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The saint who boldly tore down pagan temples

A statue of St Willibrord at Echternach, in eastern Luxembourg, where the saint died

The Angles and Saxons were converted in the course of the seventh century, beginning with incursions into Kent and Essex. Through marital ties between the Germanic kingdoms, it had arrived in the furthest kingdom by mid-century under King Edwin.

Although newcomers to the faith, the Angles themselves would prove to be effective evangelisers of the people they called the “Saxons overseas”. Many lost their lives in the process. Among those who crossed the North Sea was Willibrord, born in 658 during that kingdom’s primacy, a political dominance over the island that would soon manifest itself in a cultural flowering of its golden age. By this stage Osiwu was king. He had triumphed at the Battle of the Winwaed, an event now immeasurably obscure but which, with the victory of the Christian ruling family of Northumbria over the pagan Mercians, secured the victory of Christianity on the island.

At some point Willibrord’s father, Wilgils, withdrew from the world and built an oratory for himself. The son was sent to Ripon Abbey as a young child and joined the Benedictines, before staying at the Abbey of Rathmelsig in the west of Ireland in his 20s, a centre of European study at the time. There St Egbert, one of the foremost Northumbrian monks, sent him and 12 companions to Christianise Frisia (in the modern-day Netherlands). He built many churches, including the monastery and cathedral at Utrecht, becoming its first bishop. He is said to have destroyed idols of pagans gods such as Fosite, as well as their sanctuaries and temples, which may not suit modern sentiments but which impressed the superstitious Frisians.

He returned to Frisia on a mission sponsored by the King of the Franks, who hoped the Frisians would make better neighbours if they converted. King Radbod was not well-disposed towards the new religion, burning many churches and killing many missionaries. But after he died in 719 Willibrord returned, along with Boniface, on the orders of Ripon Abbey .

A cult grew around him after his death. On one occasion his relics were transported along with “five bishops… two Swiss guards, 16 standard-bearers, 3,045 singers, 136 priests, 426 musicians, 15,085 dancers, and 2,032 players” – or so it was said.