Season 2, Episode 4: A Legacy of Decline
Chlothar II loved to hunt.
Here, on a cold morning in the winter of 628, the King was able to do something that he loved, something that allowed him to simply enjoy the primal thrill of chasing along with his few near compatriots and a horde of loyal hunting dogs while they pursued an animal that would soon fill their bellies. The hunt was one of the few things left to him that brought him joy and allowed him the chance to be away from the court, with all of its backstabbing and lying and hand-wringing.
No, he thought, give me the cold air, the warm sun, and the feel of opening my mount up to full gallop as we partake in the chase.
Hunting was pure, an activity that man had taken part in from the dawn of time. It used to be a man’s duty to provide meat for his family; if he didn’t, they would starve. This wasn’t really the case for the King, not with his villas and castles and vast stores of food and supplies, but there was still something within him that felt right, like he had done something to provide, when he rode back in the afternoon after a hard day on the prowl with a fresh stag slung over the haunches of his mount. Lately, it was the only way that he felt he provided anything.
King Chlothar II had been a king of one territory or another since just after his birth in 584, and he had secured the title as King of the Franks over 15 years ago. In that time he had engaged in many battles, both in the field with his armies and in his presence chamber with his court. As a young man, both of these had been exciting; there was no more amazing feeling than stepping off of the battlefield, alive and unhurt, after fighting one’s enemies hand-to-hand. The rush was similar when he was able to argue a point of law in his court or put forth new legislation to strengthen his Crown and his lands. But now, as he passed into the later years of his life - his kid-40s - Chlothar had lost much of the zeal he had once had for such things. He had managed to bring together all of the Kingdoms of Francia under his control, an amazing feat when one considers what the King had started with at birth. He had seen his worst enemy, Brunhilda, torn apart by horses before his eyes. And he had sired multiple sons, ensuring his lineage would continue long after he was king. Having done all of this, however, he still felt a level of discontent.
You see, Chlothar had had to make concessions to get what he wanted. Bringing the Kingdoms under his unified control had required him to make heavy concessions to those who helped him attain the feat. And that “feat”, if he cared to think of it as such, was more court intrigue and dirty politics than it was a true battle. Chlothar had sent emissaries to sound out the leaders of Austrasia before taking to battle with them in 613; he made them promises, and in turn he received their oath to break the one they had made to Brunhilda. And this plan had worked! He received all that his enemy owned with hardly a blow being thrown, and he received all of her men and advisors as well.
And that’s where the trouble really started.
Getting an easy victory and gaining so much from it was exactly what Chlothar thought he had wanted, but the aftermath… well, not so much. The deal he had struck required him to keep certain key leaders, the Mayors of the Palace, in power. These men, men who had been advising his enemy, were no worse off than they had been for having changed sides. In fact, they had really made out well, from Chlothar’s point-of-view. They didn’t have to answer to a boy king anymore or his elderly regent (and a woman no less!); they didn’t really have to answer to anyone, since Chlothar didn’t rule from their territory. And they got the concessions they gained signed into law in 614, ensuring they would hang over Chlothar for the rest of his reign. And Chlothar was in a weak spot to negotiate, since the only reason he was King was because of these advisors who made it happen for him. And they weren’t the most trustworthy people to deal with; after all, they had handed over their last leaders for torture and execution.
Still, the deal worked out well for Chlothar, initially. It was nice to be able to delegate most of the burdens of statecraft. Without having to get his hands dirty running a Kingdom, he had much more time to do things he enjoyed… like hunt! He was also able to do more with the Church and to watch over the progress of his son Dagobert’s education. Overall, however, these activities didn’t take up so much of his time. He also found himself detesting his advisors more and more, mainly because they became more and more emboldened as it became clear that Chlothar would do nothing, or could do nothing, to stop them. So Chlothar hunted, and he went to Church, and he grew more jaded by the day.
