Brunhilde

(d. 613)
   Visigothic princess, Merovingian queen, and rival of the queen Fregedund, Brunhilde had great influence on politics in the Frankish kingdoms in the late sixth century and the early seventh. Her struggle with Fredegund contributed to the instability and civil war in the Frankish kingdoms in the late sixth century. Despite frequent attempts on her life by her rival, Brunhilde survived Fredegund and was the power behind the throne in the last decade of the sixth century and the first decade of the seventh. She worked consistently during her reign of more than thirty years to promote the interests of her family, especially her sons and grandsons. Her efforts, however, provoked opposition and led to a revolt that ended in her death and contributed to the rise of the Carolingian dynasty.
   According to the sixth-century bishop and historian, Gregory of Tours, Brunhilde was "elegant in all that she did, lovely to look at, chaste and decorous in her behavior, wise in her generation and of good address" (221). Although Gregory may have been biased toward the queen, since there is good evidence to suggest that she secured his appointment as bishop, his opinion seems born out by Brunhilde's successes while a queen of the Franks. She came to the kingdom, again according to Gregory, to marry the Merovingian king Sigebert I (r. 560/561-575), who saw that his brothers were marrying their servants and decided to seek the hand of a princess. Brunhilde was the daughter of the Visigothic king of Spain, Athanagild, and she was also an Arian Christian, who converted to Catholic Christianity shortly after her arrival in the Frankish kingdoms. She arrived, therefore, with wealth and pedigree unrivaled by any of the other Merovingian queens.
   Her arrival inspired jealousy in Sigebert's half-brother, King Chilperic I (560/561-584), who arranged to marry Brunhilde's sister, the princess Galswintha. She too arrived with great wealth and prestige, but not so much that Chilperic hesitated to murder her shortly after her arrival, refusing to return the dowry. He then married, or remarried, the former servant Fredegund, who may have been behind the murder. The murder of Galswintha and promotion of Fredegund surely embittered relations between the two Merovingian queens. Some scholars argue that a blood feud followed the murder of Galswintha, but others maintain that the strife between Brunhilde and Fredegund was simply an example of the violent politics that occasionally plagued the Merovingian dynasty. Whatever the case, the relationship between the two was hostile and led to great civil strife.
   In 575 tragedy again struck Brunhilde when Chilperic had Sigebert murdered and then took control of his kingdom and treasure. Brunhilde was captured and exiled to Rouen from her husband's capital at Paris, and her son Childebert was taken from her. Despite this setback, Brunhilde returned to power in the 580s and became increasingly powerful thereafter. The first step in her return was her marriage to Merovech, son of her rival Chilperic. The marriage provided her with supporters and access to power once again, and Merovech had access to control of a kingdom. But Chilperic separated the two and returned Brunhilde to her eastern Frankish kingdom. When Merovech attempted to return to Brunhilde she rebuffed him, and shortly afterward he was captured and killed, possibly, as Gregory suggests, at Fredegund's orders. Although Merovech met a sad fate, his former wife's fortunes climbed in the 580s. This occurred, in part, because of the death of Chilperic and the subsequent weakness of Fredegund, who may have killed him and certainly made attempts to kill Brunhilde. The murders, possibly at the queen's order, of an abbot and a bishop who opposed her strengthened her hand as well. But the most important factor in her improved circumstances was that her son, Childebert, reached his majority and was recognized as a legitimate king by other Merovingian kings.
   For the next three decades, Brunhilde dominated the scene in the Frankish kingdoms. Although first her son and then grandsons were the titular rulers, she held the real power in the kingdom and exercised it in both church and state. She arranged important political marriages for her children, alliances with Visigoth rulers in Spain which included the marriage of her daughter, Ingunde, to the prince Hermenegild. She also corresponded with the Byzantine emperor, who had captured her daughter and grandson after Hermenegild revolted. She also conspired to break up marriages of her son and grandsons to limit threats to her position at court.
   Within the kingdom, she strengthened her position further by arranging treaties with other Merovingian kings and orchestrating the murders of her rivals. Moreover, she corresponded with Pope Gregory I, known as the Great (590-604), and oversaw the administration of the church and appointment of bishops in the realm. Her relationship with the pope was an important one, for Gregory who hoped that the queen would help reform the Frankish church and aid Augustine of Canterbury's mission to England. In both regards Gregory was not disappointed, and in return he supported the queen's request to elevate one of her favorites to the rank of metropolitan bishop. Her relations with the church, however, were not always happy. She may have ordered the murder of Bishop Desiderius of Vienne and certainly exiled St. Columban because they both questioned the behavior and right to rule of members of her family.
   The difficulties she faced with Desiderius and Columban reveal the problems that arose for Brunhilde after the death of her son Childebert in 596. She continued to rule as regent for her grandsons, Theudebert II (596-612) and Theuderic II (596-613), but she faced growing opposition in the kingdoms, especially among the nobility in Austrasia, where Theudebert ruled, and among the clergy who opposed her heavy-handed control of the church. She took up residence with Theuderic, whom she set against his brother, claiming that Theudebert was the son of a gardener. These first efforts failed, but Brunhilde would not be stopped. She broke the engagement of Theuderic, and worked to maintain her influence at court. In 612 she convinced Theuderic to attack his brother's kingdom, and this time Theudebert was defeated, captured, and killed.
   In 612, Brunhilde remained at the pinnacle of power, and threatened Fredegund's son, Chlotar. But her fortunes quickly changed when Theuderic died of dysentery in 613. Although she made her great-grandson, Sigebert II, king, she could not put down the successful revolt Chlotar led against her. She was captured by her former rival's son and tried for the murder of ten kings, including her husband, children, grandchildren, Merovech, and Chilperic. She was found guilty and condemned to death in a most gruesome fashion, tied to the back of a wild horse and dragged to her death. Although she met a most unfortunate end, Brunhilde ruled effectively for over thirty years, acting as any Merovingian queen would to defend the rights of herself and her family against their rivals.
   See also
   Bibliography
 ♦ Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1974.
 ♦ Nelson, Janet L. "Queens as Jezebels: The Careers of Brunhild and Balthild in Merovingian History." In Medieval Women, ed. Derek Baker. Oxford: Blackwell, 1978, pp. 31-77.
 ♦ Wallace-Hadrill, John M. The Long-Haired Kings. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1982.
 ♦ Wemple, Suzanne. Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister, 500 to 900. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985.
 ♦ Wood, Ian. The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450-751. London: Longman, 1994.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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