Episode 39: The Epic of Brunhilda
Francia in 561 and 587
Prologue: The early reigns of the sons of Clothar
Before we launch into today’s episode I want to make a few quick notes. First, not all dates are entirely accurate, as different accounts provide different dates. Generally speaking the dates I offer are within three years of the actual date, and are used more as markers, so if I say a specific year take it with a grain of salt.
Second, from here on out I will call ‘Armorica,’ ‘Brittany’ and its people ‘Bretons.’ During the 6th century the Anglo-Saxons migrated into what we now call England and pushed many native Britons southwestward into the northwestern peninsula of France. Their language and culture melded with the local Romano-Gallic culture and they became known as Bretons and the land became Bretagne in French, or Brittany in English, literally ‘little Britain.’
Third, this is going to be an epic of an episode with many characters. For simplicity’s sake I won’t name every minor noble, but just know that there will be a number of non-royals who are very important to the story. As the power of the Merovingian kings waned, the notables waxed, and a number of powerful generals, dukes and priests played a part in the coming civil war. A few of them are worthy of stories in their own right, namely the patrician Mummolus and Duke Guntram Boso.
Fourth and finally, before we begin the narrative we have to talk about the division of Francia. When Clothar died in 561, Francia was divided between his four legitimate sons. Just like last time, I will put up maps on the website in case you need more than just my description. Clothar’s oldest surviving son, Charibert I, received all of the west, from what we call Normandy in the north, down through to the Pyrenees mountains, and also had some unconnected territories in Provence. The second oldest, Guntram, had a capital at Orléans but the bulk of his territory was Burgundy. The third oldest was Sigebert I, not to be confused with Sigebert the Burgundian King from the last episode. The Frankish Sigebert received the northeast and some territory in the south-center around modern Clermont-Ferrand. The youngest son Chilperic I got the Kingdom of Soissons, a very small but wealthy area in the center-north.
Aside from the legitimate sons, a man named Gundovald claimed that Clothar was his father, though Clothar denied it. Gundovald wore his hair long in the manner of the Merovingian kings, was raised in the palaces, was well-educated and a regular fixture at the courts of Childebert I and Charibert I, but since he was illegitimate he could not inherit his father’s land. At some point Sigebert forced Gundovald to present himself in his domain, where he called him a liar, cut his hair and held him hostage in Cologne, where he would remain, possibly for decades. For thirty-one years Gundovald was a prince of nothing until…well that part comes later.
In 562, a year after their father’s death, King Sigebert was attacked by the Avars, a northeastern people originating from the Caucus mountain region. While Sigebert fought the Avars in the east, the youngest brother Chilperic invaded his western kingdom, taking Reims among others. Sigibert defeated the Avars, reconquered the cities and even captured Chilperic’s son Theudebert, though he released him within a year.
In 566 the Avars attacked again. According to the chronicles the Frankish army met the Avars who used magic to make frightening shapes appear, which scared off the Franks. We’ll never know exactly what tricks they used, or if they did at all, but clearly the Avars were relatively strong while the Franks were divided and still reeling from the numerous civil wars under the sons of Clovis. With no other choice, Sigebert made a peace treaty with the invaders and probably agreed to pay them an annual tribute.
The following year, 567, Sigebert’s brother Charibert was defeated in battle by Saint Martin. According to an admittedly biased account by Gregory of Tours, Charibert discovered that the church of Tours illegally operated an estate to raise horses. He sent a handful of his choice men to confiscate the property, but this was an era where priests also fought and these holy men defeated the king’s soldiers. Not that Charibert had sent in a real army, though if he had the Catholic Church could have turned on him. The civil wars clearly hurt the power and prestige of the sons of Clothar, who weren’t nearly as strong as their forebears.
But then opportunity presented itself when the eldest brother Charibert died. Charibert left behind no sons, despite having four wives, two of which were his sisters. Consequently, the bishop of Paris, later known as Saint Germain de Paris, excommunicated him for his polygamy and upon his death he was buried in disgrace at a military fort. One of the deceased king’s wives, Theudechild, asked Guntram of Burgundy to marry her. Sigebert and Chilperic condemned this move because they feared Guntram would use it to gain more power, while the church condemned it as incestuous. Guntram backed down, and the brothers agreed to put Theudechild in a nunnery in Arles and split up their dead brothers’ territory. For the next thirty years, Guntram ruled Burgundy in the east, Sigebert ruled the vast northeast kingdom of Austrasia and Chilperic ruled the center-north kingdom of Neustria; however, Guntram and Sigebert both had numerous enclaves scattered across Francia, which led to conflict.
However, the main source of conflict for the next fifty years wasn’t between the rival kings, but between two queens, whose blood-feud devastated Francia, led to the death of ten kings and heralded the end of the Merovingian dynasty.
Chapter 1: The Princess and the Pauper
Brunhilda was born a princess in the Visigothic capital of Toledo in 540 and was three years younger than her sister Galswintha. At 11, her father, prince Athanagild, became King of Hispania and Septimania, and was one of the wealthiest and most powerful rulers west of Byzantium. She was highly educated, and was greatly concerned for the spiritual welfare of her people and was routinely praised by the church for her piety and patronage. Finally, she was one of the most beautiful women in Europe, whose striking looks were praised even by priests.
