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8. Merovingian |
The cutthroat Franks: improbable ancestors of Christian Europe

Merovingian is drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 199, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The treacherous wiles of two early matriarchs set the bloody stage of the first French monarchy, as fearless bishops plot the course to civilization

Merovingian - The cutthroat Franks: improbable ancestors of Christian Europe

Merovingian - The cutthroat Franks: improbable ancestors of Christian Europe
Clovis’s son Clodomer falls in battle in 524, and his brothers Childebert and Clotar covet his kingdom of Orleans. They resolve to kill Clodomer’s three heirs, mere children, and divide Orleans between themselves. Servants save one little boy, but the other two die at the hands of their wicked uncles. When Childebert, originator of the plot, has an attack of scruples over one weeping child, the indignant Clotar urges him to get on with it: “Kill him or pass him to me!”

Over the relatively brief time covered by human history–a mere seven thousand years on a planet deemed to be four and a half billion years old–most people at most times have lived in a condition of barbarism, battling as tribes for territory, livelihood and existence itself.1 Occasionally, however, something called a civilization occurs–in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates or the Yangtze, for instance, or the Nile, or among the peaks of the Andes. Building on Greek culture, Rome had produced arguably the greatest of civilizations, but now, in the fifth Christian century, the western half of her empire was facing its doom. Civilizations exhibit two notable qualities. One is that they are not eternal. Every one of them comes to an end. The other is that they do not simply appear. They emerge from a particular tribe or place, subsequently rise through a long and fitful process until they reach an apex, then begin to fall back into squalor.

Such was the phenomenon experienced in the fifth century by the citizens of Gaul, the largest and most civilized Roman province of western Europe, as their cities and villages fell before yet another onslaught from beyond the Rhine. These invaders were a confederation of tribes known as the Franks, and within four generations they would drive out of Gaul not only the remaining vestiges of Roman power, but every other barbarian challenger: Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Burgundians, Alamanni, Heruli, even the Huns.

The name Franks is thought to derive either from a Teutonic word meaning “formidable” or a Celtic word meaning “free,” and both theories nicely accord with what is known of these people. The final demise of the western empire would be followed in Gaul by two sordid centuries under its new Frankish masters. Out of the almost unremitting treachery and blood-lust of their rule, however, would emerge another civilization. And it can be cogently argued that Gaul’s fate would have been far worse under any of the barbarian nations they would defeat, and that the Franks themselves might never have become civilized at all were it not for one overwhelming factor. That factor was the Christian church.

Any suggestion that the Franks would be the ones to inherit and safeguard the traditions of Rome and the faith of Jesus Christ would have struck most Gallo-Romans as preposterous. Alone among the Germanic nations, the Frankish tribes outside Rome’s boundaries were still resolutely pagan. Every other people that established itself in Roman Europe had by then adopted the religion of Arius. (See earlier volume, By This Sign, chapter 10.) But as historian W. H. C. Frend observes in The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia, 1984), many Christian leaders saw paganism as a lesser threat than heresy. Thus Bishop Lupus of Troyes, he notes, actually supported Attila the Hun in the fifth century, in preference to Rome’s Visigoth allies, who were Arian.

Up on the northern fringes of the crumbling empire, the Franks had stubbornly maintained their ancestral paganism. Its precise tenets are not known, but it must have resembled the beliefs of other Germanic and Nordic peoples. As such, it can hardly have been a cheerful faith. Worshipers of Thor and Wotan, for example, as reflected in Old Norse writing, saw life on earth as mirroring a cosmic battle between the gods of that fierce northern pantheon and the terrible, and more powerful, frost giants. Valor in war ranked as the highest virtue, qualifying a man to fight and feast with the gods, but ultimately, according to this supremely stoic religion, both men and gods would go down to defeat, with the frost giants destroying everything in one final, frightful cataclysm. The best course for a pious pagan was to get what he could out of life and hope to die heroically in battle.

The Romans first encountered assorted Frankish confederacies early in the third century. Time and again these tribes broke through the northern frontier and fought their way southward (once all the way to the Pyrenees), pillaging the countryside and burning walled cities. Time and again the legions forced them back. One particularly belligerent group was the Sicambrian or Salian confederacy, the latter name derived perhaps from sal (salt), because they seemed to originate in the North Sea region. From about 250, they inhabited an area the Romans knew as Toxandria (now in modern Belgium).

Not that they remained quietly there. The emperor Julian found it necessary to “pacify” them in 358. That is, he soundly thrashed them, confined them to Toxandria, and enlisted them as federates. But this arrangement did not last either. Led by one Clodio, the Sicambrian confederacy sacked and captured Cambrai in 428, thereby breaching the defenses along the Roman road through to Cologne and extending their territorial control into southern Gaul.

Clodio was succeeded by his son Merovec. The contemporary historian Priscus tells of seeing Merovec in Rome after his father’s death: a very young man with thick blond hair that fell about his shoulders, who had come to ask the Roman general Aetius to support his claim to his father’s throne.2 Subsequently, Merovec is thought to have headed a contingent of Franks at the Battle of Chalons in 451, where Aetius turned back the vast forces of Attila the Hun just short of Paris. This was the crucial engagement that ended any Hunnish aspirations in Gaul. It may also have ended the aspirations of Merovec’s elder brother, who is believed to have enlisted with Attila for the same reason that caused Merovec to fight for Aetius.

Merovec was succeeded by his son, Childeric, after an initial difficulty caused by that prince’s profligate way with women. Childeric so enraged his warriors, by making free with their wives and daughters, that he had to take temporary refuge across the Rhine in Thuringia, territory held by another Frankish ruler. Childeric shortly contrived to return to his court at Tournai and to reclaim his throne, but he did not return alone.

