Queen Clotilde was no stranger to political intrigue and bloodshed, even before she married King Clovis (r. 481-511/513), the warlord who spread Frankish power to encompass most of France. Before becoming queen of the Franks, Clotilde was a princess of Burgundy. She was the granddaughter of King Gundioc of the Burgundians. Upon the old Burgundian ruler’s death, the lands of Burgundy were split between Gundioc’s four sons: Chilperic (Clotilde’s father), Gundomar, Godigisel and Gundobad. Such inheritance practices were fairly common at the time, and old King Gundioc likely knew there would be some inevitable political tension between the brothers. Yet, he might have changed his mind if he could have foreseen just how bloody the conflict between the brothers would become.
The relationship between the rival brothers in Burgundy was hostile, to say the least. By the time Clotilde had married Clovis in 493, she was already orphaned by the savage intrigue of Burgundian politics. In a ruthless power grab, Clotilde’s uncle, Gundobad, killed Clotilde’s mother and father. Chilperic, Clotilde’s father, was apparently killed or executed in a way too common to be worth recording in detail. Clotilda’s mother, however, was reportedly attached to a heavy stone and then left to drown in a river. Unfortunately, Chipleric was not the only son of Gundioc to be knocked out of politics early—his brother, Gundomar, also fell from prominence. Gundomar’s fate is uncertain, but his brothers had absorbed his lands before the beginning of the 6th century.
By the year 500, only two of the original four sons of Gundioc remained—Gundobad and Godigisel—and the warfare between brothers was still ongoing. That year, Clotilde’s husband, Clovis, was pulled into the war between her Burgundian uncles. Godigisel allegedly promised to pay tribute to King Clovis if the Franks would help him kill Gundobad. Clovis accepted the offer and marched his troops to the vicinity of Dijon, arranging his forces near the Ouche River, where he and Godigisel launched a surprise attack on Gundobad. The startled brother reportedly lost a significant amount of soldiers in the assault, but he was able to withdraw to the city of Avignon. After the battle near the Ouche River, Godigisel returned home. Clovis and the Franks, however, continued in their pursuit of Gundobad all the way to the stronghold of Avignon. There, Gundobad put up such a stout resistance that Clovis eventually agreed to withdraw from Burgundy in exchange for a promise of annual tribute payments (a promise that Gundobad reportedly had no intention to keep).
After the Franks withdrew, it was not long before Gundobad recovered his military strength, and began plotting against his brother with renewed energy. He had killed a brother at least once before, and now he was irate enough to slay another. Gundobad mustered his forces and besieged his last remaining brother in the city of Vienne, France. Before long, he forced his way into the city and sent his troops scouring the streets and structures for signs of his brother. As the story goes, Godigisel was found and slaughtered in a local church.
With the death of Godigisel, the whole of Burgundy was claimed by King Gundobad, who continued to rule until his death in 516. Ironically, even though he killed at least two of his own brothers, he gained a reputation as a lawgiver, developing two codes of law for his kingdom—the Lex Gundobada and the Lex Romana Burgundionum. He also curiously followed the example of his niece, Clotilde, and converted (albeit covertly) to the Roman version of Christianity, as opposed to the Arian interpretation (non-Trinitarian) that was popular among many Frankish, Goth and Burgundian people during his time. Gundobad’s laws and acceptance of the Roman orthodoxy led many contemporary clergymen to forgive his bloody path to power. The king even became a close acquaintance of Saint Avitus.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Image from “History of France from the reign of Clovis, 481 A.D., to the signing of the armistice, November, 1918” (1919), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and Flickr).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.