St. Frederic, Bishop of Utrecht, Martyr
HE was descended of a most illustrious family among the Frisons, and according to the author of his life, was great grandson to Radbod, king of that country, before it was conquered by the French. He was trained up in piety and sacred literature among the clergy of the church of Utrecht. His fasts and other austerities were excessive, and his watchings in fervent prayer were not less inimitable. Being ordained priest, he was charged by Bishop Ricfrid with the care of instructing the catechumens, and that good prelate dying in 820, he was chosen the eighth bishop of Utrecht from St. Willibrord. 1 The holy man, with many tears, before the clergy and people, declared, in moving terms, his incapacity and unworthiness, but by the authority of the Emperor Lewis Debonnaire was compelled to submit. He therefore repaired to his metropolitan, the archbishop of Mentz, and at Aix-la-Chapelle received the investiture by the ring and crosier, and was consecrated by the bishops, in presence of the emperor, who zealously recommended to him the extirpation of the remains of idolatry in Friesland. The new bishop was met by the clergy and others of his church, and by them honourably conducted from the Rhine to Utrecht. He immediately applied himself to establish everywhere the best order, and sent zealous and virtuous labourers into the northern parts, to root out the relics of idolatry which still subsisted there. 1
Charlemagne, by treating with severity the conquered Frisons and Saxons, had alienated their minds from his empire; but upon his death in 814, Lewis his son, whom he had made in his own life-time king of Aquitain, came to the empire, by excluding his little nephew Bernard, king of Italy, grandson of Pepin, elder brother to this Lewis, whom their father made king of Italy, but who died in 810, leaving that kingdom to his son and grandson both named Bernard. Lewis upon his accession to the throne eased the Saxons of their heavy taxes, and showed them so much lenity that he gained their hearts to the empire for ever, and, from his courtesy and from this and other actions of clemency surnamed The Debonnaire, or the Gracious. He lost his queen Irmingarde, who died at Angiers in 818, by whom he had three sons, Lothaire, Pepin, and Lewis. The first he made king of Italy, 2 the second king of Aquitain, and Lewis king of Bavaria; reserving to himself the rest of Bavaria and France. In 819 he married Judith, daughter of Guelph, count of Aldorff, by whom he had Charles the Bald, afterwards emperor and king of France. She was an ambitious and wanton woman; her adulteries gave great scandal to the people, and her overbearing insolence and continual intrigues embroiled the state, and drove the three eldest sons into open rebellion against their father. 3 Nothing can excuse the methods to which these unnatural princes had recourse, under pretence of remedying the public disorders, which sprang from the weakness of their father, and the malice of a hated mother-in-law. But the scandals of her lewdness stirred up the zeal of our holy pastor to act the part of a second John the Baptist. The contemporary author of the life of Wala, abbot of Lorbie, who was deeply concerned in the secret transactions of that court, confidently charges her with incest and adultery with her relation and favourite minister, Bernard, count of Barcelona. The author of the life of St. Frederic says, her marriage with Lewis was incestuous, and within the forbidden degrees of affinity: but this circumstance could not have escaped the censure of her enemies; and from their silence is rejected by Mabillon and others as fabulous. 2
Whatever the scandals of her gallantries were, St. Frederic, the neighbourhood of whose see gave him free access to the court, then chiefly kept at Aix-la-Chapelle, admonished her of them with an apostolic freedom and charity, but without any other effect than that of drawing upon himself the fury and resentment of a second Jezebel, if we may believe the historians of that age. Our saint suffered also another persecution. The inhabitants of Wallacria, now called Walcharen, one of the principal islands of Zealand, belonging to the Netherlands, were of all others the most barbarous, and most averse to the maxims of the gospel. On which account St. Frederic, when he sent priests into the northern uncultivated provinces of his diocess, took this most dangerous and difficult part chiefly to himself; and nothing here gave him more trouble than the incestuous marriages contracted within the forbidden degrees, and the separation of the parties. To extirpate this inveterate evil he employed assiduous