Slave attendant turned queen, Fredegund (c. 550-597) cleared the way for her son to rule a reunited Francia by her ruthless use of assassination as a political tool.
Among the enslaved women who attracted the attention of Merovingian monarchs while serving in the royal households, Fredegund was among the small number who became queens, not merely concubines. She survived political dangers which would have ended the careers of even wellborn queens and retained her husband's loyalty though unable to provide him with healthy sons. Developing innovative methods of assassination and the ability to persuade others—even monks and priests—to join her plots, Fredegund distinguished herself by sheer viciousness. By the standards of her day, she was a great success: she was honored by her royal husband, accumulated a great treasure chest, put her son on his throne, and even died a natural death.
It is impossible to recover any information about Fredegund's early life. She must have been in her mid-teens when she first attracted the attention of Chilperic, king of the Soissons, while attending his first wife Audovera. Quick to obtain influence over him, she displaced Audovera in his affection and in the intrigues of the court, even though Audovera had borne the king three sons. As a teenaged concubine, Fredegund must have been very clever, since Merovingian queens were able to acquire political authority independent of that exercised by their husbands. As Suzanne Wemple writes in Women in Frankish Society : "They could participate in assemblies and issue donations and privileges—[T]hey received secular and ecclesiastical officials; they could also influence episcopal elections and draw upon the treasury to build a network of political loyalties." Audovera had plenty of time to organize a coterie of followers who could have opposed her political eclipse by a mere concubine. Nevertheless, she virtually dropped out of the dynasty's history once Fredegund became the center of Chilperic's court. She is heard of only later as one of Fredegund's victims.
Fredegund's own status is difficult to discern. While Merovingian kings were certainly not given to lifelong devotion to one woman, some scholars believe that they practiced "serial monogamy." Once married, they took only concubines, not second and third wives, or they divorced one wife before acquiring the next. Others believe that they enjoyed the polygamy customarily practiced by Frankish kings. In any case, Fredegund was probably not married to Chilperic when, in 567, he married Galswinth, the older sister of his sister-in-law Brunhild, queen of Metz (later Austrasia) through her marriage to Chilperic's brother, King Sigibert. As the two sisters were from the royal family of Visigothic Spain, a second marriage to a second Frankish king must have been a carefully negotiated diplomatic event, with implications for Europe from the Atlantic to the Danube. Galswinth converted from Arianism to Roman Catholicism upon her marriage to Chilperic. Surely the Visigothic king would not have sent his oldest daughter to be the second wife of the Frankish king with the smallest territory, especially if the first wife were a former slave. Fredegund must have been a concubine at the time of his marriage, or she must have been temporarily repudiated. Very temporarily, since Chilperic found Galswinth dead, strangled in bed, shortly after the wedding.
The marriage had begun happily, since, as Gregory of Tours remarked, "He loved her very dearly for she had brought a great dowry with her." Unfortunately, Gregory's account of her death is not altogether coherent. He believed that Galswinth had annoyed Chilperic with her constant jealousy of Fredegund and that Chilperic, consequently, had her strangled by a servant. Chilperic's discovery of the body seems odd in that context, but Gregory despised Fredegund and surely would have blamed her for the murder had he been able to discover any evidence to support the accusation. Whether Chilperic had Galswinth killed or Fredegund had suborned the murder and got away with it, Fredegund's powerful hold on Chilperic is clearly demonstrated. Gregory ends his account: "King Chilperic wept for the death of Galswinth, but within a few days he asked Fredegund to sleep with him again."
Contemporaries had no doubts, however, about Fredegund's role in the later events of 573. Chilperic's territorial ambitions had led him to make war on his brother Sigibert, and he was losing badly. Theudebert, one of his sons by Audovera, had been killed. Although they were under seige and in personal danger, Fredegund saved the situation when her agents approached Sigibert—just as his army was raising him triumphantly on their shields—and hacked him and his chamberlain to death with poisoned axes. Fredegund's talent for such well timed, impressively brutal assassinations might have endeared her to Chilperic. As Wemple writes: "Her willingness to make arrangements through her own servants for assassinations, and for handling bribes, made her a political asset to the king."
