At some point while we were strolling through Salzburg, happy as two history buggs can be, My Own True Love said something to the effect of “You should write a blog post about the Merovingians. No one knows who they are.”
I’m not going to write a definitive post about the Merovingians, because that’s not what we do here on the Margins. But I’m delighted to tell you the story of Brunhild (also known as Brunhaut, because why make things easy) and Fredegond, a pair of rivals queens in the sixth century CE who stood at the heart of forty years of internecine warfare among the Merovingian kings. While they are not household words like, say Elizabeth I of England or Joan of Arc, they are unavoidable if you make even the most casual dip into Merovingian history. Which we’re about to do. My Own True Love, this one’s for you.(1)
First, a little background: The Merovingian dynasty were called “the long-haired kings” because (duh) they wore their hair long, unlike the Romans who preceded them. They ruled Gaul (the region that is now France) from roughly 448 through 751 CE.(2) The greatest of the Merovingian rulers, Clovis I (r. 481-511), united most of Gaul north of the Loire,(3) but after his death the kingdom was divided between his four sons. As the brothers died off, their kingdoms were reabsorbed into the whole until the Merovingian principalities were briefly united again under the rule of the last surviving brother, Chlotar I, in 558. (The whole thing feels like a giant tontine bet.) Evidently the Merovingians were slow learners; after Chlotar’s death in 561, the kingdom was divided once again between his four sons—Charibert I, Guntram, Sigebert, and Chilperic. That’s where our story begins.
Brunhild and her sister Galswintha were daughters of a Visigoth king. (4) In 567, Brunhild married Sigebert, who ruled the eastern Merovingian kingdom of Austrasia. (5) That same year, her sister married Chilperic, who ruled the western Merovingian kingdom of Neustria.(6)
You would think this kind of fraternal double wedding would reduce the internecine struggles between the two kingdoms, but you would be wrong. Chilperic’s concubine, Fredegond, was the power behind the throne in Neustria. She had previously convinced Chilperic to set his first wife aside and she was violently opposed to his subsequent marriage to Galswintha. At Fredegond’s urging, Galswintha was strangled in her bed soon after the wedding.(7) A few days later, Chilperic married Fredegond and made her his queen.
Brunhild and Sigebert’s next action may answer the question of why Chilperic bothered to marry Galswintha in the first place: they seized Galswintha’s not insubstantial marriage settlement, which included the regions of Bordeaux, Limoges, Quercy, Bérn and Bigorre. (8) The brothers were at war until 575, when Fredegond hired assassins to kill Sigebert. Brunhild was subsequently imprisoned in Rouen. Chiperic was murdered nine years later—a death for which at least five different people are accused in the chronicles, including both Brunhild and Fredegond.
Brunhild’s escape from prison is one of those stranger than fiction stories that could only happen in a medieval royal family. (And it may not be true. Both Brunhild and Fredegond suffer from the tendency of medieval chroniclers to distort the story to fit their own political biases, which often included a strong streak of monastic bias against politically active women.) Merovech, Chilperic’s son by his first wife married Brunhild, and helped her escape. This is often presented as a love story. In fact, Merovech may well have had an eye on Sigebert’s share of the Merovingian principalities. Chilperic rapidly had the marriage annulled on the grounds that Merovech was Brunhild’s nephew—a legal technicality since they were not in fact related by blood.
Out of prison and unmarried again, Brunhild spent the thirty-eight years after the murder of her husband fighting to defend his kingdom for her own sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons—sometimes acting against one on behalf of another. She would pick and chose between them depending on how likely she was to remain in control.
On the other side of the feud, Fredegonde was actively involved in the political and military affairs of Neustria, with a predilection for political assassination. Among other things, she was known for devising a tactic in which a front line of soldiers disguised themselves with branches and foliage. This camouflaged the Neustrian army’s movement with a “moving wood,”and allowed them to take their enemies by surprise.(9)
If anything, the chroniclers, often writing long after the fact, paint an even darker picture of Fredegond than they do of Brunhild. She was accused of murdering not only her stepsons but possibly her husband, of multiple counts of adultery, of raiding the royal treasury after Chilperic’s death, and of witchcraft, that old staple of discrediting women.
Fredegond died in 597, thirteen years after his husband, but her heirs continued the long feud with Brunhild. The final act of their long feud occurred in 613. Fredegond’s son, Clothar II, captured Brunhild and her great-grandsons. The young men were immediately strangled. Brunhilde was charged with the murder of ten kings. (Clothar was responsible for some of those murders himself. After being tortured for several days, she was tied to the tail of an untamed stallion and dragged to her death.
Bottom line: Nothing about their lives can be twisted to turn either Fredegond or Brunhild into role models. That doesn’t make it any less important to remember their stories.
(1) Actually, they’re all for you. xoxo
(2) To give you some context for your context: The western Roman Empire officially “fell” in 476 CE, when the Germanic leader Odacer deposed the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus. (And while it has nothing to do with today’s story, it’s worth remembering that the eastern Roman Empire, aka Byzantium, survived, and even thrived, for another thousand years. Rome did not fall so much as crumble along the edges.)
(3) He was also the first of the Frankish rulers to convert to Christianity, around 500 CE. This is not relevant to the story of Brunhild and Fredegonde, but it is worth reminding ourselves now and then that Europe’s adoption of Christianity was slow and later than you might think. In fact, Christianity did not make inroads into Scandinavia until the twelfth century. But I digress.
(4) And yet more context: The Visigoths entered the Roman scene in the 4th century from Romania. After the requisite rampaging through the failing empire, they set themselves up in a number of small kingdoms in Spain and France.
(5) Which autocorrect desperately wants to change to Australia.
(6) Which autocorrect wants to change to Nutria—which I believe is a kind of rodent. Obviously autocorrect is sadly ignorant about medieval history.
(7) That use of the passive voice is deliberate. It’s unclear to me whether Chilperic or Fredegond ordered the murder.
(8) A big step up from a blender and a set of cooking knives.
(9) Sound familiar? See Macbeth.