In 585, the forces of King Guntram of the Franks (r. 561-593) chased down and defeated a pretender (illegal/unrecognized claimant) to the throne named Gundovald. During the pursuit, Guntram’s forces passed by a town called Agen, where a church dedicated to Saint Vincent was located. The doors of this church were locked and barred, as were the other entrances to the holy sanctuary. Despite the barricades, Guntram’s warriors could see all sorts of treasures inside the church, presumably locked inside by locals who hoped the church would disincentivize looting by the roaming armies in the region. Not paying any respect to Saint Vincent’s church, the warriors decided to break into the place at all cost. To do this, they reportedly set fire to the doors, weakening the integrity of the boards and barricades. After letting the fire burn for a time, the looters were able to break into the church, where the treasures were there for the taking.
Unbeknownst to the looters, however, the wealth in the church was protected in some way. Whether by holy power, or by sabotage of the locals or the adventurer Gundovald, the treasure turned out to be a trap. As soon as the warriors touched the would-be loot, chaos broke out in the church of Saint Vincent. Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), holy man and historian, described the bizarre scene that reportedly took place in the church:
“Once the doors were burnt down, the soldiers looted all the property and all the equipment which they found there, and stole the church plate as well. The vengeance which God exacted gave them a severe fright. Many of their hands caught fire supernaturally and gave forth a great smoke, like the pall which rises from a conflagration. Some were possessed by a devil and rushed about screaming the martyr’s name. Others fought with each other and wounded themselves with their own javelins. A vast horde of troops continued to advance but with fear in their hearts” (History of the Franks, VII.35).
Despite the supernatural (or otherwise-devised) plight that this band of looters experienced, the rest of King Guntram’s army continued on their way in pursuit of the disruptive adventurer, Gundovald. They besieged the city of Comminges, where the pretender was staying, and looted (with more success this time) the countryside around the town. As the siege progressed, Gundovald was ultimately betrayed by his followers and, in the end, faced execution.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Lot leaving Sodom, painted by Kerstiaen de Keuninck (circa 1561 –circa 1635), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971