Damien F. Mackey
“Gregory calls him “the Nero and Herod of our time,” and loads him with abuse. He ridicules his poems, and according to his own story overwhelms him with an avalanche of contempt …”.
King Chilperic I lived (according to the conventional view) from c. 539 – 584 AD, and was said to have been a Merovingian king of Soissons.
Gregory of Tours (considered to have been the king’s contemporary), called Chilperic the Nero and the Herod of his age.
And according to the following site, King Chilperic was an early ‘gangster’:
Chilperic: The Original Gangsta’
Chilperic, the “Nero and Herod of our time” as quoted by Gregory of Tours, was the king of Soissons from 561 until his assassination in 584, an event Gregory seems to cherish, as it ended the reign of “this wicked man”. Gregory’s description of him is very unfavourable throughout the book. From the onset, Chilperic is described as a greedy man who inherited his late father’s treasury, and bribed all the prominent Franks to his side. (IV. 21) He also lusted after women, as he asked for the hand of Galswinth, the sister of his brother’s wife, even though he had a number of wives. He told his messengers to inform the people that he had gotten rid of the other wives, in order for him to marry someone with his own ranking, and with a large dowry. He went back and forth between Galswinth and his other trophy wife Fredegund, before ultimately choosing Galswinth. Ultimately, Galswinth died and within a couple of days, he was asking Fredegund to sleep with him again, and there was strong suspicion he killed Galswinth. (IV 27-8) He charged outrageous taxes for people under his control, and felt no contempt for the poor, rather burdened them with more debt, and banned them from the churches. (VI.46)
Chilperic was also described by Gregory of Tours as being a man of uncontrollable rage and violence. He burned much of the districts around Tours, and marched on Rheims burning and destroying almost everything in his path. (IV. 47) When his brother Sigibert was killed, Sigila, who was associated with Sigibert’s death was captured by King Chilperic was burned by red hot pincers, and had his limbs torn limb by limb. (IV. 51) Obviously not trying to win a father of the year award, Chilperic had his son Clovis stabbed to death, had his wife Fredegund brutally murdered, and had his daughter thrown into a monastery. (V.1 ) And the woman who testified against Clovis was burnt alive. People who attempted to desert his city would be cut down and slaughtered by the thousands, and he even poked out people’s eyes for disobedience. In an exceedingly cruel act, Leudast, a man who had fallen on the King’s bad side, and was not allowed to take residence in the city, had his scalp chopped off. Still alive, Chilperic ordered that he receive medical attention until he healed, and then would be tortured to death, done by having a block of wood wedged behind his back while being bludgeoned to death by being repeatedly hit in the throat by another block of wood. (V1.32)
Chilperic was also described as an intolerant man, as he forbade his son Merovich from seeing Sigibert’s widowed wife, whom the King had banished to the city of Rouen and stole her treasure. When they refused to come out of church, Chilperic lied to them in order for them to come out, and took his son home with him, refusing the two to coalesce. When he still chose to defile his fathers wishes, Chilperic had his son held in exile in a narrow, roofless tower for two years. After these two years, Merovich was forced to become a priest and sent to live in a monastery. Merovich decided to take his life rather than allow his father to constantly dominate his life, so he had his friend Gailen kill him. In retaliation, Gailen was taken by Chilperic and had his hands, feet, ears and nose cut off, and was tortured to death. Anyone who was associated with Merovich were also tortured to death. (V1-18)
One aspect of judgement that Gregory of Tours holds against Chilperic is in regards to religion. Chilperic attacked and destroyed churches along the way, and made a mockery of the Lord. He even argued Gregory’s religious views by stating to him that there should be no distinctions of Persons in the Holy Trinity. For him, they should all be referred to as God, as if he was a Person, and the Holy Ghost, Father, and Son were one. Gregory of Tours viciously debated his assertion, stating that anyone who agreed with Chilperic would be a fool. Chilperic even begged to the Bishop of Albi to believe his views. (V.44) Gregory of Tours dislike of Chilperic also stems from the fact that the King accused him of levelling wild accusations about his wife. Gregory shows that his judgements of Chilperic are due to the fact that he has been a victim of the Kings outrage. (V.49) Chilperic eventually turned towards Gregory and asked for a blessing to be performed on him. This newfound religious aspect, moved Chilperic to convert a great number of Jews to be baptized, and even carried out a number of baptisms. However, many “converted” Jews resorted to their old faith. He even gave to the churches, and the poor in an effort to show good grace. (V.34)
