The Life of Saint Radegund, Queen of the Franks, by A Secular Priest

Saint Radegunde“And Grief, too, held her vigil there;
With unrelenting sway
Breaking my airy visions down,
Throwing my flowers away –
I owe to her fond care alone
That I may now be all Thine own.”

Radegund, a princess of Thuringia – Becomes the captive of Clotaire I, king of the Franks – afterwards his queen – They separate – Her convent at Poitiers – Hymn Vexilla – Her illness and death – Story of Saint Junian – Charles VII of France

Thuringia, the native country of Saint Radegund, embraced the territory beyond the Rhine, lying between the Weser and the Oder. At the death of king Basinus, it was divided among his three sons. Hermanfried, the most powerful and the most ambitious of the three, coveted the possessions of his brothers. Goaded on by the taunts of his unscrupulous queen, a niece of the Gothic sovereign, Theodoric, he assassinated his brother Berthaire, and only waited for a good opportunity of putting Balderic, the survivor, out of the way. At that time, Thierry, the eldest son of Clovis, king of the Franks, reigned at Metz, over the territory now comprehended in Lorraine, Champagne, Belgium, and the Rhenish provinces of Prussia. Hermanfried entered into an alliance with Thierry, for the infamous purpose of wresting the remaining portion of Thuringia from his brother, Balderic, by the sword. Their wicked project succeeded; but, as often happens among unprincipled men, when associated for an evil object, Hermanfried overreached his ally in the bargain they had struck, about the territory which Thierry was to acquire as the price of his co-operation. The Frank king dissembled his indignation, and his purpose of revenge, until the death of Theodoric, the king of the Goths, with whom he wished to avoid a collision (526). Thierry then called his brother, Clotaire I, from Soissons to his aid; they entered Thuringia together, and inflicted a cruel chastisement on the perfidious Hermanfried; devastating the country with fire and sword, and carrying off much valuable booty and many prisoners of war.

Clotaire obtained, as part of his share in the adventure, a young prince and princess, the orphan children of Berthaire. Radegund and her little brother, after seeing their home made desolate by their wicked uncle, were now torn from their native country, and carried to Soissons, as captives and slaves of the Frank king, Clotaire (531).

Though tall of her age, Radegund was still a child. The horrors she had already passed through had stamped on her beautiful face an expression of wild and of bitter sorrow, rarely seen in one so young. Clotaire admired her childish beauty, and with the desire of educating her for his future, queen, sent her to reside at Athie, in Picardy, his country seat on the Somme. In this retired and genial spot, the little princess soon made rapid progress in her studies, under competent instructors, and by degrees became more reconciled to the sad vicissitudes of her life; the light of the gospel, too, began slowly to dispel the heathen darkness of her childhood. The day of her baptism was to her the beginning of a new and a nobler life, in which the imitation of Jesus Christ seems to have always formed the guiding principle of her conduct.

Time glided insensibly away, and young Radegund reached her nineteenth year (538). A message from Clotaire then summoned her to Vitry, in Belgium, to become his queen. The licentious man was not worthy of her. His private life was defaced by the worst vices of his yet half-savage race. But his will was absolute law for his dependents; and in spite of her aversion, the young Thuringian princess was compelled to assume the rank of queen-consort to this wicked man. She was already no novice in the practice of submission to the roughest discipline; but all her past training was necessary to support her in the life of trial now before her. The love of prayer, of austerities, and of the poor, which she had learnt at Athie, stood her in good stead now. Yet, with all her endeavours, she failed to secure the love of her lawless husband, who used to declare that she turned his court into a cloister. His courtiers encouraged these unjust reproaches of the king; violent scenes ensued, from which the patience of the unhappy queen afforded her no protection; her only friend in that courtly circle, her brother, fell a victim to the cruelty of Clotaire; and his death filled up the measure of our saint’s heavy trials.

Radegund had now passed six years of anxious struggle. Worn out with the contest, she solicited permission to retire from court, and assume the habit of a nun. (Note – The mutual abandonment of conjugal duties and rights, although sometimes permitted, cannot be said to be encouraged by the Church. Since the age of our Saint, new safeguards have been interposed. Not only must the consent of both parties be given, as, indeed, was necessary then, but both parties must now embrace the religious life, with the option to the husband of entering into holy orders.) Clotaire was only too glad to get rid of her on such easy terms. It was arranged that she should commence her new life at Noyon, under the sanction of Saint Medard, the bishop. She afterwards retired in her religious character to Saix, one of the royal residences in Poitou, where she at once adopted a severely penitential course of life. In no long time, however, the danger which naturally impends over such an arrangement as she had recently made, actually happened: Clotaire repented the dismissal of his beautiful queen, and news reached her that he was on his way to Saix to reclaim her. She escaped with her companions to Poitiers, and, from the church of Saint Hilary, wrote a letter to the king, imploring him to regard her for the future as dead to him. She prevailed, and soon after laid the foundation of a convent at Poitiers. A second time the king altered his mind, and insisted on Radegund’s returning to his court. It required all the influence of Germanus, bishop of Paris, supported by threats of the vengeance of Saint Martin, whom the Franks had learnt from the Gauls to revere, to make the king change his purpose. He ultimately died in possession of the entire kingdom of his father, and not before he had an opportunity of making such amends as were possible for his licentious life (561).

