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Saint Willibald
2010 Willibald Handschuher-Figur Spitalkirche Eichstätt.JPG
Born~700 AD
Died~787 AD
Venerated inRoman Catholic Church
Canonized938 AD by Pope Leo VII
Major shrineCathedral of Eichstätt
Feast7 June

Saint Willibald (born in Wessex c.700 and died c.787 in Eichstätt) was an 8th-century bishop of Eichstätt in Bavaria.

Information about his life is largely drawn from the Hodoeporicon (itinerary) of Saint Willibald, a text written in the 8th century by Huneberc, an Anglo-Saxon nun from Heidenheim am Hahnenkamm who knew Willibald and his brother personally.[1] The text of the Hodoeporicon was dictated to Huneberc by Willibald shortly before he died.

Willibald's father was Saint Richard the King, his brother was Saint Winibald and his sister was Saint Walburga. He was also related through his mother to Saint Boniface, and he was ordained to the priesthood and episcopacy by Boniface.[2][3]

Today Willibald is regarded as one of the most travelled Anglo-Saxons of his time, and some argue that he was the first known Englishman to visit the Holy Land.[4] His shrine is at the Eichstätt Cathedral in Germany, where his body and relics from his journeys are preserved.

His feast day is the 7th of June.

Early life[edit]

Willibald was born in Wessex on 21 October around the year 700. At the age of three, Willibald suffered from a debilitating weakness that made it difficult for him to breathe. The illness nearly took his life, until his parents prayed to God, vowing to commit Willibald to a monastic life if he was to be spared from death. Miraculously, Willibald survived and at the age of five was received into a Benedictine monastery called Waldheim (now Bishop's Waltham) in Hampshire, England. Willibald spent his early childhood in prayer and contemplation, practising the monasticism created by his relative, Saint Boniface.

At the monastery he became accustomed to the Irish and Anglo-Saxon monastic ideal of peregrinatio religiosa, or pious rootlessness.[5]


Willibald decided to partake on a pilgrimage with his father and brother, Saint Winibald. The journey started in 720 or 721 and would take several years. Huneberc provides detailed descriptions, offering the names of 77 locations and 13 people they visited.

Despite visiting a diverse group of peoples, Willibald's priority was not evangelisation but exploration, and there is little evidence of successful or attempted conversions in the Hodoeporicon while travelling through Palestine.[6]

France and Italy[edit]

After departing by ship the group arrived in Rouen, France visiting shrines and spending much of their time in prayer. Eventually they arrived in Lucca, a city in northern Italy. It was here that Willibald’s father became gravely ill and died. After burying their father Willibald and Winibald continued on their journey, travelling through Italy until they reached Rome. Here they visited the Lateran Basilica and St. Peter's. They spent some time in Italy, strengthening in devotion and discipline, but soon the two brothers became ill with the Black Plague. Hunebrec recounts the disease and miraculous recovery:

Then with the passing of the days and the increasing heat of the summer, which is usually a sign of future fever, they were struck down with sickness. They found it difficult to breathe, fever set in, and at one moment they were shivering with cold the next burning with heat. They had caught the black plague. So great a hold had it got on them that, scarcely able to move, worn out with fever and almost at the point of death, the breath of life had practically left their bodies. But God in His never failing providence and fatherly love deigned to listen to their prayers and come to their aid, so that each of them rested in turn for one week whilst they attended to each other's needs.[7]

Willibald and Winibald would recover from the illness and shortly thereafter continued on to Asia, approximately three years since Willibald left his monastery.

Willibald left Rome in 724, heading for Naples. From there, accompanied by two unnamed companions and brother, he departed by sea, visited Sicily and Greece along the way, and eventually arrived in Asia Minor.

Greece, Asia Minor, Cyprus and Syria[edit]

In Asia Minor Willibald and his companions first arrived in the city of Ephesus. Here they visited the tomb of Saint John the Evangelist. They then continued on to Patara in Lycia, where they waited out the winter, and then travelled to Mount Chelidonium (a promontory of the Taurus Mountains into the Mediterranean, aka Hiera Akra or Cape Sacrum), almost dying of hunger and thirst as they attempted to cross.

They departed by boat and arrived on the island of Cyprus. Following a stay in Cyprus they reached Antadoros (now called Tartus) where they had an audience with a Greek bishop and visited the church of Saint John the Baptist. It was here that his severed head was housed as a relic for pilgrims.

Holy Land[edit]

Willibald's journey then took him and a group of seven companions to Palestine (c. 723/24 - 726/27). There he visited the pilgrimage sites in Galilee (Nazareth, Cana, Mount Tabor), travelled around the Sea of Galilee to Tiberias, Magdala, Capharnaum, Bethsaida and the site of the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac), then went up to the springs of the Jordan River) and to Caesarea Philippi. Turning south he walked down to several sites in the lower Jordan Valley - the traditional site of the baptism of Jesus (today's Al-Maghtas/Qasr el Yahud), Galgala and Jericho.

Willibald arrived in Jerusalem on 11 November, 725, and prayed at various holy sites - the Church of the Resurrection with the Calvary and the tomb of Jesus; Solomon's Porch, also known as the Pool of Bethesda; a pillar with a cross in front of a city gate "where the Jews attempted to take away the body of our Lady"; the tomb of the Virgin Mary; the Garden of Gethsemane; and the Church of the Ascension on Mount Olivet.

