Vulgar History Podcast
Brunhild of Austrasia (with Shelley Puhak)
November 29, 2023
Hello and welcome to Vulgar History, a feminist women’s history comedy podcast. My name is Ann Foster, and this is like, if you remember, if you grew up in the ‘90s, this is a very special episode of Vulgar History.
So, in 2021 I asked on Instagram for suggestions of people, lesser-known women from history to talk about on Vulgar History, which, just so you know, I’m always open to suggestions and recommendations, and a person from Ireland, whose name was Egg, whose name maybe still is Egg, sent me a message saying, “FREDEGUND,” as I recall and I was like, “Well, who is that?” I looked up Fredegund’s Wikipedia page and I was so captivated by it. There’s still a Highlight if you go to @VulgarHistoryPod on Instagram, I have a Highlight of all my frantic, frenetic stories from when I first just read the Wikipedia page for Fredegund, I was like, “This story is everything.” And then I read an article about Fredegund, the article was written by Shelley Puhak, and at the bottom it said, “Shelley Puhak and it said Shelley Puhak is working on a book about Fredegund,” and I was like “[gasps] There’s going to be a book about Fredegund!”
It’s a book about Fredegund and Brunhild, who was another queen at the time. The book is called The Dark Queens. I got an early, advanced copy of it. If you go to the Fredegund Highlight in my Instagram stories, you’ll see me frantically posting screen captures from that eBook because I was compulsively interested in it. I did three episodes about Fredegund, three hours’ worth because I could not spare any detail, and then later I invited Shelley on the podcast to talk about her book and she was like, “Why do you like Fredegund so much more than Brunhild?” And I was like, I don’t know. Partially because that was the name that was suggested to me and so that was the person I was researching. So, everyone around her was like, well that’s Fredegund’s husband, that’s Fredegund’s son, that’s Fredegund’s enemy, that’s Brunhild. But anyway, Shelley is much more even-keeled about these things.
In the subsequent years from 2021 until now, you know, people have told me how much Fredegund means to them, it’s a lot of people’s favourite episodes. I just heard recently that somebody’s car is called Fredegund, other people have avatars in video games called Fredegund. It’s a whole thing. Fredegund is just everything I want in a story. She’s maybe my favourite person I’ve ever read about in history, full stop. I just can’t get enough of Fredegund. She’s just a messy bitch who lives for drama and murder and is everything. But I’ve also, since those episodes– Lots of people read Shelley’s book, which is called The Dark Queens, you should read it, there’s a paperback out now, there’s an audiobook, it was a national best-seller, a finalist for the Goodreads Choice Awards, partially because I strongly encouraged the tits-out brigade to vote for it last year. Anyway, it’s a great book. People have said, “You know, I read the book,” and they’re almost apologetic, “and I think I prefer Brunhild.” And that’s fine, that’s fine. You can like Fredegund best, you can like Brunhild best. You can like both of them. It’s not an option to like neither because if that’s you, then this is not the right podcast for you.
So, I have been meaning for ages to give Brunhild her due, to do an episode from Brunhild’s point of view, which, she did live several decades longer than Fredegund. So, we’re getting into talking about the story of Brunhild gets into, you know, decades later than Fredegund. You know Fredegund, she lived fast, she died young. Brunhild, her story is a really different vibe and they… This is what comes across in Shelley’s book. Both of the women were there and often they’re pitted against each other, especially in, like, 19th-century operas and things like that. Like, it’s exciting, I guess, to some people to be like, “Oh, these two women, they were like rivals against each other,” like how people like to put Mary, Queen of Scots against Elizabeth or whatever. Where it’s like, they were there and they were enemies at times and they were not at other times, but they really represented countries and the countries were at war, it wasn’t a personal vendetta between the two of them.