Childeric had repaid his host’s hospitality by seducing his wife, Basina, and she insisted upon following him home. Since Childeric was the strongest man she knew, declared the doughty Basina, she would live with him. If she knew any man stronger, she would have gone to him instead. Such were her terms of endearment. But no lover succeeded Childeric, and he firmly reinforced his reign over the Salian Franks, as well.

To this formidable couple was born an even more formidable son, whom they named Chlodovech, or Clovis in its Latinized form, who was destined to inaugurate a royal dynasty known as Merovingian after his grandfather Merovec.3 Just fifteen when his father died in 481, he would, in the following thirty years, turn most of Gaul into a Frankish realm variously centered on Metz, Orleans, Paris, Soissons and Cologne. Furthermore, his sons and grandsons would extend this realm of Francia until it encompassed almost all of modern France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, and much of Germany as far as the Elbe River. Thus was laid the foundation of a great modern nation whose name, derived from that of their people, would be France.

Clovis’s own name, too, would be handed on right through to the nineteenth century. For by natural erosion the letter “C” would disappear, and Clovis would become Lovis or Louis, the name adopted by seventeen later kings of France. And on an even more fundamental level, some historians maintain, this pagan tribal chief would provide the groundwork for a Christian Europe.

With the end of the Roman Empire in northwest Europe plainly in sight, observes Russell Chamberlin in Charlemagne, Emperor of the Western World (London, 1986), Clovis had to make a firm choice. He could ally himself with what was left of Roman power, or he could attack it and grab the remains. “Being the kind of man he was,” says Chamberlin, “he turned upon it and rended it.”

Therefore, Clovis began his territorial expansion by conquering neighboring Soissons, Rome’s last remaining foothold in Gaul,4 and securing his father’s conquests south to the Loire, and west to Armorica (roughly Brittany and Normandy). Then, he used his small but mobile army, estimated by some at six thousand or so men, to attach the small Frankish principalities to the northeast, including his father’s temporary refuge, Thuringia.

Since Gallo-Roman citizens predominated in most of Gaul, Clovis’s Salian invaders became a minority ruling a Christian majority. Even such individual Franks as had managed to settle in Gaul may by then have been converts. But Clovis, legend aside, was no mere barbarian ruffian. He undoubtedly spoke Latin, and possibly could even read it. He seems to have genuinely tried to govern with an even hand. He maintained (and at length codified) Salian tribal law for his Franks, while preserving Roman law for the Gallo-Romans. He affirmed his conquered subjects in possession of their property, and of their orthodox Christian faith. He brought at least some order to a countryside ravaged by bands of brigands. He apparently tried to limit plundering by his warriors, especially of churches, and in general treated the church with deference.

Three reasons can be advanced for this relatively enlightened governance. First, the Franks had long observed the Romans with admiration. Second, it appears that Clovis aimed from the outset to rule a mighty kingdom, not a collection of tribes. And the third and most important factor was the Christian church, which survived intact in the aftermath of the empire. Because Gaul’s well-established church preserved and propagated the faith, and because it also embodied all that remained of Roman administrative structure, it became the source of, quite literally, saving grace.

For the province of Gaul, when the pagan Franks came bursting through, was a realm already permeated by piety. Urban residents, from upper and middle-level aristocrats to the humblest laborer, flocked to their churches. The monastic movement was reaching into the countryside. (See sidebar, page 208.) Day and night the psalms were chanted in the monasteries and cathedral churches.

In Gaul’s hundred or so dioceses, the conquerors encountered Christian bishops, many of whom were monks as well, living as monks despite the demands and distractions of episcopal office. Equal parts piety and practicality, these men usually came from the Gallo-Roman aristocracy, from families accustomed to exercising high office, both secular and ecclesiastical. Indeed, concludes Henri Daniel-Rops in The Church in the Dark Ages (London, 1963), a bishop in Clovis’s day was simultaneously priest and prefect, and at his best, he was “order incarnate, the living conscience of his people.”

Just such a one was Remigius, archbishop of Reims (and a monk). Son of a Gallic count, Remigius belonged to a family that had already produced five saints, and was himself revered as a miracle worker. He had been elected archbishop of Reims at age twenty-two, had organized missions to the Arians of Burgundy, and was now a seasoned administrator in his vigorous forties. In 481, as soon as the Frankish warriors raised Clovis on their shields and acclaimed him king in traditional tribal style, Remigius sent him a letter of congratulation–and admonition. “Show deference toward your bishops,” he wrote. “Always turn to them for advice. And if you are in harmony with them, your land will prosper.” Many further letters would follow.

While Clovis may have welcomed the help of the Christian establishment in keeping his new subjects loyal, he showed no immediate desire to embrace the faith himself. But the bishops were a devious lot. The marriage of Clovis to Clotilde, niece of King Gundobad of Burgundy, bears every mark of a deft collaboration between Remigius and a Burgundian colleague, Bishop Avitus of Vienne.

The Burgundian royal family was of Arian persuasion, but Clotilde, as both bishops well knew, had been raised devoutly orthodox. She set about converting her husband, with no apparent success and some reason for discouragement. Their first son, for instance, died shortly after his baptism. “My gods would have cured him!” exclaimed his wrathful father. Nonetheless, when their second child was born, Clovis permitted him also to be baptized. (This infant, too, became ill, but after much prayer he survived.)

It was not until the king was hard-pressed by dangerous neighbors, the Alamanni of Alsace, that his wife’s prayerful efforts took tangible effect. Toward the end of the fifth century, he met them in pitched battle on the Rhine. There was terrible slaughter, writes Gregory of Tours, nearly a hundred years later in his History of the Franks, and Clovis’s army seemed about to be annihilated. In desperation, he raised his eyes to heaven and appealed to “Jesus Christ, you who Clotilde maintains to be the Son of the living God.”

