In the Middle Ages One Had Great Sinners, But Also Great Penitents—The Case of Foulque Nerra, Count of Anjou

March 30, 2023

Foulque-Nerra [Fulk III, the Black], count of Anjou, charged with crimes, and stained with blood, thought to efface all his cruelties by a voyage to Jerusalem. His brother, whom he had caused to perish in a dungeon, presented himself wherever he went, before his eyes; it appeared to him that the numerous victims sacrificed to his ambition in unjust wars issued from their tombs to disturb his sleep, and reproach him for his barbarity. Pursued everywhere by these frightful images, Foulque left his states, and repaired to Palestine, in the garb of a pilgrim. When he arrived at Jerusalem, he passed through the streets of the holy city with a cord about his neck, beaten with rods by his domestics, repeating in a loud voice these words: “Lord, have pity on a perjured and fugitive Christian.” During his abode in Palestine, he bestowed numerous benefactions, comforted the miseries of the pilgrims, and left everywhere testimonials of his devotion and charity. He returned to his [county], bringing with him a portion of the true cross, and the stone upon which he had knelt when he prayed before the tomb of Christ.

Foulque, on returning to his dominions, was desirous of having always under his eyes an image of the places he had visited, and caused to be built, near the castle of Loches, a monastery and a church, which bore the name of the Holy Sepulchre. In the midst of the remembrances of his pilgrimage, he still heard the voice of remorse, and set off a second time for Jerusalem. He once more edified the Christians of the holy city by the expressions of his repentance and the austerities of his penance. As he was returning to his [county], in passing through Italy, he delivered the Roman state from a brigand who plundered the towns and villages, and made war upon all merchants and pilgrims.

Foulque-Nerra Assailed by the Phantoms of His Victims by Gustave Doré

The pope praised his zeal and his bravery, gave him absolution for his sins, and permitted him to bear about with him the relics of two holy martyrs. When he left Rome, he was conducted in triumph by the people and the clergy, who proclaimed him their liberator. On his arrival in Anjou, he re-established peace in his dominions, which had been in great confusion during his absence. Restored to his country, his family, and his subjects, who had forgotten his cruelties; reconciled with the Church, which declared him its benefactor, he appeared to have no more crimes to expiate, or wishes to form for his old age; but neither the absolution of the pope, nor the peace of his states, nor the blessings of the people—nothing could calm his soul, forever torn with remorse. He could not escape from the image of his brother, which pursued him still, and recalled to his mind the crimes with which he had stained  himself. Without cessation he was before him, pale, disfigured, dragging  his chains, and invoking heaven to take vengeance on the fratricide.

A penitent Fulk III, Count of Anjou

Foulque resolved to make a third pilgrimage to Jerusalem; he returned into Palestine, watered anew the tomb of Christ with his tears, and made the holy places resound with his groans. After having visited the Holy Land, and recommended his soul to the prayers of the anchorites charged to receive and console pilgrims, he quitted Jerusalem to return to his country, which he was doomed never to see again. He fell sick, and died at Metz. His body was transported to Loches, and buried in the monastery of the Holy Sepulchre, which he had caused to be built. His heart was deposited in a church at Metz, where was shown, for many ages after his death, a mausoleum, which was called the tomb of Foulque, count of Anjou.


Joseph François Michaud, History of the Crusades, trans. W. Robson (New York: Redfied, 1853), 1:25–27.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 872


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