The Odd Frankish Siege of Saragossa


In 541 or 542, the Frankish co-kings Chlotar (r. 511-561) and Childebert (r. 511-558) crossed the Pyrenees and invaded the Visigothic Kingdom in Spain. The 6th-century bishop and historian, Gregory of Tours, highly embellished his account of the campaign, stating, “they succeeded in conquering a large part of Spain and they returned to Gaul with immense booty” (History of the Franks, Book III, section 29). In truth, the Frankish incursion into Spain turned out to be little more than a glorified raid. Nevertheless, the Franks did reach at least as far as the city of Saragossa, and it was there that Childebert and Chlotar reportedly witnessed a bizarre sight that left them stunned.

As the Franks neared Saragossa, the invading army found themselves anchored to the ground in shock and bewilderment by a powerful display of sight and sound emanating from the city. According to Gregory of Tours, the people of Saragossa had decided to call on God’s aid against the Franks and their method for inspiring divine intervention was apparently to flock en masse to the outskirts of the city and embark on a parade of desperate holy supplication. Consequently, when the Franks arrived on the scene, they were met with the peculiar sight of the population of Saragossa marching around their city walls while dressed in black clothes and hairshirts (rough and itchy garments worn for self-punishment). The darkly-clad mass of bodies was reportedly unkempt in appearance, and many of the city dwellers went a step further by smearing their faces with ashes. When they were not weeping, wailing or pleading toward the heavens, the people marching around Saragossa also spent time singing psalms and hymns. At the head of the parade, curiously enough, was a tunic that the worshippers were handling with great veneration. Despite the self-punishing hairshirts, the faces covered in ashes, and the soulfully sung hymns, it was the tunic that seemed to give the city the greatest sense of hope.

According to Gregory of Tours, Kings Chlotar and Childebert had an odd first assessment of what they were witnessing. He wrote, “as they watched them march round the walls they imagined that it was some curious kind of black magic” (History of the Franks, Book III, section 29). Yet, this first assumption was apparently erased when they captured a local peasant, who told the Franks that the people of Saragossa were not crying out to the Devil, but to God. From the same captive, the Franks also learned that the peculiar tunic which was hoisted with such reverence by the inhabitants of Saragossa was none other than the holy dalmatic vestments of St. Vincent (d. 304), a martyr from the persecutions of Emperor Diocletian.

The Franks, at least according to Bishop Gregory of Tours, were more afraid of St. Vincent’s tunic than of witchcraft or sorcery. Gregory ended his account of the siege of Saragossa by misleadingly stating, “This [St. Vincent’s tunic] scared the troops and they withdrew from the city” (History of the Franks, Book III, section 29). The Franks did eventually leave Spain, but not before seizing the holy tunic of St. Vincent for themselves and bringing it back to France as plunder. King Childebert brought it to Paris and enshrined it in the church that would come to be known as Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Miniature from the Chronicle of Aegidius Li Musis in the Library of Brussels, c.1349, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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