In 567 King Sigebert struggled to hold on to his realm of Austrasia. He was beset by the Avars and their ‘black magic’ in the east, and by his ambitious younger brother Chilperic to the west. He sent envoys to the Visigoths asking for Brunhilda’s hand in marriage, and her father accepted. That year Brunhilda rode at the head of a lengthy caravan of notables, weighed down by uncounted riches from Hispania until she arrived in Metz. While there she met with Catholic priests and discussed Christian doctrine. She converted to Catholicism and was rebaptized. She married Sigebert and was a dutiful wife and wise advisor, and within a year gave birth to a healthy girl, Ingund.
The second woman in our epic could not have been more different from Brunhilda except for two things: she possessed incredible natural beauty, and while she wasn’t educated she was remarkably clever. Fredegund was born sometime around 540 to an impoverished family and became a slave. Eventually she came into the service of Queen Audovera, the wife of King Chilperic of Neustria. For years Fredegund served the pious and innocent Audovera, until she managed to seduce Chilperic. Fredegund played upon the king’s desires until she dominated his thoughts and he loved her more than his own wife. Notables realized that Fredegund had the king’s ear and turned to her as a means of manipulating the king. This way, the servant girl turned mistress gained power and a following until she eclipsed the true queen in all but name.
Sometime in the mid-560s Fredegund made her move. Queen Audovera attended the baptism of her infant daughter Childesinda while Chilperic was away. According to Frankish custom only the godparents of a newly-baptized child could hold them in church, but Fredegund arranged for the infant to be passed to Audovera. When Chilperic learned Audovera had broken the custom this was the last straw and he sent her away to a convent along with his newly-baptized infant daughter.
Fredegund was queen in all but name, but before Chilperic could marry her, he learned that his brother married Brunhilda. Chilperic was outraged and terrified about what this alliance meant for him and he asked King Athanagild for her sister Galswintha’s hand in marriage. Brunhilda’s older sister and mother begged the king not to send her away, perhaps in part because Chilperic was a known adulterer. Athanagild compromised and sent Galswintha northward so long as Chilperic promised not to marry another woman or have any concubines. Chilperic agreed and Galswintha reluctantly rode north, laden down with an enormous dowry, until she reached Rouen, where the two married in 567, in what was a much less happy wedding than her sister’s.
Fredegund could not be so easily pushed aside. She continued to own the king’s heart and his bedchamber. Queen Galswintha relentlessly admonished her husband for this betrayal and may have even threatened to leave Neustria and take her expansive dowry with her. Tensions rose to such a point that Chilperic knew he had to chose between the two women. In 568 he had Galswintha strangled and kept the treasure she had arrived with. Shortly thereafter, he married Fredegund and she finally became queen.
When Brunhilda learned about her sister’s murder, she dedicated her life to revenge against Chilperic, Fredegund and their family. In turn, Fredegund did everything in her power to kill Brunhilda, her husband Sigebert and their family while Guntram, King of Burgundy, tried to take advantage of their mutual enmity. This blood-feud between the Visigothic princess and the former slave-girl dominated Frankish politics for the next half-century and resulted in unprecedented devastation.
The war of the two queens was particularly devastating because of changing military policy, as Clothar’s sons moved Francia towards a feudal system by adopting local levies. Levies were when non-military men were conscripted to fight in wars. Militias defended a region and generally didn’t move much farther than their home territory, but levies could travel abroad. Levied men weren’t as well-equipped or trained as professional soldiers but they greatly bolstered the number of men in the armies. Levied men were usually small landowners, since the poorest men couldn’t afford time off from agricultural work, nor could they afford arms or provisions. However, some poor men who didn’t have to join the army chose to in hopes of acquiring booty.
The first known levy occurred in 568 when Sigebert attacked Guntram;. The two brothers shared Arles but Sigebert wanted all of it. He ordered the Count of Clermont to take it, and he raised the first recorded local levy, taking the city unopposed. Guntram then sent his patrician to Arles where he surrounded and besieged it. Sigebert believed his forces couldn’t withstand a siege so they rode out and met the Burgundians but were repulsed. When they tried to return to city the townsfolk locked the gates and hurled stones at Sigebert’s men. With no hope left they abandoned their mounts and tried to swim to safety, though many drowned, and Guntram claimed victory.
Yet, Sigebert and Guntram were still on good terms as minor skirmishes between Merovingian kings were expected. In fact, by 570 Guntram and Sigebert formed an alliance against Chilperic, who was trying to expand his territory, and the two brothers, defeated his advance. But to Brunhilda’s dismay, the following year Guntram pulled back as he had a new problem to deal with. In 571, the Lombards invaded through the southeastern passes between Francia and Italy. In response, Guntram sent his new patrician, Mummolus, at the head of a large army to meet them. This was Mummolus’ first of many wars, and he proved to be the greatest general of his generation. Mummolus used his army to corral the Lombards back towards the passes, but unbeknownst to them, he split off some of his forces to cut down trees and use them to barricade the way back into Italy. The Lombards’ horses and wagons couldn’t move and the Burgundians slaughtered or captured the near-entirety of the invading force.
A quick note on the Burgundians; while most of Francia’s war leaders were dukes or other notables, the Burgundians were far more Romanized and kept a professional general, called a patrician, on hand. Moreover, while the kingdoms of Austrasia and Neustria employed small groups of professional soldiers that could strike multiple locations at once, Burgundy kept one large army at hand to crush any large invading force.
In 572, Guntram was again occupied with foreign invaders, this time Saxons who raided the north. Guntram sent Mummolus to fight them, and since the Saxons had split up into raiding parties he easily mopped them up one-by-one. When the Saxons realized what was happening they regrouped and signed a peace treaty which allowed them and their families to settle in Guntram’s northern territories. The agreement in place, the Saxons travelled to northern Italy to retrieve their families and returned in 573, raiding along the way. In response, Mummolus rode out to meet them and forced them to pay for the damage they had done.
