Episode 23: The End of the Beginning
Hey, just a few short notes to go ahead and start us off today: First, you’ll notice that the name of the episode is “The End of the Beginning.” Throughout the production of the show you may also have noticed that I list the episodes as Season 1, Episode Whatever… Well there’s a reason for this. As far as the show title, I feel confident in saying that we have, in fact, come to the end of the beginning. We covered the formative events in the founding of the Merovingian Dynasty, ranging from the mythical to the exaggerated and everything in between, and we should now have a firm foundation upon which to build the rest of the history. That said, the rest of the history will continue in Season Two, which is scheduled to begin on 6 September 2020. I will finish out this first 25-episode season with this episode and then with the next two, and then everything will wrap up around 19 July. I’ll then take that month-and-a-half window between Seasons 1 and 2 to work on a variety of things, ranging from cleaning up and updating the website, to compiling the episode transcripts into a full manuscript, and most importantly, researching deeper and deeper into our history. The coronavirus has put quite a damper on being able to get to the library and the bookstores to get more source documents, so hopefully we’ll see virus rates stay low and libraries reopen shortly here in the UK so I can make the show as interesting – and, quite honestly, as historically accurate – as possible.
Alright, I’m going to get going so we can jump back into the 7th century. Thank you for indulging me with these notes, and also be on the lookout during the break for a few bonus episodes to drop. Radio silence is a horrible thing, and we’ll do our best to stay in touch with you all summer long. Thanks!
Theuderic had had enough of death and war for a while.
In the past decade, he had taken his army to the field time and time again. More often than not, he went to battle with his older brother, Theudebert, in an attempt to remove him from the Austrasian throne he held unlawfully. Why was Theudebert’s reign in the north unlawful? Well, simply put, Theudebert was not his brother – at least not according to their grandmother, Brunhilda. According to her, Theudebert had been conceived when their mother had an adulterous relationship with one of the castle staff: therefore, he was not one of the royal line of their father, Childebert II, and was a usurper to the throne – Theuderic’s throne.
Now realistically, Theuderic had always had his doubts about this story. First off, it required him to believe that his mother was the type of woman who would cuckold his father. This would be a smear against her reputation and her chastity, and would also imply that she couldn’t be trusted to bear the legitimate children of the Frankish throne. This would call into question Theuderic’s claims to the throne as well, but Brunhilda assured him that this wasn’t the case, that he was the unquestioned progeny of Childebert. How she could possibly know this with such certainty was open to question; it wasn’t as if she had been in the room with his parents on the night he was conceived. Still, despite the awkwardness of questioning his mother’s faithfulness, it was convenient for him and allowed him to claim an entire kingdom so, by and large, he went with it.
Beyond smearing his mother’s name and reputation, there was the equally awkward fact that Theudebert and Theuderic had grown up together. As royal princes, they had played together, fought together, and had shared a common history for the first ten years of their lives. They both had survived their mother and father dying suddenly and tragically, and they both had had to deal with having their world turned upside-down at the drop of a hat. Beyond all of that, they shared a common hatred of one person in particular: their great-aunt, Fredegunda, the mother of the Neustrian king Chlothar II. The boys were told for years that it was she who had killed their parents, that it was she who was trying to take their empires. And there was no reason not to believe these claims – Fredegunda was running around Paris and other areas outside of Neustria, laying claim to new lands in the wake of their parent’s death. Even after she herself died of natural causes, the common hatred felt toward the Neustrian queen influenced the brothers to ride into battle side-by-side, to fight a common enemy in Chlothar II – and they had been victorious. This shared victory, as brothers and fellow soldiers, leaders of allied armies, again led to doubts about the stories that Theudebert had not been his brother.
Finally, as far as doubts, there was the timing of the story. Put most simply, Brunhilda had not started pushing the claims of Theudebert as a bastard until after she had been kicked out of Austrasia – by Theudebert. For years after their parent’s death, Brunhilda had served as regent to both of their thrones and had made her seat of power in Metz. She had seemed perfectly content to live and rule from the north, but it seemed that her personality – increasingly abrasive as she grew older and more sure of herself – eventually wore Theudebert’s patience, as well as the patience of his loyal counselors, just too thin. Resulting from what Theuderic could only imagine as quite a blow-up, Brunhilda moved from Metz to Orléans, and from that time on the older woman refused to talk about the King of Austrasia as anything other than a bastard, both literally and figuratively. In her rants she would often speculate about who the father had been: the gardener? The landscaper? The shoemaker? It seemed that Theuderic and Theudebert’s mother could have been overcome by lust with almost any stray workers wandering around inside the castle walls.
