Charles Martel and St. Boniface


19th Saturday

European civilization declined after the death of Gregory the Great in 610. The next two men we’d call great were St. Boniface and Charles Martel. Boniface was initially known as Winfrid. He was born in southern England in 672, the same year that St. Bede was born in North Umbria. Though both men entered Benedictine abbeys at an early age, they had different outlooks. While Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, showed great respect for the Irish monks of earlier times, Winfrid set himself the task of suppressing Irish foundations.

At age forty-four Winfrid passed up the invitation to become abbot of his home monastery in England, setting out to evangelize the German Saxons from whom his people had come.

At age sixty Winfrid boldly chopped down the pagan religion’s sacred oak, bringing him to the attention of Charles Martel, the one manly figure among the degenerate  ruling class of the Franks.

Charles was the illegitimate son of Pepin II, the mayor of a region in Belgium. On that official’s death, his widow locked young Charles away. Then, when her son showed himself to be a weakling, Pepin’s followers chose Charles as their mayor. Those same loyal followers took to calling him Martel, and in doing that they were copying what people did for Judas, third son of Matthias in our Old Testament: like the name Maccabeus the name Martel also meant a “hammer.”

When Charles Martel became aware of Winfrid’s taming of the Saxons, he welcomed him as an ally, and he used force to secure lands for Winfrid’s Benedictine monasteries.

Charles turned his attention to the south where Islam was encroaching on southern France. The southwest quarter of what we call France was Aquataine. Its Duke Odo had successfully driven back the Muslims at Toulouse in 721, but ten years later a new Emir of Cordoba brought in Arab and Berber horsemen, and they soundly defeating Odo.

Seeing that it would take something extra to block the northward advance of the Muslims, Charles Martel became Europe’s first leader to train troops year round. Up to then wars were fought in springtime while men were waiting for their crops to come up. We can see this in the opening sentence of that chapter of the Book of Samuel that describes David’s sin with Bashsheba. It reads, “At the time of year when kings go out on campaign.”

Needing year round support for the families of his soldiers, Charles took back lands he had given to the monks in Saxony. With that, his well-trained phalanx defeated the Muslim cavalry at Tours in 732, winning Charles the title of Europe’s savior.

To repay Winfrid for the loss of monastery lands, Charles secured the archbishop’s pallium for him. And when Winfrid went to Rome to obtain it, Pope Gregory III gave him a new name, calling him Boniface (One who does good.) The pope went on to urge Boniface to continue suppressing the  Irish monasteries that had been founded by the monks from Finian’s Clonard and Collumcille’s Iona.

In December of 1952 I came upon a distant echo of those suppressions. After my ordination, my mother brought me around to meet the old Irish folk in St. Columchille’s parish where she had gone to school as a girl. After fifty years with an Irish archbishop, St. Louis had been given a German ordinary, and he had proceeded to close down St. Columcille’s parish. He told the people they were transferred to St. Boniface’s German parish. In home after home the old Irish ladies begged me to tell his grace the archbishop that Colmchille could not again give way to Boniface.

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