He eventually did try to make some moves. He sent Dagobert to rule as King in Austrasia, giving the boy some seasoning before he would one day inherit everything. And he also saved Dagobert from destruction when the younger King decided to take on Berthoald and the Saxons without really thinking too much about it. But since 614, outside of this handful of events, life had become increasingly monotonous. And it didn’t look like things would be changing anytime soon. Honestly, it had come to a point where it was just easier to go with the flow and let these men, these Mayors, handle the details of state.
For now, it was time to hunt.
As the King’s group came together that morning to plan their day, they received most welcome news from the huntsman: a magnificent red hart had been spotted running in the open field adjacent to the woodline, a beast worthy of their efforts. All the preparations had been made, and now all that was left to do was to give chase. Excited by the news, the King barely noticed the slight twinge in his chest as he mounted his horse. The chase was on, and whatever little bit of indigestion he had from last night’s supper or this morning’s breakfast wasn’t going to slow him down.
Dogs, horses, and men pummeled across the fields and through the woods. There were a few times where they thought the chase may be over and the deer had escaped, but each time this happened, one of the hounds would catch sight or smell of it and the hunt would continue. This went on for a few hours, until finally a call went up: “It’s at bay!”
“At bay” was a term Chlothar had come to understand and sympathize with all too well. It essentially meant that the quarry for the day had finally had enough. It had run too far and too hard, and it had come to the realization that it was not, under any circumstances, going to outrun the group that was tracking it. So, rather than collapse, the animal would make the decision that if it were going to go out, it was going to go out fighting. The beast would stop, turn to face its assailant, and prepare to fight.
The King, hearing the call, made his way to the spot in minutes. The King always had right of first refusal when it came to finishing a hunt, and there was no doubt that an animal of this size and grandeur was going to be the King’s to claim. As he dismounted, the huntsman came over and pointed out the clearing where the animal had turned to make its stand. The huntsman turned to make sure his message had been heard; it was only then that he noticed how red the King’s face looked, like a fully ripe strawberry.
“My grace, are you feeling alright?”
“I’m fine,” Chlothar responded impatiently. He wanted to claim the hart, and didn’t care for a lowly huntsman speaking to him in such a familiar manner. “I’m a little winded from the ride, but I’ll be fine. No mind yourself and your hounds.”
With that command, the King set off, a dagger on his belt and a sword in his hand. He moved slowly, cautiously, quietly. In just a few moments, he was in the clearing with the deer. He could feel his people watching from behind, and he could see the hart sizing him up from in front. The deer was impressively large, almost breathtakingly so. Or at least, that’s what Chlothar thought might be the reason as to why it had suddenly become so difficult for him to draw a breath. His chest felt constricted, like a hand was squeezing inside of him and not allowing air to enter his body. He staggered. The hart simply watched.
Despite the shortness of breath, and now, the sharp pain that was developing in his ribs, Chlothar pushed forward. The pain and discomfort would pass just as soon as he had claimed his kill, or so he thought. He tried to walk faster, but couldn’t. He was vaguely aware that he wasn’t moving in a straight line, instead he was staggering like a drunk. Again, the hart just watched. Even he seemed to realize that the person hunting him was not in top form. Finally, Chlothar stopped. He was unbearably hot despite the cold late-autumn day. He needed to breathe.
The hart had had enough of watching the scene unfold before him. The beast, sensing weakness, decided that now was his chance, his opportunity to live if such a chance still existed. With all of its might, the hart pushed off with its hind legs and made straight for Chlothar, looking as if its intent was to strike the King with its horns and then make for the trees.
Chlothar saw the beast start to move. He could hear the hooves barreling down upon him, could see the head of the hart tilt forward to make ready for the collision. The movement, exciting in any hunt, was terrifying on this day as the King realized that he couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, and couldn’t react. Strength left his body, and rather than raising his sword to deliver the final strike on the hart, he simply dropped it at his side. He staggered backward a step in a feeble attempt to get out of the way of the charge, then felt something in his chest give way. He fell backward, hands clasped to his sternum, as the beast arrived to his spot. Seeing the man falling, the animal quickly adjusted his plans and avoided a collision, opting instead to leave the scene as fast as it possibly could.
