It was during the fifteenth century that John, Duke of Berry, brother of King Charles V of France, asked for a fragment of St. Radegunde’s body to be placed in his chapel in Bourges. With authorization obtained, the tomb was opened and to the surprise of all, the body was found incorrupt. Faced with such a prodigy, the nobleman did not dare to damage what time had respected.
On the corpse’s fingers, however, were two rings. Why not take one with him? The rings, perhaps tarnished by the passing of time, were charged with symbolism, for in them could be summed up the entire life of the virtuous Queen of France.
The Thuringian Kingdom under Frankish rule
One day in the summer of 531, cries of despair were drowned out by the roar of collapsing walls, consumed by fire. The unbreathable air, laden with smoke, darkened that unhappy day. In a corner, a young princess, embraced by her brother, watched the ruin of her castle and the death of the servants.
The Franks had invaded Thuringia. But they came not only to conquer it, but also to satisfy their thirst for revenge, fuelled by political motives that had for decades made enemies of the two peoples. Thus, with overwhelming fury, the warriors led by Theuderic and Chlothar, sons and successors of Clovis, sowed destruction and devastation wherever they went.
With the conquest achieved, Theuderic tried to assassinate his own brother in order to be the sole ruler over the vanquished Thuringians. Chlothar, however, discovered his plot and demanded an explanation. Put to the wall, Theuderic attempted to cool his brother’s rage by offering him all the spoils, including the captives. Among these was the unfortunate little Thuringian princess, named Radegunde, and her brother.
It was not the first time that sorrow had visited the soul of this child, yet in her first decade of life. Her father, Berthachar, King of Thuringia, had been murdered by his own brother Hermanfrid, under whose care she had had to grow up. Now, once again, a path of uncertainty opened before her.
The young princess was unaware that the mysterious hand of God was directing all these events with a view to the mission that she would one day fulfil.
Captivity in a foreign land
Dispossessed of everything, orphaned and reduced to slavery, Radegunde left her land behind her to face the hardships of captivity. What fate lay in store for her?
The Frankish King Chlothar, admiring the beauty of the young princess and anxious for the stability of his kingdom, soon conceived a clever project concerning the innocent prisoner: why not prepare her to be his wife? With that, his rights over Thuringia would be assured and he would be in agreement with the Catholic Church.
However, since he wanted a marriage with God’s blessing and legitimate offspring, he had to wait until Ingund, with whom he had been officially united in religious matrimony, died. Radegunde was only ten years old. In the meantime, she would be educated and prepared to be queen one day.
Education in Athies
The princess, together with her brother, was sent to Athies, a city far from the capital Soissons. There the future queen received an excellent education and benefitted from the bucolic tranquillity of the place, far from the intrigues that were rife at court.
During this period, St. Clotilde played a profound role in the education given to Radegunde. As the wife of Clovis, she knew the great influence that an intelligent and shrewd princess could have on the mentality of a king. She herself had been educated and instructed by St. Avitus with the aim of bringing Clovis into the bosom of the Church.
Could the same not be brought to bear now? Chlothar was deviating from Gospel principles and setting an execrable example for his people, but might not Radegunde’s influence change the situation?
The mission of ensuring that young Radegunde became virtuous princess with a rich Catholic formation was amply guaranteed, having been entrusted to St. Medard, the Bishop of Saint-Quentin, whose zeal for the cause of Christ and irreproachable morals were known to all.
Enlightened by the Gospel teachings
From the very beginning, the teachings of the Gospel took deep root in her soul. “It was the first time that this child, whose life experiences had been limited to suffering a series of catastrophes – all attributable to cruelty, ambition, and unbridled human passions – heard another language and saw open before her a path different from that followed by her ancestors, century after century.”1
Over the course of about six years she was nourished at the crystalline fountains of sound doctrine, becoming a cultured young woman, learned in the classics and acquainted with the most illustrious Fathers of the Church.
The heroic sacrifices of the holy martyrs inflamed her heart with zeal and love, and the purity of the holy virgins served as an example of complete and total dedication to Our Lord Jesus Christ. She soon received Baptism.
