Saint Martin’s Cloak

The Legend of Saint Martin

In the fourth century, a Roman soldier serving in northern Gaul met a scantily dressed beggar. The soldier’s name was Martin, and although he had been reared in a pagan Roman household, he had begun the process of inquiring into the nature of the Christian faith. Seeing the beggar, he impulsively cut his own military cloak in half and shared it with the poor man. That night, he dreamed of Jesus wearing the half-cloak he had given away. He heard Jesus say to the angels: “Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptized; he has clad me.” The dream confirmed Martin’s faith and he was baptized. Sometime later*, Martin left military service, became a monk, an evangelist and ultimately bishop of Tours.

During the Middle Ages, the relic of St. Martin’s cloak, (cappa) became one of the most sacred relics of the Frankish kings. It would be carried everywhere the king went, even into battle, as a holy relic. The priest who cared for the cloak in its reliquary was called a cappellanu, and ultimately all priests who served the military were called cappellani. The French translation is chapelains, from which the English word chaplain is derived. One of the many services a chaplain can provide is spiritual and pastoral support for military service personnel by performing religious services at sea or in the battlefield.

* The classical account of Martin’s life says that he left military service about two years after his baptism. Following historian Jacques Fontaine, many (if not most) scholars now date his birth earlier and believe he served in the army for about twenty years after his baptism.