The last thing Chlothar II saw as he lay upon the ground, his heartbeat fading to nothing, was the tail of the deer as it bounded away. He watched it, oblivious to the commotion of his men running toward him; as the animal disappeared from his view, the King drew one last breath, and then he died.
This is Thugs and Miracles.
Season 2, Episode 4: A Legacy of Decline.
Alright, welcome back! It has been exactly two weeks and, as promised, here I is. Seriously, thank you as always for listening, supporting, and being the best group of nerds a guy could hope to be friends with. I hope everyone is having an awesome holiday season and you’re all prepared for Saturnalia, because as we all know, if you don’t celebrate properly then Mike Duncan won’t come back for Part 2 of the Russian Revolution. Anyway, I’m Benjamin Bernier, and this week we’re going to finish 2020 the way it absolutely deserves to be finished: with the death of a King. And not just any king, but the guy who has been ruling Francia in some shape or fashion for 44 years. Seriously, he’s been a part of our narrative since Episode 17 of Season 1, 12 episodes in total! For frame of reference, Clovis, the guy who really started us off, was around for about five!
Given that length of time in our feed, let’s go back and do a quick highlight reel of Chlothar II’s life. It’s important to remember, Chlothar’s path to the King of All of the Franks was definitely not the path we would have expected to see. The standard path hasn’t changed for a long time, wherein a chosen successor or first-born son proceeds to the the Kingship upon the death of the father or patron. Think of the English Royal Family: when the Queen dies, Charles gets the throne. If he doesn’t take it, for whatever reason, then the next in line is his son, William. As a side note, I went down a hellacious rabbit hole on this topic, basically because I couldn’t find any legal reason why Prince Andrew, the second-born son of Elizabeth II, wouldn't take precedence (and yes, I’m aware of the Epstein connection, among the Duke of York’s myriad other transgressions. But being a jerk and a moron has never been a discriminator before for holding the throne, so why start now?). Well, long story short, it appears that Parliament maintains the line of succession, not the Royal Family, and the current law is written to follow Charles’ line. And the same applies to William; all of his children trump Harry, even if he were to somehow avoid taking the throne. But I royally digress; back to Chlothar II.
With Chlothar, we have to remember that overall, counting all of his brothers, he wasn’t second in line to the throne; he was the eighth! And that’s across two wives for his father Chilperic! Think about it; for Chlothar to become King, all that had to happen was for his oldest half-brother, a kid named Theodebert, to die in battle during the Merovingian civil wars. His next oldest half-brother, Merovech, married Brunhilda (and yes, it's that Brunhilda) after the Queen was widowed from Sigibert (who, ironically, was Chlothar’s uncle). That went poorly for Merovech, what with Brunhilda disavowing him as soon as she got back to Austrasia and basically alienating from his entire family. Last among the half-brothers was a kid named Clovis, who Fredegunda, Chlothar’s mom, ordered assassinated on charges of witchcraft so as to make way for her kids. Seriously, witchcraft; it wasn’t just used against women in Salem. In this case, according to Charles Oman, Fredegunda was given the green light for this assassination from Chilperic after the death of the children the couple had had together. From Oman:
“Theudebert and Merovech, the eldest of her husband’s family, were dead, and their brother [Clovis] still stood between Fredegunda’s children and the throne. In 580 the plague swept all over Gaul, and two sons of Fredegunda’s were carried off by it. She accused their step-brother of having caused their death by witchcraft, and got her husband to permit her to execute him.”
I mean, Clovis didn’t really have a chance. If all it took for Fredegunda to get Chilperic’s royal decree to murder one of his own sons was to say something to the effect of, “Our kids are dead, but your other kid is not so clearly he worked black magic,” well then I have to imagine that Clovis was going to leave the scene early no matter what. Maybe he would have had an “accident”, or maybe he could have seen the writing on the wall and left home before something like this happened, but in the end there was just no way he was going to push through to the kingship unless something happened to Fredegunda. And it looks like she was just more ruthless.
