The obstinate man also hurriedly went home, but was seized almost at once with a burning thirst which he tried in vain to assuage with wine, for the mouth that had cast reproaches upon the man of God was unable to swallow a single draught. Thus the man who would not of his own accord make peace with the servant of God was now compelled to bear within himself the penalty of his fault. Doctors were called to relieve his thirst and to restore to the sufferer his power of drinking. His whole being cried out for relief, but no one could get a drop of wine to reach his parched throat. At last, struck with remorse, he came to his senses, and, discovering that the saintly man he had reviled was Willibrord, he began to yearn intensely for his return. In the following year, Willibrord came back by the same way, and on hearing of his approach the sick man hurried out to meet him. Confessing his sin and telling him of the suffering he had endured, he besought him for the love of Christ to release him from it. The man of God was moved with pity, released him from his punishment and allowed him to drink from his own cup. Thereupon the man who was released drank and returned to his own house cured.
In the town of Treves there is a convent of nuns (20), which in the days of Willibrord was visited with a terrible plague. Many of the nuns died of the infection, others were confined to bed by severe sickness, whilst the rest were in a state of extreme terror, expecting death at any moment. At a short distance from this town stands the monastery of the holy man, called Echternach, in which his body reposes to this day and which his successors are known to have held by lawful bequest of the said father and through the goodwill of pious kings. Learning that the holy man was coming thither, the women of the abovementioned convent sent a deputation beseeching him to come to them without delay. When he heard their request, the man of God, instructed by the gracious example of St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles, who went from Joppa to Lydda at the request of the widows of Christ in order to raise holy Tabitha to life, went to their assistance without delay. On arriving at the convent, he immediately celebrated Mass for the sick and then blessed water and ordered it to be sprinkled about the buildings and given to the nuns to drink. Through the mercy of God they speedily recovered and there were no more deaths in that convent from the plague.
It happened that a head of a family and his household were afflicted by a terrible visitation of devilish sorcery, and it became quite obvious from the horrors and evil tricks that occurred there that the house was haunted by a wicked spirit. For it would suddenly seize food and clothing and other household goods and throw them into the fire. Once, indeed, whilst the parents were asleep, it snatched their little boy as he rested in their arms and hurled him into the fire, and it was only with great difficulty that the parents, roused by the child's screams, rescued him from the flames. Many were the ill turns that the family had to endure at the hands of this execrable spirit and no priest was able to exorcize it. Eventually the holy man Willibrord, at the father's urgent request, sent them some holy water and directed them to sprinkle it over all the furniture after it had been taken out of doors, for the man of God foresaw that the whole house would be consumed by fire. When they had done this, a conflagration broke out in the very place where the bed had stood, and, quickly enveloping the house, reduced it to ashes. After another house had been built on the site of the old one and blessed with holy water the family suffered no more from their former trial and thenceforth lived in peace, giving thanks to the Lord who had deigned to deliver them through the hands of His servant.
The same holy man, who was pleasing to God, also prophesied certain things that were subsequently verified by the course of events. He baptized Pippin the Short, son of the valiant Charles Martel, King of the Franks and father of the present illustrious Charles, who governs the Franks at the present day in triumph, dignity and glory. Of Pippin, father of the last named, Willibrord uttered the following prediction in the presence of his disciples: "Know that this child will be highly exalted and renowned. He will be greater than all the kings of the Franks who have gone before him." The truth of this prophecy has been fulfilled in our times and there is no need to prove what is universally acknowledged throughout the whole kingdom. For all the people know what wonderful victories this illustrious conqueror has gained, how widely he has extended the bounds of his empire, how devotedly he has promoted the Christian religion and how he has defended the Holy Church of God abroad. All these things can be more clearly seen with the eye than set forth in words.
Now this holy man was distinguished by every kind of natural quality: he was of middle height, dignified mien, comely of face, cheerful in spirit, wise in counsel, pleasing in speech, grave in character and energetic in everything he undertook for God. His forbearance is shown by the actions we have recorded above. How great was his zeal in preaching the Gospel of Christ and how he was sustained in the labour of preaching by the grace of God we need not set forth in writing, since it is vouched for by the testimony of all. His personal life can be inferred from his vigils and prayers, his fasting and singing of psalms, the holiness of his conduct and his many miracles. His charity is made manifest in the unremitting labours which he bore daily for the name of Christ.
This holy man, who progressed every day of his life in the work of God, who was pleasing to God and friendly to all the people, was laid to his fathers in the time of the elder Charles, the valiant ruler of the Franks. He was then an old man coming to the end of his days and was about to receive from God a generous reward for his labours. He forsook this world to take possession of heaven and to behold Christ for ever in eternal glory, in whose love he had never ceased to labour as long as he lived in our midst. On the sixth of November, that is, the eighth day before the Ides, he passed from this place of pilgrimage to the eternal country and was buried in the monastery of Echternach, which, as we have said before, he had built to the glory of God. There to this day, through the mercy of God, miracles of healing are constantly performed beside the relics of the holy priest of God. That some of these should be appended to our account of his life we regard as redounding to the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, who so often deigned to perform them at the request of His servant.
