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The life of Saint Radegonde, wife of King Chlothar I, first became known to us from the writings of three of her contemporaries and friends, the nun Baudonivie, Venantius Fortunatus and Gregory of Tours. Research scholars, historians and those of the second half of the twentieth century have greatly clarified the characteristics of this period – the sixth century – and the personality of the Queen-Nun-Saint. Saint Radegonde has been the subject of important marks of devotion in Loir-et-Cher and Dunois. This paper gathered from various sources and [not all of which concur] scattered information considered the collected traditions and testimonies and the large collection of texts in the diocesan archives of Poitiers. I also used Joe Anne McNamara’s Sainted women of the Dark Ages, Fortunatus and Baudonivia’s lives in Latin and the 1301 medieval French manuscript [Ancienne cote: Anc. 7840(7); Colbert 4501] of “La Vie de tres glorieuse Royne Madame Saincte Radegonde” as a starting point for this collation.
Princess of the Thuringii
Princess Radegonde, born circa 518 a.d., was the daughter of pagan king Berthachar, one of the three kings of the Southern German land of Thuringia. When Radegonde was about 11 or 12 years old, her country was invaded by the Franks and her uncle, Hermanfrid, killed her father in battle, and took Radegund into his household. Allying himself with the Frankish King Theuderic, Hermanfrid defeated his other brother Baderic. In 531, Theuderic returned to Thuringia with his brother Chlothar I. Together they defeated Hermanfrid and conquered his kingdom. Chlothar I then took Radegonde and her brother as a political prisoner of war, taking them back to Merovingian Gaul, deciding that she should be instructed for the role of a royal Christian wife, her brother was also educated at Court. Radegonde acquiesced and took her studies seriously. When she was about 18 Radegonde was compelled to marry Chlothar and become his queen. As Queen, Radegonde was considered to be an extremely virtuous Lady, much devoted to prayer and alms-deeds, often fasting and chastening herself with hair-cloth, which she wore under her royal apparel. Chlothar was known to be rough, brutal, unfaithful, and often drunk. To his irritation, Radegonde’s suffering and meek behaviour led people to say that he had “yoked himself to a nun rather than a queen”.
Education and marriage and Queen of the Franks
When she grew up, not only was Radegonde extremely accomplished but also very beautiful and Chlothar, being a notorious womaniser, in c. 540 when she turned 18, Chlothar decided to make her his fifth wife and married her. The Merovingians, did not consider that the Christian doctrine of monogamy should be expected of royalty and therefore decided that it did not apply to them: he had five wives, for political expediency. Radegonde, it seems, accepted her position meekly but increasingly devoted herself to great charitable works. Chlothar married her, and twelve years later arranged for her brother to be unjustly killed at the hands of his men. The young prince had asked for permission to join his cousin Amalafried and his family who lived in Constantinople; Clotaire feared that the young Thuringian prince was conspiring revenge against the Frankish crown as he was the last surviving male of the Thuringian dynasty and thus posed a threat to Chlothar crown. One day whilst walking in her garden in the palace, Radegonde heard the voices of prisoners on the other side of the wall, weeping in their fetters, and imploring pity; and remembering her early sorrows, she also wept. And, not knowing how to aid them otherwise, she betook herself to prayer, whereupon their fetters burst asunder and they loosed from captivity… “She is therefore represented with the royal crown, under which flows a long veil; she has a captive kneeling at her feet, and holding his broken fetters in his hands.” (Jameson, Anna, 1880. Legends of the Monastic Orders, as represented in the fine arts: forming the second series of Sacred and Legendary Art, p. 220; 1st ed., London: Longmans, Green & Co.)
Labours as Queen, Nun and Saint
Radegonde distraught, unobtrusively fled Chlothar’s court without giving notice and sought sanctuary within the Church. The bishop in fear for his life after being forewarned and threatened by the King’s men made every effort to evade her consecration; Radegonde in turn threatened the Bishop with divine vengeance if he allowed her soul to escape the church. She persuaded Medardus bishop of Noyon to appoint her as a deaconess, an old position which did not require virginity or widowhood, she then became a nun until she removed to her own foundation at Saix.
Radegonde hears rumours that Chlothar wants her back was about to try force to get his wife back. Whilst Clotaire was on pilgrimage to Tours at the tomb of St. Martin – she wonders if he was being truly penitential or was her husband the king simply being cunning? She immediately wrote to the bishop Germain of Paris, who was accompanying the king, to prevent him from coming to Poitiers to take her back against her will if that was his intention, which she believed God would not allow! Bishop Germain read the letter to Clotaire; The latter compelled the king to accept the situation and the fact that she would not return to the world; overcome by remorse, he implores the Queens pardon through the intercession of bishop Germain, who had come expressly to Poitiers to mediate this private royal perturbation. Radegonde readily granted her husband Clotaire forgiveness, as he had finally accepted this definitive separation. Clotaire who would not survive much longer ( he died within a year) decided to underwrite the first large-scale female monastery among the Franks enabling Radegonde to established Sainte-Croix of Poitiers in 557.
Founder of a religious community
In the early 550s Radegonde founded a monastery on her own royal estate at Poitiers. She gathered many converts, men as well as women, and within 40 years the community had grown to 200 members. Radegonde assembled a large collection of relics, including a fragment of the True Cross, which led to the monastery being known as the Abbey of the Holy Cross. Around 570 she also introduced the monastic rule of Caesarius of Arles, which required nuns as well as monks to be able to read and write, and to spend several hours each day reading the scriptures and copying manuscripts. After installing her childhood friend Agnes as abbess, Radegonde strove to live as a simple nun. She maintained good relationships with her stepsons and befriended the poet and hymn writer Venantius Fortunatus who was to become her biographer. Popular canonisation followed soon after her death in 587, and pilgrims still travel to her tomb in Poitiers today.
