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Fredegund: Vicious Tyrant or Average Merovingian Royal?

Updated on August 19, 2012
Chilperic I & Fredegunde By Medieval [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Chilperic I & Fredegunde By Medieval [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons | Source

In Gregory of Tours’ The History of the Franks, Queen Fredegund (b. unknown, d. 597), wife of King Chilperic of Soissons, is presented as the worst of possible bad examples for women to follow, while in Chistine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, she is held up as an example of an intelligent and cunning woman who is able to keep a county united in trying times. Regardless of one’s view of her, it is clear from studying written evidence of the time that Queen Fredegund exercised great power in Merovingian society during the late sixth century. Gregory of Tours[1], one of her main chroniclers, may not have often approved of her actions, but he understood that she was a “powerful force…and dutifully recorded” her history (Stuard 60). The questions that exist are how the power she wielded was viewed and whether or not her reputation for cruelty was deserved.

There are several views of Fredegund that need to be reconciled. Gregory’s The History of the Franks reads like a police rap sheet in many sections where Fredegund is mentioned. Among other crimes, Gregory lists her evils as: sending emissaries to assassinate King Sigibert, (Chilperic’s cousin), trying to convince Gregory himself of speaking against Praetextatus (a bishop whom Fredegund felt had slandered her), torturing Clovis’s girl-friend and mother (Clovis was King Chilperic’s first wife’s son), conspiring with Chilperic to have Leudast (an ex-domestic of Queen Fredegund and King Chilperic) tortured to death, torturing Mummolus and a group of Parisian women (due to what Fredegund felt was their guilt in the deaths of her sons), attempting to strangle her own daughter, sending a cleric to kill Brunhild (King Sigibert’s wife, and therefore Fredegund’s rival), killing said cleric when he returned after failing to killing Brunhild, having Praetextatus killed while giving a mass, poisoning the Bishop who tells her that killing bishops is wrong, trying to kill another bishop, and sending twelve assassins to kill Childebert II (King Sigibert’s son). From reading this list, it is obvious that she did not have any qualms about arranging killings.

One thing that must be kept in mind, however, when reading this list is that Gregory was also one of her victims, having been accused of -- yet forgiven, in one of the rare shows of mercy that Fredegund was capable of -- having slandered Fredegund. Further, her actions must be taken in the context of the times. Chilperic, her husband and King, was also guilty of many of her actions, having taken part in all of most of them, and then he had additional crimes listed by Gregory, including several other murders, putting down riots with unnecessary brutality, and imprisoning ambassadors. Unlike other times and places where women were kept from public view, in Merovingian society, it was not true that “the contribution of women to family honor [was] placed on the side of passivity, confinement and sexual purity, [while] male honor [depended] on the man’s natural disposition to act and react in the public arena” (Gradowicz-Pancer 7). For Fredegund, her place was in public, and if it required her to fight and react violently, she was prepared and more than willing. Finally, Gregory is male, and might not be well disposed towards powerful women, especially due to his position of Bishop within the Catholic Church. Besides Fredegund’s prominent public role, which Gregory may not have approved of, the Church as a general rule did not approve of many of the laws and ideas that the Franks had.

Christine de Pizan has a different view of Fredegund. Admittedly, her opinion is one from a person who did not live through the time, and is therefore tempered by the distance in years. Writing in the early fifteenth century -- 800 years after the fact -- de Pizan gives a nod to the trail of violence that Fredegund was accused of, but still defends her, stating that:

Although she was cruel, contrary to the natural disposition of women, nevertheless, following her husband’s death, with great skill this lady governed the kingdom of France which found itself at this time in very great unrest and danger, and she left with nothing else besides Chilperic’s heir, a small son named Clotaire. (33)

It is important to note that de Pizan does not feel that cruelty is part of the natural disposition of women. This shows an important change in the concept of women being capable of inflicting violence. Within Merovingian society, the concept of male and female worlds and responsibilities was not as rigidly partitioned; instead, the demarcation line was seen more between class than gender. “…women could settle scores while men, like King Guntram…could be preoccupied by the richness of their table” (Gradowicz-Pancer, 5). In fact, according to Gradowicz-Pancer[2], female violence was not considered as exceptional or surprising, but was instead part of the Merovingian aristocratic code of honor that was used within the ruling class, regardless of the gender of the aristocrat (5). Yet even while viewing her violence as an aberration, de Pizan judges Fredegund more as an aristocrat than as a woman. “As for this queen of France, Fredegund…the boldness of her deeds in battle was equally great (de Pizan 59).”

