We are delighted and honored to have this article by historian and novelist John Henry Clay. Dr. Clay is a lecturer in medieval history at Durham University and the author of The Lion and the Lamb, an epic novel of Roman Britain.
If Cersei is ever brought to trial, chances are that her list of crimes will be topped by the murder of her husband, King Robert Baratheon. No doubt she’ll plead her innocence. After all, she didn’t exactly murder Robert. She simply engineered his intoxication during a dangerous hunt. It was the boar that killed him.
But now imagine that Cersei was accused of killing not just one king, but ten. She’d need a pretty good lawyer to defend against that charge.
This is exactly where the infamous Merovingian Queen Brunhild found herself in 613 CE (AD).
Just like Cersei, Brunhild did what she had to do to protect her children, and to preserve her own influence. Bishops, royal ministers, relatives — no-one who crossed her was safe. Regicide, though, is a big deal. As an unusually heinous crime, the murder of a king demands unusually heinous punishment. So what about the murder of ten kings?
Now, we all know that Game of Thrones doesn’t disappoint when it comes to grisly deaths. Beheadings, impalings, stabbings, poisonings, thoat-slittings, burnings, head-crushings… the show has it all. Yet to a historian of the Dark Ages, it still seems rather tame. Certainly George R. R. Martin has yet to dream up anything like the fate that awaited Brunhild.
The Merovingian chronicler Fredegar describes her end. He sets the scene by telling us how she was captured and brought before her nephew, King Clothar II.
Brunhild was brought into Clothar’s presence. He harbored the deepest hatred toward her and accused her of being responsible for the death of ten kings of the Franks – that is Sigibert I; Merovech and his father Chilperic I; Theudebert II and his son Clothar; Merovech, the son of Clothar II; and Theuderic II and his three sons, who had just been eliminated.
And what price did Brunhild pay for her reign of terror?
Clothar had Brunhild tortured in various ways for three days. First of all, he had her led through the whole army mounted on a camel. After this, he had her tied to the tail of a vicious horse by her hair, one foot, and one arm. She was then torn to pieces by the hooves and the pace of the galloping horse.
Bearing in mind that Brunhild was about seventy years old, this kind of gratuitous brutality may be a shade too much even for HBO’s viewers.
It wasn’t that Dark Age folk were bloodthirsty sadists. The whole prolonged execution was meant to be as humiliating and horrific as possible, even by the standards of the day. Brunhild’s suffering was a public declaration that the long civil wars between the rival branches of the Merovingian dynasty were finally over. After decades of savage feuding and scheming, the main culprit had been punished and justice had been done.
But had it really? Was this aged queen truly responsible for the deaths of ten kings, or was she a mere scapegoat? And if she was guilty, how on earth had she managed to wield such power in a world dominated by men?
A perfect princess
Brunhild gets nothing but good press when she first appears in the historical records. A Spanish princess by birth, she was brought to the chilly lands of northern France and married to the Merovingian King Sigibert as part of a political alliance. One of the guests at the royal wedding, the courtier Venantius Fortunatus, composed a poem for the occasion that is fulsome in its praise.
O maiden, a marvel to me, a delight to be for her husband, more brightly resplendent than the radiant heavens, Brunhild, you have vanquished the splendour of jewels with the splendour of your beauty; a second Venus born, endowed with the power of beauty, no such Nereid swims the Spanish main below the waters of Oceanus, no wood nymph is more beautiful, the very rivers submit their nymphs to your sway…
… and so forth. Another contemporary, Bishop Gregory of Tours, expressed a similar opinion.
This young woman was elegant in all that she did, lovely to look at, chaste and decorous in her behaviour, wise in her generation and of good address.
True, one doesn’t look to a court poet or sycophantic bishop for a balanced opinion, but Brunhild does seem to have been an impressive young woman.
However, when the Merovingian civil wars started and her husband was assassinated – stabbed to death with poisoned blades – Brunhild’s world was turned upside down. She fled to Paris with her infant son Childebert, seeking protection by her husband’s nobles. They promptly snatched her child and left her to her fate. At this point she might have vanished into the fog of history along with so many medieval queens, to be remembered only as a tragic, wilting figure. But Brunhild was made of sterner stuff.