By 574, Brunhilda was anxious to restart the war against Chilperic and Fredegund. But before Guntram could join, Provence was invaded by the Lombards from Italy again. The Lombards took Avignon, and raided Marseille, before Mummolus met them at Grenoble and smashed the main host. Rather than chase down the retreating soldiers, Mummolus sped his army towards the passes and waited for the Lombards. When they arrived he destroyed or captured their armies, winning a third major war within the same amount of years.
Chilperic and Fredegund realized that this was the perfect time to strike Sigebert while Guntram was occupied with the Lombards. Chilperic invaded Sigebert’s western territories and his son Chlodovech established himself at Bordeaux though he was driven out. Chilperic’s eldest son by his first wife, Theudebert, was more successful and took Tours and Poitiers. At Poitiers, Theudebert defeated an army and then raided the Limoges area.
Sigebert was on the retreat and without the means to halt Chilperic’s forces. But Sigebert made a play that Chilperic didn’t expect, when he invited an army of Germans from across the Rhine to fight for him with promises of booty. The substantial German army pushed Chilperic back. In desperation, Chilperic sent envoys to Guntram, begging him to send an army to threaten Sigebert against crossing the Seine river. Guntram agreed that a barely-controlled army of pillaging Germans shouldn’t be tolerated and he sent an army to demand Sigebert send them back. When the two armies met, Guntram’s leader, probably Mummolus, relayed the king’s orders. In response, Sigebert threatened to invade Burgundy instead. Guntram folded, and Sigebert unleashed his army on Chilperic and retook all that he had lost. But Sigebert couldn’t control his Germans, who claimed they hadn’t been given enough booty, and raided the Paris region.
Guntram was naturally alarmed that his brother Sigebert would resort to unleashing a foreign, mercenary army into Francia and he switched his alliance to Chilperic and Fredegund. In 575 Chilperic then marched his army eastward and raided up to Reims. In response, Sigebert again raised a German army from across the Rhine and marched to meet his brother. This time, Sigebert decided he would control the Germans by supplementing them with a large Frankish army. He ordered two counts to raise a levy and attack Chilperic. They ignored the order, and Sigebert ordered two dukes to do it, which they did. One of them, was Guntram Boso, a duke from the Tours region, and arguably the second greatest general of his generation behind only his sometime rival and sometime ally Mummolus. Duke Guntram Boso crushed an army led by Chilperic’s son Theudebert and killed the prince. King Guntram saw Chilperic in retreat and decided to do what a proper Merovingian king would: he betrayed his brother and sided with Sigebert. Chilperic fled to his fortress at Tournai and waited for a siege that looked like it might be a last stand, as Sigebert moved westward, taking Rouen. It appeared as if Brunhilda would finally have vengeance for the murder of her sister as her husband’s forces prepared to capture and kill Chilperic and Fredegund.
Chapter 2: Hidden Knives
At the moment of victory, two armed men in the service of Queen Fredegund assassinated King Sigebert. Chaos seized Austrasia, and Brunhilda was suddenly vulnerable since her only male child, Childebert II, was 5 years old, 8 years too young to legally rule in his own right. Chilperic took advantage of the confusion, rallied his forces and rode for Rouen. He conquered the city and captured Brunhilda, though her son escaped to the Austrasian capital at Metz. In an instant the war between the two queens had turned on its head, and Fredegund had Brunhilda in her grasp. But Chilperic decided not to have her killed, either because he wanted to use her as a bargaining chip with Austrasia and Childebert II’s retainers, or because he thought he couldn’t afford to kill two Visigothic princesses. Instead, he kept her in Rouen as a royal hostage.
Chilperic suddenly dominated the north, and took Paris in 576. His loyalists tried to capture Guntram Boso and succeeded in ravaging Tours, but the cunning duke escaped to fight another day. Chilperic knew the Austrasians were busy trying to reestablish political coherency as rival factions claimed power over the 5-year old king and he decided now was the time to strike. While Chilperic fought in the north he ordered his son Merovech to invade Western Francia. But Merovech ignored his father’s orders and did something completely unexpected. He rode for Rouen, freed Brunhilda and married her under a ceremony led by the bishop Prætextatus.
We can only guess why Merovech took this course of action. Most likely, he wanted to supplant his father and believed that marrying Brunhilda would secure him Austrasia and that kingdom’s armies combined with his own, could overthrow Chilperic. For such a marriage to take place, Brunhilda almost certainly had to be sending secret messages Merovech, enticing him to marry her while warning him against the machinations of Queen Fredegund. After all, Fredegund had bewitched Chilperic and had him send away Merovech’s mother, the former Queen Audovara to a nunnery. Now Fredegund had assassins in her employ that could kill kings. It wasn’t unthinkable that Merovech and his younger brother Chlodovech were Fredegund’s next targets. With the death of his older brother Theudebert in 575, Merovech was next-in-line for the Neustrian. Perhaps Merovech still loved his father and never wanted to kill him. But he feared and hated his stepmother Fredegund, an enmity which Brunhilda shared. If these speculations are accurate, then Merovech’s marriage wasn’t a forbidden romance between rival houses ala Romeo and Juliet, but a political alliance against the seductress who supplanted his mother, the rightful queen.
