Fredegund

(d. 597)
   Wife and mother of the Merovingian kings Chilperic I and Chlotar II respectively, Fredegund was one of the great queens of the dynasty. She was also one of the most ruthless and ambitious Frankish queens, and her rise to power illustrates the flexibility of marriage customs among the Merovingian rulers and the opportunity these customs offered some women. She was probably a slave at court before becoming Chilperic's lover and, eventually, wife. Often motivated by the defense of her husband and children, she surely desired power for her own ends. She is best known, perhaps, for her long feud with a rival Merovingian queen, Brunhilde, and Brunhilde's husband Sigebert. This rivalry and Fredegund's ruthlessness are revealed in all their bloodthirstiness in the pages of the history of Gregory of Tours, whose great animosity toward Fredegund continues to shape historical estimates of the queen.
   Fredegund rose to prominence in the Merovingian kingdom because of her relationship with King Chilperic. As a slave, Fredegund became the mistress and, possibly, wife of Chilperic around 566, before his marriage to the Visigothic Spanish princess, Galswintha. Although marriage to low-born women was not uncommon among Merovingian rulers, this custom was abrogated by Chilperic's brother, King Sigebert, who married Galswintha's sister Brunhilde. Jealous of his brother's success, Chilperic arranged a marriage with Galswintha and, according to Gregory of Tours, loved her dearly at first because she brought a large dowry with her. Apparently, Chilperic continued his relationship with Fredegund after his marriage to Galswintha, which led the Visigothic princess to complain bitterly to her husband about her treatment. Chilperic had Galswintha murdered, keeping the dowry, so that he could remain with Fredegund.
   Although there is some dispute over the nature of the feud between Fredegund and Brunhilde, it is certain that Fredegund took great pains to protect herself and Chilperic from Brunhilde and her husband Sigebert. When it appeared that Sigebert was about to overwhelm Chilperic in battle and seize his kingdom, Fredegund had her husband's rival murdered. She also attempted to kill Brunhilde on numerous occasions, but repeatedly failed. For example, according to Gregory of Tours, at one point she sent a cleric to kill Brunhilde, but he was discovered and returned to Fredegund, who punished him by cutting off his hands and feet. Despite her best efforts, Fredegund could not strike down her rival, and in fact she was survived by Brunhilde. Of course, Fredegund could claim the satisfaction of causing the death of two of Brunhilde's husbands. Shortly after the murder of Sigebert, Brunhilde married Merovech, the son of Chilperic from an earlier marriage. Merovech and Brunhilde hoped that the marriage would advance their own political agendas, but that hope failed to materialize, as Fredegund and Chilperic hunted down Merovech, who ordered one of his servants to kill him.
   Fredegund's murders, however, were not limited to Brunhilde's husbands and were not committed in defense of Chilperic alone. Indeed, according to one contemporary chronicler, Fredegund murdered Chilperic in 584 when the king learned that she was having an affair with one of his advisors. Fredegund also arranged the murder of Chilperic's sons by other wives. She caused the death of Merovech and also ordered the murder of her stepson Clovis, who was allegedly conspiring against his father. These murders were ostensibly committed to protect Chilperic against renegade sons, but they also promoted the interest of Fredegund's sons, especially Chlotar. Although she caused the death of two of his sons, Chilperic found Fredegund to be a useful ally. She not only plotted the murder of his major rival, Sigebert, but also struck against many bishops and nobles who were deemed a threat to Chilperic's power. Ambitious and calculating for her own interests, Fredegund provided valuable services to her husband.
   Although she sometimes seemed to promote her own interests beyond all others, Fredegund was nonetheless careful to protect her own children and could react in dramatic and emotional ways to their misfortune. When two of her sons, Chlodobert and Dagobert, were stricken with dysentery, she believed it was divine punishment for Chilperic's new taxation and destroyed the tax registers to save her sons. Their death drove her to great despair and an extended period of mourning. On another occasion, Fredegund tortured and murdered a large number of women in Paris, whom she accused of causing the death of her son Theuderic by witchcraft. To save her son Chlotar when he became seriously ill, Fredegund made a large donation to the church of St. Martin of Tours in the hope that the saint would intervene on behalf of her son. Chlotar, to her relief, survived. She also provided a large dowry for her daughter Rigunth before her daughter's departure for marriage in Spain, and she fell into a terrible rage when she learned that Rigunth had been despoiled of her wealth by her betrothed. Her maternal record, however, is not without blemish. After Rigunth returned from Spain, the two women quarreled constantly, and Fredegund tried to murder her daughter. And she rejected her newborn Samson. She feared she would die and refused to nurse her son, whom Chilperic baptized shortly before the infant died.
   After the murder of Chilperic in 584, Fredegund's position was most insecure and she had to use all her talents to preserve her place and secure the succession for her son Chlotar. She took control of Chilperic's treasure, which aided her bid to maintain control for herself and her son. She also continued to attempt assassinations of her rivals, particularly Brunhilde, as well as various nobles and bishops. The most serious challenge came when the paternity of Chlotar was questioned. She managed to rally to her side a large number of nobles and three bishops, who supported the legitimacy of Chlotar and allowed her to assume the regency for her son. She also led armies in battle when her son's part of the kingdom was threatened by rival Merovingians. And despite her life of brutality and ruthlessness, Fredegund died peacefully in 597, reconciled with Guntram, the most important Merovingian king of the time. Her efforts to secure power for herself and her son proved successful, and she even triumphed over her rival posthumously, when Chlotar overthrew and executed Brunhilde in 613. Her career, thus, demonstrates the opportunities that Merovingian marriage customs offered ambitious women and also reveals the importance of family, especially of sons, to Merovingian queens.
   See also
   Bibliography
 ♦ Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1974.
 ♦ James, Edward. The Franks. Oxford: Blackwell, 1988.
 ♦ Lasko, Peter. The Kingdom of the Franks: North-West Europe before Charlemagne. London: Thames and Hudson, 1971.
 ♦ Wallace-Hadrill, J. 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.

Look at other dictionaries:

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