Anyway, that brings us to Chlothar’s brothers, and I know I’ve thrown out a ton of names and backstories, so I’m going to make this next part easy, especially since I already mentioned two of their fates in the last quotation. Here we go: All four of Chlothar’s older brothers, Clodebert, Samson, Dagobert, and Theodoric, all died from dysentery at a relatively young age. Chlodebert may have been as old as 15 when he died, but the rest were under three years old. And that leads us, finally, to Chlothar, eighth in line to rule. Going back to our earlier discussion about the British Royals, the current number eight is: Andrew! I’m not saying it’s likely, I’m just saying that he has a chance!
Anyway, Chlothar wasted no time after being born to go from being the heir presumptive to being the King. Born in May, Chlothar crawled onto the throne following the death of his father, Chilperic I, in September. That’s right: outside of the first five months of his existence, Chlothar II was King all of his life. On a psychological level, I have to wonder how this affected him. I mean, he literally spent every moment of his conscious life as the most important person in any room he entered. He was, outside of his regency, always the final word, always the decision-maker. He never had to spend time thinking like a Crown Prince, a Dauphin, of all of the things he would do when his time came. But on the opposite side of that coin, he never had a chance to think and prepare. He basically, to paraphrase Yoda, just had to do.
My final thought along this line is a question about ambition: did it hurt or hinder him that he was born into a Kingship, rather than having to struggle to obtain it, or at least wait for it? He clearly was driven to revenge and to right the perceived wrongs of his life, as we can see from his treatment of Brunhilda. But he never did much to expand his borders after becoming King of all the Franks; was this because he felt he had gone far enough? And how much did this ambition play into the Edict of Paris in 614, wherein he gave so much of his royal prerogative away to his advisors? Having been born King, was he happy to simply just remain a King, no matter the details?
A final thought on Chlothar’s ascension to the Kingship: he may not have even been Chilperic’s child! Now, this is definitely in the realm of rumor, the main spreader of whom was Gregory of Tours. Remember, Gregory was #TeamBrunhilda and had every reason to disparage Fredegunda, and as we all know, and as we have already discussed on this show, historically, slut-shaming has been the easiest way to go after a woman. And that was exactly what Gregory aimed to do when he called Chlothar’s parentage into doubt. He doesn’t offer much in the way of facts, but did spend a pretty good chunk of time discussing how Fredegunda was forced to go before a tribunal to prove Chlothar’s paternity. Edward James describes the scene in his book, The Franks:
“Fredegund had announced that she was pregnant again very shortly after Chilperic's death, which cause Guntram, and Gregory of Tours, to wonder whether Chlothar was indeed Chilperic’s son. Later Guntram forced Fredegund to assemble three bishops and 300 leading Franks to swear that Chlothar was indeed Chilperic's heir. Guntram did, however, act as Fredegund's protector, refusing to hand her over to Childebert, who wanted her seized as the murderer of his father, uncle, and two cousins.”
There’s quite a bit to unpack in this small passage. First off, how would these 303 “leading Franks” have any idea about whether or not Chlothar was genetically related to Chilperic? Looking past the whole Maury Povich-DNA test feel of this whole scene, however, I actually have to wonder if it didn’t serve to strengthen Fredegunda not insofar as her proving the child’s paternity, but rather by showing her strength and ability to build alliances. Seriously, think about it: this is a woman whose husband, the King, is dead; she’s being openly called into judgment for her morals and chastity before the whole Kingdom; she essentially has a death warrant out for her from the King and Regent of Austrasia; and she’s confined in the cathedral she ran to for sanctuary. Yet somehow, despite all of that, she was able to exert her influence into getting 303 high-ranking people to line up beside her and keep her and her son alive. It’s an impressive feat that seems to get lost in the juicier-sounding, more gossipy details.
