Alboin became king of the Germanic Lombards in the first half of the 560s and, although he is less well known than the Franks and the Eastern Romans, Alboin was a major player in the late 6th century. Warfare would be the area in which this Lombard king excelled, but he also knew his way around diplomacy. Alboin managed to gain a prestigious marriage to the Frankish princess, Clothsind, daughter of King Chlotar (d. 561) of the Franks. He also was able to maintain a working relationship with the disruptive Avars.
The Lombards had a bitter rivalry with a people known as the Gepids, or Gepidae, who lived around the region of Hungary. In command of the Gepids at that time was a certain King Cunimund, who had the powerful, but unenthusiastic, support of the emperors of Constantinople. For convoluted and obscure reasons, war soon broke out between Alboin and Cunimund around 566. The conflict seems to have played out in two wars, or perhaps two phases of a single war. In the first war or phase, the Lombards gained an advantage against the Gepids, but the threat of an intervention from Emperor Justin II of Constantinople (r. 565-578) brought the two sides to a truce.
By this point, the Lombard king’s first wife, Clothsind, had died and a marriage between Alboin and Cunimund’s daughter, Rosamund, was floated as a means to keep the peace. Yet, the proposal was refused and Alboin may have even kidnapped Rosamund. The subsequent second phase, or second war, was much more destructive—King Alboin called in the Avars to assist him in the war, whereas the ineffective emperor, Justin II, provided little help to the Gepids. Whatever the actual reasons and timeline of the war, all accounts of the conflict between the Lombards and Gepids ended in the same bloody conclusion: King Cunimund was slain and his kingdom was conquered by 567. Sources differ on which army, the Lombards or the Avars, finally killed the king of the Gepids, but Alboin eventually obtained a gruesome souvenir from the person of the late King Cunimund. The 8th-century writer, Paul the Deacon, claimed it was the Lombards who dealt the fatal blow and wrote, “Alboin killed Cunimund, and made out of his head, which he carried off, a drinking goblet” (History of the Lombards, Book I, chapter 27). This skull goblet apparently became something of a Lombard national heirloom, for Paul the Deacon claimed to have seen it with his own eyes: “Lest this should seem impossible to anyone, I speak the truth in Christ. I saw king Ratchis holding this cup in his hand on a certain festal day to show it to his guests” (History of the Lombards, Book II, chapter 28).
With the Gepids defeated, Rosamund, the daughter of the slain king, fell into the hands of Alboin. Despite his killing of her father and turning his head into a cup, King Alboin made the questionable decision to force Rosamund to be his bride. Amazingly, the awkward newlyweds were able to coexist for several years—this was likely made easier by the distraction caused by the huge expedition that was undertaken by King Alboin and his people not long after the marriage. In 568, the Lombard king and his followers packed their bags and invaded Italy en masse. The forces of the aforementioned ineffective emperor, Justin II, were not prepared to face Alboin’s invasion, and, by 572, the Lombards had conquered much of Italy. The Lombard king settled his court in the city of Verona, and it was there that Rosamund finally reached her breaking point. Paul the Deacon described the alleged moment that threw the couple’s strained coexistence out of balance:
“While he [King Alboin] sat in merriment at a banquet at Verona longer than was proper, with the cup which he had made of the head of his father-in-law, king Cunimund, he ordered it to be given to the queen to drink wine, and he invited her to drink merrily with her father…. Then Rosemund, when she heard the thing, conceived in her heart deep anguish she could not restrain, and straightway she burned to revenge the death of her father by the murder of her husband, and presently she formed a plan with Helmechis who was the king’s squire” (History of the Lombards, Book II, chapter 28).
As the final line of the lengthy quote hints, Rosamund had some supporters and sympathizers in the court at Verona who were willing to conspire with her against the king. The sources differ on exactly which method she chose, but they all end in Alboin’s death. Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), in his History of the Franks, claimed that Rosamund and a servant gave the king a fatal dose of poison. Paul the Deacon, however, painted a more gruesome scene. According to Paul’s account, Rosamund sabotaged Alboin’s sword and let in an assassin while the king slept. Alboin, however, woke up before the assassin could strike. He grasped his sword, but, because of Rosamund’s sabotage, could not draw the blade from its sheath. Alboin then grabbed a foot-stool as a last resort and fended off the assassin’s attacks for a time before he was ultimately dealt a death blow and succumbed to the wound.
Although Gregory of Tours and Paul the Deacon disagreed on the method of Albion’s death, they both concurred that the king was indeed killed around 572 and that Rosamund was the ringleader of the conspiracy. Curiously, they also believed that Rosamund was romantically involved with one or more of her conspirators. According to Paul the Deacon, Rosamund and the aforementioned Helmechis were later married and attempted to lay claim to the kingdom of the Lombards. When this move was rejected by the Lombard nobles, Rosamund and her new husband fled to Ravenna—they brought with them Albusinda, a daughter of the late King Alboin by his first wife, and they also took as much of the Lombard treasury as they could carry. Their choice of Constantinople-controlled Ravenna as their sanctuary has led many scholars to believe that the assassination of King Alboin had imperial backing.
Unfortunately, Rosamund and Helmechis did not live happily ever after. Both Gregory of Tours and Paul the Deacon claimed that the two met unnatural ends, yet, as before, their accounts differed on the fine details of their demise. In Gregory’s telling of events, Rosamund and her accomplice were captured and executed by an unnamed foe, but the Lombards are inferred from the context the passage. Paul the Deacon, however, claimed that Rosamund and Helmechis eventually poisoned each other, and Constantinople seized Princess Albusinda and the Lombard treasury after their deaths.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Rosamund forced to drink from the skull of her father, by Pietro della Vecchia (1602 1603–1678), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.