Yet, the vengeful prince’s ambitious plan was betrayed when news reached Chilperic of what had happened. The king turned around and marched on Rouen where he captured his rebellious son, though Brunhilda slipped away and escaped to Austrasia where she ruled as Queen Regent. Chilperic sent Merovech to Soissons where he became a royal prisoner before turning his wrath on bishop Prætextatus. Chilperic decided not to arouse the church’s anger by murdering him and he organized a trial of bishops across Francia to judge his fate. Gregory of Tours was among them and he tried to defend Prætextatus, but he was the minority voice as most of the other priests read the room and realized they shouldn’t further enrage the warmongering king. Prætextatus lost his bishopric and was exiled to the island of Jersey, which in retrospect was a light sentence compared to what Chilperic wanted to do with him.
Brunhilda’s forces attacked Soissons to free Merovech and seize the important city, but Chilperic defeated them. The King of Neustria realized he couldn’t keep his son so close to his main enemy, and now technically daughter-in-law, and he sent Merovech away to the monastery Aninsula, near Angers. Meanwhile, prince Chlodovech invaded King Guntram’s territory. Guntram did what he did best, which was to ask Mummolus to fix the problem, and Mummolus did what he did best, and he defeated Chlodovech’s army and another army led by Duke Desiderius, and the two fled back to Neustria.
That winter Merovech escaped the monastery and fled for Tours. There he met with Duke Guntram Boso, his former enemy and the man who killed his older brother. But Merovech was short on allies and within his father and stepmother’s grasp so he didn’t have much choice. The two raised a small army of 500 soldiers and marched towards Austrasia. When Chilperic learned that Merovech was at Tours and the city’s leader Bishop Gregory had done nothing, he raided the area, though wisely chose not to kill this very powerful and popular bishop. Merovech and Guntram Boso raced northeastward when they were cornered by a duke and his army. As luck would have it, this particular duke served King Guntram, and since Burgundy was at war with Neustria, the duke released Merovech and he reunited with his wife, Queen Brunhilda.
But the Austrasian nobility weren’t thrilled at a Neustrian prince ruling over them, much less the son of their hated enemy Chilperic. In their defense, it was very possible that Merovech would betray them and hand over the kingdom to his father; betrayal was kind of the Merovingian thing to do, after all, and Merovech was already a proven betrayer by plotting against his father. The Austrasian nobility separated Merovech and Brunhilda and the prince wandered aimlessly. As he did, the northern town of Thérouanne sent envoys to Merovech inviting him to be their ruler. The prince rode north to what he hoped would be the first town to declare him king. When he arrived, armed men seized him and informed his father. Merovech believed his days were numbered and he ordered one of his men to kill him. Thus died Chilperic’s second son and Brunhilda’s second husband.
Brunhilda was now on the defensive after coming so close to killing her sister’s murderers. She struggled to rule as Queen Regent against the other powers at court, her renegade prince was dead and more territory fell into the hands of her enemies. But the Austrasians put up a worthy fight against the Neustrians, none more so than Guntram Boso. After Tours fell to Chilperic, Boso waited for the King to leave with his large army, then the duke raided with his own. Next, he moved to Poitiers where he lifted the siege. Reportedly, he met the enemy’s leader, Duke Dragolen on the battlefield where the two charged at each other. Boso struck Dragolen in the throat with his lance, knocking him off his horse where one of Boso’s men killed the stunned duke.
In 577, fate switched sides again. A bout of dysentery killed Guntram’s only living sons. With no heir, Brunhilda convinced him to adopt her son Childebert II. Austrasia and Burgundy allied and Childebert was set to inherit both kingdoms. Chilperic understood the danger this alliance posed to his rule, but he decided conquest was a safer option than peace and he took Poitiers from Childebert. But Chilperic wasn’t just fighting his brother and sister-in-law/daughter-in-law. In 579, Chilperic ordered some of his vassals, including Saxons, to invade Brittany. But the clever Bretons devastated the Saxons with sneak attacks. Only when Chilperic himself arrived did the Bretons agree to become his vassals.
While Chilperic was conquering more territory, Fredegund was securing the succession of her own sons. In 580, the queen’s assassins killed the former queen Audovera and her last remaining son, Chlodovech. Sympathetic nobles spirited away Audovera’s youngest daughter Basina to the convent of the Holy Cross at Poitiers to protect her from Fredegund’s wrath. As if on cue, shortly after these brutal murders a bout of dysentery swept through Neustria which killed Fredegund’s only two sons. The queen couldn’t help but interpret this as divine punishment for her sins and she burnt a number of excessive tax records and donated to churches as penance.
Chilperic’s grief for his lost sons didn’t deter him from his war to conquer all of Francia, and in 581 he led a massive army against Bourges, Guntram’s stronghold in the dead-center of the country. Bourges’ defenders met Chilperic in pitched battle, but suffered massive casualties and retreated to the city. As Chilperic besieged the city King Guntram personally led a force and decisively defeated him, forcing his brother to flee back to Paris. This crushing victory halted Chilperic’s advances. Time was against the youngest son of Clothar; now he had no heir, and the kingdoms of Austrasia and Burgundy were set to unite under Childebert II and his mother Brunhilda, who still planned to kill him and Fredegund. In 583 Childebert II became a man at the age of 13. I know 13 year-olds don’t seem very manly, I know I wasn’t, but at that age a boy can fight and father children, and according to Frankish tradition that’s all one needed to be a man.
