Season Two, Episode 16: Echoes of the Past
INTRO Before we start today, I want to send a shoutout to a show I’m a huge fan of, The History Cache Podcast. Kristin Robyn Terpstra is doing awesome stuff over there, including last week’s episode where she will tell you all about Kate Webster, a Victorian-era maid who committed a crime so depraved that it landed her on the front page of newspapers for all of the wrong reasons. She even got a display in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, but again, for all the wrong reasons! In the middle of this rundown of late 19th-century murder, you’ll notice that Kristin dropped something: namely, the promo for T+M! We couldn’t be happier to be associated with such an awesome show, and we’re looking forward to paying the compliment back in the very near future (that may have been a hint for next week’s show…) So, be sure to check out the latest episode of History Cache, and if you’re not already a subscriber, start going through Kristin’s back catalogue and be sure to leave a rating and review. With all of that said and my fanboy-ing now complete, let’s get to what you came here for.
Let’s get on with the show!
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.
A young man starts off in life. He comes from a good family, but outside of his name he doesn’t have much else to work with. He’s young, scrappy and hungry, and he’s willing to do almost anything he can to fan a spark into a flame. Along the way he meets a girl; things proceed as could be expected, and before long the young couple is a young family. She’s with him from the start, willing to stand by his side because she can see something in him that not everyone else can. His charm, charisma and ability are going to take him to the top, and she’s going to be at his side when he arrives.
After a while, things calm down a bit between the couple. The events that were once exciting and new are now routine and ordinary. The young man grows up and, just like his wife guessed he would, he becomes somebody. She also grows up, and as the mother of two, she watches her boys grow toward adulthood; they look just like their father, and sure enough, he begins to show them the ropes of the family business. Two decades after they first met, the relationship between husband and wife has changed; they’ve grown, but not necessarily in the same direction.
Enter the new girl.
Now a man of wealth and taste - as well as power - the man sets his eyes on this new young woman. She’s a breath of fresh air to him, and soon enough, things proceed as could be expected; before long, the couple is in a family way.
And this is where things start to diverge from the normal story of mid-life crises and powerful men using their position to obtain illicit rewards, because for our story, we have to remember that we’re back in the 7th century (although, let’s admit it, the rough outline of this tale seems fairly timeless).
For us, we’re talking about Pépin II and his several marriages. Notice that I didn’t say divorce, because again, this is the 7th century and divorce is not really an option or a necessity - at least if you’ve got power. This means that at some point, Pépin had to have come home to his first wife, Plectrude, a woman who had stood by him for 20 years at that point, to tell her that he was going to be spending time with a second wife as well. And, oh yeah, by the way, that second wife, Alpaida, was already pregnant. And Alpaida’s kids were going to join in the line of succession to take his job as Duke of the Franks, just in case anything happened to Plectrude’s boys.
Have a nice day.
Luckily for everyone, Pépin ended up living a long and robust life. At a time when most people died in their 40s and 50s, he managed to survive until he was nearly 70, and this meant that his kids had time to mature before being thrust into positions of authority. Pépin had made his oldest, a boy named Drogo, the Duke of Champagne and Burgundy. The next in line, Grimoald, was named as the Mayor of the Palace in Neustria. None of Alpaida’s kids were given roles at this point, but as they were half the age of their half-brothers, this wasn’t completely surprising. And on top of that, Drogon and Grimoald seemed perfectly healthy; what were the chances that these two boys of Alpaida’s were ever going to be called into service anyway? Right?
We all know what happens when questions like this get asked: someone dies. And in this case, things went pretty fast. Drogon, the oldest son and the heir everyone had pinned their hopes to, up and died unexpectedly in 708. This meant that all of his titles passed to the spare, Grimoald. He seemed ready to begin his rule when, in 714, Pépin became ill and seemed ready to leave this world. Grimoald knew that this was his time to shine and to make a show of himself, and he did this by heading off with his retinue to the tomb of St. Lambert in Liège. Unfortunately, by calling of attention to himself as the new de facto head of state as he headed to this monument for prayer and reflection, he drew the attention of the Frisian tribe who happened to be in the area and who were still mad about Pépin’s campaigns against his people. They used the arrival of Pépin’s heir to get revenge, stabbing Grimoald while he prayed. Just like that, Plectrude went from having an heir, to having a spare, to having nothing.