The pilgrimage continued to Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity, Thecua, the Great Lavra of St Sabbas, the church at the spot where Philip the Evangelist baptised the Ethiopian eunuch, the port city of Gaza, Hebron, Saint George's hometown of Lydda, Joppa, Tyre and Sidon, Sebaste and other places in Samaria, Ptolemais, and again reached Tyre by ways of the Ladder of Tyre.

Return voyage: Constantinople[edit]

After waiting for some time in Tyre, Willibald was able to find a ship and he sailed for the entirety of the winter until reaching the city of Constantinople. He remained in Constantinople for some two years (c. 726/27–729) and was provided with a small room in an annex of the Church of the Holy Apostles. He spent part of this time in Nicaea, visiting a church and studying documents from the First Council of Nicaea that was arranged by Emperor Constantine.


Afterwards, he left Constantinople and sailed for Sicily arriving in Naples approximately seven years after he had left Italy and ten years since he had left his native country.

Monte Cassino[edit]

Willibald was sent to the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, and Willibald and his remaining companion, Tidbercht, immediately joined the Benedictine community. It was here that Willibald taught the community about his journeys and religious discipline. He would spend over ten years (c. 729–739) at Monte Cassino and another local Benedictine monastery where he served roles as, "sacrist, dean, and porter."[8] According to David Farmer, his new-found monasticism was drastically shaped by his experiences in both England and Palestine, allowing him to play a major role in the reformation and future prosperity of the monastery.[9]

Journey to Rome and commissioning by Pope Gregory III[edit]

At some point Willibald's abbot, Petronax, was requested to come to Rome. Willibald accompanied the abbot since he had already made the journey on several occasions. He took Petronax to Saint Peter's Basilica, and when Pope Gregory III heard of his presence he requested a private audience with Willibald so he could hear of his journeys firsthand. Willibald recounted his seven-year pilgrimage to the Pontiff and afterwards, the Pope asked Willibald, at the request of Saint Boniface, to travel to the country of the Franks, possibly due to Boniface's desire to missionise the Slavs.[10] Petronax granted Willibald permission to leave and Willibald then travelled to Germany.

Eichstätt, ordination, and missionary work[edit]

The Willibaldsburg above Eichstätt

Upon arriving in the region he was sent to Eichstätt at the request of Saint Boniface, a rural area with nothing but a small church dominating the landscape. It was here that he was ordained a priest by Boniface and was asked to begin missionary work in the area. Willibald lived in the church and began his missionary effort, but his was summoned again by Boniface a year later, this time to Thuringia. While travelling Willibald encountered his brother, Winibald, whom he had not seen for over eight years.

It was in Thuringia that he was consecrated to the episcopate, becoming Bishop Willibald at the age of forty-one. Shortly thereafter he returned to Eichstätt to begin his work. In 742 he founded the double abbey of Heidenheim am Hahnenkamm, a male and female monastery, with his brother Winibald, who served as the monastery's first abbot. Following his death, Willibald's sister, Saint Walburga, was appointed the first abbess of the monastery.[11]

Willibald's missionary style is unique when compared to traditional methods. Unlike earlier missionaries, Willibald did not seem actively go about proselytising and baptising. His journeys to Asia Minor and the Holy Land were for personal reasons as he attempted to grow in his faith and spirituality. He was, nevertheless, a successful missionary. The account of his life was widely distributed and the regions he visited inspired and converted many. This enabled a larger scale conversion even though Winibald did not meet most of the individuals.

According to Bunson, Eichstätt was the site of Willibald's most successful missionary efforts, although specific details like the means of conversion and number of converts are not known.[8] The monastery was one of the first buildings in the region and served as an important centre, "not only for the diocesan apostolate, but also for the diffusion and development of monasticism."[12] Wilibald served as the bishop of the region in Franconia for over four decades, living in the monastery and entertaining visitors throughout Europe who would come to hear of his journey and monasticism.


  1. ^ Huneberc, and C. H. Talbot. "Hodoeporicon of Saint Willibald." Soldiers of Christ : Saints and Saint's Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Ed. Thomas F. Noble and Thomas Head. New York: Pennsylvania State UP, 1995.
  2. ^ Bunson, Matthew, Margaret Bunson, and Stephen Bunson, comps. "Willibald (c. 700–786)." Our Sunday Visitor's Encyclopedia of Saints. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 2003.
  3. ^ There is still uncertainty as to the exact relationship between the two persons, although Boniface is considered by most scholars to be either a uncle, cousin, or distant relative.
  4. ^ Traudel (7 June 2007). "June 7th – St. Willibald". Newsgroupalt.religion.christian.roman-catholic. Retrieved 23 December 2008.
  5. ^ Maier, Konstantin, "Willibald", in: Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Consulted online on 01 September 2018
  6. ^ Assumption based on the reading of the Hodoeporicon
  7. ^ Noble 150.
  8. ^ a b Bunson 858.
  9. ^ Farmer, David H., ed. "Willibald (Willebald) (d. 786/7)." The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. 2nd ed. 1987.
  10. ^ PD-icon.svg Mershman, F. (1913). "Sts. Willibald and Winnebald". In Herbermann, Charles. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  11. ^ Watkins, OSB, Dom B., ed. "Willibald, St." The Book of Saints: A Comprehensive Biographical Dictionary. Comp. The Benedictine Monks of Ramsgate. 7th ed. New York, NY: Continuum, 2002. 602.
  12. ^ Farmer 440.


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