Overall, by bestowing the unfortunate name of “Nero and Herod” of our time, Gregory of Tours is claiming that King Chilperic was an evil, demonic tyrant, who lusted for power, and reviled in torturing others. His standard of judgement is being a victim himself of Chilperic’s outrage, and having witnessed grave atrocities. Personally, I see a direct link between Chilperic and a later tyrant, and the first tsar of Russia, Ivan Grozny. Ivan IV was a man similar in many ways, in that he had numerous wives, some whom strangely disappeared, but lusted after one in specific, Anastasia Romanov. More than that, he was a man who disliked the woman whom his son was dating, beat her until she had a miscarriage, and murdered his own son “accidentally”. He even set up the “oprichnina” and had thousands of fleeing citizens to Novgorod cut down and massacred. He was fascinated by torture, and seeing others in grave pain. Much like Chilperic, he would remove people’s eyes, much like he did with the two architects who made a beautiful church monument that outshone all others, and Ivan even found religion later on in life. Aside from my ramblings about similarities, overall I think Chilperic was a brutal man, who committed many acts of greed, gluttony and death, in order to elevate his status, and force obedience from other people. Too call him Nero is a very harsh comparison, but by looking at many of his acts, including the murder of Leudast, it may be deserved, as he was a man not afraid to torture, maim, and kill for his own personal enjoyment. Overall, Gregory is correct in looking down upon Chilperic, as he was a bad man.
Finally, Ernest Brehaut (1916) has designated king Chilperic I “the forerunner of the secular state in France”:
Gregory calls him “the Nero and Herod of our time,” and loads him with abuse. He ridicules his poems, and according to his own story overwhelms him with an avalanche of contempt when he ventures to state some new opinions on the Trinity. The significant thing about Chilperic was this, that he had at this time the independence of mind to make such a criticism, as well as the hard temper necessary to fight the bishops successfully. “In his reign,” Gregory tells us, “very few of the clergy reached the office of bishop.” Chilperic used often to say: “Behold our treasury has remained poor, our wealth has been transferred to the churches; there is no king but the bishops; my office has perished and passed over to the bishops of the cities.” [note: see p. 166 (Book VI: 46)] Chilperic was thus the forerunner of the secular state in France. ….
His bad wife, Fredegund
“Gregory credited himself with this last role – admittedly more a paradigm than biography – so that he could demonstrate what Marc Reydellet has observed: ‘Gregory of Tours covers himself in the robe of the prophet in order to cast anathema on the diabolical couple Chilperic and Fredegund, the new Ahab and Jezebel’.”
It is amazing how many kings of the (supposedly) AD era have been described as Ahab-like, or as Nero-like, or as Herod-like, whilst any number of queens, especially those named Isabelle, have been likened to Jezebel or Herodias – so much so that I was prompted to ask:
Isabelle (is a belle) inevitably a Jezebel?
Now, the wife of king Chilperic I, whilst not actually named Isabelle, but Fredegund, has been described in Martin Heinzelmann’ book, Gregory of Tours: History and Society in the Sixth Century (p. 43), as one of a “diabolical” pair with her husband, Chilperic, and also as “the new … Jezebel”.
According to the following, she was: http://www.rejectedprincesses.com/princesses/fredegund
(mid 500s – 597)
…. Here is the most cartoonishly evil woman I have ever come across: Fredegund. This woman was a 6th-century Merovingian queen consort with a penchant for killing people. Her notable life went roughly as follows:
- She works her way into the palace of Chilperic I as a serving woman for the queen, Audovera.
- Chilperic I, although married to Audovera, takes Fredegund as a concubine.
- Fredegund convinces him to divorce Audovera and send her to a nunnery.
- Fredegund then quietly kills Audovera.
- Chilperic then marries another woman, Galswintha.
- Galswintha turns up strangled in her own bed.
- Chilperic marries Fredegund a couple days later, presumably getting the hint.
- Fredegund kills Chilperic’s brother Sigebert (the two brothers had been fighting). She also tries to kill Sigebert’s son.
- Chilperic turns up mysteriously dead.
- Immediately thereafter, Fredegund takes all his money, skips town, and starts living in Notre Dame Cathedral (sanctuary, indeed!) under the protection of Chilperic’s brother, Guntram.
- Three years later she tries to assassinate Guntram.
- Ten years later, Fredegund dies (how, I do not know).
If Fredegund had a foil, it was Galswintha’s sister (and Sigebert’s widow), Brunhild. For forty years, the two of them fought — resulting in endless warfare and, you can be sure, at least one assassination attempt. In the end, Brunhild outlived Fredegund, but even from beyond the grave, Fredegund had the last word.