Luckily for Brunhilda, Theuderic was a mild-mannered young man who was able to shrug off these various insults to his mother as nothing more than the cranky rantings of a crotchety old woman. By and large, Brunhilda’s presence made for a symbiotic relationship between the two, allowing Theuderic the chance to focus on all of the fun parts of kingship – like attempting to produce heirs with various concubines and riding out into battles with his armies – while she tended to the politics and councils and minutiae of the court. As to that first part, Theuderic did his, um, duty, and produced with multiple concubines the children Sigebert II, Childebert, Corbus and Merovech, as well as a daughter, Emma.
As to the second part, battles and warring, Theuderic was relatively successful – as long as his armies were listening to competent leaders and the Mayor of the Palace for their orders. Theuderic was never truly consulted for advice or leadership, and instead served mainly as a figurehead and a rubber stamp. He never truly learned the craft of generalship, and this was most blatantly exposed on the day in 606 when his Mayor of the Palace, Protadius, was murdered by his own men. Unbeknownst to Theuderic, who was simply anxious for yet another fight and yet another victory, his men were not keen on engaging in yet another battle against his brother that many saw as disastrous and ill worth the effort. They had pushed back against the battle, and many had suffered under Protadius for their insolence. However, this didn’t quell the rebellious attitude of the army. When they were readied for battle and all was in place, the Duke of Alemannia, a man named Uncelen, rode before his troops and gave a rousing speech to his men that was just out of the earshot of the royal party. It was therefore to this party’s great surprise when, rather than turning to form lines following Uncelen’s call, that the troops turned to face the King and Protadius. Before they could react, the men fell upon Protadius and dragged him from his horse. Theuderic was shocked and sat motionless as this occurred. No one dared to touch the king, but it was clear on this day that he was theirs to command. With his Mayor torn apart in front of him and his dukes advocating rebellion, Theuderic signed a treaty suing for peace and then left for home. There was no further battle that day.
From that day forth, Theuderic’s faith in his grandmother had worn away. He had been willing to abide her presence based on his desire to maintain his cavalier lifestyle, but after watching his most senior advisor get slaughtered like an animal by his own men just a few feet away from where he sat on his mount – well, suffice it to say that he had begun to lose confidence from that moment on. He began to realize that Brunhilda’s leadership had placed him in conflict with the Visigoths, the Lombards, his brother and his uncle. She had managed, in a very underhanded way, to keep Theuderic sated on young slave girls and had undermined his chances at a dynastic marriage; while this had been fun for him at first, he now began to suspect that Brunhilda’s intent in doing this was less based on providing for the King’s pleasure and more on more on ensuring that she was the only Queen walking about the castle. Finally, past Protadius and the internal squabbling, the frayed foreign relations and the non-stop battles, there was the wearing fact that so much of his time and energy as a King had been spent trying to kill his own brother. And when his forces had finally succeeded in doing just that, there was really little joy in the victory: his army was depleted, and the forces of his “enemy,” the Austrasians that he would lay claim to rule, were killed in such numbers and such violent fighting that rumors abounded that they could not even fall to the ground until the armies had fled the field, because the carnage was so terrible and the body count was so high. Finally, when he at last got to his brother, he was forced to tonsure and embarrass a fellow king whom he was able to recall, in earlier days, having run about castles with, playing swords and pestering the household staff. On top of that, he had watched as his grandmother ordered the grim work done of running through both of Theudebert’s older male children, killing any would-be pretenders to the throne of Austrasia. She had also ordered the guards to kill Theudebert’s infant son, and when they were slow to do so and seemed to show compassion toward the baby, Brunhilda worried that they may not follow her orders. Movingly surprisingly fast for a 70-year-old woman, she fell upon the guard holding the child, grabbed the boy by his ankle, and whipped him around as hard as she could, headfirst into the stone floor. The child, her great-grandchild, lay motionless on the floor as she walked away and instructed the guard who had been holding the child and warming up to the infant to now clean it up off the floor.
