King Guntram of Orleans and Burgundy (r. 561-593) was one of four brothers who partitioned the empire of the Franks after the death of their father, King Chlotar (r. 511-661). Guntram’s generation was prone to sibling rivalry and civil war, and although Guntram was arguably the most pacifistic of his brothers, he often joined his brothers’ wars on one side or the other, presumably intending, through his campaigns, to keep balance among the co-kings. He was also known to shelter royals who were in danger, including his young nephew Childebert II (r. 575-595) and his formidable sister-in-law, Queen Fredegund. Yet, although Guntram was one of the more peaceable monarchs of his age and was eventually considered a saint, he definitely had a ruthless side.
Two unfortunate in-laws of Guntram were unlucky enough to run afoul of the saint-king’s darker side. They were Guntio and Wiolich, the brothers of Guntram’s second wife, Marcatrude. By the time they married, both the husband and the wife had one son each from previous relationships. We know that Guntram’s son was called Gundobad, but Marcatrude’s child was unfortunately left unnamed by our sources. Their marriage, sadly, was plagued with tragedy. Their children from previous relationships did not live long—both Gundobad and his step-sibling died soon after Guntram and Marcatrude were married. Grief drove the couple apart and rumors began to circulate around Guntram’s court that Marcatrude may have had a hand in young Gundobad’s death. Whether or not Guntram believed the rumors, the deaths of the children became a turning point in his marriage to Marcatrude. The royal couple was not able to rekindle their relationship, and Guntram ultimately expelled Marcatrude from his life.
Marcatrude did not fare well after her dismissal from the king’s court, and she met an early death from unknown causes. Her brothers, Guntio and Wiolich, apparently blamed Guntram for their sister’s premature end, be it from foul play or emotional distress, and they held a grudge against the king for the rest of their lives. Bad blood was further stoked when Guntram subsequently married Austrechild, a servant who worked on Marcatrude’s family estate. By marrying Guntram, Austrechild also drew the ire of Guntio and Wiolich. The brothers of Marcatrude were apparently very vocal in their complaints about Guntrum’s poor treatment of their sister, and also bemoaned the impropriety of the king marrying a servant. Despite the tensions, the estranged former in-laws were able to co-exist for years, as Guntram’s two sons with Austrechild (Lothar and Chlodomer) were born while Guntio and Wiolich were still alive. As with Austrechild, the brothers of Marcatrude added young Lothar and Chlodomer to the list of people that they publicly criticized.
The feud between Guntram and his estranged former in-laws eventually came to a bloody end. The trigger for the confrontation may have been the death of Marcatrude’s father, Magnachar, whose assets would have been inherited by Guntio and Wiolich. Sensing an opportunity to appropriate wealth and rid himself of annoying adversaries in one fell swoop, the king had Guntio and Wiolich imprisoned for slander against the royal family and promptly had them executed. On this event, Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594) wrote, “King Guntram killed the two sons of Magnachar, who himself had died some time before. His excuse was that they had made hateful and abominable remarks about Queen Austrechild and her children. He seized their possessions and added them to the royal treasury” (History of the Franks, V.17). Gregory, who generally admired Guntram, seemed to have thought that this was an unjust act. Gregory of Tours ended his paragraph by stating that both of Guntram’s sons by Austrechild died suddenly of dysentery in 577, a tragic event which Gregory hinted could have been divine retribution for the wrongful executions of Guntio and Wiolich.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Henry I from Chroniques de France ou de St Denis (BL Royal 16 G VI, f. 286), [Public Domain] via picryl.com and Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.