Mackey’s comment: Brunhild has, too, for her part, been described as a ‘Jezebel”:
Queen Brunhild the ‘second Jezebel’
The article continues:
Sixteen years after Fredegund’s death, with Brunhild now a sixty-something woman, Fredegund’s son killed her in as brutal a manner as I’ve ever heard. First, torture on the rack. Next, each of her extremities was tied to a different horse, and they were all set to run in different directions, tearing her apart. Lastly, they burnt her body.
But none of these are the craziest thing Fredegund ever did.
“Hey Rigunth, go pick out some jewelry from that treasure chest.”
So what is the craziest thing she ever did? Well, you see, she had a daughter, Rigunth. Rigunth, as princesses do, was looking forward to one day being queen herself. One day, exasperated by her daughter’s “I want to be queen nowww” whining, Fredegund told her to go look inside Chilperic’s treasure chest and pick out some jewelry for herself.
When Rigunth poked her head in the treasure chest, Fredegund slammed it shut on her neck. Had servants not stopped her, she would have killed her own daughter.
“Vengeance” is also well to the fore in the following lively account of queen Fredegund:
…. The Frankish Queen Fredegund is a rare exception to this rule – and, oddly enough, it’s not because historians portray her in a positive light. No, with this chick it’s because she truly was an utterly-bloodthirsty vengeance machine who rested at nothing short of the completely over-the-top torture deaths of all who stood in her path, obliterating dumbasses across the continent of Europe until every single human being – from King to Bishop to Peasant – who stupidly wound up on her bad side immediately found themselves face-down in a pool of their own blood surrounded by knife-wielding assassins, poisonous beverages, and/or well-sharpened instruments of painful torture and horrible mutilation.
She is one of history’s most violent and bloodthirsty queens, and her entire life was centered around the one primary tenet of unquestionable badassitude – Live for Revenge.
We don’t know much about where one of the world’s most epic vengeance-mongers actually came from. We’re pretty sure Fredegund (also known as Fredegond, Fredegunda, or simply Freddie) was Frankish, meaning that she was simultaneously French, German, and Belgian without actually being any of those things, and that when she was in her late teens she was sold as a slave to the wife of King Chilperic of Souissons – a guy who at the time sort-of ruled a piece of the Frankish Kingdom (when Chilperic’s dad died, he’d divided his empire up among his sons rather than putting one kid in charge of the entire kingdom…
Well Fredegund wasn’t all that particularly interested in being a servant-girl to the Queen, so instead … she seduced King Chilperic, hooked up with him, then convinced him to divorce the Queen and send that annoying primadonna off to live a life of celibacy in a convent somewhere. Unfortunately for Freddie, once the king was divorced he decided to marry some annoying Visigoth Princess instead, so once again Fredegund worked her magic and had that bitch strangled to death in her sleep. After all the competition was dead or nunnified, Chilperic decided it was in the best interest of self-preservation to marry Fredegund, a woman who had now somehow awesomely gone from slave-girl to Queen of the Franks in the span of like a year and a half.
Well, naturally being the Queen was great and everything, but now Fredegund had a new problem to worry about – the hardcore sister of the recently-strangulated Visigoth Queen just so happened to be a … warrior-babe named Brunhilde, and Brunhilde was not a very happy girl. Brunhilde also just so happened to be a Queen in her own right, married to Chilperic’s brother Siegebert, a guy who was in charge of another part of the recently-divided Frankish Kingdom (still with me here?), and before long the two factions were in the process of stabbing each other in the face repeatedly and without mercy in an all-out war that stretched from Paris to Berlin.
Frankish troops like Fredegund would have routinely led into battle.
Long story short, Chilperic/Fredegund fought an epic seven-year war with Siegebert/Brunhilde, with either side sending their mailed knights charging spears-first into combat …. After a hard-fought campaign, Fredegund defeated her rivals, crushed them in battle, then had King Siegebert whacked by stabbing him in the kidneys by a pair of assassins while he was in the process of giving a speech about how he was going to get revenge … [on] Fredegund once and for all (I’m not sure if she planned the timing to work out like that, but it’s badass either way). With the rival King dead, Fredegund overran the rest of Siegebert’s men, captured Brunhilde, destroyed her cities, and then had Siegebert’s top government official (who was admittedly a greedy evil bastard known as “The Breaker of Wills”) executed by being systematically dismembered joint-by-joint with white-hot pokers and knives ….
