Fredegund was born a slave, but her shrewd mind and political ruthlessness made her indispensable to Chilperic, the king of Neustria. Once he had disposed of his first and second wives, he married Fredegund for life. She was extremely capable of producing sons, but not so blessed with keeping them alive.
Brunhild was an educated Visigothic princess from Spain who traveled to Francia to become the wife of King Sigibert of Austrasia. As a royal daughter, she knew how kingdoms were run, and immediately began to make allies among the dukes and bishops. She also provided the son and heir, as well as a couple of daughters. As a matter of fact, life was pretty pleasant until Fredegund had her sister, Galswintha, assassinated so that she could become queen of Neustria in her place.
This was the heyday of the Merovingian Dynasty in what is modern-day France, spilling over into most of western Europe. King Clovis conquered the land from the Romans, and his son Clothar divided the kingdom among his four sons: Charibert, Sigibert, Chilperic, and Guntram. He also had an illegitimate son named Gundovald. The more familiar practice of having the eldest inherit everything may seem unfair, but dividing up property in this way kept royal brothers at one another’s throats their whole lives. Women inherited nothing, and inconvenient females were killed off or packed off to a convent. Queens were no exception.
Author Shelley Puhak delves deeply into original sources to unearth the influence that these two queens had over a large portion of Europe in the latter decades of the sixth century. Both of the women were trusted advisors to their husbands, but when they outlived the kings, they continued as regents for their very young sons for many years. They waged war, forged alliances, and wielded power brilliantly and often ruthlessly. Fredegund rode out with the troops and was feared as an expert assassin. She has been called the inspiration behind the Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister. Brunhild built roads and abbeys, wrote copious letters, and enlarged her kingdom. She was friends with both Bishop Gregory of Tours and Pope Gregory. Both men respected her, although Gregory of Tours, in particular, generally despised women. Brunhild is the inspiration for Brunhilda of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and the Valkyrie of mythology draw from the legends of these two fearless rulers.
Puhak became aware that the record of the women of this era had been deliberately erased, since the men who wrote the history deplored the idea of women having power. Although she had written essays and poetry in the past, she dug into the surviving manuscripts and the scholarly research to assemble this revealing portrait of the Merovingian era. Sprinkled with paintings and artifacts throughout, the narrative is followed by an almost 20-page bibliography, fifty pages of notes, and an index. In the front, Puhak placed a map of the western world in the sixth century, as well as a much-needed Dramatis Personae. I consulted this list frequently, since there was more than one Clothar and two Gregorys, not to mention a Charibert, Chilperic, and a Childebert. This Childebert thought it would be fun to name his children Theudebert, Theuderic, and Theudelia.
This volume of history is eye-opening not only for the lives that are brought to our attention, but also for exposing the systematic cover-up that kept this knowledge from us for centuries. Let us hope that continued scholarship will bring us even more fascinating stories of influential women from our past.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.