Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Willibrord, First Bishop of Utrecht, Confessor

[Saint Willibrord of Echternach]Article

A.D. 738

Saint Willibrord was born in the kingdom of Northumberland, towards the year 658, and placed by his virtuous parents, before he was seven years old, in the monastery of Rippon, which was at that time governed by Saint Wilfrid, its founder. Wilgis, our saint’s father, retired also into a monastery, afterwards became a hermit, and in his old age founded and governed a small monastery between the ocean and the Humber. He is honoured among the saints in the monastery of Epternac, and in the English calendars. Alcuin has left us an account of his life Willibrord, by carrying the yoke of our Lord with fervour from his infancy, found it always easy and sweet, and the better to preserve the first fruits which he had gathered, made his monastic profession when he was very young. He had made great progress in virtue and sacred learning, when, out of a desire for further improvement, in the twentieth year of his age, he went over into Ireland, with the consent of his abbot and brethren, where he joined Saint Egbert or Ecgbright, and the blessed Wigbert, who were gone thither before upon the same errand. In their company our saint spent twelve years in the study of the sacred sciences, and in the most fervent exercise of all virtues. Though his constitution was weak, in fervour and exactness, he outdid the most advanced; he was humble, modest, and of an easy obliging temper; and his whole conduct was regular and uniform. Saint Egbert had long entertained an ardent desire of going to preach the gospel to the inhabitants of those unhappy countries, in which barbarism and idolatry still reigned without control, and he had chiefly Friesland or Lower Germany in his eye. But he was diverted from that apostolical design by persons of piety and authority, who engaged him to employ his zealous labours in the islands between Ireland and Scotland, in all which he settled the true manner of celebrating Easter; especially at Hij, where he died a little before Bede wrote his history. Saint Egbert is honoured in the English Calendar on the 24th of April. Bede gives a most edifying account of his austere penance, devotion, zeal, and charity. His companion, the holy priest Wigbert, went in the mean time to Friesland; but after staying there two years came back without having met with any prospect of success. This disappointment did not discourage Egbert, and other zealous promoters of this mission; but excited them the more earnestly to solicit the divine mercy with prayers and tears in favour of so many souls, who were perishing eternally. Willibrord, who was then about thirty-one years of age, and had been ordained priest a year before, expressed a great desire to be allowed by his superiors to undertake this laborious and dangerous charge. Saint Egbert, by the known zeal and great talents of our saint, and by his cheerfulness, which sufficiently showed him prepared to encounter all difficulties in the prosecution of such a work, doubted not but God had reserved to him the conversion of that nation, and encouraged him in this zealous design. Saint Willibrord was joined by Saint Swidbert and ten other English monks in this mission.

The Frisons, who had formerly occupied a large tract of country on the coasts of the German ocean, crossing the Rhine into Belgic Gaul, had possessed themselves of those provinces about the mouth of the Rhine, which the Catti, who were also originally Germans, then held. Among all the German nations none maintained their liberty against the Romans, with greater success and courage, than the Frisons. Procopius tells us, that some of them came into Britain with the English Saxons: and by their situation they were doubtless the most expert in maritime affairs. Saint Ludger mentions that Swidbert, and the rest of these zealous preachers, were desirous to carry the light of the faith to these people, because their ancestors sprang from them. Saint Eligius, bishop of Noyon, had preached in part of Friesland, and Saint Wilfrid had sown there the seeds of our holy faith in 678. But these seem to have been almost rooted out before Saint Willibrord’s arrival in 690 or 691. The authors of Batavia Sacra doubt not but our twelve missionaries landed at Catwic upon the sea, which was at the mouth of the Rhine before it was blocked up with sands, and thither the English were accustomed to export corn, even from the north coasting part of their island; the British tower, as it was called, was built by the Romans at Catwic to defend this harbour. This old channel was not entirely obstructed in 1050, as appears from the Chronicle of Woerden. And Alcuin expressly says, that these missionaries landed at the mouth of the Rhine, and travelled thence to Utrecht, a town built by the Romans at the great passage over the Rhine; whence it was called Trajectum, afterwards Trecht, and lastly Utrecht, (from Outrecht, the Old Passage, and Ultrajectum, or Passage at the town Vulta,) to distinguish it from the ancient town of Maestricht or Passage over the Maese. Pepin of Herstal, or the Big, who was at that time duke of the French, and mayor of the king’s palace, and had lately conquered part of Friesland, received courteously Saint Willibrord and his companions. But Willibrord set out for Rome, and cast himself at the feet of Pope Sergius, begging his apostolic blessing and authority to preach the gospel to idolatrous nations. The pope, charmed with his zeal and sanctity, granted him the most ample licenses for that purpose, and gave him a great quantity of relics for the consecration of churches. With this treasure the saint returned with all possible expedition to his province, considering the pressing necessities and dangers of so many souls which called for his compassion and relief. Saint Swibert was taken from him and ordained bishop of the Borroctuarians, who seemed to have inhabited the territory of Berg, and the neighbouring country towards Cologne.