Anyway, Fredegund is always going to be my girl but Brunhild, I re-read The Dark Queens, just to refresh my memory but also to look at it from Brunhild’s point of view. On reading it and talking to Shelley, I’ve really come to appreciate Brunhild more. Fredegund is always going to be my forever number one, but Brunhild is up there, she’s a legend compared to so many other people we’ve ever talked about on this podcast and Shelley, she’s kind of Team Brunhild, I’m not objective, I had to bring her on. Anyway, enjoy the next two hours [laughs] of me and Shelley Puhak talking about the amazing, the iconic, Brunhild of Austrasia.
Ann: So, I’m joined today in a repeat appearance by Shelley Puhak. Welcome, Shelley.
Shelley: Thank you so much for having me back!
Ann: So, I was looking to see, I can’t believe it was so long ago that the Fredegund episodes came out it was like, 2021. But that was just before your book came out, right? Is that when it came out?
Shelley: It was, yeah!
Ann: It seems so long ago.
Shelley: It was like eons ago.
Ann: Yeah! I don’t know, it still seems so fresh to me. I was just rereading your book to get ready for this episode and I was just as in… Actually no, I did get as into it, but I started reading and I’m like, “Oh my god, these names!” I needed to adjust my brain to remember just the place names and the people names and everything. How have the last two years been for you? With your book, what’s your experience been like with your book coming out in the world and people responding to it?
Shelley: It has been better than expected. I’ve been really pleased with the response. I’ve gotten to meet a lot of really enthusiastic readers from all walks of life, so I love that about this story where I get everyone from, you know, really erudite history professors to teenagers. I just did a reading and book signing a little while ago, I think it was two weekends ago, but it was at a Renaissance festival. I had to appear, they requested period wear so let me tell you, it’s tough, still, to find proper Merovingian dresses. But it was really great, and I had everyone there from, I guess kind of your typical Ren Fest, Ren Fair folks to, like, I had a lot of grandparents who were into looking at the book for their daughters or, you know, maybe their sons, that would be great. So, it’s been marvelous. It’s been out in paperback, and it even cracked national bestseller.
Ann: That’s so exciting! Was it last year, that it was one of the finalists for the Goodreads Readers’ Choice as well?
Shelley: It was, yeah.
Ann: I did what I could to get the Fredegund gang to all vote for you. You got to the final round.
Shelley: Yeah. That was amazing and you guys are very committed Fredegund has a really committed fanbase, it’s pretty daunting.
Ann: Well, that’s part of why you’re here. Brunhild deserves as much love and admiration as Fredegund. [laughs] A couple of weeks ago, I forget, I was just asking on my Instagram Stories because it was some anniversary for the podcast, and I asked people, what’s something that you’ve enjoyed in the podcast? I didn’t even ask, what was your favourite episode or your favourite person, but I was like, what’s something you’ve learned and so many people were like, “Fredegund.”
Shelley: That’s amazing.
Ann: Yeah, yeah. So, it made me glad, that made me glad when I was rereading your book and remembering how she was so forgotten after she died, that there’s this resurgence in people who love her, including me. But we’re here to talk about Brunhild because your book is The Dark Queens, it’s about two people. [both laugh] Brunhild deserves to be discussed. But actually, that’s funny too because I just heard, every now and then, people tell me, “Oh, I read the book,” and almost apologetically they’re like, “And I think I prefer Brunhild.” Like, that’s okay!
Shelley: I love the apologetic nature of it.
Ann: Yeah, Brunhild is great. So, I was rereading your book for this conversation, focusing on her. Fredegund has got this sort of, she charges into the story with poison daggers and everything and that just captures one’s attention. Brunhild, I was thinking about this… We’re going to talk through her story but, like, she’s from a royal family, she didn’t have to work and strive like Fredegund did to get into a position of power. So, I think part of where I sided with Fredegund a little bit is just that underdog quality.
Shelley: Absolutely. And she reminds me so much of the Hercules Mulligan quote from Hamilton, “You knock me down, I get the fuck back up again.” That’s just Fredegund.
Ann: Yeah. But Brunhild, impressive, she had different challenges stacked up against her. It was never a question of is she allowed to be in this echelon of monarchy but once she was there, that’s what we’re going to talk about. You know what? If people haven’t read your book yet or haven’t listened to my three hours of Fredegund podcasts, can you remind everybody of the place and time that this is? Because it’s still such an under-discussed part of history.