Chilperic knew his realm was in danger and he made an appeal to the only nearby power strong enough to support him. In 584, prince Recared of the Visigoths agreed to marry Chilperic’s daughter Rigunth. Now, you might be wondering why the Visigoths would agree to a marriage alliance with Chilperic of all people, but there are quite a few good reasons. First of all, Recared wasn’t related to Athanagild, or if he was it was very distant, meaning that he wasn’t personally invested in the murder of Galswintha. Second, the Visigoths’ greatest enemy was Guntram, who pressured their border holdings, so Chilperic and Recared had a mutual enemy. Third, Hispania was on the brink of a Catholic conversion. A few years earlier, Recared’s brother Hermenegild led a pro-Catholic revolt. While this was unsuccessful, more bishops and nobles were moving towards Catholicism. For all of these reasons, Recared, the heir-apparent of Hispania, agreed to wed Rigunth, who set out with an entourage of 4,000 men and an enormous dowry for Toledo.
That September, Chilperic was relaxing in his villa at Chelles, east of Paris as his daughter rode southward. He no doubt believed that the alliance of Neustria and Hispania could match the alliance of Austrasia and Burgundy. Even better, his wife Fredegund gave birth to a healthy boy who they named Clothar. Now that he had a living, male heir and a strong ally he no doubt believed his kingdom was secure. But shortly after his son’s birth and his daughter’s departure an assassin stabbed Chilperic to death and within days his kingdom began to fall apart.
Rigunth had reached Toulouse when news arrived of her father’s death. The armed entourage then stole her dowry and fled. Without a dowry and her kingdom in collapse, Rigunth returned to Paris in shame. Back in Neustria, Queen Fredegund worked to ensure the loyalty of her nobles to her as Queen Regent for her newborn son. Most remained faithful, but a fair number declared for Guntram or Childebert, and Fredegund lost a number of important cities including Tours, Poitiers and Limoges. To add insult to injury, Prætextatus, the former bishop of Rouen, returned from Jersey and petitioned for his bishopric back. Fredegund protested as she believed Prætextatus was still an ally of Brunhilda, but King Guntram and the Bishop of Paris supported him, and he was reinstated as the bishop of Rouen.
For the second time, Brunhilda had Fredegund cornered. Her rival’s kingdom was falling apart, she had no major allies. The heir-apparent was a baby while her own son was a man…technically. All she had to do was get Guntram to join her in invading Neustria and all of Francia would pass to her son, and she could finally kill her rival…Yet, even though Guntram probably would have leapt at the opportunity to invade the dysfunctional realm to the north, he was then engaged in a civil war against his half-brother Gundovald. The former prince of nothing had arrived in the south with an army and declared himself king.
Chapter 3: The Prince of Nothing and the Border Wars
A bit of backstory on this Game of Thrones-level twist. I mentioned earlier that Sigebert trapped Gundovald in Cologne to keep him from causing trouble. At some point, probably after Sigebert’s assassination, Gundovald escaped and fled south. He made it to Italy, where he was received by the Byzantine general Narses, who was part of the Eastern Roman Empire’s perennial attempt to retake Italy. The general was impressed with Gundovald and may have even wanted to establish him as governor of the northeastern territories where he would rally the locals to repulse the Lombards, but this plan fell apart. Deprived of a military assignment, Gundovald made the best of the situation, became a regular at court, married, had children and moved to Constantinople where he met the emperor Tiberius. Tiberius was discontented with the rulers of Francia. The Franks were supposed to be his ally in the reconquest of Italy, but for decades they were just as likely to betray the Byzantines as help them. Again, betrayal was a Merovingian specialty. Tiberius told Gundovald that if he staked a claim as king of Francia against the treacherous Guntram, the Byzantines would support him with a small band of soldiers and gold. Gundovald agreed and he sent out envoys to contacts he had made while captive in Austrasia. To his delight, a number of Childebert’s vassals agreed to support him if he tried to take Aquitaine.
In 582, Gundovald landed at Marseille with a small force loaded down with gold he planned to use to hire a mercenary army. From there he moved to Avignon and met with his noble supporters the most powerful of which was the patrician Mummolus. [“What a twist!”]…I’m telling you today’s episode is pure Game of Thrones, except without the disappointing ending. We don’t know why Mummolus supported Gundovald but it is almost certainly because he had spent decades winning Guntram’s wars and decided to make Gundovald his figurehead ruler while he took control. The aspirant king and Francia’s best general waited in Avignon for more supporters, chief of which was Guntram Boso who was riding south. Before Boso could arrive, King Guntram intercepted him. At this point Boso claimed that he had nothing to do with the rebellion and that it was all Mummolus’ doing. Whether or not King Guntram believed him he decided to cut Boso a deal: he would forgive Boso if he defeated Mummolus. If you can’t tell by now, King Guntram preferred not to get his own hands dirty. Since the only other option was death, Boso agreed and he marched on Avignon.
Mummolus learned he had been betrayed and prepared for Boso’s forces to arrive. The old patrician proved his genius again when he left behind a number of cleverly sabotaged boats on the other side of the Rhône river. When Boso reached the Rhône he and his men got into the boats, but when they were halfway across the boats started to sink and a number of his men drowned. But Boso still had a sizeable force that was almost certainly supported by King Guntram’s forces, which were there to keep an eye on him. Mummolus then retreated to his fortifications at Avignon where he had another trap. Mummolus had his men dig a wide moat in front of the city walls. The moat was shallow enough that the water came up to the soldiers’ waists. However, Mummolus’ men dug large holes at random, so when Boso’s men tried to ford the moat they would sink into a hole and their armor pulled them down, drowning them.
