Last edited 03 Oct 2021

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Shrines of British and Irish saints in Germany

Churches and monasteries in Germany constitute a shared heritage of British and Irish missionaries who converted the forefathers of the Germans to Christianity.

Fulda Cathedral.jpg
Fulda Cathedral, shrine of St Boniface (‘Apostle of the Germans’), left, and St Michael (patron saint of the Germans), right (Photo: Verum, Wikimedia).

The renowned scholar of the medieval period Norman F Cantor called him ‘one of the truly outstanding creators of the first Europe’[1], Roman Catholics revere him as the ‘Apostle of the Germans’, and in 1980 Pope John Paul II and an estimated crowd of 100,000 paid their respects in front of his shrine. But most people in the UK may not know of St Boniface, let alone of his fellow missionaries from Northumbria and Wessex who sacrificed their lives to spread the Gospel among the peoples beyond the Rhine and Danube.

As the Hiberno-Scottish and Anglo-Saxon missions on the continent during the 7th and 8th centuries have been subject to almost nationwide memory loss, only a minority of people in Britain will be aware that it was British and Irish missionaries who converted the forefathers of the Germans to Christianity. Today, in a secularised society, such an achievement may be regarded as largely irrelevant, but in the context of cultural export and integration their contribution remains immeasurable. It was these courageous and selfless but ultimately immensely influential individuals from places such as Ripon and Exeter who triggered the century-long process of turning pagan Germania into Christian Deutschland.

The first missionaries to set sail for the continent were itinerant monks from Ireland. Throughout the 7th century they remained active in what had been the Celtic fringe of the Roman Empire north of the Alps. Avoiding the ancient Christian communities along the Rhine and concentrating instead on the Black Forest, Lake Constance, and the Salzach, Danube, and Main regions, they preached, founded monasteries and promoted cultivation on all levels. The second wave in the 8th century saw missionaries from religious centres in the newly Christianised Anglo-Saxon kingdoms travelling to their distant pagan relatives on the continent (Saxons, Frisians, Thuringians and Hessians). They were instrumental not only in converting the population but in the establishment of the church as an organisation within the Frankish Empire.

During the 11th century a third wave of Gaelic monks founded monasteries in Franconia and Bavaria in an already Christianised society. Like their forebears, these Irish migrants became known under the joint Latin name used for the Gaelic-speaking Irish and Scots, ‘Scot(t)i’, which led to the term ‘Schottenklöster’ (Scots monasteries) for their monastic foundations in Germany. Together these three groups of canonised preachers and founders from England and Ireland left behind a rich tapestry of churches, monasteries and even cathedrals across southern, western and central Germany. The church buildings successively erected on the sites of their martyrdom or their area of activity have served as shrines for their relics and as centres of their commemoration ever since.

Little is known about the architecture of the first shrines from the Merovingian period (until 751), although the archaeological scarcity is being outweighed by ample testimony about the saints and their lives in the form of biographies, authored from within their monastic foundations. Tombs and crypts, decorated caskets and illuminated manuscripts are among the oldest surviving tangible evidence of tradition, as are the relics themselves. The skull of the Irish St Kilian (c689), who is revered as apostle of the German region of Franconia and patron saint of the city of Würzburg, is kept in the cathedral church of St Kilian in its centre, while his statue adorns the bridge across the Main River.

His Irish countrymen have left a beautiful mark on the earliest Bavarian capital Regensburg (also known in English under its ancient Roman name of Ratisbon), whose entire historic city centre gained world heritage status in 2006. They built the still standing Romanesque church of the Scots Monastery of St James (Schottenkloster St Jakob), which serves as a shrine to Marianus Scottus/Muiredach mac Robartaig (c1081). The richly decorated portal, occupying a third of the wall of its northern aisle, is completely preserved in situ under a protective yet controversial canopy. The portal features sculptures of saints and beasts, and is regarded as the most complex and figurative Romanesque portal in Germany. The symbolism behind its sculptural programme undoubtedly refers to the Last Judgement. It has inspired speculation and scholarly interpretations for over 200 years, never being fully explained.

