Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

A Priest-Ridden Kingdom

One short chapter will be sufficient for the story of the next seventy years. During that time eleven kings reigned over the Visigoths, but the records of their reigns are scanty, and contain few events of any great interest. The main thing that strikes us in reading the history of this period is the rapid growth of the Church's influence in the government of the kingdom.

Reccared's young son reigned only two years. There was a Gothic noble named Witeric, who had already in Reccared's lifetime headed an unsuccessful rebellion, and had obtained the king's generous pardon. This man, ungrateful for the mercy that had been shown him, now rebelled against Leuva, and succeeded in getting himself acknowledged king in his stead. The dethroned boy-king, his right hand having been cut off, was thrown into prison, and afterwards put to death.

The seven years of Witeric's reign were unprosperous, and his rule was that of a selfish tyrant. It is said that he wished to restore the Arian religion; however that may be, he seems to have made himself detested by the clergy, as well as by the nobles and the people. In the year 610 he was murdered at a banquet, and his body was buried in unhallowed ground without the rites of the church.

The short reign of his successor, Gundemar, contains no events worth relating; but Sisebut, who was chosen king in 612, was a man about whom we would be glad to know more. He was a successful general, and his victories compelled the Greeks to surrender nearly all their possessions in Spain. Like the Gothic heroes of older days, Theoderic and Totila, he was distinguished for humanity towards the conquered. Many of the Greek prisoners had been sold into slavery by their Gothic captors, and the king purchased their freedom at his own cost. He was also a scholar, and a generous patron of such learning as existed in Spain in his day. Unhappily it has to be added that he was the first Gothic king who ever persecuted the Jews. "Baptism within one year, or scourging, mutilation, banishment, and confiscation of goods;" such was the choice which Sisebut offered to that unhappy people. Thousands of Jews professed to accept the gospel. But the dread of persecution could not make them Christians at heart. The Jews till now had been attached friends of the Goths; the forced conversions under Sisebert changed them into bitter enemies. Those of them who received baptism and attended Christian worship continued in the secrecy of their homes to practise Jewish ritual, and to teach their children to curse their oppressors. The best men of the Spanish Church felt that these persecutions were wrong, and succeeding kings did something to lighten the burdens which Sisebut had imposed. But the mischief was irreparable. The Jews, whether professedly converted or not, had become embittered against the Goths, and when the kingdom was attacked by the Moors they joyfully lent their aid to its assailants.

When Sisebut died in 621, his general, Swinthila, was elected to the throne. According to some writers, Swinthila was a son of Reccared. He is remarkable as being the first king who reigned over the whole Spanish peninsula. The Greeks of the empire, whom Sisebut had confined to a small strip of Spain, became in Swinthila's time subjects of the Gothic kingdom, and their soldiers took service in the Gothic armies; and the rebellious Basques were brought to complete submission. Swinthila won the affection of the common people among his subjects. The title given to him was "the Father of the Poor," but he seems to have aimed at limiting the power of the Gothic nobles and the bishops. The discontent of these two classes reached its height when without asking their sanction he appointed his son Reccimer the partner of his throne. The nobles, led by Sisenanth, rose in revolt, and obtained the help of the Frankish king, Dagobert, by promising to give him the most valued object among the Gothic royal treasures. This was a golden dish or table, weighing five hundred pounds and richly jeweled, which had been given by Aetius to Thorismund, king of the Visigoths, as part of his share of Attila's spoils in 453. The Franks marched into Spain, and on their approach the Goths who had supported Swinthila abandoned his cause, and Sisenanth was crowned at Saragossa. The Frankish army then returned home, and Dagobert sent ambassadors to claim the price of his assistance. Sisenanth delivered to them the precious object which had been promised, but the Goths were so indignant at the thought of losing this renowned treasure that they took it by force from the ambassadors; and brought it back in triumph to Toledo. Sisenanth dared not oppose himself to the will of his people, and he had to pay Dagobert a large sum in compensation.