While Mummolus and Guntram Boso battled for Avignon, King Childebert arrived. In the feudal period when two or more nobles from different kingdoms fought each other it could spill over into a large-scale war and Childebert feared that the fight between his Duke and King Guntram’s patrician might lead to war. Childebert’s large army cowed the two nobles and he demanded they cease fighting. Childebert accepted Guntram Boso back into his good graces, as did Guntram with Mummolus. As treacherous as Mummolus was, he was unmistakably brilliant, and the king decided he was still too valuable to lose. Meanwhile, Gundovald fled and escaped to an island in the Mediterranean, and for a while there was peace in Burgundy.
But two years later Chilperic was assassinated. While some nobles declared for Childebert or Guntram, a handful supported Gundovald who decided it was time to return for a second attempt at the throne. One of the most important nobles to support Gundovald was Duke Desiderius, who I briefly mentioned fought for Chilperic in the 570s, and lost horribly to Mummolus. At that moment, Desiderius was given the honor of leading Princess Rigunth’s procession to Toledo. When they reached Toulouse news of the king’s assassination arrived and Desiderius decided to seize her expansive dowry. He and his men absconded with the massive amount of treasure and marched towards Avignon where they met with Gundovald and Mummolus. This conspiracy was a much larger threat to Guntram since the conspirators had Mummolus’ military genius, Desiderius’ treasure horde and Gundovald’s…well he was there, and some disaffected nobles joined his cause. Though I can’t help but suspect most of the fellow conspirators joined in because Desiderius paid them or they had personal confidence in Mummolus, rather than any allegiance to Gundovald. Guntram was occupied fighting the Lombards and the conspirators marched through Aquitaine. The bastard prince declared himself king at Limoges and conquered Toulouse and Bordeaux alongside other major cities.
By early 585 Guntram and the Lombards agreed to a truce and the King of Burgundy raised a massive army and marched westward to retake Aquitaine. Gundovald realized his armies couldn’t hope to match Guntram’s and he sent envoys to Austrasia, offering an alliance with Childebert in exchange for Rigunth’s dowry. But each envoy was captured in turn by nobles loyal to Guntram. Gundovald and Mummolus retreated to Convenae, a large hilltop fortress with its own water supply, and waited for Guntram’s to arrive and put the fortress under siege. Guntram’s men fitted their battering rams with coverings to protect against missiles, but the defenders launched stones and poured cauldrons of boiling oil on them. Both sides fought bitterly but the defenders’ held. Yet, it was all for naught. No matter how long they held no reinforcements came and the soldiers realized that Childebert wouldn’t come and relieve the siege. The soldiers mutinied and offered to surrender in exchange for clemency. Guntram agreed, though he seized Mummolus and his half-brother Gundovald and had both executed. Duke Desiderius was more fortunate; he switched his fealty from the infant Clothar II and his regent Queen Fredegund, to King Guntram, who allowed him to become his vassal.
Fredegund and her kingdom were far weaker than Brunhilda’s or Guntram’s, but the chaos caused by the Gundovald affair shook Francia and for the next few years each monarch worked on ensuring their vassals’ loyalty, rather than warring with each other. Guntram was rightfully paranoid of the two queens and their assassins, and he never went anywhere without his armor and the royal guard; even to mass. This turned out to be a wise decision, since in 586, Fredegund sent an assassin to stab Prætextatus the bishop of Rouen, in his own church. The bishop clung to life for another day, during which Fredegund arrived at his death bed under the excuse of offering the services of her royal physician, though she was only there to watch him die.
Queen Fredegund tried to hold Neustria together until her son Clothar came of age. She was threatened by her neighbors, disloyal vassals and even her own daughter. Rigunth was naturally upset at her cancelled wedding, which kept her from being the queen of a wealthy and powerful realm and relegated her to being the poorest and least-respected princess in all of Francia. Rigunth turned her anger against her mother and routinely claimed that she should be Queen Regent, since she was born a princess while Fredegund was born a slave. In 589 Fredegund lost her patience with her impudent daughter, took her into the treasure room and showed her the royal jewelry, which was kept in a large chest. She then asked her daughter to take out anything which pleased her. When Rigunth bent down to take an item, Fredegund slammed the lid on her neck and was about to kill her when the servants intervened.
In 585, after defeating Gundovald, Guntram decided he needed to secure his borders and he ordered all the forces he could spare to conquer the Visigothic territory of Septimania. Soldiers from across his vast realm travelled southward and some even raided Guntram’s territory along the way, alongside some men from Childebert’s kingdom who wanted to join in the spoils. The armies converged on the great fortress of Carcassonne. But the Gothic defenses held and no major city fell to the invading armies, which plundered the countryside. This turned the populace against the Franks, and the Visigoths covertly attacked them while they foraged, and they Franks were driven out.
The newly-crowned king Recared of the Visigoths knew he would appear weak if he didn’t aid Septimania and since the Frankish invasion utterly failed he was confident in his success. Recard amassed an army and went on a penury campaign, raiding all the way from Toulouse to the Rhone river. Humiliated, Guntram launched another war against the Visigoths in 587 and sent Duke Desiderius to take Carcassonne. Desiderius met the forces of Carcassonne on open ground, where they retreated and he rushed after them. But he and a small handful of his forces outpaced the bulk of his army and the Goths turned around and killed him. In 589 King Guntram picked Guntram Boso to lead a third invasion, which went as well as the previous two. This time, the Goths laid a trap for Boso: they sent a small force to attack his camp, feigned retreat, then a large force emerged and the Franks were beset on both sides. The Goths massacred most of them, possibly killing Boso himself, who disappears from our story. To add to Guntram’s Gothic woes, his northwestern territory was attacked by Bretons, who were secretly aided by Queen Fredegund, who ordered her Saxon vassals to cut their hair, dress like Bretons and fight beside them.
