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Hermenegild: The Story of an Unfamiliar Martyr

In 579 Hermenegild son of King Leuvigild of Spain rebelled against his father and set up his own kingdom in the south, centred on the city of Seville. Hermenegild had just converted from Arianism to Nicene Christianity; his father however remained Arian. Leuvigild was displeased by his son’s conversion, for political reasons as much as for religious ones: his Arianism made him in a religious sense the enemy of the neighbouring Nicene kingdoms (Francia, Galicia and the Eastern Empire).

This difference of creed did not usually prevent him from making agreements and alliances with these Nicene neighbours, but it did mean that he was concerned that his own subordinates and family be Arian. So when Leuvigild arranged for his son Hermenegild to marry a Frankish princess, he expected her to convert to Arianism. After all, had not the Visigothic princess Brunhild, daughter of his predecessor King Athanagild, converted to catholic Christianity when she married the Frankish king Sigibert?

Hermenegild, the Martyr

Leuvigild reckoned without the stubbornness of Ingund daughter of Sigibert and Brunhild. When urged to convert to Arianism the young Ingund refused, adhering steadfastly to Nicene Christianity. Leuvigild sent Hermenegild to rule the southern province of his kingdom, based in the city of Seville. There Ingund and Bishop Leander of Seville persuaded Hermenegild to convert. When this led to Leuvigild’s anger, Hermenegild, believing his father wanted to kill him, proceeded to revolt. Bordering his province were the southernmost regions of Spain controlled by the Empire; Hermenegild swiftly made contact with the local imperial prefect in order to seek support for his cause. He also sent Leander to Constantinople to request military assistance from the emperor Tiberius II.

This was to be a Nicene Christian revolt against an Arian ruler, and Hermenegild also sought help from his wife’s Frankish relatives. He received the fervent support of the local inhabitants, ardent Nicene Christians all. Leuvigild responded cautiously to this rebellion. He delayed using military force against Hermenegild so as to give him a chance to change his mind, and meanwhile engaged in frantic diplomacy to ensure his son received no help from abroad.

In 583 Leuvigild at last moved against his son and besieged the city of Seville. He bribed the local imperial authorities to withdraw their support from Hermenegild, and after a lengthy siege the city fell and Hermenegild fled to imperial-controlled Cordoba. However, the imperial forces handed the rebel over to his father, who despite promises to the contrary promptly exiled Hermenegild in disgrace to Valencia. In 585 a certain Sisbert murdered Hermenegild; whether or not this was at the behest of Leuvigild is unknown. The rebellious prince was immediately hailed as a martyr by his supporters. Leuvigild died the following year, and in 587 his other son Reccared, who succeeded him, converted to catholic Christianity.

Legacy

Thus the tale of Hermenegild’s rebellion comes to a close. There is a tangled web of pan-Mediterranean political intrigue and competing propaganda lying underneath this simple account, and much more might be said. But it is the religious legacy of this rebellion that is of interest to us. Gregory the Great befriended Leander of Seville while both were in Constantinople in 579; Gregory was the ambassador of Pope Pelagius II, while Leander was engaging in his fruitless efforts to enlist imperial aid.

It was this friendship that led him to pay close attention to the outcome of Hermenegild’s rebellion; and he had no doubt that the prince was a martyr for catholic Christianity. In his Dialogues, a book recounting the lives and deeds of the saints, he glosses over the rebellion and portrays Hermenegild steadfastly resisting his father’s attempts to convert him, even in prison in Valencia: “Even if he lay chained on the outside, nevertheless within his own self he stood firm in his greatness of mind.”[1]

According to Gregory, when he received the news of his son’s steadfastness Leuvigild fell into a rage and ordered his execution.

