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Fredegund (c. 547–597)

Fredegund (c. 547–597)

Merovingian queen whose talent for political intrigue in late 6th-century Gaul resulted in the elevation of her son Lothair II to the position of sole king of the previously divided Frankish territories. Name variations: Fredegond or Fredegonde or Frédégone; Fredegar; Fredegonda, Fredegunde or Fredegunda; Fredegundis or Fredigundis. Born, presumably in Neustria, around 547 (some sources cite 545); died in 597; daughter of unknown, non-noble parents; became concubine and then third wife of Chilperic I, king of Soissons, king of the Franks (r. 561–584), in 567; children: (with Chilperic) one daughter, Riguntha, and sons Chlodobert (d. 580); Samson (d. 577); Dagobert (d. 580); Theodoric (d. 584); Chlothar also known as Clotaire or Lothair II (584–629), king of Neustria (r. 584–629), king of the Franks (r. 613–629).

Was mistress to Chilperic I (prior to 567); engaged in feud with her husband's sister-in-law Brunhilda due to Galswintha's murder (567–97); instigated murder of King Sigibert of Austrasia (575); endured deaths of four infant sons (577–84), and Chilperic (584); acted as regent for infant son Lothair II upon Chilperic I's death (584).

As the consort of Chilperic I, called "the Nero and Herod of our time" by the 6th-century chronicler Gregory of Tours, Fredegund is one of the most vilified and well-known Merovingian queens. Her career cast her in roles from concubine to queen mother, and the political instability of her period made ruthless maneuvering an absolute necessity. The contemporary accounts of 6th-century Gaul generally look disparagingly on Fredegund's remarkable talent for maintaining her personal interests against all threats, yet it was this very quality that allowed her to protect and champion her son Lothair II's interests, enabling him to unite the several warring Frankish states under his sole control by 613. To accomplish this, Fredegund engaged in a bitter feud with another forceful Merovingian queen, Brunhilda . Their enmity lasted for nearly a quarter of a century, and the sensationalism of their prolonged struggle captured chroniclers' attention.

Brunhilda (c. 533–613)

Merovingian queen. Name variations: Brunechildis; Brunehilde, Brunhilde, Brunnhilde, or Brunehaut, queen of Austrasia. Born around 533; died in 613; daughter of Athanagild (Athangild), king of the Visigoths, and Queen Goinswintha of Spain; sister of Galswintha; married Sigibert I, king of Austrasia (r. 561–575, assassinated, 575); married Merovech (son of Chilperic I and Audovera); sister-in-law of Fredegund (c. 547–597); children: Childebert II, king of Austrasia (r. 575–595), king of Burgundy (r. 593–595).

The marriage of Brunhilda to Sigibert I, the king of Austrasia who was reigning at Metz, took place in 567. The Italian poet Fortunatus, then at the Frankish court, composed the epithalamium (the nuptial song). Sigibert's younger brother Chilperic I, king of the west Frankish kingdom of Neustria, was jealous of the renown that the marriage brought Sigibert, and so Chilperic soon married Brunhilda's sister Galswintha . This marriage was brief. Chilperic, following the instructions of his paramour Fredegund , assassinated Galswintha. Brunhilda set out to avenge her sister's death, and bloody deeds, provoked by the enmity of Brunhilda and Fredegund, fill the annals of the next half century in Gaul. Sigibert was also anxious to avenge the death of his sister-in-law, but on the advice of Duke Guntram, Sigibert accepted the compensation offered by Chilperic, namely the cities of Bordeaux, Cahors and Limoges, with Béarn and Bigorre.

Even so, war soon broke out between Sigibert and Chilperic. In 575, Sigibert was murdered at the instigation of Fredegund, and Brunhilda was captured by Chilperic and held captive. Brunhilda managed to escape from the prison at Rouen, assisted by Chilperic's son Merovech whom she married. After Merovech was put to death by his father, Brunhilda returned to Austrasia, where she ruled in the name of her son Childebert II and engaged in a desperate struggle against the nobles who also wished to govern in her son's name. Bettered in the conflict, Brunhilda had to seek refuge in Burgundy for some time. After the death of her son Childebert II in 597, she was bent on governing Austrasia and Burgundy in the name of her grandsons Theudebert and Theuderich II. Expelled from Austrasia, she incited Theuderich II against his brother, whom he defeated at Toul and Tolbiac and put to death. Soon after the victory, Theuderich II died, and Brunhilda had one of her great-grandchildren proclaimed king. But the nobles of Austrasia and Burgundy now summoned Fredegund's son Lothair II, king of Neustria, to support them against the queen. Lothair overthrew the armies of Austrasia in 613, and the aged Brunhilda was handed to him. After being held captive for three days and subjected to torture, she died a horrid death, being dragged at the heels of a wild horse in 613.

