Scholars have long debated the specific label for the marriage structure used by some of the kings of the Merovingian Dynasty. In his History of the Franks, Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594) accused several Merovingian kings of practicing polygyny, the act of keeping multiple wives at the same time. Yet, Gregory’s religious biases and motivations make many scholars hesitant to take his insinuations of morally controversial issues, such as polygyny, at face value, especially in regard to figures that did not meet Gregory’s approval. In cases of kings who were regarded as wicked, some believe Gregory may have compressed the timeline of events or introduced wives into the narrative earlier than is proper, so that the subjects of his history seemed all the more immoral. As such, some have re-categorized the multi-women relationships of the Merovingian kings as not polygyny, but concubinage or simply extra-marital affairs. Nomenclature aside, many of the Merovingian kings were indeed openly comfortable with having multiple intimate women in their lives.
One of the kings Gregory accused of being in a polygynous marriage was King Chlotar I (r. 511-561). During his lifetime, King Chlotar was said to have had at least five wives: Guntheuc, Radegund, Ingund, Aregund and Chunsina. Chlotar had affairs with other women, but only the five above were described as his wives in Gregory of Tours’ account. The king had no known children with Guntheuc or Radegund, but he did have eight offspring by his other three wives. Ingund had the most fruitful relationship with the king, and six of Chlotar’s eight children came from her alone. Chlotar’s marriage to Guntheuc (his brother’s widow) was short-lived and mainly for political and economic gain. His marriage to Radegund (c. 531 or 532) was similarly brief—she was a prisoner of war and abandoned him as quickly as possible to become a nun until her death in 587. As for Chunsina, very little information is known of her other than that she had one son with the king. Queens Ingund and Aregund, however, had a very unique relationship and it was allegedly Ingund who directed Chlotar to begin courting Aregund.
In a bawdy tale, Gregory of Tours claimed that Ingund had been married to Chlotar for a while when she suddenly made an interesting request of her husband. Ingund told Chlotar that she had a sister in the palace that was unmarried. Just as the king could reward the family of his favorite vassals with land and titles, Ingund hoped the king would award her sister with an honorable and prestigious marriage. As the story goes, the king agreed to look into the matter and began pondering over who would be a good match for Ingund’s sister. As King Chlotar was said to have been an incredibly lusty man, Gregory of Tours wrote a particularly lecherous quote for the king’s response to Ingund’s request. According to Gregory of Tours, Chlotar said “I have looked everywhere for a wealthy and wise husband whom I could marry to your sister, but I could find no one more eligible than myself.” (History of the Franks, Book IV, section 3). Queen Ingund, according to Gregory’s account, received this answer with surprising calm and she ultimately gave Chlotar her blessing to go marry the sister—Queen Aregund.
As can be expected, there is debate whether Ingund and Aregund were truly queens at the same time, or if Chlotar married Aregund only after Ingund’s death. Whatever the case, King Chlotar did indeed marry both of the sisters during his lifetime and they both bore him children.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Depiction of Chilperic I (543-97) and Fredegonde on Horseback, from the Grandes Chroniques de France, Fol.31r, c. 1375-79 (vellum). Bibliotheque Municipale, Castres, France, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.