It was not long before a compelling movement of grace, proper to souls dazzled by the wonders of divine love after long years spent in ignorance, blossomed in her spirit: total consecration to God. Radegunde “hoped, when her age allowed, to take her place under the eyes of the Good Shepherd in a flock of consecrated virgins.”2
The future takes shape
Queen Ingund finally died in 536. The royal throne was free for the future claimant. And who would that be? Chlothar had three concubines who did not satisfy his plans. Aregund and Guntheuc could not be his lawful wives, for they were his sisters-in-law; and the third did not enjoy a worthy social status. “There remained but Radegunde, and it was precisely for this moment that, for five or six years, the exceptional education which she possessed had been provided for her at Athies.”3
What must she have experienced in her soul, this lady who for some time had hoped for no other husband than the Spouse of souls, on receiving such news? “Chlothar in particular, the author of her woe and the ruin of her country, must have been for her an object of dread, if not of horror;”4 and now he was to be her spouse. The young princess, stunned, was seized with apprehension at yet another contradiction in the long series which Providence had prepared for her life.
Yet, she pondered, if the Church throughout its history had protected consecrated virginity, it would not fail to help her. What a blessing to find herself, even if a captive, in a Catholic country! Surely she would be permitted to follow the biddings of grace.
Why not hope for an intervention on her behalf from the Queen Mother, Clotilde? Or the timely assistance of St. Medard, her unfailing beneficiary up until then? Nevertheless, no one came to her aid. God wanted this soul to suffer the trial of abandonment to prove her fidelity.
She decided, therefore, to act alone and to escape by her own means from that marriage which horrified her.
With firm resolution, she left Athies that same night, fleeing down the Omignon river, which flows through the city, in the company of a friend.
After sailing for hours, the princess noticed from the position of the stars that the current was taking them towards Soissons, the capital of Chlothar. There was no other solution but to row against the current, and so they did. However, they discovered that this river joined another, the Somme, which would take them once again to the heart of the kingdom…
Radegunde, however, had learned to acclimatize herself to suffering and did not back down in the face of this difficulty; her soul commanded her to take bold and determined measures. She had heard that there was another river nearby, the Oise, that flowed towards the domain of Childebert, brother and irreconcilable enemy of Chlothar. There she would be saved. Now, the Somme and the Oise did not intersect… Shouldering the small boat, they crossed the twenty-four kilometres that separated the two rivers on foot.
Alas, near the border of the kingdom of Childebert they came to a fork in the road and, believing they were taking the right way, they deviated from their route, arriving stupefied at Soissons, where Chlothar was eagerly awaiting them. For three nights Radegunde had sailed tirelessly, driven by the desire to be free to serve God alone.
Resignation to God’s will
Was not the failure of the flight a clear sign of God’s will for her? A deeply pious soul, Radegunde realized that the hour had come to resign herself to the will of Providence. She had tried what many would have thought impossible for a maiden, and despite her efforts, she fell into the hands of the tyrant. She had to marry.
From the moment of the sacred nuptials, the queen in no way sought to shirk her obligations. Rather, she made marriage an occasion for the practice of the highest aspirations that grace had placed in her soul.
During the six years that she lived with Chlothar, she distributed her wealth abundantly to the needy, as if the “money was burning her fingers.”5 She built hospitals, taking it upon herself to care for the purulent and dying lepers.
The royal palace became the monastery where she practised her penances with austere privations. It is said that a piece of bread was enough for her bodily sustenance, because the Eucharist was the food that inundated her with joy in the midst of her fasts and tears.
At night she would often leave her bed to dedicate herself to long prayers and vigils. Wearing a hair shirt, she would go to the oratory where she would remain in deep contemplation before the Crucifix. Chlothar often complained that he had married a nun and not a queen…
This way of living, so different from that which was expected at court, soon gave rise to misunderstandings. Moreover, the years went by and God sent them no offspring. It was not long before fits of marital anger were unleashed upon Radegunde, only to be disarmed by the unalterable patience and serenity of her character.
Unshakeable love for God
After living with her husband for six years, a tragic event uprooted the queen from court. Thuringia, her homeland, had rebelled and Chlothar, fearful that power would slip from his hands, had Radegunde’s brother murdered.