After his mother won her defense, Chlothar was shielded by Guntram and raised with his mother as regent. These were very likely the only two people who could have seen this child through to his majority, and it shows how reliant so many of these Kings were on others to attain their positions, even if they liked to take the credit for themselves or give it to God. Chlothar II had no way of influencing events, yet he had a strong mother and a royal patron running point for him. Think back to Chilperic’s son Clovis who I mentioned just a few minutes back. His father was the actual King where he lived, yet without his protection and no one else to help him, he was doomed. This story could just as easily have turned out with him having been crowned Clovis II if Chilperic had stood up for him and dismissed Fredegunda before she let the allegations of witchcraft lead the boy to his doom. But that’s not the way fortune turned.
Beyond his ascension, what else was notable about Chlothar II? He was a mediocre general, with little being written about his martial prowess or his growth of the borders. If anything, one of the greatest battles won by the Neustrians while under the banner of King Chlothar was the Battle of Droizy, wherein Chlothar was an infant and the army was actually led to the field by Fredegunda. His success against Berthoald and the Saxons that we recounted in Episode Two of this season came as a response to Dagobert’s failure, more than as a concerted battle plan put forth by Chlothar. Overall, based on the sources, I think it’s fair to say that Chlothar wasn’t a bad military leader, but he’s also not going to show up in a Google search next to Julius Caesar, Hannibal, Alexander the Great or Napoleon.
He also wasn’t much of a politician, as we’ve already discussed in detail insofar as his signing of the Edict of Paris and giving away so many of the rights and privileges of the crown. However, he did manage to unify the three Frankish kingdoms without spilling a drop of blood, so he has to be given some credit in the realm of diplomacy. However, and I will caveat what I am about to say by noting that it’s speculation and opinion on my part as opposed to documented fact, I would be willing to assume that the deal to unite the three kingdoms was done outside of Chlothar’s knowledge and brought to him fully formed, as opposed to him having developed some master plan himself. And if that’s the case, is it really so impressive that he unified the kingdoms if all he had to do was sign off on a plan that was custom-built for him and that ultimately led to the concessions that would disastrously weaken the crown?
The final notable thing about Chlothar II was his longevity. Despite dying at the age of 44, he was King for 43 1/2 of those years. The only person with a longer tenure was Chlothar’s namesake, Chlothar I. However, the older Chlothar lived much longer than the second, dying in his 60s. This means that the first Chlothar’s tenure was entirely his, whereas Chlothar II spent much of his reign under a regency. Chlothar I was also much more active militarily (even if much of that activity was spent on infighting). However, in Chlothar II’s defense, he spent much more time as the King of the Franks, almost 16 years in total, from 613-629. Chlothar I only had three years as the unified King, and then sent his lands back to squabbling when he died and partitioned his kingdom amongst his sons. Chlothar II died without causing nearly as much strife, but then again, that’s another mark toward just how vanilla he was; no one ever gets worked up over vanilla. They just move on. And really, that’s the final thing to note about Chlothar II. When he died, it seems as though no one really cared all that much. There’s no stories in the historical record about his passing, no eloquent remarks about how he died in battle or was taken by disease. From the sources, it reads as if he just simply failed to be alive anymore. Hence our opening story: we know he liked to hunt, and we know that a good portion of his duties had been taken over by aristocrats to whom he had delegated power. So while we don’t know exactly how he died, it’s entirely plausible that he would have simply had a heart attack while out on yet another hunt, dying the way he ruled: idly.
BON VOYAGE: Alright, so ends King Chlothar II. His story and his legacy are, in my opinion, the best example of the random nature of kingship that we’ve explored thus far. He experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows; he had great successes, but many of those - if not most of them - came to pass through little more than random chance. There are just tons of times throughout his story where a reader can readily make the leap into alternative history simply by changing one or two seemingly small things that would have taken the story in a very different direction.