Gregory, a bishop himself, recounts in some detail the deal Clovis made with God: “If you will give me victory over my enemies, and if I may have evidence of that miraculous power which the people dedicated in your name say they have experienced, then I will believe in you and I will be baptized in your name.” At that very moment, it was said, the Alamanni leader was killed, and with their chief dead, his warriors capitulated.

So Clovis kept his bargain, and the ceremony in Reims Cathedral was a magnificent one. The public square was hung with colored fabric, as was customary on great occasions, and the church with white. Candles gleamed, writes Gregory, and incense gave off such clouds of perfume that all present imagined themselves “transported to some perfumed paradise.” Standing ready for Christian baptism were Clovis himself, by then styled “King of Gaul,” along with his eldest son, Theuderic, and some three thousand warriors. (Theuderic, although the child of a casual liaison, was recognized as a legitimate heir. The Franks were not unduly concerned about legitimacy; a son was a son.)

The king was the first to approach the baptismal pool. “Bow your head, Sicamber,” came the stern order of Archbishop Remigius. “Worship what you have hitherto destroyed, and destroy what you have hitherto worshiped!” To address Clovis so, a reference to the origins of the Franks, was like saying “Bow your head, barbarian.” Remigius, who had supervised the instruction in the faith of this royal catechumen, well understood how difficult it is to plumb the depths of any human mind and heart.5

Later historians have cast doubt on the sincerity of Clovis’s conversion. It was doubtless from “considerations of policy rather than from any profound conviction” that Clovis decided to be baptized, writes Christian Pfister of the University of Paris, in The Cambridge Medieval History (1923). After his conversion, notes historian J. P. Whitney of King’s College, London, in the same volume, “the wars that spread his power took somewhat the character of crusades, and for three centuries this remained true of Frankish campaigns against the heathens. Broadly speaking, with the power of the Frankish kings went the power of the church, although the fellowship between the two was sometimes closer, sometimes looser.”

Gallic bishops clearly approved of Clovis’s attacks on the Arian Visigoth regimes in Spain and Aquitaine, which were oppressing their conquered orthodox subjects. Even under more tolerant rulers, as in Burgundy, Christians were restive and unhappy. One of Bishop Avitus’s letters to Clovis seems especially significant: “Your ancestors have opened the way for you to a great destiny. Your decision will open the way to a yet greater destiny for your descendants. Your faith is our victory.” Avitus then urges Clovis to spread true Christianity in “distant lands.” Not precisely an invitation to invade Arian Burgundy, perhaps, but it seems close.

At that time, however, Clovis still needed the help of the two brothers then ruling Burgundy, Clotilde’s uncles, against the still dangerous Alamanni (who were also Arian). After wresting Alsace from the Alamanni, he next undertook a major campaign against the Visigoths of Aquitaine. Marching south, according to Gregory’s History of the Franks, Clovis sent sumptuous gifts, including a horse, of which he was particularly fond, to the vitally important shrine of St. Martin at Tours, seeking the saint’s approval.6 At Vouille, near Poitiers, the Franks and their allies did indeed triumph, with Clovis himself killing the Visigoth ruler, Alaric II, in single combat. His kingdom now extended to the Pyrenees.

As he returned through Tours, he received from Constantinople the gratifying news that the eastern emperor had conferred upon him the honorary title of consul, thus recognizing, and in effect legitimizing, his conquests. He was now entitled to wear the purple tunic and mantle and a diadem, which he did with pride, as he proceeded in solemn procession to the church, scattering coins to the people. While there, so the story goes, Clovis also tried to buy back his beloved horse by offering a hundred gold coins for it. He was much impressed when the animal refused to move until he doubled the price. “Blessed Martin is a fine helper,” was his comment, “and careful in business too!”

It must be acknowledged that Clovis acquired no obvious aura of holiness; the sparse accounts of his times chronicle lifelong ruthlessness and treachery. His last years, according to Gregory of Tours, were devoted to annexing assorted northern territories, mostly belonging to Frankish relatives of his, often by notably ignoble methods. He attached several smaller tribes by the simple expedient of assassinating their chiefs. He eliminated Sigibert the Lame, chief of the Ripuarian Franks at Cologne, by persuading Sigibert’s son Cloderic to kill him, then arranging for Cloderic to be assassinated in turn. Clovis thereupon presented himself before the Ripuarians as the avenger of their ruler, and offered to take over. Preferring to back a winner, the Cologne tribesmen bought into this tale and signed on.

He also took care that none of his kinsmen remained alive who could possibly challenge his sons’ inheritance, Gregory writes, pensively musing late in his life, “How sad it is that I live among strangers like some solitary pilgrim, and have none of my own relations left to help me when disaster threatens.” However, Gregory adds, this was “not because he grieved for their deaths, but because in his cunning way, he hoped to find some relative still in the land of the living, whom he could kill.”

Yet it seems hardly reasonable to conclude that Clovis’s conversion to the Christian faith was wholly–or even largely–based on “considerations of policy.” Certainly he appears to have been, in his own eyes, a sincere enough believer. Gregory writes that when Bishop Remigius described to his royal convert the betrayal and Crucifixion of Jesus, Clovis was passionately affected. “Oh, if only I had been there with my Franks!” he exclaimed. There were other indications. Passing near Tours on the way to war, for instance, he forbade his soldiers to seize anything from the inhabitants. When one man disobeyed, Clovis killed him on the spot. They could hardly expect to win this battle, he explained to his warriors, if they were going to offend St. Martin by pillaging his own special countryside.

In matters perhaps more convincing to a twenty-first-century mind, Katherine Scherman, in The Birth of France: Warriors, Bishops and Long-Haired Kings (New York, 1987), emphasizes Clovis’s even-handed treatment of his Gallo-Roman subjects, and the fact that he provided in Gaul quite orderly government. He appears to have completed the elimination of Arianism throughout his realm without undue cruelty. And he and Clotilde (who would be honored as a saint) encouraged Christian missions and established churches and monasteries, which were then the only real source of relief for the needy.