De Pizan listed Fredegund among other great women in history, all of whom possessed power and were able to use it to their own advantage and to the advantage of their people. Because of this listing, it is possible to assume that de Pizan viewed Fredegund as the same type of woman -- one that did not behave with purely selfish motives, regardless of the petty revenges that she engaged in.

In fact, other women within Merovingian society were often just as concerned with revenge as Fredegund. Fredegund’s sister-in-law, when dying, asked her husband Guntram to kill the two doctors who had failed to save her life. “And Guntram in pious acquiescence had their heads cut off” (Funck-Brentano 259).

It was not only the women of the time who were violent, however. King Chilperic’s family line leads back to Theodebert, who crossed the Alps in 539 into Gaul. The Ostrogoths at first let him in, convinced he was there to help remove the Romans. However, once he was “master of the bridges and the fortress…he made his soldiers sieze the wives and children of the Goths, cut their throats, and [throw] their bodies into the river..for…they still continued to worship the gods of the woods and rivers” (Funck-Brentano 255). Theodebert and his army then continued into another Goth camp that still didn’t know about the massacre of their wives and children. “They joyfully allowed them to enter; whereupon the Franks set to work with their battle-axes, their skramasaxes and their harpoons” (Funck-Brentano 255).

The cruelty in the family line continued, with Chilperic’s brother Guntram and his personal habits. He would torture a man for stealing a hunting horn and kill a man for hunting buffalo on his land. Chilperic himself was not a man of mercy. After changing several letters of the alphabet, he determined that all teaching must follow his new method, he ordered that all books that were already written must be erased with pumice stone and changed, and finally, he decreed that anyone who did not follow his new system of writing should have his eyes put out. In another instance, his response to the rebellion in Limoges was to order more wooden horses to be used for torturing the rebellious population, including their clergy, which he did without delay or mercy (Funck-Brentano 260-1).

All of this behavior, however, can be explained if one believes what Gradowicz-Pancer has to say about the purpose of violence. She believes that the purpose of violence is to both show the greatness and omnipotence of the family, as well as show the family’s position in the hierarchy of power (6). The behaviors that all the predecessors of Chilperic, and Chilperic himself, have engaged in all clearly mark their rank as being above the average man, both in their lack of concern over retribution and their ability in carrying out their violent attacks.

With this type of behavior being “normal” for Kings and their kin, Fredegund’s behavior can be seen as competitive, but not excessive. In order to fully understand her behavior, it is necessary to discover what is known about her.

Fredegund’s early life is not well documented. Her first mention in any history is when she was working as a serving girl in Audovera’s, Chilperic’s first wife, household. She somehow tricked her lady to act as her own child’s godmother. This so enraged Chilperic that he forced the Bishop who allowed it to happen into exile, and then had his wife put into a convent. (Fifteen years later, Fredegund had Chilperic’s first wife put to death while she was still in the convent. Fredegund also had Chilperic’s daughter from his first marriage “handed over to the soldiers” and then shut up in a convent (Funck-Brentano 263).) Chilperic, meanwhile, had married another woman. At some point, however, he had already found and become interested in Fredegund. Fredegund was apparently unwilling to act as only a concubine, and so convinced Chilperic that he needed to have his current (second) wife strangled if he wished them to be married. While it is easy to see everything that Fredegund did in order to secure her position as cruel, compared to the deeds of males in power, she did no more or less than many of them did in order to secure their own rule.

