Bertha of Kent – c.565 – c.601 – Canterbury, England

Britain, England, France

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Bertha (sometimes Aldeberge) was a Frankish princess who became queen of Kent. Her influence contributed to the adoption of Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England.

Born and raised in Tours, France, Bertha was raised a Christian. Her marriage to King Æthelberht of Kent, an English pagan, was conditional on her being permitted to continue to practice her faith.

Following her move to Canterbury, Kent, Bertha began work to restore a Christian church in the city. There had been a church in Canterbury during the Roman occupation of Britain, but it had been destroyed during the Saxon invasions and was in a state of ruin by the time Bertha arrived.

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Wooden statue of Bertha inside St Martin’s Church (source)

Bertha used the restored church as her private chapel and dedicated it to Saint Martin of Tours. St Martins is still standing today, and is the oldest church in the English-speaking world.

In 596 Canterbury was visited by Augustine, Gregorian monk sent by Pope Gregory I to convert the English. Bertha received Augustine warmly and encouraged him to settle in Canterbury, where he went on to found a monastery and became the first Archbishop of Canterbury in 567.

Thanks to Bertha’s early influence, Canterbury remains the seat of the Church of England.

King Æthelberht eventually converted to Christianity himself, and the couple had two children, Eabald and Æthelburg.

Bertha was canonised as a saint; her feast day is on 1st May.


References:

Ecclesiastical History of the English People: Book 1 – Bede

Queen Bertha: Canterbury Historical and Archaeological Society

On Wikipedia:

 

Brunhilda – c.543 – 613 – Merovingian Austrasia

France, Germany, Spain

CW: Torture, extreme violence

Brunhilda

 

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.

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Chilperic strangling Galswintha (source)

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.

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Chilperic strangling Galswintha (source)

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:

  1. Sigebert I – Brunhilda’s first husband, assassinated by Fredegund due to the feud
  2. Chilperic I – Fredegund’s husband, assassinated (possibly by Fredegund)
  3. Theudebert II – Brunhilda’s grandson, defeated by his brother on Brunhilda’s orders
  4. Theuderic II – Brunhilda’s grandson, died from dysentery after war with his brother
  5. Sigebert II – Theuderic’s illegitimate son, Brunhilda’s great-grandson
  6. Merovech – Chilperic’s son, Brunhilda’s second husband, committed suicide
  7. Merovech – Theuderic’s son
  8. Corbo – Theuderic’s son, Brunhilda’s great-grandson, killed along with young Sigebert
  9. Childebert – Theuderic’s son, Brunhilda’s great-grandson
  10.  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.


References:

The History of the Medieval World – Susan Wise Bauer

History of the Franks: Books I-X Gregory of Tours

On Wikipedia:

Radegund – c.520 – 587 – Poitiers, France

France, Germany

Radegund

Radegund (also Rhadegund, Radegonde or Radigund) was a German princess and a Frankish queen who founded the Abbey of the Holy Cross at Poitiers. She was also the granddaughter of Basina through her father.

At the time Radegund was born, the kingdom of Thuringia was ruled by three men; her father Bertachar and his brothers, Baderic and Hermanfrid.

In 529, Hermanfrid killed Bertachar in battle, leaving nine-year-old Radegund an orphan. She was taken into Hermanfrid’s household while he continued his campaign for sole kingship, killing Baderic shortly afterwards.

Hermanfrid’s victory had come at a cost – he had sought the help of Theuderic, king of the Franks, agreeing that they would share sovereignty of Thuringia. However, you can’t trust a man who will kills his own brothers in the pursuit of power, and Hermanfrid did not make good on his promise.

Furious at the betrayal, Theuderic and his own brother, Clotaire I marched into Thuringia in 531, defeating Hermanfrid and claiming his kingdom. When the victorious brothers returned to Gaul (France), they took twelve-year-old Radegund with them.

She was raised in Clotaire’s villa in Picardy, and in 540 Radegund became one of his six wives. Little is known about her life as Clotaire’s concubine, other than that they had no children.

In 550, Radegund’s family was in peril again when Clotaire had her brother, the last surviving male, murdered. With her own life potentially in danger, Radegund left the Frankish court and sought shelter within the church. She pleaded her case to the Bishop of Noyon, who agreed to make her a deaconess.

