A Popular History of France From The Earliest Times The Merovingians. byGuizot, M.
In its beginning and in its end the line of the Merovingians is mediocre and obscure. Its earliest ancestors, Meroveus, from whom it got its name, and Clodion, the first, it is said, of the long-haired kings, a characteristic title of the Frankish kings, are scarcely historical personages; and it is under the qualification of sluggard kings that the last Merovingians have a place in history. Clovis alone, amidst his vices and his crimes, was sufficiently great and did sufficiently great deeds to live forever in the course of ages; the greatest part of his successors belong only to genealogy or chronology. In a moment of self-abandonment and weariness, the great Napoleon once said, "What trouble to take for half a page in universal history!" Histories far more limited and modest than a universal history, not only have a right, but are bound to shed their light only upon those men who have deserved it by the eminence of their talents or the important results of their passage through life; rarity only can claim to escape oblivion. And save two or three, a little less insignificant or less hateful than the rest, the Merovingian kings deserve only to be forgotten. From A.D. 511 to A.D. 752, that is, from the death of Clovis to the accession of the Carlovingians, is two hundred and forty-one years, which was the duration of the dynasty of the Merovingians. During this time there reigned twenty-eight Merovingian kings, which reduces to eight years and seven months the average reign of each, a short duration compared with that of most of the royal dynasties. Five of these kings, Clotaire I., Clotaire II., Dagobert I., Thierry IV. and Childeric III., alone, at different intervals, united under their power all the dominions possessed by Clovis or his successors. The other kings of this line reigned only over special kingdoms, formed by virtue of divers partitions at the death of their general possessor. From A.D. 511 to 638 five such partitions took place. In 511, after the death of Clovis, his dominions were divided amongst his four sons; Theodoric, or Thierry I., was king of Metz; Clodomir, of Orleans; Childebert, of Paris; Clotaire I., of Soissons. To each of these capitals fixed boundaries were attached. In 558, in consequence of divers incidents brought about naturally or by violence, Clotaire I. ended by possessing alone, during three years, all the dominions of his fathers. At his death, in 561, they were partitioned afresh amongst his four sons; Charibert was king of Paris; Gontran of Orleans and Burgundy; Sigebert I., of Metz; and Childeric, of Soissons. In 567, Charibert, king of Paris, died without children, and a new partition left only three kingdoms, Austrasia, Neustria, and Burgundy. Austrasia, in the east, extended over the two banks of the Rhine, and comprised, side by side with Roman towns and districts, populations that had remained Germanic. Neustria, in the west, was essentially Gallo-Roman, though it comprised in the north the old territory of the Salian Franks, on the borders of the Scheldt. Burgundy was the old kingdom of the Burgundians, enlarged in the north by some few counties. Paris, the residence of Clovis, was reserved and undivided amongst the three kings, kept as a sort of neutral city into which they could not enter without the common consent of all. In 613, new incidents connected with family matters placed Clotaire II., son of Chilperic, and heretofore king of Soissons, in possession of the three kingdoms. He kept them united up to 628, and left them so to his son, Dagobert I., who remained in possession of them up to 638. At his death a new division of the Frankish dominions took place, no longer into three but two kingdoms, Austrasia being one, and Neustria and Burgundy the other. This was the definitive dismemberment of the great Frankish dominion to the time of its last two Merovingian kings, Thierry IV. and Childeric III., who were kings in name only, dragged from the cloister as ghosts from the tomb to play a motionless part in the drama. For a long time past the real power had been in the hands of that valiant Austrasian family which was to furnish the dominions of Clovis with a new dynasty and a greater king than Clovis.
