The Dramatic Downfall of Bishop Praetextatus Of Rouen


Praetextatus reportedly became the bishop of Rouen around 544. In his early years in office, he apparently was able to stay out of the limelight. Yet, by the 570s, Praetextatus began to dabble in the bloody Merovingian politics of the Frankish empire. Although the bishop had a network of supporters in Rouen and the church, his meddling in the affairs of the nobles would eventually leave him publicly criticized, exiled, and ultimately assassinated.

The downfall of Praetextatus began innocently enough—with him performing a royal marriage around 576. Medieval weddings could often be politically and genealogically complicated, but that particular wedding raised some eyebrows even among those living in the 6th century. The groom was Merovech, the son of King Chilperic of the Franks (r. 561-584) and the late Queen Audovera—the first of three women that King Chilperic would marry during his lifetime. After Audovera was set aside (and reportedly killed), Chilperic married a Visigothic princess named Galswintha. This woman, however, was soon murdered and Chilperic immediately married a mistress named Fredegund. Galswintha’s cruel death, however, set the different branches of the Merovingian Dynasty into decades of feuds. As it happened, Galswintha had a sister named Brunhild, who was married to King Sigebert, a brother of Chilperic. The brothers went to war and Sigebert was seemingly on the winning side. Yet, the balance of power suddenly shifted in 575, when Sigebert was assassinated, reportedly on the orders of Chilperic and Fredegund. While this tale may seem like a long digression from the marriage later overseen by Bishop Praetextatus, the relevance of the story will soon be made clear.

Brunhild’s young son, Childebert II, succeeded his father as a king of the Franks, and his position was supported by another Merovingian co-king of the day, Guntram (r. 561-593), who was Chilperic’s brother and Childebert’s uncle. Although Childebert II was able to escape the machinations of Chilperic and Fredegund, his mother Brunhild had less luck, as she was captured by Chilperic and banished to the city of Rouen. There, however, the widowed queen dowager met the unlikeliest suitor—her nephew Merovech, the rebellious son of King Chilperic. To bring the narrative full circle, it was Bishop Praetextatus of Rouen who oversaw the marriage of this odd couple in 576. When Chilperic heard of his son’s union with Brunhild, he promptly disputed the marriage and separated the couple. From that time on, Chilperic questioned the loyalty of his son, as well as that of Bishop Praetextatus. Merovech would spend the rest of his life trying to flee from his father’s influence and apparently wanted to reunite with Brunhild at her new base of power in Austrasia.

In 577, Chilperic and Fredegund turned their wrath on Bishop Praetextatus. The bishop already angered the powerful couple when he performed the marriage of Merovech and Brunhild. In addition, rumors began to spread that Praetextatus had been also guarding bundles of treasure belonging to the newlyweds. Chilperic wanted the valuables for himself, but the bishop had reportedly smuggled around three-fifths of the treasure to the court of Brunhild in Austrasia before the king was tipped off. Bishop Praetextatus was further accused of using the remaining two-fifths of the treasure left behind in his city to fund a bribery operation meant to support Merovech and undermine Chilperic.

When all of this was made known to Chilperic, he convened a council of bishops in Paris and asked them to judge Praetextatus, urging that the man be stripped of his bishopric and sent into exile. Among the bishops was Gregory of Tours, who wrote of the trial in his text, The History of the Franks. Praetextatus apparently had very few friends among the judges. Gregory of Tours claimed that he was the only bishop in the group to speak in defense of Praetextatus, yet he also claimed that he would not personally go against church law and precedent for Praetextatus’ sake. Despite these poor odds, Bishop Praetextatus apparently prepared an effective defense and had the initial advantage during the trial. With the tide turning, Chilperic and Fredegund reportedly began using other means to sway the judges—Gregory claimed that the king used threats and the queen tried bribery. In the end, Bishop Praetextatus publicly confessed to using Brunhild’s money to harm Chilperic’s interests. Praetextatus was subsequently removed from his bishopric and sent into exile on an island somewhere near Coutances. Although it is plausible that Bishop Praetextatus was guilty of what he confessed, Gregory of Tours claimed that the bishop only made his confession after being given false assurances of a pardon.

Praetextatus got off easy compared to the rest of Merovech’s faction. Chilperic’s wayward son was trapped by his father’s forces in 578. With no options for escape, Merovech apparently chose death instead of letting himself be captured.  His friends and companions, unfortunately, faced a much worse fate—mutilation, torture, and execution were among the punishments they suffered. Yet, as so many proverbs stress, those who live by the sword die by the sword. King Chilperic, too, met with a violent death in 584, when he was struck down by an assassin at Chelles.

When news of Chilperic’s death reached Praetextatus, the exiled clergyman returned to Rouen, where the locals welcomed him back with open arms and proclaimed him to be their bishop once more. Praetextatus then went to Paris to meet with King Guntram, seeking to gain royal support for his reappointment to the bishopric. Ironically, the widowed Fredegund and her young son, Chlotar II, were also in Paris, where they were being sheltered from the faction of Brunhild. When Fredegund learned that Praetextatus had returned from exile and was attempting to regain his bishopric, she tried to sabotage his plans. Yet, King Guntram decided that the years of exile were enough penance and he approved of Praetextatus’ reappointment to the bishopric of Rouen.

Unfortunately for Praetextatus, King Guntram sent Fredegund and her supporters to live at a manor near Rouen. The two were able to co-exist for a time, but they were known to get into arguments. Fredegund would apparently tell Praetextatus to enjoy his bishopric while it lasted, for she or her son would eventually send him back into exile. The bishop, for his part, would reportedly retort on such occasions that Fredegund’s political heyday was over and that she would be better to focus on her spiritual needs and motherhood. One such comment from the bishop was said to have particularly enraged Fredegund, ending the working relationship between the two figures forever. On February 24, 586, Bishop Praetextatus was reclining on a bench in his church when an assailant with a knife dealt the clergyman a fatal blow. Although mortally wounded, the bishop clung to life for several hours. Neither Praetextatus nor other clergymen in the church at the time could identify the assassin, but virtually everyone was said to have believed Fredegund was responsible for the killing. According to Gregory of Tours, Fredegund had the audacity to visit the wounded Bishop Praetextatus as he lay on his deathbed, which unsurprisingly caused quite a scene. Praetextatus reportedly told her, “as long as you live you will be accursed, for God will avenge my blood upon your head” (Gregory of Tours, History, Book VIII, section 31). The future did not play out quite as the bishop had hoped—Fredegund died peacefully in 597 and her son, Chlotar II, won the Merovingian family feud and executed the elderly Brunhild in 613.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Fredegund by the deathbed of Bishop Praetextatus, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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