Season 2, Episode 1: The Cost of Doing Business
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
Running a kingdom has always been, and always will be, a difficult and dirty business.
People see the high points – the crimson robes, the bejeweled crowns, the thrones, the hair and the palaces – and they naturally assume that being king was a glorious, entertaining and easy way of life.
Glorious? Absolutely. Entertaining? Sometimes. Easy? Never.
We’ll skip past the glorious part of the equation for the moment, because being king – well, it’s not hard to understand why someone would want to be king. As for entertaining: there are very few things in life that inspired a medieval prince like winning a battle and seeing justice brought upon an enemy. And Chlothar II got that last bit in spades. His mother’s nemesis, Brunhilda, was caught and brought before him in 613; he took his time with the old woman, punishing and torturing her in private for days, always withholding the mercy of death from her. He took his pleasure, then sent Brunhilda around his army, naked and strapped to a camel, just to ensure her shame was complete. Finally, when he decided to get around to administering the coup de grâce after so long, he got the joy of standing on the platform above the ground where the woman was tied to wild stallions by her arms, leg and hair. Getting to look directly into her eyes as he gave the command for the riders to be away… well, let’s just say that entertainment didn’t get any better than that for Chlothar.
The problem with entertainment is that it’s never free, and the better the entertainment provided, the more expensive it can be. And in this case, when the entertainment was something as splendid as tearing one’s enemy apart piece by piece; well, entertainment like that could cost someone a kingdom. Because here’s the catch: entertainment is provided. That inherently means that someone has taken the time to set the stage, rehearse a script, and put on a show, all with the intent of earning your favor… and your money. The better the entertainment, the more risks assumed by the producer. And think of all of the things that could go wrong, especially in this case.
First off, the men who could put on this type of show, the public destruction and dismemberment of a queen, were men who would have access to the woman. Your typical foot soldier or parish priest wouldn’t have that level of placement and access, not by a long shot, so this means that the men who did have access to deliver a queen – and her attendant empire – to the new king had a whole lot more to lose if the production somehow fell through. Granted, treason was (and still is) a heinous crime, and anyone committing it could reasonably expect to forfeit their life. Still, death is an end-state, and getting there – as Chlothar II so amply and cruelly showed the world – is a path that can be long, drawn out, and extremely, brutally painful. Powerful, trusted men who willingly betrayed their sovereign could rightly expect that their punishment would be slow, their pain savored and paraded as an example. Their punishment would be everything that preceded the fall of the axe, and not the axe itself. Add to this that anyone caught committing treason can reasonably expect their property, money and titles to be forfeited to the state, and suddenly you have a situation in which not only is the person being executed being punished, but so too are most of his family and friends. If one were part of the aristocracy, the ruling elite, well, some could see it as downright selfish to gamble with the birthright bequeathed upon them by their ancestors, a birthright reasonably expected to pass down to their successors.
Anyway, if point one in providing the entertainment is having the access to the show, then point two is having the support of the cast to put on the show. Another, less euphemistic way of stating this point is this: these high-ranking men with access to the queen had to be willing to take part in a conspiracy, trusting one another that the word of their treachery wouldn’t leak out until after the plot was in motion and at such a point that it couldn’t be stopped or, if news of the conspiracy did leak, that anyone finding out about it would be on their side and wouldn’t stop them. This type of duplicity is tricky enough with political rivals and enemies; to deliver a queen, a woman who was basically a legend in her own time and the child-king that she ruled with as regent? To do this, one had better have their plot sewn up airtight, as anything less would result in them on the ground behind the horses, not the queen.
Point three: the men who have the ability to put on the show and the support of the cast to do so would still need to ensure that there was a market for the production. The market, in this case the king, would not only have to be willing to offer an immense amount for what they were getting, but they also had to be in a position to pay the offered price. It would make no sense to go through all of the pains of blatant treason, risking life, limb, and your family’s wealth, just to succeed and then not get paid. No, mechanisms would need to be put in place wherein the men involved in the plot would have guarantees of reward. This also meant that the men had to be able to send emissaries to negotiate the details and prices; given what was mentioned in point two about the need for secrecy and the attendant perils of conspiracy, this would be a fairly significant decision point, risk-wise, for the men to consider.
