When King Aripert of the Lombards died in 661, the Lombard realm was divided between his two young sons, Godepert and Perctarit. Both sons held the rank of king, with Godepert holding court in Pavia, while Perctarit reigned in Milan. Although there was naturally some rivalry and jostling involved in such a co-king brotherly split, the real threat that Godepert and Perctarit faced was not each other, but their ambitious vassals. And in the kingdom of the Lombards there was no shortage of claimants. This was exacerbated by a curious feature of Lombard politics in the 6th and 7th centuries, in which a claimant could gain legitimacy by marrying, or descending from, a female member of the Lombard royal family. For example, King Aripert’s claim to the throne might have largely rested on his being a nephew of the prominent Lombard Queen, Theudelinda (d. 628). Similarly, a usurper could gain legitimacy by marrying a former queen, or by marrying a daughter of the monarchs. Unfortunately for Godepert and Perctarit, the latter scenario is exactly what happened in their case.
By 662, a plot was already underway to oust the brother co-kings and to replace them with one of the powerful Lombard dukes. The ringleader of the conspiracy was Duke Grimoald of Benevento, but the second most important figure in the plot was Duke Garipald of Turin, who played the role of the insider. According to Lombard sources, King Godepert tragically put misplaced trust in Garipald, keeping him close as an adviser and ambassador. Unfortunately, Garipald worked on Duke Grimoald’s behalf instead of the king’s. Due to Garipald’s misinformation and sabotage, King Godepert was outrageously said to have been uninformed that Duke Grimoald had raised an army and was marching on Pavia. As the story goes, when the rebelling duke from Benevento finally reached the king’s palace, King Godepert—none the wiser to the danger he was in—gave Grimoald a warm welcome, inviting him to lodge in the palace and partake in feasts and entertainment. Duke Grimoald accepted the lodgings, but the offers of friendship and comradery were rejected. Within days, King Godepert was stabbed to death and Grimoald seized the throne. After the assassination, newly crowned King Grimoald (r. 662-671) moved quickly to solidify his claim to the throne. He reassured courtiers who were concerned about the Lombard royal bloodline by awkwardly marrying one of King Aripert’s daughters, which would make the poor bride a sister of the freshly-slain Godepert. A notable figure not invited to the wedding was King Perctarit, the surviving brother of the bride, for he had to abandon Italy and go into exile to escape from Grimoald’s assassins.
Yet, Grimoald did not have a monopoly on assassins. In fact, at the beginning of King Grimoald’s reign, there was a man with killer intent who wished to avenge the death of King Godepert. This curious avenger, to say the least, was an unlikely man of action. The Lombard historian, Paul the Deacon (c. 720-799), introduced our latest character with the following brief and blunt sentence: “There was, indeed, in the household of Godepert a little dwarf who came from the city of Turin” (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, 4.51).
The vengeful little fellow, unfortunately left unnamed, was hell-bent on meting out vigilante justice on the conspirators that took advantage of and killed King Godepert. Perhaps due to his familiarity with the Turin region, the stout assassin decided to first target Duke Garipald of Turin, who had been Godepert’s treacherous advisor and ambassador. It was a well-planned operation that the short avenger concocted while he stalked his prey. He learned Duke Garipald’s usual patterns and favorite haunts. In particular, he discovered certain locations where the duke was especially vulnerable. Ultimately, the stout vengeance-seeker decided his best bet was to set up an ambush in a local church in Turin. While scoping out the location, the assassin discovered that he could climb up, unseen, on the supporting pillars and beams of the church, allowing him to hang above or beside the usual passageways that the duke took through the holy building. Paul the Deacon (with a tone of approval) described what allegedly happened when the short assassin launched his plot:
“When he knew that duke Garipald, upon the very holy day of Easter would come to pray in the church of St. John, he got up on the sacred font of the baptistry and held himself by his left hand to a little column supporting the canopy where Garipald was about to pass, and having drawn his sword he held it under his clothing, and when Garipald had come near him to pass through, he lifted his garment and struck him on the neck with his sword with all his might and cut off his head upon the spot. Those who had come with Garipald fell upon him, killing him with wounds from many blows, but although he died, he still signally avenged the wrong done to his master Godepert” (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, 4.51).
As the quote conveys, the assassin was killed in action after slaying Duke Garipald. King Grimoald, therefore, was spared from facing a similar plot from the resolute and innovative killer. Grimoald, meanwhile, kept up his shadowy pressure on his exiled brother-in-law, Perctarit, who had a knack for escaping from plots of intrigue. In a twist of fate, after King Grimoald’s own death in 671, Perctarit quickly returned to Italy and successfully seized the Lombard throne from Grimoald’s young successor, Garibald.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Man Preparing to Draw his Sword, by Jacques Callot (c. 1592–1635), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.