King Chilperic (r. 561-584) and Queen Fredegund (d. 596/597) were a ruthless couple. While Chilperic embraced the image of the warmongering warrior-king, Fredegund excelled in the role of the spymaster. King Chilperic sent armies after his enemies, whereas Fredegund was more likely to send assassins. Chilperic’s brothers, nephews, and sisters-in-laws all had to avoid assassins sent by the conniving Queen Fredegund. Yet, it was not only the immediate families of Chilperic’s brothers that needed to watch out for the queen’s daggers in the night. King Chilperic’s past lovers and children by other women also had to watch out for the queen’s wrath.
Queen Fredegund was Chilperic’s third wife. Despite this, she had been in Chilperic’s court from the earliest days. The future spymaster-queen began her career as a servant, and eventually became the king’s concubine. She was in Chilperic’s life when the king married his first wife, Audovera, who gave Chilperic four children—Theudebert, Merovech, Clovis and Basina. King Chilperic eventually set Audovera aside, reportedly at the urging of Fredegund. Instead of making his concubine the next official queen consort, King Chilperic next married a Visigoth princess named Galswintha in 566 or 567. The relationship between Chilperic and Fredegund, however, did not end during the time of this marriage. In the marital drama that ensued, the king had to ultimately choose which woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with—he chose Fredegund, and Galswintha was subsequently strangled to death.
Fredegund, as the undisputed queen consort of King Chilperic, reportedly showed little to no care for her stepsons, nor to their mother, the displaced Audovera. In fact, Queen Fredegund was said to have actively driven a wedge between King Chilperic and his earlier family. All of Chilperic’s sons by Audovera met violent deaths—Theudebert was killed in battle, Merovech committed suicide after a falling-out with his father, and Clovis was assassinated at an estate called Noisy-le-Grand, near the Marne River. Fredegund reportedly was involved in the last killing, which occurred around 583, and near that same time the downfallen former queen, Audovera, was reportedly also murdered.
As they say, those who live by the sword will die by the sword. While Fredegund escaped the prophecy of this saying, her husband did not. King Chilperic was assassinated in 584, paving the way for his much more level-headed brother, King Guntram, to become the undisputed head of the Frankish Merovingian Dynasty. Besides trying to halt further infighting between the different Merovingian domains in the Frankish empire, King Guntram also made it his goal to find the remains of Chilperic’s murdered son, Clovis, as the body had never been discovered. With this in mind, the king began gathering information about the assassination and called for witnesses to submit information.
In a stroke of luck, a fisherman answered the king’s summons and was able to provide a breakthrough for Guntram. As the story goes, this fisherman operated on the River Marne and used nets to make his catch. One day, however, the fisherman caught something horrific in his net. Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), a historian and acquaintance of the king, wrote down what the fisherman reportedly said, “I had constructed a trap there [on the Marne] for catching fish, and in it I found the corpse. At first I was not sure who it was, but when I saw the long hair I knew that it was Clovis. I put the body on my shoulders and carried it to the bank, and there I buried it under a heap of turves” (History of the Franks, VIII.10). Hearing this testimony, the king promised the fisherman a reward if the information proved true. Judging the story to be worth investigating, the king gathered a hunting party and they tracked down the shallow burial site. Gregory of Tours described this morbid expedition:
“He located the grave and uncovered the body, which was intact and unharmed. Part of the hair, which was underneath the head, had disintegrated, but the rest of the corpse, with its long flowing locks remained untouched. It was obvious enough that this was the man whom King Guntram had sought so intently. He summoned the bishop of the city and had the body carried to Saint Vincent’s church and buried there, with a cortège of clergy and people, and with so many candles that it was not possible to count them. He wept for his dead nephews as bitterly as when he had seen his own sons buried” (History of the Franks, VIII.10).
With Clovis’ remains found, King Guntram turned his attention to his other dead nephews. The body of Chilperic’s slain son, Theudebert, had already been discovered and given an honorable burial in Angoulême not long after his death. Merovech’s body, however, had been neglected after he had been driven to suicide. King Guntram successfully sought out Merovech’s remains and had the body brought to Saint Vincent’s church (which would become Saint-Germain-des-Prés) for burial beside the grave of Clovis.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Death of Chilperic painted by Évariste Vital Luminais (1821–1896), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.