With all of this being said, what are we left with? The men who could furnish Chlothar II with two new kingdoms, a unified Frankish throne, and the still-breathing body of the great Queen Brunhilda would have to be nobles at the heart of her court. They would have to comprise a relatively small group who would be willing to leave her employ and risk losing everything. And they would have to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they would get their price for putting on the show. If Chlothar were to be willing to pay, a deal could be made…
Everything came together in 612. The kings of Austrasia and Burgundy, the brothers Theudebert II and Theuderic II, respectively, went to war with one another; Theudebert was killed and Theuderic united the two kingdoms. He then prepared his forces for an assault against Chlothar but, by the grace of God, was struck with dysentery and died. This left his kingdom woefully short of a king, with the nearest contender for the crown being the oldest of Theuderic’s bastard children, a kid named Sigibert. This child was not, on his mother’s side, noble or aristocratic, and many of his would-be followers felt that he was intrinsically unworthy to govern the kingdom. Beyond this, even if the nobles of Austrasia and Burgundy wanted to follow this boy-king, there were many who could not abide the regency of his grandmother, Brunhilda. This would be her third time in the position, and these proud men – men who were unused to a woman ruling in any other facet of life - did not wish to be under the rule of a woman yet again, for any length of time.
Given this, two of the most powerful Austrasian barons, Arnulf and Pepin, invited King Chlothar to meet them at the castle of Cathoniac. Brunhilda found out about this meeting and realized she had to strengthen her position quickly, so she sent Garnier, the mayor of the palace, and Alboin, one of the leading Austrasian princes, to Thuringia to form an alliance against Chlothar. However, Brunhilda suspected that Garnier, the mayor of the palace, might be planning treachery against her as well, so she sent letters to Alboin instructing him to have Garnier killed. Alboin, rather than acting on the orders, tore the letters up and threw them away, but didn’t throw them into the fire. In doing so, he allowed for one of the nearby soldiers to pick up the pieces, put them back together and send them on to Garnier. Now knowing with certainty that his Queen, the same queen who was losing nobles from her cause by the day, wanted him dead, Garnier rode into Thuringia and completed his mission of making an alliance. This alliance, however, would ensure that the Thuringi would stay out of the fight when Austrasia and Neustria would soon meet on the field of battle.
Now knowing that Arnulf, Alboin and Pepin were with him and that the Thuringians would not upset his plans, Garnier went on to Burgundy and secretly won over all the barons and prelates to his side. Finally, having made the necessary arrangements, he sent a message to Chlothar: if the king wanted to ensure that he would not lose his honor or his life, he should come bravely, and Garnier would give him the two kingdoms and the entire barony.
On that fateful day in 613, Sigibert and the Burgundians came to Champagne, near the city of Chalôns; Chlothar II arrived from another direction with the Neustrians, but with something else as well. Chlothar had with him a great part of the barons of the kingdom of Austrasia, dukes who were among the highest-ranking nobles of the other side. To see that these men had switched sides had to have been unsettling to Brunhilda as she observed the two sides forming into lines, but what happened next was Earth-shattering. On command, as the two sides stood ready to engage, Garnier gave a sign to his associates. Rather than attack, Brunhilda watched as the Mayor of the Palace and her men simply turned and walked off of the field. With the army aside, nothing now stood between Chlothar and his quarry: Brunhilda. She ran with a small entourage for several days but was eventually caught. The rest, we already know.
So, what was the price that King Chlothar paid for his lavish entertainment and the thrones of two kingdoms? His was a bill that he would partially pay up front, and then over and over again. First off, he made Garnier, the Mayor of the Palace who so easily gave up his queen on that day in 613, the Mayor of the unified Palace which Chlothar now occupied as the sole King of the Franks. Chlothar swore an oath never to depose him, nor to put anyone in his place, as long as he lived.
Now, oaths and titles were good starters for these renegade nobles, these men who found a way to use their position, access and power to provide the best possible entertainment for their new king. But their gamble had come to fruition, and now they were going to be unwilling to let Chlothar’s charity stop there. You see, when a person, even a king, does business with the types of men who would jumpstart their careers by leading a young boy-king and his legendary grandmother to their slaughter; well, these were not the types of men that one dealt with lightly. They asked a price, they delivered on their promise, and now they were going to get paid. Their stock-in-trade, however, was not simply gold, titles, and oaths to never be deposed. Their currency was power and, by the time they were through, they would be on the path to taking every last cent out of the Merovingian’s account. This is Thugs and Miracles.
