A historical perspective of his role and importance in spreading the Christian faith

Local background

Although the settlement of the area known as Woodgreen dates from the 17th century it was not until 1858 that the civil parish of Woodgreen was established, and subsequently enlarged with the addition of land from both Breamore and Hale in 1932.

Since 1927, Woodgreen has been part of the ecclesiastical parish of Hale and Woodgreen, sharing services and clergy. The building which is the Church dates from 1913, and started life as a church reading room. It was only in 1949 that it was dedicated as a church in the name of St. Boniface.

But who is St. Boniface and just where does he rank in the importance of things?

Christianity spreads across Anglo-Saxon England

The Conversion of England took hold remarkably quickly and was mostly over by the end of the end of the seventh century. England, a country of many kingdoms at this time, and not in any sense yet unified (Mercia, Wessex, Northumbria, The South Saxons and so on), was governed by kings who all professed themselves Christian within just a century of the first arrival of missionaries. Paganism was effectively eradicated during this time and few pagans continued their ways of worship.

By Cornelis Bloemaert (1603-1684) (Het Utrechts Archief) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Saint Boniface by Cornelis Bloemaert, c. 1630
This Conversion was much encouraged by these kings, who did not see the new religion as a competing claim on the allegiances of their peoples, but rather who saw personal advantage in the conversion and increasing control of their populations, and the enhancement of their own authority conferred by being anointed as rulers, in the name of God. Monasteries and Churches were so

on established and a network of Dioceses covered England. Aspects of Christian ritual and morality such as infant baptism, observation of the Sabbath, monogamy and regular marriages were legally enforced.

Led by kingly example, the lives of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy quickly became entwined with the Church. The endowment of increasingly wealthy monastic foundations led to the growing importance of the institutional church in the economic and cultural life of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, playing a central role in long distance trade, becoming centres of craft working, agricultural production and manufacturing. Such monasteries drew on a range of religious influences and consequently the patterns of life and observance in them varied considerably.

Inevitably such rapid and decentralised growth in religious institutions, and the variability of actual pastoral care of the poor led to criticism and calls for reform. The venerable Bede bemoaned the numerous monasteries in Northumbria led by men of little monastic vocation alongside increasing wealth and bad behaviour.

More importantly for us, Boniface, in a letter of c. 747 to the Archbishop of Canterbury, described the reforming steps he had taken in continental Europe and suggesting the same measures being taken in the Anglo-Saxon Church.

Our first clue to Boniface, the man.

St. Boniface…his early life

It was into this world that Boniface (actual name Winfrid) was born, in Devon in the mid 670s. He entered the monastery at Exeter as a child and subsequently became head of the monastic school at Nursling near Southampton and Winchester. The latter was a significant centre of learning in the tradition of Aldhelm. Boniface taught at the Abbey school and became a priest at the age of 30.

When his Abbott died in 716 Boniface was offered the position, which he declined and set out as a missionary to evangelise Frisia, which we now know as coastal Netherlands. He would have been around 40 years of age, and played very little part again in the religious life of his Anglo-Saxon compatriots in England, focusing instead on continental Europe.

Boniface… “Continental Missionary”

Boniface is recognised as the most important of countless Anglo-Saxon churchmen and churchwomen who travelled to Northern Europe in the late 7th to 9th centuries…the “continental missionaries” as they are collectively known.

Boniface came to be known as “the Apostle of the Germans”, visiting Rome to seek the Pope’s permission to take his ministry to the Old Saxons, stressing the kinship with the Anglo-Saxons of England.

These missionaries not only established some of the most important ecclesiastical institutions but they introduced artistic and scribal traditions to Europe. Indeed the treasures of these continental religious houses now provide the best record of the riches of the Anglo-Saxon Church, subsequently lost to Viking depredations.

A considerable body of correspondence survives between Boniface and his contemporaries, underlying the pivotal role he played in spreading the gospels and reforming the religious structures of Europe. He visited Rome frequently and corresponded with successive Popes. Pope Gregory II gave him the name Boniface. His advice was constantly sought by others before they embarked for Europe. As a result of his work and influence he achieved Archbishop status in 732, in his late 50s. His metropolitan see was eventually settled at Mainz.

Illustration from the Sacramentary of Fulda (Fuldaer Sakramentar), fol. 126 v.
St. Boniface Baptising and Martyrdom in 754

Boniface continued his work, latterly in the wider Carolingian or Frankish Empire ( western and central Europe) and greatly strengthened its ties with the Papacy.. For him however his mission was to reform the Church where it was in need of change and repair, including advising the Church in England as seen above. He was only infrequently required to take his mission to pagan peoples.

In 753/4 he returned to Frisia, to complete the task he set out on nearly 40 years before. Sadly, after baptising a large number, he was set upon and killed by pagan robbers… thinking he and his retinue had riches in their possession rather than the books and manuscripts they actually carried. He was 80 years of age.

Boniface’s legacy, apart from martyrdom, is as a reformer and a builder of religious organisations and doctrine, rarely as a true missionary. Nonetheless his influence on spreading the influence of the Christian church, and its Anglo-Saxon arm in particular, is unquestionable.

His feast-day is celebrated on 5th. June in the Roman Catholic Church, The Lutheran Church, The Anglican Communion and The Eastern Orthodox Church.

Such a giant of early Christianity… such a small church in Woodgreen!

St Boniface Church, Woodgreen

Article contributed by David Mussell