Southern Gaul, that is to say, Aquitania, Vasconia, Narbonness, called Septimania, and the two banks of the Rhone near its mouths, were not comprised in these partitions of the Frankish dominions. Each of the copartitioners assigned to themselves, to the south of the Garonne and on the coasts of the Mediterranean, in that beautiful region of old Roman Gaul, such and such a district or such and such a town, just as heirs-at- law keep to themselves severally such and such a piece of furniture or such and such a valuable jewel out of a rich property to which they succeed, and which they divide amongst them. The peculiar situation of those provinces at their distance from the Franks' own settlements contributed much towards the independence which Southern Gaul, and especially Aquitania, was constantly striving and partly managed to recover, amidst the extension and tempestuous fortunes of the Frankish monarchy. It is easy to comprehend how these repeated partitions of a mighty inheritance with so many successors, these dominions continually changing both their limits and their masters, must have tended to increase the already profound anarchy of Roman and Barbaric worlds thrown pell-mell one upon the other, and fallen a prey, the Roman to the disorganization of a lingering death, the barbaric to the fermentation of a new existence striving for development under social conditions quite different from those of its primitive life. Some historians have said that, in spite of these perpetual dismemberments of the great Frankish dominion, a real unity had always existed in the Frankish monarchy, and regulated the destinies of its constituent peoples. They who say so show themselves singularly easy to please in the matter of political unity and international harmony. Amongst those various States, springing from a common base and subdivided between the different members of one and the same family, rivalries, enmities, hostile machinations, deeds of violence and atrocity, struggles and wars soon became as frequent, as bloody, and as obstinate as they have ever been amongst states and sovereigns as unconnected as possible one with another. It will suffice to quote one case which was not long in coming. In 424, scarcely thirteen years after the death of Clovis and the partition of his dominions amongst his four sons, the second of them, Clodomir, king of Orleans, was killed in a war against the Burgundians, leaving three sons, direct heirs of his kingdom, subject to equal partition between them. Their grandmother, Clotilde, kept them with her at Paris; and "their uncle Childebert (king of Paris), seeing that his mother bestowed all her affection upon the sons of Clodomir, grew jealous; so, fearing that by her favor they would get a share in the kingdom, he sent secretly to his brother Clotaire (king of Soissons), saying, 'Our mother keepeth by her the sons of our brother, and willeth to give them the kingdom of their father. Thou must needs, therefore, cone speedily to Paris, and we must take counsel together as to what shall be done with them; whether they shall be shorn and reduced to the condition of commoners, or slain and leave their kingdom to be shared equally between us.' Clotaire, overcome with joy at these words, came to Paris. Childebert had already spread abroad amongst the people that the two kings were to join in raising the young children to the throne. The two kings then sent a message to the queen, who at that time dwelt in the same city, saying, 'Send thou the children to us, that we may place them on the throne.' Clotilde, full of joy, and unwitting of their craft, set meat and drink before the children, and then sent them away, saying, 'I shall seem not to have lost my son if I see ye succeed him in his kingdom.' The young princes were immediately seized, and parted from their servants and governors; and the servants and the children were kept in separate places. Then Childebert and Clotaire sent to the queen their confidant Arcadius (one of the Arvernian senators), with a pair of shears and a naked sword. When he came to Clotilde, he showed her what he bare with him, and said to her, 'Most glorious queen, thy sons, our masters, desire to know thy will touching these children: wilt thou that they live with shorn hair or that they be put to death?' Clotilde, astounded at this address, and overcome with indignation, answered at hazard, amidst the grief that overwhelmed her, and not knowing what she would say, 'If they be not set upon the throne I would rather know that they were dead than shorn.' But Areadius, caring little for her despair or for what she might decide after more reflection, returned in haste to the two kings, and said, 'Finish ye your work, for the queen, favoring your plans, willeth that ye accomplish them.' Forthwith Clotaire taketh the eldest by the arm, dasheth him upon the ground, and slayeth him without mercy with the thrust of a hunting-knife beneath the arm-pit. At the cries raised by the child, his brother casteth himself at the feet of Childebert, and clinging to his knees, saith amidst his sobs, 'Aid me, good father, that I die not like my brother.' Childebert, his visage bathed in tears, saith to Clotaire, 'Dear brother, I crave thy mercy for his life; I will give thee whatsoever thou wilt as the price of his soul; I pray thee, slay him not.' Then Clotaire, with menacing and furious mien, crieth out aloud, 'Thrust him away, or thou diest in his stead: thou, the instigator of all this work, art thou, then, so quick to be faithless?' At these words Childebert thrust away the child towards Clotaire, who seized him, plunged a hunting-knife in his side, as he had in his brother's, and slew him. They then put to death the slaves and governors of the children. After these murders Clotaire mounted his horse and departed, taking little heed of his nephew's death; and Childebert withdrew into the outskirts of the city. Queen Clotilde had the corpses of the two children placed in a coffin, and followed them, with a great parade of chanting, and immense mourning, to the basilica of St. Pierre (now St. Genevieve), where they were buried together. One was ten years old and the other seven. The third, named Clodoald (who died about the year 560, after having founded, near Paris, a monastery called after him St. Cloud), could not be caught, and was saved by some gallant men. He, disdaining a terrestrial kingdom, dedicated himself to the Lord, was shorn by his own hand, and became a church-man: he devoted himself wholly to good works, and died a priest. And the two kings divided equally between them the kingdom of Clodomir." (Gregory of Tours, Histoire des Francs, III. xviii.)
The history of the most barbarous peoples and times assuredly offers no example, in one and the same family, of an usurpation more perfidiously and atrociously consummated. King Clodomir, the father of the two young princes thus dethroned and murdered by their uncles, had, during his reign, shown almost equal indifference and cruelty. In 523, during a war which, in concert with his brothers Childebert and Clotaire, he had waged against Sigismund, king of Burgundy, he had made prisoners of that king, his wife, and their sons, and kept them shut up at Orleans. The year after, the war was renewed with the Burgundians. "Clodomir resolved," says Gregory of Tours, "to put Sigismund to death. The blessed Avitus, abbot of St. Mesrnin de Micy (an abbey about two leagues from Orleans), a famous priest in those days, said to him on this occasion, 'If, turning thy thoughts towards God, thou change thy plan, and suffer not these folk to be slain, God will be with thee, and thou wilt gain the victory; but if thou slay them, thou thyself wilt be delivered into the hands of thine enemies, and thou wilt undergo their fate; to thee and thy wife and thy sons will happen that which thou wilt have done to Sigismund and his wife and his sons.' But Clodomir, taking no heed of this counsel, said, 'It were great folly to leave one enemy at home when I march out against another; one attacking me behind and another in front, I should find myself between two armies: victory will be surer and easier if I separate one from the other; when the first is once dead, it will be less difficult to get rid of the other also.' Accordingly he put Sigismund to death, together with his wife and his sons, ordered them to be thrown into a well in the village of Coulmier, belonging to the territory of Orleans, and set out for Burgundy. After his first success Clodomir fell into an ambush and into the hands of his enemies, who cut off his head, stuck it on the end of a pike and held it up aloft. Victory, nevertheless, remained with the Franks; but scarcely had a year elapsed when Queen Guntheuque, Clodomir's widow, became the wife of his brother Clotaire, and his two elder sons, Theobald and Gonthaire, fell beneath their uncle's hunting-knife."