Season Two, Episode One: The Cost of Doing Business
Alright, welcome back! I’m Benjamin Bernier, and this week we’re picking up where we left off last season, with the arrival of Chlothar II onto the throne of the unified Franks in 613. As we can tell from the first part of our story, the deal he cut to get the throne probably sounded amazing. After all, in 612, Chlothar II was the ruler of the smallest kingdom in Francia and little threat, economically or militarily, to overthrow either of his larger rivals, much less both of them. Less than two years later, he was the King of All of the Franks! This was a tremendous deal, and one that anyone would have been hard pressed not to take. Still, the amount of credit he would have to extend to make this happen likely became a sore spot for Chlothar as time went on; one has to wonder if he didn’t eventually develop some buyer’s remorse, especially as he signed away more and more of his authority over time. But we’ll get to that in a second…
Before I go on much further, I want to take just a brief moment to talk about the format of the show as we delve into this new season. As I’m sure you may have noticed, over the course of Season One our opening story became progressively longer and longer. Some of this happened by happenstance, but much of it was a conscious decision on our part here at T+M. You see, we started to realize that there’s a lot of shows out there that can give you a simple recitation of the historical facts, so if all a person was looking for was a running list of names, dates, battles and treaties, well, there are places they could go to find that. For us, however, we found that the real fun of history lies in the stories we find and get to tell, by delving into the psyches and thought processes of people living in extraordinary times and under extraordinary pressures. Simply put, we found ourselves much more interested in understanding why people did what they did, rather than just simply knowing, dry-history-class-style, that they did it. A prime example of this is the aforementioned Edict of Paris. Knowing that it was written and signed in 614 and gave greater authority to the Frankish aristocracy is cool, but understanding that it came about as the culmination of king-murder, queen-betrayal, foiled assassination attempts, treachery, deceit, and greed, as well as a natural delegation of authority to help run a large territory, really serves to make me care about the Edict of Paris. And that’s just one example. With all of this being said, expect that in the future you’re going to be seeing more episodes of T+M hitting your feed with long opening stories, just like today. This certainly doesn’t mean that we’re losing historical accuracy or making things up; it just means that we’ve made the decision to focus more on the key item that we believe brought you here in the first place: storytelling. It’s kind of like Lin-Manuel Miranda once said: “History is entirely created by the person who tells the story.” Well, count us in!
Anyway, returning back to 614…
Alright, we can see from our opening story that Chlothar II came to power essentially indebted to a number of people who made his rise to power possible. Key amongst these was the Mayor of the Palace, Garnier (and, just for the sake of clarity, Garnier is also well known in the research as Warnachar II; for the sake of clarity I’ll be continuing to reference him as Garnier). His paraphrased quote of, “If the king wanted to ensure that he would not lose his honor or his life, he should come bravely, and Garnier would give him the two kingdoms and the entire barony” really can be further paraphrased into something we’re all a little more familiar with: “I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse…” Garnier, a.k.a. the original godfather, basically told Chlothar that he would steal his honor and take his life if he didn’t comply but, if he did, he’d be the King of the Franks. It’s a pretty stark deal, and one that most of us would take for a variety of reasons. But it leads to the question: why would Garnier make this offer? I mean, if he wields the authority to make or break monarchs, why not just take the kingdom and be the monarch?
Before we get into that, let’s stop for a second and take a look at the office Garnier was filling to be in such a strong power position, that of Mayor of the Palace. The Mayor of the Palace, according to the historian Charles Oman, began as a position that served as “the king’s first servant charged with the overseeing of the rest of the household officials and ready to act at need as the king’s other self in matters of war, justice, or administration. In the days of the first warlike Frankish kings, the Mayor of the Palace was kept in his place by the activity of his master and was no more than an important official. But as the Merovingians decayed in personal vigor their mayors grew more and more important till at last we shall see them taking the place of regent and practical substitute for the king.” Long story short, the Mayor of the Palace was a position that had been around for quite some time – a Chief of Staff of sorts, if we wanted to compare the office to a similar job we often see on general staffs in this day and age – and it was also a position that had been growing in power for a while. However, Garnier was about to take this importance to a whole new level.
As part of his payment for helping Chlothar II obtain his throne, Oman tells us that Garnier made the following demand: “The dukes Warnachar and Ratho, who were made mayors of the palace of the two realms, stipulated that they were to hold their offices for life, not at the king’s pleasure. For the future, the mayorship became an office of far greater importance than it had yet been.” A stronger king, such as Clovis, probably could have asserted himself in this situation and put an end to the ambitious plans of these Mayors. A smarter ruler, one such as Fredegunda or Brunhilda, probably could have circumvented the “Mayor for life” stipulation – in Fredegunda’s case, she probably would have just made “for life” a short-term proposition in and of itself. But in Chlothar II’s case, he really didn’t have the power, intellect or charisma to do any of these things. Instead, he became the first step in a long decline of Merovingian power, and he did so quietly and willingly.
