While renouncing the title of abbess, Radegund exercised a strong influence on the running of the abbey, starting with its initial conception as a refuge for women in violent times. “I asked myself,” she later explained, “with all the ardor of which I am capable, how I could best forward the cause of other women, and how, if our Lord so willed, my own personal desires might be of advantage to my sisters.” Abuse against women was common in those days – whether by their husbands or as a consequence of wars.
In 531, an army of Frankish soldiers invaded the Kingdom of Thuringia (in today’s France), sacked the palace, killed the royal family, and took the royal children back to the Frankish capital, Athies. Among these children was Radegund, daughter of Bertachar, who had ruled Thuringia jointly with his brothers until one of them killed him. At the time of the Frankish conquest, she was living in the home of her father’s murderer.
Theuderic and Chlotar, co-rulers of the Frankish kingdom, divided the spoils. Clothar, who had a reputation for being “most amorous by temperament,” won Radegund in a gambling game, and raised her as future member of his harem of six wives and at least one concubine.
Officially, Theuderic and Chlotar were Christians. Their father Clovis had been converted through the intervention of his wife Clotilde. But conversions of rulers, at that time, were often political in nature, and their actions didn’t always follow their professions of faith.
We don’t know anything about Radegund’s beliefs at the time of her arrival. Thuringia was still a pagan region but Christianity might have been introduced at her court. In any case, in Clothar’s palace she was baptized and raised as a Christian with other children. She learned to sing Psalms and received a basic education that allowed her to read the Scriptures and the writings of the church fathers.
By 540, when Clothar, now in his forties, took her as his wife, her life was so devoted to prayer, study, and works of charity that he complained that he had married a nun. There were times when she left the conjugal bed to go “to relieve nature” and he would find her prostrate on the floor in prayer. During the royal banquets, she would often leave to take food to the poor.
Most likely, Clothar objected to these practices. Although his opposition has not been documented, the reference in one of Radegund’s poems to “the captive maid given to a hostile lord” might be an indication.
This situation continued for about ten years, until Clothar murdered her brother. Then she left the palace and found temporary refuge with the bishop of Noyon, Médard, surprising him with the unusual request to consecrate her to God as a nun.
This put Médard in a difficult situation. He wanted to help her, but married women could not legally become nuns. When Radegund insisted, he consecrated her as a deaconess.
After this, she retired in a castle in Saix, in southern France, which Clothar had given her as a morgengabe, the customary present noblemen offered to their wives after their first wedding night.
Clothar was not about to let Radegund go. Whatever his feelings might have been toward her, she had brought him dishonor. Besides, their union was important to him from a political point of view, sealing his victory over Thuringia. He then asked Germanus, bishop of Paris, to go with him to Saix to take back his bride.
But Radegund was a step ahead of him. Alerted by some courtesans of the king’s intentions, she approached Germanus and asked him to intervene in her favor. Her letter to him might have included some details of marital abuse, because Germanus asked Clothar to repent. In the end, he was able to convince the king not only to let Radegund go, but to finance the founding of an abbey she could preside.
Apparently, Clothar allowed some of Radegund’s ladies-in-waiting to follow her. Radegund, who refused the title of abbess, gave it to one of her ladies, Agnes, whom she had “loved and brought up as if she were [her] daughter from her childhood onwards.”
A Place of Refuge
While renouncing the title of abbess, Radegund exercised a strong influence on the running of the abbey, starting with its initial conception as a refuge for women in violent times.