King Cunincpert became the ruler of the Lombards in Italy around 688 after succeeding his father, King Perctarit (r. 671-688). Upon Cunincpert’s ascendance to the throne, he likely knew who posed the greatest threat from within to the Lombard monarchy—this would be Duke Alahis of Trento. Alahis had already been a powerful and insubordinate duke in the reign of King Perctarit. The duke had independently conquered the region of Bolzano (seizing it from distant relatives of the Lombard royal family), and with this bolstered land and manpower, Alahis rebelled against King Perctarit. In the war that followed, King Perctarit and prince Cunincpert fought to a stalemate with Duke Alahis, who was able to demand favorable terms in a peace agreement with the monarchy. The terms of peace resulted in the region of Brescia being added to Duke Alahis’ now quite sizable domain in northern Italy. Therefore, the duke (who ruled Trento, Bolzano and Brescia at the time) was an intimidating figure, indeed, when Perctarit died in 688, leaving King Cunincpert to begin his precarious transition to the throne as an untested and vulnerable fledgling monarch.
Not long after Cunincpert ascended to the throne in 688, Duke Alahis raised his own forces in rebellion to challenge the new king. The duke’s early campaign maneuvers were a great success, and he even captured the Lombard capital city of Ticinum (later renamed Pavia). Yet, Cunincpert, who was not at Ticinum when it fell, was rallying his supporters and sympathizers to muster a loyalist army. King Cunincpert benefited from issues about Alahis’ character and governance, which caused men to defect from the rebel force and join the king. In particular, Duke Alahis seemed to have caused anger by raising taxes, and he somehow also disgruntled key church figures (perhaps by being a member of the Arian Christian sect that was popular in the early Lombard realm). Whatever the case, as told by the Catholic Lombard historian, Paul the Deacon (720-799), “fear and hatred of the tyrant took possession of all the churchmen and priests, since they deemed they could not at all bear his rudeness; and they began to wish for Cunincpert…” (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, 5.38). In contrast to Alahis, King Cunincpert (as the reader might guess) was one of the first Catholic Lombard kings, and was resultingly well-liked by the Catholic clergy and historians in his kingdom. Religion aside, Duke Alahis, likely sensing the wavering allegiance of allies in the conquered territory, ultimately decided to withdraw and regroup in the heartland of his personal domain. Meanwhile, former rebels who decided to defect back to the monarchy soon returned the city Ticinum back into the hands of King Cunincpert. And with this, the final stage of the war between Cunincpert and Alahis was set to begin.
King Cunincpert, with the Lombard seat of power back in his possession and a freshly raised army at his disposal, now decided to go on the offensive against Duke Alahis. Cunincpert’s troops marched north, eventually tracking Duke Alahis and the rebel army to the vicinity of Bergamo by 689. There, a battle was commenced that would decide the fate of the war. This battle, however, according to medieval Lombard tradition, was anything but normal.
According to the aforementioned Lombard historian, Paul the Deacon (who was a very pro-Cunincpert source), the king curiously decided to employ a body double during the battle at Bergamo. It was an interesting decision, for strength and fighting ability were said to have been some of the better qualities of King Cunincpert’s character, and folktales existed about the king reportedly even being a victor in weightlifting competitions against his vassals. Nevertheless, in this instance against formidable Duke Alahis and the rebel army at Bergamo, Cunincpert allegedly decided to let someone else play the part of the king during the battle.
According to Paul the Deacon, the person who impersonated the king during the battle was a warrior-priest named Deacon Seno of Ticinum. It should be reiterated once again that Paul the Deacon was a pro-Cunincpert source and that he likely went out of his way to describe Cunincpert’s reign as rosily as possible. Therefore, Cunincpert was described as being hesitant about sending Seno out as a body double, and the legends claim that it took emotional pleading and begging from Cunincpert’s trusted advisors to convince the allegedly bold, strong and courageous Catholic king to send someone else to face the rebels in battle. Paul the Deacon’s (translated) account of the peculiar battle and Seno’s fate read as follows:
“Overcome at last, since he was of tender heart, by their prayers and tears, he handed his cuirass and his helmet, and his greaves and his other arms to the deacon, and dispatched him to play the part of the king. For this deacon was of the same stature and bearing, so that when he had gone armed out of the tent he was taken for king Cunincpert by all. The battle then was joined and they struggled with all their might. And when Alahis pressed the harder there where he thought the king was, he killed Seno the deacon, and imagined that Cunincpert had been slain” (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombard, 5.40).
Such was the unfortunate fate of the warrior-priest Seno. As for King Cunincpert, likely peeking out from his tent after hearing sounds of confusion and chaos from an army that thought it had lost its king, he finally decided to show himself and rally the troops. After donning whatever spare set of armor he had on hand, King Cunincpert joined the fray and managed to stop his army from retreating or shattering after the death of kingly-dressed Seno. Duke Alahis may have overextended himself in his earlier charge against the king’s body double, for when the second wave of battle renewed after the real Cunincpert’s appearance, Duke Alahis soon found his side to be at a disadvantage. The exhausted duke tried to rally his army and regain the momentum, but he was slain in battle during his vain attempt to push back King Cunincpert’s newly emboldened force. After the battle, Duke Alahis’s body was found and unfortunately mutilated. Paul the Deacon recorded that “the head of Alahis was cut off and his legs were cut away and only his deformed and mangled corpse remained” (History of the Lombard, 5.41).
Medieval historians could have remembered in a vastly different light King Cunincpert’s curious decision to send a body double to lead his forces in battle. Cunincpert, however, benefited from being an early Lombard monarch of the Catholic faith in a realm where the rival Christian sect of Arianism was still popular, and therefore, the Catholic storytellers and clergymen-historians such as Paul the Deacon evidently decided to do some damage control to safeguard the memory of Cunincpert’s pro-Catholic reign. Any insinuations of cowardice were stripped from the tale of King Cunincpert allowing a body double to wear his armor, lead his troops into battle, and duel the opposing general, Duke Alahis, to the death.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Bishop Otto II of Utrecht is killed in the battle of Ane, Anno 1226, by Antonie F. Zürcher (c. 1825 – 1876), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Amsterdam Museum).
- History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.