It was this pacificity that almost certainly led Garnier to choose to leave Chlothar II on the throne. We have to remember, the king at this time was backed by the Church. He ruled with the consent of Rome, and the king’s removal from the office would undoubtedly stir up issues within the Catholic Church, the bishops, the common people, and probably a few neighboring kingdoms as well. Add to this that the king maintained a veneer of divine authority (the actual doctrine of “Divine Rights of Kings” wouldn’t be codified for another millennium, but people still held their monarchs in high stature at this time), and it’s not too hard to understand why Garnier would leave Chlothar on the throne. Garnier would incur too many enemies, and could easily lose the support of the people, if he tried to replace the king. At the same time, he didn’t really have that much to gain. Garnier had a hold on power, his grasp strengthened by the day, and he would have an easier time doing what he needed or wanted to do by remaining in the role of kingmaker, as opposed to trying to be king. This rationale led to a medieval era “cheaper to keep ‘em”-type mentality, wherein the king got to remain the king, but Garnier got the power and perks of the ruler – save for wearing the crown.
There are two more people to highlight besides Garnier: these are Arnulf – later to be Saint Arnulf – and Pepin de Landen. These three people were, together, the prime movers in the death of Brunhilda and the ascension of Chlothar II. More than even this, it’s the bloodline that forms from this cabal that will sow the seeds of a true rival to the power of the Merovingians and the toppling of that dynasty’s throne. And they did it from right under the king’s nose. There was a fourth person involved in the fall of Brunhilda: Ratho, the Mayor of the Burgundian Palace. Just like Garnier, he was willing to walk away from battle and abandon his Queen in return for being named Mayor For Life. Unlike Garnier, however, he only lived a few years after this, dying in 617. This being his only notable addition to the history, we’re just going to move on.
Moving to Arnulf: Arnulf, the Archbishop of Metz, appears to have been born around 582, and came to the Austrasian Court at around the same time as when Theudebert was giving Brunhilda the boot in 599, sending that great lady to Burgundy and setting off the series of civil wars we discussed at the end of Season One. Given how he was historically on the side opposite Brunhilda, this goes a way to help us understand his motivations in handing Austrasia over to her enemy. Anyway, the sources show that Arnulf did well for himself at Court and gained the notice of the Austrasian Mayor of the Palace at that time. He rose through the ranks, along the way marrying a noble lady and having two sons, Chlodulf and Ansegisel; this latter son will be of particular importance to this story as we continue. Arnulf also made really good friends with a man named Romaric who, as the historian Thomas Hodgkin tells us, “The talk of the two friends turned often on religious subjects, and they not unfrequently discussed a plan for renouncing the world, retiring to some convent, and there continuing their friendly dialogues till death should sever them.” I relate this last part not to be salacious, but rather to note that a big part of Arnulf’s schtick seems to have been his longing to leave society and retire to a quiet life of prayer and piety in the mountains. To continue with our Godfather references (or Seinfeld, if you should so choose), Arnulf could have coined the line, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
This leads us to Pepin de Landen, a.k.a. Pepin I. He appears to have been born sometime around 580 and was the son of Carloman; other than those two facts, little is known of his life pre-612. He was the Austrasian Mayor of the Palace under King Theudebert, which means he was on the losing side of the civil war the two brothers were having. Theuderic II died before he could purge too much of the Austrasian nobility, and it would seem to make good sense that this is why Pepin, like Arnulf, was against Brunhilda in 613. Pepin appears to have been passed over in 613 for re-taking his seat as the Austrasian Mayor of the Palace, but he would get his second bite at the apple in 622. Given the fact that he had just lost a civil war in 612, a loss that resulted in the death of his King, and then pulled his support from Queen Brunhilda in 613, it’s seems highly likely that people were rightfully skeptical of Pepin’s leadership at that moment. Beyond his political life, Pepin and his wife, Itta, had two daughters and two sons. Itta would be canonized by the Church, as well as both of the girls, Begga and Gertrude. One of their sons, Bavo, would also get that honor. The other son, Grimoald, would grow up to become Mayor of the Palace, just like his father, adding a layer of nepotism to this role. Finally, Begga would be a part of one of the most significant marriage unions up to this point in our history when she marries Arnulf’s son Ansegisel, bringing together the houses of these two strong leaders.
Okay, we’ve laid out the key players in our coming narrative. Just to recap, Chlothar II is the King of All the Franks in 613, having reunified the kingdoms following the death of his cousins and Queen Brunhilda. Garnier, Arnulf and Pippin are three of the key players in having brought that Queen’s reign to an end, having deserted her on the field of battle in favor of Chlothar. The price Chlothar would pay for victory and a bloodless transfer of power for his armies would be the lifetime appointment as Mayor of the Palace for Garnier, the diminution of royal powers for the rest of his reign – and ultimately, for the remainder of the Merovingian Dynasty – and finally, the attendant growth in the strength and power of the aristocracy. Strength and power in medieval Francia were not necessarily divided in a zero-sum game, but in this instance, they were close enough to this concept that for simplicity’s sake we can think of them in those terms. The royalty lost power; the nobility gained.