Considered a great queen, Brunhilda was responsible for the construction of many old castles, and a number of Roman roads are known by the name of Chaussées de Brunehaut. She had also been a protector of the church. In a series of letters addressed to her, Pope Gregory I (590–604) showered her with praise, even though she had taken it upon herself to supervise the bishoprics and monasteries, until she came into conflict with Columbanus, abbot of Luxeuil.

Understanding the political climate of the 6th-century Frankish territories allows one to appreciate the difficulties faced by Fredegund and helps to place her forceful actions in their proper context. By the late 5th century, Western Roman imperial power in Gaul was virtually nonexistent. Around this time, a Germanic tribe, the Franks, led by Clovis (466–511), began its conquest of Gaul; within five years, they controlled Paris, Rouen, Reims, and other major centers. Clovis' military success in Gaul was strengthened by his fortuitous religious policy: although by the late 400s all the other Germanic tribes had converted to the Arian form of Christianity, the Franks had remained pagan. But in the early 490s, Clovis married the orthodox Burgundian princess Clotilda , who succeeded in converting her husband (and thus his entire tribe) to her form of Christianity. With the East Roman Empire increasingly unable to assert imperial control in the West and the papacy's consequent need to manage the political affairs as well as spiritual needs of the West, Frankish orthodoxy proved to be a very significant factor. Clovis' Franks were able to provide a cultural bridge between the desire of the Gallo-Roman population to maintain their traditions, and the Germanic desire to "fit in" with the Roman world.

In many ways, Clovis strove to preserve Roman imperial institutions; he accepted the East Roman emperor's offer of the consular title, maintained the imperial currency, and attempted to continue the administrative machinery of the empire. Still, he retained Germanic ideas about the personal nature of his office, for upon his death in 511, he allowed his four sons to inherit his kingdom as if it were family property. Before long, the brothers began to wage war against each other to expand their personal inheritances. Each of their kingdoms was also subjected to further partitions by the brothers' sons. These internal Frankish struggles, combined with the ever-present need to fight off other Germanic threats, produced an extremely violent climate in 6th-century Gaul.

When Clovis died, the Frankish kingdom was not ruled by one king again until his youngest son Lothair I managed to outlive his brothers, and he was the sole king of the Franks from 558–561. But like Clovis, Lothair I was survived by four sons, each one eager to increase his own inheritance. Civil war broke out almost immediately among the brothers Charibert, Sigibert, Gunthram, and Chilperic, who controlled Aquitaine, Austrasia, Burgundy, and Neustria, respectively. When Charibert died in 567, the remaining three brothers divided his inheritance, even partitioning the city of Paris. With each brother possessing territories scattered throughout Gaul, the stage was set for constant turmoil over the arrangement.

Besides war, marriage was a useful way to enhance royal prestige and wealth, and Sigibert was the first of the brothers to employ this advantageous method of aggrandizement. The 6th-century chronicler Gregory, bishop of Tours, who favored the cause of this Austrasian king—for Sigibert was the bishop's patron—wrote of how "King Sigibert, seeing his brothers take to themselves unworthy wives and even wed serving maids, sent an embassy to Spain with many gifts to demand in marriage Brunhilda, daughter of King Athanagild." Gregory's observation on the undistinguished marital taste of his brothers constitutes an oblique reference to Fredegund, who became Chilperic I's third wife.

Fredegund was probably born around 547, but her birth attracted no special attention from chroniclers for her background was ordinary rather than noble. Two additional references corroborate her humble origins: Gregory of Tours gave an account of Bishop Praetextatus of Rouen castigating Fredegund for not properly educating her son. This suggests that Fredegund lacked the kind of education that noble Frankish women sometimes received, a benefit that could facilitate their potential careers as regents. The slightly later Liber Historiae Francorum flatly states that Fredegund "was from a family of low rank." Her relationship with King Chilperic I at the time of Sigibert's marriage is thus the first reference to the woman who would play an extraordinarily powerful role in late 6th-century Frankish affairs.

Chilperic I was married to Audovera , with whom he had at least three sons and one daughter Basina ; concurrently, he maintained Fredegund as a concubine. Although there are no records of how Fredegund initially captured the royal Frank's attention, there are two different accounts of her acquisition of the title of queen. The Neustrian chronicle Liber Historiae Francorum describes a plot devised by Fredegund to displace Chilperic's legitimate wife Audovera, occurring some time before 567. Audovera had given birth to Basina while her husband was on campaign against the Saxons. Knowing the church's ban on marriage between parents and godparents of a child, Fredegund tricked Audovera into standing as Basina's godmother, thus allowing Chilperic I to set her aside and marry Fredegund instead. Audovera and her daughter were ordered to enter a convent.

