Episode 20: Something's Gotta Give...
Before I begin, I want to say a quick “Happy Mother’s Day” to my mom, Mary. She has always been a source of inspiration to me, and I thank her for giving me the confidence to get behind a microphone and throw my voice into the world. Everything starts and ends with Mom, and I like to think that, just like Fredegunda, she would have done anything for me, like stabbing and assassinating enemies. Well, I’m glad she never had to… but she totally would have! Also, I want to take a moment to remember the memory of my mother-in-law, Rita. We lost her last year, but there’s never a day that goes by that she’s not in our hearts or on our minds. If she were here now, I would tell her that her daughter is the most amazing person I have ever known, and I have her to thank for that. So, with that said, I know it’s a few days overdue, but Happy Mother’s Day to Mary, Rita, and all the rest of the Mom’s out there. Now, on with the show…
Chileperic was gone, leaving Fredegunda with the task of teaching their son, Chlothar, how to be a king. She was more than up to the task.
Her first rule for the young king: Don’t let people talk about you. Certainly not important people whose opinion may sway others. Take for example Bishop Praetextatus. Praetextatus was like a weed who kept coming back in the queen’s life, no matter how hard she worked to pluck him out and throw him away. The man first rose to her notice when he took it upon himself to marry her stepson, Merovech, to her nemesis, Brunhilda, way back in 575. For this offense she had managed to have him tried and exiled, but he was able to find his way back to his seat in Rouen following the death of her husband, Chilperic, in 584. The queen fought this reinstatement by appealing to her brother-in-law, King Guntram, but she was turned down and the Bishop came back. And he just couldn’t help but run his mouth at his former queen, telling her, “Whether in exile or out of exile, I was, am now, and always shall be a bishop; but as for you, you won’t enjoy royal power forever. By God’s grace I have been brought from exile back to the world; but you shall be taken from this kingdom and plunged into the abyss. It would be better for you now to give up your stupid, wicked behavior and turn to better things. Stop this boasting, which always makes you excitable. Even you may strive to attain eternal life and can lead the infant you have borne to his age of majority.”
Yeah, bad choice. People just did not talk about Fredegunda. They didn’t call her stupid and wicked, and they most certainly never were to say anything that would imply that she may somehow be separated from her son, the king. Her retribution was swift. On Easter Day, an assassin armed with a dagger waited in church until Praetextatus began the ritual chanting of the antiphons. As the singing progressed, the bishop sought a seat to take a momentary rest; he had only been seated for a moment when the assailant was on him, driving his blade as deep as possible into the bishop’s armpit. Wounded, bleeding, and clearly dying, Praetextatus looked about for help, but all of those near him refused to come forward to offer him any. He began to laugh, knowing whose work this was. He spat at the clergy that refused to offer him help, then folded his hands and began to pray. The words he said to God were sealed with the blood that dripped from his body and onto the holy altar.
Fredegunda visited the bishop after he had been carried from the church and into a room where he lay dying. Part of her knew that her presence made a good show; would the person who ordered a man’s assassination really have the gall to visit his deathbed? Mostly though, she simply wanted to see the bishop in the throes of death, to see his gaunt and pale body struggling harder with each breath to keep the man’s eyes open and his soul in this world. When she was sat next to him, she said, “Holy Bishop, your flock and I should never have lived to see the day when such a crime as this should be committed and while you were performing the office too. I can only hope that the man who has dared to do such a thing will be discovered, and that he will be properly punished for his evil action.” The bishop barely had the energy to respond to such a bold affront. He was able to mutter a timid response, “God has decreed that I must be recalled from this world. As for you, who are the prime mover in these crimes, as long as you live you will be accursed for God will avenge my blood upon your head.” At this, Fredegunda smirked, stood, and left the room. She had confirmed for herself that the bishop’s time in this world was short. She could live with his curses because, unlike him, she would continue to live. If he wanted to curse her as he left the world that was fine… so long as he left.