After 45 years of marriage, however, Plectrude was not about to just give up and hand the keys of the palace over to Alpaida. Oh no no no, that would not do. Instead, Plectrude convinced Pépin - who was still clinging to life - to name Grimoald’s illegitimate son as the new heir to all of the titles that would otherwise pass to Alpaida’s children. Pépin, for reasons known but to him, agreed to this. And then he died.
Again, stop me if you’ve heard this story before.
An older French noblewoman, long suffering in her time spent in service to her people, is named regent of her seven-year-old grandson. She means to use her title to increase her power and to push her agenda, and she is willing to ride into battle to do so. Her number-one contender is a second noblewoman, also mother to a son who would rule, who is willing to back her son’s claim to the throne even if it will mean her death.
120 years after Fredegunda and Brunhilda went to battle with one another to see who would carry the day and whose son would ultimately rule, so here again we see two women willing to go to war and to put everything on the line. For the second time in a land where the laws were written to ensure women stayed subservient, a land where no female monarch could rule outright and of her own volition, we see two women getting ready to go to battle for the right to rule.
This is Thugs and Miracles.
Season 2, Episode 16: Echoes of the Past
Alright, welcome back! As always, I’m Benjamin Bernier, and this week we’re going to wrap up what has been a three-part examination of the life and achievements of Pépin d’Herstal, a.k.a. Pépin II, a.k.a Pépin the Younger, a.k.a. Pépin le Gros. This last title is a bit misleading: “gros,” in French, can be translated as either “fat” or “large,” and as many historians throughout the years seem to be afflicted with the sense of humor of a 12-year-old (an accusation I fling while hoping a bolt of lightning doesn’t strike me down where I sit), the title of Pepin the Fat is often thrown around as a name for this latest Pépin. Once one stops giggling about this silly translation, however, it becomes more and more clear that the proper meaning of the word is “large.” Because Pépin was a larger-than-life figure, a man who ruled Francia in part or in whole for nearly three and a half decades through legitimacy gained by the force of his will. He was the physical embodiment of two great houses, the Pippinids and the Arnulfids, coming together, and during his time in power he transcended the reigns of five kings: Dagobert II, Theuderic III, Clovis IV, Childebert III and Dagobert III. As this show purports to be a history of France, as seen from the eyes of her Kings and Queens, well, the eyes of the monarchy at this time were pretty much glued to Pépin and doing his bidding. He was the king in all but name.
So, headed back into today’s opening story, we’re moving past all of the discussions of how Pépin came to power and how he expanded his authority and lands, and now we’re looking at how he stabilized his family and legacy. For what it’s worth, he didn’t stray far from the established way of doing things: he had children, of which only the sons seem to merit attention in the histories (although it’s entirely possible, and even likely, that he had daughters as well and they were simply given short shrift). When he outlived the child-bearing years of his first wife, he simply got a second. Both of these women appear to have been political matches as well as love matches. As to Plectrude, Dutch historian Wolfert van Egmond tells us the following:
“Plectrudis came from a noble family that owned land in the Eifel and near Cologne. In the Frankish kingdom of Austrasia, her family was certainly as distinguished as the Arnulfing/Pippinid family to which her husband belonged. Thanks to her support for Willibrord’s work and her determined behaviour after the death of her husband, we know more about Plectrudis than about most of her female contemporaries. In all probability Plectrudis was of royal blood. There is a text referring to one Plectrudis… who was related to the Merovingian royal house. If this identification is correct, Plectrudis would have brought to her marriage not only extensive lands but also blood royal.”