His venerable body was laid to rest in a marble sarcophagus, which at first was found to be six inches too short to hold the entire body of God's servant. The brethren were greatly concerned at this, and, being at a loss to know what to do, they discussed the matter again and again, wondering where they could find a suitable resting place for his sacred remains. Wonderful to relate, however, through the loving kindness of God the sarcophagus was suddenly discovered to be as much longer than the holy man's body as previously it had been shorter. Therein they laid the remains of the man of God, and to the accompaniment of hymns and psalms and every token of respect it was interred in the church of the monastery which he had built and dedicated in honour of the Blessed Trinity. A sweet and marvellous fragrance filled the air, so that all were conscious that the ministry of angels had been present at the last rites of the holy man.
The death of the holy man was revealed to one of his religious disciples who was stationed at some distance from the monastery as he was keeping watch in prayer. He testifies that he saw the soul of his saintly father surrounded by a bright radiance as it was being carried by a host of angels towards the realms above, all singing his praises. Likewise many of the brothers have testified that they have frequently seen a wonderful light over the bed on which he gave back his blessed soul to his Creator, and perceived there a ravishing fragrance and most sweet odour. From these signs one can only surmise that the denizens of heaven used to visit the spot from which his saintly soul had passed to the Lord.
Many sick persons, through the grace of God and assisted by their own faith, have been cured after being anointed with the oil from the lamp which burns over the relics of the holy man. Penitents also frequently came to the church wearing rings on their arms (21), as the custom then was, and the links were broken and they were loosed from their bonds. Evidence of this are the rings which hang in the church to this day.
There was a certain woman suffering from paralysis and who had been tormented for seven years with severe pain, whose infirmity had increased so much from day to day that she had completely lost the use of her limbs and had to rely upon the help of others. So frail was she that she could scarcely breathe. This woman was carried by her relatives to the church in which the saint of God lay at rest and placed near the casket of his relics. There, with many tears, she prayed that God in His mercy might have pity on her through the intercession of His holy servant. Her prayer was heard by the Lord our God, and suddenly she was delivered from all her infirmities and restored to health. And she, who had previously been carried into the church by others, ran home upon her own feet, joyfully giving thanks to God.
In like manner a young man afflicted with sickness was brought by his friends to the body of the blessed prelate. He trembled in every limb and was totally unable to raise his head, which lolled and twisted this way and that as if it had not been fixed on his neck. Sometimes, too, he became so inert as to appear completely lifeless. This young man, as we have said, was placed near the body of the saint by his friends, and through the mercy of God was so quickly cured, in the presence of all the onlookers, that no trace remained of his former infirmity and longstanding affliction.
A certain man who held the office of deacon in the church of the saint though he was quite unworthy of it, did not scruple to steal, among other things that had been offered to the church, a golden cross which the holy man used to carry with him on his travels. The brethren were distressed at this, and, though ignorant of the perpetrator of this sacrilege, they felt confident that through the prayers of the saint of God so heinous a crime could not long be concealed. They tried, nevertheless, in their brotherly kindness to bring the culprit to repentance, not wishing to encompass his downfall. But the man who had committed the crime hardened his heart and despised his own salvation, even as, according to Solomon, "the wicked man continues when he comes to the depths of his evil deeds". The unhappy wretch thought that the deed, which had been committed in secret and unseen by others, would remain undetected, but it could not be hidden from the eye of God, to whom all things lie open and who is often not slow to avenge the wrongs done to His servants. For the miserable wretch who had not scrupled to commit the offence was suddenly seized with sickness and died a miserable death, and in his dying moments confessed his guilt to some of the brethren and divulged the place where he had hidden the stolen objects. You see, brethren, what a fearful judgment was visited upon the man who presumed to desecrate the church of God 's saint by stealing. I beseech you, therefore, to keep your manner of life pure in this house, so that in His mercy and through the intercession of the apostolic man St. Clement He may deign to hear your prayers when you make your petitions, just as we have already told you how he heard the prayers of the sick in this same church, enabling them to return home with the good health they had long yearned for. Nor need we doubt that just as he deigned visibly to heal their bodily diseases, so also through the intercession of the saint on our behalf, whose body rests here and whom we believe to be present in the spirit, listening to our prayers, he will continue daily to cure the hidden disorders of our souls, if with firm faith and sincere confession we pour out our hearts with tears in that place before the merciful face of Him who in His mercy is quick to pardon if we are not slow to ask. Praise and glory be His for ever and ever.