Clovis died in 511 in Paris, then his capital, and was buried in the church of St. Peter and St. Paul, which he and Clotilde had built there. His kingdom was divided, according to custom, among his four sons, and for the next half century, territorial warfare among them would scarcely ever cease. If no outside conquest was in prospect, one brother was usually marching against another one, or preparing to do so.

The first of Clovis’s sons to die was Clodomer, killed in 524 in a campaign against Burgundy, a campaign which he inaugurated by gratuitously murdering one of the two Burgundian rulers in advance, along with his wife and children. Clodomer’s own death in the subsequent battle looked to some contemporaries like divine retribution, and more was to follow. Clodomer’s three young sons, all of them less than ten years old, inherited his kingdom of Orleans, under the protection of their grandmother, Queen Clotilde. But two of their uncles resolved to divide Orleans between themselves, so they tricked grandmother Clotilde into turning the youngsters over to them, ostensibly to be readied for coronation.

The servants attending the children, growing suspicious, managed to snatch away one of the three to safety, but the wicked uncles seized the other two and stabbed them to death. Childebert, king of Paris, who had originated the plot, weakened at the last. He could not bring himself to actually murder the weeping child who was clinging to his knees and pleading for his life. His brother Clotar, having already dispatched the other boy, briskly vetoed such squeamishness. “Kill him or throw him to me,” he ordered. “You started this, and we’re going to finish it!” Which Clotar proceeded to do.7

Clotar, Clovis’s fourth son, had inherited the kingdom of Soissons. He was the most ruthless of the four brothers, and the most successful in terms of longevity, acquired territory, and–of equal significance–progeny. He sired seven vigorous sons who all grew to manhood; to him and to his line would fall the entire Merovingian inheritance. Meanwhile, he hastened the process by appropriating chunks of his brothers’ territory at every opportunity.

If divine retribution ever touched Clotar, it came in the form of his youngest and favorite son, Chramn, a vicious youth whose evil ways reputedly surpassed even Merovingian standards. Chramn actually menaced bishops and broke such sacred laws as that of sanctuary. He also kept trying to seize power from his father, but Clotar, hampered by an inexplicable and abiding tenderness, could not bring himself to punish him. But when Chramn finally went too far, by marching against him with a Breton army, Clotar’s ruthless rage erupted. He ordered that this favorite son, together with his wife and small daughters, be locked in a shed, and the shed set on fire. After that, in sorrow and remorse, he went to Tours with gifts for St. Martin, to plead for the saint’s intercession and God’s forgiveness.

Clotar displays in most vivid form the characteristic Merovingian blend of savagery and sensibility, which may help account for his extreme fondness for women. He had one duly recognized queen, Ingund, who bore him five sons and one daughter. But he also had a longstanding relationship with Ingund’s beautiful sister Arnegund, an arrangement apparently approved (or at least accepted) by both women. Arnegund bore his son Chilperic. Another liaison was with the widow of his brother Clodomer (the one whose children he killed); she became the mother of Chramn. But his strangest relationship was with the lovely and virtuous Radegund, daughter of King Berthar of Thuringia, who had been seized at the age of eight when the Merovingians conquered her father’s realm.

After the conquest, the royal brothers drew lots for this little girl, and Clotar won. For seven years she was nurtured and educated by pious women, after which Clotar (by then in his fifties) sought to claim her as wife. Radegund, however, was determined to dedicate her life to Jesus Christ. When Clotar insisted, she agreed to marry him, but only as an act of Christian charity. She also continued her pious vocation: abstemious eating, rigorous asceticism, tending the sickest villagers, and what historian Katharine Scherman calls her “flinty chastity.”

Though Clotar complained about being “married to a nun,” he put up with it fairly amiably, and Radegund too seems to have remained content to act as his queen–until he saw fit, that is, to kill her younger brother. (Nothing personal, of course, but this young man might easily have staged a coup in Thuringia.) Then she urgently besought her spiritual adviser, Bishop Medard of Soissons, to release her from her marriage and consecrate her a real nun–a request that posed for Medard the kind of dilemma not infrequently faced by Merovingian bishops. He wanted to respect Radegund’s married state, dubious though it might be. Quite compelling, too, was the fact that some of her husband’s henchmen appeared determined to drag him from his altar. But he also had to recognize the validity of her religious vocation.

Radegund herself resolved the situation. She placed her regal robe and jewels on the altar, herself donned the nun’s habit, and again approached Medard, who at her earnest pleas, finally laid his hands on her and consecrated her a deaconess. Next, she searched for a site where she could found a monastery, and when Clotar proposed to force her to come home she enlisted the help of Germanus, the respected abbot of St. Symphorian in Autun. Soon to become bishop of Paris, Germanus already had influence with Merovingian royalty. In the end Clotar renounced any claim on his beloved Radegund, donated generously to her convent, and faithfully protected it.8

Meanwhile, it was business as usual on the conquest front. In the mid-sixth century, the Merovingians gained the entire region of Provence and a large bribe as part of a deal with Witigis, the Ostrogoth ruler of Italy. In return, they were to help him fight off an attack by the eastern emperor at Constantinople (see page 268), but the Merovingians were again playing a double game. The Byzantine historian Procopius recounts that they bided their time until they heard that the warring armies were both in bad shape. Then, “forgetting for the moment their oaths and the treaties they had made a little before with both sides (for this nation [the Franks] in matters of trust is the most treacherous in the world), they straightway gathered to the number of one hundred thousand under the leadership of Theudebert [Clotar’s nephew, king of Austrasia 534—548], and marched into Italy.”

