Historical Tales: 6— French - Charles Morris

The Rival Queens

From the days of Clovis to the days of Charles Martel and Charlemagne the history of the Frankish realm, so far as its kingship is concerned, is almost a blank. It was an era of several centuries of incompetent and sluggish monarchs, of whom we can say little more than that they were born and died; they can scarcely be said to have reigned. But from the midst of this dull interregnum of Merovingian sluggards comes to us the story of two queens, women of force and power, whose biography is full of the elements of romance. As a picture of the manners and customs of the Merovingian epoch we cannot do better than to tell the stories of these queens, Fredegonde and Brunehild by name, whose rivalry and enmity, with their consequences, throw a striking light on the history of those obscure times.

What is now France was at that time divided into three kingdoms, Austrasia, Neustria, and Burgundy, King Chilperic reigning over Austrasia; King Sigebert over Neustria. But the power behind the throne lay in the wives of these kings, with whom alone we have to do. Contrasted characters they were,—Fredegonde wicked, faithless, self-seeking; Brunehild patriotic and devoted to the good of her country; yet in the end wickedness triumphed, and honesty died a violent and frightful death. With this preliminary we may proceed with our tale.

Fredegonde was the daughter of poor peasants, who dwelt in the vicinity of Montdidier in Picardy. But so striking and notable was her beauty that at an early age she was made, under circumstances of which we are not informed, one of the ladies in waiting on Queen Andovere, the first wife of King Chilperic. The poor queen was destined to suffer from the artfulness of her maid. The beauty of Fredegonde quickly attracted the attention of the king, and her skilful and unscrupulous arts soon made her a power in the court. The queen was in her way; but no long time passed before, on the pretext of a spiritual relationship with her husband which rendered the marriage illegal, the hapless Andovere was repudiated and banished to a convent.

But Chilperic was not yet ready to marry a peasant. He chose for his second wife Galsuinthe, daughter of the king of the Visigoths. This marriage lasted a still shorter time than the other. Galsuinthe was found strangled in her bed; and now, no longer able to restrain his passion for the beautiful and artful maid of honor, Chilperic married Fredegonde, and raised the peasant maiden to the throne for which she had so deeply and darkly wrought.

The marriage of Galsuinthe had been preceded by that of her younger sister, Brunehild, who became the wife of Sigebert, brother of Chilperic and king of Austrasia. The murder of Galsuinthe was ascribed by Brunehild to Fredegonde, with excellent reason if we may judge from her subsequent career, and from that day on an undying hatred existed between the two queens. To this the stirring incidents of their after lives were due. War broke out between the two kings, probably inspired by Brunehild's thirst for revenge for her sister's death on the one hand, and the ambition and hatred of Fredegonde on the other. Sigebert was successful in the field, but treachery soon robbed him of the fruits of victory. He was murdered in his tent (in the year 575) by two assassins in the pay of Queen Fredegonde.

This murder gave Chilperic the ascendancy. Sigebert's army disbanded, and Brunehild, as the only means of preserving her life, sought an asylum in the cathedral of Paris. And now the scene becomes one of rapid changes, in which the unscrupulous Fredegonde plays the leading part. Chilperic, not daring to offend the church by slaying the fugitive queen under its protection, sent her to Rouen. Here the widowed lady, her beauty rendered more attractive by her misfortunes, was seen and loved by Merovée, the son of Chilperic by his first wife, then in that town on a mission from his father. Fired with passion for the hapless queen, he married her privately, the Bishop of Rouen sealing their union.

This imprudent action soon became known at the court of Chilperic, and the ambitious Fredegonde hastened to turn it to her advantage. Merovée was heir to the throne of Chilperic. He was in her way, and had now given her a pretext for his removal. Chilperic, who seems to have been the weak slave of her designs, would have seized both Merovée and his bride but for the Austrasians, who demanded that their queen Brunehild should be restored to them, and enforced their demands with threats. She was surrendered; but Merovée, under the influence of his step-mother, was imprisoned, then shorn and shut up in a monastery, and afterwards became a fugitive, and was urged to head a rebellion against his father. Such was the terror, however, which the unhappy youth entertained for his cruel step-mother, that he put an end to his existence by suicide, inducing a faithful servant to strike him dead.