Fredegunda’s second rule for her son and King: Don’t let petty rivalries in the Kingdom escalate out of control. It was hard enough running a kingdom in the best of times, and she and her son certainly didn’t need internal squabbling added to the list of issues they had to contend with. Despite this desire for harmony, there were those who wanted to do their own thing; take, for example, the Franks of Tournai and the dispute that arose when one man up and killed his brother-in-law for failing to be faithful to the former man’s sister. Both of the morons in this case died when they fought one another, but this didn’t quell the situation. Instead, the families of both decided to carry on with their feud. The disturbance they caused rose to the royal level, and Fredegunda stepped in to ask everyone to calm down and stop their bickering. Despite her intervention, the men failed to stop fighting. No problem, Fredegunda thought, let’s just have them over for dinner.
The three men utmost in the dispute, while hating one another personally, would never say no to the queen. And it was for that reason that these three primary belligerents all showed up to dinner on the same night, to hear the queen’s proposal for how things may be set right between them. When they arrived, the queen motioned for the three to be seated upon the same bench. They rolled their eyes and muttered under their breath, not wanting to endure this childish punishment of being forced to sit next to one’s enemy, but at the same time none of them were willing to stand up to the great Queen and say no. So, they sat, they ate, and they drank. And they drank. They drank so much that their slaves all passed out and fell into various corners of the house, leaving the main party to themselves. They drank so much that they didn’t even realize that Fredegunda herself had spent the night sipping on nothing more than water. They drank so much that they didn’t notice Fredegunda give a signal, and they didn’t notice her henchmen move into place behind them, and they definitely didn’t notice the axes they carried with them. With that, Fredegunda called for the men’s attention, drawing their eyes to her. As the three made eye contact with her, she gave her guards a simple command: “Now.” In the next moment, all three axes came up and swung down, severing the heads of these three ringleaders from their bodies. And just like that, the banquet – and their feud – ended.
Finally, Fredegunda taught her son a third rule: Lead from the front. Fredegunda was given a chance to show her son best how to do this when Childebert II, King of Austrasia and son of Brunhilda, decided to invade the territory of Soissons. In this case, Childebert’s force was led by his dukes Gundoald and Wintrio; they led their army as far as Droizy, where they set up camp and waited to make their next move. As they dithered and “planned,” so too did Fredegunda. She gathered up her generals and offered the following scheme: They should camouflage some of their men, having them hold tree branches in the night so as to move closer to the enemy and be confused with the forest. They would tie bells to their horses so the Austrasians would think they were their own, simply grazing in the nearby pasture. Finally, when these tricks allowed them to move near enough to the enemy camp, they would attack the dozing enemy and drive him from their lands.
The plan was insane and honestly had little chance of success, but the assembled generals had to admit that it at least offered them more hope than anything else they had brainstormed. As if feeling the generals teetering, Fredegunda offered this final piece of motivation to get them to agree: she was so confident of success that she herself would be present with the commanders of the army when they launched the attack, and she would be cradling the infant Chlothar while she did so. The men went silent and then looked at one another: if a woman, a mother carrying her infant child, had this much faith in her plan, how cowardly would they have to be to say no? With that, they agreed. Later that night they assembled their men and set to work on their camouflage.
The following morning, the Neustrians were in place. Nearby Austrasian sentries, plied with drink to get through the cold night, started to notice that the forest seemed closer than it had a few hours earlier. So too did the bells of their grazing horses. Were they losing their minds? No, they just must be drunk, that’s the ticket…
Just before the crack of dawn, Fredegunda exited her tent. Good to her word, she went to her horse to watch the battle unfold, carrying the infant King who was strapped to her chest. She had kept him from the front lines throughout the night to avoid having the crying of a baby unravel all of the effort that had gone into camouflage and getting their main force within easy striking distance of the enemy, but now, as the attack was to commence imminently, the need for silence had passed. As she rode to the top of a nearby hill to watch the battle unfold, she sent word to her generals for the attack to commence.
The plan worked perfectly. Fredegunda’s Neustrian army fell quickly and violently on the hapless Austrasians, and their camouflage and audacity took the enemy by bewildered surprise. Most of their force was killed while Fredegunda and her child looked on, and their leaders, Gundoald and Wintrio, were barely able to get away. In their haste they left behind all of their supply train; not only was Fredegunda able to return to her camp as a great victor, she was also able to do it while laden with spoils. Her boldness and swift thinking had earned her this glory, but she had also won the day by instilling in her men a certainty of victory. They knew that the Queen would never expose the King if she had any doubts of success. At the same time, they were willing to press the attack with a level of ferocity that rose to another level as they felt a paternal instinct to protect a mother, their Queen, and her baby from harm.