The newly widowed queen was soon captured in Paris by her husband’s murderers: his own younger brother, King Chilperic, and Chilperic’s wife Fredegund. They sent Brunhild in chains to the city of Rouen, and more or less forgot about her. They were more concerned that her son Childebert, the heir of King Sigibert, was still alive.
This was major miscalculation. Despite being imprisoned and bereft of her only child, Brunhild was not about to give up. Others also realised her value. It was not long before she had an unexpected visitor: her nephew Merovech, son of King Chilperic. Merovech was an ambitious and headstrong youth who hated his stepmother, the common-born Fredegund, and wanted to rebel against his father. Brunhild befriended the bishop of Rouen and persuaded him to marry her to Merovech – even though marriage between such close relations was of somewhat dubious legality.
In any case, the audacious scheme failed. As soon as Chilperic learned what his errant son had done, he raced to Rouen, besieged the two newly-weds in a church, and forced them to surrender. If there was one lesson Chilperic should have learned from this episode, it was that Brunhild was not the sort to bow out gracefully from the world of politics – not while her son was still out there.
Eventually Chilperic released Brunhild, and she headed to the eastern part of the realm, Austrasia, where the nobles were ruling in the name of her son. Somehow – the records don’t survive to tell us – she managed to take control of the situation. For the next few years, until Childebert came of age, she ruled Austrasia as regent, building new churches (the best way to make friends of powerful bishops), organising a marriage alliance for her daughter, beefing up the kingdom’s defences, and crushing over-mighty lords who threatened her position.
Childebert duly came of age, but he was not able to rule in his own name for long; he died while still in his twenties. Luckily he had already sired two sons of his own, Theudebert and Theuderic, who now each received a share of the kingdom. Brunhild was quick to step in and take up the regency once more, this time in the name of her grandsons. When she fell out with the simple, childish Theudebert, she claimed that he was a bastard — the son of a humble gardener — and took refuge with his brother.
Growing old disgracefully
This fearsome grandmother only became more active as she grew older. In her fifties, Brunhild took as a lover the royal minister Protadius, a man of great intelligence and even greater cruelty and greed. He and Brunhild conspired to start a war between her two grandsons, but it ended badly for Protadius. He was betrayed by his own troops — who didn’t want the war — and stabbed to death in his tent. When Brunhild learned of this, she arrested her lover’s two chief betrayers. One she killed outright. The other was luckier: he merely had his foot cut off and his property confiscated.
Quite a few others fell afoul of this queen. She’s credited with assassinating various nobles who crossed her, and was complicit in the expulsion of her enemy Bishop Desiderius of Vienne, who was later stoned to death (and made a saint for his pains). No, Brunhild never killed ten kings, but she definitely had a knack for making enemies. Even so, one can hardly blame her for mistrusting the nobility, since they had stolen her child and abandoned her in Paris all those years earlier. That trauma must have had a defining impression on her.
Justified or not, this paranoia was her undoing. Like Cersei, her great fear was that she might be replaced by a younger queen. To avoid this, she prevented either of her grandsons from having respectable marriages. Theudebert she had married to one of her own slaves, a girl named Bilichild, surely on the assumption that she would be able to control the young woman. This plan backfired. As the chronicler Fredegar writes:
Bilichild was accomplished and esteemed highly by all the Austrasians. She bore Theudebert’s simpleness with dignity. She certainly did not regard herself as inferior to Brunhild, and indeed her envoys often conveyed her contempt for Brunhild. At the same time, Brunhild was always going on about Bilichild having been her slave.
Wise, popular, and independent-minded? This was not the sort of wife Brunhild wanted for her grandsons. Determined not to make to make the same mistake with Theuderic, she forbade him from marrying at all and instead — like a typical doting grandmother — supplied him with a series of concubines. When the nobles did try to arrange a respectable marriage for Theuderic with a Spanish princess, Brunhild sabotaged it —almost starting a major European war in the process.
Eventually she did manage to get a full-scale conflict going between her grandsons, which at first went well: her estranged grandson Theudebert was captured, and his infant son, Brunhild’s great-grandson, had his brains dashed out against a rock. This left her grandson Theuderic king of almost the whole realm. The only remaining part, known as Neustria, was ruled by his first cousin once removed, King Clothar II.
