Willibrord (657/8–739) of Ráith Melsigi, was probably of Northumbrian aristocratic family; his mother gave him his name, while his father, Wilgils, subsequently offered him to the monastery of Ripon in Northumberland, then ruled by Wilfrid (a relative?), later bishop of York (d. 709). In 678, when aged 20, and possibly arising from the expulsion of Wilfrid from his episcopal see in that year, Willibrord went to Ireland, to the monastery of Ráith Melsigi (Clonmelsh, Co. Carlow), then ruled by Ecgberct (qv), another Northumbrian nobleman much talked about by Bede; a family connection may be surmised, but cannot be proven. Willibrord was possibly related to Haemgils, also mentioned by Bede (‘Historia ecclesiastica’, v, 12) as still alive (adhuc superest) in his time (731), ‘living in solitude in Ireland’.
Following his survival of the great plague of 664, Ecgberct had conceived a plan to take the gospel to the Old Saxon peoples of the Continent. When his plans were twice frustrated by divine intervention, he chose instead another member of the Ráith Melsigi community, Uuictberct, who crossed to Frisia probably in 684/5; after two years of fruitless effort, however, Uuictberct returned to Ráith Melsigi. Undaunted, Ecgberct chose another companion, Willibrord, and in 690, accompanied by twelve others of the community, Willibrord travelled ‘across the seas to Francia’ (ultra mare in Francia, as he himself wrote in an autobiographical note). A brief entry in the margin of the November page of the manuscript known as the ‘Calendar of Willibrord’ (Paris, BN lat. 10837, f. 39v), dated 728, is believed to be Willibrord's own autograph; it is the oldest known dateable example of English handwriting. It is also the earliest example of AD-dating by a writer from Ireland or Britain. It records his journey to Francia in 690 (his thirty-third year), and his ordination as archbishop (of Utrecht) by Pope Sergius I in Rome in 695, when he was given the name of Clemens.
It may have been c.700 that Willibrord journeyed to Denmark, bringing back thirty Danish boys, whom he baptised, presumably with the intention of establishing a seminary for future missionaries to the still pagan Scandinavian countries; in this he was premature. Twin features of Willibrord's missionary activity, however, were his close association with the family of the Frankish mayor of the palace, Pippin II, and his wife Plectrude (the early Carolingians) and his formal connection with the papacy (as witnessed by his ordination in 695). The initial successes and failures of the Anglo-Saxon mission in the region of the lower Rhine delta were closely tied up with Frankish military and political fortunes. Grudging acquiescence in their activities by the Frisian duke, Radbod, ended with the death of Pippin in 714, when everything was swept away by a Frisian revolt. The position was stabilised only after Radbod's death in 719. St Boniface (‘apostle of the Germans’) had joined Willibrord in 716, but returned almost immediately to England after the setback to the Frisian mission. It may have been in imitation of Willibrord that he set out for Rome in 718 to seek papal approval for a mission of his own in Germania. To that end, he declined Willibrord's offer in 721 to apppoint him as his successor to the see of Utrecht.
In 698, shortly after his return from Rome, Willibrord was given the estate of Echternach, near Trier, by Pippin's mother-in-law Irmina (his principal benefactor). The survival of almost all the earliest charters of land grants to the monastery (in a twelfth-century chartulary) indicates that Echternach was one of the most richly endowed houses of the eighth century. It is also unique in that a very large number of its early manuscripts survived; they are amongst the most important witnesses to the development of Irish and insular script in this period. An early Echternach manuscript (Paris, BN lat. 10399, c. 700) has the oldest known ink glosses in Old Irish. Willibrord was clearly joined at Echternach both by Anglo-Saxons and by Irishmen who had belonged to his community at Ráith Melsigi.
An early biography (‘Vita’) of Willibrord written apparently by one such Irish member of the community ‘in rustic language’ (rustico sermone), though still extant in the twelfth century, has, unfortunately, not survived. In its place we have an opus geminatum, the ‘Vita Willibrordi’ composed in prose and in verse c.795 by Alcuin, another famous Northumbrian, who was actually related to Willibrord (he inherited the chapel built by Willibrord's father Wilgils). Alquin states that he was commissioned to compile an account of Willibrord's life (vita), habits (mores), and miracles (miracula) by Abbot Beornrad of Echternach (d. 797), who was also a relative of Willibrord. It is a wretchedly inadequate piece of work, which tells us next to nothing about the saint. Willibrord's life and career have to be reconstructed from other evidence. His correspondence is lost, but the calendar that was his still survives, and anecdotes concerning him were recorded by Bede, who clearly thought highly of him. He has recently been suggested as the author of a penitential handbook, which, if correct, reflects a more sympathetic personality than the irascible Boniface. He founded a new province of the church in Frisia, and may have been responsible for the introduction of coadjutor bishops (chorepiscopi) into the Frankish church.