Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

The Visigoths Again

We have now to take up again the story of the Visigoths, of whom we have lost sight while following the history of their eastern kinsmen to its tragic close. The Gothic dominion in Spain lasted for a century and a half after the downfall of the Ostrogoths.; but only a very meagre outline of its history has come down to us. Our authorities henceforward are nearly all churchmen; and very often they pass over the things which we should most like to know, in order to dwell on matters which we regard as trifles, but which were interesting to themselves because they had some connection with religion.

It has already been mentioned that after the death of Alaric II in 507, the great Theoderic constituted himself the guardian of Amalaric, the infant king of the Visigoths, who was his grandson. While Theoderic lived, Spain and the narrow strip of Southern Gaul which had been spared by the Frankish conquests were governed by him in Amalaric's name. The Ostrogoth general, Theudis, who was appointed viceroy in Spain, was, however, practically the king of the country. We are told that he sent his appointed tribute to Ravenna every year and professed to render obedience to his master's commands. Theoderic was jealous of his power, but did not dare to dismiss him from his office, lest he should revolt to the Franks He made many attempts to persuade Theudis to visit Italy, but the viceroy was too cunning to fall into the snare.

When Theoderic died Amalaric, then twenty-four years of age, was recognized as sovereign of all the Gothic territories west of the Rhone, and the royal treasure of the Visigoths was sent from Ravenna to Narbonne, where the young king held his court.

Amalaric endeavoured to strengthen his kingdom by marrying into the family of his dangerous neighbours, the kings of the Franks. But this marriage proved to be the cause of his ruin. His queen, Clotilda; the daughter of Clovis, was a fervent Catholic, like her mother, after whom she had been named. Amalaric had promised to allow her to retain her own religion; but his promise was broken. We need not believe the Frankish historian when he tells us that the queen was cruelly tortured to induce her to change her faith, and that she sent to her brothers a handkerchief stained with her blood, to excite them to avenge her wrongs. But no doubt she did complain that she was not allowed to worship according to her own conscience. A Frankish king was always ready to seize upon a pretext for attacking his weaker neighbours; and King Hildebert, of Paris, with a powerful army, marched against Narbonne. The Goths were defeated, and fled into Spain. The capital was taken, and Hildebert returned home, enriched with the royal treasures, and with the plunder of the Arian churches. Queen Clotilda accompanied her brother, but died before arriving at Paris. Amalaric was murdered in a church at Barcelona, by the orders of Theudis, whom the people elected king in his stead:

About the seventeen years (531548) during which Theudis reigned in his own name, we have very little information. The two kings of the Franks, Hildebert and Hlothhari (Clotaire), invaded Spain in the year 543, and laid siege to Caesaraugusta, now called Saragossa. A wild story is told, how the citizens, hard pressed by famine, and on the point of surrendering, invoked (heretics though they were) the prayers of the Catholic martyr,Vicentius. Clothed in mourning robes, and carrying the relics of the saint, they marched solemnly found the walls, singing penitential psalms. When the Franks knew what was the meaning of this display they were seized with superstitious panic, and fled in wild disorder. The story was probably invented to excuse the Frankish defeat. The Goths overtook the flying invaders at the foot of the Pyrenees, and the Frankish army would have been utterly annihilated, if its chiefs had not bribed the Gothic general with large sums of money to allow them to make their escape unmolested through the mountain passes.

Even the Catholics admit that Theudis was a wise and able ruler, and that he followed the great Theoderic's policy of equal justice to his subjects of every creed. When the army of Justinian was making war upon the Vandals, their king Gelimer tried in vain to persuade Theudis to take his part, on the ground of their religious sympathies. Afterwards, however, his own nephew, Hildibad, king of the Ostrogoths, besought his aid in his struggle with the emperor, and Theudis led an army to attack the cities which Belisarius had conquered from the Vandals in Africa. The Goths were beaten with great slaughter, and their king barely escaped with his life. The story told to excuse their ill success is that they were surprised while engaged in worship on the Sunday. They thought that their enemies, being Christians, would observe the day as religiously as themselves, and therefore they were in no fear of attack. This tale would have been more credible if it had been told of Wulfila's converts two centuries before.

Shortly after this event Theudis was murdered in his palace by one of his own soldiers, who pretended to be a lunatic. The dying king expressed bitter remorse for his share in the murder of Amalaric, and begged that the life of his assassin might be spared.

The usurpation of Theudis had broken off the hereditary succession, and the kingdom of the Visigoths became once more an elective one, as it had been in the most ancient days of their history. An elective monarchy, where representative government is unknown, and where the nation is too large to be brought together in a body, must inevitably lead to disputes and civil war. The successor of Theudis was Theudigisel, the general who had led the Goths to victory over the Franks. He proved to be a cruel tyrant, and the whole nation rejoiced when, after a reign of eighteen months, he was murdered by his guests at a banquet in his own palace. The next election was a disputed one. Agila, the king who was chosen by the northern cities, was not acknowledged by the south, and his arbitrary rule soon disgusted even his own supporters. The southern rebellion was headed by Athanagild, who appealed for help to Constantinople. The emperor sent the Patrician Liberius with a powerful army to his assistance. The struggle lasted five years. Agila was defeated, and was put to death by his own soldiers, and then Athanagild became king.

Athanagild's reign of fourteen years was prosperous and peaceful, except for his wars with the dangerous allies whom he invited into the country. The emperor's soldiers seized many of the cities of Spain and it was found impossible to drive them out.

Like so many other Visigoth kings, Athanagild sought to add security to his kingdom by connecting his family by marriage with the house of Clovis. The consequences were unhappy, as usual; the fate of Athanagild's two daughters, is one of the most tragic episodes of Frankish history. The younger of them, Brunihild, was married to King Sigebert of the East Franks. The wedding was celebrated with great pomp, and the fashionable poetaster of the, time, Venantius Fortunatus, composed a poem for the occasion. It is a very heathenish sort of performance, though the author was a bishop; it tells how the God of Love wounded the heart of Sigebert with an arrow, and then Venus and her son extol in turn the manly virtues of the bridegroom and the loveliness of the bride. The brother of Sigebert, Chilperic, king of the Northwest Franks, sought the hand of Athanagild's elder daughter, Geleswintha, and in spite of her tears and entreaties she was compelled by her parents to accept the unwelcome bridegroom. Both princesses adopted the religion of their husbands. It was not long before Chilperic's affection was estranged from his queen by the wiles of a woman named Fredegunda, and Geleswintha was put to death by his orders. Brunihild stirred up her husband to avenge the murder of her sister. In the war between the two Frankish kingdoms Sigebert died, and Brunihild had a long and stormy reign as queen-mother. She was a woman of masculine energy and wonderful powers of mind, a great ruler, but tyrannical and unscrupulous, and it was said that ten kings and queens lost their lives in the turmoils which she excited. At last she fell into the power of her enemy Fredegunda, who caused her to be tied behind a horse and dragged along the ground until she died. Then her lacerated body was thrown into the flames.

Athanagild did not live to hear of his daughter's miserable end. In the year 567 he died in his palace at Toledo, beloved by his own subjects, and respected by foreign nations. He was the first Visigoth king since Euric who died a natural death; his five predecessors had all come to a violent end—one in battle, and the rest by the hand of assassins.