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St Radegund

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The nunnery just outside the town of Cambridge whose site, ruinous buildings and exiguous endowments were used to found Jesus College was the first of two religious houses in England (the other was at Dover) to be dedicated to this sixth century saint, a reluctant queen (as also were five parish churches and several cathedral chapels).  In 1496 she was accordingly named one of the new College’s three patron saints (the others being the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist), and in the ensuing centuries her name has been given to a terrace of houses near the College (Radegund Buildings), a public house (the Radegund Arms), a Cambridge street (Radegund Road), a Master’s daughter (Rhadegunda Morgan), and a dining club for leading College sportsmen (the Rhadegunds).  Most recently the College has established the Society of St Radegund in order formally to recognise and express its gratitude to its most generous and substantial (living) benefactors.

Born (circa 520) a princess in Thuringia (South Germany), Radegund when eleven or twelve fell (along with her brother) as booty of war to the Frankish King Chlothar I.  He had her educated at his court and, when she was about 18, compelled her to marry him and become his queen, though she would have much preferred to continue living devoutly and austerely, as she had been.  It was not a cordial marriage: Chlothar was rough, brutal, often drunk and far from monogamous, while her meek and long-suffering behaviour led to it being said that he had “yoked himself to a nun rather than a queen”, which only irritated him further.  Matters came to a head when (circa 550) Chlothar had her brother, the last surviving male member of the Thuringian royal family, murdered.  She fled the court and sought the protection of the Church, persuading, first, the bishop of Noyon to consecrate her a deaconess and, later, the bishop of Paris to mediate with the King on her behalf.  In this the bishop was eventually successful – though perhaps only because Chlothar realised that he had not long to live (he died the following year, 561).

In the early 550s Radegund had founded a monastery on her own royal estate at Poitiers receiving, in the end, Chlothar’s consent and support.  There she gathered many high-born converts, men as well as women – by the time of her death in 587 the dual community was said to have had two hundred members.  She assembled a large collection of relics (notably one of the true cross, which led to the monastery being known as the Abbey of the Holy Cross), and introduced (circa 570) the stringent monastic rule of Caesarius of Arles, requiring, also, the nuns to be able to read and write, and to spend several hours each day reading the scriptures and copying manuscripts.  Having installed her childhood and close friend, Agnes, as abbess, she strove to live as a simple nun.  She maintained good relations with her step-sons (though not with the bishop of Poitiers) and befriended the poet and hymn-writer Venantius Fortunatus.  He wrote her life.  Popular canonisation directly followed her death, and pilgrims still travel to her tomb in Poitiers.