The Life And Dramatic Downfall Of Duke Guntram Boso

Duke Guntram Boso was a prominent Frankish nobleman who gained great notoriety (and some infamy) in the second half of the 6th century. He became a major participant in historical events after 561, when the empire of the Franks was divided between four brothers—Charibert became the King of Paris, Guntram became the king of Orleans and Burgundy, Chilperic was the king of Soissons and Neustria, and Sigebert was crowned the king of Rheims and Austrasia. In this quadripartite landscape, Duke Guntram Boso was on the side of King Sigebert and the Kingdom of Austrasia. Taking a side, in this instance, was not just a formality with no consequence; although the kingly brothers mentioned above were all from the same dynasty and their vassals all knew each other, the different realms quickly began battling it out in the shadows and on the battlefield for supremacy over the Frankish Empire. Of the four kingly brothers, Charibert was the first to meet an early death, falling to disease in 568 and leaving his realm to be absorbed by his brothers. The greatest drama, however, came from Merovingian branches of King Sigebert and King Chilperic, who became embroiled in a volatile feud. Meanwhile, King Guntram got in on the action by aligning with one kinsman or the other in an attempt to keep the balance of power somewhat even. Such was the political quagmire that Frankish noblemen like Duke Guntram Boso were thrust into after 561.

King Sigebert’s promising reign lasted from 561 to 575. In the final years of his rule, Sigebert was involved in an open war against Chilperic. Sigebert’s side was clearly winning the war, and by 575 it seemed as if Chilperic would soon be forced to surrender. Yet, King Sigebert ultimately fell to an assassin, and with his life also went his kingdom’s momentum and advantage in the war against Chilperic. The slain king Sigebert was succeeded by his five-year-old son, Childebert II (r. 575-595), whose mother, Queen Brunhild, quickly became embroiled in politics over her son’s regency council.

It took time for King Childebert’s kingdom to regroup after the assassination of Sigebert—vassals were scattered and the chain of command was in question. Utilizing this chaos, King Chilperic was able to make a comeback, strengthening his own realm to be more powerful than ever. In this environment, Duke Guntram Boso’s actions were curious. Although the duke’s allegiance should have naturally shifted from his previous liege, Sigebert, to the slain king’s son, Childebert, Duke Guntram Boso loitered behind in Chilperic’s territory. His stay was awkward, as King Chilperic wanted the duke dead, whereas Chilperic’s wife, Queen Fredegund, wanted to use Guntram Boso as an agent. In that odd time, Guntram Boso seems to have tried to balance out fulfilling tasks for Queen Fredegund, while also evading warriors sent to arrest him by King Chilperic. This existence proved too exhausting for the duke, and he eventually made a bid to escape to the Kingdom of Austrasia in 578. Chilperic sent a certain Duke Dragolen to stop him, but Guntram Boso killed Dragolen in battle and was able to reaffirm his allegiance to King Childebert II.

If Duke Guntram Boso thought he would seamlessly fit back into Childebert II’s new order, he was mistaken. The duke’s years of absence, and the rumors of his correspondences with Queen Fredegund, unnerved both Childebert’s court as well as that of King Guntram. Furthermore, Guntram Boso and Childebert’s mother loathed each other, and their poor relationship did little to secure the duke’s position in the realm. Doubts about Guntram Boso’s integrity and loyalty became further exacerbated in the early 580s, when an adventurer named Gundovald appeared in the Merovingian Empire and stirred up trouble. Gundovald claimed to be a long-lost brother of King Chilperic and King Guntram. Despite this assertation being disputed fiercely by the kings, Gundovald was able to recruit a number of disgruntled noblemen and clergymen to his side. Duke Guntram Boso was not one of the men who openly fought under Gundovald’s banner, but it was widely believed among the duke’s peers that Guntram Boso had some hand in encouraging Gundovald to press his dubious claims. These quite-possibly true suspicions were muddied by Duke Guntram Boso when he took action against Gundovald’s supporters, arresting some of them, and seizing a large treasure that was intended for the would-be usurper. Despite this, King Guntram arrested the duke over suspicions of treachery, and only released him after the duke pledged to do more to hunt down Gundovald’s supporters. Duke Guntram Boso, indeed, rejoined the army of his liege, King Childebert II, and aided in campaigning against Gundovald’s forces. Nevertheless, suspicions that the duke was in some way responsible for Gundovald’s appearance persisted in the courts of the Merovingian kings.

The mid 580s were dramatic years for Merovingian politics, as well as for Duke Guntram Boso. First and foremost, King Chilperic was assassinated in 584, and his infant son, Chlotar II (r. 584-629), succeeded to the throne. In the next year, 585, King Guntram finally cornered the marauding adventurer, Gundovald, and had him executed at a place called Comminges. Much to Duke Guntram Boso’s chagrin, suspicions that he had encouraged the failed usurper’s campaigns did not die after the man’s execution. Instead, Duke Guntram Boso’s life was hanging by the proverbial thread. King Guntram wanted the duke dead, as did Queen Brunhild—only King Childebert II’s waning support was keeping the duke alive. Then, an odd incident at a church occurred that would prove to be the beginning of the end for Guntram Boso.

