Season Two, Episode 13: The Return of the King
A lot can change in the world in 20 years. A lot can change in a person.
That’s how long Dagobert had been locked away in the north, abandoned by his countrymen and all those he could remember. After so long, their faces grew dim in his memory, much like the hatred he had once felt for those who had stolen him, concealed him, and absconded with him to this monastery in the northernmost reaches of the world. When he had first arrived to the monastery, a petulant young 8-year-old, he had insisted on being called a king and having shows of deterrence made to him and his royal bloodline. Now, so many years on, he happily took his meals with his brother monks, never complaining when his turn came around on the schedule to be one of those who served the others. He had come from a world of rank and hierarchy, a world where his status as the Crown Prince had made him Somebody. God had since shown him that he was nobody except a simple supplicant, the same as all of those around him, a man whose worth was equal only to the amount of piety and prayer he displayed toward his Lord and Maker - no more, no less.
Over time, Dagobert had taken to his quiet life. He had been taught how to read and how to write. He could quote scripture by heart. And his schedule had become so routine that he knew where to be at any given time, on any given day, without having to consult anyone or anything to let him know. His life and his world had become small and quiet and knowable, and for this clarity he often would thank God while in the midst of his prayers.
This quiet and routine made the arrival of monks from a far-off monastery all the more jarring when they arrived, boisterous and excited, in the late winter of 675. Not only were the arriving brothers excited to have made their destination, and the monks of Dagobert’s home equally excited to have visitors, but after a short while they learned that an even greater honor was in store for them: Wilfrid, the Bishop of York, had personally commissioned the visit and had endowed the arriving party with a message of singular importance. They would tell everyone what this message was after the evening meal and their prayers.
The brothers of the monastery were all abuzz over this exciting news, each wondering what the message could possibly be. Ideas floated around and everyone seemed to have a theory as to why the great Bishop of York would want to contact their small house. The only monk who did not seem to be reveling in this rare moment of excitement and interaction with the outside world was Dagobert; for some reason, he had a sense of foreboding about the contents of the message, and would be just as happy as not to see Bishop Wilfrid’s party leaving for home a few days hence. Still, he was able to hide his trepidation enough that his fellow monks were unaware that he somehow felt different.
That night, after their meal and the last collective “Amen” to the group’s evening prayers, the head of Wilfrid’s party came to the front of the hall where they had all congregated. He told them all a story, one which was accepted eagerly by men who rarely heard anything new, much less news of the world. The man spoke:
“Brothers, I have good news for all of us, and one among you in particular. Our good patron, Bishop Wilfrid, recently came home to his flock after having made a holy pilgrimage to the city of Rome and that land’s Bishop. Both of these holy fathers commend the work that you have done to spread the word of the One True Faith to the pagans spread out to the countryside. It is through your effort, prayers and sacrifice that new converts are being brought to God every day, and the strength and reach of our religion grows ever stronger.”
The messenger took a moment to clear his throat, then began to speak again. The monks leaned forward earnestly to hear his words; certainly he had not come all of this way in the dead of winter simply to tell them they had done good work! He continued:
“On his return from Rome, Bishop Wilfrid passed through the Frankish Kingdom of Austrasia...”
At these words, Dagobert’s heart dropped. He had barely heard word of his home country at all in these past 20 years, and now this unknown man came to speak directly to the group about it. This could be no coincidence.
“In Austrasia, Bishop Wilfrid was greeted by that Kingdom’s Mayor of the Palace, Wulfoald. He was not greeted, as expected, by the King. No, alas, the King of Austrasia has recently died and returned to his place alongside the Lord, our Father in Heaven. He left no children, and no one has come forward to take the Crown of the Frankish King, Childeric II. No one, that is, except for the King of Neustria, the late King Childeric’s brother, Theuderic. And this, in better times, may have been pleasing to God and with all of us; Theuderic is, after all, a Christian in our same Church. Unfortunately, the Mayor Wulfoald assured our good Bishop that the young King of Neustria has fallen under the sway of bad counsel, a man by the name of Ebroin. To allow Theuderic into power over Austrasia would also be to allow into power Ebroin; it would be the same as willingly allow the serpent to enter the Garden of Eden. Bishop Wilfrid agreed, and was then given a task by Wulfoald which, if we are to successfully answer the call, could well place one of our own into a position of supreme power and authority. This person could could save the throne of Austrasia from falling into the wrong hands.”