Now that’s a strong marriage for a guy who basically wants to be the king-not-the-king. It also would have been a helpful argument for later generations of Carolingians to attempt to establish their legitimacy as rulers with a royal bloodline if either of Plectrude’s boys had been the one to ultimately capture the family’s claim into the the French monarchy. Unfortunately, just as we described in the opener, neither would get that chance, and this means that Alpaida, Pépin’s second wife, would get that honor. And before I move on to her biography, I just want to point out that this whole situation reminds me on multiple levels of Brunhilda and Fredegunda. The echoes of that past rivalry seem to come up again and again; in this case, just like Fredegunda, Alpaida would be the second wife and the one whom the monarchical genetic line would ultimately flow through. So, who was Alpaida and why, besides Plectrude’s age and likely inability to bear more children, did Pépin choose her?
Well, no matter which side of the debate historians seem to fall on, everyone seems to agree that Alpaida was charming and pretty; this makes sense, as Pépin could have chosen almost anyone at this point. And some histories, especially those that wished to downplay the importance and the legitimacy of the Carolingians in subsequent years, were happy to stop at this in their exploration of this woman. They call her a concubine, either as a slight or as a disavowal of the practice of polygamy. This confusion over her status is evident in de Mezéray’s 17th century discussion about her: “Pepin, besides his Wife Plectrude, who was already old, had taken a Concubine, or if you will a lawful Wife; for the French, notwithstanding the sacred Canons and the Prohibitions of the Church, repudiated their Wives when they pleased, and Wedded others. The Kings themselves, according to the ancient Custom of the Germans, had often many at one time. This same was called Alpaide.”
Stories such as these, however, don’t seem to do a very good job of getting to the truth of the matter in this case; rather, they seem better at applying the moral sentiments of their own time to the history being covered. So what did a more contemporary portrayal of Alpaida have to say? Well, according to Fredegar, “Pépin took another wife, noble and beautiful, named Alpaïde, with whom he had a son that he named in his own language Charles; this child grew strong and well-made, and became illustrious.” If we accept this source (and Fredegar is much closer, time-wise, than any other), then we’re left with the impression that a) Pépin and Alpaida were properly married, making her more than a simple mistress or concubine; b) it was a much less dramatic matter at the time of the marriage than other histories let on, accounting for just a single line in Fredegar; and c) Alpaida was considered “noble” by her contemporaries. This last could be a simple adjective to describe her overall bearing, but it very well could describe her bloodline as well. According to Christian Settipani, citing Paul Fouracre and others, “Alpaida would have thus belonged to a powerful lineage, a vassal of the Pippinids.” Further in the text he notes we can thus, “accept the notice of Childebrand on the nobility of Apalaide, conceding then that this noble woman was without doubt from the highest rungs of society, comparable to that of the first families of the aristocracy.” The name Childebrand, in case your wondering where that came from, was the name of Alpaida’s second son. As the naming convention of this time was to name children after their grandparents or someone in that second generation (hence the recurrence of names such as Dagobert, Clovis, and Grimoald), we can note that Childebrand, an uncommon name, very well could have derived from one of Alpaida’s relatives. Childebrand the Older was noted as having been a dignitary and witness to the founding of a monastery in Bruyères-le-Châtel, all of which lends credence to the idea that Alpaida was from a decent - and probably aristocratic - family. When we discount the statements of historians who likely had an axe to grind against the Carolingians or who simply didn’t like polygamy - or both - the weight of the evidence falls toward Alpaida having been more than a concubine, a wanton distraction, for Duke Pépin.
With all of that said, however, it didn’t really seem to matter all that much to Plectrude what Alpaida’s family lineage was. Given the length of time that these two women co-existed, they likely simply kept to themselves and found ways to make the situation work while Pépin was alive. And this was a long length of time; Alpaida gave birth to Charles in 688, and Pépin didn’t die until 714. This means that more than a quarter of a century passed with Plectrude and Alpaida living as sister-wives! Once Pépin was gone, however, there was simply no way Plectrude was going to let her husband’s upstart second wife get control of the kingdom without a fight. She had enough political power to have Charles, now in his mid-20s, thrown into prison while she attempted to consolidate power behind her grandson Theodobald, a boy still in his single digits. But let’s be realistic: here we see a woman in her mid-70s trying to rally a force behind a child. Brunhilda had been able to pull this off over a century earlier, but she also had a ton more experience when she was doing this; it wasn’t her first rodeo. And even at that, even Brunhilda hadn’t been able to do it indefinitely; the end result was horrifically bad.
