The treasure of Tournai

In 1653, in a small Wallonian town of Tournai, builders excavating a cellar at the back of Saint Bryce’s church, across the river from the ancient city centre, came upon an immense hoard of gold, jewels and other treasure – among them, still resting on the finger bones of the individual buried with this unbelievable wealth, a golden ring with the inscription: Childerici Regis.

Here was the tomb of Childeric I, the first historical ruler of the Salian Franks – and father of Clovis I, the first king of all Frankia. Here was proof that Tournai – which started out as Tornacum, a backwater Roman settlement on the road to Cologne, and ended as a somewhat backwater Belgian town on the border with France, was the birthplace of modern France, of the Carolingian Empire – of Europe itself. For the French, it was the equivalent of discovering a tomb of Uther Pendragon, King Arthur’s father – if King Arthur was real, and all the treasure within intact.

The most famous, and mysterious, of all the treasure were the 27 gold-and-garnet (the Franks loved garnet) “bees” or “cicadas”, which would have been sown into the king’s garments – the clothes having rotted away, they “bees” remained in place around the skeleton. These were, according to some, tribal symbols of the Salian Franks – which, over the centuries, have evolved into the fleur-de-lys symbol of French kings – and were taken up as crest by Napoleon.

The treasure, having survived twelve centuries under ground, did not survive the next two. After a long odyssey, during which it found itself in Vienna, then in Paris, in the chaos of mid-19th century France, the treasure was stolen from its keeping place in National Library – and unceremoniously melted for its gold and jewels. Little of it remained, including two of the bees – and some copies of sword and equipment thankfully made soon after the discovery.

I visited Tournai earlier this year – along with a number of other places in Belgium and Netherlands where parts of my books take place, and it was a strange, exhilarating feeling to walk the town’s streets in the footsteps of Childeric, Clovis and Queen Basina (spoiler alert – I return to Tornacum and Frankia in “The Shieldmaiden’s Honour“). Today it’s a sleepy border town. Oddly enough, there’s barely any mention of its ancient royal past anywhere. The most prominent and celebrated monument is its enormous, looming Romanesque cathedral – the seat of the first Bishop of the Franks, Eleutherius – a medieval bridge gate over the Scheldt, and the town square; I can’t imagine an English town behave in such a way – one only needs to visit Tintagel or Glastonbury to know how many “Childeric Fries”, “Clovis Herbal Teas” or “Basina’s Roman Spa” should there be in Tournai, to bring in the tourists. I guess a real king is not as profitable as a legendary one…

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