In the 6th-century, there lived a wealthy woman named Beretrude who somehow became a great landowner in the domain of the Franks and lorded over her territory from an impressive villa. She was an altruistic woman, who lent large sums to various churches and convents, but she still retained a personal fortune and a sizable estate until her dying day. Fittingly, the impressive matriarch, Beretrude, left as her heir a daughter—or, technically, her daughter’s husband. This spouse, however, was reportedly considered a foreigner to the Franks and Gallo-Romans who made up the majority of the population in the Frankish kingdoms. Therefore, the female heiress and her foreign husband were vulnerable to prejudice and discrimination from their neighbors. Count Waddo, a Frankish nobleman, quickly ascertained that the rich estate of the late Beretrude was now ripe for the taking. As a man with warriors and wealth, the count had the tools he needed to start taking over the estate and its villa in piecemeal fashion. Yet, in his greed, Count Waddo would underestimate the loyalty of the villa’s workforce to their original employers.
At first, Count Waddo tested the resolve of Beretrude’s heirs by pressuring the couple to surrender the horses that they had on their estate. To add weight to his demand, the count proclaimed that the horses had been stolen from his own stables. Beretrude’s heirs rejected the claim and refused to hand over a single horse. This unyielding stance infuriated Count Waddo, and he soon decided to occupy the late Beretrude’s villa by force. This peculiar episode was recorded by Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), who lived at the time that these events were reportedly occurring. The bishop colorfully claimed:
“Then Waddo and his men leapt on to their horses, and off they rode, sending another messenger on ahead to the bailiff to tell him to sweep the house out and to put covers on the benches. The bailiff took no notice whatsoever of these orders, but stood firm outside his master’s gate, with all the household, men and women, lined up beside him to await Waddo’s coming” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, IX.35).
When Count Waddo and his posse arrived at the villa to find that their prey was not going to go down without a fight, Waddo only became more aggravated. He called the estate’s bailiff over and commanded the man to comply with the written message sent earlier. The bailiff refused, and the man’s statements of loyalty to Beretrude’s heirs infuriated the armed nobleman even further. Sinking deeper into rage because of the defiant and stubborn crowd, Count Waddo let anger get the better of him. In the end, he pulled out a dagger and stabbed the bailiff to death. This murder, however, caused the population of the villa to go to war against the nobleman and his warband. During the fight, Waddo would become one of the casualties. The aforementioned Gregory of Tours continued the story in dramatic fashion: “[Count Waddo] raised his hand, struck the bailiff on the head with his dagger and knocked him down dead. When the murdered man’s son saw what happened, he hurled his javelin at Waddo and then rushed at him. The javelin hit him full in the stomach and stuck out behind his back. He fell to the ground and the crowd which stood all around began to stone him” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, IX.35). Despite being skewered by a spear and barraged by stones, Count Waddo was still alive—barely—so the small band of warriors that the count had brought to the scene now plunged into the chaos to pull their impaled leader away from the mob of estate workers. They succeeded in this task, bringing the gravely wounded count back to his family. Nevertheless, after having suffered such a wound, Count Waddo died from his injury.
Of course, the skirmish at the villa caused a feud between Count Waddo’s sons and the supporters of Beretrude’s heirs. The sons of the late count continued their father’s efforts to take over the villa and its surrounding lands. Instead of relying solely on threats and force, the count’s sons also brought their case before the kings of the Frankish Merovingian Dynasty. At first, Waddo’s sons had the backing of the kings, but when robberies, murders and other crimes soon started to become tied to the late count’s sons, royal support quickly dried up. In the end, all of the properties belonging to the sons of Count Waddo were seized by the crown. The repossessed land was eventually granted to Princess Clotild (daughter of the by-then deceased King Chilperic, r. 561-584), who needed a new home after having a falling-out with an abbess. Whether or not the estate of Beretrude’s heirs had been taken over by the sons of Count Waddo before they, too, were forced out of their own homes by the Frankish monarchs is unknown. Perhaps the heirs of Beretrude retained their property and lived out a happy life, but then again, many stories do not have cheery endings.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration from a 14th century manuscript of the Chroniques de France ou de St Denis (labeled BL Royal 16 G VI, f. 420v in The British Library), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons.jpg).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.