The Bishop of Tours is among the most famous of saints, thanks perhaps to a first-class hagiographer, Sulpicious Severus, and the inspiring tale of the cloak. His shrine in western France became a stopping-point on the road to Santiago de Compostela.
Born in modern-day Hungary in 316, Martin grew up in Pavia, now Lombardy, where his father, a tribune, was stationed. But he spent most of his life in France. This pan-Europeanism made him such a pivotal figure at a time when Christianity had become the religion of the empire, yet still more dominant in the east. Indeed, when Martin, aged 10, signified his intent to join the Church his parents strongly disapproved, the army being one of the last hold-outs of the old gods, especially Mithras.
Aged 15, he joined the cavalry, as he was expected to do, and was stationed in northern Gaul, but after two years he was charged with cowardice after a battle with the Gauls in which he declared that his faith prevented him from engaging the enemy. “I am a soldier of Christ,” he said.
“I cannot fight.” To show his bravery, Martin volunteered to go unarmed to the battlefront. The offer was accepted. But he was saved when the enemy surrendered.
He now went to Caesarodunum, present-day Tours, where he became involved in the Arian controversy and had to flee to Italy, where he converted a brigand on the way. Following a dream he headed east and also converted his mother, though he failed to win around his father. He was kicked out of the Balkans by some Arians and was expelled from Milan for again standing up for Trinitarian Christianity.
After living as a hermit for some time, he returned to France in 361 and founded a monastery that would become the Benedictine Ligugé Abbey, one of the earliest monastic foundations in France. He became bishop in 371, and impressed the pagans by agreeing to stand by a sacred tree if they cut it down – it missed him. He was a dedicated campaigner for prisoners.
It is said that local governors and even emperors would try to avoid him lest they were persuaded to free more prisoners.
He became the patron saint of soldiers and his cult enjoyed a renaissance in France following the defeat of 1871 and the Paris Commune. A basilica to St Martin at Tours, designed in a neo-Byzantine style, was consecrated in 1925.