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Pietistic Queen of the Franks


Radegund Facts:

Known for: Queen of the Franks; left her husband and founded a convent
Dates: about 518 to 520 - August 13, 586 or 587
Also known as: Radegunda, Rhadigund, Radegonde, Radigund, Radegunde, Radegundis, Saint Radegunda

Background, Family:

  • Father: Berthar or Berthaire, one of three brothers who were kings of Thuringia
  • Paternal uncles: Hermanfrid and Baderic

Marriage, Children:

  • husband: Clothar (also known as Clotaire or Lothar); they had no children

Radegund Biography:

Radegund was the daughter of Berthar, one of three brothers who divided Thuringia and then battled each other for control. Berthar was killed in battle by his brother Hermanfrid, who took Radegund and her brother into his home as spoils of war. He and his wife Amalberga saw that Radegund was educated, raising her along with his own son.

Hermanfrid had made agreements with the heirs of Clovis I of the Franks to ally with them in his battles, and then backed off from them. Two of them, Theuderic and Clothar, invaded Thuringia, and killed Hermanfrid and most of the royal family. Radegund and her brother were taken by Clothar as war booty. Hermanfrid's wife Amalberga and son Amalfred, Radegund's cousin, escaped and made their way to live at Byzantium. Years later, Radegund wrote of her closeness to her cousin in their childhood.

Clothar took Radegund first to Soissons and then sent her to Athies, with the intention to marry her when she was of sufficient age, strengthening his claim to Thuringia. She was educated well there. Radegund reportedly resisted the marriage, but finally consented. They married about 538; he also had other wives or concubines. These included Guntheuca, his brother Chlodomer's widow; he had Chlodomer's children killed after Chlodomer was killed by a Burgundian enemy. Another wife was Chunsina. Two more were sisters, Ingund and Aregund. And the last was Wuldetrada, a widow of his own great-nephew.

The couple were not exactly compatible. Clothar's rough habits were barely tolerated by Radegund; she focused much effort on piety and charity, and her hagiographer later wrote that Clothar had married "a nun rather than a queen." She founded hospitals and gave charity to the poor. One hospital she founded at Athies still exists. She insisted on dressing simply and eating very little.

In about 550, Clothar had Radegund's brother killed, as a rival for his claims to Thuringia. Radegund left her husband, and took refuge with the bishop of Noyen, Medard, who consecrated her as a deaconess, though he was at first reluctant to do so. Such a consecration of a woman with a living husband was not exactly according to canon law, but her consecration nevertheless gave her the protection of the church against her husband.

Founding a Convent

At first after leaving Clothar, Radegund lived ascetically at Saix. Beginning about 552 and continuing through about 560, Radegund built a convent, the Convent of Our Lady of Poitiers, about a mile outside Poitiers. She later added a monastery for men. She would not serve as the abbess; that office was held by a woman named Agnes, a childhood friend of Radegund. But Radegund exerted considerable influence on the community.

When the local bishop would not answer her request to establish a rule for the nuns, Radegund adopted one herself, the Rule of Caesaria of Arles. The nuns were cloistered and not permitted to leave. They were expected to provide financial support, so most were from the upper classes. They were required to be able to read and write, and spent their days copying manuscripts and reading holy writings as well as doing more traditional women's work of needlework.

Clothar and his sons would periodically attempt to get Radegund to return, though they continued financial support of her. Radegund threatened to take her own life before she would return to Clothar. After the king's acceptance of her leaving, he helped to fund the new convent, with help also from the bishop of Poitiers.

Clothar started to demand Radegund's return, again. In 560, Germanus, the bishop of Paris, received a letter from Radegund asking for his help. He intervened with Clothar at Radegund's request, and Clothar ended with sending an apology to Radegund, delivered by Bishop Germanus.

Clothar died in 561.

Gregory of Tours reproduces in his history a letter that Radegund wrote to the bishops of her area, assertively asking that they protect the monastery and its property. The letter also tells us much about the convent, including the rule that it was to follow, and that it had the approval of all four of Clothar's sons and heirs.

Venantius Fortunatus, an Italian poet, frequently visited the convent. Two poems he published are in her voice; scholars argue whether he wrote them or Radegund wrote them; it's likely that they were a joint project.

Two of Clothar's sons, Charibert and Chilperic I, ruled over Poitiers during Radegund's life there, as the sons warred with each other and vied for territory. She prayer, her hagiographer says, for all sides "for she loved them all."

In her later years, Radegund walled herself off and devoted herself to prayer.

Controversy Over Relics

Radegund petitioned the Byzantine Emperor for a relic of St. Mamas of Caesaria, and received the little finger of the right hand of that saint. Encouraged by this success, she then petitioned for a sliver of the True Cross, claimed to be part of the cross of Jesus from Jerusalem. He sent it, along with richly decorated gospels.

In 569, the bishop of Poitiers, Maroveus, refused to accept the relic. Radegund soundly denounced him, and finally got the relic to the convent. After this time, the convent was renamed the Abbey of the Holy Cross. The presence of a part of the True Cross meant that the convent also became a major pilgrimage site in western Europe.

Death and Legacy

Radegund died at her convent on August 13, 587. At the time of her death, there were about 200 women in the convent. The nuns were not permitted to leave the convent, but stood on the convent's outer walls as Radegund's body was taken out. Her funeral was led by Gregory of Tours, Bishop Maroveus continuing to ignore the convent. Fortunatus was also in attendance.

After her death, Fortunatus wrote a Life of Radegund. Another hagiographic Life, written after 600, was authored by one of the convent's nuns, Baudonivia, intending it to supplement the account by Fortunatus with more details about Radegund's life and work. In these stories, Radegund comes alive, in her work at the convent and in her negotiations with her husband and his four sons among whom he divided his realm. The hagiographies listed many miracles performed by Radegund, which became the basis for her canonization in the ninth century, along with Agnes, the abbess and Radegund's friend.

The convent was neglected by Bishop Maroveus after Radegund's death, but a revolt by some of the nuns led to him being directed by a council of bishops to support it. Still, the convent sharnk in numbers over the years.

In 1562, Radegund's body was found by Calvinists and burned. The convent still exists, though not in its original location.

A 13th century saint was also named Radegund.

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