The Council of Tours, (566) formally placed the young convent of Saint Radegund under its protection. By and by it assumed the name of Saint Croix, in honour of a relic of the Holy Cross, which the emperor Justin sent to the convent at the request of the queen. Her friend, Venantius Fortunatus, afterwards bishop of Poitiers, composed on the occasion the hymn Vexilla regis prodeunt, nearly in the form in which it is still found in the Breviary, on Passion Sunday.

The latest incident in our Saint’s active life was a journey to Aries, undertaken for the purpose of more complete initiation into the Rule which she had adopted for her nuns. At the feet of the illustrious abbess Caesaria, Radegund acquired the necessary instruction; and returned to Poitiers, to put the finishing touches to the work of her life.

As our Saint approached its termination, and saw her task on earth accomplished in the permanent establishment of her nuns, she often begged our Lord to call her to Himself. One day, while she was praying in her oratory more fervently than usual, a youth of glorious appearance stood before her, and, shewing her his pierced hands and feet, from which issued rays of light more dazzling than the sun’s, thus addressed her – “soul which I have redeemed, what is it that you ask of me? Why so many tears, and sighs, and prayers? See! I am always by your side, and very soon you shall know what the joys of heaven are, for you are a pearl of great price, and one of the most precious jewels in My crown.”

“But why, my Lord,” rejoined the weeping saint, “do you bestow such a favour as this on me who am so unworthy?”

“Do not speak so, my child,” answered her Lord; “I grant My favours to whom I will, and to whom I know it to be best to do so. To doubt this, would be to offend against faith and hope.”

All through the first half of the year 587, Saint Radegund lost strength daily, and her nuns plainly perceived that they must soon lose their beloved mother. Yet, to the last, she continued her practices of severe penance, she discharged, as usual, the most menial duties in the house, and she deprived her poor body of food and of sleep. On the 12th of August, nature gave way, and the dying saint was unable to rise from the couch of sackcloth and ashes on which she usually snatched a little repose. Her nuns gathered about her, to pay her the last offices of love, and to learn how a saint could die. She bade them be comforted for her departure, and promised that in heart and in thought she would still remain with them. She received with overflowing devotion the last sacraments of the dying; and after the rite, she lay in profound meditation till the evening; when all at once she began to discourse to her spiritual children with singular fluency and abundance, in words of the tenderest piety, chiefly supplied by her memory from her daily reading in the Gospels, in the Psalms of David, and in the writings of the holy fathers.

At night the saint relapsed into silence; but her eyes, and every portion of her countenance was eloquent with joy, and a sense of victory achieved. Heaven was so near her, and so attractive, that she had not one look of regret to spare for what she was leaving behind. As morning dawned she spoke once more: “I feel no more pain. – May God bless you all. – May Mary, our mother and our advocate, protect you. – Imitate her humility and her obedience. – Despise wealth, and value poverty above everything that is precious in the world. – I am leaving my exile for my home; my labour for eternal rest in God. – See! the angels are coming to attend me to the marriage-feast of the immaculate Lamb. – The Spouse calls me away. – Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.” With these concluding words she gently bowed her head, and all was over. So radiant was the sunset of her cloudy and dark day. (Note – Within these few years a pious lady, reduced by illness to the last extremity of weakness, suddenly raised herself in her dying bed, and stretching out her arms, with a beaming countenance exclaimed, “I see the sceptre of His love! Take me to Him! take me to Him!” and, sinking back, expired.)

A singular incident is related in connexion with Saint Radegund’s death. A pious hermit of the name of Junian, between whom and Saint Radegund there subsisted a holy friendship, had arranged with her, many years before, that whichever of them survived should receive the very earliest intelligence of the death of the other, that the survivor might pray for the departed. The moment that our saint expired, a messenger was despatched with the news to a place called Chaunay, a favourite resort of Saint Junian. Exactly half way between Chaunay and Saint Croix, the messenger from Saint Croix met a messenger from Chaunay, on his way to communicate to Saint Radegund the news of Saint Junian’s death. A priory, called La Troussaie, was afterwards erected on the spot where the messengers met.

The bishop of Poitiers was absent on a journey when the abbess of Saint Croix expired. Saint Gregory was therefore invited from Tours by her nuns to come and assist them in laying her in the tomb. He has left in writing an affecting narrative of the whole ceremony, in which the natural grief of all who were present was strangely mingled with supernatural attestations of the beatitude of the departed soul. Crowds came to visit her tomb, out of devotion to her memory, and to supplicate for temporal and spiritual blessings; and none of her clients seem to have left the place with a wish unfulfilled. To the saint’s intercession, the recovery of Anjou and Maine, of Normandy and of Guienne from the English, in the middle of the 15th century, used to be ascribed by Charles VII of France, quite as much as to the imbecility of the English government.

Saint Radegund is now venerated at Poitiers as the patroness of the town. Her biography has been written by the illustrious Fortunatus, her contemporary and friend; by Baudonivia, one of her nuns; and by Hildebert, archbishop of Tours, from the archives of her convent. Saint Gregory of Tours, who highly esteemed her, from personal knowledge, has inserted her panegyric in several of his works.

The tomb of the saint was violated, and her bones burnt by the French Calvinists (1569), but her convent, after sustaining various losses in the great revolution, still survives.

A convent bearing her name once stood on the site of Jesus College, Cambridge; a row of houses in the neighbourhood is still called Radegund Buildings.