Martin of Tours was the first Confessor Saint. Tours was a royal Frankish city and the Merovingian kings kept Saint Martin’s legendary cloak as a sacred relic and carried it with them into battle.
Martin, a fourth century soldier in the Roman Imperial Guard had met a naked beggar outside the gates of the town of Amiens. Taking pity on the man, he divided his cloak in two with a sword stroke and offered one half to the beggar. In a dream that night Martin had a vision of Christ who identified himself as the beggar.
Converted to Christianity, Martin became a disciple of Hilary of Poitiers. He spent time as a hermit on the island of Gallinaria off the Ligurian coast before taking a highly active role in evangelising Gaul and establishing the first monastic community there. He was elected bishop of Tours.
Martin’s reputation as a thaumaturge or miracle worker and exorcist was so established during his lifetime that despite having died a natural death in 397, he was declared a saint, a status until then, uniquely reserved for martyrs.
The Pilgrim’s Guide declares: “He is the magnificent one who has resuscitated three dead, and further that he rendered much-desired health to the leprous, the possessed, the insane, the lunatics, the demoniacs, as well as to others who were sick and ill”.
Gregory of Tours reports that the dust from the area surrounding Saint Martin’s tomb could be mixed with water to provide curative benefits and the reputation for the relics to produce miracles meant that during the middle ages the shrine was a celebrated pilgrimage destination.
Already within sixty years of Martin’s death a new and larger church was required to be built over his tomb in order to accommodate the large crowds of pilgrims who came.
Behind the shrine was an atrium where pilgrims could remain for considerable periods in order to pray in proximity to the relics.
Saint Martin’s shrine at Tours was a pilgrimage centre of the first order and pilgrims of the twelfth century would have venerated his relics in the massive Romanesque abbey church there. It was built on the same model as the other great pilgrimage churches of the time, Saint Martial of Limoges, Saint Sernin at Toulouse and Santiago de Compostela.
As the Guide describes, above his tomb, “An immense and venerable basilica has been erected in his honour, similar to the Church of the Blessed James”. The great church was destroyed during the French Revolution, however the two remaining towers still give an indication of its vast size.