Members of the Frankish Merovingian Dynasty, especially in their heyday of the 5th, 6th, and early 7th centuries, were known to be a ruthless bunch, infamous for their bloodthirsty family intrigue and civil wars. Battles between father, son or brother; murders of spouses, assassinations of children, and having one’s own aunt dragged to her death behind a horse—almost any crime that can be imagined was done or attempted by the Merovingians. And it was not just the kings of the dynasty who overindulged on bloodshed. The queens who married into the family often proved just as ruthless and cold-blooded as their husbands. Of these powerful women, the most famous are Queen Fredegund (flourished c. 568-596/597) and Queen Brunhild (c. 534-613), who both became matriarchs of rival branches of the Merovingian Dynasty. Although there are plenty of stories concerning these two influential and competent women, a third queen will take the leading role in the particular tale told here. This story concerns Queen Faileuba, the wife of Brunhild’s son, King Childebert II (r. 575-595).
Although Merovingian queens or consorts could gain great power and influence, their positions were also quite unstable. The longevity of a queen’s power often boiled down to how much chemistry she had with the king, and how many kingly heirs she bore for the furtherance of the dynasty. Not all women could match the moods and expectations of the kings, so the position of queen and consort in the courts of the Merovingian kingdoms was an insecure role. Most of King Childebert’s kinsmen, for example, each married between three to five different queens in their lifetimes, not to mention the other concubines in their courts who were never elevated to the position of consort. Queen Faileuba was well aware of the prolific matrimonial pattern of the Merovingian kings, and therefore she was naturally under a great deal of stress, anxiety and fear until she could establish herself firmly as the mother of King Childebert’s heirs.
Faileuba gave birth to her first child with King Childebert in 587—it was a boy and they named him Theodoric II. Although producing a potential heir must have been a great relief to the queen, she still had a major problem. Faileuba’s newborn child, Theodoric, was not the king’s oldest son. In fact, only one year earlier, in 586, a mysterious concubine had borne King Childebert a son named Theodebert II. The name of this shadowy concubine is unfortunately unknown, perhaps as a result of fierce smear campaigns that would later be waged by the supporters of Faileuba’s son, Theodoric, who insinuated that the older sibling, Theodebert, had no royal blood. Despite these later politics, King Childebert II recognized both of the boys as his children and heirs. Therefore, Faileuba had to keep a wary eye on her stepson, as well as on other women who might catch the eye of the king.
Queen Faileuba became pregnant, once again, around 589. The child was delivered successfully, and perhaps this second birth made the queen feel more self-sure and confident in her position as a dominant and entrenched regal figure. These secure feelings, unfortunately, plummeted into despair when queen Faileuba watched her newborn child sicken and die within a couple of days after birth. In her wearisome mix of heartbreak, grief, and a renewed sense of insecurity, Queen Faileuba began to feel paranoid about other members of the court. As the queen rested from the recent childbirth and grieved over her lost child, she became suspicious about various members of the palace staff, as well as certain nobles and officials who frequented the palace. Rightly or wrongly, well-founded or unfounded, the motives of what the emotionally-compromised queen did next are difficult to ascertain. Whatever the case, Queen Faileuba emerged from her period of recovery and mourning with a peculiar list of people that she said were conspiring against herself, the king, and the king’s mother. Faileuba claimed that the ringleader of this supposed conspiracy was a certain woman by the name of Septimima, who was a nurse to King Childebert’s children. Whether or not Septimima was truly conspiring against the crown or simply a romantic rival to Faileuba is unknown, but when the insinuation was brought to the ears of Faileuba’s mother-in-law, Brunhild, the older matriarch likely flexed her skills at intrigue and political maneuvering to seize upon the opportunity to reorganize certain positions in the palace to better fit her liking. Soon, names such as Droctulf (a tutor to the royal children), Sunnegisil (the Count of the Stables), and Gallomagnus (a referendary) were added to the list of conspirators.
Queens Faileuba and Brunhild brought their list to King Childebert, accusing Septimima, Droctulf, Sunnegisil and Gallomagnus of various crimes. In particular, the conspirators allegedly wanted Brunnhild to be exiled and similarly hoped to have Faileuba dismissed as queen. The listed individuals then planned to convince King Childebert to remarry, with Septimima perhaps being the new queen. If the king did not fall for Septimima’s charms, claimed Faileuba and Brunhild, the conspirators would then feel free to use their ultimate power—witchcraft. Queen Faileuba accused Septimima of being a witch and, the queen theorized, if the king had not gone along with the conspirators, he would allegedly have been struck down by the power of their nefarious magic. With the king out of the way, Septimima (as the nurse) and Droctulf (as the tutor) allegedly planned to lord over the king’s two sons as the powers behind the throne. Whether or not any of the allegations were true, King Childebert II decided to take the allegations seriously, and he hauled in the named individuals for interrogation.
Unfortunately, during much of the Middle Ages, interrogation was synonymous with torture, and that was true in Childebert’s kingdom. Septimima and Droctulf were quickly apprehended, as they worked at the palace, and were relentlessly plied with the latest instruments of pain. Under the affliction of torture, they began to confess to anything that was asked of them. At first, Septimima and Droctulf confessed to innocuous statements such as that they were having an affair together. The confessions quickly began to escalate, with them eventually pleading guilty under torture to witchcraft, conspiracy, treason, so on and so forth. As for the other named conspirators, Sunnegisil and Gallomagnus, these two had more time to evade Childebert’s law enforcers, and they managed to seek sanctuary in a church before they were discovered. This move saved Sunnegisil and Gallomagnus from being tortured—at least for the time being—and without the infliction of pain, they steadfastly denied being involved in any plot. King Childebert, however, out of disbelief or opportunism, chose not to take the two men at their word, and instead decided to seize all of the properties they possessed in the kingdom and sentenced them to exile.
A much worse fate was in store for Septimima and Droctulf, involving beatings, mutilation, and forced labor. A detailed description of the elaborate punishment was recorded by Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), a contemporaneous figure to that time, and a man well acquainted with the Merovingian royals. On what happened to Septimima and Droctulf, Gregory wrote:
“Septimima and Droctulf were both severely beaten. Septimima’s face was disfigured with red-hot irons. All that she had was taken from her, and she was packed off to the country estate of Marlenheim to turn the mill and grind the corn each day to feed the women who worked in the spinning and weaving room there. They cut off Droctulf’s ears and hair, and he was sent to labour in the vineyards. A few days later he escaped. He was discovered by the bailiff and once more brought before the King. He was flogged and sent back again to the vineyard which he had left” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, IX.38).
During the time that the king, his mother and his wife were meting out these punishments, Childebert’s powerful and influential uncle, King Guntram of Burgundy (r. 561-593), looked on at the scene in bewilderment and felt the need to have a small intervention. He could do nothing for the two who had already been mutilated, but he did send a party of envoys and bishops to Childebert’s court to ask the king to rescind the banishments of Sunnegisil and Gallomagnus. Childebert agreed to his uncle’s suggestion and allowed the two exiles to return home. Some, but not all, of their property was restored. Nevertheless, it was a mistake for the two men to go back. King Childebert II never trusted them, presumably because he truly thought they were conspirators or, more cynically, because he simply feared that they would now want revenge after their maltreatment. Little is known about how the rest of Gallomagnus’ life played out, but Sunnegisil was later known to have been arrested again, and on that occasion, he failed to reach the safety of a church and was not spared from the king’s relentless torturers.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Miniature of a queen with four women, from a manuscript of De Claris Mulieribus (labeled BL Royal 16 G V, f. 3v in The British Library), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.