• Ben

Season Three, Episode Four: The Best Laid Plans

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Autocrats leave power in one of two ways: At the point of a sword, or dead. Take, for example, the last Merovingian King of the Franks, Childéric III; he had been forcibly removed from the throne, taken to a monastery and tonsured. Given the alternatives, this was as good a fate as the last roi fainéant likely could have hoped for; if he hadn’t accepted what was being forced upon him, and as he had no means with which to resist, the only alternative in the two-choice system was death. Now, many may say that Childeric was weak for not fighting until the end, for letting himself be taken alive... but those people don’t have the tip of a sword pressed into their neck as Childeric did. Decisions such as this take on a new clarity when you can feel steel biting your skin.

On the opposite end of the sword we find the person who usurped Childeric III, Pépin I. He enjoyed a 17-year reign after seizing the crown, and was at the height of his own power when, unexpectedly, he contracted dropsy and died at the age of 54. Together, these two monarchs serve to prove the point: Autocratic power ends with capitulation to the sword or death.

Except, here’s the problem with this equation: Just because the king died, doesn’t mean that the person sitting on the throne next to him, the Queen, died too. And not all of these queens, despite having lost their attachment to power, were necessarily ready to give up the status and authority that came with being the person at the left hand of the ruler, to give up being the person who could turn a whisper in an ear into a command felt by all of the kingdom.

Queen Bertrada of Laon, with her miniature son Charles

Take, for example, Pépin’s wife, Queen Bertrada. She had married Pépin in 741 at the age of 14. She had lived through the tumult of his constant movements as he and his brother, Carloman the Elder, fought battle after battle to expand Frankish lands. She had borne him sons and watched as her husband had made move after political move to raise his standing amongst both the Frankish elite and the Roman Popes; many of the best ideas in his climb had been hers, whispers with the strength of blows. She would never get credit for this, but those who knew the couple understood that it was best to stay on her good side if they wanted to be on his. Bertrada had stood by Pépin’s side when he finally made the move to raise himself from his role as Mayor of the Palace to that of the King, and she had ensured that she and the heirs she had provided to Pépin were anointed alongside of him when the Pope arrived in Francia in 754. God had shone his favor on all four of them, and at 27 years of age, Bertrada had been prepared for a long and glorious reign as the Queen of the Franks. This made Pépin’s untimely death just 17 years later, when Bertrada was still only 44 years old and in perfectly good health, all that much harder for the now-Queen Mother to accept.

In some ways, however, having Pépin gone actually made it easier for Bertrada to exert influence. Sure, she no longer had the ability to influence her husband, but her two boys, Charles and Carloman the Younger, were 25 and 17 years old, respectively. They were being asked to take on the mantle of the King of the Franks jointly and, while Charles was old enough to have some experience and education to help him transition into his new role as a ruler, the weight and scale of leadership was still daunting. Add to this that their father had been a tremendous military commander and an exceptional diplomat... Pépin’s shadow would loom large over them. Fortunately for them, their mother, a woman who had played an outsized hand in changing her husband from a court administrator into a Papally- anointed sovereign, was there for both of her boys.

And she had a plan, one that only someone such as herself - a player with insight into what everyone in the game wanted - could pull off. It began by getting her younger son, Carloman, to agree to reconcile himself with his older brother, Charles. The two had had a falling out over military strategy some time earlier, and Bertrada needed to make sure that her two boys didn’t start fighting with one another while she underwent the journey she was about to take.

Having calmed Carloman down, Bertrada next went to Charles. Besides the issue with his brother, Charles had been unhappy at home for some time. He and his wife had been an arranged marriage put together by his father; the couple had managed to have a child together, a boy, but Charles’ potential heir had been born deformed. His back was misshapen and twisted, resulting in a visible hunchback; the boy, named Pépin, was fine in all other respects, but his handicap would preclude him ever taking a place in the line of royal succession. On top of the issue with their son, Charles very simply didn’t like Himiltrude, his wife. He had been able to do what was necessary, but if he never had to do it again, he would be perfectly happy.

