Theudebert I was the son and heir of King Theuderic I (r. 511-534), ruler of one-third of the Frankish Empire. Theuderic arranged a betrothal between his son, Theudebert, and a Longobard princess named Wisigard—daughter of King Wacho, an early 6th-century king of the Longobards. The betrothal, however, never progressed to marriage during Theuderic’s lifetime. While campaigning against Visigoths in the south of France, Theudebert, met a woman named Deuteria in the fortified town of Cabriéres. It was apparently love at first sight for Theudebert. Despite his ongoing betrothal to Wisigard, the Frankish prince brought Deuteria home and she became his consort for several years.
Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), the main source for information on the relationship between Theudebert and Deuteria, was extremely disapproving of the impromptu match. Perhaps, as a clergyman, the bishop disapproved of the disregard that Theudebert showed for his holy betrothal between royal families. If that was not enough, Gregory of Tours also claimed that Deuteria was a widow, a divorcee, or possibly a runaway wife. Whatever the case, Gregory regarded the affair as improper and painted Deuteria as a seductress and a villain.
According to the chronology presented by Gregory of Tours, by the time King Theuderic died in 534, his son, Theudebert, had been together with Deuteria long enough for a daughter to be born from their affair (whose name unfortunately was not mentioned by Gregory). Upon hearing of his father’s death, Theudebert momentarily left Deuteria so he could fight against his power-hungry uncles, Chlotar and Childebert, for his inheritance of one-third of the Frankish Empire. After he succeeded in claiming his kingdom, King Theudebert (r. 534-548) retrieved Deuteria and made her his queen. After they were officially married, the couple had another child, a son named Theudebald.
In the late 530s, tragedy stuck Theudebert and Deuteria. Their unnamed young daughter suffered a sudden and bizarre death. According to Gregory of Tours, the incident occurred near the city of Verdun, where a bridge allowed for travelers to safely cross over a river. According to the story, the young princess was riding in a carriage over that bridge when something spooked the animals that were pulling the vehicle. None of the guards or attendants were able to get the animals back under control and the carriage plummeted off the bridge into the river below. By the time any rescuers could reach the sinking wreck, the king and queen’s young daughter had already drowned. As sometimes happens after the death of a child, the king and queen suffered emotional stress and eventually separated following their daughter’s passing.
Gregory of Tours embellished the story with some peculiar additions. He claimed that the princess’ carriage had been pulled by untamed bulls and that it had not been a tragic accident, but a horrific premeditated murder. Furthermore, he accused the princess’ own mother, Deuteria, of being the mastermind of the plot. As for the queen’s motive, Gregory incredibly wrote that the murder was perpetrated because she feared that King Theudebert would be more sexually attracted to the young princess than to herself. This is an odd motivation, as (incest aside) the princess would have certainly been less than ten years old at the time. After all, the separation of the king and Deuteria reportedly occurred only seven years after the date of the betrothal agreement between Theudebert and the Longobard princess, Wisigard, which was arranged before Theudebert ever met Deuteria or had a child.
Whatever the truth of their daughter’s death, Theudebert and Deuteria did indeed separate soon after the tragic incident occurred. Eventually, Theudebert made good on his delayed betrothal and married the long-waiting Wisigard. Yet, tragedy struck again and Wisigard quickly fell ill and reportedly died around the year 540. Although Deuteria was still alive, and her son, Theudebald, was her ex-husband’s heir, she and King Theuderic never rekindled their relationship.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (The Ox Cart by Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), mixed with figures by Albert Kretschmer c. 1882, both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.