Saint William of Gellone
Knight. Hero of song. Saint.
Join me today as we meet a knight and warrior of the Holy Roman Empire, a man whose heroic deeds and saintly life became the stuff of legend.
Name: William of Gellone, William of Orange
Life: c. 755 - c. 815
Feast: May 28
In the year 778 AD, when William, today’s manly saint, was in his mid twenties, two things happened that would alter the course of his life.
The first event was the ambush of the army of William’s liege lord, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles, who would become known as Charles the Great, or in condensed French, Charlemagne. Charles and his people, the Franks, had been doing what they had done since the time of his grandfather Charles the Hammer: defending Europe from the armies of Islam.
On campaign in occupied Muslim Spain, Charles dealt harshly with the Basque city of Pamplona. He suspected the Basques of being Muslim collaborators, so he tore down their walls. The angry Basques waited until Charles was returning home. When the rearguard of his army, laden down with captured Muslim gold, was in the tight Roncesvaux mountain pass in the Pyrenees, the Basques attacked from above, shooting and rolling down stones. Charles lost many men and knights, including the lord Roland.
Young William was probably with the army on that fateful day.
Maybe during the ambush William was at the front with the emperor Charles, in his entourage. This would make sense since he and Charles were related: Charles the Hammer was the emperor’s grandfather and William’s great grandfather. (This is worth pointing out because there’s a fringe theory that William’s family were secretly Jewish, which has bled into the pseudo-history of the Da Vinci Code series. The theory has been debunked, at least to my satisfaction.) At any rate, William was probably eager to get home and see his wife and children - over the course of his life, William would be married twice and father 12 children.
Even though the ambush of 778 mattered a lot at the time, we’d barely remember it today were it not for something that happened long after those involved were dead. In the 12th century, Europe burst into song. Minstrels, or jongleurs as they were called, told and retold the stories of great knights in their chansons de geste, literally songs of deeds. These are tales of knightly adventure, cunning stratagems, terrible loss and bloody vengeance. And it should be said: the jongleurs didn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.
The ambush of 778 became the Song of Roland. The detail that it was Basques who did it got smoothed away so that in the poem it is Muslim Moors who ambush the Christians. Roland became the emperor’s nephew and one of his personal palace guards, the original ‘paladins’, wielding the emperor’s own great sword Durendal. As the Franks fight to the last man, the heroic Roland lifts his war horn, carved from the tusk of an elephant, and sounds it to alert the emperor of his doom and call down his mighty vengeance on Roland’s killers.
The other thing that happened in 778 was a much smaller loss. One of William’s childhood friends was an older boy of Gothic background, Witiza. Like William, Witiza was a warrior serving emperor Charles. Witiza hadn’t told anyone, but he was beginning to question his vocation as a knight. Then in 778, Witiza’s brother died. He drowned, because Witiza couldn’t save him. For Witiza, it was a turning point. He consulted a wise old monk, Widmar, about what to do.
William could not have known it, but these two events in 778 AD - the Basque ambush and the death of Witiza’s brother, would shape the rest of William’s life.
Here’s how it happened. The emperor Charles was furious about the ambush on his army. So he tried to stabilize the region between modern France and Spain by putting it under the direct authority of his son, Louis. Louis became king with his father as emperor over him. Under Louis the territory was governed by counts.
One of Louis’ counts, Count Chorso of Toulouse made the mistake of getting captured by the Basques ten years after the big ambush, in 788. Even worse, Chorso swore a humiliating oath to the Basque leader Adalric. Chorso was freed, but Charles did not want a man like him in power. Instead, he appointed William as Count of Toulouse in 789. William did not repeat Chorso’s mistakes, and by 790 he had crushed Adalric. The Basque rebellion was over.
Peace was never long lasting for Charles and his empire, and the next crisis came in 793 with a Moorish attack. The Emir of Cordoba, Hixem I of the Umayyad Caliphate, marched North with a massive army. Count William had nothing that could compare with Hixem’s huge force. But he had to defend his lands.
William marched his much smaller force down and met Hixem beside the Oribeu river - well, maybe, we’re not certain of the location of the battle. What we do know is that despite the numbers, despite having no chance of actually winning, William’s Franks hit the Moors so hard that Hixem decided his invasion had gone far enough, and marched back to Spain.
William, of course, was eager to retaliate. He gathered his forces, and in three years his men were raiding Catalonia. William built a coalition of Christians and Muslims opposed to the fading Umayyads, and in a few years an army was headed South. It was led by William, his liege lord King Louis, and another count, Rostaing.
In 801, the Frankish Christians captured Barcelona, a milestone in the slow recapture of Spain. It was, in many ways, the high point of William’s career. His power and lands were increased. One of William’s sons, Bertrand, was put in charge of Barcelona.
