The medieval Franks had a troublesome habit of dividing their empire between several related co-kings, often numbering four monarchs. This occurred after the death of King Clovis I in 511, when Theuderic, Chlodomer, Childebert, and Chlotar divided the empire. History repeated itself upon King Chlotar’s death in 561, at which time his sons, Charibert, Chilperic, Sigebert and Guntram similarly divided the empire of the Franks.
Although the sons of Chlotar adopted the same style of government as their predecessors, they did not follow the same code of conduct used by Chlotar’s generation. The sons of King Clovis usually kept their feuding to the shadows—they sent out bribes and assassins in endless schemes against each other, yet they seemed to hardly ever go to open war against each other. The sons of Chlotar, however, let their conflicts leak out of the shadows, battling not with diplomats and assassins, but with mobilized armies.
King Sigebert (based in Rheims) was one of the more embattled of Chlotar’s sons. By 566, his kingdom had been twice invaded by the Avars (in 562 and 566), and once by his brother, King Chilperic, who attacked simultaneously with the Avar invasion of 562. Although Sigebert fared remarkably well against the Avars and Chilperic in 562, the later Avar attack of 566 proved more challenging. Sigebert was reportedly captured and only secured peace for his kingdom by arranging a large ransom. It was not long after the Avar invasion, possibly in 566 or 567, that King Sigebert began making new military plans. For unknown reasons, Sigebert decided to launch an attack against the domain of his brother, Guntram. Perhaps, the campaign originated over a land dispute prompted by the death of their fellow co-king, Charibert, in 567. Maybe Sigebert hoped to boost the morale and prestige of his recently defeated kingdom by attacking Guntram, the most pacifistic of the kingly brothers. Whatever the case, Sigebert mobilized his forces and sent them to seize Arles, a city already claimed by King Guntram.
According to Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), Sigebert delegated leadership of the campaign to two of his vassals. One was Count Firminus of Clermont-Ferrand, who raised his own forces and others in the Auvergne region for the attack. The other military leader involved in Sigebert’s invasion was Audovarius, who raised a separate force and approached Arles from a different direction.
Guntram’s presence in Arles was apparently not very strong at the time of Sigebert’s attack, for Firminus and Audovarius reached the city with no resistance and Arles itself surrendered without a fight. Yet, Guntram, although he had been caught off guard, did not intend to relinquish the city to his brother. Instead, he raised his own forces and, after placing them under the command of a noble named Celsus, he sent off the army to reclaim Arles. During his march, Celsus made sure to wreak havoc in Sigebert’s lands—the highlight of which was his capture of Avignon. His target, however, remained Arles, so the army continued on with its march. When Celsus and his forces finally reached their destination, they found Count Firminus and Audovarius still inside the walls. With hostile forces holed up in the city, Celsus camped his army outside of Arles and settled in for a long siege. The siege, however, did not turn out to be as long as expected.
According to Gregory of Tours, the forces of King Guntram had on their side the support of the proverbial fifth column. Although Arles had been occupied by the army of King Sigebert, many of the city’s inhabitants were still loyal to Guntram. The loyalists reportedly could be found in all social classes of Arles, from the average townsfolk, to the city guard, and even the local bishop, Sabaudus. As told by Gregory of Tours, the most prominent members of this clandestine group of Guntram supporters were able to convince Count Firminus and Audoverius to lead their forces out of the city in an ambitious sortie against the besieging army. The resulting battle would become the decisive moment of the siege.
The forces of Sigebert charged out of the city against the besieging army, only to find that Celsus’ troops were prepared and more than a match for the impromptu assault. Realizing that the sortie was not going well, Firminus and Audoverius began retreating back to the city. Yet, according to Gregory of Tours, the pro-Guntram faction had by then reclaimed control of the city, barred the gates of Arles, and posted troops on the walls to attack any warriors of Sigibert’s army that dared to approach the city limits.
Now that Count Firminus and Audoverius found themselves caught between an enemy army and a hostile city, they reportedly ushered their forces to the Rhône River in a desperate bid to escape. In their hasty flight from the battlefield, Sigebert’s army left large amounts of gear, supplies and horses behind, and, during the crossing of the Rhône, many warriors shed off any heavy weapons and armor on their persons before plunging into the water. Firminus and Audoverius survived the fording of the river, yet others crossing the Rhône were not so fortunate. After the battle, Guntram and Sigebert soon came to peace. Avignon was returned to Sigebert and Arles remained in the possession of Guntram.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Painting of 9th century Franks, by Albert Kretschmer c. 1882, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.