By 590 Childebert was 20 years old and had yet to fight in a major war. He decided to invade Italy and prove his manhood, which he did, by losing disastrously just like all the other men in his family. Childebert’s armies tried to face the Lombards in open war, but they retreated to fortified cities and just waited for the Franks to leave. The Franks were supposed to fight alongside the Byzantines who were trying to retake Italy but they were so poorly coordinated that they never met each other. Childebert’s army contracted numerous diseases and had to retreat. Along the way, some soldiers were so poor and starving that they sold their weapons for food…to the people they were supposed to be conquering. Which is about as humiliating as it gets.
The Franks had fallen very far since Clovis united them into one kingdom. Roughly eighty years of civil war devastated Francia, and after Clothar’s death the divided realms lost most of their foreign wars. Francia had gone from the undisputed great power in Western Europe, to being a major power that had been defeated by the Avars, Visigoths, Lombards and even struggled to subdue the Bretons.
Part 4: The Child Kings
We’re nearing the end of this epic, though it has a few more twists and turns. In 592 an event occurred which was hardly shocking, but it did dramatically change the landscape of Francia: Guntram died at the age of 60, having ruled Burgundy for 31 years. As per their agreement, Childebert inherited his uncle’s kingdom and ruled over the near-entirety of Francia, save for the rich and heavily-populated strip of northern cities controlled by Queen Regent Fredegund. Brunhilda’s domains had three times the population of Fredegund’s and enough troops to crush her hated rival. For the next few years, Childebert consolidated his hold on his kingdom, then in 595 he crushed a revolt in Thuringia. With his armies assembled and his borders secure he was ready to enact his mother’s long-awaited revenge.
But right before he was set to launch his invasion, Fredegund’s assassins poisoned him and he died at the age of 24 or 25. He left behind his kingdom to his two sons, Theuderic II and Theudebert II, who were aged 10 and 8. Childebert’s death slowed the invasion, but Brunhilda’s wrath could not be stopped. She ordered a force to attack Soissons. In desperation, Queen Fredegund herself commanded a force that stealthily approached Brunhilda’s and slaughtered them. This surprise victory by the Frankish queen allowed her to retake Paris, which was the ceremonial heart of the Frankish empire.
In 597 Clothar turned 13 and became king in his own right, and just in time as that year his mother died of natural causes, probably around the age of 60. Even after Fredegund passed, Brunhilda still swore vengeance on Clothar II as her next of kin, though the aged queen struggled to get her sons to cooperate. By 600, both of Brunhilda’s grandsons were of age. As per the Merovingian custom, the kingdom was divided with the elder Theudebert receiving Austrasia and Theuderic getting Burgundy. Like any teenager, Theudebert didn’t want to be told what to do. He tired of his grandmother’s demands and her attempts to assert her authority, and he exiled her from his kingdom, forcing her to move to Theuderic’s court. Yet, even though Theudebert balked at his overbearing grandmother’s demands, the young kings were eager to prove their worth and seize their enemy’s territory.
That year the brothers assembled their armies and met Clothar in pitched battles at Dormelles. There they massacred Clothar’s forces and he fled as they absorbed most of his territory. But Clothar and his loyalists bunkered down in their fortresses and the young kings decided to pillage his country rather than engage in a long and costly siege. By 601 they left Clothar’s kingdom as a small strip of land, barely worthy of their attention.
By 604 Brunhilda’s ire turned from Clothar to her impetuous grandson Theudebert, who she aimed to displace in favor of her loyal grandson Theuderic. In 604 Brunhilda took a noble named Protadius as her lover. Brunhilda schemed to kill Berthoald, the mayor of the palace, and replace him with Protadius who she would use to seize control of the kingdom. If I haven’t talked about the role of mayor of the palace yet, it’s because for a long time they weren’t important. The original mayors of the palace cared for the king’s household but their role expanded from administering the palace to administering much of the kingdom. By the early 7th century they were the most important officeholders outside of the kings themselves. Brunhilda naturally believed that if she could control the mayor of the palace, she could control the entire realm.
That year she convinced Theuderic to send Berthoald to inspect one of the king’s palaces where he was assassinated and Protadius was quickly put in his place. But Brunhilda’s plan backfired when word got out that she was behind the plot all along. In 606, Protadius encouraged Theuderic to war against his brother, but Theuderic’s nobles refused to follow the treacherous Protadius who they murdered. The young king took the hint and decided not to fight his brother. That is, until Theudebert raided his territory in 610. Tensions built up until in 612 the two brothers amassed their armies and invaded each others’ territory.
Theuderic met his brother’s forces and defeated him, at which point Theudebert took a page out of his father’s book and invited an army of Germans from across the Rhine to fight for him. The two armies met and the ensuing battle was a bloodbath. According to the Chronicler Fredegar, so many men died in close proximity that the bodies had nowhere to fall. Theuderic emerged victorious after the battle and captured his brother Theudebert, who he put to death, possibly upon the order of his grandmother. Now Theudebert ruled the near-entirety of Francia and was its undisputed master, though by now many of his vassals wearied of Brunhilda and her house. That year Desiderius, Bishop of Vienne and later Saint Didier, (not the same person as Duke Desiderius), publicly accused Brunhilda of incest and cruelty. In response the queen had three assassins murder the bishop at a village now called Saint-Didier-sur-Chalaronne in his honor. Like her deceased rival, Brunhilda could now claim that she had killed a bishop. A few years before Brunhilda exiled Saint Columbanus because he spoke out against Theuderic having many mistresses and tried to counsel him to take a proper wife. Needless to say, Brunhilda’s reputation among the people and the church wasn’t great.
