Legends of the Blessed Virgin – Mary of Flanders

Legends of the Blessed Virgin, by Jacques-Albin-Simon Collin de Plancy“Mirror of justice.”

On Easter-day, 1071, Count Robert-le-Frison, of Flanders, held a council at Courtray. He was surrounded by Baudouin of Ghent, Bouchard of Comines, Gerrard of Lille, Varner of Oldenburgh, Varner of Courtray, and Gratian of Ecloo, all devoted friends, who accompanied him later on his expedition to the Holy Land. They had also aided him in the conquest of Flanders, and he had just gained by their assistance, and a fortunate circumstance, the battle of Cassel, in which he had defeated King Phillip I.

This victory had also crushed the party of Richilda, called the wicked countess, who still governed Hainaut.

The council then were in high spirits, though, not entirely satisfied. They blamed Robert for having generously given Richilda her liberty without any conditions. He was advised to beware of Phillip, who could easily recruit his army, and to seek an alliance with the emperor.

After having patiently listened to the council of his friends, Robert went to consult what he called his oracle. This was no other than his daughter Mary, a young princess, of a most pious and learned disposition, who, although only sixteen years of age, had just given him a great proof of filial tenderness. For, on the eve of the battle of Cassel, uneasy about his success, she had made a vow, while praying before the altar of our Lady of Courtray, whom she deeply loved, to devote herself to the religious life among the pious daughters of the Blessed Virgin, if by Her intercession her father obtained the victory. The whole of the time of the battle had been spent by her in prayer; and after her petition had been granted, she had put off her noble costume, and assumed the white robe of Virgins, who dedicate themselves to the service of their Divine Spouse. She saw no one, but lived in the most secluded manner. Her father alone had obtained from her a promise that she would stay a short time with him before entering the cloister for ever.

Robert, as we have said, now went to consult his beloved daughter.

“My dear child,” said he, “I am reproached for having set free the Countess Eichilda.”

“The widow of your brother!”

“You it was who counselled me so to do, my daughter!”

“It was the Blessed Virgin, the Mother of Mercy and Mirror of Justice, father, who has been our counsellor. Be generous towards your enemies, and you will diminish their number. Goodness finds its reward here. When Richilda was your captive, she alone was the object of compassion; now she is free, you are blessed for it. What matter the narrow views of your council? There is no good policy but Christian policy, which is loyal and generous.”

“With such sentiments, Mary, why will you abandon the world?”

“To serve you more completely, father! I will constantly pray to God for you. Prayer is powerful. Now, I ask you three things: one regards myself; two are respecting yourself. First, allow me to retire to the Abbey of Missines, where I shall fulfil my dearest vows, and where you – but you alone – may sometimes see me. Then make peace with the empire, for Phillip will return; and give liberty to your captive, Eustace of Boulogne.”

“He must at least pay a heavy ransom.”

“You must free him without ransom. It will be advantageous for you that he should be your debtor. He is brother to the Bishop of Paris, one of the wisest of the king’s counsellors. Obtain friends, father; they are a prince’s best treasure.”

Robert-le-Frison paused an instant, then said, “But, daughter, the emperor is irritated against me.”

“You have been generous towards Richilda and Eustace, like a noble Christian. Do not then doubt the much-maligned emperor, but hasten to anticipate him. Let your ambassadors set out this day. You can easily pretend to send through them your homage to the chief of the empire for your countdom of Alost.”

“Your counsel, my daughter, shall be implicitly obeyed. But as to the ransom of Eustace of Boulogne?”

“Before three months you will receive it. And now, let me beg of you, father, to grant me a , fortnight’s absolute retreat and seclusion in the Abbey of Missines.”

Robert said nothing. Mary took his rough hand, kissed it gently, and letting fall her veil, retired.

Heaving a deep sigh, the count sought his prisoner.

“Eustace of Boulogne,” said he, “you are free!”

“On what ransom? ” asked the astonished captive.

“Your friendship!”

Eustace looked steadfastly at him, then warmly grasping his hand, replied, “In life and death.”

Robert, already well paid, continued. “Here are your arms and steed, your esquires await you; go in peace.”

Six days after this event, towards the decline of day, the emperor, Henry IV., gloomy and irritated by the reverses caused by his crimes, rode out in the environs of Cologne, where he held his court. He was accompanied by two esquires only. Suddenly a lady clothed in white appeared before him. She rode a cream-coloured horse, and wore a purple head-dress. Seizing the bridle of the emperor’s horse, she said, “Prince, you shall triumph when your cause is just. Now, turn your eyes towards Flanders; her warriors are brave. Take care, lest you repulse the powerful Count Robert, the conqueror of Cassel, who comes to ask for peace.”

