Episode 24: Death of a Legend
Hey, just a quick warning before we get into the next episode: there’s going to be quite a bit of discussion about torture and executions which I can’t get around talking about simply because it is the crux of the episode. So, if that type of thing is not your thing, well, now would be a good time to tune out. I just wanted to give you the warning before we get started. Thank you very much, and we hope you enjoy the episode!
Brunhilda had been born a princess. She had married a king and given birth to another. She had served as Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Queen Regent; this last role had been hers three times over. She had lived a royal life, and over 70 years she had seen the highs and lows of life within the monarchy. Now, however, in this year of 613, she found herself about to die as a captive.
Brunhilda had been caught, along with her great-grandsons, Sigibert II, Corbus and Merovech, after a chase that had led across Francia following the desertion of her military leaders in battle. They had been pursued night and day and finally gave up when they and the few retainers who stayed loyal to them realized that there was nowhere they could run to, and no one who would take in this fallen queen at the expense of incurring the wrath of her pursuer, Chlothar II. The ever-tightening spiral of options that Brunhilda had felt closing in on her over the past decade had now been reduced not to fighting for survival, but rather, capitulating as a Queen, a royal person deserving of dignity and respect even as she awaited the foregone conclusion of her execution.
Respect, however, was the last thing Chlothar II was prepared to grant to her, this woman who had been the rival of his own mother. Chlothar had been the target of multiple plots which had begun in the imagination of Brunhilda, and he was most certainly not prepared to grant her the privilege of a quick and merciful end. If nothing else, Chlothar needed to ensure that everyone in the Kingdom – a kingdom that was now his and his alone, a united Francia for the first time since his namesake, Chlothar I, had been King of All the Franks over 50 year prior – understood that he was the only option as King. There would be no need to struggle and resist his ascendancy, because there would be no one on whose behalf for whom to resist. He therefore needed to make sure that the story of Brunhilda’s demise was one that absolutely everyone would hear of.
Chlothar called first for the three young boys who had been with Brunhilda at the moment of her capture. When they were shuffled before him, he pulled the middle child, Merovech, away from his brothers. He looked at the boy and told him, “Many years ago, I fought in battle alongside of your father. Since then he decided to betray me, but before this occurred, he had asked me to stand as godfather to you at your holy baptism. I did so, and now, because I am your father in Christ, I shall commit no act that may bring harm to you. Be gone.” And like that, the 10-year-old Merovech was whisked from the room by two guards. Once he was gone, Chlothar turned to the other two boys and continued. “Sigibert, you have taken up arms against me and proclaimed yourself a King. Corbus, you yourself were present at these events and may feel yourself due to some portion of the royal fisc. Neither of you were born to royal mothers, but concubines each. I have offered no protection to you in the eyes of God, as I did to your brother, and I therefore pronounce each of you to be illegitimate and usurpers to my crown. The penalty for these crimes is death.”
As he said this, two guards reached a length of rope over the heads of the young boys. Before they were able to react to the passing of their sentence, the cord was tightened around their necks by the men behind them and pulled tight. Both boys thrashed for a few moments, trying with the little might afforded to them by their prepubescent bodies to resist death, but finally each succumbed. Their bodies, now limp, were laid on the floor of the court. When they were arranged, Chlothar gave the order, “Bring her to me.”
No one needed to be told who “her” was. The call went out, and Brunhilda was brought quickly into the hall. She stumbled when she was the lifeless bodies of her two great-grandchildren; not only were they her kin, but Sigibert had been her source of power as Regent. Even as she had been held in captivity and waiting for Chlothar to call her forward to pass his judgment, her mind had raced with possibilities as to how she might rise from this bleak situation as she had done so many times before. Now, seeing the boys, the light of hope died within her. She realized that she was done and there was no way out.