Bertrada’s plan was simple. She knew that Desiderius, the Lombard king, had a daughter in need of a husband. She also knew that Desiderius had a son in need of a wife. Charles needed a new bride, and an alliance to the Lombards - replete with a dynastic marriage - would get him that and more. Meanwhile, Bertrada had a daughter, Gisla, who was coming of age. It was all too perfect, if she could thread the needle, diplomatically, to bring everything together. Bertrada kept her cards close to her chest; she let Charles focus on the possibility of a new wife, a true princess this time and not just some nobleman’s daughter, and left the court without telling him about her plans for his sister. The two of them were close, and she didn’t need some irrational emotional outburst to upset her plans. Nothing was set in stone, but if she could swing the double marriage between the Franks and the Lombards, it would be dynasty-changing. She was setting her son up for success, even if he didn’t realize it.

Having pacified her cantankerous boys long enough for her to travel, Bertrada got a move on and made her way to Rome on a “pilgrimage.” She stopped over in Bavaria along the way; it wasn’t exactly the most direct route, but it allowed her a chance to speak with Tasillo, Duke of Bavaria. The young man, about the same age as Charles, had once sworn fealty to her husband; he had also broken his oath when doing so worked to his political advantage. Tasillo arguably had gained the most by Pépin’s death, as at some point the King was going to have to address this young man’s treachery. With Pépin now gone and the two new Kings scrambling to get their feet underneath them, however, Bertrada thought it best to allow bygones to be bygones. Tasillo was disloyal, yes, but he was also married to a Lombard princess. With Charles and Gisla about to take Lombard spouses as well, wasn’t it better for all of them to simply be a big, happy family? Tasillo, respecting the wife of his former ally and also not wanting to risk hostilities along his western border, readily agreed.

Bertrada had thus far convinced three of the five men needed to bring her plan to fruition. The next, Pope Stephen III, was the easiest of the five that she would need to convince, mainly because she didn’t have to. The Pope, constantly fighting with the Lombards in one way or another, was perfectly happy to receive the Queen Mother of the Franks and treat her with the utmost respect. He made all of the traditional pilgrimage sites available to her and her entourage, and in return she offered her ear to the Pope. He had no doubt that she would return to St. Denis with nothing but warm and wonderful things to say about her time in Rome, and was confident as she finished her trip that he could continue to count on Frankish support in his struggles with the stinking Lombards.

Four down, one to go. Bertrada headed for home, but just as she had detoured through Bavaria on her way south, she now took an alternate route on her way north. This path found her traveling into the heart of Lombard territory, to the very capital of that tribe which her husband had so swiftly brought to its knees... twice. Unlike Pépin, however, Bertrada had no reason to wait at the gates of Pavia; she was escorted in with great pomp and ceremony, and before too long she found herself enjoying an audience with the Lombard king himself, Desiderius. There, before this fifth and most crucial person in her scheme, Bertrada laid bare her plan: the double marriage, the alliance between the Franks and the Lombards, the reconciliation with Bavaria. All Desiderius need do is say yes... and also to offer the Pope a few enticements so as to keep the Pontiff’s whimpering to a minimum when he eventually found out that his enemy and his protector had just entered into a dynastic alliance. A few cities, a relieving of the money owed by the Papacy to the Lombard king, and a daughter; if Desiderius could commit these three things, Bertrada would single- handedly have formed a new alliance in the West the likes of which hadn’t been known since Rome was whole.

Queen Bertrada was convincing. King Desiderius said yes.

With that, Bertrada made for home, her future daughter-in-law, Desiderata, riding along with her to meet her new husband and to make official the rapprochement that undoubtedly would mean peace in their time. As she made the final push for home, Bertrada couldn’t help but smile. She had done what not even her husband had been able to accomplish; now all that was left was to make the whole thing official. A wedding in Francia, a wedding in Lombardy, and without a drop of blood being spilled, Bertrada, king by her side or no, would be able to consider herself the Queen of the West.

This is Thugs and Miracles.


