Agilulf, a Lombard duke of Turin, positioned himself to become the next monarch of the Lombards after the suspicious death of King Authari (r. 584-590). Victors in conflicts often shape the historical narratives of their age, and the medieval story of how King Agilulf (r. 590-616) ascended to power seemingly had a healthy dose of propaganda in order to make his succession seem more legitimate and orderly than was actually true. According to the state-sponsored tradition, later written down by Paul the Deacon (c. 720-799), Authari’s widowed queen, Theudelinda, retained power in the Kingdom of the Lombards, and she chose Agilulf (allegedly a relative of the former king) to be her new husband. As the story goes, this marriage, which also made Agilulf the next king, was “celebrated with great rejoicing…he was raised to the sovereignty by all at Mediolanum” (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, 3.35). If you read between the lines of this tradition, however, it is apparent that the start of King Agilulf’s reign was much more contested and unrestful than the official narrative lets on.
Almost all of the traditional narrative about King Agilulf’s ascendance to the throne has been challenged. For one, his connection to the former royal family is dubious and debated. Secondly, it is likely that he was the one who first instigated his marriage to the widowed queen, Theudelinda, instead of the other way around. Agilulf’s claims of royal blood and the spousal support of the well-connected queen were great boosts for his bid to seize the throne. He apparently needed these, for in contrast to the claims that Agilulf was celebrated and ‘raised to sovereignty by all,’ there were actually quite a few rival Lombard dukes who resisted and rebelled against him. To quash these challengers and dissidents, King Agilulf had to raise armies and hire executioners.
Near the beginning of Agilulf’s reign, Duke Gaidulf of Bergamo and Duke Ulfari of Treviso were known to have rebelled against the upstart king. Yet, rebellion would be a more trying task than they might have imagined, for Agilulf proved himself to be a formidable military leader. He reportedly brought Duke Ulfari back into the fold fairly easily by besieging and capturing Ulfari in Treviso. Duke Gaidulf, however, was a much more slippery target. When Gaidulf learned that the king was coming for him, he fled Bergamo for the island of Comacina in Lake Como, near Milan. Yet, Agilulf tracked the duke to the small island and tried to capture him there. Duke Gaidulf slipped away again, however, and fled back to his seat of power at Bergamo. King Agilulf, remaining in hot pursuit, finally was able to form some kind of truce with the fugitive duke when they both met again at Bergamo. After diplomatically subjugating these two rebellious dukes with shows of force and with treaties, King Agilulf decided to show less mercy in the future. Nevertheless, this would not be the last we heard from Duke Gaidulf.
Around the same time that King Agilulf was dealing with the rebellions of Dukes Gaidulf and Ulfari, the monarch was also considering the fate of another Lombard nobleman. This third figure, named Mimulf, was a duke with power in northwestern Italy, ruling from around the Lake Orta region. Little is known about Duke Mimulf’s opinion regarding Agilulf’s kingship, but the king undoubtedly did not like Mimulf. Agilulf ultimately accused Mimulf of treason for having at one time surrendered to an enemy force during the sporadic and largely ineffective Frankish invasions of Lombard Italy between 584-590. Citing this incident that predated his own reign, King Agilulf had Duke Mimulf arrested and executed. This would be the new norm for Lombard noblemen who ran afoul of King Agilulf.
Not all disgruntled Lombard dukes decided to stake their success on their own military power—there was a long tradition of Lombard nobles defecting to the side of the Empire of Constantinople (or the Eastern Roman Empire), which still had military and political influence in Italy at that time. In King Agilulf’s reign, the most high-profile defector was Duke Maurisio of Perugia. Agilulf, seeking to regain the lands of the dukedom and to exact revenge against the defector, mustered an army and besieged Perugia around 593 or 594. The king won the war, and during or after the battle, Duke Maurisio was killed.
In addition to his domestic enemies, King Agilulf had to also deal with foreign foes, such as the Franks, the Empire of Constantinople, and the Avars. Agilulf, however, was able to maintain a working relationship with the civil-war-plagued Franks, and he managed to battle his way to a peace agreement with the Empire of Constantinople and the Papacy within the first fifteen years of his reign. As the outside threats lessened in intensity, King Agilulf could siphon away some of his military might for the purpose of suppressing disgruntled and rebellious nobles. The second half of the 590s seemed to have been a turning point for King Agilulf’s confidence in the stability of his power and authority, for he began purging the realm of several high-profile nobles whom he disliked. Sometime after 595, King Agilulf was known to have executed a nobleman named Warnecautius, as well as Duke Zangrulf of Verona. At the same time, he also sentenced to death the aforementioned rebellious Duke Gaidulf of Bergamo, who apparently had not regained the king’s confidence. King Agilulf would continue to rule the Kingdom of the Lombards until 616, and after the turn of the century, he faced considerably less resistance from the dukes who resided within reach of his influence.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (cropped and modified section from Legend of the Danish Flag (the Dannebrog) Falling from the Heavens during the Battle of Lyndanise in Estonia in 1219, Painted by C.A. Lorentzen (c. 1749-1828), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and Europeana).
- History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.