After wreaking indiscriminate slaughter upon the wives and children of the Goth soldiers, Procopius writes, the Franks attacked the Goth army from behind, and routed it. Then they turned upon the Byzantine troops, who mistakenly welcomed them as allies, and defeated them too. At length, famine and malaria drove the Franks from the devastated land. They nevertheless continued to keep some footholds in northern Italy, which they would later have to defend against extensive attacks from Lombard invaders of both Italy and southern Gaul. The conquest of Provence, which included the important trading city of Massilia (Marseilles) and its whole Mediterranean coastline, made Frankish Gaul larger than Roman Gaul had been.

As for Clovis’s sons, Childebert died in 558, leaving Clotar as the last survivor of the four. Hastening the widow and her daughters into exile, Clotar took over Childebert’s kingdom of Paris. He reigned as king of all Franks until he too died in 561, at age seventy-seven, of a high fever that developed after a day of hunting. Not that he was ready to go, notes Gregory, quoting his indignant deathbed protest against God: “What manner of King can be in charge of heaven, if he is prepared to finish off great monarchs like me in this fashion?”

Of Clotar’s seven sons, four had survived the violence and debauchery of their young manhood: Chilperic, Sigibert, Charibert and Guntram were all ready and eager to take over. Chilperic inherited the northwestern kingdom, known as Neustria. To Sigibert went the northeast, Austrasia. Charibert got Paris and the southwest. Guntram inherited Burgundy. When Charibert died childless in 567, the other three amicably divided his lands. But amicability ended at that point, due in no small part to two fearsome royal women.

Members of this generation of Merovingians, although Christian every one, were as cruel, violent, treacherous and overall barbaric as their father and uncles, and degenerate to boot. If anything, they seem worse, perhaps because the heroic days of initial conquest were past, and the living easier. Or perhaps it is because we know (or think we know) more about them, for theirs was the era when Gregory of Tours, primary source for so much Merovingian history, was on the scene in person. As a firsthand witness, Gregory watched the closing years of the sixth century become a chaos of civil war, while between actual battles, the favored techniques of internecine conflict within the royal family involved daggers, poison and alleged witchcraft.

For commoners, taxes were a major terror; defaulters could be chained in prison and left there to rot. Meanwhile, bands of freelance invaders and local brigands menaced forester and farmer. Armies (whether Merovingian or newcomers) marched and countermarched across the land, despoiling it as they went. The innate greed and aggression of Clotar’s sons would doubtless have been sufficient to keep their armies marching, but the murderous machinations of two of their queens raised the level of ferocity to ever greater heights. They were Fredegund, mistress and later wife of Chilperic of Neustria, and Brunhild, who was married to Sigibert of Austrasia. Fredegund, the more lethal of the two, was consumed with hatred for Brunhild, and Brunhild soon returned her wrath in full measure. She had good reason.

Brunhild was the educated and cultured daughter of the Visigoth king Athanagild. Although her family was Arian, she adopted orthodox Christianity and married Sigibert in a lavish ceremony at Metz. This caused Chilperic of Neustria to become furiously jealous. His own wife, Audovera, had borne him four children, but she was a mere run-of-the mill Frankish woman. Nothing would do but that Chilperic, too, must marry a Spanish princess, and he set his heart (or his ambitions) upon Brunhild’s elder sister Galswintha. In due time, this marriage took place, and Galswintha brought Chilperic a satisfactorily substantial dowry.

Nothing else proved satisfactory, however, for lurking in the background at the Neustrian court was Fredegund. This woman was merely Chilperic’s primary mistress (debauchery being one of his several vices), but she was a formidable personality indeed. Queen Galswintha became a bitterly unhappy bride, complaining constantly of all the insults she had to bear, and one night her unhappiness came to a sad end. In the morning she was discovered strangled. Galswintha’s sister Brunhild suspected, with good reason, that Fredegund was responsible, which would have been quite enough to ensure lifelong hatred. But there was more to come–much more–and much of it was directed at Brunhild.

Fredegund had venom to spare, and a firm hold on Chilperic. Shortly after Galswintha’s death, he sent his first wife, Audovera, to a convent (and later had her killed), and married Fredegund. This afforded her more scope than ever for vicious scheming, and in practical terms, paid off handsomely. Until then, Chilperic had been doing very badly in the family wars, having lost most of his territory to Brunhild’s husband Sigibert.9 Now Fredegund took a hand, with spectacular results. To Sigibert’s next victory celebration she sent two assassins who, just as the king was being raised in triumph on his warriors’ shields, stabbed him with poisoned daggers.

Chilperic quickly marched on Paris to seize Sigibert’s treasury, along with his widow and his five-year-old son. He did not get the boy, because an Austrasian duke quickly spirited him away to Metz, where he was proclaimed Childebert II. But the Austrasian nobles had no interest in rescuing their queen. Austrasia remained the most Germanic part of Gaul, and they had always resented this imperious Spanish lady as a pretentious and pushy foreigner. Besides, they aimed to appoint one of themselves to act for the boy king. So Brunhild ended up imprisoned by Chilperic in a convent at Rouen, and there a prince called Merovec, one of Chilperic’s sons by Audovera, sought her out and married her.

This act assuredly contributed to Merovec’s later murder, and also that of the man who performed the ceremony, Bishop Praetextatus of Rouen. Behind both killings was Fredegund. Insanely ambitious for her own progeny and pathologically jealous of her stepsons, she had long since persuaded her husband that his son was plotting against him. Chilperic had been easily persuaded–and, of course, it may have been true. He locked up Merovec, and not only cut his hair but had him tonsured a monk. But Merovec escaped, and was on the run when he contracted his brief marriage with Brunhild. In the end, however, he was trapped and killed.