Even in the coarsest and harshest ages the soul of man does not completely lose its instincts of justice and humanity. The bishops and priests were not alone in crying out against such atrocities; the barbarians themselves did not always remain indifferent spectators of them, but sometimes took advantage of them to rouse the wrath and warlike ardor of their comrades. "About the year 528, Theodoric, king of Metz, the eldest son of Clovis, purposed to undertake a grand campaign on the right bank of the Rhine against his neighbors the Thuringians, and summoned the Franks to a meeting. 'Bethink you,' said he, that of old time the Thuringians fell violently upon our ancestors, and did them much harm. Our fathers, ye know, gave them hostages to obtain peace; but the Thuringians put to death those hostages in divers ways, and once more falling upon our relatives, took from them all they possessed. After having hung children up, by the sinews of their thighs, on the branches of trees, they put to a most cruel death more than two hundred young girls, tying them by the legs to the necks of horses, which, driven by pointed goads in different directions, tore the poor souls in pieces; they laid others along the ruts of the roads, fixed them in the earth with stakes, drove over them laden cars, and so left them, with their bones all broken, as a meal for the birds and dogs. To this very day doth Hermannfroi fail in his promise, and absolutely refuse to fulfil his engagements: right is on our side; march we against them with the help of God.' Then the Franks, indignant at such atrocities, demanded with one voice to be led into Thuringia. . . . Victory made them masters of it, and they reduced the country under their dominion. . . . Whilst the Frankish kings were still there, Theodoric would have slain his brother Clotaire. Having put armed men in waiting, he had him fetched to treat secretly of a certain matter. Then, having arranged, in a portion of his house, a curtain from wall to wall, he posted his armed men behind it; but, as the curtain was too short, it left their feet exposed. Clotaire, having been warned of the snare, entered the house armed and with a goodly company. Theodoric then perceived that he was discovered, invented some story, and talked of this, that, and the other. At last, not knowing how to get his treachery forgotten, he made Clotaire a present of a large silvern dish. Clotaire wished him good by, thanked him, and returned home. But Theodoric immediately complained to his own folks that he had sacrificed his silvern dish to no purpose, and said to his son Theodebert, 'Go, find thy uncle, and pray him to give thee the present I made him.' Theodebert went, and got what he asked. In such tricks did Theodoric excel." (Gregory of Tours, III. vii.)
These Merovingian kings were as greedy and licentious as they were cruel. Not only was pillage, in their estimation, the end and object of war, but they pillaged even in the midst of peace and in their own dominions; sometimes, after the Roman practice, by aggravation of taxes and fiscal manoeuvres, at others after the barbaric fashion, by sudden attacks on places and persons they knew to be rich. It often happened that they pillaged a church, of which the bishop had vexed them by his protests, either to swell their own personal treasury, or to make, soon afterwards, offerings to another church of which they sought the favor. When some great family event was at hand, they delighted in a coarse magnificence, for which they provided at the expense of the populations of their domains, or of the great officers of their courts, who did not fail to indemnify themselves, thanks to public disorder, for the sacrifices imposed upon them. At the end of the sixth century, Chilperic, king of Neustria, had promised his daughter Rigonthe in marriage to Prince Recared, son of Leuvigild, king of the Visigoths of Spain. "A grand deputation of Goths came to Paris to fetch the Frankish princess. King Chilperic ordered several families in the fiscal domains to be seized and placed in cars. As a great number of them wept and were not willing to go, he had them kept in prison that he might more easily force them to go away with his daughter. It is said that several, in their despair, hung themselves, fearing to be taken from their parents. Sons were separated from fathers, daughters from mothers, and all departed with deep groans and maledictions, and in Paris there reigned a desolation like that of Egypt. Not a few, of superior birth, being forced to go away, even made wills whereby they left their possessions to the churches, and demanded that, so soon as the young girl should have entered Spain, their wills should be opened just as if they were already in their graves. . . . When King Chilperic gave up his daughter to the ambassadors of the Goths, he presented them with vast treasures. Her mother (Queen Fredegonde) added thereto so great a quantity of gold and silver and valuable vestments, that, at the sight thereof, the king thought he must have nought remaining. The queen, perceiving his emotion, turned to the Franks, and said to them, 'Think not, warriors, that there is here aught of the treasures of former kings. All that ye see is taken from mine own possessions, for my most glorious king hath made me many gifts. Thereto have I added of the fruits of mine own toil, and a great part proceedeth from the revenues I have drawn, either in kind or in money, from the houses that have been ceded unto me. Ye yourselves have given me riches, and ye see here a portion thereof; but there is here nought of the public treasure.' And the king was deceived into believing her words. Such was the multitude of golden and silvern articles and other precious things that it took fifty wagons to hold them. The Franks, on their part, made many offerings; some gave gold, others silver, sundry gave horses, but most of them vestments. At last the young girl, with many tears and kisses, said farewell. As she was passing through the gate an axle of her carriage broke, and all cried out alacic! which was interpreted by some as a presage. She departed from Paris, and at eight miles' distance front the city she had her tents pitched. During the night fifty men arose, and, having taken a hundred of the best horses and as many golden bits and bridles, and two large silvern dishes, fled away, and took refuge with king Childebert. During the whole journey whoever could escape fled away with all that he could lay hands on. It was required also of all the towns that were traversed on the way, that they should make great preparations to defray expenses, for the king forbade any contribution from the treasury: all the charges were met by extraordinary taxes levied on the poor." (Gregory of Tours, VI. xlv.)