William’s real world accomplishments made him a topic for song, and he features in 24 surviving chansons de geste. In the Song of William, for example, William is a confident leader of men. He’s kind leader, devastated by the loss of his men - but he’s always in charge. We see this in the story of a fictional battle with a fictional Moorish king. William’s horse dies, so he commandeers the horse of one of his junior knights, Guy. Then - because this is after all a knightly poem - William and Guy end up face to face with the Moorish king. The young knight is eager for glory, and asks William to give him back his horse. This request sends William into a rage, and he puts the young knight in his place, here in Michael Newth’s translation.
Lad, do you dare to claim first blow from me?
Since I began to bear arms in the field,
No mother’s son dared make so bold a plea,
Not even Louis, who is my king and liege!
Still fuming at the idea that he would give up the duty, responsibility, and glory of the fight, William gallops at the Moorish king, striking at the king’s head using his longsword. He aims high, hitting the Moorish king so hard that he chops off a piece of his helmet. But that’s only William’s opening attack. On the backstroke he aims at the king’s leg, and slashes into it so that the king slips out of the stirrup and falls off his horse. William reaches out and grabs the reins, turning the horse around as the bleeding Moorish king lies on the ground, then bringing the horse to Guy. You want a horse? Here’s your horse.
The battle in the poem is perhaps very loosely based on the historical reality that William lost his battle with Hixem the Emir of Cordoba, but still inflicted enough damage to win a moral victory. In the poem, anyway, William’s army is lost, and he fears his castle may fall to the Muslims. No chanson is complete without a clever stratagem. In this story, it’s William’s wife’s idea: the women will dress up in soldier’s uniforms and helmets and stand on the battlements so that it will look from a distance as if the castle has a large garrison. This should hold off the attackers long enough for William to ride out, almost alone, and ask for King Louis to help.
When William leaves, he’s at one of the lowest points in his life. He says goodbye to his wife tenderly, for they’re not sure either of them will survive. Then she cries quietly on the battlement as he rides out with just a single squire, an untested boy. He’s been hastily issued the spear and shield that every one of emperor Charles’ warriors carried.
So young indeed he’d not seen fifteen winters;
So long his spear that he could scarcely lift it
Along the ground his shield dragged as he gripped it
William may be at the lowest point of his life, but he’s never so low as not to take care of his own. He has his own spear and shield of course, as well as the two swords of a Frankish knight: the new longsword and the old traditional single bladed seax. But as his wife watches, the lord rides over to his squire and takes the lad’s shield and spear. He’ll carry the weapons for both of them.
If there’s a lesson in the chansons that we can apply to the real William, it’s this combination of being a fearless warrior and a servant of Christ. On one occasion, he’s about to leave the scene of a battle - he’s the last Christian left on horseback. But then a Moor begins to blaspheme against Christianity, so at the risk of being caught by the rest of the army, William challenges him to fight.
The Moor’s rather unlikely name is Adelrufe, and like all the Muslims in this story he is aligned with every bad thing the jongleur could think of, worshipping Mohammed, the devil, various demons, hell, but also Apollo, the Jewish Maccabees, the imaginary god Termagant, the Antichrist and Pontius Pilate.
Anyway, Adelrufe and William charge at one another with their spears. William’s thrust knocks Adelrufe out of his saddle, but William is unhorsed as well and they both fall to the ground. The Muslim is faster, getting up first, but then William stands and slowly draws the sword given him by the Emperor Charlemagne himself.
The Count was up, his strength was nothing less;
He swung the blade that Charlemagne had held;
The Saracen was strong and tall as well,
His body long, and high his head and neck:
The blade fell short; it struck his thigh instead
And from his trunk it cut off all his leg;
It fell to ground on one side of him there,
And he dropped too, he couldn’t help himself
Having fulfilled his duty as a defender of Christianity, William takes Adelrufe’s fresh horse and escapes.
Could these tales tell us something about the real William? The details aren’t right, but the jongleurs were trying to spell out an ideal of Christian heroism: courageous, loyal, faithful. I’m especially fond of a prayer used by one of William’s men in the midst of battle - it’s worthy of any manly saint.
Majestic God, Who gave me breath to breathe,
And Who, Yourself, took on humanity,
And for our sins endured the Cross’s grief:
You dwell on High in Holy Trinity;
You made the earth, the Heavens, and the seas,
The sun and moon; You ordered forth all these,
Then made Adam and Eve that man might be;
As this is true, as truly I believe,
I beg you Lord to arm my soul with steel,
Lest my weak self should ever think to flee
From any fight against Your enemies!
The real William’s actions must have been fairly heroic, because at some point the emperor Charles rewarded William with a gift that was truly beyond price. It was a fragment of the True Cross, worked into a beautiful silver display.