Dagobert’s head was now swimming with thoughts, all of them coming in such rapid succession that he began to become dizzy. He knew with utmost certainty that the messenger was going to call his name in just a few moments. He had dreamed of this for years, then had abandoned the dream in return for the reality of a life as a humble man of God. His hopes of ever returning to his homeland had long ago failed, yet here he was now, listening to the man who had been sent to reclaim the one person who had a right, thanks to his bloodline, to sit on the throne of Austrasia. The moment was heavy, overwhelming. The messenger went on:
“The good Mayor Wulfoald told our Bishop of a young man, many years ago, who had been stolen from Austrasia in the confusion that attended the passing of his father, the late King Sigibert. This young man had been taken to the sea and out of Francia; he had been delivered onto these shores and taken into this very house of worship.” He paused for effect. “My brothers, I tell you now words that you will never hear again in all of your life. Brothers, amongst you now sits a King, and I would ask him now to rise to be recognized as such.
“Brother Dagobert,” the messenger called out strongly, “rise now and come forth so we may honor you. You are the long lost King of Austrasia, and it is our mission to convey to you this word and provide you protection as you return to Francia to reclaim your Crown!” An audible gasp went up from the monks at this news that one of their number had been among them this whole time, as a King toiling alongside of them in their prayers and missions as a normal man, a simple monk. Their eyes turned in unison to Brother Dagobert, now King Dagobert; they were not sure of what to do now that they were aware they had royalty in their midst. The initial impulse for some was to congratulate him, to smack him on the back as if he had just won some recognition or great reward. For others, the impulse was to fall to their knees in the presence of one who had been chosen by God Almighty, as all Kings are. For all, the news was almost unbelievable: here, in this place where news of the greater world never touched their lives or made it to their ears, they sat in the midst of a story the likes of which the world had never known. It was a moment for all present that was to be indelibly stuck in their minds for decades to come. When, as old men they had lost control of all other senses, they would still be able to remember the day when a messenger of Bishop Wilfrid strode before them all and told them, “Brothers, amongst you now sits a King.”
Dagobert rose slowly to the call of the messenger. While everyone else around him was excited and shocked, he alone felt dismay and heartbreak. He knew, as he stood, that his life was now changed. His simple days and his joyful routine were gone in the passing of a few words from this messenger’s mouth. He knew that he too should be excited, to be grateful that now, after all of this time, he had been remembered and rediscovered. He would get to take back what was his, what never should have been taken from him in the first place. And yet, that’s not how he felt. His heart was heavy with despair and dread, and as he stood to face his fate he had tears in his eyes. He made the walk to the front of the congregation looking more like a man condemned than a man assuming the mantle of power.
The messenger dropped to a knee as Dagobert walked before him. He waited for the monk - nay, the King - to tell him to rise, and for several awkward moments he remained lowered before him. Finally, hearing no word, he looked up. What he saw was not a king, but a man who knew nothing of the etiquette outside of his monastery. Brother Dagobert, with his tonsured scalp, his tear-stained cheeks, and his pleading eyes, was no more a king than the messenger. That was, except for the blood in his veins. It was that glorious blood that meant this unprepared man was due a throne, and it was the messenger’s job to ensure he found his way home to it. Knowing he would receive no word to rise, the messenger finally took it upon himself to return to his feet. He turned to the crowd before him.
“Brothers, I present to you King Dagobert II, King of Austrasia!” With this, everyone in the room lowered to a knee. These men, all of whom had just shared a meal with Dagobert, a sleeping area, who had cleaned and scrubbed and learned shoulder to shoulder with him, now lowered themselves before him and averted their eyes from his. The effect of the announcement was immediate. As they were still bent down, the messenger finished his remarks.