With that being said, let’s not paper over the fact that the struggle for power was ongoing. Chlothar II was still strong enough in his position that we can say with confidence that he did not give away all of his authority, and what he did give away he did so grudgingly. As Emily Wilson notes in her writing on this subject:
“Aristocratic power was on the rise, but this process was no more inevitable than the “decline” of Merovingian power. It was a process which required constant consolidation. The relationship between the aristocracy and the monarchy had long been one of mutual dependence. The importance of assemblies, where the king would gather together all his followers and discuss local problems, military strategy, and legal deliberations, which were then manifested in decrees, is obvious in both Gregory’s History of the Franks and The Chronicle of Fredegar… royal authority depended ‘at all times’ on the cooperation of the aristocracy.”
Long story short, aristocrats were going to have to keep the pressure on the monarchy to keep the advantages they had won. History and culture favored the king, and it was going to take a whole lot of pressure and time to fully and successfully usurp royal authority.
Alright, let’s talk about one last thing: beer. That’s right, you heard me correctly, beer! I figure that after a healthy amount of scene-setting and royal intrigue such as we’ve discussed, our grey matter could use a healthy dose of relaxation, and what better way to accomplish that than with a splash of suds? While doing the research for today’s show, I came across the highly interesting fact that Arnulf, soon to be Saint Arnulf, is venerated as the patron saint of brewers! According to Rupert Millar over at The Drinks Business:
“[Arnulf’s] association with brewers dates to the return of his body from Remiremont, where had died, back to Metz. It was a hot July day and the party soon found themselves running short of ale with which to quench their first. The group’s leader, Duke Notto, prayed to Arnulf to bring them what they lacked and, to their astonishment, what little remained of their beer multiplied to such quantities that they had enough to last them the remainder of their journey and to toast the re-interment of their saintly bishop in Metz Cathedral, with brewers swiftly hailing Arnulf as a patron of their craft.”
Now, this is a perfect time to remind everyone of some of the key biases we may implicitly carry, because sure, it’s easy to chuckle and think that being named a patron saint of brewers is a relatively minor honor, but back in these earlier times, it was a pretty big deal. Millar reminds us in a different article of his that “beer at the time was as essential to daily life as water and often much better for your health. It wasn’t known at the time, but pathogens in the water were killed during the brewing process, thereby making it safe to consume.” Beer then generally had a lower alcohol rate than it does today, as the alcohol was likely as much, or more, for preserving the drink as it was for intoxicating the drinker. Anyway, with all of this said, it would have been fairly important to be recognized as the patron saint of the craft that essentially supplied palatable hydration to the masses!
CONCLUSION: Okay, we’ll leave off there for today. Chlothar II will be, for our intents and purposes, the starting point of the slow and inexorable march of the Merovingians from power to irrelevance. However, a healthy argument could be made that the entirety of the Merovingian ruling system which, for over 100 years from the death of Clovis I to the death of Brunhilda, was based mainly on internal division and civil war, was never going to be sustainable. The snake can only consume its tail so far before it chokes, right? As we noted though, this process would take a while and the tipping point won’t arrive next week. Instead, we’ll meet up with the next king in the line of inheritance, Dagobert. Between the stories that came out of him hunting divine stags, keeping three wives and multiple concubines, conducting on-the-spot executions of his father’s allies, and doing all of the other Merovingian things, well, he’s a good time.
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 our free e-mail list so we can keep you up to date with all things T+M and announcements on new shows. Speaking of email, you can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, you can hit us on Twitter at @thugsandmiracle (with no “s” on the end), or you can leave a comment on Facebook and Instagram at @ThugsAndMiracles. We always look forward to talking with our friends on social media and growing our network, and would also recommend that if you’re into history podcasts (and if you’ve come this far, you’re into history podcasts…) you should be sure to check out the #TimeTravelTalks hashtag and account on Twitter, as well as HistoryPods.com and their associated Twitter handle, @podsofhistory. There’s so many stories, facts, conversations and great podcasts at these sites, you just can’t go wrong. Check ‘em out!
Okay, once again, my name is Benjamin Bernier, and I look forward to seeing you in just ten days as we take a look at the Chlothar II’s son Dagobert and continue with our new season of Thugs and Miracles.