Saint Willibrord, with his ten other companions, under the protection of Pepin, preached the gospel with wonderful success, in that part of Friesland that had been conquered by the French; so that after six years, Pepin, by the advice of his bishops, sent the saint to Rome, with strong letters of recommendation, that he might be ordained bishop. His humility made him endeavour that some other should be pitched upon for that dignity; but he was not heard. Pope Sergius, who still sat in Saint Peter’s chair, received him with great marks of honour, changed his name into that of Clement, with great solemnity ordained him archbishop of the Frisons in Saint Peter’s church, and gave him the pallium with authority to fix his see in what part of the country he should think most convenient. The holy man staid only fourteen days in Rome, being impatient to return to his flock, and regretting an hour’s absence from them, more than was necessary to procure them greater advantages. He came back to Utrecht the same year, 696, and chose that city for his residence, Pepin having bestowed on him the royal castle of Viltaburg, which, as Bede assures us, 8 was at Utrecht, though Cluverius will have it to have been the present Wiltenburg, three miles and a half from Utrecht; but this town itself was called Vulta, or the city of the Vultæ. Saint Willibrord built at Utrecht the church of our Saviour, in which he fixed his metropolitical see, says Saint Boniface, 10 and that of Saint Martin, though this latter he only restored, for it had been a church, but destroyed by the Pagans. 11 Heda and Beka think it had been built by king Dagobert, at the desire of Saint Wilfrid. This latter church became afterwards the cathedral, and both were served by colleges of canons. The archbishop’s indefatigable application to the conversion of souls seemed to prove, that with the new obligation he had received at his consecration, of labouring to enlarge the kingdom of his Divine Master, he had acquired fresh strength and a considerable augmentation of his zeal. In the second year after his episcopal consecration, assisted by the liberality of Pepin, and the abbess Irmina, who is said to have been daughter of Dagobert II, he founded, in 698, the abbey of Epternac, in the diocess of Triers, and now in the duchy of Luxemburg, which he governed to his death. Alcuin relates, that the nunnery of Horrea, of which Irmina was abbess, had been delivered from a pestilence by water, blessed by Saint Willibrord, and by his saying mass in the church. Pepin of Herstal, before his death put away his concubine, Alpais, by whom he had Charles Martel, and was reconciled to his wife Plectrudis, and in his last will, which is signed by Plectrudis, he recommended to Saint Willibrord, his nephews, (without any mention of his natural son Charles,) and bestowed on our saint the village of Swestram, now Susteren, in the duchy of Juliers, near the Mews, with which the holy man endowed a nunnery which he built there.

Pepin of Herstal died in December, 714. A little before his death, Charles Martel’s son, Pepin the Short, afterwards king of France, was born, and baptized by Saint Willibrord, who on that occasion is related by Alcuin to have prophesied, that the child would surpass in glory all his ancestors. Charles Martel in a short time became mayor of the palace, and approved himself equally the first general and statesman of his age. In 723, he settled upon the monastery which Saint Willibrord had erected at Utrecht to serve his cathedral, all the royal revenues belonging to his castle there. Of this monastery Saint Gregory was afterwards abbot; in succeeding times it was secularized. Several other donations of estates made by Charles Martel to several churches founded by our saint, may be seen in Miræus and others. By a charter, that prince conferred on him the royalties of the city of Utrecht with its dependencies and appurtenances. By such establishments our saint sought to perpetuate the work of God. Not content to have planted the faith in the country which the French had conquered, he extended his labours into West-Friesland, which obeyed Radbod, prince or king of the Frisons, who continued an obstinate idolater; yet hindered not the saint’s preaching to his subjects, and he himself sometimes listened to him. The new apostle penetrated also into Denmark: but Ongend, (perhaps Biorn,) who then reigned there, a monster of cruelty rather than a man, was hardened in his malice, and his example had a great influence over his subjects. The man of God, however, for the first fruits of this country, purchased thirty young Danish boys, whom he instructed, baptized, and brought back with him. In his return he was driven by stress of weather upon the famous pagan island, called Fositeland, now Amelandt, on the coast of Friesland, six leagues from Leuwarden, to the north, a place then esteemed by the Danes and Frisons as most sacred in honour of the idol Fosite. It was looked upon as an unpardonable sacrilege, for any one to kill any living creature in that island, to eat of any thing that grew in it, or to draw water out of a spring there without observing the strictest silence. Saint Willibrord, to undeceive the inhabitants, killed some of the beasts for his companions to eat, and baptized three persons in the fountain, pronouncing the words aloud. The idolaters expected to see them run mad or drop down dead: and seeing no such judgment befal them, could not determine whether this was to be attributed to the patience of their god, or to his want of power. They informed Radbod, who, transported with rage, ordered lots to be cast three times a day, for three days together, and the fate of the delinquents to be determined by them. God so directed it that the lot never fell upon Willibrord; but one of his company was sacrificed to the superstition of the people, and died a martyr for Jesus Christ.