It was a week after this, after his nephew had had his brains scattered on the floor of the castle and he himself had ordered Theudebert’s hair cut off, that Theuderic called once more to his guards and gave an order.
“Kill him,” he said of his brother. “Do so quickly, and treat the execution as you would that of a king. Theudebert was our enemy, but he deserves better than what I have given him to this point.”
With that order, an attempt at mercy toward a brother he had once loved, Theuderic slumped down in his royal throne. He was now the ruler of both Burgundy and Austrasia, yet he had never felt as isolated and disillusioned as he did at this zenith of his earthly power. Physically, his stomach was bothering him a great deal; he didn’t know if the pains were due to everything he had just seen or something else, but he had a feeling that any illness he may be feeling could easily be a judgement of God of all that had occurred. Even while he was triumphant, Theuderic felt defeated. It was then that he saw his grandmother walk by, dictating to her scribes and carrying on as is though nothing had happened, and all was normal in the world.
He couldn’t stand to look at her. She was the physical embodiment of death and war, and she would never, ever quit until she stopped drawing breath into her body. He closed his eyes.
He had had enough of death and war.
This is Thugs and Miracles. Episode Twenty-Three: The End of the Beginning.
Alright, welcome back! I’m Benjamin Bernier, and this week our focus is on Theuderic II and the constantly tightening spiral that Brunhilda finds herself in as she grows older. Theuderic himself is an interesting case to look at, insofar as how he dealt with his grandmother vice the way that his brother dealt with her. Remember, Theudebert ultimately kicked Brunhilda out of his Kingdom and tried to make his way in the world without her; this led to her turning against him in a sort of total war that is all that much more incredibly visceral due to the close relationship these people shared. Anyway, Theudebert rejected Brunhilda and Theuderic accepted her; we know how this turned out for Theudebert, so how about his younger brother?
Well, we know from our opening story that Brunhilda maintained control of her younger grandson even after the events of 612. Still, he was beginning to push back against her, and we can understand why. He was in his mid-twenties, had led battle after battle at her behest, had seen his Mayor cut down due to the unrest that Protadius had stirred up while allied to Brunhilda, and then had seen half of his family cut down in his name and possibly at her command. All of this serves as a prelude to illuminate the following passage from Les Grandes Chroniques de France; Theuderic, kept from both marital and familial love, stumbles into a potential solution to have both. Brunhilda, of course, will have the final say. From Les Grandes Chroniques:
“While king Theuderic was staying in the city of Metz, he was overcome with love for his niece, whom he had brought from Cologne, and he wanted to marry her. But Brunhild forbad it, and when he asked what harm it would do if he took her in marriage, she replied that he should not marry his niece, the daughter of his brother. When the king heard this speech, he became furious, and said to her: "Oh, you faithless woman, despised by God and by all the world, against everything good, didn't you insist that he was not my brother, but the son of a shoemaker? Why did you compel me to commit a sin by killing him, and, manipulated by you, to become my brother's murderer?" Saying this, he drew his sword and rushed at her to kill her, but the bystanders intervened and led her out of the hall; thus she escaped, this time, imminent death. From that point on she plotted to avenge this humiliation, and to bring about his death; she saw a chance to do this when he was taking a bath. To the ministers who surrounded him, whom she corrupted with promises and gifts, she gave poisons, and ordered them to give them to the king to drink when he was to come out of the bath. The king drank the poison that they offered him, and died instantly, without confessing, without repenting for the great sins that he had committed throughout his whole life.”
