Godescalc was a popular Lombard military leader from the Benevento region who usurped power over the Beneventan Dukedom without the permission of the Lombard king, Liutprand (r. 712-744). To understand the instability and unrest in the dukedom at that time, one must go back to the reign of Duke Romoald II of Benevento (r. 706-731). During the early reign of Romoald, the dukedom had been incredibly independent (as was Romoald’s ally Spoleto, led by Duke Transamund II), but Romoald eventually reaffirmed his oath of loyalty to King Liutprand and even married Liutprand’s sister, Gumperga. Romoald and Gumperga had a son named Gisulf II, who was still a young child when Duke Romoald II died in 731. The courtiers of Benevento, however—perhaps rejecting the new close ties with the monarchy—decided to rebel against young Gisulf, instead supporting a new leader named Audelais. King Liutprand, in response, helped the pro-monarchy faction in Benevento eject Audelais from power. At that point, King Liutprand evidently deemed the child-duke, Gisulf, to be too young to rule the troublesome dukedom of Benevento, so a different kinsman named Gregory was put in charge of the region from 732 until 739. It was upon the death of this Duke Gregory, in 739, that the subject of this tale—Godescalc—decided to make his bid for power in Benevento.
Godescalc made his move during the power vacuum that occurred in the time between Duke Gregory’s death and the impending return of the young Gisulf II (who was being raised in King Liutprand’s court while Gregory oversaw Benevento). By 740, Godescalc successfully managed to put himself at the top of the dukedom before the king’s nominee could be entrenched in power, and Godescalc fortified his usurpation with some savvy alliances with Rome and the aforementioned rebellious Duke Transamund II of Spoleto. Nevertheless, this coalition was not strong enough to hold off formidable King Liutprand and his military prowess. Around 742, Liutprand ousted Duke Transamund from Spoleto, and, following that successful campaign, the king turned his wrath on Benevento. Godescalc evidently knew that he stood no chance against the incoming army of the Lombard king. As the story goes, Godescalc became more concerned about making an escape than mounting a resistance. He reportedly started to rapidly load his family and possessions onto a ship, hoping to sail away to safer lands before the king’s forces arrived. Yet, the duke either ran out of time, or a rebellious riot erupted in his city, culminating in Godescalc’s plans going horribly awry. A Lombard historian named Paul the Deacon (c. 720-799) recorded the tale:
“When he [King Liutprand] hastened to Beneventum, Godescalc having heard of his approach, endeavored to embark in a ship and flee to Greece. After he had put his wife and all his goods in the ship and attempted himself, last of all, to embark, the people of Beneventum, who were faithful to Gisulf, fell upon him and he was killed. His wife indeed was carried to Constantinople with everything she possessed” (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, 6.57).
As the passage above conveyed, Godescalc was not able to get onboard with his family before his enemies found him. Due to the ability of his wife, Anna, to get away from the scene, perhaps Godescalc purposefully stayed behind to buy time for his wife and anyone sailing with her to escape. Whatever the case, Anna allegedly had to watch from the ship as her husband, Godescalc, was cut down in front of her eyes as she set sail into the sea. With Godescalc defeated, King Liutprand finally was able to bring about young Gisulf II’s long-delayed return to Benevento. Duke Gisulf II ruled the Beneventans from 742 until 751.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Manuscript illustration labeled Virgins from BL Royal 2 B VII, f. 273, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons, Europeana and The British Library).
- History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.