Around 585, Duke Guntram Boso visited the city of Metz to attend a funeral for one of his wife’s relatives.  The deceased individual was an incredibly wealthy woman, and much of her treasure was entombed with her. While the duke was still in the vicinity of Metz, thieves attempted to steal the deceased woman’s wealth. They were caught in the act and, as the story goes, they implicated the troubled duke when they were confronted. A 6th-century bishop and historian named Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594) reported the story:

“Thereupon Guntram Boso’s servants made their way to the church where the woman had been buried and went in. As soon as they were inside they shut the doors behind them, opened the tomb and stole as many precious objects from the dead body as they could lay their hands on. The monks attached to the church heard what they were at and came to the door. They were not allowed in, so they went off to tell their Bishop and the Duke what they had discovered. Meanwhile the servants pocketed their gains, jumped on their horses and fled. Fearing that they might be captured in their flight and subjected to divers[e] punishments, they then returned to the church. They put the things back on the altar, but they were afraid to come out again. ‘We were sent by Guntram Boso!’ they began to shout” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, VIII.21).

This incident caused quite a stir in King Childebert’s court, and an investigation was begun. The duke was cooperative for the first round of questions and inquiries, but he eventually decided to run. Duke Guntram Boso remained in hiding for around two years, laying low and keeping out of controversy, all the while hoping for a reconciliation with King Childebert II. Yet, the king’s mother, Queen Brunhild, did everything in her power to keep King Childebert II negatively-inclined toward the fugitive duke. She succeeded at this task by bringing up every argument and insult that had transpired between her and the duke. Unfortunately for Duke Guntram Boso, when he finally emerged from hiding around 587, he discovered that King Childebert’s mood had turned quite murderous. The aforementioned Gregory of Tours wrote of Duke Guntram Boso’s reappearance, and of King Childebert’s response to it:

“Guntram Boso, who was loathed by the Queen, began to visit with the bishops and nobles one after the other, in order to sue for forgiveness, which he had previously scorned. During the minority of King Childebert, he had never ceased to heap abuse and insults on Queen Brunhild, and he had encouraged her enemies, too, to behave towards her in the most hostile fashion. The King was now determined to avenge the wrongs done to his mother; and he ordered Guntram Boso to be pursued and killed” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, IX.8).

The duke soon became aware that he was the target of assassins. Once again on the run, he fled to the city of Verdun and pleaded with the local bishop, Ageric, for protection. Instead of hiding the fugitive, Bishop Ageric decided to convince or compel the duke to turn himself in.  As told by Gregory of Tours, “Guntram Boso was brought to the place where the King was in residence. He was stripped of his arms and then manacled. In this state Bishop Ageric led him into the King’s presence” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, IX.8). During that audience, King Childebert II did not pass judgement. Instead, the king decided to hold a trial in coordination with King Guntram, as they both had their own individual grievances with the duke.

Later that year, still in 587, Childebert II met with his uncle, King Guntram, and they held a joint hearing to discuss the duke’s fate. Duke Guntram Boso had expected Bishop Ageric to speak on his behalf, but the bishop did not show, leaving the duke defenseless. In the trial that ensued, the two begrudging kings quickly pronounced their unanimous sentencing—Guntram Boso would be executed for his various accused crimes. Although fate had been set, the duke’s odd saga had one last strange episode left.

Duke Guntram Boso, when he heard the outcome of the hearing, managed to break away from his guards and fled into the city streets. The quick-thinking duke decided he needed to find a hostage or a savior quick. As it happened, Bishop Magneric of Trier was visiting the community at the time and he had lodgings that were quickly accessible to the fleeing duke. Guntram Boso burst into the building where the bishop was staying and decided it was there that he would make his final stand. As for Bishop Magneric, his stance in the matter was hotly debated, with the kings claiming that the bishop tried to harbor Guntram Boso, while the clergy instead asserted that the bishop was held hostage. Whatever the case, when the kings’ warriors arrived at Bishop Magneric’s door, they found it barricaded and impenetrable.

No hostage negotiation occurred that day. Since the kings moved forward on the assumption that the bishop was harboring the fugitive, they set fire to the structure, endangering all who were inside. At this point, Guntram Boso decided to let the bishop out, while the duke, himself, stayed behind. The fugitive remained in the burning building until the heat and smoke became unbearable.  When the time came, the duke armed himself with a sword that he somehow managed to find during his escape, removed the barricades at the entrance of the burning building, and charged out against his pursuers. Gregory of Tours narrated the gruesome scene:

“When he saw that he was surrounded on all sides by the raging flames, the unhappy Guntram Boso girded on his sword and edged towards the exit. The moment he crossed the threshold and put one foot outside, a man in the crowd threw a javelin and hit him full in the forehead. He was thrown off his balance by this blow and driven almost berserk. He tried to draw his sword, but he was wounded by lance after lance as the mob closed in. They struck the points of their spears into his ribs and propped him up with the shafts, so that his body could not even fall to the ground” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, IX.10).

Such was the end of Duke Guntram Boso. In the aftermath of his death, the duke’s family was banished and his lands and wealth were seized by the kings. Curiously, Bishop Ageric arranged for himself to take care of the late duke’s sons. It was a form of repentance, as the bishop reportedly felt great guilt and remorse because he had broken his promise to support the duke at trial. The bishop, unfortunately, never recovered from his sense of guilt. As told by Gregory of Tours, “[Ageric] faced the daily reminder of having Guntram’s sons living with him. ‘It is my fault that you are left orphans,’ he kept saying to them. As I have told you, these things weighed heavily on him. He suffered from black depression, virtually giving up eating, and so died and was buried” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, IX.23). What happened to Guntram Boso’s sons after Ageric’s death is unknown.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Man with Lance Riding through the Snow, painted by Adolphe Schreyer (c. 1828-1899), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Art Institute of Chicago).



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