Merovingian Bees


The tomb of Childéric, king of the Salian Franks from 457 to 481 and the father of Clovis, was discovered by chance in 1653 by construction workers near the church of Saint-Brice in Tournai, in present-day Belgium. The treasure found was given to Archduke Leopold William of Habsburg (1614−62), governor of the southern Netherlands (at that time under Spanish rule). The archduke asked medical doctor and antique specialist Jean-Jacques Chifflet to write a study of the find, which was published in Antwerp in 1655 under the title Anastasis Childerici I (The resurrection of Childéric I). The treasure was then transferred to Vienna with the rest of the archduke’s collections. In 1665 it was presented to King Louis XIV of France by Emperor Leopold I as a diplomatic gift. The treasure still includes Byzantine coins, jewels from Childéric’s sword and scramasax (a large knife used in war and hunting), a Frankish ax blade, the fibula that would hold the paludamentum (dress cloak or cape worn by Roman military commanders), a crystal ball, and, shown here, two of the golden bees or cicadas with cloisonné garnet wings (garnet insets) that were used to decorate either the royal coat or the harness of the king’s horse. These Merovingian bees inspired Napoleon, who, in a departure from the fleur-de-lys used from the reign of Hugh Capet in the tenth century, adopted them as the symbol of the French Empire. The signet ring bearing the words CHILDIRICI REGIS and the engraved portrait of the long-haired king, which had been the key to identifying the treasure, were stolen from the Cabinet des Médailles in the National Library of France in 1831. The investigation of the theft was led by famous former criminal-turned-detective Eugène François Vidocq. However, the case was never solved and the missing items were never recovered.

Last updated: July 31, 2014