Shelley: Absolutely. So, we are in 6th century Francia which is, it sounds like obviously, it’s going to lead into modern-day France, which it does, but it also encompasses all of the low countries – Luxembourg, the Netherlands – large parts of Germany, Switzerland. So, we’re talking about a huge bulk of continental Europe at this point in time. And we have Brunhild who is coming from what we now call Spain, it was run by the Visigoths and she’s marrying into this Merovingian royal family, the Franks, who are commanding this huge empire on the continent that adjoins, you know, Visigoth Spain.
Ann: Can you explain… Because again, actually, it was interesting to read your book after a couple of years and be like, this all seems like so many of the crises occurred because of this unusual way of dividing up who is in charge of what. Instead of, the eldest son inherits everything, can you explain how it was divided? Which just seems like the worst plan.
Shelley: It seems like, who came up with this? So, the Franks don’t practice primogeniture, which means that the oldest son, as you mentioned, doesn’t just automatically inherit everything. So, they just split it up between whatever male heirs there might be, and those could be legitimate or illegitimate. So, as long as you are a son of a king you have a stake in the kingdom. Men are dying left and right, between the dysentery and the wars, et cetera, et cetera, but kings are having quite a lot of kids in these days so most of them end up with a whole clutch of sons that are then left after the death of their father to duke it out and the last one standing gets the whole kit and caboodle.
Ann: It’s just… It happens… We’re going to go through Brunhild’s life start to finish, but just so many times in that era it’s like, okay the lands are all divided up and then one of those guys dies and then there’s this scramble, who is going to take it over? Is it going to be this? And then at one point, it’s all children overseeing everything. It’s just a bad plan. [laughs]
Shelley: You know, I think about how we pride ourselves, most democratic governments now, on having this peaceful transfer of power and you know, when we don’t have a peaceful transfer of power, we’re all just shocked, as we should be. But you think about this, there was never a peaceful transfer of power. If there was, that was remarkable and they were like, “This was so peaceful we don’t even know what to do.” But most of the time, the minute the king died, even if you were a regular poor farmer, you had to batten down the hatches and hunker down and hide because it was the purge. Everything was… All hell was breaking loose. It’s one thing if it happens once in your lifetime but if that is happening four or five times in your lifetime and you’re just a regular person trying to grow crops and feed your family, that’s incredibly disruptive.
Ann: Yeah. That’s true. I was thinking about, yeah, ordinary people because everything, like mostly what’s in your book is the actual scheming that’s going on, it struck me again rereading it, even a person who appears for one page or half of one page, everyone is just poisoning each other, murdering each other. That’s the only way to survive. So, Fredegund and Brunhild both did a lot of poisoning and murdering but it’s kind of like, well if they didn’t, then they would have been poisoned or murdered, that’s just what everyone was doing.
Shelley: It’s remarkable. And you know, the crazy thing is that there are things that had to be cut out of the book, there’s more poisoning and murdering but there was just too much to all squeeze in there. [laughs]
Ann: I started going through it, I was reading an eBook copy just on my phone and I started taking screen captures of everything that was interesting and then it started being every other page because I’m like, “Oh my god, this person did this, and then this person…” It’s just unrelenting. I think it speaks to the power of Brunhild that she and Fredegund capture the attention as much as they do, even when surrounded by so many other major personalities.
So, she’s born in basically modern-day Spain and then she’s married– Oh my gosh, again, I read your book as a book, I’ve not listened to the audiobook so my pronunciations, I have no idea. So, she’s marrying King… How do you say it?
Shelley: I say it Sigebert. But here’s the thing, for you and for all listeners, even in their lifetimes, there are varying pronunciations of the same names. So, if you’re in the ballpark, it’s okay. I don’t know how to say all of their names if that makes you feel better. There’s no official pronunciation.
