01 March 2019

Saint Swiðberht of Kaiserswerth, Apostle to the Frisians

Saint Swiðberht of Kaiserswerth

In the Balkans, particularly in Bulgaria, today is traditionally the day of Baba Marta (‘Grandmother March’), when Bulgarians give each other red-and-white tokens or dolls made of string and wood called ‘martenitsi’ which are to be worn throughout the month – or until someone sees a stork or a sparrow, migratory birds that fly north back to the Balkans in spring. Baba Marta – a figure of Slavic folklore who is equal parts merry and menacing – is said to chase away February and to wipe the slate clean for the new year. It is thus worthwhile to try to keep on her good side. The tradition of Grandmother March and the martenitsi dates back to antiquity, and some hold it to date back to the founding of the First Bulgarian Empire in 681.

As coincidence would have it, even as the very first comings of Grandmother March were being celebrated by the still-heathen Bulghar khaghan Asparukh in the southeast of Europe, far to the northwest on the North Sea coast Redbod became King of the Frisians, who attempted to suppress Christianity within his borders. A number of missionary saints were subsequently sent among the Frisians from neighbouring realms (particularly England); chief among them Saint Ecgberht of Ripon. Having travelled the North Sea coast himself and being prevented from teaching the Gospel there, and his companion Saint Wihtberht’s efforts there having come to little fruit, he then sent Saint Willibrord and his eleven companions – among whom numbered Saint Æþelberht of Egmond and Saint Swiðberht of Kaiserswerdt, whose feast just so happens to fall on our Chestita Baba Marta today.

Saint Swiðberht, a native of Northumbria, became a monk early in life and travelled to Ireland to study under the elder Saint Ecgberht, who was then residing temporarily at Rath Melsigi. He was renowned particularly for his humility; Saint Bede describes him as ‘modest in his ways and humble-hearted’. He was chosen, presumably nolo efiscofari, as bishop among his brethren and consecrated in 693 by the bishop-in-exile Saint Wilfrið of York. Here is what Saint Bede has to say about Saint Swiðberht’s missionary work:
When he had been made bishop, Swiðberht returned from Britain, and shortly afterwards went to the Boructuars, many of whom he guided into the way of truth by his teaching. But after a short while, the Boructuars were defeated by the Old Saxons, and those who had accepted the word of God were scattered. The bishop himself went with certain others to Pepin, who at the request of his wife Bliþryda, gave them a place of residence on an island in the Rhine, which in their language is called Inlitore [Düsseldorf-Kaiserswerth]. Here he established a monastery, which is still occupied by his successors, and after leading a most austere life for some while, he ended his days there.
The relics of Saint Swiðberht were discovered still at rest in Kaiserswerth in 1626, and they are still venerated by the Christians of Germany, of whose country he is a patron.

Allow me to briefly remark upon another note of historical coincidence connecting Bulgaria with Saxony. Saint Swiðberht is known for his patient missionary efforts to the Frisians, to the Bructeri and to the Saxons – some of which bore fruit at once, and others of which did not. Ultimately, the Saxons were forcibly and brutally Christianised by the Franks. This action in fact influenced the Christianisation of Bulgaria under Saint Boris, who suddenly found his own lands – the lands of the Slavs – pressured by the newly-conquered folk of the Franks, the people to whom Saint Swiðberht had preached, who spoke Frisian and Saxon. Another threat from the west was Rastislav of Moravia, who under the influence of Saints Cyril and Methodius had converted to Christianity in the Byzantine Rite and allied himself with Constantinople. Though Saint Boris’s conversion was indeed genuine and far less grudging than that of the Saxon nobility, it was under these admittedly-adverse gæopolitical circumstances that Saint Boris of Bulgaria did choose to convert to Christianity himself. In an indirect way, then, Saint Swiðberht seems to have contributed to the incorporation of the Slavic rites of March into the Christian world.

Holy Father Swiðberht, pray to Christ our God that our souls may be saved!


  1. Where are you finding all these great German icons? This one and the one of St Walburga are beautiful.

  2. Hi gyrovague! Welcome to the blog!

    The site Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries actually has two great sections on the pre-Schismatic Western saints: one for the British Isles and one for the rest of Western Europe. I've been getting a lot of them from there. Usually if I have a particular saint I want to find but can't find him or her on OODE, I'll just go on Pinterest and do an image search. It's surprising how much good iconic material they have!