“Brothers, I shall now take the King from you. We have much to discuss before we can sleep, as we must be away as soon as the sun rises in the morning. I thank you for your time and your hospitality, and on behalf of Bishop Wilfrid, give you blessings.” Making the sign of the cross, he said the words they had all heard thousands of times before: “In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.”
Before the monks could respond with their “Amen,” the messenger and King Dagobert were gone from the hall. He had not lied when he said there was much left to discuss; seeing the state of the monk-turned-King, there was even more left to go over than he had previously imagined. Austrasia would get a person with the pedigree to wear the crown - a remarkable feat in and of itself, considering where they were and what had transpired to bring them to this point - but whether Dagobert, this monk, would ever truly be able to rule as a king was questionable. Then again, the messenger thought, that’s probably exactly what the Mayors want.
As for Dagobert, as he left the room he had a sensation that he could only remember having had one other time in his life. That had come on the day his father died, when Grimoald had rushed him back into the villa and placed him on a horse with his guards for a journey he had promised would lead him to safety. In a way, Grimoald had told the truth, although his intentions were never for the benefit of Dagobert. By stealing the young Crown Prince away from the throne and to this northern land he now considered home, Dagobert had in fact been kept safe. Now, for a second time in his life, Dagobert was being rushed to a journey, a trip that was neither under his control nor his choice. Only this time, while he should be glad to be returning to all that had been stolen from him, he felt that he was being rushed into the jaws of death.
This messengers intentions were the exact opposite of Grimoald’s, and if the end result of these reversed intentions were also the opposite of what had ultimately happened to him, then Dagobert supposed he likely had little time left in the world. Only time would tell what exactly God’s plan was for him.
This is Thugs and Miracles.
Season Two, Épisode 13: Return of the King
Alright, welcome back! As always, I’m Benjamin Bernier, and this week we’re going to take our focus down just a little bit. Last week we discussed the reigns and fates of four kings; this week, we’re going to look at just one: King Dagobert II. Now, to be honest, Dagobert II is almost completely superfluous to our story insofar as how he affected history. As a king, he only ruled from 675/6 until 679. He passed no sweeping laws or reforms, he added no male children to the historical record to later vie for his crown, and his military/foreign affairs record was mixed. He signed a peace treaty with the Lombards, noted by Paul the Deacon in his book History of the Lombards, but his advisors also went to war with the Neustrians... and lost. We’ll discuss this in more detail in our next episode, mainly because the animosity between the Kingdom’s Mayors is pivotal at this point, but as far as Dagobert is concerned, well, he almost certainly was not leading these forces, and the fights would have occurred with or without him.
Along these same lines, I knocked Chlothar III in the last episode for failing to keep his underlings under control. Much the same thing happened here, but the key difference - for me, at any rate - is that Chlothar III was born and raised to his role as King, and while he was young, he was still past the age of majority and had at least received some amount of training for the part. Dagobert, on the other hand, was older than Chlothar but had been locked away in a monastery in another part of the world for most of his life. He was then brought, cold turkey, back to Austrasia and expected to rule. For any of us who have ever started a job and been introduced to a ton of new people on Day One, imagine that level of being overwhelmed and multiply it by a monarchy. To round out this discussion on Dagobert’s historical impact, let’s quickly rate him: his four years of reign fail to garner any points for him, and about the only notable thing he was a part of, as mentioned a moment ago, was the signing of a peace with the Lombards. We’ll give him a point there, and that’s about it. We’ll not knock off points for his apparent lack of military prowess, nor can we hold it against him for not having great control of his court. All of this leaves him with a final score of .1; this seems right: he was King, but his direct impact was small.
