From the Archives: A Translation of Bishop Oldrad’s Letter to Emperor Charlemagne

Where are Augustine’s bones a-moldering? To some, that has been a very significant question. It seems that by Augustine’s time, many portions of the church had begun to attach substantial religious significance to relics—ranging from supposed physical remains of the apostles and other well-known martyrs and leaders, to remains of objects associated with notable persons, such as fragments of Christ’s cross. Thus it is not surprising that the remains of a renowned figure Augustine became precious. In the condensed letter below, which to our knowledge is translated here from Latin to English for the first time, one Peter Oldrad, archbishop of Milan, is writing to the emperor Charlemagne about the whereabouts of Augustine’s remains and how they got there. Dated 796A.D., the Latin of this letter appears in the 1588 edition of Cesare Baronio, and has been reprinted in Vol. 40 of the Acta Sanctorum, pp. 366–368. The translation was done for Christian History magazine by Father Joseph Schnaubelt, O.S.A., director of the Augustinian History Institute of Villanova University.

Among other things, note the obsequious tone that Oldrad uses toward Charlemagne, the lengthy accounts of King Luitprand’s generous gifts to the church (perhaps hints to Charlemagne?), the miraculous healings attributed to Augustine’s remains, and the sleeping metaphors used to describe the actual body of the long-dead bishop.

The Translation

The Epistle of Peter Oldrad, Archbishop of Milan, To Charlemagne.

On the transfer of the body of St. Augustine, Doctor of the Church, from Sardinia to Pavia.

For the Most Pious King of kings, Charles the Great, Peter Oldrad, unworthy archbishop of Milan, entreats an everlasting crown in Christ.

While your Majesty was sojourning in the city of Milan, you graciously entrusted me with the task of making an inquiry into the transfer of the body of the saintly bishop Augustine from Sardinia to Pavia and of writing a trustworthy account of it for you. This has been done, so far as human frailty has permitted. Now, with the help of God, I shall briefly relate what I found in the letters and books of the Lombard Kings, along with what I garnered from many by way of oral tradition.

Blessed Augustine, the Doctor of the Churches of Christ, rendered up his soul to God, after many splendid signs and miracles in this world and after much exhausting labor against the obstinacy of heretics and the deviousness of sinners. In the course of the year 430 since the Incarnation of Christ, he was buried with honor by the faithful in the Church of St. Stephen in the City of Hippo, his episcopal seat. Thus respectfully laid to rest at the hands of his disciples, he reposed there for almost 56 years.

Thereafter, his remains were transferred to Sardinia by the faithful Catholic bishops at the time the Vandals were laying waste to Africa by force of arms. On account of the faith of Christ, these bishops, and in particular Fulgentius, the bishop of Ruspe, together with a great multitude of the faithful, had been forced to move to that island by Trasamund, the iniquitous king of the Vandals. To forestall the desecration of such a great jewel and treasure by perverse and contemptuous men, the exiles transported the relics with them, along with those of several other saints. There, in Sardinia, Augustine was renowned for many miracles for 223 years. In this we are manifestly given to understand that those whom God holds dear he distinguishes and marks with the power of miracles as a testimony to their sanctity.

Then came Luitprand, the son of Asprand, the king of the Lombards. Succeeding his father as overlord of the Lombards some 280 years after the death of Augustine, Luirprand persevered in the way of the true faith and distinguished himself as a staunch defender of the Churches of God. Certainly, his gifts of prudence, wisdom and counsel qualified Luitprand for his great principate more than any other man. He exhibited such remarkable justice and clemency, moreover, that one would be hard put to say which was his more outstanding trait. He was a most Christian man, who loved his religion so much that nowhere in his kingdom did he permit the erection of a church without his involvement. At Pavia. for example, he donated many castles and other possessions for the construction of many beautiful churches. His palace was especially notable for the oratory he built in honor of the Holy Savior. There he established benefices for priests and clerics to fulfill the divine offices by day and night. And his gifts were lavish, so that they would be able to serve God all the more virtuously and assiduously . . . . In honor of St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, moreover, he constructed a monastery adorned with artwork in the suburbs of Pavia, to which he gave the name of Sky of Gold.

Then an enormous horde of barbarians attacked Sardinia, which they subjugated and laid waste, desecrating even the holy places with their violence. Among these was the tomb of St. Augustine. King Luitprand. that pillar of justice and lover of religion, heard this sad news from Peter, the bishop of Pavia, whom the king greatly honored and revered for his holy life. Accordingly, the king sent his leading nobles to Sardinia as legates with a great weight of gold and silver, in order to ransom the body of so great a saint and transport it as soon as possible to the city of Pavia. Intent on satisfying the command and desire of the pious king, these men sailed to Sardinia, where they ransomed the holy remains from the barbarians and placed them on their ship. By the mercy of God, and to their great joy, they made the crossing with a following wind, through a tranquil sea, in the space of one day and night, to the landfall and port of Genoa. They immediately sent heralds to inform the king of what had taken place, so that he could proceed with honor to receive the relics of such a great saint.

Filled with immense joy at the news, the king gave profound thanks to God for having granted his desire. He immediately cancelled all other business, and summoning the bishops of all his cities and the entire clergy from as far as Tortona, he set out with great humility to accept so signal a gift from God. Accompanied by a great multitude of nobles and commoners of both sexes, he hastened to repose it in a fitting place, like David of old receiving the Ark of the Covenant.

