23 Feb A Story from the Dark Ages: The English Princess Who Converted The Germans, Saint Walburga
February 25 (Benedictine) February 26 leap year, May 1 (Roman Martyrology)
Today is the feast day of Saint Walburga. Ora pro nobis.
by Michael Durnan
When the mists covering that faraway time blow aside for an instant, we get a tantalizing glimpse of life in the ‘dark ages,’ when Walburga was born into a royal family of saints.
Daughter of St. Richard, King of Wessex, and his wife, Queen Winna (sister of St. Boniface), Princess Walburga, along with her uncle and two brothers, Willibald and Winnebald, made enormous contributions to the conversion of the Germanic peoples to Christianity in the eighth century AD.
On departing Wessex for Rome on a pilgrimage, King Richard entrusted his 11-year-old daughter to the care of the abbess of Wimborne, whilst he journeyed to Rome with Walburga’s two brothers. After her first year in the abbey, Walburga received the devastating news of her father’s death in Lucca, Italy.
The abbey nuns educated Walburga, and she later joined the community as a sister. During the twenty-six years Walburga lived in the abbey, her uncle, Boniface, was engaged in his great mission to convert the pagan Germanic tribes. (For more about St Boniface, see here.)
Such was the magnitude of this undertaking that St. Boniface realised the long-term success of his mission would require as much help and support as he could muster. Boniface was one of the first missionaries to call women to missionary work, and Walburga, along with a large group of nuns, was sent from Wessex to assist him.
On the sea voyage to the continent the weather the ship was caught in a fierce storm. Walburga knelt down on the deck and prayed for the storm to end, and for the safe passage of the ship. At once the storm abated and the sea became calm. On disembarking, the sailors proclaimed they had witnessed a miracle. As a result, Walburga was received with joy and veneration.
Upon arriving in Mainz, she was welcomed by her uncle, Boniface, and her brother, Willibald. She then departed to Wurttemburg and Franconia to assist in the conversion of the Germans.
In 776 AD, Walburga fell ill and Willibald assisted her in her last moments. She was buried next to her deceased brother, St. Winibald, and many wonders and miracles were wrought at both tombs. St. Willibald lived another ten years. After his death, devotion to Walburga declined and her tomb was neglected.
In 870 AD, Oktar, Bishop of Eichstadt, set out to restore her tomb and the monastery where she was buried. Whilst the restoration work was being undertaken, workmen desecrated her tomb. She appeared one night to the bishop, reproaching him. This episode led to the translation of her remains to Eichstadt, where they were placed in the Church of the Holy Cross, now renamed after her.
Whilst the restoration work was being undertaken, workmen desecrated her tomb. She then appeared one night to the bishop, reproaching him.
In 893 her tomb was opened to extract relics and it was found that her remains were immersed in precious oil that since then has continued to flow. Portions of her relics have been taken to Cologne and Antwerp, as well as to other places.
In the Roman Martyrology her feast is listed as 1 May, and in Germany the previous evening is known as Walpurgis Night. Because Walburga was canonized on 1 May (ca. 870), she became associated with May Day festivities, especially in the Finnish and Swedish calendars. In the Benedictine Breviary her feast is assigned to 25 (in leap year 26) Feb. She is represented in the Benedictine habit with a little phial or bottle; as an abbess with a crozier, a crown at her feet, denoting her royal birth; sometimes she is represented in a group with St. Philip and St. James the Less, and St. Sigismund, King of Burgundy, because she is said to have been canonized by Pope Adrian II on 1 May, the festival of these saints.
Patroness of Eichstadt, Oudenarde, Furnes, Antwerp, Groningen, Weilburg, and Zutphen, sailors also invoke St Walburga’s intercession against storms.
In the Roman Martyrology, Walburga’s feast is listed as 1 May, and in Germany the previous evening is known as Walpurgis Night.
(Editor’s Note: The author’s home, Preston, Lancashire, in northwest England, boasts a beautiful Catholic Church dating from the 19th century, dedicated to the Saint as patroness.)
[i] A double monastery is a single institution that joins a separate community of monks and one of nuns.
[ii] Quoted in The Catholic Encyclopaedia, New Advent: 1917 (on-line version)