St. Guilhem

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Continuing the series on monastic saints, compiled by Jason John Edwards, Obl.S.B.

Guilhem [William], a grandson of Charles Martel. He was born in France around the middle of the 8th century. His mother Aldana was a daughter of Charles Martel, so he was a cousin of Charlemagne. As a close kinsman of Charlemagne he spent his youth in the imperial court. William was made Count of Toulouse in 790, and Charlemagne placed his young son (Louis the Pious, who was to inherit Aquitaine), in his wardship. He was the second count of Toulouse and held the title from 790 until 811.

The name Gilhem is Occitan, corresponding to Latin, Guilhelmus, English William, French Guillaume.

Guilhem dedicated the next thirteen years to sustaining the southern frontiers of the Frankish empire. He was renowned as one of the most valiant warriors of his time. He subdued the Gascons, fought the Basques, and resisted Moorish incursions. In 793 the Moorish ruler Hisham I, based in what is now Spain, proclaimed a holy war against the Franks to the north. He amassed an army of 100,000 men, half of whom attacked the Kingdom of Asturias while the other half attacked the Languedoc, penetrating as far as Narbonne. William engaged this army and defeated them at Orange. He engaged more Muslim forces near the river Orbieux, at Villedaigne, where this time he was defeated. The exhausted Muslim forces retreated to Spain (although they garrisoned and retained Narbonne). In 803 William played a part in the campaign that attacked Barcelona and won it back from the Moors. He now became Count of the Spanish Marches (‘Marche d’Espagne’).

In 804 Guilhem retired to the Abbey of Aniane. In 806 he headed a group of monks who set off to found the Abbey of Gellone (now Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert) not far away near Lodève in the Diocese of Maguelonne. He dedicated it to Saint Benedict of Aniane. In time a town grew up around it, also called Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, now a well-known tourist attraction.

Before his death, Charlemagne had given the young Guilhem a reliquary, which was believed to contain pieces of the True Cross. Guilhem left this one to his Abbey, where it remains to this day. The jewelled reliquary is carried through the village in procession once a year on St Guilhem’s feast day. Replicas made of biscuit are available in the Abbey Church.

The Abbey was a major stop for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela.

The Abbey’s Romanesque cloister, abandoned and vandalised over many centuries, found its way to The Cloisters in New York—or at least a large part of it did.

Guilhem was born in 755 and died on 28 May probably in 812. He was canonised in 1066.

[Photo is Abbey of Gellone, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert]

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