This then, was the ultimate lesson she had for her son: If you’re certain of success, don’t let anything get in your way.
This is Thugs and Miracles. Episode Twenty: Something’s Gotta Give…
Alright, welcome back! As always, I’m Benjamin Bernier. Today, we’re going to move between all three of our main subjects, Fredegunda, Brunhilda and Guntram; by the time we’re done, we’re going to see power shift yet again and, by the end, one of these three will be exiting the scene. We have seen, from our opening story, the path and trajectory of Fredegunda. Despite her extremely brutal personality, she remains one of those people who inspired the loyalty of those around her. This is purely conjecture on my part, but I can’t help but wonder if these Neustrian fanboys were more likely to be loyal because of her brutal nature, because they knew who she was and what she was capable of. Fredegunda was the archetype of the wicked queen, but at the same time, there seems to have been an honesty in knowing who she was and where she stood. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to assert that this forgives Fredegunda’s many, many violent actions; however, it does go a long way toward explaining her allure. She wasn’t a politician, and she didn’t mince words. This, in my opinion, is also how we should view her as a historical figure. Rather than overthinking who Fredegunda was, it’s more important to understand what wanted and why. To that end, Fredegunda was looking to safeguard her children and perpetuate the Merovingian line through herself. Looking at things from this angle, it becomes easier to understand why Chilperic’s first wife had to be banished, why Galswintha had to be strangled, why all of Chilperic’s non-Fredegunda children had to be removed, and why those people who were accused of witchcraft and sorcery in the killing of her own children had to be tortured and executed. She was going to make sure her line survived, and by the time she was down to only one child and no royal husband, well… let’s just say that she would have been feeling the pressure to do almost anything to ensure his success.
Moving away from Fredegunda for a moment, where was Guntram in all of this? For him, as we’ve discussed earlier, he had given up on the idea of pushing the Merovingian line through his own children and instead opted to adopt his two nephews. This is particularly interesting: why would he give up on having his own kids, his own boys? Did the whole process just get to be too much for him? Remember, he had had multiple boys already, and they all had died. Still, he was able to produce children, and he was under no illusions of being cursed insofar as being able to have boys. Looking back though, he had seen one of these kids get poisoned to death – by his own wife, the child’s stepmom – and had had another boy die “by the judgement of God,” wherein God chose to smite the baby for the sins of the mother. This led to Guntram banishing his wife, an act that had to have been at least emotionally exhausting and, more likely, incredibly painful. After this, he got re-married, had two more boys, and then had to watch them suffer and die from dysentery. Again, this had to have been emotionally wrenching to have to endure. On top of all of this, Guntram’s choice of wives doesn’t seem to have led him to be much of a romantic. We’re told by Gregory of how, in the year 580, Guntram’s wife Austerchild became sick and began to die. The bitter way in which she left this world likely stuck with Guntram; from Gregory:
“In these days Austerchild, wife of prince Gunthram, succumbed to this disease, but before she breathed out her worthless life, seeing she could not escape, she drew deep sighs and wished to have partners in her death, intending that at her funeral there should be mourning for others. It is said that she made a request of the king in Herodian fashion saying: "I would still have had hopes of life if I had not fallen into the hands of wicked physicians; for the draughts they gave me have taken my life away perforce and have caused me swiftly to lose the light of day. And therefore I beg you let my death not go unavenged, and I conjure you with an oath to have them slain by the sword as soon as I depart from the light; so that, just as I cannot live longer, so they too shall not boast after my death, and the grief of our friends and of theirs shall be one and the same." So speaking she gave up her unhappy soul. And the king after the customary period of public mourning fulfilled her wicked order, forced by the oath to his cruel wife. He ordered the two physicians who had attended her to be slain with the sword, and the wisdom of many believes that this was not done without sin.”