Besides having a need to secure her own power, Fredegund also had a need to maintain her honor. Unlike the King, who had some degree of respect merely because of who he was, Fredegund had more pressure to prove her honor. As can be seen from the deposition of the two previous Queens, Chilperic did not have a problem removing his wives. Once Fredegund had achieved her position, she needed to defend it, and her honor was an important part of this position. “Honour meant having sufficient power and authority so that the settling of scores was perpetrated by close relatives or faithful warriors” (Gradowicz-Pancer 15). A good example of this situation occurred when Fredegund’s daughter, the Princess Rigunth, was sent to be married. With her went a good deal of treasure. Leudast, a domestic who had gone with the group, came back and reported to Fredegund that the caravan had been beset and the treasure and goods had been stolen. In response, anyone from the journey who returned, including Ledaust himself, were beaten, stripped, and even tortured (Gradowicz-Pancer 10). To a modern reader, this reaction seems very unjustified, but Gradowicz-Pancer points out that under Salic law an attack on a wedding procession was one of the most severe offences against a family that was possible because it defiled its honor in everyone’s eyes (12). Fredegund’s behavior was justified at the time -- she had to respond in a way that would protect or restore her daughter’s (and her family’s) honor, and since there was no way for her to attack the guilty party, she was forced to use her power on those who had witnessed the attack and come back with the ability to talk about it. “In the logic of the Merovingian ethic of honour, Fredegund did not act…irrationally” (Gradowicz-Pancer 13).

Fredegund also had moments of what could be considered compassion, especially towards the poor. Gradowicz-Pancer questions whether it was a result of her own low-born beginning, but one could also see it as her further proving her power and dominance. One such show occurred when a family feud was spiraling out of control. The local peasants were greatly affected by the warring factions, their lands being ravaged and their property pillaged regularly. Fredegund stepped in to pacify the inhabitants by “destroying the two families root and branch and thus delivering the people from the scourge” (Funck-Brentano 264). While the local populace was greatly relieved to be rid of the conflict, they were probably also awed by the power Fredegund wielded, and would undoubtedly regard her as having the ultimate power over them as well. Of course, as Machievelli pointed out more than 900 years later, behaviors such as this would also help to endear the common man to the ruler, as “nobody is so shameless as to turn on you in so ungrateful a fashion” (69). This would help to further foment her power.

Even after death, her power was still capable of influencing others. Her son, Clothar II, had the opportunity to exact Fredegund’s missing vengeance on Brunhild, the wife of Sigibert and mother of Childebert II. After defeating Childebert II and capturing the now 70-year-old woman, Clothar II had Brunhild tortured for three days, after which she was put on a camel and led through the ranks of soldiers. Once this was done, he had her naked body tied by her hair, one arm, and one leg to the tail of her horse, and had her dragged to her death (Funck-Brentano 269).

Fredegund’s actions show that she was without compunction for actions that were, in her own mind and time, justified. When compared to many male royals within Merovingian royalty whose histories have been recorded, she behaved no differently. “In the…world of Frankish society women were not closeted away. On the contrary they competed for power with men…” (Stuard 60). In order to compete, one must play by the rules. Fredegund knew the rules, and besides playing by them, was capable of using them to her own benefit as often as possible.

Fredegund had political power and the ability to get and use physical power. She got her power both from her position within the government as Queen and from being part of the ruling family.

Her power was achieved through personal influence. Two examples of her personal influence can be seen in her ability to convince Chilperic’s first wife to do something wrong, then convincing Chilperic himself to have his second wife killed for her. Luck also helped her personal influence along, shown in the fact that she was in the position to influence the situation enough, and being in the right place to be found by Chilperic.

Fredegund kept her power through her ability to punish and through her access to superior force. Gregory of Tours makes it plain that most people were quite afraid of her and the power she wielded. One possible alternate tactic for keeping power could be the appearance of mental instability. It is unclear if this would be true, as Gradowitz-Pancer presents a good argument that all her behavior was understood at the time[3]. This is further proven in that while Gregory is not fond of her and her actions, he doesn’t ever seem to accuse her of acting out of hand, just in ways that are not acceptable to Christians.

