Jitō – 645 – 703 – Yamato, Japan

Japan

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Jitō was the third woman to rule Japan as empress regnant.

Her father was Emperor Tenji, who was succeeded by his half-brother Emperor Tenmu. Jitō was married to Tenmu (her uncle) and succeeded him on the throne in 687 at the age of forty two. This was to ensure that their son, Kusakabe-shinnō, could eventually ascend to emperor himself.

Prince Kusabake did indeed follow his mother, but died while still young, leaving his son Karu-no-o who was too young to rule. This meant that Jitō stepped in once more, this time to preserve the throne for her grandson.

Jitō’s total rule was eleven years, in 697 she abdicated in favour of Karu-no-o, who became Emperor Monmu. Jitō retired to a monastery but retained much of her political power and continued to excervcise it behind the scenes as a cloistered ruler.

There are two poems attributed to Empress Jitō, the first of which is:

After the death of the Emperor Temmu

Oh, the autumn foliage

Of the hill of Kamioka!

My good Lord and Sovereign

Would see it in the evening

And ask of it in the morning.

On that very hill from afar

I gaze, wondering

If he sees it to-day,

Or asks of it to-morrow.

Sadness I feel at eve,

And heart-rending grief at morn –

The sleeves of my coarse-cloth robe

Are never for a moment dry.

Composed when the Empress climbed the Thunder Hill

Lo, our great Sovereign, a goddess,

Tarries on the Thunder

In the clouds of heaven!


References:

On Wikipedia:

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Seondeok – d.647 – Silla, Korea

Korea

 

Embroidered portrait of Seondeok dressed in traditional Korean robes and a tall golden grown.

Seondeok was the first woman to rule as queen of Silla (one of the three kingdoms of Korea) and her reign coincided with that of Empress Wu Zetian in China.

A precocious child, there is a story from her childhood in which Seondeok’s father, King Jinpyeong of Silla, received a box of peony seeds from China. This particular strain had not been seen before in Korea, and so the box of seeds was accompanied by a painting of the flower. The young princess observed that the flowers were very pretty, but did not have a scent. She’d come to this conclusion because the artist had not painted bees or butterflies around the illustration.

Painting of three peonies in pink, lilac and white with Chinese text

17th Century Chinese painting of a Peony (source)

Whether or not this story is true, it was used in later years to demonstrate Seondeok’s clever mind and aptitude for logic and reason which made her fit to rule. Jinpyeong had no sons, and named Seondeok as his heir – a highly unusual move.

Seondeok ascended to the throne of Silla in 632 and ruled for fourteen years. Her reign was largely focused on power struggles with neighbouring kingdom Baekje and strengthening political ties with China. She sent selected Korean subjects to China – scholars on diplomatic missions and soldiers to learn Chinese martial arts.

These actions paved the way towards the unification of Korea, which happened only two decades after her death, thanks to the alliance with China.

Photograph of the star gazing tower - a tall conical building made from large grey bricks with a large square window at the centre and a square platform at the top.

17th Century Chinese painting of a Peony (source)

The queen’s reign marked Korea’s movement towards Buddhism as a national religion, and several Buddhist temples were built in Seondeok’s name. She also oversaw the construction of one of the earliest known observatories in the Far East, called Cheomseongdae; the ‘Star-Gazing Tower’.

Though Seondeok’s reign is generally regarded as successful and beneficial for the kingdom of Silla, the queen was not without her critics. Early in 647 she was faced with an uprising and attempt to overthrow her. Aided by one of Korea’s finest military minds, Kim Yushin, the rebellion was defeated.

Unfortunately, Seondeok did not live to see her enemies quashed. She died in February 647 and left the throne to her cousin, Jindeok, who became Korea’s second reigning queen.


In Fiction:

  • Lee Yo-won and Nam Ji-hyun both portrayed the empress in the Korean TV series Queen Seondeok in 2009.
  • Park Joo-mi and Hong Eun-hee played her in The King’s Dream (or Dream of the Emperor) which aired on KBS1 in 2012-2013.

References:

On Wikipedia:

Bathild – c.626 – 680 – Burgundy and Neustria

Britain, England, France

Bathild

Of uncertain origins, Bathild’s curious life appears to have begun in East Anglia, Britain, where she possibly born into a noble family. Whatever the circumstances of her upbringing, she was at some point uprooted and sold into slavery – possibly as a result of the war for the throne of East Anglia.

