This painting, by the English artist Charles Landseer (c. 1799 – 1879), was inspired by tales of the demise of King Alboin of the Lombards (r. 560s-572). To understand the king’s dramatic end, it would be helpful to quickly go over Alboin’s wars and marriage, as those topics are directly linked to the king’s death. First of all, King Alboin emerged in historical records in the mid 560s, when he was noted to have waged war against the Lombards’ bitter rivals, the Gepids (or Gepidae), near the region of Hungary, killing a Gepid king named Cunimund between 566 and 567. Awkwardly, during the course of the war, King Alboin married Cunimund’s daughter, Rosamund—a precarious marriage brought about either by previous failed peace negotiations or through capture and forced marriage after Alboin won the conflict. Due to Alboin’s war against Rosamund’s father and people, the marriage always would have been strained, but Alboin’s alleged actions after his victory brought the marital dysfunction to a new unforgivable level. According to legend, King Alboin was said to have had a chalice built from the skull of Rosamund’s father, the late King Cunimund. This detail was recorded by the 8th-century writer, Paul the Deacon, who wrote, “Alboin killed Cunimund, and made out of his head, which he carried off, a drinking goblet” (History of the Lombards, Book I, chapter 27). No matter how much the grisly chalice disturbed Rosamund, it became a cherished trophy for Alboin and the Lombard king always kept the skull cup near at hand.
Around 568, King Alboin began his most famous endeavor—the Lombard invasion of Italy, which was at that time controlled by the emperors of Constantinople. Alboin’s invasion caught the empire off guard, and Emperor Justin II of Constantinople (r. 565-578) could muster little resistance against the Lombard invasion as Alboin conquered large swaths of the Italian landscape. By 572, the Lombards had taken much of Italy and the Lombard king settled his court in the city of Verona. King Alboin was joined by Rosamund in Verona, and the king also had with him there his usual treasures, trinkets and trophies, including the infamous chalice made from the skull of Rosamund’s father. It was impressive that Alboin and Rosamund had been able coexist for so long, but that year in Verona would be a breaking point. Paul the Deacon described the alleged moment that threw the couple’s strained coexistence out of balance:
“While he [King Alboin] sat in merriment at a banquet at Verona longer than was proper, with the cup which he had made of the head of his father-in-law, king Cunimund, he ordered it to be given to the queen to drink wine, and he invited her to drink merrily with her father…. Then Rosemund, when she heard the thing, conceived in her heart deep anguish she could not restrain, and straightway she burned to revenge the death of her father by the murder of her husband, and presently she formed a plan with Helmechis who was the king’s squire” (History of the Lombards, Book II, chapter 28).
As the final line of the lengthy quote hints, Rosamund had some supporters and sympathizers in the court at Verona who were willing to conspire with her against the king. The sources differ on exactly which method she chose, but they all end in Alboin’s death. Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), in his History of the Franks, claimed that Rosamund and a servant gave the king a fatal dose of poison. Paul the Deacon (whose account inspired the artwork above) painted a more gruesome scene. According to Paul’s account, Rosamund sabotaged Alboin’s sword and let in an assassin while the king slept. Alboin, however, woke up before the assassin could strike. He grasped his sword, but, because of Rosamund’s sabotage, could not draw the blade from its sheath. Alboin then grabbed a foot-stool as a last resort and tried to fend off the assassin’s attacks. It is this scene that Charles Landseer re-creates in his painting. Although he put up a good fight with the piece of furniture, King Alboin was only able to delay the inevitable for a short while before he was ultimately dealt a death blow and succumbed to the wound. As for Rosamund and her conspirators, they were rejected and condemned by the Lombard nobles, and Rosamund was either executed or took her own life.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
- History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.