The Costly Miscalculation Of King Chilperic I At The Start Of His Reign


From 558-561, the empire of the Franks was united under King Chlotar I. Before that time, Chlotar (also spelled Chlothar and Lothar) had precariously ruled in conjunction with his brothers. There was tension and intrigue during their joint reign, of course, but open civil war between the brothers was admirably infrequent. Chlotar outlived his three sibling co-kings, all fathered by the famous King Clovis (d. 511), and also outlived the sons of his late brothers. Therefore, the only legitimate heirs to the Frankish Empire were from Chlotar’s line. When King Chlotar died in 561, history repeated itself—the Empire of the Franks was divided between four of Chlotar’s sons. Chilperic (ruling from Soissons) and Sigebert (ruling from Rheims) were two of these new kings. Yet, unlike the previous generation of co-monarchs, Chilperic and Sigebert could not quarantine their political maneuvering only to the shadows.

The Avars, tempted by the drama of succession, raided the empire of the Franks in 562. According to Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), King Sigebert was the only brother who raised his forces to stop the warriors of the Avar confederation. Chilperic, too, mobilized an army, yet his forces were not gathered to defend the empire against foreign invaders. Quite the opposite, Chilperic reportedly took advantage of the distraction caused by the Avars and invaded his brother’s undefended domain. While the responsible King Sigebert was battling with the Avars, Chilperic seized several of his brother’s cities and even threatened Sigibert’s seat of power at Rheims.

The Avars, however, did not cause as much chaos as Chilperic had hoped. According to Gregory of Tours, Sigebert was able to halt the progress of the Avars in a single battle and quickly brokered a peace with the invaders. With the foreign threat withdrawing, Sigebert was able to turn his attention back to defending his kingdom against Chilperic’s encroachment.

Marching home from the front lines, Sigebert launched a well-executed military campaign against his brother. In Gregory of Tour’s account of the war, Sigebert began his counterattack with a bold move—he besieged and occupied Chilperic’s capital city of Soissons. In addition to the capital city, Sigebert also captured Chilperic’s son, Theudebert, during the siege. After taking Soissons, Sigebert apparently loitered in his brother’s territory until Chilperic appeared. The armies of the two siblings clashed in an unknown location, but Sigebert emerged as the clear winner. According to Gregory of Tours, it was only after Sigebert occupied Soissons and defeated Chilperic in battle, that the victorious king returned to his own domain and reclaimed the cities that his brother had seized.

 With his land back under his control and his brother’s army weakened, Sigibert brokered a truce with Chilperic. Gregory of Tours was not clear on the terms of the agreement, but one condition was that Chilperic’s son, Theudebert, would remain as Sigebert’s hostage for the span of a year. Theudebert’s captivity was relatively luxurious—his prison was the villa of Ponthion, after all. Yet, it was a prison, all the same. When the allotted year was over, Sigebert released Theudebert, and, according to Gregory of Tours, he even gave Theudebert many gifts before the prince departed for home. Unfortunately, the conflict between Sigebert and Chilperic was not over. In fact, the mutual loathing between the two (and their families) would only increase, eventually becoming one of the most infamous feuds that occurred during the reign of the Merovingian Dynasty.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Portrait of King Chilperic I, by Atala Stamaty and Madame Augustin Varcollier (1803-1885), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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