This is the end of our story. It is a story of a lifelong pursuit of revenge and ultimate loss between two women: Brunehaut (also called Brunhild, Brunehilde), the Frankish Queen, and Fredegonde “warrior queen of Neustria.” (Northern France)
Our story begins with two women: A maidservant, and a princess.
The Visigoth King Athanagilde had two daughters. In 565 or 567, his daughter Galsuinda (sometimes Galswintha) was married to the king of Neustria, Chilperic. At this time, his second daughter, Brunehaut, was married to Chilperic’s half-brother, the Frankish king of Austria, Siegbert. She was then converted to Roman Catholicism from her native Arianism, completing her transition from Visigothe Princess to Frankish Queen.
Galsuinda was Chilperic’s second wife. He had children with his first, whom he put aside at the behest of his long time mistress, Fredegonde. Galsuinda gave the king no new children, as her marriage to Chilperic was short lived. Fredegonde, a legendary figure of cruelty and social climbing, once again worked her magic, though this time to murderous intent. The mistress convinced newly wed Chilperic to kill his wife, wed her, and name their children his heirs. This event was the catalyst that set Brunehaut down a warpath that would consume the rest of her life.
Brunehaut was a Princess, raised to be married to political ends. She should have been good at navigating the tumultuous court alliances. Blinded by the murder of her beloved sister, she instead wracked up enemies. Her opponent Fredegonde, however, was a maidservant turned Queen, and seems to be King Chilperic’s most important advisor.
Brunehaut convinced her husband Siegbert to attack his half brother, beginning a war between the Franks and Neustrians. In response, Fredegonde had Siegbert assassinated, and chased Brunehaut to Paris. Chilperic claimed the Frank’s kingdom. Brunehaut fought this from Paris by asserting her son with Siegbert’s claim to the throne. However, the nobles refused to support her, and she was captured.
At some point, her enemy Chilperic’s own son, probably Merovech of Sossoins, fell in love with her. They married, though it was quickly absolved by his father and Merovech was exiled. There was just enough time to free Brunhilde, and set her back on the warpath.
The Frankish Queen was no friend to the people. The nobles did not support her grabs at power, and while fighting off Neustrian forces through out her life, she also had to fight rebel armies of her own Nobles. During one engagement, a duke shouted at her,
Woman retire! You reigned long enough under the names of your husbands; let that suffice you… Retire directly or our horses’ feet shall trample you to the Earth. (Hale, Woman’s Record, p. 88.)
After ending the engagement by demanding the armies pull apart, she captured all of the rebel nobility she could and executed them. Despite all of her efforts, Brunehaut’s son died in 596.
Her archenemy died the next year, leaving Brunehaut to turn her wrath on the woman’s family and supporters. She committed another crime against the nobility when she attempted to murder the Duke of Champagne. For this offense, they had her taken to the wilderness and left to starve. In an incredible show of her inability to die, a forester rescued her and brought her back to one of her grandsons. Still trying to find an heir to rule through, she convinced this grandson Theoderic to commit fratricide against Theoderic to assure his place in line to the throne.
Fredegonde’s legacy lived on through her son and supporters. Her son Clotaire was carried into battle in her arms as a child, and proved as shrewd a court politician, as a military commander. Brunehaut’s tragic end was dispatched by her own subjects, when she was delivered to Clotaire. She was accused of the murder of several Frankish kings. At 80 years old, Brunehaut was tortured for three days, and carried naked through the countryside. Finally, she was tied to a horse and dragged to her death.
Brunehaut’s story is at some points Fairy Tale-like, and at others full of thrilling intrigue. Always, however, there is an overtone of the tragic, and a moral of the poor outcome of revenge.
*Quote from David E. Jones’ Women Warriors: A History
Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi
Image from I am Woman.
Jone Johnson Lewis, About.com
Fredegonde (Fredegund) is a fascinating woman that pulled herself up from nothing into royalty. She is always portrayed as the most evil character in the historical story of her 40 year war with Brinhild.
Fredegonde started her political life as a servant in medieval Neustria (Northern France). At some point, she became mistress to the Frankish King Chilperic, later convincing him to put aside his first wife, and engineering the murder of his second. Finally, she married him and bore a son, ruling as regent after her husband’s death.
While her methods of intrigue and assassination could inspire the most chilling medieval mysteries, Brunhilde was no saint. At the same time Fredegonde was killing off other people’s spouses, Brunhilde was using family members as agents of death against other family members.
Folklorist Alan Dundes has also suggested the Fredegonde is one of the sources of beloved fairy tale, Cinderella.