The Death of St. Boniface
Before he died, Charles the Hammer divided the kingdom between his two sons, Pepin and Carloman.
Charles had trained his sons to love their country better than themselves, and they worked together for the good of their people, undisturbed by a single jealous thought.
But at the end of six years Carloman grew tired of his share of the task. Knowing that Pepin was able to rule alone, he had his royal locks shorn and entered a monastery, where he was heard of no more.
Pepin was a little man, so his people called him Pepin the Short. But though he was little he had the great gift of courage, and in spite of his small body he was unusually strong.
It is said that soon after his fathers death he gave proof of his great strength. The Franks were one day gathered in great numbers round an arena or open space, to watch a cruel combat between two savage beasts. It was their chief amusement to watch such sport, and Duke Pepin was among the spectators.
A lion had just sprung upon a bull and brought it to the ground, when Pepin rose to his feet, and, pointing to the beasts, cried aloud to the Franks, "Which of you will dare to separate them?"
No one answered the terrible challenge. Then Pepin himself sprang into the arena, and fought both the lion and the bull.
The Franks looked on in horror, expecting every moment that Pepin would be torn to pieces. But he overpowered both the savage beasts, and then, tossing away his sword he cried, "Am I worthy to be your king? " And the rough warriors, to whom kingship meant little save such bravery and strength as Pepin had just shown, shouted aloud that he was worthy.
For ten years Pepin the Short ruled as Mayor of the Palace, the last of the sluggard kings still sitting on the throne where Pepin himself had placed him after the death of Charles the Hammer.
But at the end of ten years Pepin began to think that there was no reason why he should not be king in name as well as in deed.
So he sent to the Pope, who in those days had power over kings, to ask if he, Pepin, might be crowned.
"It is right that the kingly title should rest where the kingly power now is," answered the Pope; and as there was no doubt that Pepin had the "kingly power," the question was settled.
The sluggard king was therefore deposed, his long hair cut off, and he himself shut up in a monastery. And thus ended the race of the Merovingian kings.
Pepin, the new king, was then anointed by St. Boniface in the presence of his clergy and warriors, with holy oil, which was behoved to have come straight from heaven. With Pepin began a new race of kings, called after its founder, Charles the Hammer, the Carlovingian line.
Two Years after this Pepin was again anointed with holy oil by the Pope himself, and along with him were consecrated his two sons. One of these sons became the famous Emperor Charlemagne or Charles the Great.
You remember that Charles the Hammer had taken St. Boniface under his protection. Pepin the Short continued to care for the good man, but his power could not save the missionary from a martyr's death.
But before I tell you of the fate which befell the saint, listen to this beautiful story about the holy man.
Once upon a time, in his journeys, the saint came to a land where the rude Northmen still worshipped a god called Thor the Hammerer.
It was winter, and on a little hill a great crowd of warriors clad in white, of women and children, gathered around a fire that had been lighted near the foot of an altar.
Close to the altar was a tall and ancient oak tree, sacred to the god named Thor.
In the midst of the crowd stood the high priest, and at his feet knelt a little child. The little child was the offering of the people to their god. He was doomed to die by a hammer-stroke, that Thor the Hammerer might be pleased.
But ere the hammer fell this wintry night, a quick step came hurrying up the little hill, and Boniface the saint, pushing the people on one side. reached the high priest and the little kneeling child.
Very simply the stranger told the people the story of Jesus and the Cross, and before the tale was ended the hammer had fallen from the hand of the high priest, had fallen harmless to the ground. The little child was saved
Then seizing the hammer, St. Boniface himself felled the sacred oak, and even as he did so, his eyes fell upon a young fir tree, standing straight and green before him.
"Here is the living tree," he cried, "with no stain of blood upon it, which shall be the sign of your new worship. See it pointing to the sky! Let us call it the tree of the Christ Child. Take it up and carry it to the hall of your chief, for this is the birth-night of the White Christ. You shall no more keep your feasts in the shades of the forest with secret and cruel rites. You shall keep them in your own homes, with happy laughter and glad songs of glee."
Such, says the legend, was the beginning of the Christmas tree, which boys and girls all over the world have learned to love.
Boniface had been made an archbishop, and had he wished, he might have lived at ease in his palace for the rest of his life. But though he was an old man now, Boniface longed to carry his Master's message to the fierce German Tribes which had never even heard of Christ.
So making one of his disciples archbishop in his stead, the old man sand, "As for me, I will put myself on my road, for the time of my passing away approacheth. I have longed for this departure and none can turn me from it." It almost seemed that Boniface foresaw what might happen. With only a few followers he set out to find the people whom he wished to teach. When as length he reached their haunts he halted, and his servants put up their master's tent. Then in that wild and lonely place he sat down with his followers to the sacrament of the Lord's Supper.
But a band of savages had seen the white tent, and in their foolish rage they rushed upon the little company. The saint's servants were brave men, and placing their master in their midst, they prepared to defend him unto death.
"Hold, hold!" cried the old man, as he saw them draw their swords; "we should return good for evil, and trust in God"; and then he bade them put their swords back in their sheaths, and strike no blow at the savages whom they had come to teach.
But the barbarians, undaunted by the gentleness of the old man, slew him and as many of his followers as they could seize. Thus perished the holy man of God, St. Boniface.
King Pepin's great work was to help the Pope against the King of the Lombards. To do this he crossed the Alps with his army and marched into Italy.
After a great battle, in which he was victorious, Pepin shut up the King of Lombardy and the soldiers that had been taken prisoners, in a town called Pavia, and made the king promise to stay within the gates of the city. Then with much booty Pepin set off on his homeward march.
But the Pope was not satisfied. He was sure that his enemy would break his word and escape from Pavia, and he wished Pepin had stayed in Italy instead of hastening back to France.
And, indeed, no sooner was Pepin out of the country than the Lombards, more fierce than ever after their defeat, escaped from Pavia, laid waste the country, and began to thunder at the very gates of Rome.
Then a strange thought came to the Pope. It was certain that Pepin would not come back again even at the Pope's request, but if the King of France received a letter from the Apostle Peter, promising to reward him if he helped the Pope, why then without doubt Pepin would come back to Italy.
So the Pope sat down, and while the Lombards thundered at his gates, he wrote a letter from l Peter, Apostle of Jesus Christ, to Pepin and his warriors, to tell them that "if they came in haste to help the Pope, he, Peter, would aid them as if he were alive, and that they would conquer their enemies as well as win eternal life."
As the Pope had foreseen when he wrote that strange letter, Pepin, when he read it, did not hesitate to return to Italy. Once again he crossed the Alps, and once again he conquered the Lombards and shut them up in Pavia, and this time, anxious for peace at any price, the King of Lombardy kept the terms imposed upon him by Pepin.
When the battle was over, Pepin sent for the keys of the towns which he had taken from the Lombards, and these he sent to Rome to be laid on the altar of the church of St. Peter. In reality, to give the keys to St. Peter's was to give the towns to which they belonged to the Pope.
This gift was known as the "Donation of Pepin." It was no strange thing for kings in those days to offer their victories to God. But you will remember Pepin's gift to St. Peter's because it was the beginning of the worldly possessions of the popes.
Soon after this, as King Pepin was returning home from battle, he was attacked by fever. His servants carried him to St. Denis, where he died, having ruled France for sixteen years.