The murder of the last link that united her to her family caused her terrible grief. How could she remain at the side of the one who was the cause of her misery and who insisted on persecuting her with his crimes? Her decision was made: she was to give herself definitively to the consecrated life.
Aware of the perpetual matrimonial bond, divorce was not an option to be considered. It was necessary to attain a legitimate physical separation in accordance with the teachings of the Church. But how to achieve this? Her hopes immediately turned to the one who had educated her in the Christian faith, St. Medard. Already ninety years old and renowned for holiness, he would certainly be respected by Chlothar.
Always submissive and docile, she asked her husband’s permission to spend some time with the Bishop, which was granted. But the task proved very difficult from the outset. The prelate was afraid of interfering in royal initiatives, which could harm the peace of the Church in Francia. Moreover, without Chlothar’s permission, the separation would not be in accord with ecclesiastical laws and customs.
His wife’s absence had gone on too long, and Chlothar sent his men to bring her back. Was she once again doomed to terrible captivity? Radegunde was not prepared for this.
Under shouts and threats, the royal envoys one day stormed the church demanding that St. Medard hand her over. The queen, seeing she had no time to lose, stole into the sacristy and donned a monastic habit she found there. Disguised under the thick burel, she made her way through the crowd to the altar, where the Saint was preparing to celebrate Mass.
Astonishment ran through the crowd when they saw Radegunde’s delicate face through the coarse cloth. Then, in a strong voice, she said to the Bishop:
“If you still hesitate to consecrate me, it is because you fear a man more than God… Remember, shepherd, that one day you will be asked to give accounts for the soul of your sheep!”
“My preference is God,” answered St. Medard, on hearing the queen’s voice, which for him was the voice of God.
Foundress of the first women’s abbey in France
News of the event quickly spread to the towns and cities of the kingdom and the demonstrations of support were numerous. At first reticent, the Frankish king made a few further attempts to recover her. He finally gave in when St. Germain, Bishop of Paris, took a strict position in defence of the consecrated woman: he must leave his wife in peace to follow the religious life, and not bother her any more with threats.6
Radegunde’s years were spent in the monastery of Poitiers which she founded and which was later known under the invocation of Holy Cross. It was the first women’s abbey in France, built at the cost of her love and suffering. She was joined by dozens of young women who, enchanted by her example, took the religious habit.
In this new phase of her life, Radegunde renounced everything. Entrusting the direction of the abbey to Agnes, a beloved spiritual daughter, she dedicated herself to consolidating the foundation and establishing the abbey’s internal life. She used her influence to intervene in the destiny of the French nation, as she declared: “Peace among kings, that is my victory.”
Mystical phenomena began to become frequent and intense, tempered with a life of severe penance. She no longer belonged to this world, and her true Spouse was inviting her to the eternal nuptials.
From the cloister… to Heaven
Radegunde surrendered her soul to God on August 13, 587, causing a general commotion in the city. The nuns of the abbey, who now numbered two hundred, crowded around the windows in tears, sobbing as her body left the monastery. A blind man was immediately cured on touching the coffin, and demons were forced to confess through the mouths of the possessed the holiness of the deceased.
With her body clothed in the religious habit, the crown was placed on her head and the royal sceptre in her hand. She, who had been a wife, queen and foundress, was ready for the highest dignity: to be united forever with her God.
A soul entirely given to God
Let us return to the fact narrated at the beginning. Which ring did the Duke of Berry take?
The gold one was her wedding ring, and that of iron, the symbol of her consecration to God. The duke, judging it best to leave the one of greater material value, tried to take the iron ring. Surprised, he found it impossible to remove, for the finger mysteriously contracted, preventing him from doing so. Out of curiosity, he then tried to pull off the gold ring, which slid easily from her finger. Radegunde seemed to leave her last message for history: her heart belonged first and foremost to God. ◊
1 BERNET, Anne. Radegonde, Épouse de Clotaire I. Paris: Pygmalion, 2007, p.53.
2 FLEURY, Édouard de. Histoire de Sainte Radegonde. Poitiers: Henri Oudin, 1847, p.20-21.
3 BERNET, op. cit., p.72.
4 FLEURY, op. cit., p.25.
5 BERNET, op. cit., p.86.
6 Chlothar died in 652, at peace with his spouse.