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St. Radegunde: A patron saint against drowning

St. Radegunde (518-587)

Feast day: Aug. 13

Not long after St. Radegunde died in 587, one of her servants was deep-sea fishing when a storm came up suddenly and giant waves swamped his boat. Before the poor man even had a chance to start bailing, his boat filled with water and sank. As the terrified fisherman went under, he invoked St. Radegunde. A moment later he and his boat bobbed to the surface, the storm vanished, the sky was clear and the sea was calm.

Radegunde lived in the first years after the Roman Empire's final collapse, when the barbarian tribes were in ascendancy. Like many Christians of this time she identified with Roman civilization, and so she made her Convent of the Holy Cross in Poitiers, France, an island of piety, beauty, education and refinement in a sea of ignorance and violence. Even her chaplain was a Roman gentleman, St. Venantius Fortunatus, a priest who wrote Latin poetry in the classical style.

Although she identified with the Romans, Radegunde was herself a member of a barbarian tribe, the Thurginians, who settled in eastern Germany around present-day Erfurt. She had been born a pagan, the daughter of a prince. When she was a little girl her uncle murdered her father. Then the Franks conquered Thurginia and carried off 12-year-old Radegunde as a prize. In France she became a Christian, but she was still essentially a captive. At age 18 the king of the Franks, Clothaire, forced her to marry him. Although the king was nominally a Christian, it was probably a bigamous relationship since Clothaire had gone through at least five wives by this time, and it is unlikely that they had all died or that the church had granted him five annulments.

It was a wretched marriage. No matter how many wives he had Clothaire was always on the lookout for his next conquest. He was violent and beat Radegunde, blaming her because they had no children. The antagonism between the royal couple came to a head in 550 when Clothaire murdered Radegunde's brother. She ran away, took vows as a nun, and sent St. Germanus, the bishop of Paris, to convince Clothaire to leave her in peace. Clothaire, who had always complained that he felt he was married to nun rather than a queen, was happy to let Radegunde go. He even sent parting gifts to her convent.

Women looking for a secure, serene escape from the violence of their age flocked to Holy Cross; many of them were from noble families, and a significant number were royalty. Radegunde designed a routine of prayer, contemplation, study, silence, austerity and works of charity.

As the name of her convent suggests, she had a deep devotion to the Holy Cross and longed to have a fragment of the True Cross to venerate in her church. In 569 the Byzantine Emperor Justin II sent her a relic of the Holy Cross set in a reliquary of gold studded with jewels. To commemorate the arrival of so important a relic Venantius wrote a poem, "Vexilla regis prodeunt," (The banners of the King go forth). The poem was set to music and is one of the loveliest hymns in the repertoire of Gregorian chant.

Craughwell is the author of This Saint Will Change Your Life and Saints Behaving Badly.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016