The Tale Of Herfemar’s Standoff Against King Liutprand’s Palace Guards

In the early 8th century, a warrior named Herfemar served as a high-ranking advisor to Pemmo, a Lombard Duke of the Friuli region of Italy. For most of his time at the duke’s court, Herfemar likely thought that Duke Pemmo’s court was a politically safe place to be. Pemmo had a decades-long reign, beginning in the days of King Aripert II of the Lombards (r. 701-712). At the start, Duke Pemmo was evidently not one who would impede or scheme against the monarchy. Instead, he mainly seemed to focus on rebuilding and strengthening his region’s military capabilities, which had been weakened and depleted during the war-torn reigns of previous dukes of Friuli, who had suffered from clashes with hostile Slavic raiders. Duke Pemmo, in contrast to his predecessors, succeeded in whipping his local forces back into fighting shape and managed to contain the threat of Slavic incursions. Herfemar would have probably been with Pemmo in Friuli at that time, but his deeds during those border skirmishes were not recorded. Despite the lack of information, one can imagine that Herfemar fought well during the battles and gained the respect of the duke. Whatever the case, he was a great fighter and eventually was invited to be a part of Duke Pemmo’s inner circle of advisors.

While Duke Pemmo and Herfemar were busy defending Friuli and trying to bring the region’s conflicts with Slavic invaders to an end, they would have been watching with interest as a civil war broke out in the rest of the Lombard Kingdom. King Aripert II died during a war against a returned exile named Ansprand, who launched a Bavarian-backed invasion of Lombard Italy in 711 or 712. Although King Ansprand won the war and claimed the kingdom, he died of illness only three months after becoming king. Ansprand was succeeded by his son, King Liutprand (r. 712-744), and it was this king that Duke Pemmo of Friuli would eventually anger, thereby putting Herfemar and other advisors of the duke in danger.

Duke Pemmo, despite still ostensibly continuing to play the role of a duke who was adequately loyal to his liege, was not able to maintain good relations with King Liutprand. Pemmo, like other vassals of the Lombard king, evidently had a hard time deciding how to act during Liutprand’s reign. To some extent, this was because the king was a talented geo-political schemer, who expanded his realm by quickly and unpredictably pivoting between war and peace with his rivals in Italy. This fluidity of policy gave Liutprand an advantage when he was scheming on the global stage. Yet, Liutprand’s own vassals, too, were caught off guard by their king’s quickly-shifting designations of friend and foe. King Liutprand’s dukes had to time their own independent actions cautiously and precisely, so that their machinations against institutions or nearby regions did not undermine their king’s obscured plans for the overall kingdom. Duke Pemmo, despite not having any clashes with the previous kings, was not as lucky with Liutprand.

Duke Pemmo’s downfall ultimately came after meddling in a local religious rivalry. It was a dispute of religious jurisdiction and housing between men identified as Bishop Amator and Patriarch Calixtus. As the story goes, Patriarch Calixtus evicted Amator from the home that the bishop inhabited in Friuli and drove him away from the region. This event initially occurred without any obstruction from the duke. Nevertheless, after the bishop was driven away and once Patriarch Calixtus moved in, Duke Pemmo soon changed his mind and had Calixtus arrested and imprisoned. This arrest, however, was what angered King Liutprand.

Liutprand, when he heard the news, decided to remove Pemmo as Duke of Friuli. The maneuver could have been a bloody affair, as Pemmo had a powerful military and he had also worked to cultivate a possible alliance with his Slavic neighbors after negotiating a truce with them in years prior to the religious incident. Talented King Liutprand, however, was able to avoid a civil war by enticing one of Pemmo’s sons, Ratchis, into arranging for the duke to peacefully surrender to the crown. Convinced by Ratchis, Duke Pemmo and his council of advisors (including Herfemar) willingly made their way to have an audience with King Liutprand, presumably at the king’s palace at Ticinum (later Pavia). In exchange for ushering his father to face the king’s judgment, Ratchis was promised the role of being Friuli’s next duke and King Liutprand also divulged that Pemmo and the rest of the family would be pardoned. Pemmo’s inner circle of non-family advisors, unfortunately, were not part of the deal. On this incident, a Friuli native and historian named Paul the Deacon (c. 720-799) wrote, “the king, sitting in judgement, pardoned for Ratchis’ sake Pemmo and his [other] two sons, Ratchait and Aistulf, and ordered them to stand behind his chair. The king, however, in a loud voice ordered that all those who had adhered to Pemmo, naming them, should be seized…” (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, 6.51).

Herfemar and the other advisors were caught off guard by the king’s order. Curiously, these men had apparently been able to arrive armed for their meeting with the king, and as they had their weapons at hand, many of the advisors decided to not go down without a fight. Herfemar, a talented swordsman, was one such man who reportedly drew his blade and decided to battle his way out of the throne room. As the story goes, Herfemar impressively was able to fend off the incoming palace guards and make a run for it. He (along with other fleeing advisors who followed him) reportedly retreated to a nearby church, where the sanctuary was barricaded and fortified in preparation for a final stand. At that point, either due to the sacrilegious prospect of assaulting a church or possibly due to Herfemar’s own prowess with a sword, King Liutprand ultimately decided to pardon the warrior. This bold escape, along with the general arrest of Duke Pemmo’s advisors, was recorded by the aforementioned Paul the Deacon, who wrote, “when these Langobards [Lombards] were seized in this manner, Herfemar, who had been one of them, drew his sword, and followed by many, defended himself manfully and fled to the church of the blessed Michael and then by the favor of the king he alone secured impunity while the others were for a long time tormented in bonds” (History of the Lombards, 6.51). Unfortunately, little is known about what happened to Herfemar after he left the church besides that he did not share the same fate as the other advisers of Duke Pemmo.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Battle of Etampes from BL Royal 16 G VI, f. 81 (Chroniques de France ou de St Denis), [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.

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