As for Bishop Praetextatus, Fredegund first had him exiled on treason charges. Forced by the insistence of his devoted flock to let him return, she sent one of her hired killers to stab him before his altar. Never lacking in nerve, the queen actually dropped round before he expired, with a solicitous offer of medical assistance (also perhaps involving, it might be conjectured, a dab of poison). “God has decreed that I must be recalled from this world,” was the bishop’s stalwart reply. “As for you, who are the prime mover in these crimes, as long as you live, you will be accursed, for God will avenge my blood upon your head.”10

Fredegund was nothing if not thorough, and not one of Audovera’s offspring would survive. Theudebert, the eldest, fell fighting for his father against Uncle Sigibert. When two of Fredegund’s own children died of dysentery, Fredegund accused Clovis, Audovera’s third son, of causing their deaths through evil spells. She had Chilperic send him to a district where plague was raging, hoping that he, too, would be infected. When the young man uncooperatively remained healthy, writes Gregory of Tours, Fredegund brought further accusations: conspiracy to depose his father and “unforgivable remarks” about his stepmother.

So Chilperic turned poor Clovis over to Fredegund herself, bound and in rags. He was stabbed to death and buried with the knife still in his body, presumably to imply suicide. Nevertheless, a number of people were accused of having a hand in his death, and were tortured or burned alive. Nor did Audovera’s daughter Basina fare very well. Forcibly consigned to the monastery founded by her late aunt, Radegund, she expressed her resentment by participating in a scandalous rebellion organized by some of its highborn inhabitants. But having nowhere else to go, Basina perforce repented and was allowed to return to Holy Cross Convent.

Fredegund had her own sorrows, of course. Of the five sons she bore Chilperic, four died in childhood of infectious disease. To explain this, or any other untoward event, she subscribed to two theories common then (and later, too, for that matter). Perhaps she or her husband had offended God or St. Martin. She could doubtless recall many things of which either one might have disapproved. Alternately, disaster might be due to the evil activities of some enemy. This, in fact, was the explanation usually favored by Queen Fredegund of Neustria, and candidates were never lacking.

For the death of her fourth infant son, for example, she blamed the prefect Mummolus, a man who had thwarted some of her plans. And so, writes Gregory, she had “a number of Parisian housewives . . . tortured with the instruments and the cat,” until they confessed they were witches and had “sacrificed” the baby prince to save the life of Mummolus. This statement, he adds, he found “quite incredible.” After their confessions, the queen had “these poor wretches tortured in an even more inhuman way, cutting off the heads of some, burning others alive, and breaking the bones of the rest on the wheel.” Then Mummolus himself was tortured to death.

Meanwhile, Fredegund’s adversary Brunhild was, for the time being, getting on quite well. After Chilperic allowed her to return to her realm of Austrasia, a curious misjudgment, she took firm charge as regent. She controlled her restive aristocracy with a combination of military action, judicious assassination and sheer gall. Some nobles were loyal to her, and the rest were at least willing to protect her little son, Childebert II. Brunhild also enlisted as an ally her brother-in-law Guntram of Burgundy. (Among the four brothers, this monarch was the favorite of Gregory of Tours, who even referred to him on occasion as “Good King Guntram.”) In 577, having no sons himself, Guntram “adopted” Childebert II as heir to Burgundy as well.

Brunhild was a competent ruler. She rebuilt some of Austrasia’s Roman roads and other structures. She founded monasteries. She corresponded with Pope Gregory the Great in Rome, who was doing his best to maintain some liaison with the Gallic church. She became an important patron (if the later adversary) of the saintly Irish monk Columban, who arrived in Gaul about 590. After beguiling Childebert’s court, Columban moved on to the wild Vosges Mountains (near the borders of Germany and Switzerland), where he established a mission to the Suevians in an abandoned Roman fort. Several dozen more monasteries followed. (See chapter 9.)

But over in Neustria, King Chilperic and Queen Fredegund were thriving too, and more dangerous than ever. They now controlled the whole western segment of the Merovingian realm, which included Tours. To the chagrin of Bishop Gregory and the sorrow of its citizens, the town became a center for plots and counterplots. The region suffered numerous attacks, Gregory writes, and Chilperic’s avarice knew no bounds. He reinstated the tax demands on the churches, which his father Clotar I had remitted out of fear of St. Martin.11 He used judicial fines to extort money from the wealthy. He disallowed bequests to the church. He sold bishoprics to wealthy laymen.

Gregory was also irritated by Chilperic’s intellectual pretensions and seriously disturbed by his heretical inclinations. The terms “Father” and “Son” as applied to the deity struck this Frankish monarch as ridiculously anthropomorphic, and he considered the third person of the Holy Trinity, the “Spirit” a quite unnecessary addition. Therefore, he ordered, the term Trinity must not be used in prayer. In vain, Gregory disputed these theories, the king merely brushing aside his arguments. At this time, too, Gregory was frequently drawn into the accusations and trials resulting from the intrigue that permeated the Neustrian court. This was usually to defend someone else, but once to defend himself (successfully) against a charge of slandering Queen Fredegund.

Chilperic died in 584–stabbed while out hunting. Why and by whom was never established, but there were myriad possibilities. An agent of Brunhild and her son Childebert II? A ruined noble bent on revenge? Fredegund herself? This last may seem far-fetched, but is not beyond possibility or even probability. After her husband’s death, Fredegund took refuge with the endlessly patient Guntram, as her enemy Brunhild had done ten years earlier. At this point, a provocatively worded demand was presented to Guntram in the name of young Childebert II of Austrasia: “Hand over the murderess, the woman who garroted my aunt [Galswintha], the woman who killed first my father [Sigibert] and then my uncle [Chilperic], and who put my two cousins to the sword [Merovec and Clovis].” Guntram declined.