Brunhild, Sigibert's determined widow, quickly provided Fredegund with the opportunity to apply her special skills on Chilperic's behalf again. Brunhild married Merovech, another son of Chilperic and Audovera, and began plotting with him to take over the kingdoms of Soissons and Metz. Brunhild had long blamed Fredegund for the death of her sister, and Fredegund began to return her hatred. Fredegund had already contracted a secret alliance with Duke Guntram Boso of Metz. Although he had been Sigibert's right-hand man, he had killed Audovera's son Theudebert, and she liked him for that reason. As an enemy of Chilperic's, Guntram Boso was able to win Merovech's confidence and lure him out of sanctuary. However, Fredegund's assassins did not work so efficiently that time, and Chilperic would need to hunt down Merovech later. Nonetheless, this may have been just the kind of service which led Chilperic to depend on her. He would not have wanted to bear the opprobrium attached to conspiring with a man who had already killed one of his sons to do in another. But Fredegund could do it for him.
Fredegund did, however, still lack an important component of queenly power. Even highborn queens needed the leverage that came from having sons in the line of succession. As Janet L. Nelson notes in Medieval Women : "A Merovingian ex-wife often cut a pathetic figure, especially if she was sonless, or if her sons quarreled with, or pre-deceased their father." What Fredegund most needed was a healthy son to enable Chilperic and Soissons to dispense with Audovera's sons. Gregory claimed that while Sigibert besieged them, Fredegund believed that she was dying from complications of childbirth when she bore Samson to Chilperic, and therefore wanted to have the boy killed. Presumably she did not want to leave a pawn for others to play. Chilperic refused and had Samson baptized. It must have been a great disappointment to Fredegund when the boy died shortly before his fifth birthday. With Theudebert and Merovech dead, and only Clovis in the way, Fredegund must have believed that her son had a good chance to succeed Chilperic.
She was not spared additional blows. An epidemic of lethal dysentery swept Gaul, nearly killing Chilperic and almost all the infants in that part of Francia. Fredegund's sons Chlodobert and Dagobert were among the victims. According to Gregory, Fredegund told Chilperic what the problem was: "We still lay up treasures, we who have no one to whom we can leave them. Now we are losing the most beautiful of our possessions! Come, then, I beg you! Let us set light to all these iniquitous tax-demands!"
Their bonfire of records ended the first attempt at an orderly tax collection system in Gaul, and it apparently did not strike contemporaries, including Gregory, as odd that Fredegund assumed that taxation was a greater sin than murder. Her "conversion," as it came to be known, was too late to save their youngest son, who was deeply mourned. "From this time onward," wrote Gregory, "King Chilperic was lavish in giving alms to cathedrals and churches and to the poor, too."
Never one to miss an opportunity, Fredegund promptly convinced Chilperic to send Audovera's last boy, Clovis, to a city where the dysentery was still raging. He stayed healthy, however, and joined Fredegund and Chilperic at the country estate where they were spending a month in mourning. There he made the mistake of gloating over what he would do to his enemies when he took the throne and thereby terrified Fredegund, who according to Gregory, was uncharacteristically vulnerable and deeply depressed over the loss of her own sons. Such vulnerability might have enticed her to listen to the sycophant who reported that Clovis, while sleeping with the daughter of one of her serving women, had persuaded that servant to kill Fredegund's young princes with black magic. Fredegund had the mother and daughter tortured and persuaded Chilperic to have Clovis arrested. He died in custody, and Chilperic accepted the story that he had somehow stabbed himself. In the sequel, Fredegund finally had Audovera tortured to death and the informer burned at the stake.
Fredegund bore another son, Theuderic, but similar events followed upon his death in infancy. Informers told her that he had been killed by witchcraft and that her old enemy, Mummolus the Prefect, was behind it. As a result, she had a large number of Parisian bourgeois wives tortured until they admitted that they were witches who had associated with Mummolus. They were then beheaded, burned alive, or tortured to death. Mummolus underwent a particularly varied torture. Again demonstrating that wealth was not an end in itself, according to Gregory, Fredegund burned everything associated with little Theuderic: "All his clothes, some of them silk and others of fur. Any object in gold or silver was melted down in a furnace, so that nothing whatsoever remained intact to remind her of how she had mourned for her boy."