The community, in its infancy, would have auspicious help in the person of Venantius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus (c. 530 – c. 609 a.d.). This Italian Christian, poet and hymnodist in the Merovingian Court, Bishop of Poitiers (599-610) a great connoisseur of classical poets and of Christian antiquity, who came to Gaul to venerate St. Martin, for whilst at Ravenna he had been miraculously cured of a disease of the eyes through the intercession of St. Martin. He worshipped at the tomb of the saint and gave thanks to the bishop, Euphronius (III, 3), whom he afterwards came to know better. From Tours Fortunatus went to Poitiers, attracted, no doubt, by the renown of St. Radegonde and her monastery. Arriving in Poitiers where at the request of Radegonde he was asked to reside; he willingly accepts to be her messenger and the bursar of the monastery. A deep friendship will be born and will be established between Radegonde, Richilde and him. This circumstance had a decisive influence on the remainder of his life.
Gregory of Tours suggests that she adopt Rule for Virgins of Caesarius of Arles, she meant to tie Sainte-Croix to the diocese of Arles rather than Poitiers, as she had previous poor relations with bishop Maroveus. Radegonde lived under the Rule for Virgins her entire life. Due to her humility, she had no desire to be the Abbess of the monastery she had just founded, Radegonde appointed Richilde, one of her daughters in Christ, who although still quite young, as superior; her decision was ratified by the election of Richilde. “Radegonde fully submits herself and her possessions under Richilde’s authority.” The monastery at the time owned lands and farms given by Clotaire as a patrimony necessary to sustain the monastic community. It was Radegonde who assured the spiritual direction and formation of the sisters, who remained “her daughters,” by teaching, exhortations, homiletics – possessing vast biblical and patristic knowledge – and by example of the life she lead, her commitment, mortification, virtue and piety had become a paragon for all the sisters.
Radegonde was a close friend of Saint Junian of Maire a 6th-century Christian hermit and abbot, founder of Mariacum Abbey at Mairé-Levescault in Poitou France. (The “L’Evescault” was added after a great religious festival in Poitiers to which Junian was invited by Queen Radagonde who raised him to the same rank as the other bishops or “Les Evêques” who were present.) Junian and Radegonde are said to have died on the same day, August 13, 587 and was buried in the crypt at Poitiers. [Quelques saints du Poitou et d’ailleurs .
Her abbey was named after a large fragment of the relic of the True Cross encased in a rich reliquary that Radegonde obtained at great personal expense from the Byzantine Emperor Justin II. Although the bishop of Poitiers Maroveus refused to install it in the abbey, at Radegonde’s request king Sigebert sent Eufronius of Tours to Poitiers to perform the ceremony to install them; To celebrate the relic and its installation into Sainte-Croix, Venantius Fortunatus wrote a major hymn for the occasion, “Vexilla regis prodeunt.” [Vexilla regis prodeunt, fulget crucis mysterium, quo carne carnis conditor suspensus est patibulo… – The Banners of the King issue forth, the mystery of the Cross does gleam, where the Creator of flesh, in the flesh, by the cross-bar is hung…] it is still considered to be one of the most significant Christian hymns ever written, and is still sung for services on Good Friday, Palm Sunday, as well as the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
Notably, Radegonde founded a hospital for lepers and persons ‘afflicted with the most nauseous distempers’, remaining there for over thirty years nursing them herself. She was also very pious and it was reputed that during Lent, Radegonde wore a shift of haircloth with iron chains and collars and even hot plates of iron under her robes. She also abstained from eating meat, fish, eggs and fruit, she ate nothing but legumes and green vegetables. She turned to God, changing her garments, and built a monastery for herself in the city of Poitiers. And being remarkable for prayer, fasting and charity, she attained such fame that she was considered great by the people.
The piety of the nuns of Poitiers is described. As the result of a vision one of them acted as follows: When the maiden had had this vision she was contrite in heart and after a few days she asked the abbess to get ready a cell in which she could be shut. The abbess got it ready quickly and said: “Here is the cell. What more do you wish?” The maiden asked to be permitted to be shut in it. This was granted, and the nuns gathered with loud psalm-singing and the lamps were lighted and she was conducted to the place, the blessed Radegonde holding her hand. And so she said farewell to all and kissed each one and became a recluse. And the entrance by which she went in was walled up and she is there now spending her time in prayer and reading.
Funeral and burial
Maroveus bishop of Poitiers also refused to conduct Radegunde’s funeral, [I get the impression that Maroveus really seemed to dislike Radegunde] which Venantius Fortunatus and Gregory of Tours attended, it was conducted three days after her death. She was buried in what was to become the Église de Sainte-Radegonde (formerly named Sainte-Marie-hors-les-murs) in Poitiers. Her tomb can still be found in the crypt of that church, which remains the centre of devotion to her. In the 1260s a church decoration program included stained-glass windows depicting Radegund’s life but were largely destroyed by Huguenots.
Radegonde is typically depicted “with royal robes, crown, and sceptre” and sometimes with “wolves and wild beasts” which are tame in her presence, she is also depicted with “crozier and book; field of oats; white headdress, tunic with fleurs-de-lys, mantle with castles.”
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