So here we are in 580 and with Guntram nearing his 50th birthday. While today we consider this age to be firmly in the middle of life, in 580 Guntram would have been considered an older man. He had seen all of his children die horribly; he had had to give up the woman who gave him his first heir for his first wife, all because of the former’s lower birth; he had had to banish that same wife for bringing the judgement of God against their house; and now he was out, murdering doctors at the request of this late second wife, all because they hadn’t managed to save her life. I mean, none of this adds up to the life of a person who would be particularly happy or particularly hopeful as he entered his “senior” years, and I can understand how he perhaps didn’t feel like starting over again when, for all of his life, the cost of hope had been nothing but pain and heartbreak.
This leads us then to the last decade of Guntram’s life, and it’s in this last decade where we discover that, if you act piously enough and you give enough money to the church and you make friends with people who are going to talk you up, then you too can become a saint even after a life of bedding slaves, banishing wives, killing doctors and generally not really being very saintly. And for what it’s worth, Guntram does appear to have lived a relatively pious existence in his last years, or at least as pious as he was able to as a King. This piousness, along with the perception of his people that he was a “good” king, led to his people believing him capable of miracles. In fact, he is the only Merovingian king who is noted as having performed miracles within his life. To learn more about this, we again turn to – who else? – Gregory:
“It was then commonly told among the faithful that a woman whose son was suffering from a four day fever and was lying in bed very ill, approached the king's back in the throng of people and secretly broke off the fringe of the royal garment and put it in water and gave to her son to drink, and at once the fever died down and he was cured. I do not regard this as doubtful since I have myself heard persons possessed by demons in their furies call on his name and admit their ill deeds, recognizing his power.”
And so there you have it: first-person evidence of Guntram performing miracles, as well as people believing that their king had the power to vanquish “demons in their furies.” Tales such as these would help to get Guntram canonized as a saint in the not-too-distant future after his death. Which, speaking of that…
King Guntram died in his bed in 592 at the age of 60. I really wish there was a more glamorous ending to write here – and believe me, I racked my brain for a while before writing this simple, one-line send-off for one of our kings, but that’s really about the long and short of Guntram. He was the most milquetoast brother of all of Chlothar I’s sons. And he was milquetoast at a time when personalities around him were going to steal the historical limelight every single time. I mean, seriously, look at his brothers… Charibert lived short and fast and was ex-communicated for his wild lifestyle before he died. Sigibert was victorious in love and war – all except for that assassin that his guard let through to him. Even Chilperic had a crazy love life and was constantly pushing his luck for an advantage. And then, beyond his brother kings, throw in Brunhilda and Fredegunda, and we can then push outside of the Frankish Kingdom to talk about the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora, and then there’s Gundovald as a usurper and, well, I stand by my assessment.
Guntram was boring. He was vanilla.
He liked a girl when he was young but did nothing to fight for her when he was pressured into marrying a proper girl. When this “proper” wife had his son from that first relationship killed, he banished her. He didn’t even take it upon himself to strike her down, but instead sent her out into the elements to die slowly and in a place that he wouldn’t have to see it happen. He finally married another girl and had a few kids, but all of these pre-deceased him by over a decade. Rather than keep trying to produce that elusive heir, Guntram instead simply adopted his nephews – even though they led different kingdoms and almost certainly were never going to get along. While the idea of being a peacemaker between these two sides was a nice idea and a fine ambition, his was neither the time nor the place to do so. He chose a middle path at a time when a decision needed to be made. He opted for safety and quiet over making a difficult choice; to paraphrase Ben Franklin, those who would give up their mandate as king, to purchase a little temporary peace and quiet, deserve neither to have peace nor to be King.
