(15th-century depiction of the marriage between King Sigebert I and Brunhild from the Grandes Chroniques de France, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
In 566 or 567, King Athanagild of the Visigoths gave his two daughters in marriage to two powerful Frankish kings who also happened to be brothers. One daughter, named Galswintha, was married to King Chilperic I of Neustria, whose lands consisted of much of northern France, excluding Brittany. Athanagild’s other daughter, Brunhild, married King Sigebert I of Austrasia, ruling a domain spanning (in modern terms) from eastern France into Belgium, the Netherlands and western Germany. When these marriages were cemented, neither the Frankish nor Visigothic kings could have guessed just how influential one of these two women would become. Brunhild would prove to be a powerful kingmaker for several generations of Frankish monarchs.
Once the sisters were married, the lives of the two Visigothic princesses differed greatly. As far as can be determined, Brunhild and King Sigebert got along well and the new queen of Austrasia gave birth to an heir named Childebert. In Neustria, however, Galswintha was faring far worse. From the start, King Chilperic favored a concubine named Fredegund much more than his wife. In 567 or 568, King Chilperic had Galswintha assassinated, possibly on the instigation of Fredegund.
Brunhild was, understandably, infuriated at the murder of her sister. In response, she and her husband, King Sigebert, moved to absorb for themselves the lands that Galswintha had brought with her into the Kingdom of Neustria as a result of her marriage to King Chilperic. Claiming that Chilperic had broken his marriage contract, King Sigebert seized the regions of Bordeaux, Limoges, Quercy, Béarn and Bigorre. Despite the two Frankish kings being brothers, the relationship between Chilperic and Sigebert deteriorated to a point where war was declared in the early 570s.
In 575, King Chilperic called on his assassins to, once again, kill a member of his family—this time the target was his sibling, King Sigebert. The plot was an utter success. King Sigebert was killed and Brunhild was captured. Yet, the queen of Austrasia’s career in medieval politics was far from over.
By 576, the imprisoned Brunhild had somehow managed to catch the eye of King Chilperic’s son, Merovech. Without permission, the two exchanged marriage vows. When King Chilperic heard of this development, he was furious. He quickly had the marriage annulled and shipped the widowed Brunhild back to Austrasia, where her son, the young Childebert, was crowned as the new king.
The nobility of Austrasia disliked Brunhild as much as Chilperic for her attempted marriage to Merovech. They considered a marriage between the widow of King Sigebert to a son of the king’s killer as a distasteful move, bordering on treason. As such, they isolated the child-king, Childebert, from Brunhild and raised him away from her influence. Nevertheless, when the boy reached fifteen years of age in 584, he must have still cared for his mother, for he allowed her to return to the royal court. Ironically, the same year that Brunhild made her return to power was the very year in which King Chilperic of Neustria died, leaving the crown for his son, Chlotar.
In less than a decade, the lands of Brunhild’s son, King Childebert, grew drastically. In addition to the domain of Austrasia, Childebert inherited the Kingdom of Burgundy after the death of his uncle in 592, spreading his domain deeply southward toward the Mediterranean Sea. With her son in an undeniably strong position, Brunhild seized the chance to dole out vengeance against the people who had wronged her. Brunhild’s purge targeted anyone, from commoner to clergy, dealing out punishments that included exile and execution.
Yet, with the early death of King Childebert in 595 or 596, the kingdoms of Austrasia and Burgundy were, once again, divided between two monarchs. The thrones passed to Childebert’s young children—Theodebert II inherited Austrasia and Theoderic II ruled Burgundy.
Brunhild’s fate rested with these two kings, her grandchildren. Unfortunately, when Theodebert II reached adulthood, the nobility in Austrasia convinced their young king to banish Brunhild from the realm. Although she was forced to leave Austrasia, Brunhild found shelter with her other grandson, Theoderic II, in the Kingdom of Burgundy.
Brunhild did not forget Theodebert II’s betrayal, and she did not let Theoderic in Burgundy forget her banishment, either. By 612, she convinced Theoderic to invade Austrasia and seize the kingdom from his brother. The conquest was a tremendous success—within the year Austrasia was captured and Theodebert II, and his heir, were both executed. Yet, Theoderic did not have long to enjoy (or be haunted by) his victory over his brother, for he also died a year later of dysentery.
Once again, Brunhild began to prop up a new Frankish king. This time, she proposed her great-grandson, Sigebert II, as the king of a united Burgundy-Austrasia. Unfortunately for Brunhild, the two kingdoms did not want to be united, and plots quickly formed against her in both realms.
It did not take long after the death of Theoderic II for Brunhild’s power to collapse. In 613, Brunhild (aged roughly between sixty and eighty years old), as well as her great-grandchildren, were betrayed and ultimately imprisoned by the King of Neustria. At that time, the Neustrian king was still Chlotar, Brunhild’s nephew. As the son of the late king, Chilperic, Chlotar remembered well all of the trouble that Brunhild had caused for Neustria. Therefore, he gave all of the prisoners a death sentence.
Sigebert II, along with his brother, were both executed. For Brunhild, however, death would not be so quick. Chlotar supposedly had her humiliated and tortured for three days before she was allowed to die. Yet, even then, she was not given a quick or respectable death. Instead, Brunhild was reportedly tied behind a horse or a camel and met her end by being dragged across rugged terrain until death ended her agony.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- Introduction to Medieval Europe, 300-1500 (Second Edition) by Wim Blockmans and Peter Hoppenbrouwers. New York: Routledge, 2014.