The Heroic Age – A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, Issue 06 (May 2003).
Abstract: This essay challenges the view that Wilfrid of York inspired, sent or supported Willibrord’s mission to Frisia. The evidence of Wilfrid’s evangelization of Frisia and Willibrord’s life from his youth at Ripon through his consecration as Archbishop of Frisia is reviewed.
The late medieval people of Frisia have spun heroic legends around the missionary Willibrord giving him the title Apostle of the Frisians. From the Frisian origin myth to legendary associations with Charlemagne, committed to writing between 1200 and 1500, Willibrord emerges as the heroic leader of the Frisians into the light of the Christianity and the Holy Roman Empire (Bremmer 7-19).
In the late, long Old Frisian poem Thet Freske Riim, Willibrord becomes a central figure in Frisian ethnogenesis. In one of the more fantastic sections, Willibrord and Charlemagne’s Frisian standard bearer Sir Magnus lead 30,000 Frisians to victory in a battle over the Old Saxons after which Charlemagne in appreciation grants the Frisians their freedom. This poem meets the origin myth requirements for ethnogenesis by giving the people a common ancestral past, religious conversion, and victory in battle over a traditional enemy (Bremmer 17). Additionally, it has characteristics of quest literature in that Willibrord comes to Frisia as a knight whose goal is the conversion of a barbarian people and when his quest is fulfilled, his ashes are returned to his homeland (Bremmer 17-18).
As is typical of origin myth-making, actual history has little to do with the new version that met the political needs of the later medieval period. Willibrord became an important facet of the national myth that allowed the Frisians to retain their identity within the Carolingian Empire (Bremmer17).
Faced with the flowering legend of the ‘Apostle of the Frisians’, scholars have demurred that Willibrord was merely continuing the mission of his former abbot and bishop, Wilfrid of York. The latter’s reputed short but highly successful mission to Frisia was completely omitted from the legends of Frisia and indeed every source except his own Life and Bede’s paraphrase of it.
For decades, Wilhelm Levison has held the field of scholarship in English on Willibrord. In his words,
this casual episode in Wilfrid’s stormy career was of far-reaching importance. By his missionary zeal he had shown an opening to his fellow countrymen which was not forgotten. In the opinion of the next generation of Northumbrians he laid the foundations on which his pupil Willibrord afterwards built the Frisian church (Levison 1946:51).
Further on, Levison (1946:54) claims that “Willibrord continued on the Continent the Northumbrian missionary tradition which Wilfrid had created.” Other scholars went even farther and constructed elaborate plans for Willibrord to have returned to England and begin his mission from Ripon, essentially having him leave on his mission under the direction of Wilfrid. Most recently, the connection made by Levison has been repeated in Rollason’s 2001 Jarrow Lecture “Bede and Germany” (14), a lecture dedicated to Levison.
The purpose of this essay is to explore Willibrord’s motivations for his mission and to challenge the view that he was sent, supported, or inspired by Wilfrid. The meager sources for Wilfrid of York’s missionary work in Frisia will be discussed, followed by a discussion of the ecclesiastical opposition party within Northumbria. Willibrord’s life up until the time he embarked for Frisia and the initiation of the Anglian missions to the Germanic peoples under the direction of Egbert will be reviewed. A discussion of the insular influences on Willibrord’s scriptorium at Echternach and the last meeting of Willibrord and Wilfrid in Frisia in 704 will follow. In conclusion, there will be an analysis of the differences in style and attitude displayed by Willibrord and Wilfrid.