Finally, an effective strategy that she followed to keep power is something that even Machievelli reflected on when, in The Prince, he stated:

You will be hated only if you seize the property or the women of your subjects and citizens. Whenever you have to kill someone, make sure you have a suitable excuse and an obvious reason; but, above all else, keep your hands off other people’s property; for men are quicker to forget the death of their father than the loss of their inheritance (52).

Fredegund had no problem killing people, yet from the history of the time it doesn’t appear that she would strip her enemies of their money. Does this explain for the later revision of her deeds, the revision that de Pizan seems to follow?

It is probably not possible to completely reconcile the views of Fredegund; however, it is possible to understand the difference in the views. In her own time, her actions, although not pleasing to a bishop, were logical and necessary for her to maintain her power. In later centuries, her violent actions lost much of their significance, but her overall abilities were still highly regarded. Even now, some views of her are gender-biased due to the fact that they are unable to overcome the idea of women acting in ways that in later years were reserved only for men. Because of these disparities, opinions will always be divided, but her motives and actions can now be better understood.

[1] Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks

[2] “De-gendering female violence: Merovingian female honour”

[3] Pg 6: Referring to the Queen’s reaction to the attack on the Princess’s wedding party.

Works Cited

De Pizan, Christine. The Book of the City of Ladies. Trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards. New York: Persea Books, 1982.

Funck-Brentano, Fr. A History of Gaul: Celtic, Roman and Frankish Rule. Trans. E.F. Buckley. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1993.

Gradowicz-Pancer, Nira. “De-gendering female violence: Merovingian female honour as an ‘exchange of violence.’” Early Medieval Europe. Vol. 11, Issue 1. March 2002. 18 p. 19 April 2005. []

Gregory of Tours. The History of the Franks. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. London: Penguin Books, 1974.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Ed. and Trans. David Wootton. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1995.

Stuard, Susan Mosher. “Fashion’s Captives: Medieval Women in French Historiography.” Women in Medieval History. Ed. Susan Mosher Stuard. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Press, 1987.


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    • DarkAgeTheorist profile image

      Marc Widdowson 4 years ago from UK

      Nice essay. Both Gregory of Tours and Christine de Pizan had strong agendas in their treatment of Fredegund so what relation it bears to the 'real Fredegund' is questionable. I am sceptical about how much power Fredegund truly wielded. We really only have Gregory to go on because other sources are derivative of him. This includes Christine de Pizan, so that, though fascinating and important in the history of ideas, her work is valueless as a source for Fredegund. If you read between the lines of Gregory's account, it does not make a great deal of sense. With Chilperic's son Clovis, although Gregory presents Fredegund as viciously attacking Clovis (after being thoroughly provoked--Clovis is supposed to have revelled in the deaths of Fredegund's young sons, his step-brothers), he actually says that he blames Chilperic for his death. He presents Chilperic as responsible for sending Clovis, at Fredegund's instigation, to Berny-Rivière in the hope he would succumb to an epidemic that was raging there. But at the time Clovis was Chilperic's only male heir. Why on earth would he want to kill him...and if he did want to kill him, why do it in such a roundabout and uncertain way (Clovis survived)? Gregory gives no plausible reason. His account of Chilperic and Fredegund does not meaningfully hang together and this suggests that the tales of her machinations and assassinations consist mostly of slander and wild conspiracy theory. After Chilperic's death, Fredegund, on a quick reading, appears to be in control of the kingdom of her infant son Chlothar II. But again, closer reading raises many doubts. Gregory actually says that Fredegund was upset because power had mostly been taken from her, and he presents her as relying on the protection of her brother-in-law, King Guntram. Fredegund has to ask Guntram to punish some of those responsible for mistreating Rigunth, which he refuses to do, and he overrules her concerning the reappointment of Praetextatus to his see. It is Guntram not Fredegund who arranges Chlothar's baptism. In this light, we cannot really be sure what position Fredegund held, but it is possible that Gregory only got away with his outrageous claims about her because she came from a humble background and did not have the support of a noble family. The stories of Fredegund's wickedness may be indicative of her weakness, not of her power.

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