However, when the king drew near the place where the holy body lay, he laid aside the insignia of his royal estate. And bare of head and foot, he proceeded with such humility and devotion that all present marveled and praised God at the great devotion of the pious king.

Moreover, the merciful Lord deigned to work a number of miracles to honor his Holy Confessor Augustine, for many invalids who were present recovered their health. Spontaneously raising their voices in the praise and glory of God, they happily returned home. From there, bearing the body of the Blessed Confessor with hymns and praise, the progress arrived, near the border of Tortona, at a manor called Savinaria. There King Luitprand and the entire cortege of bishops and nobles spent the night in the services due so great a father . . . . But at dawn the next day, when the crowd surged forward to complete the journey to the city of Ticino, they could in no wise move the holy body, even though many engaged the bier. The king therefore rent his garments, and with a sorrowful countenance did fling himself to the ground, so much did he burn with desire to convey the relics to Ticino, for he had lost all hope of moving the bier.

All the bishops and nobles were astonished at this miraculous phenomenon, and were wondering inwardly what almighty God wanted to signify in regard to the relics of so glorious a Doctor. Present in the throng of bishops was Gratian, the ordinary of the Church of Novara, a man endowed with great learning and distinguished in all the disciplines, who was withal a true priest of God. He confidently approached King Luirprand to affirm that the mercy of God must be implored, not with forms and empty words, but rather with solemn promises and deeds. The king accepted this advice very willingly. And when he had made his vow, he asserted with a solemn oath and a royal decree that, if the Lord God almighty would permit him to convey the body of St. Augustine to Ticino, he would deed the aforementioned manor of Savinaria in perpetuity to God and to the Church of St. Peter, unto which he intended to bring the relics.

It ensued therefore, that having fulfilled his vow, the king approached the bier and attempted to raise the relics off the ground. He found that they were very light and that two porters could now handle the blessed body, which previously could not be budged by many. And so they completed the journey with great joy and exultation, praising the omnipotence of God . . . .

Moreover, when the news spread of the king’s arrival with the relics of the Blessed Confessor, those who had stayed home hurried out to meet the cortege and to welcome the saint. A joyous concourse of people singing hymns and canticles escorted the holy body to its reposition in the Church of St. Peter in the Sky of Gold, with all the honor due so great a Father. That church, moreover, was placed under the jurisdiction of the Prince of the Apostles, who has always striven on behalf of the faith against the snares of the devil and the duplicity of heresy. There St. Peter is still celebrated for many signs and miracles in tribute to his sanctity and for the edification of the faithful.

After the reposition of the relics at Pavia, it became apparent that the transfer had been pleasing to God and to the blessed Father Augustine, inasmuch as there were many noteworthy recoveries from various illnesses upon the application of the sacred tokens or even from contact with the ark.

Also the gifts, which the pious King Luirprand bestowed on the Church of St. Peter, consisting of property and possessions as well as vessels of gold and silver and liturgical vestments, exceeded expectations of pious men everywhere. For the king felt he could never do enough for the holy shrine. And he was so replete with joy over the recovery of the relics that day and night he participated in the liturgy with the clerics and priests, and exercised himself in psalmody like one of the ministers.

This transfer of the body of St. Augustine took place on Feb. 28, during the pontificate of Gregory II, of happy memory. May the King of kings Christ the Lord. by his almighty power deign to keep your excellent Majesty through the course of many years. Given in the city of Milan in the year . . . 796.

The Relics Today

On Oct. 1, 1695, almost a thousand years after King Luitprand had the relics of St. Augustine concealed in Peter in the Sky of Gold, an ark supposedly containing them was discovered by workmen in the course of renovating the crypt. Behind some brickwork, the workmen found a marble ark some 3 ft., 3 in. long; 1 ft., 2 in. wide: and 1 ft. 4 in. high, reinforced at the corners with iron bands. On the cement that held it together appeared the name “Agostino” or “Augustino,” written in black gothic letters. However, this writing was inadvertently destroyed by one of the workmen before he realized what he had found.

The workmen carefully removed the ark from its niche, but out of reverence did not open it. Nor was it immediately opened by the clergymen in charge. When the ark was opened, in early 1696, it was found to contain a silver capsule full of whole bones, pieces of bone, and 7 Ibs., 3 oz. of bone dust—altogether commensurate, according to the examiners, with an average human skeleton. Nonetheless, said some skeptics, these were not the genuine remains of St. Augustine.

On Feb., 9. 1696, the remains were examined by anatomists. And on June 23 of that year, Lorenzo Trotti, the bishop of Ticino, made an official visit to the shrine to review the whole matter. In 1698, during February and March, witnesses were called to testify a second time, and another of examination of the relics was conducted. On May 15 yet another examination and description of the relics was made. All the while, many thousands of words were written on both sides of the issue, and continued to be for the next 30 years.

Finally, on Jan. 23, 1728, Pope Benedict XIII sent a letter to Francesco Pertusati, the bishop of Ticino, directing him to put an end to the controversy by episcopal decision. On June 25 and 26, the bishop made a visit to the shrine to review the situation, then drew up a declaration that solemnly affirmed the authenticity of the relics, promulgating the declaration on July 19. On Sept. 22, some three months later, Pope Benedict issued a bull confirming this episcopal action.

By Peter Oldrad

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #15 in 1987]

Peter Oldrad was a Bishop of Milan. The translation was done for Christian History magazine by Father Joseph Schnaubelt, O.S.A., director of the Augustinian History Institute of Villanova University.
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