So we see Plectrude eventually unable to carry her plan to fruition; the nobles of Neustria simply were not interested in having a woman ruling above them, and Plectrude had none of the experience or political networks required to convince them otherwise. In short order she saw one of her nobles, Odo of Aquitaine, declare himself independent, while in Neustria the nobility named one of their own, Ragenfrid, as Mayor of the Palace. The Neustrians scattered the forces of Theodobald and Plectrude at Cuise Forest in Compiègne, and that was more or less the end for the Austrasian army under Plectrude’s leadership. On top of all of these other setbacks, Ragenfrid made an alliance with Redbad, the duke of Frisia noted in our last episode who had lost so much against the Franks. Generally speaking Redbad had avoided war against Pépin, but it should be noted that Grimoald, Pépin’s heir, was assassinated by a Frisian. This can’t be traced directly to Redbad, but it ended up being pretty convenient, politically, for the Frisian leader and as such I wouldn’t personally rule out Grimoald’s death as an assassination ordered by his father-in-law. Oh, did I forget to mention that? You see, Redbad had made an alliance with Pépin’s Franks by marrying his daughter to Grimoald. With no Pépin, no Grimoald, and no marriage ties to hold him back, Redbad had much more room to maneuver.
This was the situation in late 715. Austrasia, the center of power that had for so long dominated the region, was now exposed and vulnerable in a way that it had rarely ever been. The region’s enemies were going to exploit this, and it was with this in mind that Charles was finally set free from the prison in which he had been held. He was promptly acclaimed Mayor of the Palace of Austrasia and given the task of stopping the bleeding, both literally and figuratively, that had come about in the wake of his father’s death and his stepmom’s failed power grab. He was 27-years-old, relatively untested as a leader, his army had been grossly mismanaged and sent into disarray right before he was let out of prison to lead them, and he had forces approaching from both sides who were looking to destroy and dominate the Austrasians once and for all.
What could possibly go wrong?
CONCLUSION: Alright, we’re going to leave it there and end on a cliffhanger! Charles is left scrambling, Plectrude has holed herself up in her capital of Cologne, and the enemy is coming fast. And while all of this was going on, in the middle of this entire time frame down on the Iberian Peninsula, things were starting to go from bad to apocalyptic for the Visigoths: in 711, Umayyad raids from the North African coast were followed by the arrival of a much larger force, and soon there were 12,000 uncontested Arab fighters slashing their way through Hispania. Each successive victory they enjoyed highlighted the weakness of the Visigoths, and the Umayyads had every reason to believe that all of the people of the north, of Europe, would be just as open to raids, capture and plunder. The Franks didn’t know it at this moment, but one of the most significant battles of all time was coming their way, and instead of getting ready for the assault, they were fighting with each other.
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. Also be sure to swing on over to Listenable.io and check out the courses and lessons they have on offer; the T+M course, “History of the Merovingians (451-613)” is available for listening right now, and if you click here you’ll be able to give Listenable a try for free for seven days and also receive a 30% discount. It’s a great app and I’m pretty proud of the course we developed, plus, your taking part is another way in which you can help this show, so click the link to give Listenable a try. Moving on... 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 the site as we’ve given it a ton of updates this week, 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 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 have all sorts of photos loaded, to include even a photo of yours truly, in case you’ve ever wondered what this silky-smooth voice looks like in person. You can also catch all of these pics on the T+M website. Finally, we do love to get reviews, so if you’ve enjoyed listening then we’d love for you to commit that to words. We appreciate all of the ways you help us out, big and small, and as always, we appreciate you!
Okay, once again, my name is Benjamin Bernier. We look forward to seeing you in just one week as we team up with our friend Kristin over at The History Cache to provide you with a little Memorial Day/Bank Holiday surprise, in the next episode of Thugs and Miracles.