Vexilla Regis was written by Venantius Fortunatus (530-609 AD) and is considered one of the greatest hymns of the liturgy. Fortunatus wrote it in honor of the arrival of a large relic of the True Cross which had been sent to Queen Radegunda by the Emperor Justin II and his Empress Sophia. Queen Radegunda had retired to a convent she had built near Poitiers and was seeking out relics for the church there. To help celebrate the arrival of the relic, the Queen asked Fortunatus to write a hymn for the procession of the relic to the church.
The hymn has, thus, a strong connection with the Cross and is fittingly sung at Vespers from Passion Sunday to Holy Thursday and on the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. The hymn was also formerly sung on Good Friday when the Blessed Sacrament is taken from the repository to the altar.
Abroad the royal banners fly,
The mystic Cross refulgent glows:
Where He, in Flesh, flesh who made,
Upon the Tree of pain is laid.
Behold! The nails with anguish fierce,
His outstretched arms and vitals pierce:
Here our redemption to obtain,
The Mighty Sacrifice is slain.
Here the fell spear his wounded side
With ruthless onset opened wide:
To wash us in that cleansing flood,
Thence mingled Water flowed, and Blood.
Fulfilled is all that David told
In true prophetic song, of old:
Unto the nations, lo! saith he,
Our God hath reignèd from the Tree.
O Tree! In radiant beauty bright!
With regal purple meetly dight!
Thou chosen stem! divinely graced,
Which hath those Holy Limbs embraced!
How blest thine arms, beyond compare,
Which Earth’s Eternal Ransom bare!
That Balance where His Body laid,
The spoil of vanquished Hell outweighed.
Fragrant aromatics are thrown,
sweetest nectar is sown,
Dearest fruit of tree!
Be my noble victory!
Hail wondrous Altar! Victim hail!
Thy Glorious Passion shall avail!
Where death Life’s very Self endured,
Yet life by that same Death secured.
O Cross! all hail! sole hope, abide
With us now in this Passion-tide:
New grace in pious hearts implant,
And pardon to the guilty grant!
Thee, mighty Trinity! One God!
Let every living creature laud;
Whom by the Cross Thou dost deliver,
O guide and govern now and ever! Amen.
Translation from “The Psalter of Sarum”: London 1852.