Add into all of this that Guntram really wasn’t even all that peaceful, what with starting fights against the Bretons in the west in Armorica and the Visigoths in the south in Septimania. And he wasn’t a particularly skilled strategist, losing both of these fights with his neighbors in situations where he really shouldn’t have lost. In the case of the latter battle, against the Visigoths, Guntram actually managed to lose 7,000 casualties between men killed or captured. All of this is to say that Guntram wasn’t much good when it came to love; he wasn’t much good as a peacemaker; and he was fairly horrible as a military leader. He had had the chance, especially once his brothers had all died and he was left alone with a young teenager and an infant as his co-monarchs, to attempt to assert himself as a much larger personality in the history books; instead, he opted for half-measures and easy wins to maintain a veneer of peace – and then managed to screw that up. So yes, Guntram lived to 60 and he died quietly in his bed, a remarkable feat when compared to the outcome of his brothers. And that was really all that was remarkable about him.
Before his death, Guntram had sat down with Childebert and worked out a treaty that solidified ties between Austrasia and Burgundy. I mentioned this treaty in the last episode – the Treaty of Andelot – and took notice at that time that it specifically recognized Queen Brunhilda’s “right to protection, and also confirmed her claims to the morgengabe of her murdered sister, Galswintha.” Well, beyond hooking up the Queen Mother with money and protection, it also laid out, in no uncertain terms, that the two kingdoms were to become one if and when one of their respective kings were to die. This was a huge boon to Childebert, given the huge disparity in age between Guntram and himself; it essentially set him up to not only be the king of both kingdoms, but also of the great majority of the landmass of Francia. I put a map up on social media and the website as to what the kingdoms looked like in 587 at the execution of Andelot, and you can clearly see that Childebert became the king of probably 90 percent of Francia when Guntram finally slipped off his mortal coil in 592. Childebert was all of 22 years old.
So, let’s wrap up today by looking at Childebert and Brunhilda. What have they been up to while Fredegunda worked as a single mom to raise her boy into a king and Guntram died quietly in his sleep? Well, for one, Childebert had lost no time in getting to his duty of producing heirs. Along with his Queen Consort, a woman named Faileuba, Childebert had two sons: Theudebert II, born in 586, and Theuderic II, born in 587. A third child was conceived by the couple several years later, but unfortunately this child did not survive. Having given his kingdom the desired “heir and a spare;” having inked the Treaty of Andelot with the much older Guntram in 587; and having avoided a variety of assassination attempts sent his way by Fredegunda, Childebert II was in a great position, kingship-wise, by the time he was 18. Given his strong position, he seems to have been content at this time to simply wait and allow the pressure exerted simply by his dominant position to force his enemies into making a mistake. However, underneath the surface of the Austrasian kingdom, there were still those looking to make a move.
Almost immediately after the death of Guntram in 592, the Austrasian dukes Gundoald and Wintrio decided to take the field against Chlothar and his Neustrians. Given their many advantages, they likely felt they were doing this as a kind of “mop-up” duty for their young king. He held all of Francia except for the northernmost section of Neustria; why not remove the “except” part of that statement and make Childebert the rightful King of All the Franks just like his grandfather before him? These dukes assembled their army and moved out, arriving at the field near Droizy where we began today’s story. There, as we already know, they let down their guard, allowed the enemy to get up close and, ultimately, the enemy stole victory from the jaws of defeat. Rather than destroying the Neustrians and placing Childebert on the highest throne possible, they instead lost 3,000 soldiers and ran away in defeat. The Liber Historiae Francorum describes the battle this way:
“With Fredegund and tiny Chlothar, they killed the greatest part of that host, an innumerable multitude, an exceedingly great army, from the greater all the way to the lowest…Truly, Fredegund went all the way to Rheims with the rest of the army. She burned and devastated Champagne. She, along with her army, returned to Soissons with much loot and many spoils of war.”