Fredegund also planned to have Brunhilde whacked as well, but while she was trying to figure out some sort of awesome new cruel and unusual punishment to carry out some … [one] … broke Brunhilde out of prison and snuck her out of the realm. …. Fredegund eventually tracked that guy down and had him stabbed to death by his own servants, then had his kid poisoned to death by an evil chef just for good measure.
With Brunhilde sort-of out of the way, Fredegund continued her mad rampage to consolidate power for her, her husband, and their now-newborn son. First she went after the sons of Chilperic’s first wife (you know, the poor girl Fredegund had already exiled to a monastery), killing them by infecting them with dysentery until they died of their own explosive diarrhea. Then she went after some alleged conspirators and other people that talked trash about her, having them executed on torture racks and then throwing their broken bodies to wolves or lions. After that she attacked the clergy, most of whom weren’t all that cool with things like torture-related deaths and were stupid enough to say something like that out loud – first she whacked a dude named Mummolus the Perfect (who, let’s face it, couldn’t have been all that bad), then she publicly yelled at a Catholic Saint (and then silently watched the guy get stabbed and slowly bleed to death in his own cathedral), and, as if that’s not enough, she then tried to ice the Bishop of Bayeux for investigating the murder and sticking his stupid face where it didn’t belong (snitches get stitches).
…. Fredegund’s primary method of disposing of her enemies was by hiring easily-bribeable men to poison or shiv her enemies for her. Thanks to her own personal charm, a collection of dirty secrets that would make Nick Fury want to high-five her, and a nearly-limitless amount of gold at her disposal, the Queen of the Franks routinely hired everyone from Dukes and Priests to slaves and brigands to take up oleander-coated daggers and shank douchebags in her name. Her personal favorite method of execution was to hire a band of thugs armed with heavily-poisoned Swedish eating utensils known as scramsaxes (it even sounds like an IKEA thing) to fall upon her target in the woods … rob them, and leave them to die slow, agonizingly-painful deaths. Then, when the brigands would return to report the kill, Fredegund would have those …. whacked as well, regardless of whether they completed their mission or not (though it’s worth mentioning she’d just behead them with axes at dinner parties if they succeeded, whereas if they failed it was much worse… one poor cleric who failed to execute Brunhilde was punished by having his hands and feet cut off and then being thrown in a hole).
Eventually Fredegund’s enemies got a little fed up with all this nonsense and had her husband Chilperic assassinated (some people thing this was Fredegund’s doing as well, but this seems unlikely). With her husband dead and her son still too young to rule, Fredegund fled Soissons to Paris, moved into the cathedral of Notre Dame, and took on the role of Queen Regent, where she controlled the day-to-day operations of the realm. Now officially in charge of the Kingdom, she ruled with an iron fist, forging alliances, sending armies into the field, and utterly crushing anyone who she considered a threat to either herself or her son.
For the most part, things were pretty successful – she ruled solo for a decade, captured several cities near Paris, allied with the powerful Kingdom of Burgundy, won the throne for her son, and beat … Theodebert who was acting up and causing all sorts of trouble – all of which are notable achievements for anybody, let alone a woman ruling undisputed in the … Middle Ages. She did have a little trouble with her daughter though… Fredegund unwisely tried to marry that poor girl off to the Visigoths, but instead of accepting her into their tribe they just robbed her of her dowry and sent her back to Paris empty-handed. The girl lived at home for a while, and, as can tend to happen with teenaged daughters and their mothers, they didn’t really get along. The highlight of this feud was one time when the daughter came out and said she should be the Queen Regent and Fredegund should retire – Fredegund, who was in the treasure room picking out jewels at the time, asked the daughter to grab something for her out of a particularly-huge treasure chest. When the daughter reached in, Fredegund closed the chest on her head and choked her … until she got her act together. As if you needed more … about this woman, this story was so popular during the Middle Ages that Fredegund is sometimes cited as a possible inspiration for the Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella.
Fredegund eventually sorted [things] out with her kid, handed the reins off once her son was old enough to take over as King, and then died peacefully in her bed in Paris in 597 AD. She’d ruled for 40 years, killed everyone who opposed her, and lived for revenge in a way most action movie heroes could only dream about. The only person who’d successfully eluded her wrath was that annoying do-gooder Brunhilde, but Fredegund’s son eventually settled that … once and for all as well – he captured the 60 year-old queen, put her on the rack for three days, then had her drawn and quartered by horses. His mom would have been proud. ….