"Close upon this tyrannical magnificence came unexpected sorrows, and close upon these outrages remorse. The youngest son of King Chilperic, Dagobert by name, fell ill. He was a little better, when his elder brother Chlodebert was attacked with the same symptoms. His mother Fredegonde, seeing him in danger of death, and touched by tardy repentance, said to the king, 'Long hath divine mercy borne with our misdeeds; it hath warned us by fever, and other maladies, and we have not mended our ways, and now we are losing our sons; now the tears of the poor, the lamentations of widows, and the sighs of orphans are causing them to perish, and leaving us no hope of laying by for any one. We heap up riches and know not for whom. Our treasures, all laden with plunder and curses, are like to remain without possessors. Our cellars are they not bursting with wine, and our granaries with corn? Our coffers were they not full to the brim with gold and silver and precious stones and necklaces and other imperial ornaments? And yet that which was our most beautiful possession we are losing! Come then, if thou wilt, and let us burn all these wicked lists; let our treasury be content with what was sufficient for thy father Clotaire.' Having thus spoken, and beating her breast, the queen had brought to her the rolls, which Mark had consigned to her of each of the cities that belonged to her, and cast them into the fire. Then, turning again to the king, 'What!' she cried, 'dost thou hesitate? Do thou even as I; if we lose our dear children, at least escape we everlasting punishment.' Then the king, moved with compunction, threw into the fire all the lists, and, when they were burned, sent people to stay the levy of those imposts. And afterwards their youngest child died, worn out with lingering illness. Overwhelmed with grief, they bare him from their house at Braine to Paris, and had him buried in the basilica of St. Denis. As for Chlodebert, they placed him on a litter, carried him to the basilica of St. Medard at Soissons, and, laying him before the tomb of the saint, offered vows for his recovery; but in the middle of the night, enfeebled and exhausted, he gave up the ghost. They buried him in the basilica of the holy martyrs Crispin and Crispinian. Then King Chilperic showed great largess to the churches and the monasteries and the poor." (Gregory of Tours, V. xxxv.)
It is doubtful whether the maternal grief of Fredegonde were quite so pious and so strictly in accordance with morality as it has been represented by Gregory of Tours; but she was, without doubt, passionately sincere. Rash actions and violent passions are the characteristics of barbaric natures; the interest or impression of the moment holds sway over them, and causes forgetfulness of every moral law as well as of every wise calculation. These two characteristics show themselves in the extreme license displayed in the private life of the Merovingian kings: on becoming Christians, not only did they not impose upon themselves any of the Christian rules in respect of conjugal relations, but the greater number of them did not renounce polygamy, and more than one holy bishop, at the very time that he reprobated it, was obliged to tolerate it. "King Clotaire I. had to wife Ingonde, and her only did he love, when she made to him the following request: 'My lord,' said she, 'hath made of his handmaid what seemed to him good; and now, to crown his favors, let my lord deign to hear what his handmaid demandeth. I pray you be graciously pleased to find for my sister Aregonde, your slave, a man both capable and rich, so that I be rather exalted than abased thereby, and be enabled to serve you still more faithfully.' At these words Clotaire, who was but too voluptuously disposed by nature, conceived a fancy for Aregonde, betook himself to the country-house where she dwelt, and united her to him in marriage. When the union had taken place he returned to Ingonde, and said to her, 'I have labored to procure for thee the favor thou didst so sweetly demand, and, on looking for a man of wealth and capability worthy to be united to thy sister, I could find no better than myself; know, therefore, that I have taken her to wife, and I trow that it will not displease thee.' What seemeth good in my master's eyes, that let him do,' replied Ingonde: 'only let thy servant abide still in the king's grace.'"
