Sometime after the year 500, a Burgundian warlord named Gundobad besieged his own brother in the city of Vienne, France. The trapped brother, whose name was Godigisel, should have known not to let his guard down. After all, in the years before 500, Gundobad had already killed at least one brother, a certain Chilperic. Another sibling, Gundomar, had by then also mysteriously disappeared from the historical record.
The dislike and distrust between the brothers Gundobad and Godigisel was mutual—on the aforementioned date of 500, King Clovis of the Franks entered Burgundy on invitation and fought alongside Godigisel against the forces of Gundobad. The Franks pressed Gundobad into a defensive position, and the battered warlord eventually bunkered down in the fortified city of Avignon. The defenses of the city, however, were stout enough that Clovis decided to accept a promise of tribute from Gundobad in exchange for withdrawing Frankish forces from Burgundy, thereby leaving Godigisel alone with an incredibly angry brother.
Gundobad had been in continuous civil war with his brothers, even before the intervention of King Clovis. Yet, Godigisel’s invitation for the Franks to invade Burgundy brought Gundobad’s bloodlust to a new height. As soon as he recovered from Clovis’ foray into Burgundian politics, Gundobad mobilized his army and marched against his brother. Godigisel must not have employed competent scouts and informants, because Gundobad apparently had little trouble cornering his brother in the city of Vienne. Despite being caught off guard, Godigisel apparently had a sizable garrison in the city. After assessing the situation, Gundobad decided not to assault the city. Instead, he settled down for a siege, content with starving his brother into submission until a better opportunity appeared.
The siege of Vienne reportedly was lengthy. According to Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), the city of Vienne began to run out of food, so Godigisel forced all noncombatants to abandon the city. This move would have dire consequences—among the people forced to leave was a disgruntled engineer. For whatever reason, the engineer was angry at Godigisel and decided to help Gundobad’s forces enter Vienne. One of the traitor’s jobs as an engineer was to work on Vienne’s aqueduct system. He told Gundobad that a small force could covertly make their way into the city through the waterways. The king decided the scheme was worth trying and began planning his next assault on the city.
According to Gregory of Tours, Gundobad attacked Vienne from outside the walls, drawing the attention of the defenders toward the siege camps. While the gaze of defending forces was focused on the army outside, an elite group of warriors followed the engineer’s directions to navigate their way through the aqueduct system, using crowbars to pry away any obstacles in their path. The covert group successfully made their way into Vienne and broke free of the aqueduct. Finally, they sabotaged the city’s gate and signaled for the besieging army to charge. Gundobad’s forces broke open the gate with ease and took control of the town. According to tradition, Godigisel was found and slain inside of a local church. With his capture of Vienne and the death of his brother, Gundobad became the sole king of Burgundy and ruled until his death in 516.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Lid of the Franks/Auzon Casket, photographed by Wilhelm Viëtor (c. 1901), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.