In 583, there were three Merovingian kings of the Frankish Empire. Brothers Chilperic and Guntram, as well as their nephew Childebert II, divided the lands of the Franks amongst themselves. In that year, Guntram, often the peacemaker between his fellow Merovingian monarchs, found himself to be the target of his kinsmen’s schemes. Chilperic and Childebert II worked together and planned to both attack King Guntram’s domain from different directions. Chilperic was impatient, however, and launched his invasion before Childebert’s army was ready to start its own attack. Therefore Guntram had the fortune of being able to face each of his kinsmen’s armies separately. In fact, when Chilperic launched his invasion, Childebert’s own invasion force was neither logistically or mentally ready to march, giving King Guntram ample time to deal with his brother’s lone army.
Even though Chilperic’s attack against Guntram was not coordinated well with his ally, the attack still caught King Guntram off guard, and Chilperic was able to do considerable damage before Guntram could pull together his army. Chilperic’s attack focused on the region around Bourges, and the invading army did indeed defeat the local garrison there in battle and besieged the city of Bourges. According to the bishop and historian, Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), “The devastation there was greater than anything described in ancient times: not a house remained standing, not a vineyard, not an orchard; everything was razed to the ground and utterly ruined” (History of the Franks, VI.31).
Yet, while Chilperic’s forces looted and pillaged Bourges, King Guntram was able to cobble together a formidable force and began his march to confront his marauding brother. Chilperic, despite his early success, found himself completely underprepared for a full-scale battle against an army greater than a local garrison. Guntram was said to have intercepted and attacked Chilperic’s forces on a late afternoon, and through sound strategy or sheer shock, he delivered a massive blow to the invaders. The aforementioned Gregory of Tours commented on the battle, saying “One day, just as the evening shadows were falling, he ordered his forces to make contact and he destroyed the greater part of Chilperic’s army” (History of the Franks, VI.31). After this victory, Guntram did not press the attack, but instead opened up negotiations with Chilperic. Sometime the next morning, the two brothers came to a peace agreement and pledged to resolve their land disputes with diplomacy. With the negotiations concluded, both armies went on their way. Meanwhile, Childebert II had still not launched his own invasion by this time, and now that Chilperic had been defeated, Childebert decided to delay his own attack indefinitely.
Unfortunately for King Guntram, Chilperic’s troops were sore losers. Although they agreed to withdraw, they apparently decided to do as much damage as possible as they left. Chilperic reportedly executed several of his unruly noblemen for the inordinate amount of looting, but such selective punitive measures did not stop the various sections of his army from devastating the land as they retreated. Gregory of Tours vividly described the destruction sewn by Chilperic’s troops as they sulked away from Guntram’s kingdom:
“When the troops who were besieging Bourges received the order to withdraw and return home, they stole so much booty that, as they evacuated it, the entire region seemed empty of inhabitants and cattle. As they passed through the Tours area, the men led by Desiderius and Bladast set fire to everything, stole everything that they could lay their hands on, and murdered the inhabitants out of hand, just as if they were in an enemy country” (History of the Franks, VI.31).
Despite the destruction, the peace between the brother monarchs held, allowing King Guntram to focus his efforts on his still-hostile nephew, Childebert II. Utilizing diplomacy, Guntram was able to make peace with Childebert II by giving him the city of Marseilles in 584, the same year in which King Chilperic was assassinated.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Rioters pillaging a house in Paris from BL Royal 20 C VII, f. 41v, dated to 1380-1400, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.