exhortations, tears, watching, prayer, and fasting; summoned an assembly of the principal persons of the island, and earnestly recommended the means to banish this abuse from among them, broke many such pretended marriages, and reconciled many persons who had done sincere penance to God and his church. He composed a prayer to the Blessed Trinity with an exposition of that adorable mystery against heresies, which for many ages was used in the Netherlands with great devotion. The reputation of his sanctity made him to be considered as one of the most illustrious prelates of the church, as appears from a poem of Rabanus Maurus, his contemporary, in praise of his virtue, published with notes among his poetical works, together with those of Fortunatus by F. Brower, S. J. 4 3
Whilst this holy pastor was intent only upon the duties of his charge, one day when he came from the altar having said mass, as he was going to kneel down in the chapel of St. John Baptist to perform his thanksgiving and other private devotions, he was stabbed in the bowels by two assassins. He expired in a few minutes, reciting that verse of the hundred and fourteenth psalm—I will please the Lord in the land of the living. The author of his life says these assassins were employed by the empress Judith, who could not pardon the liberty he had taken to reprove her incest. William of Malmesbury 5 and other historians assert the same; and this seems clearly to have been the true cause and manner of his martyrdom; William Heda, 6 Beka, 7 Emmius, 8 and many others confirm the same. Baronius in his annals, Mabillon, Le Cointe, and Baillet think these assassins were rather sent by some of the incestuous inhabitants of Wallacria, but this opinion is destitute of the authority of ancient historians. The martyr’s body was buried in the same church of St. Saviour, called Oude-Munster, at Utrecht. His death happened on the 17th July, 838, as Mabillon has proved. See the life of St. Frederic with the notes of Cuper the Bollandist, Julij, t. 4, p. 452, and Batavia Sacra, p. 99. Also Heda’s History of the Bishops of Utrecht, Beka, and Emmius. 4
Note 1. Utrecht was an archbishopric in the time of St. Willibrord, but from his death remained a bishopric subject first to Mentz, afterwards to Cologn, till, in the reign of Philip II., Paul IV. in 1559, restored the archbishoprics of Utrecht and Cambray, and erected Mechlin a third, with the dignity of primate. To Utrecht he subjected the new bishoprics of Haerlem, Middleburg, Deventer, Lewarden, and Groeningen; to Mechlin, those of Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges, Ipres, Bois-le-Duc and Ruremond; to Cambray, those of Arras and Tournay, with two new ones, St. Omer and Namur.
Note 2. He also gave him Austrasia, great part of which from that age has been called Lorrain, either from this Lothaire or rather his younger son of the same name, whom he left king of that country.
Note 3. Lewis left to her the management of all affairs, made her elder brother, Rodolph Guelph, governor of Bavaria, and her younger brother, Conrad, governor of Italy, and destined the best part of the kingdoms of Germany and France to Charles the Bald, the son which she bore him; to which dominions the sons by the first wife thought they had a prior claim. They, by an unjustifiable breach of their duty, twice took up arms against their father; first in 830, when the Empress Judith was banished to a nunnery in Gascony, and the emperor imprisoned; but he was soon released by the Germans, and recalled Judith and her two brothers. In the second rebellion, in 833, Lothaire, the eldest son, banished Judith to Verona in Italy, and shut up her son Charles in the abbey of Pruim, near Triers, and the weak emperor himself in the abbey of St. Medard’s at Soissons, after he had in an assembly of the states at Compeigne, basely confessed himself justly deposed from the empire, and guilty of the crimes which were laid to his charge. He was afterwards sent to the abbey of St. Deny’s near Paris, and there clothed with the habit of a monk; but soon after delivered by his two younger sons, Pepin and Lewis, and restored to his throne. Judith after all these disturbances so dexterously managed him that, at his death in 840, be left to her son Charles the monarchy of France.
Note 4. P. 204.
Note 5. L. 1, de gestis Pontif. Angl. p. 197.
Note 6. Hist. Episcop. Ultraj.
Note 7. Chron.
Note 8. Ubbo Emmius, Rerum Frisic. l. 3, p. 74.
The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Principal Saints, by Rev. Alban Butler (Metropolitan Press: Baltimore, 1845), Les Petits Bollandistes: Vies des Saints, by Msgr. Paul Guérin (Bloud et Barral: Paris, 1882)