Chlothar began his judgment: “Oh you cursed woman, subtle and clever at contriving stratagems to deceive everyone, how could such great faithlessness and such boundless cruelty enter your heart, that you have no shame or fear of killing, of poisoning and murdering the great and noble progeny of the kings of France? You have had ten kings killed, some of whom were killed by your advice, others by your own hands, others by poison you had given to them, not to mention the other counts and dukes who died because of your wickedness. You who are guilty of such great crimes should die as an example to all mankind. We know very well that King Sigibert, who was my uncle and your lord, rebelled against his brother, following your advice, and he died for it. Merovech, who was my brother, conceived a hatred for his father because of you, for which he died a cruel death. King Chilperic, my father, you had treacherously murdered. I cannot relate the death of my dear father without grief and tears, for I shall remain an orphan, deprived of his support and guidance. I am ashamed to relate the hosts of blood brothers, the battles between close friends, and the deadly hatreds you have sown in the hearts of princes and barons, as torture and tempests for the palace and for the entire kingdom. Didn't you instigate war between your grandsons, so that one of them was killed? Theuderic, believing what you said, killed his brother, King Theudebert, because you made him think that he was not his relative, but was the son of a shoemaker... It is well known that the eldest of the sons of your grandson Theudebert was killed by you; the younger, just born, and newly baptized, you threw so violently against a rock that you made his head fly. Furthermore, you poisoned king Theuderic, your own grandson, who had honored you. His bastard sons would not have inherited the kingdom had you moved against me in battle… [and] have died because of you. I shall not speak of the other dukes and barons who happened to be killed through your doing.”
With this indictment, Chlothar motioned for the guards to take Brunhilda from the room. He was content to have her wait on him to pass his final judgment. As she was being dragged off, he told his Mayor of the Palace, loud enough for her to hear, “Have her tortured until I choose what is to be done with her.”
Three night had passed since then, and on the morning of the fourth day Chlothar had the queen brought out of the dungeons. She couldn’t walk of her own volition. She had been without food and water almost entirely during this time, given only what was necessary to keep her alive. She had been flogged, beaten and broken, and it had actually taken some amount of skill on the part of Chlothar’s men to make sure she hadn’t died through all of this. Now, brought before the king, Brunhilda was no longer the queen who had menaced the country for nearly five decades; she was present only in body, her spirit long ago having been destroyed. Still, this was not good enough for Chlothar. The torture had been too private, too personal. He needed this woman’s fall marked on a grand scale.
“Tie her to a beast and have her ridden about in front of the men. Take your time about it, make sure all of the army gets their chance to see the queen they have captured.” At this, Chlothar turned to take his seat on the reviewing stand. Just as he was about to sit, however, he acted as if a new idea had just sprung to mind. He stopped the guards and told them “Don’t just tie her to any animal. Use the… what is it called? That beast that was given to me a few months ago… use the camel.”
And that was how Brunhilda, queen of the Franks and mother of its kings, found herself on a chilly afternoon in 613 being paraded around in front of thousands of leering, yelling soldiers on the back of a camel. Every step the animal took was an agony for her, and this was only made worse as the camel was nearly frightened out of its mind by the men screaming and throwing things at its rider. Still, after three hours the camel was returned to the reviewing stand and Brunhilda, still breathing, was taken down. Everyone had been allowed to not only see her shame, but actively take part in it. Now it was time to end the charade in a grand fashion.
Before the reviewing stand stood three magnificent chargers, horses that clearly belonged to the king himself. They were nervous and skittish from the crowds and ready to bolt free; the king meant to oblige them.
“My people,” he yelled to the crowd. “Three days ago, I asked my barons to tell me what I should do with this wretched woman you see before me now. They told me, in no uncertain terms, to develop the most cruel death I could devise.” While he spoke, guards moved to tie Brunhilda’s wrists and hair to ropes trailing the massive horses. He continued, “What I have decided on, as this woman is surely not fit to endure much more of my hospitality, is to now finish the task I have taken upon myself from the barons.”
