King Guntram of Burgundy (r. 561-593) lived in a complicated time. He ruled one piece of the Merovingian Dynasty’s sprawling empire, split between several kings from the same dynastic family. In his early reign, he shared the empire with three other brothers, who each controlled their own kingdoms. By 584, Guntram was the last remaining member of this original kingly quadruplet. For the rest of his reign, the Merovingian Empire was divided between old King Guntram and two of his young nephews, Childebert II (r. 575-596) and Chlotar II (r. 584-629).
King Guntram, trying to be the responsible patriarch of the dynasty, made it one of his missions to keep peace between Childebert’s Austrasian branch of the family and Chlotar’s Neustrian side. His job was made all the more difficult because the mothers of the two young kings were both highly competent women who despised each other. The incredibly hostile relationship between Fredegund (Chlotar’s mother) and Brunhild (Childebert’s mother) can be quickly summarized by stating that Fredegund killed Brunhild’s sister, and that each woman likely had a role in having the husband of the other assassinated. The mutual loathing between these two queens was passed on to their sons, keeping a feud between the branches alive for decades. Although Guntram could not halt all of the intrigues between the ever-scheming Fredegund and Brunhild, he did manage to put a stop to the open civil wars that often plagued the Merovingian Dynasty, instead redirecting his young kinsmen to fight outside threats such as the Visigoths and the Lombards.
Around 587, however, King Guntram began to suspect that Fredegund was plotting something with the Visigoths that might disrupt the internal peace of the realm. He reportedly searched the properties of people that he suspected might have been helping Fredegund send her secret dispatches. Nothing incriminating was alleged to have been found in these searches, yet Queen Fredegund nevertheless decided to send envoys to King Guntram in order to patch up their fraying relationship. Events soon unfolded that would make people wonder if the envoys were truly there for a mission of peace. What allegedly happened next was recorded by Gregory of Tours, a bishop and historian who was an acquaintance of the king. Gregory wrote:
“For some reason or other which I do not understand, they [Fredegund’s envoys] hung about for some time in their lodging. The next day came and the King set off for early-morning communion. As a candle was being carried before him, a man was observed sleeping in a corner of the oratory, just as if he were drunk, his sword girt round him and his spear resting against the wall. When he saw this, the King exclaimed aloud. It was not natural, he said, for a man to be asleep in such a place in the dread horror of the night. The man was seized, he was bound with leather thongs and then he was put to the question to discover what he meant by this behavior” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, VIII.44).
The suspicious napper was said to have been interrogated under torture, and he apparently gave a confession to the extent that he had been hired as an assassin by Fredegund’s envoys. Whether this was a genuine confession or if the unfortunate sleeper said what he did simply to make the torturers cease their craft is unknown. Whatever the case, when King Guntram heard the confession, he had the captive tortured even more, before tossing him into a prison. As for the suspicious envoys, they fared much better than the sleeping man. Instead of torture and prison, Fredegund’s diplomats were merely banished from Guntram’s sight.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Aeneas, painted by Salvator Rosa (c. 1615–1673), placed in front of a darkened wall, both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.