Ann: Okay, so she marries King Sigebert of Austrasia. The other day I saw something about Australia, and I was so much in the world of your book, I read it as “Austrasia.” [laughs] I just have some notes in front of me, honestly, it’s sort of the Wikipedia entry to remind me point to point what happens but it says, “Upon their marriage, she converted to Catholicism.” So, Christianity is still fairly new.
Shelley: It is and there are these different sects so there’s an Arian sect and there is what will become Catholicism, they don’t call it that. But what’s really fascinating is that the Arian version, and this actually will crop up later for people who are really into the Reformation or the 15th or 16th century, I did not know this, but it does pop up. But Arianism is much more chill with other religions in the fact that it’s like Jesus is a prophet, but Mohammed can also be a prophet. So, they are open to coexisting with other religions and they have much more of a global tolerant view. They have this one envoy who is reported to have said something, and I’m paraphrasing it poorly but to the effect of, “If you don’t believe as we do, that’s okay. We can coexist.“ And what will become the Catholics are like, “If you don’t believe as we do, we’re going to have to kill you.” So, it’s two interesting worldviews but I think it also kind of foreshadows a lot of the struggle and the outlook that Brunhild has, that she’s raised with this slightly more tolerant view of religion, not quite so rabid.
Ann: Can you explain, I don’t know if you know… So, it’s interesting, it’s called Arian but that’s different from how we hear “Aryan” now as like, Nazis.
Shelley: Yeah, it sounds super scary. So, it’s A-R-I-A-N, no Y in there. It was named after a bishop who championed it, that’s all I know. So, there was this bishop, and it became Arianism after Bishop Arian.
Ann: And it’s very much the opposite of Nazism in that it’s…
Shelley: Opposite of Nazism.
Ann: … tolerant and open-minded.
Shelley: And this idea that perhaps like… So as we know, Spain is going to be conquered and you know, become Muslim in parts, pretty soon, but that’s one of the reasons why it was able to happen is because Arianism and Islam, it wasn’t like, “Oh, these are enemies,” but they’re like, “Okay, so you have a different prophet and you want to use this different name. Okay.” That might have made it a little more palatable to some of the people there.
Ann: So, she married King Sigebert and this was taken– So, his brothers had not married a royal person, which Brunhild was a royal person. So, this is taken by the brothers as like… Because the brothers, each of them has their own kingdom and they’re always looking for a reason to fight each other, is my impression. So, they’re like, “He married Brunhild?” And then that made the other brothers be like, “He’s saying he’s better than us because he married a royal.”
Shelley: Absolutely. And he has this whole alliance now Visigoth Spain. If you can visualize this, Sigebert is in what would be the northeast quadrant and we know where Spain is which would be the southwest, so he basically has now an alliance where he’s on either side of his brothers. So, they were right to be nervous and he certainly has aspirations but he’s like, “I’ve got friends now blocking you on this side, we’ve got water on some of the other sides and I’m over here.”
Ann: And then one of the brothers… is this probably one of the reasons why, gosh, some of these names, I’m just like, I had it in my head when I was reading the book. Is it Chilperic? Yeah, Chilperic is the one, so he was like, “Okay, well I’m going to marry Brunhild’s sister then. I’m going to also ally with these people.”
Shelley: Yes. So, he’s like, “I’m going to counterbalance this, I want a royal princess, you have a royal princess. So, if I marry her sister then that kind of knocks out any advantage you have.”
Ann: And that sister is, my gosh, Goiswintha?
Shelley: Yeah, it’s really confusing because their mom’s name is Goiswintha, and she’s a whole character, if we have a minute, I’d love to talk about her. And then she has two daughters, only two daughters, no sons, Brunhild and Galswintha.
Ann: Galswintha. That’s the other thing that gets me is when someone has a child, and the name of the child is so close to their own name but not quite their own name.
Shelley: Yes. And they did this thing where they had two-part names, and they would take one part from the mom’s name and one part from the dad’s name. So, Goiswintha is like, “My daughter, I’ll put a ‘wintha’ at the end of it and then I’ll get the other part from my husband.” So, they would keep mashing these two parts of the names together but then you end up with a lot of really similar-sounding, really long complicated names. I really want to just, if they didn’t all start with Cs I’d be like, can we just give them initials? But no.
