In 585, an adventurer named Gundovald (or Gundoald) spent a brief time in the city of Bordeaux. He was roaming the lands of the Franks, telling the people that he was a long-lost son of the late King Chlotar I (d. 561). Despite this claim having been rejected by King Chlotar, himself, as well as by Chlotar’s sons, Gundovald continued popping up here and there in the Frankish lands, trying to recruit nobles and clergymen to his cause. As his legitimacy was dubious at best, Gundovald was designated as a pretender (illegal/unrecognized claimant) to the throne, and he consequently could not stay in one place for too long. Yet, in the city of Bordeaux, Gundovald heard a tale that piqued his interest and convinced him to stay in the city for a time.
A peculiar rumor was spreading around the Frankish lands in those days. Bishop Gregory of Tours, who wrote history in his spare time, commented on these enticing tales. He stated:
“Somebody told him [Gundovald] that a certain king in Eastern parts had obtained possession of the thumb of Saint Sergius the martyr, and that he had attached this to his own right arm. Whenever he needed help to drive back his enemies, he would put his trust in this support; for when he raised his right arm the enemy troops would immediately turn in flight, as if they had been vanquished by the martyr’s miraculous power” (History of the Franks, VII.31).
Gundovald, hearing of this mysterious item, obviously wanted to get his hands on it. One of Gundovald’s followers, a bishop named Bertram, claimed to have discovered a lead on a possible location where one such object of power could be found. According to Bishop Bertram, there was a Syrian merchant in Bordeaux who had a large collection of holy relics, including some belonging to the aforementioned Saint Sergius. To spice up the news, the bishop told Gundovald that the relics in the merchant’s house had been catalysts for many miracles, including one incident where the merchant’s home had miraculously survived a fire, while neighboring houses burned down.
Convinced by the tales, Gundovald sent his henchmen to the merchant’s house, and they reportedly broke into the dwelling. The relic collector was home at the time, so the robbers pulled out their swords and demanded that the merchant bring them to the relics of Saint Sergius. As the story goes, the relics were hidden in a casket or container hidden in a high spot on a wall or rafter. After obtaining a ladder, one of the robbers climbed up the rungs to reach the box of relics. Either due to the effects of holy power (or hefty weight) the man’s hand trembled as he hauled the relics from their high perch. Perusing through the holy remains in the container, the robbers reportedly picked out a fingerbone of Saint Sergius. In an interesting move, the henchmen allegedly took a knife and chopped the relic into three pieces, and brought one section back to Gundovald. According to Bishop Gregory of Tours (the one who reported this story), the spirit of Saint Sergius did not appreciate the desecration of the relic—despite his possession of a section of the fingerbone, Gundovald would be overpowered and killed by his enemies within the year.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Destruction of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.