Season 3, Episode 4: The Best Laid Plans


Alright, welcome back! As always, I’m Benjamin Bernier, and this week we’re going to take a look at the first few years of Charles and Carloman’s reign as seen through the eyes of their mother, the aforementioned Queen Bertrada. Honestly, she’s a tremendous woman who took her shot when she had it; however, if you didn’t notice, I cribbed a line from Neville Chamberlain toward the end of the opener, “peace in their time.” Bertrada really thought she had a diplomatic solution all figured out, a path to peace and security that couldn’t possibly backfire. Well, just like Chamberlain, a few overwhelming personalities and the general tide of history served to make empty that promise of peace in just a few years. So what happened?

Well, in this case, there were multiple issues. We’ll start with Carloman. This one is easy enough. You see, when Pépin died he left his kingdom to his sons. This is no big shock; it was a Frankish tradition, even if it routinely meant that the country would end up in a civil war as a result of the fracture. What was different with Charles and Carloman was that the fracturing of the kingdom was more administrative than anything else. Pépin’s two sons were to rule together, with Charles taking the northern areas of Austrasia and Neustria, and Carloman taking the south with Burgundy and Swabia. Both of the young kings were to split the rule of Aquitaine, the restive region only just recently brought under control by their father. Overall, there were no new names assigned to these areas; it was just Francia, ruled by two kings.

Well, right from the start it was pretty obvious that Charles had the upper hand in the two- king relationship. He was older, larger, better educated and had more experience. The brothers had an almost too-easy-to-predict falling out soon after their reign began, and generally speaking, people tended to favor Charles. And, truth be told, this would seem to have included Bertrada. When she went to Carloman as we described in the opener, it was to pacify him and to get him to stop arguing with his brother; what wasn’t mentioned is that, by making the deal she made with Tasillo and Desiderius, she essentially was drawing a circle around Carloman that would almost certainly weaken the young king. Tasillo was on Carloman’s eastern flank and the Lombards were on his south. With the marriage to the Lombard princess, Carloman would now see these two leaders tied to his brother... who was on his northern flank. With the ocean on his western flank, Carloman had nowhere to turn. There is no doubt that, once Carloman found out why his mother had pacified him prior to her travels, he was going to be angry. His mother basically got him to stand idly by while she set up a deal for his big brother that would have him surrounded.

Looking next at the Pope, well, just like Carloman, it’s easy to see how he might feel like he had just been played. Seriously... he took in the wife of the man who had saved Rome time and again, the man whose Donation to the Papacy served to make the Pope a temporal sovereign, and she had sat in his presence and listened as he complained about the dreaded Lombards, all the while knowing full well that once she left her “pilgrimage” she was going to head straight to the king of that group and make him an offer which was completely to the detriment of Rome. If the Franks were aligned with the Lombards, and the Lombards chose to make another run at Rome, there was nowhere left for the Pope to turn. He couldn’t afford this new alliance, all the more so because of the two-faced way it had been forced upon him. And I know I sound as if I may be injecting emotions into this situation that I may not really know about; well, what if I had Pope Stephen III tell you how he felt. Here’s a letter written by him over this exact topic; before I begin, notice that the whole notion of a Frankish-Lombard union is seemingly so new to the man that he’s not even sure which brother he should be addressing about this issue:

“It has come to our knowledge that Desiderius, the king of the Lombards, wishes to marry his daughter to one of you. This would not be a marriage but disgraceful concubinage... Would it not be the height of madness if the glorious race of the Franks and your own noble royal dynasty were to be contaminated by a union with the perfidious and stinking Lombards, who cannot even be called a nation and who have brought leprosy into the world? 'For what fellowship have righteousness and iniquity or what communion hath light with darkness?' By the will of God and your father’s choice you already are united in lawful marriage with beautiful wives of your own Frankish race, and to these wives you ought to cleave in love... How can you make common cause with those treacherous Lombards who are always in arms against the Church of God and who have invaded our province of Rome? Do you recall your father's reply to the Emperor... who asked that your noble sister, Gisla, be given in marriage to his son? Your father declared that your family did not marry foreigners and would do nothing against the will of the apostolic see...”

