By mid-year in 585, King Guntram was the undisputed senior member of the Frankish Merovingian Dynasty in France and he was able to bring the war-torn region some much-needed years of stability. It took King Guntram over two decades to become the head of the dynasty—since 561, he and three other brothers had been battling for supremacy in France through the use of intrigue and war, each trying to undermine or kill the other. The last of Guntram’s brothers, the violent King Chilperic of Soissons, was assassinated in 584, leaving King Guntram as the last mature ruling member of the Merovingian Dynasty’s lands. After surviving the free-for-all gauntlet that was his early life, Guntram now only had to share power in the Frankish empire with his two young nephews. One, King Childebert II (born in 570), was a teenager, while the other, King Chlotar II (born 584), was a baby. Guntram’s good fortunes continued into 585, when his troops caught and killed a troublesome pretender to the throne by the name of Gundovald (or Gundoald). In the much-needed peace and calm that came in the aftermath of the pretender’s downfall, Guntram soon received an invitation to participate in the baptism of baby Chlotar II. King Guntram agreed to go, and set off on his way toward Paris, where the ceremony would be held. Unfortunately for those in the king’s entourage, they would soon find that Guntram was becoming grumpy in his old age.
King Guntram began his parade in Chalon-sur-Saône, then passed through the city of Nevers, and reached Orleans by July 4, where he intended to remain for a few days before making his final push to Paris. Dukes, counts and bishops flocked to join the king in his travels, and these courtiers often found Guntram in an irritable mood. His attitude noticeably worsened around the time that he reached Orleans. Thankfully for us, one of King Guntram’s traveling companions at that time was Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594). A prolific writer as well as a clergyman, Gregory of Tours committed to memory the awkward and cantankerous outbursts that he saw in Orleans; these observations were later filed away in Gregory’s History of the Franks.
As Gregory of Tours was a bishop, most of his memories involved incidents that occurred between King Guntram and clergymen. While one might expect the king’s conversations with the bishops to be tame, Guntram was in no mood to be polite. Several of the bishops present at that time in Orleans had offered support to the aforementioned pretender to the throne, Gundovald, and the king held a grudge against these disloyal men of the cloth. In particular, Bishops Bertram of Bordeaux and Palladius of Saintes had no good will from Guntram. Bishop Gregory recalled King Guntram saying to Bishop Bertram, “You should have remembered, dear father, that you were my kinsman on my mother’s side, and you should not have introduced into your own family this pestilential person [Gundovald] from overseas” (History of the Franks, VIII.2). King Guntram later had his revenge against Bishop Palladius, when the bishop tried to give a sermon. Gregory of Tours recorded the dramatic scene:
“When they told him that it was Palladius who had begun the service, Guntram was very angry. ‘Shall this man who has always been disloyal to me and dishonest now preach the sacred word before me?’ he cried. ‘I will leave this church immediately rather than hear my enemy preach!’ As he said this he began to walk out…Bishop Palladius, who was deeply humiliated, had retired into the sacristy. The King ordered him to be fetched out again, and he went on with the service which he had started” (History of the Franks, VIII.7).
During the course of his stay in Orleans, King Guntram let criticisms fly at many more people besides Bertram and Palladius. Within hearing of Gregory of Tours’ gossip-hungry ears, the King took verbal shots at Dowager Queen Brunhild (mother of Childebert II), accused Bishop Theodore of Marsailles of committing murder, and similarly labeled Duke Bladast and Count Garachar as untrustworthy and treacherous perjurers. Gregory recorded another bitter quote that King Guntram reportedly directed toward Bishop Nicasius of Angoulême and Bishop Antidius of Agen—“Tell me now, holy fathers, what have you ever done for the benefit of your country or for the safety of my realm” (History of the Franks, VIII.2).
Before the royal party left Orleans, Bishops Bertram and Palladius would have one more chance to mend their broken relationships with the king. In an attempted reconciliation encouraged by the other bishops, the two clergymen in question were invited to join Guntram’s table. It was a great opportunity for Bertram and Palladius to apologize or pledge to never again break the king’s trust. Yet, they horribly botched the chance to make a good impression on the monarch. Bishop Gregory, once again, was present to watch this wreck take place. He wrote, “Palladius and Bertram were invited to present themselves once more at the King’s table, but they began to quarrel, accusing each other in turn of adultery and fornication, and heaping lies on each other. Many present thought this a great joke, but others, quicker on the uptake, were grieved to see the Devil’s tares grow rank among the Bishops of the Lord” (History of the Franks, VIII.7).
After these tense and awkward days, King Guntram set off from Orleans and made his way to Paris for the baptism of his nephew. Unfortunately for the grumpy king, the debacles of the journey were not over—when he arrived in Paris, he found himself barred from seeing baby Chlotar II. The child’s mother and her allied nobles wanted to keep their infant-king out of the clutches of King Guntram for safety’s sake—after all, Merovingian politics could be quite brutal, even for children. The irritated elder king complained about this rude action in a public speech, which was once more recorded by Gregory of Tours:
“At the mother’s behest, those in charge of bringing up the boy asked me to receive him from the sacred font on Christmas Day. They did not come. They made a second proposal, that he should be baptized on Easter Sunday. On that occasion, too, he was not produced. Then they made a third suggestion, that he should be presented on Saint John’s Day. Once again, he was not there. Now they have obliged me to leave my home in this sultry season. I have come, but the boy is still kept hidden from me and I do not see him…If he had really been a member of my own family, he would surely have been presented to me. You must know that I shall not acknowledge him, unless I am given incontrovertible evidence in his favour” (History of the Franks, VIII.9).
This speech caused baby Chlotar’s mother, Queen Dowager Fredegund, to take action. She gathered around three hundred influential figures who would one day take orders from the child king. This gathering of nobles and clergymen all told King Guntram that Chlotar II was a legitimate member of the Merovingian Dynasty. King Guntram reportedly accepted their word, yet he apparently still was not given personal access to the child king while he remained in Paris.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Painting titled Cordelia’s Portion, by Ford Madox Brown (April 16, 1821 – October 6, 1893), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.