Clotaire I. had, as has been already remarked, four sons: the eldest, Charibert, king of Paris, had to wife Ingoberge, "who had in her service two young persons, daughters of a poor work-man; one of them, named Marcovieve, had donned the religious dress, the other was called Meroflede, and the king loved both of them exceedingly. They were daughters, as has been said, of a worker in wool. Ingoberge, jealous of the affection borne to them by the king, had their father put to work inside the palace, hoping that the king, on seeing him in such condition, would conceive a distaste for his daughters; and, whilst the man was at his work, she sent for the king.
"Charibert, thinking he was going to see some novelty, saw only the workman afar off at work on his wool. He forsook Ingoberge, and took to wife Meroflede. He had also (to wife) another young girl named Theudoehilde, whose father was a shepherd, a mere tender of sheep, and had by her, it is said, a son who, on issuing from his mother's womb, was carried straight-way to the grave." Charibert afterwards espoused Marcovive, sister of Meroflede; and for that cause both were excommunicated by St. Germain, bishop of Paris.
Chilperic, fourth son of Clotaire I. and king of Soissons, "though he had already several wives, asked the hand of Galsuinthe, eldest daughter of Athanagild, king of Spain. She arrived at Soissons and was united to him in marriage; and she received strong evidences of love, for she had brought with her vast treasures. But his love for Fredegonde, one of the principal women about Chilperic, occasioned fierce disputes between them. As Galsuinthe had to complain to the king of continual insult and of not sharing with him the dignity of his rank, she asked him in return for the treasures which she had brought, and which she was ready to give up to him, to send her back free to her own country. Chilperic, artfully dissimulating, appeased her with soothing words; and then had her strangled by a slave, and she was found dead in her bed. When he had mourned for her death, he espoused Fredegonde after an interval of a few days." (Gregory of Tours, IV. xxvi., xxviii.)
Amidst such passions and such morals, treason, murder and poisoning were the familiar processes of ambition, covetousness, hatred, vengeance, and fear. Eight kings or royal heirs of the Merovingian line died of brutal murder or secret assassination, to say nothing of innumerable crimes of the same kind committed in their circle, and left unpunished, save by similar crimes. Nevertheless, justice is due to the very worst times and the very worst governments; and it must be recorded that, whilst sharing in many of the vices of their age and race, especially their extreme license of morals, three of Clovis's successors, Theodebert, king of Austrasia (from 534 to 548), Gontran, king of Burgundy (from 561 to 598), and Dogobert I., who united under his own sway the whole Frankish monarchy (from 622 to 688), were less violent, less cruel, less iniquitous, and less grossly ignorant or blind than the majority of the Merovingians.
"Theodebert," says Gregory of Tours, "when confirmed in his kingdom, showed himself full of greatness and goodness; he ruled with justice, honoring the bishops, doing good to the churches, helping the poor, and distributing in many directions numerous benefits with a very charitable and very liberal hand. He generously remitted to the churches of Auvergne all the tribute they were wont to pay into his treasury." (III. xxv.)
Gontran, king of Burgundy, in spite of many shocking and unprincipled deeds, at one time of violence, at another of weakness, displayed, during his reign of thirty-three years, an inclination towards moderation and peace, in striking contrast with the measureless pretensions and outrageous conduct of the other Frankish kings his contemporaries, especially King Chilperic his brother. The treaty concluded by Gontran, on the 38th of November, 587, at Andelot, near Langres, with his young nephew Childebert, king of Metz, and Queen Brunehant, his mother, contains dispositions, or, more correctly speaking, words, which breathe a sincere but timid desire to render justice to all, to put an end to the vindictive or retrospective quarrels and spoliations which were incessantly harassing the Gallo-Frankish community, and to build up peace between the two kings on the foundation of mutual respect for the rights of their lieges. "It is established," says this treaty, "that whatsoever the kings have given to the churches or to their lieges, or with God's help shall hereafter will to give to them lawfully, shall be irrevocable acquired; as also that none of the lieges, in one kingdom or the other, shall have to suffer damage in respect of whatsoever belongeth to him, either by law or by virtue of a decree, but shall be permitted to recover and possess things due to him. . . . And as the aforesaid kings have allied themselves, in the name of God, by a pure and sincere affection, it hath been agreed that at no time shall passage through one kingdom be refused to the Leudes (lieges—great vassals) of the other kingdom who shall desire to traverse them on public or private affairs. It is likewise agreed that neither of the two kings shall solicit the Leudes of the other or receive them if they offer themselves; and if, peradventure, any of these Leudes shall think it necessary, in consequence of some fault, to take refuge with the other king, he shall be absolved according to the nature of his fault and given back. It hath seemed good also to add to the present treaty that whichever, if either, of the parties happen to violate it, under any pretext and at any time whatsoever, it shall lose all advantages, present or prospective, therefrom; and they shall be for the profit of that party which shall have faithfully observed the aforesaid conventions, and which shall be relieved in all points from the obligations of its oath." (Gregory of Tours, IX. xx.)
It may be doubted whether between Gontran and Childebert the promises in the treaty were always scrupulously fulfilled; but they have a stamp of serious and sincere intention foreign to the habitual relations between the other Merovingian kings.