He now spoke directly to his prisoner. “Brunhilda, you have been the instigator and the murderess of far too many Franks, and I will have no more of it. As such, I order the men on the horses behind you to leave this place, to leave my presence, and only return at such time as your body is no longer attached to their mounts. They are to take you through the bushes and brambles, over hills and dales, and to make sure you are torn to pieces, limb from limb. No part of you is to be recovered, but rather, to be left to the birds and the wolves. No part of you is to be offered a Christian burial, and it is my hope that as such you are barred from entering the gates of Paradise. May God have mercy on your soul, because you shall find none here.”
At that, Chlothar raised his arm and quieted the crowd. A moment passed, then two. The tension built. Finally, the King lowered his arm and ordered the riders, “Away.” At this order the young horses reared up and the riders dug in their spurs. The went away at a full gallop, and such was the force placed on the ropes that Brunhilda’s 70-year-old, tortured body, was almost instantly torn to pieces. The horse tied to her hair kicked up his heels with such force that Brunhilda's head flew off, but despite this, the riders never stopped. They followed their orders to the letter, and only came back to the stables when any and all semblance of the person who had been was gone.
Brunhilda, the Queen who ruled over France for so long, was now a part of that country – forever.
This is Thugs and Miracles. Episode Twenty-Four: Death of a Legend.
Alright, welcome back! I’m Benjamin Bernier, and this week our focus is on the late, great Queen Brunhilda. Her execution and death is such a focal point for all of the histories that I felt the need to go into some amount of detail in the opening story. And while the event itself is an absolutely gory, and horrible, and macabre ending to her life, there’s no doubt at all, in my mind, that the focus on this ending really actually detracts from what was otherwise an amazing and complex life. So, let’s take the rest of this episode and consider just who Brunhilda was and how we should remember her – besides as the victim of multiple horses running in opposing directions.
So, as a review, Brunhilda was born in 543 to the Visigothic king Athanagild in what is nowadays Spain. Because of this, she had three main issues going against her when she came north into Francia in 567 as part of the dynastic marriage to King Sigibert I. The first one was just exactly what I said: she was a Goth coming into Francia.
From the standpoint of dynastic marriages, it makes sense that Brunhilda would go north; she would be expected to combine the two kingdoms by bearing children and binding them together with blood ties. This is a great idea for Athanagild and for Sigibert, but realistically, Brunhilda was likely not given a lot of say in this arrangement. Add to this that she would have been entering into a Frankish court which, by Visigothic standards of the time, was looked down upon as being uncultured and uneducated in comparison. So, at 24 years old and coming north, we can safely surmise that Brunhilda was harboring some cultural biases of her own, while entering into a situation where she would be pushed back upon by the xenophobia of the people that she was being asked to rule. This friction would create a headwind for her pretty much all of her life, as we can see the pejoratives written in later literature referring to her the “Gothic queen” as opposed to a “real” Frankish queen.
Beyond just tribal affiliation, we can look at the fact that, really, not all that much is expected of the woman being sent forth into a dynastic union. Like I said, they’re going to be expected to bear children, but beyond that, there just doesn’t seem to be a lot of expectation on them to participate in the ruling of the kingdom. Examples abound: last week we spoke of Emma, who went north following the death of her father, Theudebert, to marry a Saxon king in the region of modern-day Kent. From what I was able to find, she went north, she had children, she propagated the Merovingians in the bloodline of the English leaders, and then she likely died in her 40s. Her role was to produce a new generation of Saxons, crossed with the blood of the Merovingians, and when this was accomplished, we really don’t hear much more about her. Another example of the limited power assigned to women in dynastic alliances is Rigunth, Fredegunda’s daughter. Ironically, the Neustrians were trying to send her south to the Visigoths in an attempt to establish strong bonds with a partner to the south. She was caught and robbed before she could even get to her destination, and it took an act of old-fashioned, Mario-like chivalry to save the princess and return her back home. She certainly had no ability to save herself. Finally, we can even look at a relatively successful example from history in the form of Clotilda, the wife of Clovis and Queen of Francia in 511; she did great things insofar as getting Clovis to convert to Nicene Christianity – a fact for which she was granted a sainthood inside of the Church – but realistically, that was the only thing she accomplished, historically, that really made her stand out. Her forays into politics resulted in her sons fighting and her grandchildren getting murdered, and after that event she contented herself with the quiet life of a convent. With all of this being said, we can see that Brunhilda, coming into Francia in 567 as a bit of trade bait between kings, had no real expectation of being anything more than a mother to the future line of kings. Placing a bet on her somehow rising to a position of power within the realm and becoming a great leader of the Franks would have been looked upon as a ridiculous proposition, a losing bet.