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Radegund retiring to the monastery (source)

While living in the Frankish court Radegund had been noted for her charitable giving, but once she joined the church she really came into her own, founding the monastery of Cainte-Croix in Poitiers.

As a deaconess, Radegund’s life was governed by a very strict set of instructions, known as the Rule for Virgins. This required nuns to live cloistered lives, away from the public. They were expected to devote much of their time to reading the Bible and copying out manuscripts, and had a restrictive vegetarian diet of legumes and green vegetables.

As well as founding the monastery, Radegund personally tended to the sick, gaining a reputation as a gifted healer. In addition, Radegund wrote poetry (likely with a religious theme) which has sadly been lost.

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Radegund retiring to the monastery (source)

Through her writing, Radegund corresponded with a number of very learned men of her generation, including Gregory of Tours, who attended her funeral, and the hermit Junian of Mairé, who was said to have died on the same day as Radegund.

Radegund died in 587 in her late seventies, and was buried in Poitiers in a church which later became the Church of St Radegonde. Due to the strict Rule for Virgins the nuns of Radegund’s abbey were not permitted to attend the funeral.

Radegund is venerated as a saint in the catholic church, her feast day is celebrated on 13th August each year. She is also the patron saint of Cambridge University’s Jesus College. A number of churches and building across Britain and France are named in Radegund’s honour.


References:

Information on St Radegund – Jesus College Cambridge

St. Radegund from Sainted Women of the Dark Ages.-  Jo Ann McNamara, John E. Halborg, with E. Gordon Whatley

On Wikipedia:

Theodora – c.500 – 548 – Constantinople

Constantinople

CW: Sex work

Theodora

Though Theodora continued the tradition of powerful Byzantine empresses, nothing about her story is traditional.

The daughter of a bear trainer and an exotic dancer, Theodora was raised in the shadows of the hippodrome of Constantinople. She and her sisters were trained to dance and perform from a young age. Contemporary sources also mention that she was a sex worker and in fact one historian referred to her as ‘Theodora from the brothel’.

In her mid-teens Theodora became the companion of a government official named Hecebolus, and travelled with him to North Africa where he had been appointed governor of the Libyan Pentapolis. After four years together, Theodora was cast aside by Hecebolus and she – now with young daughter – travelled alone to Egypt.

Hipodrom

Ruins of the Hippodrome (source)

In Alexandria Theodora underwent her first transformation. She came into contact with Timothy III, the Patriarch of Alexandria, who converted her to Monophysite Christianity.

Monophysites believed that Jesus Christ had only one divine nature – as opposed to Chalcedonean Christians who believed Christ had two natures in one body – both human and divine. Theodora would remain a supporter of the Monophysites for the rest of her life.

In 522, a changed woman, Theodora returned to Constantinople and took up a job as a wool spinner. She had retained her connections in the entertainment industry and was particularly close with a dancer named Macedonia, who was also an informer to the emperor’s heir, Justinian.

At some point Justinian was introduced to Theodora and, apparently charmed by her wit and character, fell in love with her. At the time it was illegal for a politician to marry an actress – theatre was considered highly immoral by the church and it was unthinkable that the heir to the empire should marry an ex-prostitute.

However, Theodora had clearly enamoured herself to the emperor, Justin I, Justinian’s uncle. In 525 the law preventing Theodora and Justinian’s marriage was abolished and the couple were quickly wed.

In 527, Justinian became emperor and ‘Theodora from the brothel’ was proclaimed empress of the Eastern Roman Empire.

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Mosaic of Theodora and Justinian at Ravenna (source)

Her first chance to prove her worth came in early 532, when a riot broke out during a chariot race in the hippodrome. Led by two political factions known as the Blues and the Greens, the violence increased and soon became a full scale revolt.

The mob proclaimed Hypatius, nephew of the old emperor Anastasius I, as the new emperor and Justinian’s entire regime was placed under threat. What was worse – Justinian himself hesitated, unsure of how to respond.

In an emergency council meeting, the emperor was advised to flee the city – at which point Theodora rose to speak. Her husband could run away if he wished, she explained, but she would not be going anywhere. Now was not the time for cowardice, the empress argued, it would be better to die an emperor than live in exile.

