Around 585 or 586, two suspicious individuals were arrested in the city of Soissons by Duke Rauching, one of the most talented manhunters of the century, who had caught many a criminal and renegade nobleman in his chains. The men he placed in custody were dressed like beggars or clerics, but they carried suspicious daggers and had vials of unidentified drugs and potions. The liquids inside these confiscated containers were in no way holy water or chrism oils, and the daggers seemed specially made to have grooves in the metal for poison.
Duke Rauching began torturing the would-be clergymen, and extracted incriminating statements from them. As the stories that the captives were divulging involved a plot against the royal family of the kingdom of Austrasia, Duke Rauching invited agents of the Austrasian king, Childebert II (r. 575-596), to join in the interrogations. Before long, the interrogators were able to piece together a story that implicated Childebert’s aunt, Queen Dowager Fredegund, mother of King Chlotar II (r. 584-629) and the matriarch of a branch of the Merovingian Dynasty that ruled the Kingdom of Neustria.
War and intrigue between the Neustrian line of the Merovingian Dynasty and Childebert’s own Austrasian branch of the same family was not uncommon. The feud between these two related families dated back to 567 or 568, when Fredegund and her late husband, King Chilperic (d. 584), murdered the sister of Childebert’s mother, Bunhild. The murder caused a decades-long bloody feud between Queens Fredegund and Brunhild. As both queens were backed by their husbands and sons, the feud caused wave after wave of warfare and intrigue. Fredegund’s husband, Chilperic, as well as Brunhild’s partner, Sigebert, would both fall to assassins during their wars, leaving the child-kings, Chlotar II and Childebert II to take over their family feuds, with their powerful mothers acting as advisors and spymasters.
It was likely not surprising to Duke Rauching and King Childebert that the assassins caught in 585 or 586 claimed to have been hired by Queen Dowager Fredegund—after all, she had reportedly sent other assassins after Brunhild in a foiled plot that occurred only a few years earlier in 584. The assassins caught by Duke Rauching, after explaining that the potions caught on their person were drugs to calm their nerves for the attack and that the daggers were indeed specially-made for application of poison, went on to explain how they were instructed to carry out their mission. Well-connected Gregory of Tours (a bishop and historian) recounted the confessions that the assassins supposedly gave to Childebert II and the sentencing that the king meted out on the captives:
“When they were interrogated they told the truth, saying that they had been sent by Queen Fredegund to assassinate the King. ‘The Queen ordered us to disguise ourselves as beggars,’ they said. ‘We were to throw ourselves at your feet and beg for alms, and then we intended to stab you through and through with these daggers. Even if the thrust had been so weak that each dagger failed to do its work, the poison with which the blade is smeared would soon have caused your death.’ When they had made these admissions, they were submitted to a number of tortures, their hands, ears and noses were cut off, and they were put to death each in a different way” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, VIII.29).
During their confessions, the assassins also reportedly divulged that if King Childebert II was too well defended, their next target was supposed to be his mother, Brunhild. Although taking out both mother and son at the same time with the poisoned daggers was not explicitly mentioned as the plan, such a result would have no doubt pleased Queen Dowager Fredegund. Whatever the case, the plot was foiled and the feud continued.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (14th-century image depicting the arrest of the Templars, from the British Library collection, labeled Royal 20 C. VII, f.42v, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.