The gift of this relic tells us not only that William was courageous and had won glory, but also that Charles recognized that William was a true Christian and trusted him to treasure it. William seemed to be at the pinnacle of his accomplishments, but he was beginning to feel a calling to something higher, something holier. And to explain what he did next, we have to pick up the story of his old friend, Witiza the Goth.
Remember, back in 778, Witiza’s brother had died. The event had pushed Witiza to change his life. And so the warrior Witiza gave up his place as a knight and took on the name of the great monk who had lived a few centuries earlier: Saint Benedict.
Like his namesake, this new Gothic Benedict approached his monastic life with great self-discipline. After a few years at a monastery, he found their approach too haphazard and went to live as a hermit. Benedict’s example drew others, and he found himself taking on the role of abbot, guiding his community through robberies and fires, flood and famine, and even steering them right when the influential Felix Bishop of Urgell slipped into heresy.
One of my favourite Benedict stories concerns a brother who was sent to do some business in an area filled with danger. Before he left, he asked Benedict for a blessing. Benedict made the sign of the cross, and said “May the Lord Protect you” (Dominus te custodiat) On the way, the monk ran into robbers. Two men came up to him and grabbed the reins of his horse. And then… nothing happened. For a while the two would-be robbers stared at each other. Then, without a word, they let go of the horse and the monk rode away. Benedict wasn’t surprised. “God’s blessing kept you safe from harm,” he said.
Benedict had a quiet presence that made those who met him want to live better lives. Monastery after monastery put itself under his supervision, from his headquarters at Aniane. And that was where Benedict was when he ran into his old childhood friend William. We don’t know what they discussed, but it changed the direction of William’s life.
William was a wealthy man. He had the resources to set up another monastery in an empty area in Gellone, modern France. The place was so barren that after his death it came to be called Saint William of the Desert. William donated the relic of the true cross to the monastery. And then - if we can trust this detail from the chansons - William’s second wife died. It seemed like the right moment. William entered the monastery he had founded as a monk.
How was the transition from warrior to monk?
The jongleurs couldn’t imagine that it was easy. Everyone knew the story ended up with him as a saint, so in The Monking of William, the author decides to have fun along the way and spin it as the tale of a fish out of water. The jongleur paints William as a lovable thug surrounded by wimpy monks. William arrives at the monastery, where he can barely get into the biggest habit they have available. He also loves to brawl, much to the chagrin of the abbot. Finally the abbot sends him on a dangerous journey.
William asks what happens if he’s robbed.
“You give them what you have,” says the abbot. “You’re a monk! You have to turn the other cheek!”
“OK,” says William. “Unless they come for my horse. Then I’m just going to lose it.”
“No,” says the abbot, exasperated, “turning the other cheek means you give them your horse.”
“Oh, OK!” William nods, as if he understands. “They can have my horse. My gloves though, if they come for those, I’ll kill ‘em.”
“No, no,” says the abbot, “you also have to give them your gloves.”
“Oh, OK,” says William, “I give them my gloves. But what if… what if they want to take my underpants?”
I imagine the abbot in the poem sighing deeply and closing his eyes.
“Look William, if, for some unknowable reason, they try to take your underpants, you can fight them, I guess. But only with your fists!”
Of course no chanson is complete without a clever stratagem. In this case the stratagem is devised by William, who pays a tailor to sew gold buttons onto his underpants. He is robbed and the robbers try to take his underpants which are now very valuable. Finally, there’s a huge brawl which William greatly enjoys. In the poem, William finds redemption by fighting the devil himself - and after that, he becomes a proper monk.
The jongleurs who wrote the chansons were right about one thing. It’s hard to imagine someone like William setting everything aside. And yet in this case, truth really is stranger than fiction. William wasn’t a fish out of water. We know this because Ardo Smaragdus, Benedict’s successor at the abbey of Aniane, spent a year researching the life of his predecessor. His Life of Saint Benedict, published in 822, only a few years after William’s death, contains a section on William. “Upon his entry into the monastery,” Ardo tells us, “William gave himself entirely to Christ, and left behind every trace of worldly pomp.”
William the great leader became humble. He could be seen around the monastery, riding a donkey, or carrying a backpack-barrel - like Saint Albert of Bergamo - to bring refreshment to his brothers working the monastery’s fields. He worked in the kitchen. He baked bread. The warrior of song had heaped up about as much glory as a man can, but in the end Saint William wanted something that transcended worldly glory. Often, Ardo Smaragdus says, when the old warrior received the Eucharist, he had tears in his eyes.
William would live for less than ten years. Like many saints, he seemed to recognize and prepare for his approaching death. By now the humble old monk had almost entirely replaced the warrior - but only almost. Ardo slips a significant detail into his account: Saint William especially liked to spend the night in prayer in a little chapel of Saint Michael the Archangel. Saint Michael is, after all, God’s general.
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