Our story has one final twist that brings us to its bitter end. In 613 King Theuderic suddenly died of dysentery. He had four sons, though the oldest was 12 and thus could not rule in his own right. Moreover, he had never married, so all of his children were bastards and none had the legal right to inherit the kingdom. Should have listened to the fiery Irish priest. Brunhilda decided to ignore Salic law and claimed that her great-grandsons would be the next kings of Francia while she ruled as regent. But the mayors of the palaces and aristocrats of the various realms abandoned Brunhilda, most notably Duke Pepin of Landen, and declared for Clothar.
There are a number of reasons the aristocrats abandoned Brunhilda for Clothar. First and most obvious, the Franks were a hyper-masculine society. Clothar was a king in the prime of his life, while Brunhilda was a 69 year old woman. Second, Clothar was a Merovingian, while Brunhilda was a Visigoth, and therefore a foreigner. Finally, Brunhilda had a horrendous reputation. She encouraged war the past four decades, seduced prince Merovech and the noble Protadius to do her bidding, exiled Saint Columbanus in 609, had her grandson executed three years later, and murdered. Clothar had spent most of his life defending his territories and so he was a blank slate, while Brunhilda’s life was a giant tome of sins and transgressions.
Clothar amassed an army from his newfound supporters and chased down the aged queen who assembled her own armies. But when the two met, Brunhilda’s forces seized her and handed her over to Clothar who ordered her to be drawn-and-quartered. Each of her limbs was tied to a different horse, who were whipped to run in different directions, ripping off her arms and legs. Next, Clothar assembled her great-grandchildren and murdered all of them. After half a century of war, Fredegund and her household had won. Brunhilda and her children were exterminated, while Clothar II became king of all of Francia, the first since his grandfather and namesake, Clothar I.
The epic struggle between the queens Fredegund and Brunhilda lasted 50 years and defined two generations of kings. It had remarkably important long-lasting effects, which culminated in the degradation of the Merovingian dynasty. From the death of Clovis to the ascendency of Clothar II, the Merovingian kings inaugurated roughly a century of brutal civil war, interrupted largely by foreign wars which devastated Francia. When Clovis died in 511 Francia was the undisputed powerhouse in Western Europe. Clovis’ enemies fled before him and he terrified the Visigoths who retreated past the Pyrenees. Almost a century later and the divided Frankish realms struggled against the Avars, the Visigoths, Lombards and even the Bretons. Despite all these setbacks, the Frankish people were still populous and fearsome warriors, but the divided kingdoms could not match the united kingdoms on their borders.
There were individual Merovingians who were wise rulers, but the House of Merovech operated like tribal warlords rather than sophisticated kings of complex realms. The kings had many wives and many children, which made sense in the wilds of Germania as chiefs tried to have as many sons as possible to fight for them. In a kingdom, polygamy and divided inheritance led to segmented realms, blood feuds and intrigue. Moreover, it infuriated the Catholic Church, which tried to keep public peace and protect personal morality. These tribal practices culminated in Chilperic’s dismissal of Audovera and murder of Galswintha, in favor of his mistress Fredegund, a series of acts which resulted in a half-century civil war which was interrupted by the bastard son Gundovald’s attempt at power, and ended when Clothar executed Theuderic’s illegitimate children. The Merovingians have a bad reputation for decimating their people and plunging an otherwise populous and prosperous realm into chaos. While some historians have tried to rehabilitate them or individual kings, it is undeniable that their way of ruling was unstable.
During the wars of the Sons of Clovis and of Brunhilda and Fredegund, nobles and the church recognized that the sovereigns couldn’t guarantee their stability and protection and so they sought ever greater autonomy and power. With the introduction of the local levy, regional leaders could raise sizeable armies. Nobles could band together to support a pretender, or they could raid territory in another realm, sparking a greater conflict. But the greatest change in 6th century Merovingian Francia occurred within the palaces themselves. Over the century, the responsibilities of mayor of the palace expanded from overseeing the household to overseeing the realm. The fact that a powerful queen like Brunhilda felt the need to appoint her lover to mayor of the palace in order to control the kingdom shows just how much authority they held.
Clothar II and his son Dagobert ruled as powerful kings of Francia, but their successors are known to history as the rois-fainéants, the “do-nothing kings,” who were ceremonial figureheads while real power was exercised by the mayors of the palace. The most important of these mayors was Duke Pepin of Landen, whose descendants became the Pippinids, overthrew the Merovingians and ruled as kings in their own right, the Carolingians. Thus, even though Fredegund and Brunhilda’s war didn’t end the Merovingian rule, it dealt the house a mortal blow that not even Clothar II or Dagobert could heal. The century of chaos that the Sons of Clovis and the two Queens wreaked upon Francia forced the kingdom to evolve as the tribal practices of the Merovingians dissipated and a more medieval system of government took root.
Bachrach, Bernard S. (1994). The Anatomy of a Little War: A Diplomatic and Military History of the Gundovald Affair: 568-586. Boulder: Westview Press.
The Merovingian Kingdoms 450 – 751, by Ian Wood, 1994
Merovingian Military Organization, 481-751, by Bernard S. Bachrach, 1972
Perceiving War and the Military in Early Christian Gaul (Ca. 400-700 A. D.) by Laury Sarti, 2013.