With all her sons and stepsons dead, the amazing Fredegund had managed to produce another male offspring, just four months old when his father died. The Neustrian nobles proclaimed the baby Clotar II, and induced his father’s cities to pledge allegiance to the child and to King Guntram of Burgundy. Thus Guntram became the designated guardian of two underage kings, a responsibility which made him anxious about his own chances for survival.12

Living in Paris, Gregory says, the Burgundian monarch never went anywhere without a troop of armed guards, and at one Sunday Mass he actually addressed a plaintive plea to the congregation. “I ask you to remain loyal to me, instead of assassinating me, as only recently you assassinated my brothers. Give me two years to bring up these two nephews of mine, who are my adopted sons.” Otherwise, if he should be killed while the boys were still small, there would be no one to protect the people. And so, Gregory adds, “the entire population prayed to God for his safety.”

Fredegund was soon back to form, however, ruling Neustria as regent for little Clotar II. She had the advice and help of one Landeric, an able general who fought her battles, administered the royal estates, and functioned as her lover. Judging in part by the remarkable power Fredegund exercised over her late husband and the Neustrian nobles, historian Scherman comments, she must have been both beautiful and possessed of a sexual allure irresistible to many men.

Even so, Fredegund’s agents seem to have failed in at least half a dozen assassination attempts upon Brunhild and her son Childebert II, and finally upon Childebert’s son Theudebert. Such failures boded ill for the hit man assigned to the job. One minor cleric, sent to ingratiate himself into Brunhild’s household and kill her, was detected and expelled. When he returned to report failure, Fredegund had his hands and feet cut off. As her entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica succinctly observes: “Ruthlessly murderous and sadistically cruel, Fredegund can have few rivals in monstrousness.”

A sore trial to her, however, was her daughter Rigunth, with whom nothing seemed to go right. Rigunth was betrothed to Reccared, son of King Leuvegild of the Spanish Visigoths, and set out in the fateful year 584 with fifty carts of gold, silver and fancy clothing. Much of this treasure was allegedly stolen along the way by her extensive entourage. The rest disappeared when they stopped at Toulouse, where they got the news of Chilperic’s assassination, and Rigunth took refuge in a church.

Some of her attendants struggled home to tell Fredegund, who naturally jailed and tortured them. The eventual return of Rigunth brought her little joy either. For one thing, Rigunth used to taunt her mother for being of servile origin, while she herself was a princess of the blood royal. One day the infuriated Fredegund slammed the lid of a heavy chest on her daughter’s neck. Then she “leaned on it with all her might,” says Gregory, until Rigunth’s eyes were bulging, and servants intervened just in time to save her life.

After that, “there were never-ending outbursts of temper and even fisticuffs,” of which “the main cause was Rigunth’s habit of sleeping with all and sundry.” Fredegund’s “outbursts of temper” would end only with her (peaceful) death in 597. She was buried with other Merovingian royalty at St. Germain des Près in Paris. All these bodies disappeared during the French Revolution, writes historian Scherman. However, Fredegund’s twelfth-century effigy, beside the high altar at the Cathedral of Saint Denis, “has an air of well-bred modesty.”

So Brunhild had the satisfaction of outliving her implacable enemy. The terrible denouement of her own life was still sixteen years away, and she continued to hold her own against the Austrasian dukes. Childebert II duly grew up to rule his kingdom, and for a few years reigned over Burgundy as well–his legacy from King Guntram, who died in 592.

Again, when Childebert II died at age twenty-five, Brunhild instantly took charge on behalf of his two young sons. She became regent for Theudebert II in Austrasia, and installed Theuderic II in Burgundy, with a loyal noble in charge. And again, according to the chronicles, all went well until Theudebert II married, and his lowborn but high-spirited young queen proved more than a match for his domineering grandmother.

The disgruntled Brunhild moved to the Burgundian court at Besançon, where Theuderic kept a number of concubines, and their several children, but had no official queen. At Besançon, Brunhild as dowager still held top rank, and Theuderic appreciated his grandmother’s advice. But he was also much influenced by Brunhild’s friend Columban, who had a monastery nearby at Annegray, and the autocratic Irish monk disapproved of loose marital liaisons. Columban prevailed upon Theuderic to take a bride, and he complied. Brunhild was aghast.

The story, as recorded in the seventh century (in The Life of St. Columbanus by the Monk Jonas), begins like this: “But the Old Serpent [i.e., the Devil] entered into his grandmother Brunhild, who was a second Jezebel, and aroused her pride against the holy man . . . for she feared that her power and honor would be lessened.” Brunhild, perhaps to provoke a quarrel, brought to Columban two of Theuderic’s sons and asked him to bless them. He indignantly refused. “Know that these boys will never bear the royal scepter,” said he, “for they were begotten in sin.” After that, says Jonas, “she began to persecute the neighboring monasteries.”

As Brunhild perhaps intended, this led to escalating conflict between her grandson and the monk, and to expulsion from Burgundy of Columban and his Irish monks (although not the local men they had recruited), in 610.13 But the end was rapidly approaching for the old queen, and for her grandsons, too. Fredegund’s late-born son, Clotar II of Neustria, had been slicing off pieces of Burgundy, so Theuderic and Theudebert combined forces to defeat him. But then, instead of cementing this triumph, they turned upon each other, with Brunhild allegedly egging them on.

The monk Jonas claims that their adversary Clotar asked Columban which brother he should support. Neither, said the holy man, for in three years he himself would be master of all three kingdoms. And so it was. In 612 at the Battle of Zulpich, near Cologne, Theuderic defeated Theudebert, and according to some, had him decapitated then and there. Others claimed that Theudebert was betrayed into Brunhild’s hands, and she had him murdered. In any event, a year later, Theuderic died of dysentery at age twenty-six. Alternately, according to one seventh-century account, Brunhild poisoned him so that she could rule through his small son Sigibert.

Certainly, she tried to do so. She proclaimed the boy king of Austrasia and Burgundy, as Sigibert II, but the poor youngster did not last the year. The Austrasian seigneurs conspired to rid themselves of their old bugbear, Brunhild, by offering both kingdoms to Clotar II of Neustria. Even Brunhild’s Burgundian army capitulated as soon as Clotar’s forces approached. Sigibert II and a younger brother were summarily executed, and then Clotar summoned Brunhild.