The Devon-born St Walpurga and her brothers St Willibald and St Winibald have left their mark on Bavaria as well as Franconia. Until her death in around 779, Walpurga led the Benedictine abbey of Heidenheim in Franconia, which had been founded by her brothers in 742. Under her governance Heidenheim was run as a double monastery, with male and female monks living on the same site. In the 870s her remains were ceremoniously transferred to Eichstätt, where the Benedictine monastery St Walpurga operated until the secularisation in 1806. It remains a popular place of pilgrimage to this day. Her elder brother Willibald, the first Englishman known to have reached the Holy Land, became the first bishop of Eichstätt in Bavaria. Parts of the 8th century church survive in the choir of his shrine, Eichstätt Cathedral, which has also retained substantial Romanesque, gothic, renaissance and baroque fabric. Walpurga’s younger brother Winibald became the first abbot of the monastery in Heidenheim in 752, remaining there until his death in 761, when she succeeded him. In 777 Winibald’s remains were translated into the newly built crypt at Heidenheim. The nave and transept of the 1188 rededicated new church building are still in use.

The presence of medieval churches dedicated to local saints of British and Irish origin supports the written evidence of their regional missionary activity in Germany, but none of the missionaries has achieved national or even international significance like St Boniface. According to tradition he was an uncle of St Walpurga and her brothers, born in the Devon town of Crediton, and given the name Winfred. After monastic training in Exeter and Nursling in Hampshire, and a first failed mission to the Frisians, he was made missionary bishop by Pope Gregory II, re-named ‘Bonifatius’, and charged with the conversion of the pagan tribes in Germany. With the crucial backing of both Rome and Frankish kings, his mission turned into a success of European proportions.

He not only fulfilled his task, but in the process established what would eventually become the fragile but lasting relationship between popes and emperors until 1806. The position St Boniface gained as bishop of Mainz (former capital of the Roman province Germania I) would be the German equivalent of the see of Canterbury. He reorganised dioceses and commissioned the foundation of monasteries, most notably around 723 in Fritzlar (preceding Fritzlar Cathedral) and 744 in Fulda. When he died a martyr in Friesland in 754, Fulda and Mainz fought over his remains, which ultimately were interred in Fulda Abbey. The abbey church built by Ratgar between 791 and 819 was then the largest basilica north of the Alps, admired for its size by Abraham ben Jacob in his travel report to the caliph of Cordoba, Al-Hakam II (961–976).

Johann Dientzenhofer’s baroque rebuilding of the abbey church was consecrated in 1712. Due to its unusual orientation towards the west, inspired by a study trip to St Peter in Rome, both the altar and the crypt of St Boniface coincidentally point towards his native Devon. In 1752, when the abbey was raised to the status of prince-bishopric, the shrine of St Boniface became Fulda Cathedral. Situated beside the ancient church of St Michael (patron saint of the Germans), the shrine of St Boniface (apostle of the Germans) enjoys an outstanding position in the consciousness of the nation’s church. Throughout German history no other Englishman has ever achieved recognition of such magnitude.

St Boniface was succeeded by his disciple Lull(us), who had been a monk in the Benedictine abbey at Malmesbury in Wiltshire before becoming a missionary in Germany in 738. St Lullus reached the pinnacle of his career as archbishop of Mainz. In 769 he founded the Benedictine abbey at Hersfeld, which was raised to the autonomous status of imperial abbey by Charlemagne and exempted from episcopal jurisdiction by Pope Stephen III. The church was extended between 831 and 850 and rebuilt from 1038 after a fire, the choir consecrated in 1040, and the new nave consecrated in 1144, but then destroyed in 1761. It survives as the largest Romanesque church ruin in Europe.

Lull’s remains were buried in the first abbey church in 786 and ceremoniously reburied in the east choir of the church extension in 852. The annual Feast of St Lullus, celebrated on this occasion for the first time, is the oldest local festival in the German-speaking world. The epitaph that purportedly stood at his now lost grave bore an inscription beginning with the following distich: ‘Lull michi nomen erat, famosa Britannia mater’ (My name was Lull [and] famous Britain [was] my mother[land])[2].

References:

  • [1] Cantor, Norman F, (1993) The Civilization of the Middle Ages: a completely revised and expanded edition of ‘Medieval History, the life and death of a civilization’, Harper Collins, New York.
  • [2] ‘Epitaphium Lulli’, in Poetae Latini Aevi Carolini recensuit Ernestus Duemmler, tom.II (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Poetarum Latinorum Medii Aevi, tom.II), Berlin 1884.

This article originally appeared in Context 168, published by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) in June 2021. It was written by Michael Asselmeyer, an architect and historian, who has been a lecturer in architecture at the University of Dundee and a senior lecturer in architecture at the University of Central Lancashire.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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