Saxon Saints: St Leoba
A Faithful Kinswoman of St Boniface
Article supplied by Sr Beda Brooks OSB from the Abbey of St Walburga in Eichstätt, Germany
The beginning of the Golden Age of the English Church (669-c.735) was marked by the arrival in England of Archbishop Theodore, the erudite Asiatic Greek monk, and his establishment of the renowned Canterbury School. The magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels (c700) and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731) are among the many notable achievements of this Anglo Saxon Renaissance. During its latter decades St Leoba (c710-780) received her education in the kingdom of Wessex. The Apostle of Germany, St Boniface (c675-754), like his younger kinswoman, benefitted from these exhilarating developments as the level of scholarship in monasteries, including significantly some newly founded ‘princess ministers’, was rising steadily.
In 1965 the Vatican II Council Fathers defined ‘the kind of men and women so desperately needed by our age’ as ‘men and women not only of high culture but of great personality as well’ (Gaudium et Spes). Leoba possessed both qualities. Every age, not least of all our own, requires such people. On the one hand, a gigantic incoming tide of neo-paganism is discernible, while on the other, there exist positive signs of a new springtime of Christian life blossoming among those docile to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. The understanding which stems from a historical perspective can be a great healer for Christians seeking to strengthen their faith and their witness. The life of Leoba, sadly a largely forgotten saint in her native England, provides ‘the ointment of encouragement’ (RB28;3). She led others to the Lord ‘with cords of human kindness, with bands of love’ (Hos 11;6)
In the mid 730s Leoba, a young nun, wrote in a charming letter to Boniface:
“I am my parent’s only child, and though I am not worthy of so great a privilege, I would like to regard you as my brother, for there is no other member in my family in whom I can put my trust as I can in you,….. I wish to remind you of my lowly self, so that, in spite of the distance that separates us, you may not forget me but rather be knit more closely to me in the bond of true affection.” 1
She was not forgotten by her kinsman who in 735 described himself as an ‘old man worn out by troubles’ on the German Mission. 2 Most probably later in the decade he despatched letters to her abbess in the ‘princess minster’ of Wimborne (Dorset). Reluctantly she agreed to his request that Leoba be sent to aid the consolidation of his missionary work. Once in Germany he soon appointed her abbess over a large already existing community at Tauberbischofsheim on the River Tauber, a tributary of the Main. This ‘difficult and demanding burden’ (RB2:3) required her strength, but she started with certain advantages.
Leoba was already well educated. As a girl she had been placed in the strictly disciplined Wimborne monastery where her natural aptitude for learning had been encouraged as she toiled away faithfully at schoolroom tasks. It was a distinctive feature of Anglo Saxon society that nobility was so intent on the education of girls, and this certainly helps to explain the remarkable extent to which Boniface relied on the support of the Wessex nuns. Nothing comparable emerged until St Thomas Mores’ daughters became renowned for their learning during the sixteenth century Renaissance. As an adult, Leoba remained determined to improve her mind. Evidence of her scholarly enthusiasm is provided by that charming letter to Boniface which she concluded with four lines of her own Latin verse. 3.
Over the years she studied each book of the Bible, the Fathers of the Church, Council decrees and the complexities of ecclesiastical law. The scope of her learning bears comparison with that of many monks and priests who attended the Canterbury School. Her early ninth century biographer, Rudolf of Fulda wrote: “Through the combination of her reading with her quick intelligence, by natural gifts and hard work. She became extremely learned.” 4 Her scholarship and spirituality blended into a harmonious whole enabling her to face the challenge of evangelising distant kinfolk.