Nor did Fredegund miss the destroyed wealth. When her daughter Rigunth was sent on an abortive expedition to marry into the Visigothic dynasty, Fredegund added to the dowry Chilperic provided "a vast weight of gold and silver and many fine clothes."
Assassination of Chilperic
Certainly Fredegund participated with Chilperic in all he did. In his obsequious poetry addressed to Chilperic, Venantius Fortunatus described Fredegund as an important aide and support to Chilperic, ascribing the prosperity of the royal house to her. There were those who suggested, however, that Fredegund was engaged in other activities about which Chilperic knew nothing. Count Leudast spread the rumor that Fredegund was having an affair with Bertram, the bishop of Bordeaux. Fredegund ordered that Count Leudast be beaten on the throat with a block of wood. The Liber Historiae Francorum —which was even more hostile to Fredegund than was Gregory—claimed that she had Chilperic assassinated in 584, because he had caught on to her affair with his mayor of the palace, Landeric. The chronicler Fredegar, on the other hand, believed that Brunhild was behind the assassination. Just months before the murder, Fredegund had born Chilperic a son, Chlothar. Chilperic ordered him hidden away in the countryside, apparently out of the belief that enemies had killed their other children. Fredegund may have been pregnant again at the time of the assassination, but nothing is heard of that child later.
Whether she had planned the assassination or had been surprised by it, Fredegund's immediate situation was extremely dangerous. Seeking sanctuary in the cathedral at Paris, along with her personal treasury and her infant son, she sent a message to Chilperic's brother King Guntram, placing her and her son, Chlothar, under his protection. He and her nephew-in-law King Childebert-son of her old enemies Sigibert and Brunhild—both converged on Paris. Luckily for Fredegund, Guntram got there first. Childebert's emissaries brought a simple message to Guntram: "Hand over the murderess, the woman who garrotted my aunt, the woman who killed first my father, and then my uncle, and who put my two cousins to the sword." Guntram's eventual reply demonstrated the importance of sons of royal blood to a woman without powerful family to protect her: "She has a king as her son, and she therefore cannot be surrendered."
While Fredegund was still hiding in the cathedral, she began accusing various people of theft and worse, prompting Gregory to claim: "Fredegund had no fear of God, in whose house she had sought sanctuary, and she was the prime mover in many outrages." Eventually Guntram sent her off to a manor near Rouen, where Chilperic's chieftains deposited her in the care of Bishop Melanius and set up a government under the infant Chlothar. Fredegund could hardly bear this quiet life of retirement in the countryside, since, wrote Gregory, "She was very depressed because much of her power had come to an end, and yet she considered herself a better woman than Brunhild." She persuaded her household cleric to an assassination attempt on Brunhild. When he was caught and sent back to her, she had his hands and feet cut off. For her next project she sent two clerics, armed with swords specially grooved to hold poison, after both Brunhild and Brunhild's son King Childebert. Caught along with another of her agents, they were tortured, mutilated, and killed.
Attending church in Rouen, Fredegund had a hostile encounter with an old enemy, Bishop Praetextatus, whose words Gregory reports: "In exile and out of exile I have always been a bishop. But when you give up your role as Queen you will be plunged into the abyss. It would be better for you to abandon your stupid malicious behavior."
As one would expect, "The Queen bore his words ill. She was extremely angry." So angry, in fact, that she had him stabbed while he said Easter Mass. After he had been carried still living to his bed, she called upon him under the pretext of offering her own doctors. Giving her one last lecture, Praetextatus died without further assistance. When a local leader came to call, expressing his opinion that she had gone too far, Fredegund offered him a hospitable drink that killed him within an hour. She attempted to assassinate Leudovald, bishop of Bayeux, for trying to bring her to justice, and sent agents to try to kill King Guntram, when he too took a strong stand against the assassination of bishops during mass.
