In 566 or 567, two Visigoth sisters married two Frankish brothers. The brides were Galswintha and Brunhild, daughters of King Athanagild of the Visigoths (r. 551/554-567), while the grooms were Chilperic and Sigebert, both sons of the Merovingian Dynasty’s King Chlotar I of the Franks (r. 511-561). At the time of the marriages, Chilperic and Sigebert (with two other brothers, Charibert and Guntram) had succeeded their father as kings of different sections of the Frankish Empire. This was the fractured environment—with several independent Merovingian kings vying for primacy in the Frankish sphere of influence—that the Visigoth princesses were marrying into. With the unions of Galswintha to Chilperic, and Brunhild to Sigebert, life could have been like a fairytale or a folk story if the times and people were kinder. Yet, in the end, events unfolded more like a saga of horrors and bloodshed, with feuds that lasted for generations.
Brunhild and Sigebert, it appears, had a happy marriage and got along quite well. Galswintha, however, found Chilperic to be a poor husband. Despite the presence of his new wife, Chilperic continuously returned to concubines and mistresses that he had favored in the past, particularly a woman named Fredegund, whom he valued above all else. Chilperic, after only a year of marriage, came to the conclusion that he had made a mistake in marrying Galswintha. Driven on by these thoughts, Chilperic ultimately decided to end the marriage. He, however, did not complete this goal by separation or by sending his wife off to a convent. Instead, he horrifically had Galswintha strangled to death in 567 or 568, and quickly married Fredegund, who reportedly had encouraged the murder.
Brunhild, understandably, was infuriated and enraged when she heard the news that Chilperic had murdered her sister. Brunhild was supported by her husband, Sigebert, who admirably championed her cause and eventually mobilized his forces for a war against his own brother Chilperic. By 575, Sigebert was visibly winning his war against Chilperic, but just as the conflict was seemingly nearing its end, Sigebert was assassinated, leaving behind Brunhild and a five-year-old son named Childebert II. Chilperic and Fredegund were the prime suspects for the murder.
Childebert II, though a vulnerable child-king, was looked after by his uncle, King Guntram (r. 561-593), and by the late Sigebert’s loyal vassals. Brunhild, although she was sometimes separated from her son, also continued to act and intrigue for his interests. The realms of Childebert and Guntram were aligned against Chilperic until around 581, when Chilperic had some success convincing the teenage Childebert to turn against Guntram. Uncle Guntram, however, was able to bring young Childebert back to his side by 584 by giving the boy control of Marseilles. Later that very year, history would repeat and another assassination would occur. This time, it was King Chilperic who fell to an assassin’s blade, leaving behind Fredegund and an infant son named Chlotar II.
With the death of Chilperic, King Guntram was now the undisputed patriarch of the Merovingian Dynasty, ruling alongside two nephews, one an ambitious teenager and the other a baby. Immediately upon his brother’s death, Guntram seemingly acted with two goals at heart—self empowerment (he seized for himself lands such as Paris, Tours and Poitiers), while also striving to save the Merovingian Dynasty from further royal assassinations within his lifetime. In furtherance of the latter goal, he placed baby Chlotar II under his protection and sheltered the widowed Fredegund from Childebert II, as the teenage king wished to avenge the death of his father (Sigebert) and his aunt (Galswintha), in whose deaths Fredegund had been implicated.
After Childebert’s demands for Fredegund to be handed over had ceased, Guntram sent her off to live at a manor in the vicinity of Rouen. As had happened with young Childebert II, the vassals of the late Chilperic pledged their loyalty to baby Chlotar, and like her rival Queen Brunhild, Fredegund took upon herself the task of wielding espionage and intrigue on her young son’s behalf.
Not long after reaching her manor near Rouen, presumably still in 584, Fredegund launched an assassination attempt against Brunhild. As the story goes, she sent an agent to infiltrate Brunhild’s household. The assassin took on the guise of a cleric and acted with such piety and humility that he quickly worked his way closer and closer into Brunhild’s inner circle. Yet, something was off about him—maybe observers could sense insincerity, or perhaps his cover story just didn’t fit. Whatever the case, Brunhild’s household became suspicious of the cleric and eventually interrogated him. During the questioning, in-between bouts of flogging, the would-be assassin reportedly confessed to everything. Brunhild, for her part, spared the agent and merely sent him back to his master. The move, however, may not have been too merciful, for Fredegund had a reputation for wanton use of torture and execution. According to Bishop (and historian) Gregory of Tours, “When he [the assassin] told Fredegund what had happened and confessed that he had failed in his mission, she punished him by having his hands and feet cut off” (History of the Franks, VII.20).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Fredegund watching the marriage of Chilperic and Galswintha, c. 19th century, painted by Lawrence Alma Tadema, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.