Moving past Dagobert II’s historical rating, let’s now consider his story, because in this sense I find him amazing and fascinating. First off, as a quick review for anyone who hasn’t had the chance to listen to the Coup d’État trilogy yet - beginning at Season 2, Episode 9 - Dagobert was the Crown Prince denied his birthright by a greedy Mayor of the Palace, a man named Grimoald. Grimoald had served Dagobert’s father, Sigibert III, as a trusted advisor and would have been expected to do the same for the new King Dagobert. Instead, Grimoald grossly betrayed this trust and made arrangements to pack off Dagobert to a monastery in what is modern-day Ireland. This would have been like sending him to another world, but it’s interesting that Grimoald didn’t just have the boy killed. After all, it’s not like it would be the first - or the last - time that royal children have been killed by power hungry courtiers and family members. To make the type of arrangements that would have been necessary to smuggle the boy out of Austrasia and up to a monastery, and then to keep him quiet and the secret in check so no one could simply ride to free the “true” King - not to mention the idea of simply keeping a rival claimant alive - all makes me think that either Grimoald was a) soft-hearted and willing to take extraordinary risks, an assessment that seems to be at odds with what we know of him, or b) willing to stand behind a story that softened the true events of what happened on the day of Sigibert III’s death, or c) completely unaffiliated with the story that eventually grew out of Dagobert II because he had killed the boy and the story was only created well after the fact to bring a “Merovingian” back to the throne of Austrasia for legitimacy.
Personally, I lean toward option C, and here’s why. First, Ebroin - the Mayor of the Palace in Neustria - had already used what was almost certainly a false King to bring himself back into power when he posed a child as Clovis III, long-misplaced illegitimate child of Chlothar III. This ploy succeeded in getting Ebroin back into royal politics, and he ditched Clovis III almost immediately when he saw what he considered to be a better job opening become available: Mayor of the Neustrian Palace. Ebroin had run his scam to the detriment of another Austrasian noble, Wulfoald, a man who would be Mayor himself if only he had a king to advise. Having just watched his rival pull a king from thin air, perhaps Wulfoald felt he could do the same thing. He sent word to Wilfrid in Britain, and Wilfrid produced a monk who was the long-lost Crown Prince who had been smuggled out of Francia all those years ago and who no one had thought to pull out of storage... until now.
Now, for the sake of argument, let’s say that somehow, someway, the monk discovered in Ireland was Dagobert II. How damaged would this person be after everything he had gone through? His dad died, he was torn from his family and country, he was placed in a monastery and left in this early form of Alcatraz with no real hope of ever coming out. Then, one day out of nowhere and 20 years later on, Wilfrid and his group show up and tell him to get his things, he’s going home. He’s had been taken from the life of a prince and forced to be a monk, and now he’s being taken from the life of a monk and being forced to be a king. I’m constantly reminding myself that things were different back then and I can’t look at things through my modern lens, but unless this person was the world’s most passive individual or truly had given himself entirely over to the notion of everything as God’s will, I find it hard to believe that he wouldn’t have experienced a severe amount of culture shock. And this shock would have likely manifested in all those same human emotions we experience in difficult times today: disorientation, confusion, bewilderment, denial, anger, and grief, just to name a few. Dagobert II would have been torn from a place he considered to be his home for the second time in his life, and both times at the hands of powerful people who felt their interests superseded his.
Now, if the Dagobert II who returned to Francia was not the Dagobert II who left the country - and again, this seems as likely to me as not - many of the same emotions I listed above would probably continue to be in play. Or, perhaps not; if the new Dagobert II understood his role and what he was being tasked to do, well, why not enjoy getting to be king? I mean, if you’re going to get thrown into the position, at least enjoy some of the perks, right? Either which way - real Merovingian or successful actor - we are told that Dagobert reigned for four years and was then assassinated. I say “we’re told” as opposed to “we know” because honestly, it appears that Dagobert II’s life and likeness was appropriated well after his death for use - once again - by men who had a vested interest in using the person for their own ends. The two main sources here are the Vita Sancti Wilfrithi, the Life of Wilfrid, and the Vita Dagoberti, the Life of Dagobert, a source written at least two hundred years after the death of Dagobert. In the paper “Carolingian Royal Politics in the Canonization of Dagobert II,” author Dallas Alexander Grubbs writes that “the Life of Wilfrid claims that he Dagobert later regained the throne, only to be assassinated soon after by his own retainers. According to the Vita Dagoberti... he was buried in the church of St.-Remigius in Stenay. This church, located at the foot of the Ardennes, dated back to the seventh century. Given its location at the heart of Dagobert II’s kingdom, it is actually a very possible candidate for the historical king’s burial place.”
