Around the year 590, a highly suspicious individual bumbled his way onto the royal estate of Marlenheim, which belonged to King Childebert II of Austrasia (r. 575-595). As the king frequented the estate quite often, and as he and his family had been the target of many intrigues in the past, security was a high priority to the guards, staff, and workers at Marlenheim. The suspicious figure who wandered uninvited into the midst of the royal estate in 590 evidently underestimated just how vigilant the employees and residents of the region could be if something unusual caught their eye. Suspicious gazes immediately fell on the incredibly conspicuous individual as soon as he entered the estate grounds, and a mob of cautiously observant staff members began to circle around him by the time he reached the main house on the Marlenheim property. As told by a contemporaneous bishop and historian of that time, Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), the guards and workers of the estate began to barrage the man with questions, to which the suspected individual could only fumble over unsatisfactory responses. According to Gregory of Tours, the questioners demanded, “‘Who are you? Where do you come from? What are you doing here?’ they asked him. ‘We do not recognize you.’ ‘I am one of you,’ he answered. They immediately dragged him outside the oratory and put him to the question” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, X.18). Such was the way that this alleged would-be assassin was caught.
After being interrogated (and tortured), the arrested individual gave a confession that he had indeed arrived at Marlenheim for a nefarious purpose. As the story goes, he had been hired by King Childebert’s aunt, Queen Fredegund, who was the matriarch of a rival branch of the Merovingian Dynasty to which Childebert belonged. The tortured individual went on to say that he was only one member of a team of a dozen assassins sent to wreak havoc on Childebert’s kingdom. Five other assassins were allegedly operating near Marlenheim, while a further six agents were stalking the city of Soissons in hopes of an opportunity to strike at Childebert’s oldest son, Theodebert. The aforementioned bishop and historian, Gregory of Tours, described how Childebert’s torturers pried out information from the captured assassin, as well as how the king responded to the confession and testimony:
“As soon as he said this he was tortured unmercifully until he gave the names of his accomplices. They were looked for everywhere. Some were thrown into prison, some had their hands amputated and were afterwards released, some had their ears and noses cut off, and were let out as a subject of ridicule. Several of them killed themselves with their own daggers while they were still in prison; for they could not face all these different tortures; still others died while they were actually being questioned. In one way and another the King certainly had his revenge” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, X.18).
So ended this particular alleged plot. Twelve or more lives ended in mutilation or death due to the unstealthly entrance into the Marlenheim property by the assumed assassin. If Queen Fredegund had indeed launched a dozen assassins simultaneously against her nephew and his son, it would not have been the first time that her efforts of intrigue came to naught. By 590, she had already been accused of instigating many other assassination attempts of mixed results. If her reputation was as fierce as her contemporary chroniclers made it out to be, Queen Fredegund likely shrugged off the failure of this plot and immediately began planning her next attack.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Prince ordering an arrest, from a 15th century manuscript of Le livre des faits d’armes et de chevalerie (labeled BL Harley 4605, ff. 94v-95 by 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.