In the 6th century, the Frankish Empire was divided among several kings of the Merovingian Dynasty, all ruling at the same time. Sometimes, they would work together against neighboring powers. Yet, they also fought amongst themselves, and when they were not in open civil war, they plotted against each other from the shadows. King Guntram of Burgundy (r. 561-593) began his reign in partnership with three brothers, and all four of the siblings controlled portions of their late father’s empire. Of the three brothers with whom Guntram shared power, only one, King Charibert, was said to have met a natural death. His other two siblings, King Sigebert and King Chilperic, were both stabbed to death by assassins in 575 and 584 respectively. Sigibert was succeeded by his son, Childebert II (r. 575-596), who was only five years old at the time, and Chilperic was succeeded by his infant son Chlotar II (r. 584-629), who was born the very same year his father was assassinated. Thus, with the death of Chilperic in 584, the last survivor among the original four brothers, King Guntram, became the undisputed patriarch of the Merovingian Dynasty, ruling alongside two young nephews, one a teenager and the other an infant.
King Childebert II, although only about fourteen years old in 584, showed ambition at an early age, and he, like his younger rival, Chlotar II, had an extremely competent mother, as well as a court of dukes and counts ready to fight for their liege. Childebert II had long been an ally of Guntram against the erratic and hostile ways of the late king King Chilperic, but in the years just prior to Chilperic’s assassination, Childebert had defected to Chilperic’s side and plotted attacks against Guntram. These attacks were fended off by Guntram and a truce between uncle and nephew was reached. From then on, Guntram, despite the ceasefire, understandably had a more distant and skeptical relationship with Childebert II, so, when news of Chilperic’s assassination spread in 584, Guntram acted immediately to make sure that he personally had a strong advantage against the realms of his fellow Merovingian kings. He occupied Paris and also sent troops to take over lands that had once belonged to Childebert’s father, Sigebert, including the areas around Tours and Poitiers. King Guntram also brought young Chlotar II under his protection and sheltered the infant king’s mother, Queen Fredegund. Both of these moves angered young Childebert II; he felt he had more right than Guntram to the lands once controlled by Sigebert, and he also wanted custody of Fredegund, for she had participated in the assassinations of Childebert’s father and aunt.
Not long after Guntram’s occupation of Paris, Tours, Poitiers and other regions, King Childebert II sent a group of bishops, dukes and counts from his realm to negotiate with King Guntram about possibly transferring Sigebert’s old land to Childebert II, and they also asked for Fredegund to be handed over so that she would face justice for murder. Obviously, King Guntram was not interested in either of these requests, and the debate between the king and the envoys became quite testy. At one point in the heated discussions, one of the diplomats made the horrid mistake of threatening Guntram with assassination. This was not something that Guntram took lightly—after all, two of his co-king brothers had been assassinated, and another of his brothers, Chramn, had been murdered before they succeeded their father. Also, many numbers of Guntram’s uncles, nephews, cousins and kinsmen had died due to intrigue or simply in civil war against one another. As such, Guntram understandably felt great fear and paranoia at the thought of assassinations, and such talk instantly caused him to cease negotiations and to throw the envoys out of the city.
Guntram, quite bitter and angry about the threat of assassination, prepared a spectacularly messy and humiliating exit for Childebert’s rude diplomats. The peculiar scene was described by Bishop (and historian) Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), who wrote of the incident in his History of the Franks, stating, “He ordered decaying horse-dung to be flung over their heads as they went, wood-chips, straw and hay which had gone mouldy, and even stinking mud from the town-gutters. They were spattered all over with what was thrown at them, and they went their way beyond measure outraged and insulted” (History of the Franks, VII.14).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Punishment of Korah and Stoning of Moses, by Sandro Botticelli (c. 15th century), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.