Saturday, September 1, 2018

Queen Fredegund

Didn't I tell you no back talk?
Dark Ages Europe was no place for shrinking violets. Every five minutes or so Europe experienced a barbarian invasion, peasant revolt, plague outbreak, religious war, an ambitious uncle making a power play, or some zealot declaring himself the local ruler and ordering that partisans of the previous administration be hanged, drawn, and quartered at the new Disneyland opening. With a few exceptions nice rulers finished last. Whether in fiction or reality, it's hard for a king or queen to be good.

But even by 6th Century standards, the Frankish Queen Fredegund stood out as a take no prisoners take no s*** kind of woman who never hesitated to lay hands on people who did her wrong, who might be thinking about doing her wrong, who were related to people who did her wrong, or who just happened to cross her path when she was in a vindictive mood, which by general accounts, was most of the time. Fredegund was quite possibly the earliest archetype for the abusive stepmother/wicked Queen found in Western European folktales later collated by the Grimm Brothers.

Fredegund began her rise to power as a lady-in-waiting for a Frankish Queen. You know the thing that Kings like to do with their Queen's ladies-in-waiting? Fredegund was apparently very skilled at that, soon becoming the number one concubine. Fredegund convinced King Chilperic to divorce his wife and put her in a convent. 

The King assented to Fredegund's wish, but married someone else. Fredegund bided her time. Not even a year had passed before the King's new wife, Galswintha, was found strangled to death. Possibly realizing that it wasn't particularly healthy to upset Fredegund, King Chilperic finally married her. Galswintha's relatives weren't thrilled with this turn of events. They wanted to kill Fredegund and King Chilperic several times over. Galswintha's sister, Brunnhilde, was the wife of King Chilperic's brother, King Sigebert. So a family feud started. But Fredegund wasn't the one to mess with. It was apparently Fredegund, not her husband who most vigorously prosecuted the war. She may have led armies in the field. Fredegund planned and ordered the successful assassination of her brother-in-law, King Sigebert, ending the war. 

The irony was that Fredegund murdered Sigebert at the exact point when it looked like Sigebert had won the war. Sigebert was giving a victory speech when two assassins delivered Fredegund's rebuttal. Starting to feel herself a bit, Fredegund opened up the pain. Fredegund kept her button men out on the streets searching for Brunnhilde. In her spare time Fredegund also murdered or attempted to murder any children with a claim, however tenuous, to the throne. Fredegund intended to ensure that only her children could inherit. She was successful.

I'm here to make sure you die.
Fredegund's marriage to Chilperic lasted sixteen years. When one Count made the mistake of spreading rumors that Fredegund was adulterous and some of her children might not be the King's, Fredegund had the noble beaten on the throat with a 2 x 4. The talkative Count didn't have too much to say after that. 

During a time when plague and dysentery were running rampant, fearing that one of her young sons might be sick, Fredegund threw him out of the palace, leaving him to die. The King countermanded this order, perhaps only the second time he was known to have opposed his wife. It may or may not be coincidence that a few years after this confrontation with his wife, King Chilperic was stabbed to death by an unknown assailant while returning home from a hunting trip. Somehow masking her grief, Queen Fredegund became Queen Regent and continued to persecute, torture, exile or assassinate anyone who had the audacity to open their eyes at her. If you were one of Fredegund's hit men with a murder contract from the Queen, failure on your part meant torture or death. But because Fredegund didn't like loose ends, if you completed your assignment she still might kill you. 

If you were a man she liked in that way, then "yes" was the only acceptable answer if Fredegund invited you to her bedchambers. Saying no wasn't healthy. In fact saying no on anything to Queen Fredegund was taking your life into your hands. Fredegund did not shy away from attacking clergy.

Fredegund had no patience for church naysayers or rivals. When a persistent critic, the Bishop Praetextatus, returned from exile and wouldn't stop running his mouth about Fredegund's perfidies, Fredegund had him stabbed in public during Easter Mass. She then visited him on his deathbed, not to confess or beg forgiveness, but to make sure he died. Now if that's not gangster I don't know what is. When the local town leader rebuked her for murdering a bishop Fredegund agreed and sat down to drink with the man. Fredegund was happy when she left because the drink she had given her critic was poisoned. The man died that same day. Fredegund attempted to murder other bishops or Kings who mumbled anything disapproving about killing bishops during Mass. Fredegund was not a woman who took criticism well.

I had to break a few heads
Fredegund felt entitled to break laws anytime she wanted to do so but didn't tolerate such behavior in subordinates. When two feuding Frankish families wouldn't keep the peace and ignored Fredegund's entreaties to calm, Fredegund invited both families to a royal reconciliation dinner. As everyone sat down to eat, Fredegund had her axemen simultaneously behead the recalcitrant leaders of both sides. Feud ended.

Fredegund's most notorious act wasn't a murder, though it certainly wasn't for lack of trying on her part. Fredegund's daughter Riganth, motivated by moral reasons or likely more selfish ones, told people, including Fredegund, that Fredegund should "retire" in favor of, surprise, Riganth. Fredegund decided to demonstrate her softer side to Riganth. 

Fredegund invited Riganth to the palace treasure halls to see the family wealth. Opening a treasure chest, Fredegund invited her daughter to reach in and take out whatever she liked. As soon as Riganth did so, Fredegund slammed the lid down on her daughter's neck and started pushing. Queen Fredegund would have killed her daughter had not some frightened servants pulled Fredegund away. Apparently, nothing shows pushy relatives who is in charge like crushing their heads.

Fredegund died peacefully of natural causes. She was buried in a church, ironic considering the number of priests and bishops she had persecuted or murdered. Her son Clothar II became King. Showing that he was indeed his mother's son, Clothar later ended the feud against his aunt Brunnhilde. He captured Brunnhilde and tortured her for days before having her drawn and quartered. Presumably Dear Old Mum would have been proud.
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