Mention was but just now made of two women—two queens—Fredegonde and Brunehaut, who, at the Merovingian epoch, played important parts in the history of the country. They were of very different origin and condition; and, after fortunes which were for a long while analogous, they ended very differently. Fredegonde was the daughter of poor peasants in the neighborhood of Montdidier in Picardy, and at an early age joined the train of Queen Audovere, the first wife of King Chilperic. She was beautiful, dexterous, ambitious, and bold; and she attracted the attention, and before long awakened the passion of the king. She pursued with ardor and without scruple her unexpected fortune. Queen Audovere was her first obstacle and her first victim; and on the pretext of a spiritual relationship which rendered her marriage with Chilperic illegal, was repudiated and banished to a convent. But Fredegonde's hour had not yet come; for Chilperic espoused Galsuinthe, daughter of the Visigothic king, Athanagild, whose youngest daughter, Brunehaut, had just married Chilperic's brother, Sigebert, king of Austrasia. It has already been said that before long Galsuinthe was found strangled in her bed, and that Chilperic espoused Fredegonde. An undying hatred from that time arose between her and Brunehaut, who had to avenge her sister. A war, incessantly renewed, between the kings of Austrasia and Neustria followed. Sigebert succeeded in beating Chilperic, but, in 575, in the midst of his victory, he was suddenly assassinated in his tent by two emissaries of Fredegonde. His army disbanded; and his widow, Brunehaut, fell into the hands of Chilperic. The right of asylum belonging to the cathedral of Paris saved her life, but she was sent away to Rouen. There, at this very time, on a mission from his father, happened to be Merovee, son of Chilperic, and the repudiated Queen Audovere; he saw Brunehaut in her beauty, her attractiveness and her trouble; he was smitten with her and married her privately, and Praetextatus, bishop of Rouen, had the imprudent courage to seal their union. Fredegonde seized with avidity upon this occasion for persecuting her rival and destroying her step-son, heir to the throne of Chilperic. The Austrasians, who had preserved the child Childebert, son of their murdered king, demanded back with threats their queen Brunehaut. She was surrendered to them; but Fredegonde did not let go her other prey, Merovice. First imprisoned, then shorn and shut up in a monastery, afterwards a fugitive and secretly urged on to attempt a rising against his father, he was so affrightened at his perils, that he got a faithful servant to strike him dead, that he might not fall into the hands of his hostile step-mother. Chilperic had remaining another son, Clovis, issue, as Merovee was, of Queen Audovere. He was accused of having caused by his sorceries the death of the three children lost about this time by Fredegonde; and was, in his turn, imprisoned and before long poniarded. His mother Audovere was strangled in her convent. Fredegonde sought in these deaths, advantageous for her own children, some sort of horrible consolation for her sorrows as a mother. But the sum of crimes was not yet complete. In 584 King Chilperic, on returning from the chase and in the act of dismounting, was struck two mortal blows by a man who took to rapid flight, and a cry was raised all around of "Treason! 'tis the hand of the Austrasian Childebert against our lord the king!" The care taken to have the cry raised was proof of its falsity; it was the hand of Fredegonde herself, anxious lest Chilperic should discover the guilty connection existing between her and an officer of her household, Landry, who became subsequently mayor of the palace of Neustria. Chilperic left a son, a few months old, named. Clotaire, of whom his mother Fredegonde became the sovereign guardian. She employed, at one time in defending him against his enemies, at another in endangering him by her plots, her hatreds and her assaults, the last thirteen years of her life. She was a true type of the strong-willed, artful, and perverse woman in barbarous times; she started low down in the scale and rose very high without a corresponding elevation of soul; she was audacious and perfidious, as perfect in deception as in effrontery, proceeding to atrocities either from cool calculation or a spirit of revenge, abandoned to all kinds of passion, and, for gratification of them, shrinking from no sort of crime. However, she died quietly at Paris, in 597 or 598, powerful and dreaded, and leaving on the throne of Neustria her son Clotaire II., who, fifteen years later, was to become sole king of all the Frankish dominions.