Goaded on by his grandmother, Theuderic now turned against his cousin. This is where things went awry. Medieval army camps were not very hygienic places. Before the kings even had a chance to join battle, Theuderic died of dysentry.
His sudden death left Brunhild with a serious problem. Both of her grandsons were now dead, directly or indirectly, because of her. Her great-grandchildren, the four illegitimate sons of Theuderic, were still too young to be of much use, so she had to rely on the royal ministers. But over her career she had alienated many of her own nobles, not to mention a good number of influential bishops.
The final showdown
All the years of plots, assassinations, and political maneuvering now caught up with Brunhild. In a final paranoid fit, she secretly ordered a lord named Alboin to murder the chief minister Warnachar, whom she feared was planning to betray her. Alboin refused to kill his friend, and when Warnachar found out both lords turned against the queen. Thus Brunhild found herself finally deserted by pretty much everyone, and betrayed by the army. She had no choice but to throw herself on the mercy of King Clothar II.
Unsurprisingly, considering that Brunhild had been trying to get rid of him for years, Clothar was not in a merciful mood. He had three of Brunhild’s great-grandsons executed; the fourth got away with exile because Clothar happened to be his godfather, so killing him would have been a bit too scandalous. Clothar saved most of his wrath, however, for his aunt. This is where the camel and the horse came in.
Lessons for Cersei
There’s more than a touch of Cersei about Brunhild. It’s all too easy to cast Brunhild as a manipulative, vindictive she-wolf, which is what posterity has tended to do. Admittedly Brunhild committed some heinous acts, including multiple murders, but she was certainly no worse than most male rulers of the time. She wasn’t the one tying people to wild horses, after all.
But as modern historians like Nira Gradowicz-Pancer and Janet Nelson argue, options were severely limited for medieval women, even — or especially — if they were royal. They were expected to produce male heirs, and to behave themselves. Any woman who stepped beyond these bounds was likely to be condemned as a scheming, unnatural Jezebel. For someone like Brunhild, who was ambitious, emotionally complex, and fiercely protective of her children, these constraints must have been suffocating. We must also remember that she was a foreigner, without any family of her own to call on.
What’s most impressive about Brunhild, though, is that she was able to dominate the political scene for so long. Because sixth-century queens had no official constitutional status, it wasn’t possible for a queen to rule in her own right — it took almost a thousand years for this to change, as English queens like Mary I (1553-1558) and Elizabeth I (1558-1603) show. But in the Merovingian period the only option for women was to rule through men. All of Brunhild’s schemes were determined by this fact. She ruled first through her son, and then her grandsons. Only when she tried to push it one more generation did things fall apart.
So, is there a lesson here for Cersei? I think there is: do what you have to do to keep control over your children. But try not to make too many enemies in the process.
- Venantius Fortunatus: Personal and Political Poems, trans. by Judith George (Liverpool, 1995), Poem 6.1
- The Sixth Chronicle of Fredegar, in Alexander Callander Murray (ed. and trans.), From Roman to Merovingian Gaul: A Reader 2nd edn (Toronto, 2008), Chapter 42
- Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, trans. by Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth, 1974), Book IV, Chapter 27
John Henry Clay was born in Birmingham, England and honed a lifelong interest in the early medieval by studying archaeology at the University of York. After living in exotic locales around the world like Mexico, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria, he completed a PhD at the Centre for Medieval Studies in York. Dr. Clay is a lecturer of medieval history at Durham University. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed novel, The Lion and the Lamb. John is currently busy working on his second novel, performing research, and introducing new generations of students to the real-life drama and excitement of the early Middle Ages.
Find out more at www.johnhenryclay.co.uk
Condemned to a hovel, beaten by a merciless commander, crushed by the weather and forced to survive on starvation rations: no one looking at Paul would ever guess that he is heir to one of Roman Britain’s wealthiest families. But Paul had his reasons for joining the army and fleeing the family he loves.
But when rumors of a barbarian uprising from beyond the Wall begin to circulate, Paul realizes that his family is in grave danger.
With only the former slave-girl Eachna for company, Paul deserts the army, for which the penalty is death, and undertakes a hazardous journey across Britain where danger lurks round every corner.
Epic in scope, rich with historical detail, The Lion and the Lamb is a novel of Roman Britain on the cusp of the Dark Ages, when all that stands between her citizens and oblivion is one family.