Now, what else was going against Brunhilda at this time? Well… she was a woman. This may sound self-explanatory in our modern day and age, but then again, we are living in a post-Epstein and Weinstein world and one of the hot shows on Netflix at the moment is a documentary focusing on pretty much the entire US Olympic system and how it mishandled the repeated and systematic sexual abuse of several hundred girls and the #MeToo movement is still going on and the Equal Rights Amendment in the United States still has yet to pass into the Constitution… so maybe we’re just not as advanced as we’d like to imagine, even 1,400 years on. Still, I have to imagine that things were particularly bad for women back in the 6th century, largely in part due to the codification of the Salic Law and its tenets that refused most rights to women. For Brunhilda, this was especially germane when it came to points of inheritance; property and titles couldn’t transfer to women, so when Sigibert died a few years after their marriage, well, Brunhilda was really in a tight spot. Looking at our betting proposition I brought up just a minute ago, how could she realistically look to stay in power when, by law, she wasn’t going to inherit the crown of her dead husband? I mean, the legal framework of the land was set against her, except for the fact that her son – who was still only an infant, maybe a toddler – was to get all of the power of the land left to him by that same legal framework. And he would need a regent, right? Well, Brunhilda was able to use that larger legal framework and couple it with the goodwill she had built up as Queen Mother – and as the wife of a fallen king who nearly had won it all – to stay in the boy’s presence and, when his nutricius and mentor happened to get sick and die, well, there was Brunhilda, happy to keep things rolling.
The third main issue going against Brunhilda for most of her reign as queen was that she had an honest to God nemesis. I mean seriously, how many of us can truly say that we’ve ever had someone buzzing around in our lives and making things as difficult as possible, as often as possible, like Fredegunda did to Brunhilda? Now, this cuts both ways, and much of what Fredegunda did was in response to Brunhilda, but still – you can’t say that things didn’t get personal. Fredegunda was the person who convinced Chilperic to murder his “proper” wife, Galswintha – Brunhilda’s sister. She did this to remove a stumbling block who was getting between her and her life as a queen, but no matter what the reason, we can’t blame Brunhilda for being upset that this woman had her sister killed. Over the next several years, Brunhilda compelled her husband to war with Chilperic and even got their realm to the precipice of overrunning and destroying Neustria – until Fredegunda stepped in and had Sigibert assassinated. Now, that now makes for a sister and a husband dead at the hands of Brunhilda’s enemy. On top of this, we see Fredegunda constantly using her knowledge of government, her social contacts and ties, and the outright fear she held in her lands to sway opinions and keep her and her son, Chlothar, in power. Toward the end of her life the woman was successfully leading armies and taking a toll on the accumulated strength of Austrasia and Burgundy; she never succeeded in taking everything, not in her lifetime anyway, but she made sure that her son always had a kingdom to rule. To quote Hamilton on this one: “If you’ve got skin in the game, stay in the game.” Fredegunda’s patience and perseverance would pay off, at Brunhilda’s expense.
What’s most striking to me about these two powerful enemies is how similar they were in many ways. Sure, they came to power from totally different angles – one as a slave and one as a princess – but they both were head-strong, incredibly intelligent and, more than anything else in my opinion, resilient. Both got knocked to the mat on numerous occasions with blows that would have knocked lesser fighters out of the game; these two got back up, dusted themselves off, and quickly delivered counterstrikes. They were both very admirable in this sense, and it seems an odd twist of fate that they lived in the same time, in the same place… and on opposing sides. It’s a fun “What if” to run to ground, considering the notion of “What if Fredegunda and Brunhilda had been on the same side, rather than enemies?”