Still a little girl, Bathild now found herself a very long way from home, in Neustria (part of modern day France), where she entered service in the household of Erchinoald, a powerful Frankish nobleman.

The story goes that Bathild grew up into the ideal medieval woman – beautiful, modest, subservient and pious. When Erchinoald’s wife died, he was keen to make Bathild his wife. Unfortunately for him, Bathild was uninterested in the man who had bought her as a child, and hid herself away until he found someone else to marry.

Eventually (though the details are murky) Bathild got a much better offer of marriage – Clovis II, king of Burgundy and Neustria. This time, she said yes.

Like all good medieval Christian queens, Bathild engaged in public acts of charity. She donated enough money to the church to found two Abbeys, Corbie and Chelles – and possibly three others. She also had three sons, Clotaire, Childeric and Theuderic.

Their eldest son was only five years old when Clovis died, leaving little Clotaire on the throne, but Bathild in charge. As queen regent she really came into her own. She was an intelligent and capable politician, even handling an attempted coup.

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Bathild’s seal matrix (sourcesource)

Her greatest triumph was the abolition of Christian slavery – something which must have been very dear to her heart. Historical sources also write that she worked to free children who had been sold into slavery by paying for them herself and giving them their freedom.

All three of Bathild’s sons became kings – Clotaire of Neustria, Childeric of Austrasia and Theuderic of Burgundy. Satisfied that she had done her job, Bathild retired to the Abbey she had founded in Chelles, where she lived peacefully until the end of her life.

 

 

 


References:

Bathild Seal Matrix – Norfolk Museum

On Wikipedia:

Wu Zetian 武則天 – 624 – 705 – Chang’an, China

Ancient China, China

Wu Zetain

The word ‘formidable’ has been used to describe a number of consorts (wives of kings or emperors) throughout history, from Egyptian queen mother Tiye to Roman matron Livia. While these women often operated in private, behind closed doors in order to achieve their own political agendas, and did so very successfully, none had quite such an impressive career trajectory as Wu Zetian, the concubine who became sole ruler of imperial China.

Described in turns as ruthless, power hungry and benevolent, Wu Zetian made history as not only China’s only female ruler, but as one of its most controversial.

The daughter of a timber merchant, Wu entered the Imperial court at the age of fourteen as a concubine to Emperor Taizong. She remained a lesser wife until Taizong’s death in 649. When an emperor died, his widows were supposed to enter a convent and become Buddhist nuns for the rest of their lives. But Wu was different.

Instead of retiring to a life of celibacy and religious ritual, Wu Zetian somehow managed to stay on at court – as the concubine of Taizong’s son, the newly crowned Emperor Gaozong. With Gaozong, Wu began to rise through the ranks, gaining influence and forming her own alliances.

In 654, Wu gave birth to her third child, a daughter, who died suddenly. Though none of the historical sources can agree what happened, Wu lost no time in accusing Gaozong’s chief wife, Empress Wang, of murder. She later accused Wang and Wang’s mother of witchcraft, and by 655 Wu Zetian had managed to remove her rivals and secure the role of empress for herself.

Wu and Gaozong ruled almost equally for a time, and were known as the ‘two sages’, considered wise and just leaders. Wu was well versed in history and literature, and considered extremely quick witted and capable. She was also ruthless, gathering a close group of allies to root out anyone plotting against her or the emperor. Wu ordered so many exiles and executions for treason that no one dared criticise her.

Gaozong was a sickly ruler, and died young, leaving behind his two sons with Wu Zetian (any sons he’d had with other women had been removed much earlier). The elder son was difficult to control, so Wu simply replaced him for his younger brother – deciding that she would in fact speak for him.

The empress continued to rid herself of any rivals to the throne, interrupting the line of the Tang dynasty. Her reign was marked by endless plots against her – followed by swift and merciless treason trials.

After three years as regent, Wu Zetian proclaimed herself Emperor. With the help of her secret police and rigorous investigations of the nobility, Wu Zetian became the first (and, as yet, only) woman to rule China.

