Around the year 587, King Guntram of Burgundy (r. 561-593) was present in the city of Chalon-sur-Saône during a celebration of the feast of Saint Marcellus. The king enjoyed the hospitality of the town and he attended a local church service held in commemoration of the saint’s feast. Mass that day would turn out to be quite the adrenaline rush for the king. While Guntram was in the church, a suspicious man allegedly began marching quickly in the king’s direction. This suspect worshipper apparently tried to subtly weave in-between the king’s guards, but while he was making this maneuver, the fellow made a grave mistake—he dropped a knife. The falling blade did not escape the notice of King Guntram’s guards, and they quickly pounced on the would-be assailant. As they were wrestling the man into submission, they allegedly found a second blade in a sleeve. Implying that the suspicious individual in their custody was an assassin, Guntram and his guards dragged the man out of church and immediately began an interrogation.
What occurred next is strange. At face value, it seems that the assassin in the church cracked under pressure from torture, divulging the names of a whole ring of conspirators in the surrounding region. After this confession, the king reportedly had mercy on the assassin, with the explanation being that he did not want to execute someone who had been arrested in a holy sanctuary. Few of the other people implicated in the man’s confession, however, were so lucky. Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), an acquaintance of King Guntram, wrote of this incident, stating, “Those to whom the man referred were apprehended: a great many were executed, but the man himself was given a severe beating and then Guntram set him free, for he held it to be impious to kill a man who had been taken prisoner in a church” (History of the Franks, IX.3). The bishop’s account is one interpretation, but there could also be other explanations behind what happened in Chalon-sur-Saône. One might wonder if the assassin who had been apprehended without harm and was completely pardoned of his crime might have been something of a double agent who had been on Guntram’s side all along.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration from a 14th-century manuscript, labeled “BL Harley 4903, f. 214” in The British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and The British Library).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.