[Illustration] from The Goths by Henry Bradley


The elevation of Sisenanth was a victory of the power of the nobles over that of the king and the commons But in the end it led to the supremacy of the Church over all three. In order to secure the ecclesiastical sanction for his usurpation, the new king caused a council to be held at Toledo in the year 633. Sixty-nine bishops were present, either in person or by their representatives; and after they had finished their deliberations on the Church questions submitted to them, they formally confirmed the right of Sisenanth to the throne, and declared Swinthila and all his family incapable of holding any office of dignity in the State. The bishops then decreed that in future, whenever a king died, his successor should be chosen by the nobles and the clergy in council; and every man who attempted to rebel against the king so chosen was declared liable to be cut off from the communion of the Church, and to be in danger of eternal destruction. The same terrible penalties were threatened against any king who should endeavour to set aside the new law of election by raising his son to the royal dignity without the sanction of a duly constituted council. It was further enacted that henceforward the clergy should be freed from all taxation.

What became of the discrowned Swinthila and his family is not known. In the fifth year of his reign Sisenanth died at Toledo, and Kindila was chosen as his successor. He too was a mere tool in the hands of the bishops. The only events of his reign worth recording are the decrees of the Church councils that no king should in future be chosen who was not of noble Gothic descent, or who had assumed the dress of a monk. It was also ordained that every future king before his coronation should take an oath to tolerate no heretics or Jews within his realm.

Kindila died in 640, and the assembly of bishops and nobles chose his son Tulga in his stead.

The young Tulga gave promise of being just such a king as the clergy loved; but all the awful threats of the bishops were unavailing to prevent a rebellion among the Gothic nobles. The leader of this rising, Kindaswinth, succeeded in getting Tulga into his power, and by clothing him in a monk's habit rendered him, according, to the law passed in the last reign, incapable of sitting on the throne.

The bishops were obliged to submit to Kindaswinth's usurpation. He was a man of great energy and strength of character, and his accession was followed by a reign of terror that compelled both clergy and nobles to feel that they had found a master. Two hundred Goths of the noblest families and five hundred of lower rank were punished with death for conspiring against his throne. Many others were banished, and their goods confiscated, or bestowed on the king's faithful supporters. The heads of the Church were wise enough to bow to the storm, and they sought to win the king's favour by decreeing the penalty of degradation and ex-communication against all priests who were guilty of countenancing any conspiracy against his throne. By these measures all opposition was crushed, and the kingdom was brought into a state of order and tranquility such as had not been known before.

Strange to say, this fierce and energetic sovereign was already nearly eighty years old when he seized the throne. After he had reigned seven years the bishops, doubtless at his own secret suggestion, presented to him a petition that he would abdicate in favour of his son Recceswinth, in order to prevent the tumults which might be expected to arise at his death. Kindaswinth consented joyfully to the request, and his son was crowned in 649, with the assent of the clergy and of the nobles. The aged king, it is said, spent the remaining years of his life in acts of piety and beneficence, and died in 652 at the age of ninety years.

Recceswinth seems to have inherited much of his father's energy without any of his harshness. The oath which he had taken at his coronation contained a clause binding him never to pardon any man who conspired against his throne. One of his first acts after his father's death was to call an assembly of the nobles and the higher clergy of his kingdom, and to ask them to release him from this cruel promise. The council decided that the oath was no longer binding, and enacted that the right of pardoning rebels should be restored to the king. Other important laws for the government of the kingdom were passed by the same assembly; the most important of them was that the property amassed by a king during his reign should not descend to his family, but to the successor who should be chosen by the council of nobles and prelates.

For twenty-three years Recceswinth governed his people with such success that the kingdom enjoyed unbroken peace except for a brief rebellion of the Basques, led by a Gothic noble named Froya. The leader was captured and put to death; but the Basques obtained redress of their grievances, and were thenceforward content to accept the rule of the Gothic king.

But the great reason for which Recceswinth deserves to be remembered is that he carried a step further the work begun by Leovigild and Reccared, of blending Goths and Spaniards into one nation; Till his time intermarriage between the two peoples was forbidden by law. Recceswinth abolished the prohibition; and, following in his father's footsteps, he forbade, under heavy penalties, the use of the Roman law in his dominions. Henceforward Goths and Romans alike were to be judged according to the law-book of the Visigoths.

[Illustration] from The Goths by Henry Bradley


In the year 672 Recceswinth died, deeply lamented by his people. In the history of the Visigoths a reign of twenty-three years of peace had never been before, and it was not destined ever to be again.