Dauntless to the end, this woman, in her late sixties, appeared in full regal style before Clotar and his troops, but this time, she could not prevail. The soldiers shouted for her execution. Clotar, accusing her of all manner of wickedness, sentenced her to three days of torture. Then to further humiliate her, Jonas writes, he had her mounted on a camel “and so exhibited to all her enemies around about.” Then they tied her to the tail of a wild horse; whipped into a frenzy, it kicked her to death. The year was 613.

After that, according to the seventh-century Chronicle of Fredegar, her executioners burned her body and scattered the ashes, obliterating every trace of the hated Queen Brunhild. What might have distressed her more, however, was the fact that her detested rival Fredegund had triumphed in every respect. The entire posterity of Sigibert I and Brunhild was no more. Of the Merovingian line, there remained only Fredegund’s son and grandsons.14

Although Clotar II appeared to have united once more the kingdom of Clovis, this appearance was deceiving. In all three territories, the great landholders were asserting their power, foremost among them the two men who had carried the Austrasian proposal to Clotar II: Pepin of Landen and Arnulf, bishop of Metz. Reputedly pious Christians, as well as men of action, these two were about to found a new dynasty. In the course of the next century, it would parallel and maintain the continuity of the Merovingian line–and would then supersede it.

Pepin of Landen (the name derives from his estate in the Brabant region) was mayor of the palace in Austrasia. This title and function had developed as soon as Frankish chiefs came into possession of large and settled estates. They needed a maior domus–manager of the household–to run them. The job had expanded in scope ever since, especially during the tenure of child kings. But even adult monarchs found good use for the mayor of the palace, who acted as chief adviser and spokesman, and ideally was an accomplished general as well. Pepin was one of the best.

Arnulf, too, had served with distinction in the court of Theudebert II. In 614 he was consecrated bishop of Metz, at the behest of Clotar II (quite likely as part of the takeover plan). Arnulf and Pepin proceeded to stabilize Austrasia through the reign of Clotar’s son Dagobert I (623—639), who was the last Merovingian to direct his own armies. Dagobert’s successors began an ever-accelerating slide into indolence and debauchery, always carefully protected and maintained by capable mayors of the palace, who in time would produce the Carolingian dynasty.

Early in this process, Pepin of Landen’s son Grimoald did make one misstep. After serving faithfully as mayor for Sigibert III until Sigibert’s death in 656, Grimoald then tried to seize the Austrasian throne outright. He gave the young heir a haircut, shipped him to an Irish monastery, and attempted to make his own son king. The leading men of all three kingdoms swiftly combined to destroy them both.

But after that and into the eighth century, all the mayors of the palace took diligent care of the royal individuals whom French historians would dub the rois fainéants (do-nothing kings). Needing a facade of legitimacy, they maintained the true heir (or a convincing substitute) with all the appropriate trappings of Merovingian royalty: court protocol, long hair, beards and ceremonial ox-cart progressions through their domains. They actually enhanced the mystical aura. It was now that the legends about Merovec and classical Troy first appeared, probably to bolster the supposed authority of the sacred kings. (See footnote 3.) Theoretically, the mayors were mere agents; in reality, they were stealthily seizing royal power.

For some decades, the mayors fought each other as bloodily as ever the kings had, until out of the confusion there rose to prominence in public affairs a family, dubbed the Arnulfings, who were descendants of Arnulf and Pepin. Bishop Arnulf, before he took holy orders, had married a daughter of the count of Boulogne. One of their sons, Ansegis, married Begga, a daughter of Pepin of Landen. Their son, distinguished as Pepin of Heristal, rose to power in Austrasia, and with strong support from Neustrian nobles, unified the two realms. By the end of the seventh century, Pepin made himself master of most of the kingdom of the Franks.

Within another two generations, recurrent periods of anarchy notwithstanding, descendants of Bishop Arnulf of Metz and Pepin of Landen would be the acknowledged and crowned monarchs of this kingdom. A little later still, one of their thrice-great-grandsons, known to history as Charlemagne, would expand it into a still vaster realm, which by later medieval times would be hailed as the Holy Roman Empire.

The term “empire” would not be a misnomer. The Franks had absorbed and applied all they could comprehend of the Roman structure, and by their very limitations had actually simplified and thereby improved it. Unstable and chancy the Merovingians may have seemed, but they had not done so badly. To last for two and a half centuries was an impressive achievement in those times. The appellation “holy” would be equally justified. The Franks had embraced the Christian faith whole and complete, and despite their many obvious flaws they preserved it, and spread it.

And for these accomplishments, both secular and spiritual, credit must go to the Gallic Church–its bishops, priests, monks, nuns, missionaries and ordinary believers. Flawed, credulous, self-seeking, ignorant or compromising as its members often must have been, the church of the Frankish kingdoms was clearly intent upon glorifying God and emulating its Lord. Through its labors on behalf of the homeless, the helpless, the sick and the dying–the people Jesus called “the least of these my brethren”–was established the tradition of social concern that one day would sharply distinguish western society from most others. Very many of these stalwart Christians were awarded the title “saint.” History testifies that they earned it.

Out of the cruelty and turmoil, slowly and painfully, there emerged a semblance of order. When the Merovingians faded into the past and were replaced by the Carolingian dynasty, the old Frankish warrior skill would again prove its worth. For in another dark hour, less than a century ahead, the swords of Islam would flame out of the Middle East, through North Africa, across the Gibraltar strait, through Spain, over the Pyrenees and well into France, crushing Christendom everywhere–and the Franks would be the ones to stop them cold. “If only my Franks had been there,” tough old Clovis had cried when he heard the story of the Crucifixion. This time, they were.

This is the end of the Merovingian category article drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 199, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends. To continue reading more about Merovingian from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at