So, knowing what we know about Brunhilda after so many episodes, it’s clear that she was able to overcome many of the challenges that befell her during her life. But how? Well, realistically, Brunhilda was probably really, really smart. I mean, she was given an education while growing up in Spain, and she didn’t leave for Francia until she was a bit older at the age of 24, so we have to expect that she was just simply in a better position than many other dynastic queens based on natural intelligence, academics, and simple maturity. Mix these traits together and then go a step further with a willful/stubborn streak, and suddenly you have the makings of somebody who can assert themselves in this time and place. As I said just a few moments ago when comparing her to Fredegunda, Brunhilda by and large had the resiliency to be able to absorb a blow and not be defeated by it, whereas many others would crumple and die. We had examples inside of the podcast: King Guntram threw his first wife out of the castle, and she was found dead just a little while later. Without life skills among the populace, an angry monarch behind her, and no real way of finding or obtaining provisions… well, death may have been a comfort to her in the end. In contrast, this same type of situation happened to Brunhilda multiple times within her reign, and in each case she figured out a way to survive. She was smart, scrappy and hungry, and above all else, she was willing to use every advantage at her disposal.
With that said, let’s remember that when Brunhilda first arrived into Austrasia she had the table set for her. She was marrying a king, the king was ascendant, and in their first eight years of marriage everything was going Sigibert’s way. He should have won, and won big, in the fights taking place between the three sons of Chlothar I, and it was only due to Fredegunda’s treachery – by having Sigibert assassinated on the eve of the battle that almost certainly would have destroyed Neustria and its rulers – that he didn’t. This is another historical “What if?” to ponder: What if Sigibert had simply won against his brother and survived to rule another day? How would the story of France be different, considering that the royal line would have ultimately extended through him and Brunhilda rather than through Chilperic and Fredegunda?
Returning to Brunhilda and her willingness to use anything and everything to her advantage, well, consider what it must have felt like to have gone from the almost certain taste of victory, from the knowledge that you were going to be the Queen of Queens, to suddenly having your husband and liberty stolen from you by the same woman who murdered your sister. Rather than panicking or simply dissolving in grief and despair – both of which would have been valid and understandable emotions – she starts using the two things she had at her disposal at this point: her child and her looks. And she uses both beautifully, in a way that makes me wonder how she was able to cope so well given her situation. She gets Childebert II, the now-King of Austrasia and target #1 on the Neustrian hit-list, into the hands of a fast and trusted rider who gets himself and the child back to Metz. In doing this, it’s logical to assume that Brunhilda would have known that there was no hope for her, at the moment anyway, to escape as well. So she gets captured and, in a way that’s never fully discussed, manages to seduce King Chilperic’s son, Merovech, while she’s in prison. And I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for some of the conversations between these two: did Brunhilda use her looks to seduce the prince, or some kind of woe-is-me act, acting the part of a maiden in need of defending? Did she dredge up all sorts of daddy issues on the boy’s part? Or did she point out that, as a Queen, she herself was a valuable asset for anyone who would possess her? I can imagine her using any and all of these arguments to make her case. No matter how it worked, she was able to get Merovech to marry her and get her out of prison, and then use the attendant confusion sown by this turn of events to somehow get back to Austrasia and the son she had saved. In the end, what she did was nothing short of a Hail Mary, a desperation heave at what should have been the end of the game, and instead she survived. Again, if you have skin in the game, stay in the game, right?