Fredegonde's success in getting rid of one of the heirs to the throne, only partly satisfied her ambitious views. There was another son, Clovis, brother of Merovée. To rid herself of him the wily queen took another course. Three of her own children had recently died, and she ascribed their death to Clovis, whom she accused of sorcery. He was seized under this charge, thrown into prison, and there ended his career, a poniard-thrust closing his brief tale of life. The tale of murders in this direction was completed by that of the repudiated Queen Andovere, who was soon found strangled in the convent to which she had been consigned.

Fredegonde had thus rid herself of all claimants to the throne outside of herself and her descendants, Galsuinthe having left no children. Though death had recently robbed her of three children, one survived, a son named Clotaire, then a few months old. Her next act of treachery was to make away with her weak and confiding husband, perhaps that she might reign alone, perhaps through fear that Chilperic might discover her guilty relations with Landry, an officer of the court, and subsequently mayor of the palace. Whatever the reason, soon after these events, King Chilperic, while in the act of dismounting on his return from the chase, was struck two mortal blows by a man who took to rapid flight, while all around the cry was raised, "Treason! it is the hand of the Austrasian Childebert against our lord the king!"

The readiness with which this cry was raised seemed evidence of its falsity. Men ascribed it and the murder to emissaries of Fredegonde. But, heedless of their opinions, she installed herself as sovereign guardian of her infant son, and virtual reigning queen of Neustria. It was now the year 584. Fredegonde had by her beauty, ambition, boldness, and unscrupulousness raised herself from the lowly rank of a peasant's daughter to the high position of sovereign over a great dominion, a queenship which she was to hold during the remainder of her life, her strong will, effrontery, artifice, skill in deception, and readiness to strengthen her position by crime, enabling her to overcome all resistance and maintain her ascendancy over the restless and barbarous elements of the kingdom she ruled. She was a true product of the times, one born to become dominant over a barbarous people.

Gregory of Tours tells a story of Chilperic and Fredegonde, which will bear repetition here. In addition to the sons of Chilperic, of whom the queen disposed as we have seen, he had a daughter, Rigouthe by name, whom he promised in marriage to Prince Recared, son of the king of the Visigoths of Spain.

"A grand deputation of Goths came to Paris to fetch the Frankish princess. King Chilperic ordered several families in the fiscal domains to be seized and placed in cars. As a great number of them wept and were not willing to go, he had them kept in prison that he might more easily force them to go away with his daughter. It is said that several, in their despair, hung themselves, fearing to be taken from their parents. Sons were separated from fathers, daughters from mothers, and all departed with deep groans and maledictions, and in Paris there reigned a desolation like that of Egypt. Not a few, of superior birth, being forced to go away, even made wills whereby they left their possessions to the churches, and demanded that, so soon as the young girl should have entered Spain, their wills should be opened just as if they were already in their graves.

"When King Chilperic gave up his daughter to the ambassadors of the Goths, he presented them with vast treasures. Queen Fredegonde added thereto so great a quantity of gold and silver and valuable vestments that, at the sight thereof, the king thought he must have nought remaining. The queen, perceiving his emotion, turned to the Franks, and said to them,—

"'Think not, warriors, that there is here aught of the treasures of former kings. All that ye see is taken from my own possessions, for my most glorious king has made me many gifts. Thereto have I added of the fruits of my own toil, and a great part proceeds from the revenues I have drawn, either in kind or in money, from the houses that have been ceded unto me. Ye yourselves have given me riches, and ye see here a portion thereof; but there is here nought of the public treasure.'

"And the king was deceived into believing her words. Such was the multitude of golden and silver articles and other precious things that it took fifty wagons to hold them. The Franks, on their part, made many offerings; some gave gold, others silver, sundry gave horses, but most of them vestments.

"At last the young girl, with many tears and kisses, said farewell. As she was passing through the gate an axle of her carriage broke, and all cried out 'Alack!' which was interpreted by some as a presage. She departed from Paris, and at eight miles' distance from the city she had her tents pitched. During the night fifty men arose and, having taken a hundred of the best horses, and as many golden bits and bridles, and two large silver dishes, fled away, and took refuge with King Childebert. During the whole journey whoever could escape fled away with all that he could lay hands on. It was required also of all the towns that were traversed on the way that they should make great preparations to defray expenses, for the king forbade any contribution from the treasury. All the charges were met by extraordinary taxes levied upon the poor."

In this story there is probably much exaggeration, but it has its significance as a picture of life in the dark ages, from one to the manner born. So far as Fredegonde was concerned, the marriage of Rigouthe removed from her path one possible future rival for the throne.

Twice in the foregoing pages Childebert of Austrasia has been mentioned. Who was this Childebert, it may be asked? He was the son of Brunehild, whom the Austrasians had preserved after the murder of their king, and as a guardian for whom they had insisted on the return, by Chilperic, of the captive queen. Brunehild from that time reigned in Austrasia during the minority of her son, and in a manner in striking contrast with the reign of her wicked rival.

Unlike the latter, she was a princess by birth, and of that race of Gothic kings who had preserved some traces of the Roman civilization. Fredegonde was a barbarian, Brunehild a scion of a semi-civilization and far superior to her rival in culture and intellectual power. As a queen she did so much for her country that her name as a public benefactor was long afterwards remembered in the land. The highways, the bridges, all the public works of the state received her careful attention, so much so that the Roman roads in Austrasia received, and long retained, the name of "Brunehild's Causeways." Her name was associated with many other things in the land. In a forest near Bourges men long pointed out "Brunehild's castle," at Etampes was shown "Brunehild's tower," and near Cahors "Brunehild's fort." A more interesting evidence of her activity for the good of her people for ages existed in the by-word of "Brunehild's alms," which long retained the evidence of her abundant charities. She protected men of letters,—a rare production in that day,—and in return we find one of them, Fortunatus, bishop of Poitiers, dedicating poems to her.

But the life of Queen Brunehild was far from being a quiet one. In addition to her conflicts with her mortal foe, Queen Fredegonde, she had her own nobles to fight against. They seem to have detested her from the fact that her palace was filled with royal officers and favorites, whose presence excited the jealousy of the great landholders and warriors. But Brunehild protected them, with unyielding courage, against their foes, and proved herself every inch a queen. It was a semblance of the Roman imperial monarchy which she wished to establish in Austrasia, and to her efforts in this direction were due her struggles with the turbulent lords of the land, whose opposition gave her more and more trouble as time went on.

A story of this conflict is told by Gregory of Tours. One of the palace officers of the queen, Lupus, a Roman by birth, but made by her duke of Champagne, "was being constantly insulted and plundered by his enemies, especially by Ursion Bertfried. At last, having agreed to slay him, they marched against him with an army. At the sight, Brunehild, compassionating the evil case of one of her lieges unjustly presented, assumed a manly courage, and threw herself among the hostile battalions, crying, 'Stay, warriors; refrain from this wicked deed; persecute not the innocent; engage not, for a single man's sake, in a battle which will desolate the country!' 'Back, woman!' said Ursion to her; 'let it suffice thee to have ruled under thy husband's sway. Now it is thy son that reigns, and his kingdom is under our protection, not thine. Back! if thou wouldst not that the hoofs of our horses trample thee under as the dust of the ground!' After the dispute had lasted some time in this strain, the queen, by her address, at last prevented the battle from taking place."

The words of Ursion were prophetic. To be trampled under horses' hoofs into the dust was the final fate of the queen, though for many years yet she was to retain her power and to keep up her strife with the foes who surrounded her. Far nobler of soul than Fredegonde, she was as strong in all those qualities which go to make a vigorous queen.

But we must hasten on to the end of these royal rivals. Fredegonde died quietly in Paris, in 597, powerful to her death, and leaving on the throne her son Clotaire II., whom she had infected with all her hatred against the queen of Austrasia. Brunehild lived till 614, thirty-nine years after the death of her husband Sigebert, and through the reigns of her son and two of her grandsons, who were but puppets in her hands. Her later years were marked by lack of womanly virtue, and by an unscrupulousness in ridding herself of her enemies significant of barbarous times. At length, when she had reached the advanced age of eighty years, she was deserted by her army and her people whom the crimes imputed to her had incensed, and fell into the hands of her mortal foe, Clotaire II., in whom all the venom of his cruel mother seemed retained.

After having subjected the aged queen to base and gross insults and severe tortures, the crowned wretch had her paraded on a camel in front of his whole army, and then tied by one arm, one foot, and hair of her head to the tail of an unbroken horse, which dashed and kicked her to pieces as he rushed away in affright, before the eyes of the ferocious Clotaire and his army.

By the death of Brunehild and her sons, whom Clotaire also put to death, this king became master of Austrasia, and thus lord of all the Frankish realm, the successor in power of the two queens whose story stands out so prominently in that dark and barbarous age.