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The estimated reach of Wu Zetian’s empire (source)

Though considered bloodthirsty and cruel by the nobles who she persecuted, Wu Zetian was very popular with the common people. Her quest to disempower her enemies has also been viewed as an attempt to flush out corruption within the imperial court. She reformed the government by reducing the military – Wu established an entrance exam for the government, meaning that the running of the empire was in the hands of educated scholars, rather than generals.

She also commissioned a number of historical texts intended to elevate the position of women in society, including Collection of Biographies of Famous Women. Her reign was one of culture, literature and scholarship. Among Wu Zetian’s other achievements, she also promoted Buddhism as the new state religion of China (over Daoism), creating a wealth of Buddhist art across the country.

In 705, Wu Zetian was eighty-one, and had been in power (in one form or another) for over fifty years. She had become less fierce with age, and finally gave up her throne to her third son. She died peacefully that same year.


In fiction:

Wu Zetian has been portrayed across a range of media in films, novels, television and video games. A full list can be found here.


References:

On Wikipedia:

 

Princess Pingyang 平陽公主 – 598 – 623 – China

Ancient China, China

Pingyang

By single-handedly amassing an army of 70,000, Princess Pingyang was a key player in the destruction of the Sui dynasty and the foundation of the Tang dynasty – a golden age for China.

The daughter of a military commander, Li Yuan, and the wife of the chief of the imperial palace guards, Pingyang was a noble lady and a prominent figure at court. China had only recently been united under the Sui dynasty, and in the early 600s was under the control of Emperor Yangdi – an immensely unpopular ruler.

Yangdi spent China’s money on expensive invasions into surrounding Asia, dangerous construction projects like rebuilding the great wall (which caused millions of deaths) – and attempted to pay for everything through heavy taxation.

The imprisonment of Li Yuan was the final straw, and as soon as he was released he and Pingyang’s husband left the imperial palace to mount a rebellion. Pinyang stayed behind in a highly vulnerable position as the wife and daughter of two insurgents.

Pingyang was made of stern stuff, however, and eventually left the palace herself, heading for the safety of her family’s feudal lands in Hu county. Thanks to Yangdi’s oppressive policies, the people there were starving, having suffered a drought without being offered relief by the government. Pingyang flew into action, offering the people food from her own family’s stores and winning their loyalty.

Pingyang continued to work covertly to ally herself with other local rebel forces and so building her own army, which later became known as the Woman’s Army. She herself dressed in male military uniform, marching at the head of her troops like a general.

She was a strict leader, forbidding looting, raping or pillaging, in order to keep the rural people on her side. Wherever Pingyang’s Woman’s Army triumphed, they shared the food with the locals, and came to be seen as heroic liberators.

Eventually, thanks in part to Pingyang’s efforts, the Sui dynasty was defeated and Yangdi fled for his life. Li Yuan became the first emperor of the Tang dynasty, and Pingyang was given the title ‘Princess’. She was also given the rank of marshal, and conferred all the honours due to an imperial prince.

Princess Pingyang died very young, at the age of twenty three. Her grief stricken father ordered an elaborate military funeral. When advisors complained that it was highly irregular to have such an extravagant ceremony for a woman, he replied –

“She was no ordinary woman.”


References:

Notable Women of ChinaBarbara Bennett Peterson

Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang Through Ming, 618-1644Lily Xiao Hong Lee, Sue Wiles

On Wikipedia:

Princess Pingyang

Kōgyoku 皇極天皇– 594 – 661 – Kyoto, Japan

Ancient Japan, Japan

Kogyoku

Kōgyoku was not only the second woman to ascend to Japan‘s chrysanthemum throne, but also the third.

Born Princess Takara, she was the great-great granddaughter of Emperor Bidatsu, and great-great grandniece to Empress Suiko – the first woman to rule Japan. She married her uncle, Emperor Jomei, and became his consort, bearing him three children.

When Jomei died in his late forties, it was Takara who succeeded him, rather than their teenaged son, Naka no Ōe. She took the name Kōgyoku and the title Sumeramikoto or Amenoshita Shiroshimesu Ōkimi (治天下大王), meaning “the great queen who rules all under heaven”. The throne was not stable, however, and Kōgyoku’s reign was beset by challenges from the powerful Soga clan.

