Saints of the Day – Felix of Valois, Founder

Saint Felix of ValoisArticle

Born in Amiens, France, 1127; died 1212; cultus approved by Pope Alexander VII in 1666.

Felix of Valois is one of those difficult saints. His name is linked with that of John of Matha, founder of the Trinitarians. Some say that there is no evidence that he ever existed – that he is a purely imaginary character; members of the order insist that he and Saint John were canonized in 1262 by Pope Urban IV.

Did he really exist?

It is a difficult question for historians, and even more difficult for Christians, since the infallibility of the Church is somehow involved in the canonization of saints. If a saint who has been venerated by the universal Church, and who has been the object of a complete service and Mass turns out to be a myth and an invention, what will be the effect on faith?

Before answering these questions, let me tell you his story as it has come down to us, and as written by Father Calixte, a Trinitarian Cerfroid, in his book published in 1878.

At the beginning of the 12th century, what is now the Somme and Aisne districts of France was ruled by Count Raoul de Vermandois et de Valois, a prince of the houses of Capet and Charlemagne. His wife Alienor de Champagne was also of the house of Charlemagne. On April 19, 1127, she gave birth to a son who was baptized Hugh, like his grandfather, the son of Henry I, King of France.

Young Hugh was presented to Saint Bernard and later sent to the abbey of Clairaux to be educated. He was also presented to Pope Innocent II.

At 20 he set off on a crusade, but went incognito to avoid being treated with deference. Three years later he returned, travelled through Italy, and went to live as a hermit either in northern Italy or near Clermont d’Oise. To avoid recognition and indicate a change of life, he took the name of Felix and became a priest.

In 1193-94, when he was living in extreme solitude near Montigny, he received a visit from Saint John de Matha, who had just graduated from the schools at Aix and Paris. They soon became friends and John stayed with Felix. They were joined by other disciples and formed a small community.

Then one day in 1197, a white deer, which often came to drink at the fountain where the hermits got their water, appeared with a red and blue cross between its antlers. John was reminded of the vision he had during his first Mass, when he had seen an angel dressed in white with a red and blue cross on his chest. Both he and Felix knew that the deer with a cross was a sign from God, and that they should go ahead with a plan they had been discussing. This plan was to found a religious order dedicated to ransoming Christian slaves who were captured during the Crusades.

Together they presented their plan in Rome to Pope Innocent III, who not only gave his approval but also gave the founders a habit for their order: white, with a red and blue cross. John and Felix then returned to France, where their hermitage was renamed Cerfroid, in memory of the deer which had appeared there.

February 3, 1198, the pope sent a letter to “brother John, minister of the house of the Holy Trinity at Cerfroid, and to all his brothers both present and future.” The letter placed the young “Order of the Holy Trinity for the Ransom of Captives” under the protection of the pope. The letter also mentioned the property that had already been given to the order by Roger de Catillon, Marguerite de Bourgogne, and a noble lady of Paris.

May 16, 1198, the pope sent another letter about the property. On December 17, 1198, a letter arrived approving the text of the order’s rule. In the meantime, the king of France had also given his approval to the new order.

John left Cerfroid to begin the real work of redeeming captives by establishing a monastery in Rome. Felix remained as superior (or minister) at Cerfroid, but later went to Paris to establish the order in the hospital of Saint-Mathurin, which had been given to them. As a result, members of the order were popularly called “the Mathurins,” or else they were called “friars on donkeys” because of their mode of transportation.

On the night of September 8, 1212, though the sacristan of Cerfroid had forgotten to ring the matins bell (generally about 3:00 a.m.), Felix went down to the church as usual and found the Blessed Virgin and angels, all of them wearing the order’s habit. There were many other miracles, but that is the only one that will be recounted here.

A few days later John de Matha returned to Cerfroid to see his old friend. He stayed only a short while, and on November 4, 1212, Felix died at the age of 85. He was buried at Cerfroid. The great reputation for sanctity which both surrounded his tomb and his memory led Urban IV to canonize him on May 1, 1262.

It was a good life, long and eventful, but at the same time extremely simple. Unfortunately there are doubts and questions marks at every turn. For example, the authority for his royal birth was the Trinitarian breviary of 1482, which has been lost. Authorities quoted for other details are either ambiguous, lost, or of uncertain authorship. For a long, detailed explanation of the reasons for doubting his existence as related by Father Calixte, read the Encyclopedia cited below. It will give you some idea of how hagiographers work.

It may be that instead of being heir to an important family, he was simply a resident of Valois, which became confused later.

In 1631 the Trinitarians attempted to gain permission to celebrate the feasts of Saints John and Felix liturgically in France and Spain, as their brothers in England had been doing since 1308, but since the Council of Trent had established restrictive controls on such celebrations, they did not immediately gain permission. The Urban IV’s papal bull canonizing Felix had been lost. So the Trinitarians started gathering data.

They found that the canons of Meaux had been invoking Saint Felix since 1219; in 1291 the chapter-general had fixed his feast day; and in 1308 the provincial of England received Mass and offices from John XXII. That was enough to convince Pope Alexander VII, who confirmed the cultus on October 21, 1666. But five years later the Sacred College of Rites had still not added Felix and John to the Roman Martyrology, and it was only after the intervention of Louis XIV and Philip V of Spain who, on the strength of the “de Valois,” claimed descent from Felix, that Innocent XII extended the feasts of SS John de Matha and Felix de Valois to the Catholic Church in 1694.

The Encyclopedia also notes that the remains of Saint Felix have been lost, which is troublesome if he had been venerated throughout the ages. In 1705 searches were carried out for the bones at Cerfroid and no relics of any type were found.

If by chance the Church has canonized someone who didn’t exist, does that mean that there is a crisis of faith? Certainly not. First of all the equivalent canonization which took place in the 17th century was not carried out with the full canonical procedure. It was a special procedure, based on prescription and good faith. Its meaning was: “the person here presented is certainly an everlasting beatitude if he really lived as is claimed.”

The historical problem is not really Rome’s concern and may more or less be set aside. To be sure, matters would be conducted very differently today – precisely in order to avoid the inaccuracies that are found with Saint Felix. But whether Saint Felix existed or not, humility, charity, and all the virtues that he had or were ascribed to him, are the ones which will bring us to a greater love of God. And isn’t that the real reason we venerate the saints? (Attwater, Benedictines, Delaney, Encyclopedia)

Saint Felix is depicted in art as an old man in Trinitarian habit with a coronet at his feet and chains or captives nearby. On occasion he is shown (1) near a fountain from which a stag drinks perhaps with a cross in his antlers; (2) often with Saint John of Matha (because together they organized the Trinitarians in France for the release of captives from the Moors); or (3) with the Holy Trinity appearing in the picture. He is venerated at Meaux and Valois (Roeder).

MLA Citation

  • Katherine I Rabenstein. Saints of the Day, 1998. CatholicSaints.Info. 12 August 2020. Web. 1 December 2020. <>