Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

The Story of Wamba

The history of King Wamba has often been told with many fabulous embellishments; but the simple facts, as they are admitted by sober historians, and as we shall here try to set them forth, are themselves not altogether wanting in the elements of romance.

Round the bed on which the dead Recccswinth lay, in the castle of Gerticos, the nobles and prelates of the Gothic state were assembled for the purpose of choosing his successor. Notwithstanding the long period of calm which the kingdom had enjoyed, signs of coming trouble were plainly visible; and all present felt that there was only one man qualified to guide the State through the perilous times that were at hand. With one voice they declared their choice of Wamba as king of the Goths.

At first Wamba stoutly refused to accept the crown, pleading that he was an old man, and that the burden of the kingly office was more than he could bear, His fellow nobles and the bishops expostulated with him long and earnestly, but he continued to urge them to choose some younger man, who would be equal to the arduous labours which the nation required of its king. At length one of the officers of the royal household exclaimed, brandishing his spear, "Wamba, thou shalt never leave this chamber save as a dead man or as a king!" The Goths echoed the words, and Wamba consented to accept the greatness thus strangely thrust upon him.

On the nineteenth day after Recceswinth's death, Wamba was crowned at Toledo. Throughout the, whole of Spain the event was received with unbounded rejoicing; but the old jealousy between the two portions of the kingdom showed itself once more, and before Wamba had been many weeks king he received the news that the Gothic province of Gaul was in open revolt.

The leader of the rebels was a Gothic noble named Hilderic, Governor of Nimes, who had himself aspired to be chosen king of the Goths. He was supported by Gunhild, Bishop of Maguelonne, and the army which he collected was strengthened by a large body of Jews who had fled from persecution in Spain, and were glad of the opportunity to fight against their oppressors. The Bishop of Nimes, who protested against Hilderic's conduct, was loaded with chains, and his bishopric bestowed on an abbot named Ranimer, who had supported the party of the rebels.

The general whom Wamba sent against the Gaulish rebels was a cunning and unprincipled Greek named Paul. As soon as he arrived at Narbonne, he called the officers of the army together, and after having harangued them on the grievances they had to suffer from the ruling party in Spain, he called upon them to renounce their allegiance to an imbecile old man, who knowing his own weakness had shrunk from accepting the kingship until he was compelled to do so by those who aimed to use him as their tool. The speech produced its desired effect, and when one of the general's accomplices proposed that the army should elect Paul king of the Goths, the whole assembly answered with applause. The decision of the officers was approved by the army; Hilderic and his followers joined themselves to the usurper's party; and after a few weeks Paul was crowned at Narbonne, with a golden crown that Reccared had presented to the church of Gerona.

Wamba was at this time in the Western Pyrenees, fighting with the Basques, whom Paul's emissaries had incited to rebellion. The news was brought to him that his treacherous general was accepted as king by the Gaulish cities and by a large portion of Northeastern Spain. A council of war was called; some of the officers recommended a return to Toledo in order to seek reinforcements; others wished to hasten at once to the encounter with Paul. Wamba's decision was that the subjugation of the Basques must first be complete, and that then the march on Narbonne should be prosecuted without a moment's delay. We are told—perhaps this is an exaggeration—that the Basques were reduced to entire submission in one week. Then Wamba led his forces into the revolted province of Spain, and in a few days all the cities had opened their gates or had been taken by storm. Two of the rebel leaders fell into Wamba's hands at Clausurae, and were sent in chains to Toledo; a third, Wittimer, escaped to Narbonne, to give warning of the approach of the Gothic army. When Paul heard that Wamba was on the way to Narbonne, he retired to Nimes, leaving Narbonne in Wittimer's charge.

Soon afterwards Wamba arrived before the walls of the city, and invited Wittimer to surrender, promising that if he and his comrades would surrender they should suffer no harm. The proposal was scornfully refused, and after a terrible struggle the city was taken by assault. Wittimer took refuge behind the altar of the Virgin, till a soldier threatened to crush him with a huge stone slab. Then he yielded himself up; and he and his companions, loaded with chains, were flogged through the streets of Narbonne.