Brunehaut had no occasion for crimes to become a queen, and, in spite of those she committed, and in spite of her out-bursts and the moral irregularities of her long life, she bore, amidst her passion and her power, a stamp of courageous frankness and intellectual greatness which places her far above the savage who was her rival. Fredegonde was an upstart, of barbaric race and habits, a stranger to every idea and every design not connected with her own personal interest and successes; and she was as brutally selfish in the case of her natural passions as in the exercise of a power acquired and maintained by a mixture of artifice and violence. Brunehaut was a princess of that race of Gothic kings who, in Southern Gaul and in Spain, had understood and admired the Roman civilization, and had striven to transfer the remains of it to the newly-formed fabric of their own dominions. She, transplanted to a home amongst the Franks of Austrasia, the least Roman of all the barbarians, preserved there the ideas and tastes of the Visigoths of Spain, who had become almost Gallo-Romans; she clung stoutly to the efficacious exercise of the royal authority; she took a practical interest in the public works, highways, bridges, monuments, and the progress of material civilization; the Roman roads in a short time received and for a long while kept in Anstrasia the name of Brunehaut's causeways; there used to he shown, in a forest near Bourges, Brunehaut's castle, Brunehaut's tower at Etampes, Brunehaut's stone near Tournay, and Brunehaut's fort near Cahors. In the royal domains and wheresoever she went she showed abundant charity to the poor, and many ages after her death the people of those districts still spoke of Brunehaut's alms. She liked and protected men of letters, rare and mediocre indeed at that time, but the only beings, such as they were, with a notion of seeking and giving any kind of intellectual enjoyment; and they in turn took pleasure in celebrating her name and her deserts. The most renowned of all during that age, Fortunatus, bishop of Poitiers, dedicated nearly all his little poems to two queens; one, Brunehaut, plunging amidst all the struggles and pleasures of the world, the other St. Radegonde, sometime wife of Clotaire I., who had fled in all haste from a throne, to bury herself at Poitiers, in the convent she had founded there. To compensate, Brunehaut was detested by the majority of the Austrasian chiefs, those Leudes, landowners and warriors, whose sturdy and turbulent independence she was continually fighting against. She supported against them, with indomitable courage, the royal officers, the servants of the palace, her agents, and frequently her favorites. One of these, Lupus, a Roman by origin, and Duke of Champagne, "was being constantly insulted and plundered by his enemies, especially by Ursion Bertfried. At last, they, having agreed to slay him, marched against him with an army. At the sight, Brunehaut, compassionating the evil case of one of her lieges unjustly persecuted, assumed quite a manly courage, and threw herself amongst the hostile battalions, crying, "'Stay, warriors; refrain from this wicked deed; persecute not the innocent; engage not, for a single man's sake, in a battle which will desolate the country!' 'Back, woman,' said Ursion to her; 'let it suffice thee to have ruled under thy husband's sway; now 'tis thy son who reigns, and his kingdom is under our protection, not thine. Back! if thou wouldest not that the hoofs of our horses trample thee under as the dust of the ground!' After the dispute had lasted some time in this strain, the queen, by her address, at last prevented the battle from taking place." (Gregory of Tours, VI. iv.) It was but a momentary success for Brunehaut; and the last words of Ursion contained a sad presage of the death awaiting her. Intoxicated with power, pride, hate, and revenge, she entered more violently every day into strife not only with the Austrasian laic chieftains, but with some of the principal bishops of Austrasia and Burgundy, among the rest with St. Didier, bishop of Vienne, who, at her instigation, was brutally murdered, and with the great Irish missionary St. Columba, who would not sanction by his blessing the fruits of the royal irregularities. In 614, after thirty-nine years of wars, plots, murders, and political and personal vicissitudes, from the death of her husband Sigebert I., and under the reigns of her son Theodebert, and her grandsons Theodebert II. and Thierry II., Queen Brunehaut, at the age of eighty years, fell into the hands of her mortal enemy, Clotaire II., son of Fredegonde, now sole king of the Franks. After having grossly insulted her, he had her paraded, seated on a camel, in front of his whole army, and then ordered her to be tied by the hair, one foot, and one arm to the tail of an unbroken horse, that carried her away, and dashed her in pieces as he galloped and kicked, beneath the eyes of the ferocious spectators.
After the execution of Brunehaut and the death of Clotaire II., the history of the Franks becomes a little less dark and less bloody. Not that murders and great irregularities, in the court and amongst the people, disappear altogether. Dagobert I., for instance, the successor of Clotaire II., and grandson of Chilperic and Fredegonde, had no scruple, under the pressure of self-interest, in committing an iniquitous and barbarous act. After having consented to leave to his younger brother Charibert the kingdom of Aquitania, he retook it by force in 631, at the death of Charibert, seizing at the same time his treasures, and causing or permitting to be murdered his young nephew Chilperic, rightful heir of his father. About the same time Dagobert had assigned amongst the Bavarians, subjects of his beyond the Rhine, an asylum to nine thousand Bulgarians, who had been driven with their wives and children from Pannonia. Not knowing, afterwards, where to put or how to feed these refugees, he ordered them all to be massacred in one night; and scarcely seven hundred of them succeeded in escaping by flight. The private morals of Dagobert were not more scrupulous than his public acts. "A slave to incontinence as King Solomon was," says his biographer Fredegaire, "he had three queens and a host of concubines." Given up to extravagance and pomp, it pleased him to imitate the magnificence of the imperial court at Constantinople, and at one time he laid hands for that purpose, upon the possessions of certain of his "leudes" or of certain churches; at another he gave to his favorite church, the Abbey of St. Denis, "so many precious stones, articles of value, and domains in various places, that all the world," says Fredegaire, "was stricken with admiration." But, despite of these excesses and scandals, Dagobert was the most wisely energetic, the least cruel in feeling, the most prudent in enterprise, and the most capable of governing with some little regularity and effectiveness, of all the kings furnished, since Clovis, by the Merovingian race. He had, on ascending the throne, this immense advantage, that the three Frankish dominions, Austrasia, Neustria, and Burgundy were re-united under his sway; and at the death of his brother Charibert, he added thereto Aquitania. The unity of the vast Frankish monarchy was thus re-established, and Dagobert retained it by his moderation at home and abroad. He was brave, and he made war on occasion; but, he did not permit himself to be dragged into it either by his own passions or by the unlimited taste of his lieges for adventure and plunder. He found, on this point, salutary warnings in the history of his predecessors. It was very often the Franks themselves, the royal "leudes," who plunged their kings into civil or foreign wars. In 530, two sons of Clovis, Childebert and Clotaire, arranged to attack Burgundy and its king Godomar. They asked aid of their brother Theodoric, who refused to join them. However, the Franks who formed his party said, "If thou refuse to march into Burgundy with thy brethren, we give thee up, and prefer to follow them." But Theodoric, considering that the Arvernians had been faithless to him, said to the Franks, "Follow me, and I will lead you into a country where ye shall seize of gold and silver as much as ye can desire, and whence ye shall take away flocks and slaves and vestments in abundance!" The Franks, overcome by these words, promised to do whatsoever he should desire. So Theodoric entered Auvergne with his army, and wrought devastation and ruin in the province.