The story told by Gregory of Tours concerning Fredegund's ascension to the position of legitimate queen is situated in the period immediately following Sigibert's spectacular wedding to the Visigothic princess Brunhilda. Chilperic I, awed by the Spanish riches Brunhilda brought her new husband, promised to give up his other women if Brunhilda's older sister Galswintha would marry him. According to Gregory, when Galswintha came to King Chilperic, "he received her with great honour, and was joined to her in marriage, loving her dearly, for she had brought with her great treasures." But "because of his passion for Fredegund," Chilperic I was a cold husband to his Visigothic wife. Galswintha complained of her treatment and requested permission to return to Spain, offering to leave behind the riches she had brought. But Chilperic I responded to this request by having her strangled by a slave (according to Gregory of Tours), or, as the author of the Liber Historiae Francorum suggested, by strangling Galswintha himself. A short time later, he made Fredegund his queen.

There followed a series of military clashes between Chilperic I and his brother Sigibert; their wives encouraged the fraternal enmity, as Brunhilda considered Fredegund's role in Galswintha's murder to be a personal affront. Audovera and Chilperic's sons were involved in many of the campaigns on their father's behalf, yet Fredegund viewed Chlodovech, Theudebert, and Merovech with dislike and distrust, as they represented rivals to the sons she hoped to produce. For example, after Theudebert was killed by Sigibert's duke Guntram Boso, Fredegund later secretly protected Guntram in gratitude for the service he had rendered by removing one of her children's rivals. She was also responsible for the deaths of Chilperic I's other two sons.

Brunhilda, Sigibert's consort, had serious reasons for her hatred of Fredegund. Brunhilda not only held Fredegund responsible for her sister Galswintha's death, but, according to Gregory of Tours and the Liber Historiae Francorum, for Sigibert's death in 575 as well. Both sources agree that Fredegund instructed two of her men to disguise themselves as envoys from Chilperic I in order to approach Sigibert with false offers of peace from his warring brothers. Both sources state that Fredegund had to use extraordinary measures to entice the two into this treacherous act, and the queen is thus portrayed as unreservedly evil: Gregory says she "bewitched" her agents, and the other source elaborates by insisting that the queen had to get them drunk and promise to take care of their survivors if the plot failed. They were successful, and Brunhilda found herself widowed by the very woman who was responsible for her sister's death. Brunhilda's five-year-old son Childebert (II) succeeded his father, and she acted as regent.

King Chilperic I seized Brunhilda's treasury and forced her to live in banishment at Rouen. Merovech, ordered by his father to occupy Poitiers, instead pretended to visit his discarded mother Audovera, but traveled to Rouen and married his aunt Brunhilda. Bishop Praetextatus, who performed the service, was later murdered by Fredegund's agents in retaliation for his assistance to Brunhilda. Chilperic I forced his son Merovech to separate from his wife, and he was tonsured and forced into religious life, from which he escaped several times in his desire to reunite with Brunhilda. When at last he was captured and killed, his death was attributed to Fredegund.

Chilperic I's last son with Audovera, Chlodovech, would also die because of his stepmother's desire to remove all potential threats to her children. Four of Fredegund's sons died in infancy, and the sources reveal a distraught maternal reaction in nearly every case. A curious exception was the queen's seeming lack of concern for her son Samson, who died in 577. Gregory of Tours observed that, perhaps due to an illness suffered by Fredegund at the time of Samson's birth, she "cast him away from her, and would have let him die" if Chilperic I had not rebuked her for her negligent attitude. Nevertheless, little Samson died before his fifth birthday. But the deaths of her three infant sons, Dagobert, Chlodobert, and Theodoric, would elicit enormous grief from Fredegund, and the deaths of the former two would provide the opportunity for her to execute their elder half-brother Chlodovech. In 580, when two of her infant sons Dagobert and Chlodobert were ill with dysentery, Fredegund suspected that their imminent deaths were a sign of God's displeasure at the rapacious tax policies she had urged her husband to pursue. Gregory of Tours recounts her impassioned plea to Chilperic I to bargain with God for their sons' lives:

The divine goodness has long borne with our bad actions; it has often rebuked us with fevers and other evils but repentance did not follow and now we are losing our sons…. We have no hope left now in gathering wealth…. [W]e are losing what we hold more dear. Come, please, let us burn all the wicked tax lists and let what sufficed for your father king [Lothair I], suffice for your treasury.

Audovera (d. 580)

Merovingian queen. Name variations: Audovere or Audovère. Flourished in the 560s; put to death by orders of Fredegund (c. 547–597) around 580; first wife of Chilperic I, king of Soissons (Neustria, r. 561–584); children: one daughter Basina (who became a nun at Poitiers) and three sons, Chlodovech also known as Clovis (d. 580); Theudebert also known as Theodobert (d. 575); Merovech (d. 577 or 578, who married his aunt, Brunhilda ).

