(Sigismund painting, photographed by Georges Jansoone (JoJan), Public Domain via Creative Commons)
Strangulation, War and Deadly Curses
Saints are not born in their perfect, saintly, form. Neither, do newborn saints leave the womb ready to baptize the doctors delivering them. No, saints grow and live like everyone else, creating themselves with every choice and decision they make in life. Though saints may become models of purity and virtue, many of them came from backgrounds of crime and mischief before they changed their ways and strived for sainthood. Some saints, however, have more dramatic stories than most and few saint stories are as strange and uncanny as Saint Sigismund of Burgundy.
Saint Sigismund was a King of Burgundy (Eastern France) at the start of the 6th century. The 6th century was a tumultuous time in Europe; the Western Roman Empire had fallen and various groups of peoples were creating new nations from the skeleton of Rome’s empire throughout Europe and Africa. The powerful Franks took control of a large swath of land, including almost all of modern France. King Sigismund had the misfortune of ruling Burgundy—with the expansionist Franks holding territory to the north and west of his domain.
Sigismund gained his throne in 516 and his short rule did not go smoothly. Only one year after gaining his throne, Sigismund ordered the execution of a man named Sigeric. This person, however, was no ordinary criminal, traitor or enemy. No, the person that saint Sigismund executed—by strangulation, mind you—was none other than Sigismund’s own son. Medieval sources claimed that Sigismund’s second wife was responsible for Sigeric’s death, as she allegedly spread rumors that Sigeric was involved in treachery and conspiracy against the king. In the end, the question of if Sigeric was guilty of any wrongdoing will remain unknown. Nevertheless, Saint Sigismund ultimately ordered his own son to be strangled to death.
Saint Sigismund must have felt some sense of grief or remorse after the execution of his son, for he retreated to the monastery of Saint-Maurice d’Agaune for some time and space to reflect. Sigismund may have been at the monastery in an honest moment of reflection, or he may also have been there to avoid the glares of angered relatives and citizens—the reader can decide.
There is no rest for the wicked, or the saintly, even after having one’s own son executed. The Franks, mentioned earlier, were always on the lookout for new lands to conquer, and Burgundy was as good as any other target. King Chlodomer of Orleans, along with his brothers, invaded Burgundy and faced Saint Sigismund in the field of battle. History does not remember Saint Sigismund for any remarkability in military matters, so it is no surprise that the Franks crushed the Burgundian saint and his army.
After the defeat of his military forces, Saint Sigismund fled to a familiar place—he donned priestly attire and tried to hide among the monks of St. Maurice monastery. King Chlodomer and the Frankish troops found Saint Sigismund in 523 and showed no mercy. Sigismund was brought back to Orleans, where he and his family were executed. Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594) described the scene in his History of the Franks: “Sigismund and his wife and children were murdered out of hand: Chlodomer ordered them to be thrown down a well at Saint-Péravy-la-Colombe, a small township in Orléanais” (Book III, section 6).
If you do not think Saint Sigismund was all that saintly in life, wait until you hear of the fate of the Frankish King Chlodomer before passing the final judgement. After executing Saint Sigismund, King Chlodomer’s life plummeted into tragedy. Killing a saint, it seems, can bring incredibly deadly consequences.
The death of Sigismund did not end the war between Burgundy and the Franks. Sigismund’s brother, Godomer, succeeded to the throne and faced King Chlodomer in a new wave of war. In the Battle of Vezeronce, King Chlodomer met King Godomer in battle, but, unlike before, the Burgundians emerged from the battle victorious and King Chlodomer lay dead on the field. The terrible fate of King Chlodomer did not end there—politics, a ruthless game, was even more unforgiving in the dark past. King Chlodomer’s brothers saw an opportunity to seize more land and had two of King Chlodomer’s children murdered, thereby assuring their deceased brother’s land would be their own. Only one son of Chlodomer escaped assassination, and could only achieve this by forfeiting all claims and titles, and joining a monastery in Paris.
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.