To prevent them from seizing total power, Naka no Ōe and his friends staged a coup intended to destroy the most powerful branch of the Soga family, which was led by statesman Soga no Iruka . In July of 645, during a ceremony in the throne room, Naka no Ōe assassinated Soga no Iruka, right in front of his mother.

Kōgyoku was deeply shocked by the violence she had witnessed (later known as the Isshi Incident), and more than that, at the time it was believed that being present at a murder polluted the soul. No longer considering herself fit to rule, Kōgyoku wished to abdicate immediately in favour of her son. She was instead convinced to pass her title to her brother, who became Emperor Kōtoku.

Kōtoku ruled from 645 – 654 and died without a living heir. In 655, Kōgyoku re-ascended to the throne under the new name of Empress Saimei. As Saimei she ruled for seven more years, before dying on a military expedition to Korea.


References:

Women’s Studies Encyclopedia, Volume 2 – Helen Tierney

Japan Encyclopedia – Louis-Frédéric, Käthe Roth

On Wikipedia:

Theodelinda – c.570 – 628 – Monza, Italy

Germany, Italy

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Theodelinda was a Baviarian princess who married Authuri, king of Lombardy (northwest Italy). Authuri died while Theodelinda was still young, and she selected Agilulf as her second husband and successor to the crown.

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Fresco despicting Theodelinda attending to the construction of the Cathedral of Monza (source)

As queen of the Lomboards, Theodelinda exerted a wide influence, particularly over religious matters. She was a follower of the Nicene creed – the doctrinal statement of belief in the divinity of god the father, son and holy spirt which is today followed by most mainstream Christian denominations. Theodelinda converted Agiluf, who was a pagan prior to their marriage, and as a result spread Christianity throughout Lombardy.

The queen was also responsible for the construction of a number of churches across Lombardy and Tuscany, including the Cathedral of Monza and the first Baptistery of Florence.

Theodelinda is also closely associated with the legend of the iron crown of Lombardy. The story went that the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine I, Helena, had found the ‘true cross’ – the cross which Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified upon. She took from it a number of nails, considered holy relics, and gave them to her son. Helena used one of the nails to calm the sea during a storm. Another was mounted on Constantine’s helmet, and a third made into a bit for his horse.

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The Iron Crown of Lombardy (source)

The remaining nails were used as diplomatic gifts, and one was sent to queen Theodelina. She had the iron relique set into a golden, jewelled diadem, which became known as ‘the iron crown’. The crown is still on display today in the Cathedral of Monza, alongside 15th century frescoes which narrate the story of Theodelinda.


References:

Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 9L Lombardy – Paolo Silva

History of the Langobards – Paul, the Deacon

On Wikipedia:

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:

 

Suiko 推古天皇 – 554 – 628 – Kyoto, Japan

Ancient Japan, Japan

Suiko

In the history of Japan, there were eight women to rule as empress in their own right – Suiko was the first.

The third daughter of Emperor Kinmei, Suiko’s personal name was Mikekashiya-hime-no-mikoto.

She first took the role of royal consort (Ōkisaki) to her brother Emperor Bidatsu following the death of his wife. After Bidatsu himself died, he was followed by Suiko’s second brother, Yōmei, who only lived two more years.

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Suiko (source)

After this there was a power struggle between two clans – the Soga and the Mononobe. Prince Hatsusebe, supported by the Sogas was the victor and ruled as Emperor Sushun from 587 to 592 – when he was assassinated by the head of the Soga clan.

To prevent another struggle, the imperial throne was then offered to Suiko, who accepted and became the 33rd monarch of Japan from 593 to 628. Her title was Amenoshita Shiroshimesu Ōkimi (治天下大王) – ‘the great queen who rules all under heaven’.

Prince Shōtoku, Yōmei’s son, was appointed regent over Suiko in 594, but he did not stop her from exercising considerable power. She was one of the first Buddhist monarchs of Japan, and under her reign Buddhism was officially recognised.


References:

The Future and the Past: A Translation and Study of the GukanshōThe Future and the Past: A Translation and Study of the Gukanshō –  Jien, Delmer Myers Brown, Ichirō Ishida

Japan Encyclopedia – Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric and Käthe Roth

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: