This painting, by the Czech artist Jan Jiří Heinsch (1647-1712), purports to depict King Sigismund of Burgundy (r. 516-523). Although curiously labeled a saint, Sigismund was known to have sometimes acted far from saintly. His most notorious scandal occurred when, after marrying a new wife, Sigismund had his son by his previous marriage executed. A 6th-century bishop and historian, Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), described the assassination, writing, “One day when the boy had drunk wine with his lunch Sigismund sent him to lie down in the afternoon. As he slept a cloth was slipped under his neck and knotted under his chin. Two servants tugged at the ends and so the boy was throttled. The father was grief-stricken at what he had done, but it was too late” (History of the Franks, III.5). This murder of the youth, whose name was Sigeric, caused a stir among the European powers that had family ties to Burgundy—King Theoderic the Great of the Ostrogoths (r. 493-526) had been Sigeric’s grandfather through the boy’s mother, whereas the Frankish brother-kings Chlodomer, Childebert I, and Chlotar I were related to the Burgundian royals through their mother, the Burgundian princess Clotild (her parents had been slaughtered by Sigismund’s father). These outside observers became hostile to King Sigismund after the assassination became public, and the Franks ultimately invaded Burgundy in 523. Sigismund was captured after being defeated in battle. His fate was an example of the saying that those who live by the sword die by the sword. As told by the aforementioned Gregory of Tours, “Sigismund and his wife and children were murdered out of hand: Chlodomer ordered them to be thrown down a well at Saint-Péravy-la-Colombe, a small township in the Orléanais” (History of the Franks, III.6). Sigismund’s brother, King Godomer, would continue to resist the Franks, but the Kingdom of Burgundy was ultimately conquered by 534.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.