WILLIBRORD (658–739), pioneer of the English missionaries who crossed the seas to proclaim the gospel to the non-Christian peoples of the continent of Europe. Born in Northumbria, Willibrord as a boy came under the influence of the great Wilfrid, archbishop of York. From 678 to 690 he was in Ireland, and while there he became filled with the desire, which never left him, to preach the gospel to non-Christians.
In 690 Willibrord went to Friesland in the Netherlands, which became his home for forty-nine years. This part of Europe was in a state of great disorder from which it was emerging through the rise of Carolingian power, destined to reach its climax in the empire of Charlemagne. Pepin I gave Willibrord the land near Utrecht on which later Willibrord was to build his cathedral. In 695 he was consecrated archbishop by the pope, who intended to establish Utrecht as a regular province of the church with archbishop and diocesan bishops. This goal was never attained, and after the death of Willibrord, Utrecht gradually lost its importance.
None of the correspondence of Willibrord has survived, and we have hardly anything from his hand. This makes it difficult to get a clear idea of his personality and his work. He seems to have been characterized not so much by brilliance as by steadfast continuance in the work that he had set himself to do. It is clear that his aims were greater than his achievements. He penetrated Denmark and brought back thirty boys who presumably were to be trained as missionaries to their own people, but nothing came of this. It is not clear whether he ever consecrated other bishops. He did, however, in 698 found the Monastery of Echternach in Luxembourg, which later became a great center of missionary work.
Willibrord opened a door to the evangelists of the rising English church, worked out a model of what a missionary should be, and set an example followed by many successors. The churches in the Netherlands are right in regarding him as the apostle of Frisia and the founder of the church in their land.
The two lives of Willibrord by Alcuin (735–804), Vita sancti Willibrordi, "Monumenta Alcuiniana," vol. 6, are hagiographical, full of stories of miracles, and inadequate from the point of view of historical detail and reliability. Of modern works, William Levison's England and the Continent in the Eighth Century (Oxford, 1946), pp. 1–69, is authoritative. Reference may be made also to Alexander J. Grieve's Willibrord, Missionary in the Netherlands (Westminster, 1923) and to The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany, edited and translated by Charles H. Talbot (New York, 1954).
Stephen C. Neill (1987)