Saint Wynnebald (702-18 December 768), generation 43 cousin-uncle
(aka Winnibald, Winibald, Winebald, Wunebald, Wunibald) Anglo-Saxon English prince, pilgrim, and missionary abbot in Germany.
Prince Saint Wynnebald was one of three children born to King Saint Richard (d722), an under-king of Wessex (West Saxons, England), and his co-ruler, Queen Saint Wynne (Wunna, d740), who was a sister of Saint Boniface (born Wynfryth, c675-754), West-Saxon missionary Archbishop of Mainz in Germany.
Wynnebald’s sister was Saint Walpurga (c710-779) and his brother was Saint Willibald (c700-787); the nun Hygeburg (Huneberc, Hugeburc), famous as a traveler and author of a joint biography of the brothers and their saintly family, was a cousin.
In 721, when Wynnebald was about 19, his parents abdicated their thrones to go on a pilgrimage and retire in Rome. Leaving their 11 year old daughter Walpurga to the care of an abbey convent school, the former king and queen set sail for France with their two sons. The party traveled slowly, spending a great deal of time praying at many pilgrimage sites along their route. In Lucca, northern Italy, Richard died suddenly of a fever and was buried there in the Irish-founded abbey church. The former king’s tomb quickly became a shrine known throughout Europe as Richard already had been regarded as a living saint. His widow and sons continued on to Rome where Queen Saint Wynne settled and eventually died in 740.
This part of Wynnebald’s family story is part of a pattern prevalent in their time and land. About thirty-three years before the family had left for Rome, the high king of Wessex, St Cædwalla (c. 659 –689) had also abdicated in order to be baptized in Rome by the Pope and then retire into a monastery there. He had died within a few days, still wearing his white baptismal gowns and was soon canonized a saint. Five years after Richard and Wynne abdicated, St Ine and St Æthelburg, Cædwalla’s successors as co-ruling high king and queen of Wessex, also abdicated and journeyed to Rome where they settled and eventually died.
With their mother St Wynne duly settled in Rome, the two brothers, Wynnebald and Willibald, spent some time further traveling in Italy, visiting and studying in monasteries. Willibald, a year or two older than Wynnebald, had spend most his childhood and youth as a monastic scholar in Wessex. When he was three years old his parents had promised to dedicate him to the religious life if he recovered from a near fatal illness in answer to their prayers. Now, in Italy, both brothers became ill with the Black Plague. This episode was later recorded by their cousin, the nun Hygeburg, based on Willibald’s oral account:
“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.”
The brothers eventually fully recovered from the illness and shortly thereafter traveled to the Holy Land, approximately three years after first having left England.
Along the way, they visited Sicily and Greece. At Ephesus they visited the tomb of St John the Evangelist, and at Patara, where they waited out the winter, they visited the shrines of St Nicholas (c280-343). At one point, while crossing a mountain range they almost died of hunger and thirst, but were able to continue, eventually sailing to Cyprus, then to Tartus near the Syrian coast, where they visited the pilgrim church of St John the Baptist. Here the saint’s severed head was enshrined as a sacred relic.
After spending some time in Jerusalem, Wynnebald became ill again and returned to Rome without Willibald who stayed on in the East for the next several years. In Rome Wynnebald recovered, and then spent the next seven years living and studying there in a monastery.
In 730 he visited his native England, returning later that year with a group of fellow Wessex men and women who wished to join him in the monastic life in Rome. Nine years later, he accepted a request from his uncle St Boniface to join the missionary work among the pagan Saxons of Germany, bringing with him some of the English monks and nuns he earlier had brought back with him to Rome.
Boniface ordained Wynnebald to the priesthood and for many years Wynnebald worked with his uncle’s mission to the Saxons. In the meantime, his brother Willibald had spent many years in continued travels before establishing a church and monastery in Eichstatt, Holland as the area’s first missionary bishop and founding abbot.
Wynnebald joined Willibald at Eichstatt for some years, then together in 752, the brothers established a double monastery and abbey church at Heidenheim am Hahnenkamm in Germany. There they were joined by their sister Saint Walpurga who was made abbess of the nuns while Wynnebald became abbot of the men. Portions of their sainted parents’ relics were translated to Heidenheim and to Willibald’s abbey church in Eichstatt. Both abbeys thereafter became popular pilgrimage sites for the cultus of St Richard and St Wynne. In spite of limited success among the local pagan population, Wynnebald and Walpurga succeeding in leading their double monastery during the years in which it went from an obscure frontier outpost to becoming one of the leading ecclesiastical centers in Germany.
Saint Wynnebald died in 768 and Walpurga then served as Abbess both of the nuns and the monks of their double abbey. Saint Wulpurga died there in 777 or 779 while Saint Willibald, the eldest of the three holy siblings, lived on as abbot-bishop at Eichstatt until 787. Before Willibald died he recounted to their cousin, the well-traveled nun Hygeburg, the narrative of his long life and his own many adventures as a decades-long wandering monastic pilgrim throughout much of Christian West Asia and Europe.
Eighteen years after St Wynnebald’s death, when his crypt at Heidenheim was opened to gather his relics, his body was found to be incorrupt.
St Wynnebald’s iconography sometimes depicts him together with his parents and siblings, holding his abbot’s staff, and a bricklayer’s trowel, signifying the churches and abbey he built.
He is a patron saint of construction workers and engaged couples.