St. Martin was a 4th-century saint who was born in the Roman province of Pannonia and eventually settled in Gaul. He came to be a prominent and respected religious figure in the region of Poitiers, where he ultimately founded a community of religious hermits. About the year 371, however, he became the bishop of Tours, a position he held until his death around 397.
According to legend, Saint Martin performed miracles throughout his life. Yet, the distribution of his miracles was not equal—he reportedly performed more miracles before becoming bishop of Tours than after receiving the post. This unequal dissemination of holy marvels caused some drama after Martin’s death.
Saint Martin died while visiting the village of Candes, which ironically was in a fairly equidistant location between Tours and Poitiers. As a result, people from both cities were in attendance while St. Martin was on his deathbed. After the saint breathed his last, the representatives of both Tours and Poitiers immediately began vying for control of Martin’s saintly remains.
On the one hand, Tours had the advantage of Martin being their long-serving bishop. Yet, Poitiers could tout the claim that the majority of Martin’s miracles had occurred in the vicinity of their city. According to Bishop Gregory of Tours (r. 573-594) in his History of the Franks (Book I), the people of Poitiers proudly bragged that Martin had resurrected two people in their city, whereas the saint had only brought one person back to life in Tours. Pointing to the resurrections and other miracles, Poitiers asserted that they were the obvious choice for the tomb of Saint Martin. Tours countered the argument by proposing that since Poitiers had been amply graced with so many miracles by the saint during his life, it was only fair that the remains of Saint Martin to be entombed in Tours, so that the body of the late bishop could bestow postmortem marvels on his miracle-deprived bishopric in death. As can be expected, however, both sides in the debate stubbornly refused to concede to the other faction’s argument and the destination of Saint Martin’s body remained undecided.
According to Gregory of Tours, his city ultimately obtained the saint’s remains in a peculiar way. As the story goes, the people of Poitiers had the advantage during the debate. The body of the saint was locked in a room for the night and the faction from Poitiers insisted that the saint’s remains would be leaving for their city when dawn arrived, with or without the permission of their opposition. Even so, the group from Tours did not intend to leave Candes without their former bishop’s body. That night all of the people from Poitiers fell into a deep sleep, which, according to Gregory of Tours, was divinely inspired. The representatives of Tours quickly noticed that none of their rivals were keeping an eye on the coveted body of the saint. Therefore, they scrambled to seize their unguarded prize.
The party from Tours quickly split up to accomplish different tasks. Some ventured off to procure a boat on the Vienne River. Others entered the room where Saint Martin’s body lay (either by window or by key), while the rest of the group remained on watch outside the building, positioning themselves by a window. The people inside the room respectfully carried the body of their saintly bishop to the window in question, where they passed the body to the people standing outside. With the saint’s remains exfiltrated from the locked room, the group rushed to the Vienne River, where more people from Tours were waiting with a ship. Once everyone and their holy cargo was onboard, the ship sailed from the Vienne to the Loire River, where they sailed in a northeastern direction until they reached Tours, supposedly chanting verses from Psalms the whole way.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (The Funeral of St. Stephen by Filippo Lippi (1406–1469), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.