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Saint Willibrord (c.657 - c.738) was an English missionary, known as the Apostle to the Frisians in modern Netherlands.

Bishop of Utrecht, Apostle of the Frisians, and son of St. Hilgis , born in Northumbria, 658; died at Echternach, Luxembourg, November 7, 739.

His father, Wilgils or St. Hilgis , an Angle or, as Alcuin styles him, a Saxon, of Northumbria, withdrew from the world and constructed for himself a little oratory dedicated to St Andrew. The king and nobles of the district endowed him with estates till he was at last able to build a church, over which Alcuin afterwards ruled.

A disciple of St. Wilfrid, he was sent to the Abbey of Ripon almost as soon as he was weaned. Later he joined the Benedictines. He spent the years between the ages of 20 and 32 in the Abbey of Rathmelsigi (identified by some as Mellifont in County Louth) Ireland, which was a center of European learning in the 7th century. During this time he studied under St. Egbert, who sent him and twelve companions to Christianize the pagan North Germanic tribes of Frisia, at the request of Pepin, Christian king of the Franks and nominal suzerain over that region. At the request of Pepin he traveled twice to Rome, finally being consecrated Bishop of the Frisians in the Church of St. Cecilia . It was November 21, 695 and he was given the name of Clement. He was also given the pallium by the pope. He returned to Frisia to preach and to build numerous churches, among them a monastery at Utrecht, where he established his cathedral and is counted the first Bishop of Utrecht. In 698 he established an abbey at a Roman villa of Echternach, in Luxemburg near Trier, which was presented to him by Irmina , daughter of Dagobert II, king of the Franks.

In 716 the pagan Radbod, king of the Frisians, retook possession of Frisia, burning churches and killing many missionaries.

After the death of Radbod in 719, Willibrord returned to resume his work, aided by St. Boniface. His frequent visits to the Abbey of Echternach resulted in his being interred there after his passing, and he was quickly judged to be a saint. His feast is celebrated on November 7 outside of England, but on November 29 in England, by order of pope Leo XIII.

Numerous miracles and relics have been attributed to him, and in one particularly memorable moment, the transport of his relics was celebrated thusly "the Five bishops in full pontificals assisted; engaged in the dance were 2 Swiss guards, 16 standard-bearers, 3045 singers, 136 priests, 426 musicians, 15,085 dancers, and 2032 players" (Studien u. Mittheilungen, 1906, p. 551).

A Life was written by Alcuin and dedicated to the Abbot of Echternach. Alcuin probably made use of an older one written by a British monk, which is now lost. Bede also makes mention of Willibrord. Nothing written by Willibrord can be found save a marginal note in the Calendar of Echternach giving some chronological data. A copy of the Gospels (Bibliothèque National, Paris, 9389) under the name of Willibrord is an Irish codex no doubt brought by Willibrord from Ireland.

The Dancing Procession at Echternach

Willibrord's Abbey of Echternach was a major center in the Middle Ages, which preserved a famous library and scriptorium, but it owes its modern fame to the curious dancing procession which takes place annually on Whit Tuesday , in honor of St. Willibrord. This aspect of the cult of the saint may be traced back almost to the date of his death; among the stream of pilgrims to his tomb in the abbey church have been Emperors Lothair I, Conrad, and later Maxmilian (in 1512).

Catholic historians are reticent about ascribing any pre-Christian antecedents to the dancing procession and claim only that its origin cannot be stated with certainty. A neutral observer, without denigrating the event in the least, may recognize elements of pagan cult, such as the ones that were criticized by Saint Eligius in the 7th century. Documents of the fifteenth century speak of it as a long-established custom at that time, and a similar "dancing" procession, which used to take place in the small town of Prüm in the Eifel, was documented as early as 1342. Legends are referred to that relate the dancing procession to averted plague or offer a fable about a condemned fiddler, but the dancing procession to the saint's tomb is an annual ceremony done as an act of penance on behalf of afflicted relations and especially in order to avert epilepsy, St. Vitus's dance, or convulsions. The event begins in the morning at the bridge over the Sure, with a sermon by the parish priest (formerly by the abbot of the monastery); after this the procession moves towards the basilica, through the town's streets, a distance of about 1.5 kilometres. Three steps forward are taken, then two back, so that five steps are required in order to advance one pace. The results is that it is well after midday before the last of the dancers has reached the church. They go four or five abreast, holding each other by the hand or arm. Many bands accompany them, playing a traditional melody which has been handed down for centuries. A large number of priests and religious also accompany the procession, and not infrequently there are several bishops as well. On arrival at the church, the dance is continued around the tomb of St. Willibrord, which stands in the crypt beneath the high altar. Litanies and prayers in his honor are recited, and the whole concludes with a benediction of the sacrament.

In the past, the Dancing Procession has adopted other forms. At one time, the pilgrims would repeatedly stop at the sound of the bell donated by Emperor Maximilian, falling to their knees before moving forward a few more steps. At another time, pilgrims would crawl under a stone, facing the cross of St. Willibrord. A "cattle-bell dance" used to take place in front of the cross, which was erected on the marketplace; this dance was prohibited in 1664.

Echternach's Dancing Procession attracts tourists and pilgrims. The procession took place annually without intermission until 1777. There has been an uneasy relationship with the church hierarchy: in 1777, the music and dancing of the "dancing saints" were forbidden by Archbishop Wenceslas who declared that there should only be a pilgrim's procession, and in 1786 Emperor Joseph II abolished the procession altogether. Attempts were made to revive it ten years later, and though the French Revolution effectually prevented it, it was recommenced in 1802 and has continued ever since. In 1826 the Government tried to change the day to a Sunday, but since 1830 it has always taken place on Whit Tuesday, a traditional day, which, significantly, bears no direct relation to St. Willibrord himself.

External links


Catholic Encyclopedia, 1908: Willibrord; Echternach, Abbey of
Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1911

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