Alright, did Brunhilda really just kill her grandson (again)? I mean, that’s at least the second time we’ve asked a similar question, as just an episode or so ago we asked if Brunhilda had really just killed her son. And, if we believe the sources, we have seen Brunhilda actively take part in the murder of her great-grandchildren, and she had spent the majority of the past decade actively pressuring armies to fight against her other grandson in Austrasia, so maybe asking the question of “Would she…” or “Did she…” is kind of a moot point by now. However, consider how inept would King Theuderic and his men have to be to allow Brunhilda access to the king right after he “drew his sword and rushed at her to kill her”? Even in these early times, the king would have had security in place to mitigate the chances of him getting poisoned, so for Brunhilda to obtain poison that was deadly enough to instantly kill a vigorous man in his mid-twenties, and then smuggle it to someone who both had the ability and desire to talk to her and have access to the king’s chambers, and also identify someone who would be willing to kill the king with everyone around him knowing that he just served a death brew, and who also was willing to take this risk when there was very little envisioned in the way of succession planning… well, that’s a long line of conspiracy, and one that’s hard for me to believe personally. The much simpler answer, and the one that both Fredegar and Occam’s Razor drive me to choose, is that Theuderic got sick at around this time, likely with dysentery or some similar illness, and died a tragically young death.
This death, of course, did have an upside for Brunhilda. For the third time in her life, she would return to the position of Queen Regent, taking over control of the Kingdoms of Austrasia and Burgundy in the care of her great-grandson, Sigibert II. Charles Oman gives us a window into what happened next:
“Now for the third time the unhappy Brunhildis was left alone with a helpless child as her only stay. Once more she steeled her heart and faced the situation; she led her great-grandson Sigibert, the eldest son of Theuderich, before the assembly of the East Franks and bade them do homage to him as king of Austrasia and Burgundy. For a moment they bent before her and Sigibert was acknowledged as ruler of the East Franks. But the Austrasians were determined to have no more of Brunhildis rule; they sent secretly to Chlothar, king of Neustria, and bade him arm and invade his cousin’s realm, for no hand should be raised against him. When the Neustrian king marched into Austrasia, Warnachar, the mayor of the palace, and most of the nobles of the land took arms and joined him. Brunhildis, with her great-grandson, fled to Burgundy and raised an army there with which she faced the Neustrians near the headwaters of the Aisne. But when Chlothar’s army came in sight, the Burgundian patrician Aletheus and the dukes Rocco and Sigvald led off their troops and joined the invader. In a moment, the whole of Sigibert’s army had deserted or dispersed. Brunhildis and the little king fled away as far as Orbe, hard by the lake of Neuchatel, where the emissaries of Chlothar overtook and captured them.”
You can always tell when you’re getting close to a particularly interesting period of history when you find yourself flush with sources talking about the same events, and for the most part they’re telling pretty much the same story. In this case, all of the sources agree that Brunhilda had in fact become Queen Regent for an unprecedented third time, and all of the sources agree that her royal court had finally lost patience with her holding the position. They ride with her to yet another battle, this time against Chlothar, and as soon as they get the chance to betray her, they lay waste to any forces loyal to her, then run her and young Sigibert II down. Still, despite having so many sources writing on the same subject, I can’t help but feel that some stones were never turned over in looking at this incident.
First off, Brunhilda was coming back into full power for the third time as a Regent and the fourth time overall. What were the rules concerning such transitions of power and, if the nobility didn’t like how those rules had played out over the past few decades, why had so many done so little to rectify the situation? I mean seriously, can we blame Brunhilda for taking advantage of the situation and stepping into the void left in the wake of a dead monarch literally every single time for the past 40-plus years? We can call her greedy, we can call her manipulative, and we can call her conniving, but at the same time, who can honestly say they would do less if all of the power of the throne was sitting right in front of them? This leads me to a second question: if Brunhilda held so much sway, power and loyalty amongst the people so as to be able to take back control of the government so often, what now led them to fully turn against her? Did they really believe she had poisoned her own grandson? And if yes, why did no one call her on it? Was the level of cravenness at this time so high that the nobles would rather lead someone onto the field of battle rather than simply confront them? And finally, if all of this were the case, where was Brunhilda’s spy network? Most autocrats are well-known to be among the most paranoid people on earth, and the Queen certainly wasn’t stupid. So how did she miss this much angst amongst the nobles, this many secret agreements with Chlothar’s people, and so much contempt for the woman who, to be fair, had been with them for such a long time? It just seems a rather large conspiracy, to me at any rate, that so many nobles would be involved in turning against Brunhilda in battle. How had the very world-wise Queen missed the warning signs of a coup that seems to have run so deep? Or, did she realize that her hold on power was tenuous, and choose to ride into battle anyway as a way of playing the best card in a losing hand? I mean, monarchs at this time had everything at their disposal, except for retirement plans. And Brunhilda had overcome steep odds before – maybe she thought God was truly on her side.
