The Last Charge Of Duke Desiderius

Duke Desiderius was a 6th-century nobleman who was heavily involved in the politics of the Frankish Empire, which was split at that time between several kings from the Merovingian Dynasty. Desiderius gained great influence by serving King Chilperic (r. 561-584), an ambitious and warmongering king of the Franks. In the service of this ruler, the duke became a top military commander, leading troops on campaigns against the king’s relatives. Duke Desiderius’ career as a general, however, would have consequences, for King Chilperic’s power and survival was not certain, especially in the bloody politics of the Merovingian Dynasty. These fears became reality in 584, when Chilperic’s life was ended by an assassin’s blade.

After the killing, Chilperic’s brother, King Guntram (r. 561-593), became the undisputed patriarch over the Merovingian kingdoms. This was a problem for Duke Desiderius, for during his career as a military commander for the late king Chilperic, he had waged several wars against Guntram. Sensing the political danger he was in, Desiderius decided to make a perilous gamble—he joined the camp of a man named Gundovald, an adventurer who attempted to usurp a portion of the Frankish Empire by telling tales that he was a long-lost Merovingian prince. Unfortunately for Desiderius, this gamble failed, as King Guntram defeated and executed Gundovald in the year 585. Desiderius, who had managed to separate himself from Gundovald just before the adventurer’s demise, was spared by King Guntram and allowed to resume life as a vassal lord. Yet, Guntram, understandably, showed little trust in the duke.

Around 587, Duke Desiderius was faced with another dilemma. That year, King Guntram transferred control of the vicinity of Albi to his nephew, King Childebert II (r. 575-595). This was apparently a shock for Desiderius, who had much property in that region. His concern stemmed from the uneasy relationship he had with the household of King Childebert II, which, compared to the more peaceable Guntram, was a family that harbored far more hate for Desiderius’ former liege, Chilperic. The hate was understandable, for Chilperic had murdered the sister of Childebert’s mother and had also assassinated Childebert’s father.

Guntram’s transferring of Albi to Childebert distressed Duke Desiderius enough to cause him to make another questionable decision. Perhaps to impress King Guntram, or maybe to make up for wealth that he thought he would never retrieve from Albi, Duke Desiderius decided to orchestrate an unsanctioned raid into the lands of the Frankish Empire’s southern rivals—the Visigoths. As the story goes, the duke only called in help from one other nobleman before he launched his attack. This ally was Count Austrovald, who marched with Duke Desiderius down toward the Pyrenees. How far the daring noblemen were planning to push into Visigoth territory is unknown, but their first target was the city of Carcassonne, on the French side of the Pyrenees Mountain chain. What allegedly happened next was recorded by the bishop and historian, Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594):

“The Carcassonnais got wind of this, for the news reached them early, and they made their preparations, being determined to resist. The battle began, the goths turned in flight and Desiderius with Austrovald at his side attacked their rear. As the Goths continued their retreat Desiderius came near to the town, accompanied by only a handful of his troops, for his men’s horses were exhausted. As he rode up to the town-gate, he was cut off by the inhabitants, who had been lurking inside their walls. Desiderius was killed, together with all the men who had kept up with him” (History of the Franks, 8.45).

Such was the fate of Duke Desiderius, slain during his unsuccessful raid. Fortune faired much better, however,  for Count Austrovald. He, curiously, split away from the duke during the final moments of the battle, and was not present when Desiderius was ambushed and killed near the city walls. When news of the duke’s death reached the surviving portion of the Frankish army, Count Austrovald decided to end the raid and instead promptly led the troops home. In the end, Desiderius’ demise became Austrovald’s ascendance, for when King Guntram learned of the death, he promoted Austrovald to become the next duke.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Barbarians Before Rome, painted by Évariste Vital Luminais (1821–1896), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

 

Sources:

  • The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.

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