Chlothar’s reign also allows us take a look at how the King, both as a position and as an individual, was used for the advantage of others. In the scramble for power, hereditary monarchs certainly have a head start toward attaining power simply by birthright, but those around the King were willing to try and bend this for their benefit. Fredegunda used Chlothar as a shield and as a symbol to maintain and enhance her position; Guntram used the young king as an example of his generosity and to set himself up as a royal peacemaker; Arnulf and Pepin were happy to defect to Chlothar II mainly because he wasn’t Brunhilda, and they were happy to use their leverage and intelligence against the King after the death of Brunhilda to set laws in place promoting the rise of the aristocracy. By the last decade of his life, Chlothar II was treated as little more than a figurehead. And in all of this, while Chlothar II would undoubtedly argue about his agency in the events of his life and his impact on Francia, it’s hard to find a spot in the history where one can really argue that Chlothar caused something significant to come about because of his leadership and management. One has to wonder if anyone, in the same position, wouldn’t have had the same success.
In sports, there’s a statistic called W.A.R.: wins above replacement. It basically tells a researcher how many extra games a team would have won over the course of a season by comparing a given player against a statistically middle-of-the-road replacement, or in other words, someone who won’t lose a game for your team but who also won’t bring a team any additional success. As I learned more about Chlothar II, I came to feel that his W.A.R. was zero. He didn’t cause the team to lose games, but any statistically similar King would have attained the same results. Had they lived, any of Fredegunda’s boys would have been able to serve as an alternative to Brunhilda; any of them could have served as a symbol at Droizy, and any of them would have been likely to sire children to continue their lineage. To do this, all they had to do was not die. Existence was literally the only bar they had to clear and, fortunately for Chlothar, they failed. And, if like Chlothar II, they had simply followed the current and applied little or no agency to their position as King, well, they probably would have ended up with the same results.
In the end, my personal take on Chlothar II is that he was a King who got to take one hell of a ride, historically speaking, without having to pay the price of admission. He wasn’t good, and he wasn’t bad; he was just kind of replaceable. I’ll end this Bon Voyage to the king with a line I used to describe him in Episode 1 and that pretty tidily sums up his addition to history: “He became the first step in a long decline of Merovingian power, and he did so quietly and willingly.”
CONCLUSION: Alright, Chlothar II is dead; now long live the King! As we head out of 629, we’re going to focus on a person we’ve been teasing for some time now: Dagobert. We’ve had the chance to follow him a little up until this point, watching him hunt stags and have late-night talks with long-dead martyrs. And we’ve also seen him get a sizable portion of his scalp knocked off in battle, a battle which he was losing and had to rely on Chlothar II to come and save him from. All in all, it has been a lackluster start, but there’s still time for him to redeem himself a little. We’ll be looking at his reign, his return to polygamy, his infighting with his brother (I know, real shocker with that last bit, right?!) and we'll also look at the lasting effects he had, if any, on the French throne. He’s one of the few Merovingians who got to wear the mantle of King of All of the Franks, so what did he do with it? We’ll find out next 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. Also be sure to check out the #TimeTravelTalks hashtag and account on Twitter, as well as HistoryPods.com and their associated Twitter handle, @podsofhistory. And if you haven’t already, I ask that you take a moment to head over to your podcast player of choice and leave T+M a rating. On top of that, leave a rating or go to the Patreon page for any and all of the podcasts you listen to! If you’re enjoying Stephen Dijulius’s Written in Blood History, Marco Cappelli’s Storia d’Italia, Kristin Terpstra’s History Cache, Alexander von Sternberg’s History Impossible, Elizabeth Lunday’s The Year That Was, or any other amazing show you can think of, large or small, well, now is the time to step up and simply tell them you appreciate them. And we, as always, appreciate you!
Okay, once again, my name is Benjamin Bernier, and I look forward to seeing you in two weeks - and it feels so good to be able to say this - in the year 2021, as we continue to explore Thugs and Miracles.