CW: Torture, extreme violence
Brunhilda is a fascinating figure in European history – a Spanish princess who became a Frankish queen and ruled as regent no less than three times.
She was a vengeful woman who would not be crossed; Brunhilda’s forceful and unforgiving personality re-shaped the northern European political landscapes, leading to her being blamed for the deaths of ten (yes, TEN) Frankish kings.
Born in Toledo, the Visigothic capital (south of Madrid in modern day Spain), Brunhilda was a well-educated Christian princess from a noble house.
In 567 she was married to King Sigebert I of Austrasia – an area which was then comprised of parts of modern day France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
Austrasia was one of four Frankish kingdoms which had been united by Sigebert’s father. Sigebert and his three brothers had divided the kingdom into four parts – Paris and western Gaul, Burgundy, Austrasia, and Neustria.
Sigebert’s youngest brother, Chilperic, had inherited Neustria (Soissons). Chilperic was impressed with his brother’s educated high-born wife and – not to be outdone – sent to Toledo for Brunhilda’s younger sister, Galswintha.
Galswintha’s marriage to Chilperic was deeply unhappy. The young woman arrived in the foreign court to find that her husband already had a number of mistresses – mostly low born Franks. Insulted, Galswintha refused to put up with Chilperic’s courtesans and demanded that he banish every one of them from his court.
These demands made Galswintha a very unstable enemy in Fredegund, a servant girl who had become the king’s mistress. When Galswintha was found strangled in her bed, Brunhilda blamed Fredegund and Chilperic – who were married only three days later.
Brunhilda was furious. For the next forty or so years, she dedicated her life to destroying Fredegund and Chilperic for what they did to her sister.
Fredegund was more than a match for her, and soon the family was at war.
Though several external parties attempted to broker peace between the warring in-laws, including Siegbert and Chilperic’s brother, Guntram of Burgundy, and the Bishop of Paris, the opposing sides were single-minded in their hatred for each other.
Matters came to a head when Sigebert defeated Chilperic in battle, taking Poitiers and Touraine and forcing the younger brother to flee to Tournai. Sigebert pursued his brother and attempted to conquer Tournai as well – but his winning streak was cut short when he was assassinated in 573.
The assassins had been sent by Fredegund.
With her sister and husband now murdered at the hands of the same woman, Brunhilda refused to back down. Her next move was to marry Merovech, Chilperic’s own son and Fredegund’s stepson. This was a powerful alliance. Panicking, Chilperic hurriedly made peace with Brunhilda and Merovech, before sending his son to a monastery to become a priest, attempting to annul the marriage.
Merovech escaped a number of times before killing himself in 578.
Down two husbands and still nowhere, Brunhilda now took matters into her own hands and consolidated her power. She claimed regency over her eldest son, Childebert II, and ruled Austrasia as queen. Though she was disliked and generally opposed by the noblemen of Austrasia, Brunhilda did manage to push through a number of administrative reforms; repairing roads and infrastructure, building churches, monasteries and abbeys, and restructuring the royal finances.
In 584, Chilperic was killed. Fredegund had taken his money and sought refuge in Notre Dame Cathedral.
By this time, young Childebert had turned thirteen – the age of majority – and taken the throne under the watchful eyes of his mother. Brunhilda was still so prominent at court that there were several plots to assassinate both mother and son.
Still, the queen proved herself indomitable. When Guntram of Burgundy died, Childebert inherited his kingdom too – and immediately went to war with his cousin Clotaire II of Neustria – Fredegund’s son.
Childebert himself died at only twenty-six years old – leaving Brunhilda to take the reins once more, this time claiming regency of Austrasia and Burgundy in the name of her two young grandsons, splitting the kingdoms between them.
In 597, Brunhilda’s greatest nemesis, Fredegund died – but the feud between them did not.
Apparently unable to stop making enemies, in 599 Brunhilda’s elder grandson Theudebert tired of her scheming and exiled her from his court. She headed straight for the court of her other grandson, Theuderic, and quickly persuaded him to declare war on his brother. In 612, Theudebert was defeated and placed in a monastery, where he died (possibly assassinated).
Theuderic died shortly thereafter from an illness – leaving yet another power vacuum in the Frankish kingdoms. He had left only a small illegitimate son, Sigebert – so for the third time in her life Brunhilda claimed regency of the kingdom, this time for her great-grandson.
But the ghost of Fredegund would not rest. Her son, Clotaire II of Neustria raised an army against Brunhilda, forcing her to flee with Sigebert into Orbe (French Switzerland), where they were captured.
Sigebert was put to death at once, along with his young brother’s Corbo and Childebert – immediately ending the feud between Austrasia and Neustria.
Brunhilda was brutally tortured by Clotaire, who accused her of causing the deaths of ten Frankish kings:
- Sigebert I – Brunhilda’s first husband, assassinated by Fredegund due to the feud
- Chilperic I – Fredegund’s husband, assassinated (possibly by Fredegund)
- Theudebert II – Brunhilda’s grandson, defeated by his brother on Brunhilda’s orders
- Theuderic II – Brunhilda’s grandson, died from dysentery after war with his brother
- Sigebert II – Theuderic’s illegitimate son, Brunhilda’s great-grandson
- Merovech – Chilperic’s son, Brunhilda’s second husband, committed suicide
- Merovech – Theuderic’s son
- Corbo – Theuderic’s son, Brunhilda’s great-grandson, killed along with young Sigebert
- Childebert – Theuderic’s son, Brunhilda’s great-grandson
- The sons of Theudebert II – Brunhilda’s great-grandsons
For these crimes, Clotaire put Brunhilda to death in the most unpleasant way he could think of – following her torture on the rack, the queen (now in her seventies) was tied to four horses, who were set to bolt in different directions, tearing her body apart.
She was then burned until nothing was left. Another story has the elderly woman being dragged by a wild horse until she died – either way, Brunhilda’s controversial life came to an extremely bloody end.
Brunhilda was buried in the Abbay de St Martin at Autun, which she had founded.
The History of the Medieval World – Susan Wise Bauer
History of the Franks: Books I-X – Gregory of Tours