Now, here’s the grand question: Who called for this war? The primary movements came from the Austrasian side so, at least in this case, Fredegunda is off the hook for having started bloodshed. So, within Austrasia, who was pushing for war? Childebert himself was 22, had been sitting relatively idle for quite some time, and perhaps wanted to add a military victory to his resumé. Maybe he was bored. Maybe he was considering the conquest of Francia to be his personal manifest destiny. Maybe Brunhilda was whispering in his ear, telling him to fight. Or, perhaps, he was completely oblivious to the military undertakings altogether. As a rich, pampered and sheltered monarch, it’s not inconceivable that an army could have been assembled and placed in the field in his name, but without his knowledge. It’s possible that Brunhilda had the army raised and sent out; she had been ruling in Childebert’s name throughout most of his youth and young adulthood, and she easily could have signed off on military plans in his name. It’s also possible that the whole incident was the work of a rogue duke who took advantage of no longer being shackled to peace by the late King Guntram. From Brandon Taylor Craft:
“From Gregory we learn that Wintrio was a Duke in Guntram’s kingdom, which was inherited by Childebert II after his death. At first, Duke Wintrio’s invasion could be linked to Childebert II or Brunhild because he was a prominent duke in their kingdom. Chlothar II had a very tense relationship with Childebert II and Brunhild, but Guntram had managed to keep war from breaking out. However, Wintrio might also have been acting without his king’s approval as he was later assassinated in 598 by Brunhild.”
Honestly, no matter who started the war, the cat was out of the bag. Guntram had been able to keep both sides from fighting while he had been alive, but his policies all went away once he died. This is part of why I was so hard on Guntram just a few moments ago: he never created the conditions for a long-lasting peace. The armistice that prevailed while he was alive was the policy of one man, and without creating buy-in by other influential players, it was a policy that was destined to fail. Yet, what we now see is that during the entire length of Guntram’s armistice, both sides were preparing themselves for yet another round of civil war, another fight to the death wherein the ultimate victor would get to crown himself the King of the Franks. And that’s exactly what happens. This first battle at Droizy was little more than a skirmish; in 596, Francia will fall into a full-blown civil war.
CONCLUSION: Alright, we’re going to end there for the week. Another king has left the scene, and we’re left with none of the third generation of kings, Clovis’s grandsons, remaining. Honestly, their time as kings was cut short due to Chlothar I’s surprising longevity. But still, as a group they managed to stay on the scene for 25 years – from 567-592 – and their wives, Brunhilda and Fredegunda, are still around to stage manage events. And stage manage they will. Consider, in the year 592 the oldest surviving king is Childebert II at the whopping age of 22. Chlothar II is 8 years old, and Brunhilda’s grandkids are only a few years younger than the Neustrian king. Both sides are openly hostile to one another, and it’s just a matter of time until an event precipitates a call to arms. When we come back in ten days, that event will occur, and there will be blood.
OUTRO: Alright, as always, the music used for the show comes from Josh Woodward and includes his songs “Bully” and “Lafayette.” For a free download of these songs or hundreds of other great tracks, check out his site at joshwoodward.com. Notes on this episode, a list of sources, a monarchy/family tree, and also a list of other great history podcasts are all available online at thugsandmiracles.com; this week, I want to welcome Elizabeth Lunday and The Year That Was back from hiatus. She has an outstanding episode available now wherein she talks about the Chicago Black Sox scandal of 1919. In telling the story, she also manages to recap the story of the Wingfoot Air Express crash, a hydrogen blimp that blew up over the skies of Chicago in the middle of one of the White Sox games. It’s an unreal story. Past gigantic, floating, ticking time-bombs, Elizabeth also brings the history of the game into focus and does an amazing job of providing context to a story that has been mythologized in the past 100 years. If none of that’s enough to get you to tune in, well, listening to Elizabeth – an avowed non-sports person – trying to describe a knuckleball is just good fun. In the next few weeks she’ll be turning her focus to other 1919 topics such as the Spanish Flu – and really, have we heard about that recently?! – and women’s suffrage. I cannot recommend her show enough.
While you’re checking out The Year That Was and my other podcast recommendations, be sure to sign up for the free e-mail list so I can keep you up-to-date with all things T+M and announcements on new shows. Speaking of email, you can write to me at email@example.com, you can hit me on Twitter at @thugsandmiracle (with no “s” on the end), or you can leave a comment on Facebook or Instagram at @ThugsAndMiracles. Finally, as always, we’d love to see reviews. If you have a chance to leave us a written review, that’s great! We can’t wait to read it. But if you only have a chance to leave five stars, well, we’d love to see that too!
Okay, once again, my name is Benjamin Bernier, and I look forward to seeing you in ten days, as we find out just what exactly that precipitating event was that blows everything wide open in the year 596, as we get into our next episode of Thugs and Miracles.