"In 555, Clotaire I. had made an expedition against the Saxons, who demanded peace; but the Frankish warriors would not hear of it. 'Cease, I pray you,' said Clotaire to them, 'to be evil-minded against these men; they speak us fair; let us not go and attack them, for fear we bring down upon us the anger of God.' But the Franks would not listen to him. The Saxons again came with offerings of vestments, flocks, even all their possessions, saying, 'Take all this, together with half our country; leave us but our wives and little children; only let there be no war between us.' But the Franks again refused all terms. 'Hold, I adjure you,' said Clotaire again to them; 'we have not right on our side; if ye be thoroughly minded to enter upon a war in which ye may find your loss, as for me, I will not follow ye.' Then the Franks, enraged against Clotaire, threw themselves upon him, tore his tent to pieces as they heaped reproaches upon him, and bore him away by force, determined to kill him if he hesitated to march with them. So Clotaire, in spite of himself, departed with them. But when they joined battle they were cut to pieces by their adversaries, and on both sides so many fell that it was impossible to estimate or count the number of the dead. Then Clotaire with shame demanded peace of the Saxons, saying that it was not of his own will that he had attacked them; and, having obtained it, returned to his own dominions." (Gregory of Tours, III. xi., xii.; IV. xiv.)
King Dagobert was not thus under the yoke of his "leudes." Either by his own energy, or by surrounding himself with wise and influential counsellors, such as Pepin of Landen, mayor of the palace of Austrasia, St. Arnoul, bishop of Metz, St. Eligius, bishop of Noyon, and St. Andoenus, bishop of Rouen, he applied himself to and succeeded in assuring to himself, in the exercise of his power, a pretty large measure of independence and popularity. At the beginning of his reign he held, in Austrasia and Burgundy, a sort of administrative and judicial inspection, halting at the principal towns, listening to complaints, and checking, sometimes with a rigor arbitrary indeed, but approved of by the people, the violence and irregularities of the grandees. At Langres, Dijon, St. Jean-de, Losne, Chalons-sur-Saline, Auxerre, Autun, and Sens, "he rendered justice," says Fredegaire, "to rich and poor alike, without any charges, and without any respect of persons, taking little sleep and little food, caring only so to act that all should withdraw from his presence full of joy and admiration." Nor did he confine himself to this unceremonious exercise of the royal authority. Some of his predecessors, and amongst them Childebert I., Clotaire I., and Clotaire II., had caused to be drawn up, in Latin and by scholars, digests more or less complete of the laws and customs handed down by tradition, amongst certain of the Germanic peoples established on Roman soil, notably the laws of the Salian Franks and Ripuarian Franks; and Dagobert ordered a continuation of these first legislative labors amongst the newborn nations. It was, apparently, in his reign that a digest was made of the laws of the Allemannians and Bavarians. He had also some taste for the arts, and the pious talents displayed by Saints Eloi and Ouen in goldsmith's-work and sculpture, applied to the service of religion or the decoration of churches, received from him the support of the royal favor and munificence. Dagobert was neither a great warrior nor a great legislator, and there is nothing to make him recognized as a great mind or a great character. His private life, too, was scandalous; and extortions were a sad feature of its close. Nevertheless his authority was maintained in his dominions, his reputation spread far and wide, and the name of great King Dagobert was his abiding title in the memory of the people. Taken all in all, he was, next to Clovis, the most distinguished of Frankish kings, and the last really king in the line of the Merovingians. After him, from 638 to 732, twelve princes of this line, one named Sigebert, two Clovis, two Childeric, one Clotaire, two Dagobert, one Childebert, one Chilperic, and two Throdoric or Thierry, bore, in Neustria, Austrasia, and Burgundy, or in the three kingdoms united, the title of king, without deserving in history more than room for their names. There was already heard the rumbling of great events to come around the Frankish dominion; and in the very womb of this dominion was being formed a new race of kings more able to bear, in accordance with the spirit and wants of their times, the burden of power.