[Illustration] from The Goths by Henry Bradley


Wamba then sent a body of thirty thousand men to attack Nimes, while he occupied himself with the capture of the smaller cities. Paul's garrison made a vigorous defence, and after a whole day's fighting the Goths were obliged to send to Wamba for more troops. The next morning ten thousand more men arrived, and the attack began again. Paul tried to persuade his men to risk a battle outside the walls, saying that the Goths had become slothful and cowardly, having enjoyed so many years of peace, and that if once they were met boldly they would soon take to flight. But his eloquence was in vain, and when the assault began it was soon perceived that the Goths were anything but cowards. Paul was assailed with bitter reproaches for his folly in making light of the enemy's prowess. After five hours' hard fighting the gates were burst open, and the troops of Wamba rushed into the city, slaughtering all that came in their way.

Paul and what remained of his army and the citizens took shelter in the great Roman amphitheatre, the splendid ruins of which are still the chief sight at Nimes: They converted the building into a temporary fortress. It was easily defended, but there had been no time for provisioning it and the people, pressed by hunger, broke out into mutiny. One of Paul's own relatives was seized by the crowd and murdered before the commander's own eyes, and in spite of his commands and entreaties. When Paul saw that he was no longer obeyed as a king, he tore off his royal robes, and flung them aside in the sight of all the people.

On the third day (September 3, 673) the inhabitants, feeling that further resistance was hopeless, sent their bishop Argabad to plead for mercy with Wamba. The king promised that no blood should be shed, but he kept himself free to inflict any other punishments on the rebels. Officers were, sent into the city to restore order, and to arrest the ringleaders of the rebellion. Paul was dragged by the hair of the head between two horsemen, and brought into the king's camp. He threw himself at Wamba's feet, and with tears and abject professions of repentance entreated the king to have mercy on him. Wamba scornfully assured him that his life should be spared.

On the third day after the victory Paul and the other rebels were brought up for trial before a court composed of the king and the great officers of the realm. They confessed their guilt, and the tribunal sentenced them to death and to forfeiture of their property. The king, however, refused to break his, promise, and ordered that their punishment should be scalping and imprisonment for life.

After restoring peace and settled government in the Gaulish province, Wamba returned to Toledo, which he entered in triumph like an ancient Roman conqueror, followed by a long procession of his captives with shaven heads and bare feet. Paul was adorned in mockery with a crown of leather, fastened on his head with melted pitch.

The next seven years of Wamba's reign were peaceful and prosperous. He ruled firmly and wisely, and though no enemy of the Church, he knew how to keep the priesthood duly in check. He even made a law that in time of war the clergy of all ranks should be bound like other citizens to take up arms for the defence of the country. Wamba also decreed that free birth should no longer be a condition of serving in the army. Gothic warriors of the olden time would have scorned to fight in the same ranks with slaves; but the warlike spirit of the nation was decaying, and military service was now looked upon as an evil necessity, to be avoided if possible.

The events which brought Wamba's reign to an end are strange indeed. On October 14, 68o, he fell into a stupor, and continued insensible for many hours. The physicians declared that he was dying, and after the custom of those days he was clothed in a monk's robe, and his head was shaven; for it was believed that those who died in the dress of a religious order were sure to obtain salvation in the next world. After twenty-four hours Wamba recovered consciousness; but when he knew what had been done he recognized that according to Gothic law the fact that he, had worn a monk's robe disqualified him from ruling any longer. So in the presence of the great officers of the kingdom, he signed a document declaring that he abdicated the throne, and appointing a certain Erwig as his successor. It was afterwards believed that Wamba's mysterious trance was caused by a sleeping draught given to him by Erwig. If so, the nobles of the court must have been sharers in the conspiracy. Although it was quite contrary to Gothic law that a king should name his successor, neither the nobles nor the people offered any protest Erwig was anointed and crowned by the Archbishop of Toledo, and Wamba retired into a monastery, and there spent the remainder of his life.