The letter continues:

"Wherefore Saint Peter himself, prince of the apostles, guardian of the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven... by all that is lawful, by the living and true God, by the ineffable divine omnipotence, by the tremendous day of judgment, by all the divine mysteries... adjures you not to wed the daughter of Desiderius or to give your noble sister Gisla in wedlock to his son...

"Should either of you do what is unpleasing to God and have the temerity to ignore our remonstrances, let him be warned that by the authority of Saint Peter he is then under the ban of the most fearful anathema, an alien from the kingdom of God and doomed with the devil and his most wicked ministers and all impious men to the eternal flames. But he who shall obey and observe this exhortation shall be worthy of divine illumination, with all heavenly blessings, and of exaltation to everlasting glory with all the saints and elect of God."

So yeah, I think it’s safe to say that the Pope was pretty ticked off. It doesn’t seem to matter that he was going to get cities given back to him from the Lombards or debts forgiven. Stephen III was almost certainly looking forward, past these immediate gifts, knowing full well that a successful marriage alliance between the Lombards and Franks would free the former to do whatever it pleased. The giving back of Papal territory would be nothing more than a prelude to the permanent recapture of this same territory. He needed to stop this marriage, even if it meant him running rom-com-style down the aisle at the wedding itself objecting to the union.

But here’s the thing: the Pope was more shrewd than a rom-com caricature. Why do I say this? Well, he threatened excommunication and Hell in his letter, both fairly blunt tools for him to employ. And he also tied the Lombards to leprosy, which again... fairly blunt. But in between diseases and eternal damnation, the Pope also mentioned something much more subtle, something much more likely to get the attention of Charles in particular. According to historian Richard Winston:

“Pope Stephen twice refers to Gisla, as if aware that Charles's thirteen year-old sister was the darling of the entire family. Unusually well educated for a girl, bright and of independent mind, she was the particular favorite of Charles. And even though thirteen was not an unusual age for marriage (as the pope's 'letter itself indicates, a betrothal in infancy would have been quite in order), the thought of sending this charming child off to a foreign country and an unknown husband was abhorrent to Charles. Just as in later years he was unwilling to give up his daughters, he was now reluctant to let his sister marry abroad.”

Okay, so we’ll delve deeper into Charles’ issues with his sister and daughters in later episodes, but for right now let’s focus on how he’s going to respond in this moment in 770. His mom just went on a trip in which, in all likelihood, she never mentioned marrying off Gisla; if she had, this certainly seems like one of those situations where a promise that was made seemed much better at the time it was given than it did at the time it had to be fulfilled. Either way, Charles is cool with marrying Desiderata - he never really liked Himiltrude apparently - but he’s not going to send off his sister, regardless of whether or not Bertrada promised her to Desiderius’ son.

So we can see this whole plot, this well-laid plan of Bertrada’s that needed so much to go right for it to succeed, spiraling quickly out of control. She left Francia having had to convince or connive five men into going along with her; by this point, she has completely lost the Pope and her youngest son, and her oldest is flaking out on key parts of the agreement. Still, she had just enough of the plan hanging together to make it successful; Charles supposedly married Desiderata, and the dynastic alliance was put in place.

Until Charles sent Desiderata home.

That’s right: After about a year of marriage, Charles decided he just couldn’t take it anymore. For all of the women he would love in his life, Charles would only ever divorce two; they both just happened to be the women his parents fixed him up with. If there were indicators needed of Charles being willful, headstrong and independent, this just may be indicator number one! Sending Desiderata back home to Pavia wasn’t something that could be done with nuance; it meant that the alliance with the Lombards, already weakened by Charles’ unwillingness to send Gisla, was now on a war footing.

And here’s one last thing to consider: Desiderata may never have arrived into Francia at all, which would mean the marriage may have never even taken place. According to the Carolingian historian Rosamond McKittrick:

“We do not know when, how, why or even if the Lombard princess ever arrived in Francia... or whether she was actually married to Charlemagne before the whole thing was called off. Einhard’s report fifty years later that Charlemagne was married to a daughter of Desiderius and that Charlemagne subsequently repudiated her may be merely his surmise as a result of reading the papal letters. It is far more likely that the alliance might have been discussed but got no farther, due primarily to the pope’s objections.”