Beyond this, we know precious little more about how the King died, who killed him, or why. Again from Grubbs: “The Vita is virtually useless as a historical source for the reign of Dagobert II. The author of the Vita is writing centuries after the death of his subject and, what is more, he confuses Dagobert II with his later successor Dagobert III, folding their careers into one. The Vita Dagoberti is therefore a somewhat fabricated and confused work, woven together from various other texts from the Merovingian and Carolingian periods. Its ostensible purpose was to present Dagobert as the ideal saint and king, not to chronicle his actual deeds or actions. The only factual detail of Dagobert II’s life that the author seems to have known or cared about sharing is that the king was assassinated and buried in the Church of St. Remigius.”
So, from this we are led to believe that Dagobert was murdered. We’re not told why or by whom; we just know that it happened. There’s multiple reasons this could have gone down: it could have been a political hit job by Theuderic III and his Mayor, Ebroin; it could have been an internal hit by someone who didn’t want Dagobert around as the king anymore. This last course of action cuts in two different directions: they may not have wanted him to be king for reasons similar to why Childeric II was killed, an attack prompted by some overt action of the monarch, or perhaps - if Dagobert truly was a plant - perhaps people closer to the conspiracy would want him gone to make sure he didn’t have a chance to spill the beans on the fact that he was not the real Dagobert. But the most likely theory out of all of this, and I will be very transparent insofar as letting you know that this is my speculation, is that Dagobert had simply outlived his usefulness as a monarch in much the same way that Clovis III had outlived his. Ebroin had discarded the latter of these kings when he was no longer needed, and it would not surprise me at all to find that Pepin de Herstal, the Mayor who succeeded Wulfoald, would have dispatched Dagobert. We’ll get into Pepin in great deal in the next few episodes, but for now it’s worth noting that no one succeeded Dagobert upon his death. This means that the two people who stood to gain the most from his death were Pepin and Ebroin, and with the right piece of evidence I could believe either one of these as the culprit. They would end up fighting for control of a unified Francia, one nominally led by Theuderic III, but as we all know by this point, Theuderic would lead the realm in name only. The Mayors now ran the show.
Speaking of evidence, there’s one last thing I’d like to mention about Dagobert before we wrap up for the day: you can still see his skull to this very day (and I’m going to take this moment to plug the Thugs and Miracles Instagram account; follow us there and you can see what I’m talking about!) Anyway, you heard me correctly: Dagobert II’s skull, complete with a very large gash in the top of it, has survived all of these years and resides at the Maison de la Memoire de Mons (or in English, the Memory House of Mons). It was for many years held by the convent of the Black Sisters, les Soeurs Noires, and there are more than a few creepy photos of the top half of this skull sitting in a chalice. Now I’ll admit, it’s a pretty chalice, but it’s still pretty jarring - pun intended - to look at. But this leads to a question: where did the skull come from? Why is it not still with the King? Well, once again, this could all be a part of people using Dagobert for their own advantage. You see, after his death, a cult grew up around the relics of King Dagobert. He was buried in Stenay, France, in the Ardennes forest, and the locals from the area celebrated this link to royalty. The church had the opportunity in 872 to host Charles the Bald while that King was hunting in the area, and it was during this trip that Charles “elevated Dagobert to sanctity.” How much the King really thought Dagobert deserved to be a Saint is open to debate, but we can assume with little doubt that he hoped to gain politically by this act. From this point we see the writing of the Vita Dagoberti as a hagiography designed to press his case, and at some unknown point, Dagobert II was elevated to sainthood. He is, appropriately, the patron saint of kidnapping victims.