Yet the results of this martyrdom were not in vain; Gregory recounts that Leuvigild was sorry for his act, and before he died in 586 he commended his other son Reccared to Bishop Leander, who succeeded in converting Reccared. “And all this,” Gregory states, “would never have come to pass, we think, if King Hermenegild had not been killed for the sake of the truth.”[2]

It was the account of Gregory the Great that determined the view of Hermenegild in history; his Dialogues were translated into Greek in the eighth century and thereafter the Visigothic prince was venerated in the Eastern churches as a martyr. In 1585, at the urging of the Spanish king Philip II, Pope Sixtus V canonized Hermenegild. Yet this raises a question: why did it take so long for the western church to venerate Hermenegild? The answer is that the view of Gregory the Great was not the only one, and not all Christians in the west approved of Hermenegild’s actions.

Bishop Gregory of Tours, who died in 592 after writing a voluminous history of his era, was greatly impressed by the faithfulness of Ingund, describing how she professed her faith in the equality of the Trinity viriliter, “manfully,” against Arian blandishments, and converted her husband Hermenegild: “Although resisting for a long time, finally he was moved by her preaching and converted to the catholic religion.”[3] This brought about the wrath of Leuvigild; Hermenegild in the bishop of Tours’ telling had no choice but to rebel, since his father wished to kill him for converting.

However, it all came to a bad end when Hermenegild was abandoned by his erstwhile imperial allies and his father defeated his forces. Foolishly believing his brother Reccared’s assurances that Leuvigild would forgive him, the rebel was sent into exile with only a single slave to serve him. Gregory of Tours places the guilt for Hermenegild’s death firmly on his father. Yet while Gregory had no sympathy for Leuvigild, he nonetheless was not convinced Hermenegild was in the right.

Gregory of Tours’ Three Points

There are three points Gregory of Tours makes about Hermenegild’s martyrdom:

1) Persecution does not absolve us from our moral duties. Gregory strongly condemned Hermenegild’s rebellion against his father, and believed that the prince’s bad end came about as a result of the judgment of God: “He realized that his father was coming against him with an army, and formed a plan to either repulse or kill him, not knowing, the wretch, that the judgment of God hangs over him who meditates such things against his father, however heretical he may have been.”[4] Sons should not disobey their fathers, still less seek to kill them. Heretics and pagans have moral claims on us as well.

2) People who seem to be on our side during persecution frequently have their own agenda, and to rely on them rather than God is foolish. The forces of the Eastern Empire, the “Greeks” as Gregory dismissively called them, abandoned Hermenegild to his fate. Even worse, they had their own purposes for supporting him, and the moment he was out of the picture they made use of his wife Ingund and his newborn child Athanagild.

They had been left in the protection of imperial forces in Cordoba, and the Emperor wished to use the young mother and her child as hostages to extract military support in Italy from Ingund’s Frankish relatives. When Ingund died her son Athanagild was taken to Constantinople, there to serve several more years as a useful lever that induced Ingund’s Frankish relatives to launch several fruitless invasions of Italy in support of the Empire. It was all rather sordid.

3) The judgment of history is not necessarily the judgment of God. Gregory of Tours would have been utterly unmoved by the acclaim Hermenegild received after his death. For him, he was not only a hapless fool but a wicked one, sending his wife and child into the hands of self-serving foreigners, falling for a trick of his father’s and dying a well-deserved death due to his attempted parricide. Hermenegild’s tragic life is useful only as an example for Christians of what not to do.

So what can we gain from all this? There is no need to be excessively cynical about martyrdom; Gregory of Tours would have agreed with Gregory the Great that there were some bright spots in the affair. Yet Gregory of Tours was concerned that Christians be able to discern the tricks of the lovers of this world and yet not be caught up in the world’s wickedness. The truly righteous are able to do both. The experience of persecution and suffering can be a heady one, as Hermenegild no doubt experienced; yet such things can be misused for evil.

It is the judgment of God that we should fear, and eternal life that we should await with eagerness, not the praise of mankind: “For our end is Christ himself, who will grant us eternal life by his generous goodness if we will turn to him.”[5]


Image: Francisco Herrera the Younger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons {{PD-ART}}

[1] Gregory the Great, Dialogues, 3.31.

[2] Ibid, 3.31.

[3] Gregory of Tours, Histories, 5.38.

[4] Gregory of Tours, Histories, 6.43.

[5] Gregory of Tours, Histories, Preface.

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