Taking one last look at Merovech… Brunhilda’s use of the boy shows another of her strongest qualities: ruthlessness. When she gets back up to Austrasia, even though she’s married to Merovech, she turns her back on him when he gets to court, saying no to the guy who turned his back on his entire family just to be with her. That, to me, seems like a pretty big deal: to say no, I was married under illegitimate vows, or under duress, or whatever excuse you’d like, takes a force of will as one person looking at another and being willing to destroy them just to secure and increase your own position. Ruthless may be one descriptor, selfish may be another, or simply egotistical; realistically, it was almost certainly a bit of all three. This would make for a huge story nowadays – think of how big a deal that we’ve had over the relatively benign story of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle – and then remember how large a presence the Church was in the lives of people in the 6th and 7th centuries. I can imagine this whole event being simply Earth-shattering at that time. Beyond selfishness or ruthlessness, however, I also think of Brunhilda’s move here as being hugely ambitious. Sure, she could have taken Merovech, and she probably could have carved out some sort of life with the young Prince. But by denying him, staying in Austrasia with her son, and eventually making her way to being the boy-king’s regent, she put herself in a position to be a ruler. She earned true power, the kind she never would have attained with Merovech. In this sense, she trusted in herself to attain bigger and better things, and this belief was borne out over time.
Finally, Brunhilda was greatly connected. She had to be in order to nullify her marriage to Merovech and to put herself in position to reclaim the regency. There would have been a long line of people looking to win that prize, and none of them would be struggling to become the regent without a political base behind them. So, who were Brunhilda’s connections? Well, these include some of the most important people in Christendom, up to and including the Pope. She regularly corresponded with Pope Gregory the Great (not to be confused with Gregory of Tours, the historian) and implored him to send important relics to her in Austrasia. These relics and her ties to Rome would bolster her standing with the bishops in Francia, a group of people whose power was growing exponentially. She had influence in who would become a bishop, again adding to her power, and she also had her finger on the pulse of the court. Beyond internal politics, Brunhilda was also pushing her influence to the south and to the east. She sent her daughter, Ingund, down to Spain to marry Hermenigild, the Visigothic Crown Prince. In the short term this didn’t turn out well, what with Ingund and Hermenigild staging a revolution in an attempt to make Nicene Christianity the religion of the Goths. In the long-term, however, it worked out: Catholicism would eventually win the day, the Goths would convert, and this could all be drawn back to Brunhilda’s daughter. Brunhilda herself didn’t have much to do with these events, but one has to imagine the Church would have been happy about them anyway.
Also with Ingund, we see her attempt to flee Hispania for Byzantium turning out poorly for the young princess, but even here Brunhilda stumbles into some amount of luck. Ingund died while on the lam, likely from the plague being contracted in North Africa, but her son was apparently able to survive the voyage and end up in the court of Emperor Maurice. This gave Brunhilda a reason to write to the leader of the biggest entity in existence at this time: the Eastern Roman Empire. It also lent her a certain amount of sympathy from Maurice, what with it being her grandson in his care. And as we saw with the Gundovald Affair a few episodes ago, having a Merovingian prince stashed away in Byzantium would allow both sides new and diverse access points to both work with and to work against one another.
So, we’ve looked back on Brunhilda’s life and times, the adversity she faced, and some of the ways that she overcame these issues. All of this leads to the question of how to view her. Of course, we’re not the first people to have taken a look at this question. About mid-career, the 590s, Brunhilda’s reputation seems to have shifted pretty drastically. This can of course be drawn back in large part to the death of Brunhilda’s relatively favorable judge of character, Gregory of Tours, and the replacement of this pro-Brunhilda biographer with the much later biographer known as Fredegar. Fredegar was of course writing from the vantage point of a historian living within the realm of the descendants of Fredegunda and Chlothar II, and is about 30 to 100 years removed from his actual subject material. This would seem to make Gregory the more qualified person to listen to in this case, as he was a first-person, primary source. But then again, we have seen time and time again how Gregory liked to take “artistic license” in his writing, so perhaps we shouldn’t trust him implicitly either.