Anyway, did you notice one thing I forgot to mention in all of this? Oh yeah... how did the saintly king’s head end up in a cup in Belgium? Well, there is no good explanation that I can find. The relics of Dagobert were likely scattered after the Protestants suppressed and sacked the Priory of Stenay in 1591, and this could be how the Black Sisters laid claim to the skull. However, one skeptic of this theory, Monsieur Desailly, put forth a different theory, one based more on science than story. His writing, in an article entitled “A Trepanned Skull Conserved Like a Relic,” appeared in the 1919 Bulletin of the Prehistoric Society of France; he wrote:
“The skull of Mons presents well all of the characteristics of a prehistoric trepanation [that being the intentional drilling of a hole into the skull]... it’s necessary to admit that the relic of the Black Sisters is a trepanned skull, of the Neolithic period.” Later in his article, Desailly said this of the skull: “How it entered the convent of the Black Sisters, in this regard, we can only gather explanations, more or less fantastic.”
Basically, the skull in Mons, if we’re to believe Desailly, is closer to 7,000 years old than 1,400 years old, and it was cut upon in a way that other Neolithic heads were cut on in that time period. It’s a neat piece of history, and in the proper context can give us a glimpse into a past well older than the Merovingians, but insofar as being our King... well, not so much. More than likely, the skull was found and brought to Belgium, someone said it was the skull of Dagobert, and the story stuck. And why not? Having a cool religious relic could be powerful, both spiritually and economically. It’s a good story, but as Desailly said, probably “more or less fantastic.”
CONCLUSION: Alright, that’s the show for this week, and that ends the long and winding road of Dagobert II. And for what it’s worth, it doesn’t even quite end all of Dagobert’s story, as he has now re-entered the world’s consciousness by being part of the debunked conspiracy stories linking the Merovingians to the bloodline of Jesus Christ (yes, that Jesus Christ). I wanted this episode to focus on the facts of Dagobert II’s life and death and avoid going down a rabbit hole that has the potential to go very deep and very off track, and I’m looking to discuss this conspiracy theory in a future Rabbit Hole episode in greater detail anyway, so for right now I’ll leave you with this: don’t believe the hype. The story of Dagobert II is much smaller and much more sad than the conspiracy theories would have you believe. The facts lead us to believe that this Merovingian King was the epitome of a pawn: he had his throne stolen from him; he was brought back (if it was even him that returned) when it suited someone else; he was killed when yet another person hoped to gain from his murder; and a future King had him canonized for no really good reason other than by doing so it helped that King. His skull, which is probably not his skull, has been revered as a relic, and his name and likeness has been used in forged documents to push a ridiculous conspiracy theory. Dagobert II may, in my opinion, be the single most victimized, abused, and misused person to yet pass through our history, and that honestly says something. His story expresses the exact opposite of agency, the idea of being in control of one’s fate and decisions. The fact that he, or someone carrying his name, eventually became a King and a Saint is little solace for someone who, more than likely, died in 657, aged eight or younger, all so that a greedy, power-hungry Mayor could put his own son on the throne of Austrasia for a really short period of time.
Alright, moving on from that depressing note, next week we’re going to look at two people who absolutely did have agency: Ebroin and Pepin of Herstal. They’ll both be fighting for the hand of the young and fair King Theuderic III, and their story will go back and forth like Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed. It’s a wild ride and a hell of a fight, and sets the stage for the last throes on the Merovingian Dynasty. All of that is coming your way... next time!
OUTRO: Before we go, 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, an updated monarchy tree, our Instagram feed, and a list of other great history podcasts are all available online at thugsandmiracles.com; please visit and sign up for the mailing list so we can keep you up to date with announcements on new shows and our monthly newsletter. Speaking of email, you can write to us at email@example.com, 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. As I said earlier, we’re constantly putting up photos and pictures that illuminate our story, and the skull of Dagobert is no exception; follow us to see what we’re talking about! Finally, we always love to get new reviews - preferably five stars, but we won’t restrict your agency - but if you get a chance to leave us one, we’d appreciate it more than you’d know. We know you have a ton of options when it comes to podcasts and we’re happy that you’re here with with us; no matter how you support us, just know that we appreciate you!
Okay, once again, my name is Benjamin Bernier. We look forward to seeing you in two weeks as we go “ding, ding” in the heavyweight battle between Ebroin and Pépin, in the next episode of Thugs and Miracles.