Anglo-Saxon Missions: Spreading Faith Across Europe

Anglo-Saxon Christianity by Paul Cavill
Anglo-Saxon Christianity by Paul Cavill

Anglo-Saxon Missions in Continental Europe


When studying the history of early medieval England, we often concentrate solely on the historical events within England. However, this limited perspective overlooks the fact that during this historical period, the Anglo-Saxons were not restricted to their island. On the contrary, they engaged in numerous expeditions into continental Europe and beyond. Many of these journeys were missions aimed at Christianizing pagan tribes and regions.

Why Did the Anglo-Saxons Undergo Such Missions?

Years after Christianity was reintroduced to England, many Anglo-Saxon churchmen crossed the English Channel or the North Sea to head to the European continent and begin spreading their religion in pagan lands, particularly among the German Saxons (“Old Saxons”), whom the Anglo-Saxons considered their kinsfolk.

Saint Willibrord
Statue of St Willibrord at Echternach

Statue of St Willibrord at Echternach

In 690, this devout Anglo-Saxon missionary arrived in Frisia to start spreading Christianity among the pagans. Throughout his mission, Willibrord had the permission of Pippin of Heristal, the chief minister of the Merovingian (Frankish) king. Willibrord also received the approval and blessings of Pope Sergius I.

In 700, Pippin granted some land to Willibrord. This land was located in Echternach, in modern-day Luxembourg. Willibrord’s decision to establish a new base with a monastery on this land has effects that are still visible today. Willibrord is the patron saint of Luxembourg, and the people of Luxembourg still celebrate him every year on Pentecost Tuesday during the “hopping procession of Echternach.” A procession is a religious event where participants express themselves through prayer, songs, and dance. The event ends with a service in the basilica.

Apart from Echternach, Willibrord made conversions on the Frisian islands of Heligoland and Walcheren, and he also extended his missionary activities to Denmark. Willibrord’s successful missionary activities show how Anglo-Saxon influence was not confined to England or the British Isles alone. Also, Willibrord’s success elevated his status in the Frankish kingdom. This is why he was chosen to baptize Pippin’s grandson, who would later be known as Pippin the Short (father of Charlemagne).

Fulda Sacramentary, Saint Boniface baptizing (top) and being martyred

Fulda Sacramentary, Saint Boniface baptizing (top) and being martyred

Saint Boniface

Pippin of Heristal died in 714, leading to ensuing chaos that allowed the Frisian king, Radbod, to seize lands that Willibrord had Christianized. Radbod, a pagan, forced Willibrord to retreat to Echternach. Despite this setback, Radbod’s death in 719 enabled Willibrord to revive Christian initiatives in Frisia. During this revival, he received aid from Boniface, an Anglo-Saxon missionary originally named “Wynfrid” or “Wynfrith.” Apart from assisting Willibrord, Boniface undertook numerous other missions, many of which were ordered by Pope Gregory II.

In 722, he established a Benedictine monastery in Hesse. From 725 to 735, Boniface worked in Thuringia, converting pagans and renewing the faith of Christians who had been converted by Irish missionaries. Boniface disagreed with the haphazard methods of Irish missionaries. Pope Gregory III, the successor of Gregory II, instructed Boniface to organize the church in Bavaria, leading him to establish four bishoprics there. Boniface’s Christianization of Bavaria not only transformed the region’s religious landscape but also impacted its political status. This was because Boniface’s actions paved the way for Bavaria’s incorporation into the Carolingian Empire.

Boniface’s efforts extended beyond converting pagans; he also focused on reforming the practices of Irish missionaries and the Frankish clergy. For this purpose, five synods were convened between 740 and 745. Boniface met his demise in 754 in Frisia, where he was killed by pagan raiders while reading the Scriptures to Christian converts. Boniface’s legacy endures, earning him the title “Apostle of Germany” and recognition as one of Germany’s patron saints.

Anglo-Saxon Interactions with the Islamic World

Pilgrimage to the Levant

This article has thus far focused solely on Anglo-Saxon expeditions within Continental Europe. However, it is crucial to acknowledge a captivating account of Anglo-Saxon churchmen embarking on a pilgrimage to the Levant as devout Christians. This narrative centers around Willibald, who served as Boniface’s biographer, along with two of his companions. Following a three-year stay in Rome, Willibald and his two associates journeyed to Cyprus and subsequently secured passage to the Syrian port of Tartus. Their path then led them to the Arab city of Hims (Homs), a hub of Christianity featuring several churches during that era.

In light of their scant documentation, they were apprehended under suspicion of espionage. During their imprisonment, a local Arab merchant was struck by their unwavering devotion to their faith. Consequently, he outfitted them with fresh attire, arranged for well-prepared meals, facilitated biweekly visits to a bathhouse, and accompanied them to a church every Sunday. Over time, the three Anglo-Saxon men regained their freedom and resumed their journey. Their experiences also encompassed captivating anecdotes, including a close encounter with a mountain lion and the tale of sharing a soured milk beverage with a group of shepherds.

Approximately a century later, the Arabs encountered by Willibald and his companions would come to be perceived as perilous. Subsequent regimes in the Muslim world exhibited reduced tolerance for Christians, leading to the “cleansing” of the local Christian community in Hims and the subsequent destruction of its churches.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 883 AD in MS F, which refers to Alfred sending alms to the shrines of St Thomas in India and St Bartholomew

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 883 AD in MS F, which refers to Alfred sending alms to the shrines of St Thomas in India and St Bartholomew

Possible Anglo-Saxon Interaction with India

Aside from their journeys to continental Europe and the Levant, Anglo-Saxon missionaries may have also ventured to India. The account of this potential expedition can be found in the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.” In 883, King Alfred, also known as “the Great,” of Wessex dispatched two individuals, Sigehelm and Athelstan, on a mission to deliver alms both to Rome and to the shrines of St. Thomas and St. Bartholomew in India. The Chronicle contains the following passage:

“883: Sigehelm and Athelstan took alms to Rome—and also to St. Thomas in India and to St. Bartholomew—alms which King Alfred had vowed to send there when they besieged the raiding army in London. By the grace of God, they were remarkably successful in obtaining answers to their prayers, in accordance with those vows.”

Some skeptics question the veracity of the assertion that Sigehelm and Athelstan were truly sent to India. They propose that the term “India/Indea” present in the manuscript could potentially be a misinterpretation of “Judea.” Regardless, the notion that an early medieval British monarch may have dispatched missionaries to a place as distant as India is undeniably remarkable.

To conclude, anyone interested in Anglo-Saxon history should contemplate delving deeper into Anglo-Saxon missions beyond England. These missions substantiate the fact that the Anglo-Saxons effectively influenced and, in certain instances, even reshaped the practices of numerous other European communities. Additionally, the Anglo-Saxon engagements with regions beyond Europe substantiate the extensive scope of their travels, an impressive feat when considering the early medieval context of these occurrences.


Guest Author

Adam Heeda

Adam Heeda

Adam Heeda is a student from Cairo, Egypt who has a passion for medieval history and enjoys writing well-researched papers and articles about early medieval history.

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