At the same time as we’re stuck in the quagmire of deciding which source to trust more and parse out all of their biases, both implicit and overt, we risk missing the forest for the trees – much like Brunhilda’s generals did at the Battle of Laffaux! – and we lose the sight of the woman herself. No matter what the writers ultimately put on paper, the simple fact is that Brunhilda was getting older at this point. She would have been around 50 years old at this point, and just think of what she would have already lived through: she would have been a widow for nearly two decades, her sister would have been dead for nearly three decades, her daughter is dead, her son-in-law has been executed, her grandson has been shipped to Constantinople. She has been imprisoned, sent abroad, and she has also had to make escapes. She has had to play politics at the highest level, in a zero-sum world where mistakes could be deadly, and she has had to face down entire courts of people who would always view her, at some level, as an outsider. I’m not trying to make excuses, but I can see where all of this could wear a person down a bit. And it’s not like she had a chance to retire. Now granted, part of this was because it just doesn’t seem to be in her nature to have been a quiet country nun, living out her days in devotion to God. But still, it seems like she was living a high-stress lifestyle, even if it was one she brought upon herself, and after a long enough time this could definitely affect her attitude and her outlook.
Now of course, Gregory would have missed a chance to see Brunhilda in her later years due to, you know, being dead himself, so perhaps Fredegar isn’t as far from the mark as one might think. We can’t just bin everything he wrote, because maybe there are elements of truth within his writing. That being said though, I just personally have trouble believing she was quite as bad as the end as he would make it seem. When we hear that the king accused her during his accusation in Les Grandes Chroniques de France – which is where I took the quote from the opening story wherein he accused her of being a “cursed woman” – of having murdered 10 kings of France… well, this is tortured math, at best. When you go back and look at the timeline, she married Sigibert I in 566/7. Now, if you want to make an argument that her marriage directly led to his death, as Chlothar II would have us believe, well, that’s just not exactly fair to lay at her feet. Sigibert was a soldier and a head of state, and soldiers and kings die sometimes. I’m not going to argue with the king about Chilperic, because he was apparently still so upset about this death almost two decades after it happened that he would claim to still be an orphan in 613 and it’s just honestly not worth the time and effort to argue with someone so emotionally involved, so, moving on…
Guntram died in his bed in 592 at the age of 60, apparently of natural causes; no murder here. Childebert II, her son, could be laid at her feet if you bought into the idea that he was poisoned, allowing Brunhilda to take back power. Ditto for Theuderic II, and I can even see the case being made about how she coerced Theuderic to kill Theudebert II. Then of course there’s the matter of scattering Theudebert’s son’s skull across a floor, which is morally reprehensible, but I would also argue that the boy was not a king since his dad was still alive. It’s homicide, no doubt, but not regicide. And finally, we arrive at Sigibert II, who was actually ordered strangled by Chlothar. I’m guessing he’s blaming Brunhilda for putting him in a position with no other choice. Long story short, the most I can see Brunhilda getting blamed for is the death of five kings, and almost all of these are suspect as to her actual involvement. Not that it mattered in the end: Chlothar II was going to have her killed, no matter what she said. What I’m driving at here is that the charges against her were loaded from the start, and any source claiming them as fact should be taken with a grain of salt. The fact is that Brunhilda was a queen who overstepped her boundaries; who had fought with the new king directly and held that king’s mother as her personal nemesis; she was a Goth, standing for judgement in the land of the Franks. Nobody in this time and place was going to run forth to defend her, especially as they’re watching her get attached by ropes to horses. The Perry Mason-style defense that she may have deserved was not going to happen, especially considering that anyone who might try was equally likely to end up at the end of a rope connected to a horse. It wasn’t worth their lives, and it wasn’t worth her time and breath, to contest the charges. At the end of the day, all I think there is left to say is that Brunhilda probably wasn’t the warmest, nicest person by the end of her life, and in many ways she may very well have been guilty of some of the charges that were laid before her. But when all is said and done, I think there’s a lot of rumor and myth that has been mixed around with a healthy dose of storytelling and Telephone Game misrepresentations, courtesy of historians with a vested interest in making her sound bad, that all has added up to making the last 20 years of her life sound much worse than it actually was.