No matter how any of this actually came to pass or why, the end result was the same. Brunhilda was caught and taken prisoner, along with her great-grandchild/king and the rest of Theuderic’s family, and left to await the punishment that Chlothar II was undoubtedly going to mete out. The only question that remained was what the punishment would be, and when would it be administered. We’re going to stop here for this week as far as Brunhilda and the male line are concerned and return in ten days with a full discussion of how the great Queen would meet her end. However, before we go, we’re going to say Bon Voyage to the one outlier in the group of prisoners: Theuderic’s daughter, Emma.
BON VOYAGE: We haven’t actually done a Bon Voyage segment in a while, but I feel that one is warranted here because Emma is – spoiler alert – going to be the only survivor in Theuderic’s family, and the possibilities of what may have happened to her are intriguing. As we just said, Chlothar II will murder the male line of Emma’s family once he got his hands on them. I’m not condoning this action, but historically speaking, it makes sense. Men, per Salic Law, were the only people allowed to inherit property and titles. Therefore, getting rid of anyone who could lay claim to these items was really the only option for a monarch who wanted to avoid anyone with a legitimate claim to usurpation. Banishment could have been an option, but as we’ve seen with Gundovald and his attempt to try and overthrow King Guntram of Burgundy back in 585, or more recently with Brunhilda and her banishment from Austrasia at the hands of Theudebert, simply placing someone into exile was not a guarantee that they wouldn’t return. So, unfortunately for the young men of Theuderic II’s line, the only way to make sure they wouldn’t come back… was to make sure they wouldn’t come back.
However, Emma, the young and pretty daughter of Theudebert with no claim to the throne, could still serve the needs of a monarch. Her uncle is said to have fallen in love with her, which would have been creepy based on the closeness of their familial ties, on the fact that Theuderic killed her dad, and – most importantly in this case – on the girl’s young age (she would have been around 10 years old in 612). Well, as we now know, Theuderic died not long after he met Emma, and not much more is said about the girl. The histories don’t specifically note her as having been murdered, so it’s reasonable to believe that she could have been preserved by Chlothar II – why kill her, after all? She was still a princess, only just coming into a marriageable age, and she could be used to solidify an alliance with a potential ally. And that’s possibly just what happened. I say possibly because there is no direct source confirming the following story, but the pieces line up between ages, names, and other people involved, to make it a perfectly reasonable hypothesis that Emma lived well past the rest of her family.
At any rate, back in Episode 15 I told you about Bertha, the daughter of Charibert. Charibert was short-lived as a monarch, lasting only six years after the death of his father, Chlothar I. In his short time as king he managed to get excommunicated, which was an impressive feat in and of itself, but he also had sent Bertha north to Kent, in Brittia, to marry King Aethelberht. She managed to sway her new King over to Chrisitianity, and the Church she had built – named for St Martin of Tours – is the site of the modern-day Canterbury Cathedral. The UNESCO World Heritage website tells us “St Martin’s Church has been in continuous use as a place of worship since the 6th century.” Past this, Bertha and Aethelberht had a son, Eadbald, who succeeded Aethelberht as king of Kent in 616. Eadbald apparently tried to stay true to his more pagan ancestry at first and rejected Christianity, ejected the Church’s Bishops from his land, and “took his father's wife as his own.” (Side note: Bertha is said to have died around 601, so Eadbald didn’t go full Oedipus in this case. Never go full Oedipus).
Well, Saint Bede tells us in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People that Eadbald later repented and was baptized; he turned out his first wife and showed favor to the Church from then on. Eadbald, good Christian king that he now was, would need a new Christian queen, and where better for him to look than to the Franks who had supplied his father with a princess, his mother. According to Ryan Patrick Crisp, “For the rulers of Kent, marriage to a Frankish princess, even the daughter of a dead king, enhanced their status, and perhaps secured their royal position. For the Franks, the value of the gift of a Merovingian bride may have been repaid in a stricter definition of the receiver’s place in the Frankish hegemonic system or at the least put the kings of Kent into their debt.”
