Around the year 581, a band of audacious thieves hatched a plot to burglarize an iconic structure in the city of Tours. Their target was the treasure-laden church of Saint Martin, the seat of power for the local bishopric, then led by the clergyman and historian, Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594). At a time—presumably at night—when Saint Martin’s had low foot traffic and little surveillance, the thieves infiltrated onto church property, entering through a graveyard that was adjacent to the apse of Saint Martin’s. The thieves, it was said, then vandalized one of the tombs in the cemetery, removing a length of railing which they used as a ladder or ramp to access a window along the apse. After smashing the window, the burglars entered Saint Martin’s and went about stripping the sanctuary of its valuable adornments. Gold, silver and ornate tapestries were stolen from the premises, and the thieves reportedly made quite a mess while gathering their plunder. In particular, Bishop Gregory of Tours commented with horror that there was evidence (footprints, or the like) of the thieves walking sacrilegiously over the tomb of Saint Martin.
After pulling down the wall-hangings of the church and gathering up all the precious metal adornments, trays and vessels that they could find, the thieves vanished into the night and escaped from the city of Tours without a trace. They eventually reached the city of Bordeaux, where the gang of burglars began dividing up the plunder, literally cutting apart the gold and silver objects so that each thief received a fair share. Yet, honor is dubious among thieves—especially medieval thieves who would ransack a church. Before long, heated disagreements arose between the various burglars in the gang, likely on the division of the ill-gotten gains or on the next step that the group should take. In the end, the differences became unreconcilable and the division became violent. As the story goes, one of the burglars was eventually murdered, a crime that caught the attention of local authorities in Bordeaux. In the course of the investigation, the entire gang of burglars was rounded up and their stash of valuables was discovered, to the relief of Gregory of Tours. All of the tapestries and wall-hangings were recovered intact, but some of the gold and silver was apparently traded away by the thieves, and much of the rest was broken up into barterable chunks.
King Chilperic of the Franks (r. 561-584) took special interest in the case, overseeing the imprisonment of the thieves and restoring the pillaged goods (or what was left of it) to the church of Saint Martin’s in Tours. Bishop Gregory of Tours claimed to have sent a messenger to King Chilperic, asking for the thieves not to be executed. Yet, the bishop did not say if the king heeded his advice. Gregory of Tours did, however, comment that “Saint Martin made a terrible example of these reckless men” (History of the Franks, VI.10). Therefore, the thieves likely were not given easy treatment by the law.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Image of a siege from The Story of Our Christianity by Frederic Mayer Bird (1838-1908) and Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.