“Count Robert!” cried the emperor, “one of my enemies!”

“You have reason, prince, to diminish their number.”

Saying these words with great emphasis, the white lady disappeared in a neighbouring thicket. Stupefaction was displayed on the emperor’s countenance. On recovering, he followed on the track, of what he considered an apparition; but could discover nothing. The lady had vanished. “It is the guardian angel of our house,” said he. The two knights were not less surprised than the emperor. As they entered Cologne he enjoined strict secrecy on them.

Next morning, the envoys of Count Robert approached the city. They feared lest the emperor, violent as they knew him to be, should retain them as prisoners. But a vision appeared to them also, as attested by old historians, on the authority of Baudouin of Tournay, who accompanied them.

On nearing the city at break of day, their progress was suddenly arrested by the appearance of a white lady with a blue velvet head-dress.

“I know who you are, whence you come, and whither you go,” said she. “Messengers of the Count of Flanders, have confidence in your cause. The emperor will not dare to give you an unfavourable reception, but will even answer you propitiously. Know also that Robert-le-Frison will overcome his enemies, and that his children will reign in Flanders.”

After having uttered these words, the lady disappeared in the wood, as she had done on the previous day; and the count’s deputies falling on their knees, half-frightened, but still hopeful of the divine intervention, spent a quarter of an hour in prayer.

“Surely,” said they, “this must be our Lady of Courtray!”

They continued their journey in good spirits. The emperor received them mildly. Having done homage for the countdom of Alost, they asked for peace and alliance. The emperor bade them to be assured of his good intentions.

They returned full of joy, recounting their mysterious vision to everyone, which the old chronicles call, “the strange adventure of the Lady who appeared near Cologne to the ambassadors of Robert-le-Frison, Count of Flanders.” The people believed with them that it was an apparition of our Blessed Lady. The good news did not reach Robert, however, without a corresponding share of misfortune. He learnt that King Phillip, unable to support the indignity of his defeat at Cassel, had assembled his army, convoked all his vassals, and at the head of a large army, had besieged, taken, and sacked the town of Saint Omer. But, as usual, these accounts were exaggerated. The Count of Flanders called together his warriors. Although unable immediately to meet the imposing force of Philip, he commenced to fortify the Flemish towns which the king came to lay waste. He thought of his daughter Mary, who had inspired him with hope, and went to see her at the Abbey of Messines.

In the meanwhile, Eustace of Boulogne was called upon to join the banner of the French king, whose vassal he was, and he had no alternative but to break his oath or march against the Flemish. One morning, Eustace was sadly thinking over his position, when he saw a sealed packet of letters lying on his table. He asked his pages who brought them, but no one could answer his question. Uneasy at this strange occurrence, he besought his brother Godfrey, Bishop of Paris, who accompanied the king, to come into his chamber, to be present at the opening of the packet and to read the letters to him. When the prelate understood the nature of his brother’s obligations to the Count of Flanders, he said: “Whether these letters be true, or only a means of enabling you to pay your ransom and put an end to these odious wars, let us take them to the king.”

On hearing their contents, which tended to show, that if King Philip ventured further in Flanders, or even remained much longer at Saint Omer, he was in peril of being betrayed, seized, and conducted to his enemy the emperor, the king, naturally of a timid disposition, was much alarmed. Eustace of Boulogne took care to seek rather to increase than allay his fears, so that the next day Philip and his army were on their way back to Paris, and never again appeared in Flanders.

The exact truth was never known respecting these letters. When Robert-le-Frison heard of Philip’s departure, to mark his appreciation of Eustace’s services, he gave him the forest of Bethloo. He soon overthrew the little opposition which remained in the power of Bichilda and her son Badouin to make, and by the intervention of the Bishop of Liege, was solemnly crowned Count of Flanders, and left his rights undisputed to his children.

Mary of Flanders became Abbess of Messines, which she rebuilt, for Bichilda of Hainaut, in her furious wars with Flanders, had nearly destroyed it. But this pious princess did not die there, for, accompanying her father in his voyage to the Holy Land, she expired, it is said, at Jerusalem, in 1085.

It was only after her death that the exact amount of the generous devotion and services for her father was discovered. She saved Flanders, by inspiring her parent to be generous to his Enemies, and two small head-dresses of purple and blue velvet being found in her cell, gave rise to a belief that it was she who had appeared before the emperor and her father’s envoys in so mysterious a manner. The people, however, still believed that it was no other than our Lady of Courtray herself.