It only remains now to speak of blessed Wilgils, who, as we have said, was the father of this holy man, for as the first chapter of this story began with him, so the last must close with a reference to him. It was on the anniversary of the sacred death of Wilgils that the good abbot Aldberct, successor to the venerable archbishop, proposed to eat and rejoice with the brethren after the solemnities of the Mass and the thanksgiving due to God. In the monastery, unfortunately, there were left only two flagons of wine; and since one of them had been drunk at the midday meal, the other was put by for supper. Accordingly, after Vespers had been sung in honour of that day the brethren returned to the refectory; and when they came to the end of the reading the abbot addressed the brethren with these words: "It is fitting, reverend Fathers, that we should celebrate the feast days of our venerable predecessors with spiritual rejoicing and should allow our bodies somewhat more indulgence than our usual strictness permits, not from motives of gluttony but of love. Now if there were anything in the monastery that I could offer you beyond this single flagon of wine which is left over from the midday meal I should certainly not withhold it from you. But God is able through the prayer of His saints to make even this prove more than sufficient for our needs, alike to honour them as to gladden us, and to demonstrate to us, unworthy as we are, the kindly power of Him who once through the blessing of our former father, the holy Willibrord, condescended to satisfy forty men from four flagons. Let us drink what we have with rejoicing and with hope."
After all the brethren had drunk from the bowl a first and a second time the server found it as full as before. When the abbot was acquainted with this he joined the brethren in giving thanks to God; and, doing honour to the divine mercy, they drank soberly but gladly that night as much as they desired.
O happy father to beget such a son and to be deemed worthy by God of having such an heir! In thee is fulfilled the blessing which is read in Deuteronomy: "Blessed shalt thou be, and blessed shall be the fruit of thy body."
1. Beornrade, abbot of Willibrord's monastery at Echternach and later Archbishop of Sens.
2. Willibrord was born, probably, 6 November 658.
3. This is probably the correct interpretation of the phrase "when he was weaned". The abbot at this time was most probably St. Wilfrid, the leader of the Roman party which triumphed at the Synod of Whitby, A.D. 664. Willibrord must have served under Wilfrid until 669 when Wilfrid left to take possession of the see of York.
4. He received the tonsure and made his monastic profession about the age of fifteen; cf. the letter of St. Boniface, Tangl, No. 26.
5. Though the renown of the Irish schools was well deserved, it does not reflect adversely on the lack of English educational centers. St. Aldhelm of Sherborne complained at the time about students going there and asked: Were there not schools good enough in England? The real reason for going abroad seems to have been the expulsion of St. Wilfrid from the see of York in 678, which led to the voluntary exile of many monks who were in sympathy with him.
6. Ecgbert was Abbot of Rathmelsigi, probably Mellifont in Co. Louth. In 664 he had gone into voluntary exile after the Synod of Whitby, but returned to Iona m 7I6. He died in 729 at the age of ninety. He had long wanted to evangelize the Saxon peoples on the Continent, but was prevented from doing so.
7. Wichtberct was a companion of Ecgbert and had spent many years in Ireland. He went on a mission to Frisia, but, having preached for two years without success, returned to Ireland.
8. Willibrord's church was built from the rums of the old Roman camp at Fectio (Vecht).
9. From the beginning of his reign in 697 Radbod had been antagonistic to anything that savoured of Frankish domination and had ruthlessly destroyed churches and other buildings erected by the Franks.
10. Pippin II, mayor of the palace of Clovis II. He it was who gave the church at Antwerp, previously the scene of the labours of St. Amand and St. Eloi, to the missionaries for their shelter and support.
11. Pope Sergius I, 687-701. Alcuin only mentions one journey to Rome, but there were two.
12. Alcuin has made a mistake. The church meant is St. Cecilia in Trastevere. The day of consecration was 22 November 695.
13. Several churches still preserve the relics brought back from Rome by Willibrord, e.g. Emmerich and Treves.
14. Ongendus has been identified with Ongentheow of Beowulf.
15. Fositeland or Heligoland.
16. Pippin died 14 December 714. At this juncture Radbod revolted, and during the disturbances that followed Willibrord retired to his monastery at Echternach.
17. Charles Martel, the natural son of Pippin. He obliged Radbod to raise the siege of Cologne and then attacked the Neustrians at Compiegne, 26 Sept 715, where he put them to rout. It was during this time that St. Boniface arrived with his companions in Utrecht, but, finding the conditions unpropitious for preaching, he returned home.
18. Walichrum, where during the Roman occupation the goddess Nehelamia, protector of navigation, had been worshipped. A later tradition at Echternach placed the scene of this story at Westcapelle and said that traces of Willibrord's blood could still be discovered. At this place a votive stone of Hercules Magusanus has been found.
19. The property for this foundation had been given to Willibrord in 714 by Plectrude, wife of Pippin II.
20. Probably St. Marien ad Martyres, where the portable altar of St. Willibrord is still preserved.
21. It was the custom to fasten iron rings on the limbs of penitents as a sign of their repentance.