Fortified by his wife’s words, Justinian ordered his army into the hippodrome where they defeated the insurgents. Theodora’s hard line on defence did not stop there – she insisted that Hypatius be put to death, even when he claimed he had been an unwillingly participant in the uprising.

Theodora continued to build upon her influence following the Nika revolt. Justinian clearly never forgot that his wife had saved his crown, and afterwards could refuse her very little. Together the couple embarked upon numerous building projects throughout Constantinople, erecting aqueducts, churches and bridges.

They also instigated a number of legal reforms – creating tighter controls over the magistrates of the city and closely monitoring their work to prevent corruption. Theodora herself was responsible for several initiatives designed to improve the lives of women.

During the reign of Justinian and Theodora the practice of forced prostitution was prohibited, and many brothels were closed down. A convent known as the Metanoia (‘Repentance’) was constructed as a haven for ex-sex workers to learn to support themselves.

Among other feminist laws, Justinian and Theodora increased women’s rights following divorce, and expanded mother’s guardianship of their children. They implemented a death penalty for rape and prohibited the killing of a wife who committed adultery.

While Theodora and her husband were clearly a strong political partnership, they disagreed on a number of religious fundamentals. Theodora remained true to Monophysite Christianity while Justinian sided with the opposing Chalcedonian faction.

Actively working against her husband’s beliefs, Theodora funded the construction of a Monophysite monastery in Sykae and sheltered monks and bishops who were persecuted by the Chalcedons.

Despite these disagreements, Justinian clearly adored Theodora and reportedly wept bitterly when she died in 548, aged just 48. Both Justinian and Theodora are saints in the Eastern Orthodox Church, with Theodora’s feast day commemorated on 14th November.


The main historical accounts of Theodora’s life come from Procopius, a contemporary scribe. However, the three texts attributed to Procopius contain vastly different portrayals of the empress.

The Wars of Justinian (545):

This text describes a brave, strong willed and influential Theodora, painted in a very positive light.

The Secret History:

In a hidden text which remained undiscovered for a thousand years, Procopius gives a wholly different account of the court of Justinian and Theodora. The empress is described as a lascivious and vulgar woman who performed in public sex shows while she was empress.

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L’Imperatrice Theodora au Colisée by Benjamin Constant (source)

Procopius accuses her of being cruel and overbearing, and claims that her Metanoia convent for sex workers was little more than a prison, driving the captive women to suicide.

However, the Secret History also claims that Justinian and Theodora were demons whose heads could detach from their bodies and scuttled around the palace in the dead of night. So perhaps this account should also be taken with a grain of salt.

Buildings of Justinian:

This final text was probably written during the same time as the Secret History. In contrast, it flatters both Theodora and Justinian, describing them as a very pious, moral couple.


In fiction:

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Sarah Berndhart as Theodora in Victorien Sandou’s ‘Theodora’ 1882. (source)

Books:

·         Theodora and the Emperor – Harold Lamb (1952).

·         The Glittering Horn: Secret Memoirs of the Court of Justinian – Pierson Dixon (1958)

·         Count Belisarius – Robert Graves.

·         The Bearkeeper’s Daughter – Gillian Bradshaw (1987).

·         Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore – Stella Duffy (2010)

·         The Purple Shroud – Stella Duffy (2012)

·         The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora – Stephanie Thornton (2013)

Film:

·         Teodora imperatrice di Bisanzio (1909) aka Theodora, Empress of Byzantium. Dir. Ernesto Maria Pasquali.

·         Teodora, imperatrice di Bisanzio (1954) aka Theodora, Slave Empress. Dir. Riccardo Freda. Theodora is played by Gianna Maria Canale.

Theater:

·         Theodora, A Drama. (1884) – Victorien Sardou.

Video games:

·         Theodora is a character in the video game Civilization V in its Gods and Kings expansion.


References:

Theodora: the empress from the brothelStella Duffy for The Guardian (2010)

The Decline and Fall of the ByzantineEdward Gibbons

The Secret HistoryProcopius

Brothels, Baths and Babes: Prostitution in the Byzantine Holy Land – Claudine Dauphin

On Wikipedia: