Monday 31 October 2016

The Martyr of Roeux

October 31 is the feast of Saint Foillan, one of a trio of saintly brothers who went as missionaries to seventh-century Gaul.  It was in his new territory that Foillan met a martyr's death, a story recounted by Dame Augusta Drake in her collection of Catholic Legends:


 "At the time when the children of Clovis reigned in Gaul,” says an old chronicle, “ there was in Ireland a king by name Finnloga, who had a brother, the pious Bishop Brendan. Adfin, one of the kings of Scotland, had a daughter named Gelgés, who had embraced the religion of Christ. King Finnloga’ s son was smitten with her beauty, and married her, but privately, because it was necessary to conceal it from King Adfin, who was an implacable enemy of the faith. He soon discovered it, however, and had his daughter seized and condemned to be burnt. In vain his relations and other persons of influence represented to him that man ought not to separate what God had joined; he ordered the stake to be prepared. But no sooner had Gelgés placed her foot upon the burning wood than it was extinguished. Her father was not convinced by this prodigy, but he consented to spare the life of his daughter, and he condemned her to perpetual exile. She retired with her husband to good Bishop Brendan, her uncle, and there gave birth to three sons — Fursy, Folllan, and Ultan. On the death of the grandfather, Finnloga, their father was raised to the throne; but instead of returning to the court, they resolved, by Brendan’s instructions, to devote themselves to the service of God, and they embarked as missionaries for Gaul.” So far the chronicler.

 Fursy, after many labours and hardships, attained the crown of martyrdom. Foillan, the second brother, was preparing on the 31st October, 655, the day on which our narrative commences, to leave Nivelles, where he had been resting for a short space. Gertrude was at this time the abbess of the convent of Nivelles, and had given to Foillan, in 633, the domain of Fosses, where he had built a church and monastery, the tower of which, in fact, exists to this day. His brother Ultan was now at the monastery of Fosses, and Foillan was about to join him; but before doing so he wished to celebrate the festival of All Saints with his friend the blessed Vincent Maldegher. He took his journey therefore through an opening in the forest by the route of Soignies, where he was to receive hospitality for the night in the monastery of Vincent.

 After traversing many intricate paths in solitude and silence, without meeting any living being; and having moreover, as he thought, lost his way, he began to look about for some human habitation where he might obtain shelter and direction. At last he perceived some rude straw-built huts, and thither he accordingly directed his steps. This was the hamlet of Soneffe.

Foillan seeing that it was now late, and that he had not completed half his journey, was glad to enter a hut and ask for a guide. The frightful appearance and fierce looks of the inmates of the cabin would have frightened any one but the holy missionary. But, like the glass which we read of in the Arabian tale, that did not reflect any deformed object, the heart of the saint suspected no evil, and he at once desired two of the men to accompany him as guides. Foillan conversed with the men from time to time as they proceeded along the rough and unequal path; but they said little in reply. Finding they were still pagans, he spoke to them of God, His goodness and mercy, of the redemption of man by the blood of the Crucified, and of the paradise prepared for those who believe and do His will. All his words, however, fell unheeded on their ears, and he could only be silent and pray for them. At last the saint arrived with his guides at a part of the forest where an idol was worshipped; and there, whether it was that these pagans wished to force him to sacrifice like them to their god, or whether they thought only of robbing him, the four men threw themselves upon him and dispatched him with their clubs, heedless alike of his entreaties, or of the prayers which with his last voice he offered up for his murderers.

Night now set in cold and dismal. A violent wind began to howl among the trees; and next morning a thick snow, which lay for several months, covered the face of the country. Meantime, the companions of Foillan became alarmed at his prolonged absence, and at not having seen him at the feast of Christmas, which he was accustomed to celebrate at Fosses. The most dreadful fears began to be entertained, which were confirmed by several visions. His brother Ultan, as he was at prayers, saw pass before his eyes a dove white as snow, but with wings reddened with blood; a similar prodigy was seen by the abbess Gertrude; and on the 5th January, 656, information was given her in her cell at Nivelles, that in a certain spot of the forest of Soignies the snow was red. Next day she repaired thither, guided by a bloody vapour which hovered in the sky, and discovered the dead body of Foillan. It was at first earned with pomp to Nivelles, but Ultan desired it might be buried at Fosses, as the martyr himself had requested. In order to arrive at this monastery it was necessary to cross the Sambre, then swollen by the melted snow and ice. Not knowing where to cross, it is related that Gertrude ordering them to leave the horses free, the latter passed, followed by the crowd, through the place which has ever since been called the "Ford of St. Gertrude.”

 The body of the martyr was afterwards enclosed in a beautiful chapel; and on the same spot, at a later period, was raised a magnificent church, to which was added, in 1123, an abbey of Premonstratensians. The colour of the snow, which had revealed the place of the crime, gave to this place the name of Rood (red), which was afterwards known by the name of Le Roeux, an important barony in the middle ages, and at this day a thriving little village. Soneffe, whence the murderers of the holy Foillan came, continued, and still continues, to hear the marks of the divine malediction ; for while all the other hamlets around became flourishing towns, this alone has remained as in the times of paganism, a collection of miserable huts.

Drake, Dame Augusta Theodosia, ed. and trans., Catholic Legends: A New Collection (London, 1855), 208-211.

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