Saint-King Guntrams’ Tragic Child Woes

King Guntram of Burgundy (r. 561-593) was a man who knew loss all too well. At least three of his brothers had been murdered—Chramn was burned alive, while King Sigebert and King Chilperic had both been stabbed to death by assassins. Many of Guntram’s uncles and nephews had also been murdered, not to mention the other family members who met less-nefarious violent deaths in battle during the frequent Merovingian Dynasty civil wars of that era. Yet, for this depressed king, the most haunting losses in his life were the deaths of his sons.

King Guntram was known to have had children with at least three women. In his early days, before devoting himself to marriage, Guntram spent his evenings with a mistress named Veneranda, and they had a son named Gundobad. Yet, Veneranda was pushed aside when Guntram married his first wife, Marcatrude. Young Gundobad was sent away, too, so that the king could start building a new family of legitimate heirs, born in wedlock. Despite this, Guntram was still reportedly fond of his son and kept himself informed about Gundobad’s wellbeing. Marcatrude, in contrast, was said to have loathed the boy, regardless of how far away he was sent. When Queen Marcatrude soon had a child of her own with Guntram, her dislike of Gundobad intensified, for the boy posed a potential threat to the inheritance of her offspring. Therefore, when Gundobad suddenly and unexpectedly died of symptoms that suggested poisoning, everyone knew who the prime suspect was. Marcatrude’s only lifeline in the increasingly hostile court was her child, yet this unfortunate young soul died so young that a name was not recorded in history. After this second child’s death, King Guntrum divorced Marcatrude and made no effort to keep her healthy—she died soon after being dismissed. After these sad events, King Guntram married his last and favorite wife, Austrechild. They had two sons together, named Chlotar and Chlodomer. These boys, however, both died of dysentery in 577. Queen Austrechild, too, fell to the same disease in 580. In a grief-stricken rage, King Guntram executed the two doctors who had tried, but failed, to save the queen’s life. After three life partners, and three or four deceased sons, King Guntram decided not to remarry. The only known child of Guntram’s to have reached adulthood was a single daughter named Clotild, whose mother is unknown. She, unfortunately, was not deemed eligible to be Guntram’s heir, so the king nominated his nephew, King Childebert II of Austrasia (r. 575-595), as his successor.

This is all tragically ironic, for King Guntram of Burgundy (r. 561-593), even during his own lifetime, was rumored to be have been able to perform miracles, at least indirectly. These rumors were believed and recorded by clergymen such as Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594). In one particular tale Bishop Gregory preserved, it took only a few thread’s from Guntram’s cloak to heal a sick child:

“The faithful had a story which they used to tell about Guntram. There was a woman whose son was seriously ill of a quartan ague. As the boy lay tossing on his bed, his mother pushed her way through the vast crowds and came up behind the King. Without his noticing she cut a few threats from his cloak. She steeped these threads in water and then gave the infusion to her son to drink. The fever left him immediately and he became well again. I accept this as true, for I have often heard men possessed of a devil call upon Guntram’s name when the evil spirit was in them, and through his miraculous powers confess their crimes” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, IX. 21).

This miraculous power of King Guntram’s that Bishop Gregory had faith in unfortunately did not seem to work on the king’s own family. Gundobad was not spared from poison, nor was Marcatrude’s unnamed child saved from whatever affliction took the newborn’s life. Guntram could not heal his sons, Chlotar and Chlodomer of dysentery in 577, and had the same dismal luck with his wife, Austrechild, in 580. If King Guntram truly had the power to heal strangers, it must have been a torment to be unable to save the many ill-fated loved-ones in his own family.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Brice from BL Royal 20 D VI, f. 127, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the British Library.jpg).

 

Sources:

  • The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.

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