So, marriage to a Merovingian princess, even one whose father was dead, was still of great value to both the kings of Kent and the Merovingians. And Emma was right there, riding the bench and just waiting to get put into the game. She and Eadbald were second cousins once removed, so they were far enough apart to get rid of the whole incest issue (though still too close for my taste, personally), and they were both of a similar age, having been born near the turn of the 6th century and into the 7th. The match seems logical and fairly likely, although I will admit that it’s still possible that the Emma who made the trip north could have been someone different. Without DNA evidence, it’s really not possible for anyone to say with 100 percent accuracy what happened here.
However, if Theudebert’s Emma did marry Eadbald, then her life story may have gone as laid out in the book Lives of The Queens Of England Before the Norman Conquest, by Mrs. Matthew Hall:
“The converted King married Emma, daughter of Theudebert, King of Austrasia, now Lorraine. This lady became the mother of three children, Ermenred, Ercombert, and Enswitha. The eldest son died in his father's lifetime, but Ercombert was destined to revive the faded glory of his family; Enswitha, emulating the piety of her grandmother Bertha, of blessed memory, founded the Abbey of Folkestone, in Kent, and, having assumed the religious habit, presided over it as abbess till her death, when her name and virtues were enrolled in the saintly calendar, August 31st, the day of her departure from this life. Eadbald reigned twenty-five years, and dying, was interred near his father, in a little chapel built by himself, in honour of the Virgin Mary. Queen Emma, whom one of our poets has designated as "Lady Emme, of France the chosen flower," died the following year, and was laid by the side of her husband.”
This chronology places Emma’s death in the year 640-641, which means she didn’t live a particularly long life. At the same time, she managed to live 30 years longer than her immediate family and she carried on their line. This line, the Kings of Kent, would eventually merge into the Kings of England and hold ties to Alfred the Great, and from that point there are any number of British monarchy family trees that can show you the line all the way to Queen Elizabeth II herself. So, in a way, although her brothers were murdered and her father executed so as to allow Brunhilda to consolidate the number of people with a claim to her grandson’s throne, Emma has her place in history in tying the Merovingians to monarchs who continue to rule to this day. It’s ironic that, if not for this girl who Brunhilda would deny as her great-grandaughter, Brunhilda’s ties to the monarchy would have otherwise ended with her death.
CONCLUSION: Okay, we’ll leave off there for this week. When we come back in ten days, strap in for a wild ride as we look back at Brunhilda’s legacy and what she really ultimately meant to the monarchy of France and really to Europe as a whole. If you get a chance before then, head over to Google and do an Image Search for “Brunhilda of Austrasia.” Based on the first 10-20 pictures that come up, you should have a pretty good idea of what’s coming our way. Unfortunately for Brunhilda, the end is nigh – and for her, the end came in a way that has been talked about, painted, and written about ever since. We’ll talk about that and, to a much greater degree, we’ll consider one woman’s 70 years of life and nearly 50 years on the throne. Like her, love her or hate her, Brunhilda stands as a testament to the idea that some people, no matter what the odds or what the laws say, simply cannot be held down.
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, an updated monarchy/family tree, and also a list of other great history podcasts are all available online at thugsandmiracles.com. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org, you can hit me on Twitter at @thugsandmiracle (with no “s” on the end), or you can leave a comment on Facebook and Instagram at @ThugsAndMiracles. As always, we love reviews and well, basically any word of mouth, so if you think T+M is worth it, please leave five stars for us, write a review, send a Tweet, like an Instagram post, or simply recommend us to a friend. We appreciate all of that and all of your support! This week I want to say a special thank you to Mattia, Alessandro, Andrea, Betsy and Tom, for engaging with me over on Facebook either by liking the page or leaving comments. I can’t thank all of you enough!
Okay, once again, my name is Benjamin Bernier, and I look forward to seeing you in just ten more days as we take a last long look at the most controversial of queens in our next episode of Thugs and Miracles.