The saint, upon leaving Amelandt, directed his course to Warckeren, one of the chief islands belonging to Zealand. His charity and patience made considerable conquests to the Christian religion there, and he established several churches. After the death of Radbod, which happened in 719, Willibrord was at full liberty to preach in every part of the country. He was joined in his apostolical labours, in 720, by Saint Boniface, who spent three years in Friesland: then went into Germany. Bede says, when he wrote his history in 731, “Willibrord, surnamed Clement, is still living, venerable for his old age, having been bishop thirty-six years, and sighing after the rewards of the heavenly life, after many conflicts in the heavenly warfare.” He was, says Alcuin, of a becoming stature, venerable in his aspect, comely in his person, graceful and always cheerful in his speech and countenance, wise in his counsel, unwearied in preaching and all apostolic functions, amidst which he was careful to nourish the interior life of his soul by assiduous prayer, singing of psalms, watching, and fasting. Alcuin, who wrote about fifty years after his death, assures us, that this apostle was endowed with the gift of miracles, and relates, that whilst he preached in the isle of Warckeren, where the towns of Flessingue and Middleburg are since built, going from village to village, he found in one of them a famous idol to which the people were offering their vows and sacrifices, and full of holy zeal threw it down, and broke it in pieces. In the mean time an idolater, who was the priest and guardian of the idol, gave him a blow on the head with his backsword, with which, nevertheless, the saint was not hurt: and he would not suffer the assassin to be touched, or prosecuted. But the unhappy man was soon after possessed with a devil, and lost his senses. By the tears, prayers, and zealous labours of this apostle and his colleagues, the faith was planted in most parts of Holland, Zealand, and all the remaining part of the Netherlands, whither Saint Amand and Saint Lebwin had never penetrated; and the Frisons, till then a rough and most barbarous people, were civilized, and became eminent for virtue, and the culture of arts and sciences. Saint Wulfran, archbishop of Sens, and others, excited by the success of our saint’s missions, were ambitious to share in so great a work under his direction. Saint Willibrord was exceedingly cautious in admitting persons to holy orders, fearing lest one unworthy or slothful minister should defeat by scandal, all the good which the divine mercy had begun for the salvation of many souls. It is also mentioned of him, that he was very strict and diligent in examining and preparing thoroughly those whom he admitted to baptism, dreading the condemnation which those incur, who, by sloth or facility, open a door to the profanation of our most tremendous mysteries. The schools which Saint Willibrord left at Utrecht, were very famous. Being at length quite broken with old age he resigned the administration of his diocess to a coadjutor whom he ordained bishop, and in retirement prepared himself for eternity. He died, according to Pagi, in 739; according to Mabillon, in 740 or 741, and according to Mr. Smith, in 745, some adhering to Alcuin, others to Bede, etc. Saint Boniface says, that Saint Willibrord spent fifty years in preaching the gospel, which Mr. Smith dates from his episcopal consecration; Mabillon, from his coming into Friesland: but others think these fifty years mean only thereabouts. For Alcuin says, he came into Friesland in the thirty-third year of his age, and lived eighty-one years; which account only allows him forty-eight years employed in preaching. But, if Saint Boniface comprises the two years in which he preached in Ireland, and the Scottish islands, his Chronology agrees with Alcuin’s dates, and it follows that Saint Willibrord died in 738: which is confirmed by the Chronicle of Epternac, compiled from the Necrology and manuscript registers of that monastery. Alcuin and Rabanus Maurus place his death on the 6th of November: but the Chronicle of Epternac, Usuard, Ado, and the Roman and Benedictin Martyrologies commemorate him on the 7th. He was buried, as he had desired, at his monastery of Epternac, and his relics are there enshrined at this day. The portative altar which he made use of for the celebration of the divine mysteries, in travelling through Friesland, Zealand, and Holland, is kept in the Benedictin abbey of our Lady ad martyres, at Triers. Saint Willibrord’s Testament in favour of his monastery of Epternac was published by F. Ch. Scribanius, S. J. in his Antwerp, by Miræus, with notes by Boschart; and by Calmet, among the proofs of his History of Lorrain.

A true pastor, who is animated with fervour and zeal, allows himself no repose, whilst he can comfort, instruct, exhort, or weep and pray for the souls which are entrusted to his charge, and whose spiritual dangers are continually near his heart. He whose life is regular and methodical, and who is solicitous and earnest, finds time to do with ease, and without a single thought of it, more business than seems credible to the slothful. This every Christian may experience: and, without the obligations of the pastoral charge, every one owes so many and so great duties, both to others and to himself, that unless he is supinely slothful and wilfully blind, he will find business enough constantly upon his hands to employ earnestly all his moments. Nor is it our misfortune that we have not time, but that through sloth and thoughtlessness we mispend it.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Willibrord, First Bishop of Utrecht, Confessor”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 7 November 2013. Web. 25 December 2014. <>