The current discussion about the public role of Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan has recently revealed once again that controversy within royal family is not an uncommon phenomenon. On the contrary, there are many examples in history, where members of a royal family argue or openly fight each other. Such conflicts can also be observed on the Iberian Peninsula in Late Antiquity, where a Visigothic prince rose up against his ruling father.
It was Hermenegild, the eldest descendant of King Leovigild (569-586), who in 579 began to openly rebel against his father. The reason for the rebellion remains hidden, although the conversion of the Hermenegild to Catholic Christianity is occasionally used as an explanation (Greg. Tur. Franc. 5, 39). It seems more plausible, however, that both the cause and the trigger of this event can be traced back to his dynastic interests. Although the reason for the uprising was not primary religious, the conflict as a whole did have a religious connotation. Among other things, Hermenegild tried to gain supporters among the Catholic Hispano-Roman population, by emphasizing his own conversion from Arianism to Catholicism. Eventually, the uprising was unsuccessful and his father defeated him. Leovigild had his disobedient son imprisoned in Tarragona, where a certain Sisbert had murdered him in 587. (Ioh. Bicl. chron. 74. 84). Only one year after the death of Leovigild.
Shortly after Hermenegild's homicide, Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) tried to present him as a Catholic martyr, who had been executed for the true faith (Greg. M. dial. 3, 31). Although this narrative was taken up sporadically in Spain by his contemporaries, the voices were apparently not enough to shape the general perception of Hermenegild as a martyr. In fact, the opposite was true, as even influential people criticized the revolt. For example, the bishop and chronicler John of Biclaro wrote that the king's son came to power unlawfully (Ioh. Bicl. chron. 55). Gregory, Bishop of Tour, criticized the rebellion as well, although he positively emphasized the conversion of the rebellious son and strongly disapproved the Arianism of the father (Greg. Tur. Franc. 6, 43).
It therefore seems surprising that the image of Hermenegild changed during the Middle Ages. After several centuries, the narrative of Pope Gregory the Great finally prevailed and Hermenegild became a Catholic martyr, who had suffered death at the hands of his heretical father. A martyr who seemed worthy of his own cult, which was supported particularly by the Jesuits, as well as King Philip II in the sixteenth century. Pope Sixtus (1585-1590) canonized April 13th as the feast day of the martyr. And so Hermenegild, the Visigothic usurper of the 6th century finally became – about a thousand years later – Hermenegild, patron saint of the royal house of the Catholic kingdom of Spain and Portugal.
His remains are said to be in Seville in the church dedicated to him: Iglesia de San Hermenegildo. The martyr, is depicted with an axe, symbolizing his execution, as described by Gregory.
Kevin Grotherr, B.A. (Universität Hamburg)