Meanwhile, having never made it to Spain with her large dowry, Fredegund's daughter Rigunth was stranded in Toulouse where her own situation was now perilous. Though Fredegund was finally able to rescue her daughter, they were unable to live together happily. Gregory claimed that "she would often insult her mother to her face, and they often exchanged slaps and punches." Worst of all, Rigunth repeatedly reminded her mother of her servile origins by pointing out her own royal blood. Inviting Rigunth to lean over into the treasure chest and pick out whatever she liked, Fredegund tried to break her neck with the lid. Servants pulled her off just in time to keep Rigunth from being strangled. Clearly, there was little possibility that mother and daughter could live on their manor placidly after that, and Gregory described the aftermath: "There were never-ending outbursts of temper and even fisticuffs. The main cause was Rigunth's habit of sleeping with all and sundry."
Some of Fredegund's projects in Rouen prospered, while others did not. A team of 12 more assassins sent after King Childebert were caught, and some killed themselves in prison rather than face the torture and mutilation inflicted on the others. When a blood feud between two large families in Tournai became a hazard to public safety, Fredegund warned them to stop. When they would not, she invited them to a dinner of reconciliation. As all were seated at the table, the three survivors of the original quarrel were simultaneously beheaded by axemen. The problem, quite simply, was solved.
Fredegund Became Regent
Most important, she convinced Guntram to bring her son to Paris for baptism (which was then routinely delayed long past infancy) and to allow her to participate in the ceremony. From there it was a short step to replace the men around Chlothar and become regent herself, although she accepted an arrangement which left Guntram as Chlothar's godfather and protector.
Naturally, she did not remain in the background during her regency. In 593, the childless Guntram died, leaving his kingdom to King Childebert and touching off war between the two surviving royal families. The Liber Historiae Francorum claims that Fredegund took to the field herself after Landeric fell in battle. Fredegar associated her with the 12-year-old Chlothar in describing Neustria's victories in 596: "Fredegundis and her son King Chlotar took possession of Paris and other cities after the barbarian fashion." Though Childebert's early death that same year left Brunhild vulnerable, Fredegund's own death the following year deprived her of enjoying the victory for which she had planned. She died unaware that the now aged, but heretofore astute, Brunhild would make the fatal error that would leave Fredegund's son, Chlothar II, the ruler of a reunited Francia.
In 612, Brunhild's grandson died, and she refused to partition the two kingdoms among his four sons or even to separate Burgundy from Austrasia again. Powerful dukes who wanted more recognition of their regional authority defected and in one campaign Chlothar reunited all of Francia, celebrating his victory by having the elderly Brunhild tied to horses and dragged to death in memory of his mother.
Nonetheless, Fredegund could not have been an altogether terrible mother, because Fredegar described her son as "strong-minded and well-read, a god-fearing man, kindly disposed to all and full of piety." While it is true that Chlothar had been sent away from his mother for much of the first decade of his life, it is tempting to see Fredegund's influence in his later respect for women. Fredegar, in fact, regarded this as his main failing, commenting that he "took too much notice of the views of women young and old." Although Chlothar never witnessed Chilperic's intense and long-term devotion to Fredegund, Fredegar did think that Chlothar's love for his second wife was eccentric in its intensity. Still, Nelson insisted: "Fredegund's is probably the best-documented case of a king's passion giving his consort long-term political ascendance."
Fredegund used her ascendance not only to accumulate wealth and power but also to contribute to some of the processes which were to transform Europe: the rise of the mayors of the palace, steps taken toward the creation of an exchequer, and the union (if only temporary this time) of Francia.
Further Reading on Fredegund
Fredegar. The Fourth Book of the Chronicle of Fredegar. Translated by J. M. Wallace-Hadrill. Nelson, 1960.
Gregory of Tours. History of the Franks. Translated by Lewis Thorpe. Penguin, 1974.
James, Edward. The Franks. Basil Blackwell, 1988.
Liber Historiae Francorum. Translated by Bernard Bachrach. Coronado Press, 1964.
Nelson, Janet L. "Queens as Jezebels: The Careers of Brunhild and Bathhild in Merovingian History," in Medieval Women. Edited by Derek Baker. Basil Blackwell, 1978.
Wemple, Suzanne Fonay. Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister 500 to 900. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.