Legends of the Blessed Virgin – The Keys of Poictiers

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

In the year 1295, Philip the Fair retook Aquitaine from the English by stratagem, unattended by much difficulty, seeing that the people of that country were French, and liked not the English yoke.

The English, naturally loathe to quit this fair province of France, whose warm genial air and rich wines they had found so pleasant, sought every means to regain possession of the territory. But no better plan could they devise than to corrupt one of the garrison, and to engage him to admit them by stealth into a fortified city. Poictiers was the place fixed upon; it was a large, opulent, well-fortified city, seated on high ground, and it was thought that if they could once again firmly station themselves within its walls, they would not so easily be dispossessed of the city.

But the good people of Poictiers were on their guard; the mayor and his officers were loyal and true, the citizens themselves guarded the ramparts, and every evening, having lowered the portcullis, raised the draw-bridges, and well closed and locked the ponderous gates, they bore the keys to the mayor of Poictiers, who always kept them under his pillow during the night.

Treason never acts at ease and exactly as it wishes; it leads man whithersoever it pleases with uncertain steps, masked and sounding the ground as it advances, seeking an entry or issue, and always in doubt as to the security of its path.

The agents who were employed to betray Poictiers, saw at once the impossibility of attacking the mayor; a word or hint would have made him redouble his vigilance. His subordinates were fortunately considered equally honest and incorruptible. After long and ineffectual attempts to shake the fidelity of others, a man was found base enough to sell his trust; it was- the secretary to the mayor, commonly called clerk in old chronicles, a name given to all men who could write well and were versed in literature. And now begins our legend.

The clerk of the mayor of Poictiers was doubtless a bad man, for rarely is treason undertaken for any but vicious ends. In his bargain with the English he engaged to open one of the city gates for them. He knew well where the keys were kept; but how could he secure them? The slightest movement in taking them from beneath the pillow might awake the mayor. Should he kill him? Oh, no! though a traitor, he could not steep his hands in his patron’s blood. He conceived another idea.

Covering his face with a mask, he pretended to have suddenly acquired an increase of patriotism; and one stormy night, knowing that the mayor had passed a laborious day, and was soundly sleeping, he rushed into his room at an early hour in the morning, and hastily rousing him, asked him for the keys of the city, to let out an officer who had been sent for by the king. There was such a tone of sincerity in the clerk’s voice and manner, that the mayor suspected no evil; but raising himself, sought for the keys; but to his great astonishment found they were missing.

“Are we betrayed?” cried he, springing from his bed: “I was so wearied, and have slept so soundly, that I did not feel their removal.”

In saying these words he had hastily put on a coat, and now rushed into the street, spreading terror and alarm, without remarking the stupified appearance of his clerk, who followed him with trembling limbs, considering whether there could be another traitor in the city besides himself.

The whole city was soon aroused, the citizens seized their arms, and rushed to the ramparts. Thence they discovered the English in small bands, signal from within. But the gates were all closed and well guarded.

The day dawning, their bands dispersed and disappeared. There was but one apprehension remaining – the keys could not be discovered. Yet was it thought a duty to return thanks to the Almighty for the safety of the city. The mayor, his suite, and the whole population, went to the church of Great Saint Mary, to assist at a solemn mass of thanksgiving. This church contained a venerated image of our Blessed Lady, who was honoured as the Patroness of Poictiers. Judge of the astonishment of the multitude in finding the keys which were missing in the hands of the holy image.

“It is our Lady,” cried they, “who, foreseeing some treason, has taken care of the keys during the night. It is the Blessed Virgin who has saved Poictiers!”

What tended much to confirm this opinion was, that the mayor, generally so vigilant, had not been disturbed in the night, and that his clerk had fled to the English camp. The circumstances were formally drawn up into a memorial to the king, who thought himself bound to confer special privileges on the church of Saint Mary the Great. He accordingly ordered that the keys of the city should in future be confided to the care of its canons; that they should be at liberty to pardon a criminal once a year, and have the administration of justice during the three Rogation days.