This argument makes a lot of sense. First off, sending a princess back to her father after a year of marriage would have been an unmistakably provocative move. This isn’t to say that Charles wouldn’t have done it, but it’s just kind of messy. Second, the Lombard princess never gets a proper name; Desiderata is just a diminutive of the father’s name, and her proper name is never noted anywhere despite her having married the king and having been in Francia supposedly for a year. Third, Desiderata is never noted as having become pregnant. Charles had 18 children in his life, so potency was certainly not an issue. That’s not to say that the Lombard princess couldn’t have had fertility issues, but it’s another bit of circumstantial evidence that she never came north. If she had, it’s reasonable to expect that within 12 months the union would have resulted in a pregnancy or we would have known about the miscarriage of a potential heir. Fourth, and in our opinion the most likely, is that even if Desiderata did make it into Francia, the Pope’s strong admonition of the alliance would have dissuaded Charles from following through with the marriage. From the first time that we see Charles noted in history, he is shown as a faithful follower of the Pope. He was sent to meet Stephen II when that Pontiff crossed the Alps in 754. He was anointed by that same Pope later in the year. He is referred to in letters as the Pope’s spiritual son, and he had spent his life watching his father ride in service of the Church. So for him to suddenly take a wife after receiving a letter from Rome threatening eternal damnation and leprosy? It just seems unlikely.

Still, a disgraced princess, married or otherwise - even just a spurned offer of alliance - would have been enough to drive Desiderius to war. He almost would have had to as a face-saving mechanism. No matter how exactly it all went down, here’s what we can say for sure. Queen Mother Bertrada took her shot, and she came close. If the Pope had been less truculent, and if Charlemagne had had less of an attachment to his sister, or, despite all of this, if Desiderata had become pregnant and carried an heir to term, then perhaps this plan may have worked. Queen Bertrada had come so close, closer than probably anyone else in the world at that time could have come. If she had succeeded, the results would have changed the course of history. It was this near-miss, this needle that was so close to having been threaded, that actually makes her mission’s failure all that much more spectacular.


CONCLUSION: Alright, that finishes off this week’s look at Queen Bertrada. We’ve spent the first three episodes of this season focused on the men and the battles and the conspiracies that marked Pépin’s reign and the beginning of Charles and Carloman’s, so it felt especially fitting to be able to profile a woman from this period. And I actually like that Bertrada’s mission ultimately failed; not everybody’s story, male or female, is going to be an epic journey that results in a victory over outsiders or a fall from grace so dramatic that it ends in being torn apart by wild horses. Sometimes in history, and one could argue more often than not, these lesser stories are what happens. The big, shiny screenplays with all of the A-list stars - the Marvel movies - are going to dominate people’s attention, but these smaller plots with solid character actors usually make for more compelling and realistic drama.

Bertrada dreamed big. She may have been acting on behalf of her boys, or maybe just one of them, or maybe just herself. No matter why she did it, she traveled over mountains, staring down dukes, kings and Popes in an effort to make a play as a woman alone in the world. She was smart and she was devilishly close to success. Perhaps she suffered from hubris, or greed, or flew in the face of God by sidelining and deceiving the Pope. No matter what her tragic flaw, or series of tragic flaws, ultimately happened to be, the fact that she and her mission were flawed and doomed to failure somehow serves to make Bertrada more approachable, more relatable. I think at some level we can all understand the idea of wanting something more, something of our own, and struggling against the odds to get it. She did that, and there’s a pride and dignity in the attempt that is understandable... even if she didn’t ultimately end up as an A-lister.


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Alright, again, my name is Benjamin Bernier. We are on our way in 2022, and we hope all is going well for you as we move deeper into this new year. We look forward to talking with you again in ten more days with the next episode of Thugs and Miracles.


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