Because of the machinations of Fredegund Audovera, wife of Chilperic I, was ordered to a convent with her daughter Basina sometime before 567. Fredegund had her put to death around 580.

Despite the drastic measure of burning tax records in atonement for their past sins, both of their sons died of their illness. Chlodovech was accused of employing witchcraft to bring about his half-brothers' deaths, and Fredegund not only had him killed for this offense, but prevailed upon Chilperic I to put his former wife Audovera to death as well. When her fourth infant son died in 584, Fredegund commanded all of his personal belongings to be burned so that her immense mourning would not be intensified by the presence of baby Theodoric's effects.

Fredegund, the enemy of God and man.

—King Gunthram to Bishop Gregory of Tours, Historia Francorum

Fredegund's determination to manage events that affected her was not restricted to bargaining with God and reactive burnings; she often played a more direct role, as is seen by her responsibility for her stepsons' deaths. When her daughter Riguntha was betrothed to the Visigothic prince Reccared, Fredegund raided the Frankish treasury to send her off with an appropriately showy dowry, deceitfully reassuring her thrift-minded husband that the wealth came from her own personal treasury. When Riguntha, robbed of her riches en route to Spain, had to turn back, Fredegund tried to kill her own daughter by bringing the heavy lid of a treasure chest down upon the young woman's neck, and only the protest of a slave saved Riguntha from death at her mother's hands. In addition, Fredegund tried unsuccessfully to kill Brunhilda, Childebert, and her brother-in-law Gunthram, who wavered between his two brothers' sides in futile attempts to play peacemaker. She was even accused by the author of the Liber Historiae Francorum of killing her own husband in order to protect herself when Chilperic I discovered she had been committing adultery with the mayor of the palace Landeric:

One day very early in the morning the king went out to exercise at hunting at the villa of Chelles near Paris. Since he loved [Fredegund] too much, he returned from the horse stable to the palace bedroom. [Fredegund] was in the bedroom washing her hair with her head in the water. The king came up behind her and whacked her on the buttocks with a stick. She, thinking that it was Landeric, said: "Why do you do this, Landeric?" Then she looked up and … saw that it was the king; she was very scared.

Knowing that punishment would surely follow, she bribed two men both to kill Chilperic I and to publicly proclaim that Childebert of Austrasia was responsible. Gregory of Tours, gloating over the death of his great enemy Chilperic I, nevertheless did not blame Fredegund for her husband's death.

Fredegund spent her 13 years of widowhood, from 584 to 597, as regent for her only surviving son Lothair II, who was four months old at the time of his father's death. The Burgundian king Gunthram expressed some doubt as to whether the child was indeed his slain brother's son, but Fredegund was able to swear an oath with three bishops and 300 nobles that Lothair II was indeed Chilperic I's son. Despite her cruel measures, Fredegund enjoyed considerable support in the Frankish realm. The author of the Liber Historiae Francorum even credits her with devising an ingenious military plan involving camouflage of her troops, resulting in a military victory over King Childebert's forces.

Though her ruthless attention to details could potentially thwart her son Lothair II's future career, Fredegund managed to keep his position as Neustrian king intact. When in 597 Fredegund died a natural death—"old and full of days," according to the Liber Historiae Francorum, although she was only 50—her son buried her body at St. Vincent the Martyr's basilica in Paris, but he kept alive her hatred for Brunhilda and his rival Austrasian cousins. In 613, Lothair II defeated them, and, assuming the title of sole king of all the Franks, he tortured and had the octogenarian Brunhilda torn limb from limb by wild horses. Fredegund's son was one of the last effective Merovingian kings, and he ruled over a united realm that helped to inspire the Carolingian dynasty's appetite for unity nearly 200 years later.

sources:

The Fourth Book of the Chronicle of Fredegar, with its continuations. J.M. Wallace-Hadrill. NY: Thomas Nelson, 1960.

History of the Franks by Gregory, Bishop of Tours. Selections translated with notes by Ernest Brehaut. NY: W.W. Norton, 1969.

The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours. Translated with an introduction by O.M. Dalton. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927.

Liber Historiae Francorum. Edited and translated with an introduction by Bernard Bachrach. Lawrence, KA: Coronado Press, 1973.

suggested reading:

Deanesly, Margaret. A History of Early Medieval Europe, 476–911. NY: Barnes and Noble, 1963.

Queens, Concubines, and Dowagers: The King's Wife in the Early Middle Ages. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1983.

Wemple, Suzanne Fonay. Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister, 500 to 900. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.

Cathy Jorgensen Itnyre , Associate Professor of History, Copper Mountain College, Joshua Tree, California

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