With all of this being said, and with Brunhilda’s life having been looked at in a healthy amount of detail, I want to bring us back around to Fredegunda to end our story. After all, there’s a certain biting irony that it was Chlothar II who ultimately won the throne of the King of the Franks, that it was Fredegunda’s son who would pass the line of the French kings on to future generations. In this way, I think we can say that it was Fredegunda who won the day: her son was the one who prevailed, she was the one who got to die quietly and dignified in a nice, warm bed, and it’s she who still has a gravesite marked in Paris at the Basilica of Saint Denis.
Now, I would argue that to some degree that Fredegunda didn’t so much “win” as much as Brunhilda “lost.” Why do I say that? Well, when Fredegunda died, Neustria was comparatively small and weak compared to Austrasia and Burgundy. She had won a few battles before her death, but her gains were lost after her death. Basically, nothing she did – except for surviving, which itself was a feat at times – actually moved her son closer to being the King of All of the Franks. Brunhilda, on the other hand, spent the years after Fredegunda died trying to hold together multiple kingdoms and trying to overcome the personalities that were working to tear them apart. She was in power, she was in the game, and it seems wrong to me and my sense of fair play that someone should be penalized for essentially putting themselves out there. But then again, Brunhilda did stumble and screw up what should have been a historical slam dunk, and that wasn’t on Fredegunda; it was on Brunhilda. She essentially had all of the land, all of the power, all of the people, all except for that tiny slice of Neustria. Yet, our story ends with her being executed by Chlothar II, and that tells me more about her mismanagement than it does about the prowess of Chlothar and his mother.
Ultimately, we see in Brunhilda an amazing woman with a gift at obtaining power against all odds, but it’s the inability of that same woman to rule once she had the power she worked so hard to obtain that leads to her downfall. And really, what did Brunhilda leave to posterity once she had so many advantages in hand? Gregory can’t tell us because he’s been dead for too long, and Fredegar won’t tell us because it wouldn’t serve his interests, but just by looking at what has been left behind we can see that there’s nothing much left that bears her mark. And it’s too bad, because when we go back to her youth and her first 24 years, we know that she was raised in a cultured, educated environment that leaned heavily on the teachings of the Romans. And the Romans were all about monuments and buildings that would stand the test of time, right? Even King Theodoric, king of the Goths in Italy, still has buildings that he built standing in Ravenna to this day. Given this upbringing, you would think that Brunhilda would have left some testament to her glory, or pushed her husband, her son, or her grandsons to do something grand. Yet nothing remains. The story of Brunhilda’s time in power is civil war after civil war after civil war. The story is death and destruction and power grabs, and overall a degradation in the power of the monarchy both as an institution and as a symbol. The story is a parable that gaining power is not worth the effort if that power, once gained, cannot be used for any meaningful purpose. And finally, Brunhilda’s story shows us that all of the power in the world means nothing if your story is left to be written by the person who would tear you apart… literally and figuratively.
CONCLUSION: Okay, we’ll leave off there for this week. When we come back in ten days, well, what can I say other than: it’s the end. Of Season One! We’re going to spend Episode 25 looking back on the 160-some years that we’ve covered up to this point, starting with a rambunctious Germanic tribe sitting in northern Gaul, to a group who, by 613, sat in control of the entirety of the region, the land of the Franks: Francia. For those who may have missed my earlier announcement, I’m going to be taking a little time off in August to recalibrate the show for Season Two, which I’m currently planning for a 6 September release. Hopefully COVID crawls back in its hole and allows the libraries to re-open, as a research-intensive show is just that much better with, you know, research. Anyway, I’ll keep you up to speed with how the process is going while I’m gone over on social media, and I’m also looking to drop a bonus episode or two, so even in a period without T+M, you’ll still be able to get your fix. I’m looking forward to talking with all of you again next week and at the end of the summer.
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 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 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!
Okay, once again, my name is Benjamin Bernier, and I look forward to seeing you in ten days as we wrap up Season One by looking back on our adventure to this point, in our next episode of Thugs and Miracles.