The spiritual life of Bischofsheim’s abbess was firmly rooted in love. This has been foreshadowed by her very name, Leoba, ‘the beloved’. The infant had been surrounded by the love of her parents and even of an old nurse who recommended to her mother that as Anna had offered Samuel to God she should offer Leoba. In Wimborne, she was above all ’intent on practising charity’ 5 and so came to be beloved by all. As she persevered unwaveringly in the quest for God and for purity of heart her spirituality took on the Christocentric form found in the Benedictine Rule with which Christ is the preferential option (RB 4:21 & 72:11). His cross, ‘the Tree of Splendour’, caught the imagination of and inspired many Anglo-Saxons as is reflected in their artistic and literary work. This is beautifully conveyed as the ‘Holy Tree’ speaks in A Dream of the Rood:
“Now I tower under heaven in glory attired with healing for all that hold me in awe. Of old I was once the most woeful of tortures, most hateful to all men, till I opened for them the true Way of Life.” 6
With serene fidelity Leoba travelled that narrow Way, carrying the cross carved for her daily by the All-wise God. Surely it may also be said that in Leoba’s soul humility and loyalty embraced one another. Simply ‘being’ the Lord’s humble handmaid was her aim for she had learnt that ‘every exultation is a kind of pride’ (RB7:2) Thus Rudolf of Fulda tells us:
“She preserved the virtue of humility with such care that, though she had been appointed to govern others because of her holiness and wisdom, she believed in her heart that she was the least of all. This she showed both in her speech and behaviour. “7
Her loyal and affectionate relationship with Boniface was based not only on her profound respect for him as a great bishop fully supported by the Papacy but also, significantly for an Anglo-Saxon, on her mother being his kinswoman. Realising how much he needed her assistance, loyalty for her was a cardinal principle. Seeing lions rampant in the German Mission his letter to the able Bishop Daniel of Winchester summarised his plight:
“To quote the Apostle, all is conflict without and anxiety within; in my case are also conflicts within and anxiety without. This is caused in particular by false priests and hypocrites who set God at defiance. “8 .
In this context the faithful service of his courageous kinswoman may be the better evaluated. When overcome by frailty some two decades after his martyrdom she still supported other evangelisers with ever more intense prayer.
The dynamism of Leoba’s witness arose from her own self- evangelisation. Her particular charisma was that of encouraging spiritual development. As a strong character with a delightful personality she acquired real skill in forming her nuns who learnt to draw strength from the Eucharistic sacrifice, the Liturgy of the Hours and lectio devina, deep meditative reading of the Scriptures. Each was a powerful weapon with which to confront the resilient nature of pagan forces in society. Gifted with ‘discretion, the mother of virtues’ (RB62;19), her guidance was characterised by its great moderation. ‘Deeply aware of the necessity for the concentration of mind in prayer and study’ 9 , she made motherly arrangements; no sister was permitted to stay up late and all were required to rest after the summer midday meal. Her compassionate labouring yielded an amazingly rich harvest with one of her nuns being the abbess in virtually every monastery in the region. Her influence even extended west of the Rhine. Charlemagne who, decades before his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor (800), saw himself as the defender of the faith in western Europe, frequently summoned her to court where Queen Hildegard received guidance from one overflowing with spiritual vitality. At Aachen she met bishops of the Frankish Church within which Boniface had initiated major reforms in the 740’s. Respecting his kinswoman’s holiness and wide experience, they gladly discussed ‘spiritual matters and ecclesiastical discipline with her’. 10 and this brought her into contact with the very beginnings of the Carolingian Renaissance. Sometimes she visited Fulda, Boniface’s foundation (744) where she prayed and conversed with the monks, an honour granted to no other woman.
On 28th September 780 Leoba died shortly after visiting the court and in that same year Alcuin of York arrived. By spreading the learning of the latter part of the Golden Age of the English Church, the age of Bede, he played a significant part in the development of the Carolingian Renaissance. Leoba was buried in Fulda close to Boniface, though not as he had wished in his own grave. It is her glory that, loving tenderly and serving steadfastly all the days of her life, she had won many souls for Christ, the king of virtues.
- C.H.Talbot, trans, & ed The Anglo Saxon Missionaries in Germany (Sheed & Ward, 1954) Letter 17, p87
- Ibid., Letter 20, p90
- Ibid., Letter 17, p88
- Ibid., The Life of Saint Leoba by Rudolf, Monk of Fulda, p215
- Ibid., p211
- C.W.Kennedy, trans.& ed, Early Christian Poetry (Oxford,1963) p95
- C.H.Talbot, trans & ed, The Anglo Saxon Missionaries in Germany (Sheed & Ward,1954 ) The Life of Saint Leoba by Rudolf, Monk of Fulda, p216
- Ibid., Letter 30 p116 (estimated date 742-6) see also the Liturgy of Hours, office of readings, 5 June St Boniface
- Ibid The Life of Saint Leoba by Rudolf, Monk of Fulda, p215
- Ibid p223