Ann: Yeah. I was just so delighted in your book when someone pops up and his name is Maurice. I was like, “I know how to pronounce that! Gregory, great.”
Shelley: Yeah, and there’s also great names that are like Gogo and Bozo which I’m like, thank you. Thank you for making things easy.
Ann: Yeah, much less letters than usual. Okay, so we’ve got her Brunhild’s husband, Sigebert, and then his brother, Chilperic married Brunhild’s sister. And then that goes badly because of various reasons but… [chuckles] Fredegund. There’s something in the marriage agreement for Chilperc that says, “You’re going to marry Galswintha and you will not fuck around with your servants,” which is not usually in marriage contracts.
Shelley: No, it’s not. So, it had raised enough eyebrows and one can assume that Brunhild, having married into the family first, maybe gave her family back home a head’s up that there was this rumour or we know that he has this special relationship with this servant girl and that they made sure to put in there that he would not have any mistresses, particularly any servant mistresses, that Galswintha would be his one, true, loyal Christian wife. And the other thing that’s interesting is Chilperic, because he was a lesser brother than Sigebert, in order to score Brunhild’s sister, had to promise like… Essentially, Sigebert marries Brunhild, it’s kind of a match of equals and he certainly gives her some cities, which is like your morning gift, you got a Morgenabe which was like, did the deed, after the wedding, you get a city, or you get a nice mansion. But he gives to Galswintha a third of his kingdom, that’s the only way he can make this match. So, he says, I’ll give her essentially a third of my kingdom, and it’s land that adjoins what will become Spain. So, the Spanish king is like, “Okay, you’re going to give me a third of your kingdom that is going to go to any of my grandchildren that you might have with my daughter. Sounds good.”
Ann: Okay, so what happens is that Galswintha is found mysteriously strangled and the next day, Chilperic marries Fredegund, and they were married for a very short time.
Shelley: They were married for a very short time and yes, it was exactly three days after her, you know, murder, he marries. So, essentially people made jokes like, maybe they were able to use the food from the funeral for the wedding feast. [laughs] But that is shockingly fast, shockingly fast.
Ann: And so, from Brunhild’s point of view, or from honestly, anyone’s point of view, he made this deal to marry Galswintha, giving her all this land and then seemingly, I mean, we don’t know what happened but clearly, he had Galswintha murdered so he could marry Fredegund. Seems pretty obvious. Like, what the hell? Why would he throw that all away? That’s crazy.
Shelley: It’s absolutely crazy. Imagine being Brunhild if we can, empathize with her a little bit, where you do have this great background but you’re in this land where you don’t speak the native language, you can obviously communicate in like, Latin. You’ve been married for a very short period of time and your sister has been married and you’re looking forward to this great alliance where your sister is going to be in the neighbouring kingdom, everything is set, and then she’s murdered, you don’t know what people around you are saying, and you know, that had to be incredibly scary. You don’t know if you’re next. At this point, you don’t know conclusively who killed your sister. Where are they? Are they coming for you? And why? At the same time, what makes things even more crazy for Brunhild, and also is probably why Chilperic was able to act, is that Brunhild and Galswintha’s father has died.
Ann: Oh yeah! Yeah.
Shelley: It shows that the kingdom is in shambles right now and they’re not going to be able to launch a war for a little bit so he’s like, “I’ve got a couple of months because they don’t know what’s going on.” So, it’s definitely, like, this is not an act of passion, it seems like something that was plotted very carefully because the timing lines up. But if you’re Brunhild too, normally dad would be the one that’s going to send in the army to defend his daughters and you don’t know who is going to be in charge. Is it going to be your dad’s faction and you can rely on these people to come in and back you up? Or is somebody else going to come out on top? So essentially, you’re in a strange land where you don’t really know the political landscape and you know, somebody is gunning for you. It had to be very terrifying.
Ann: And she was very young. We don’t know how young but I’m guessing 18 or something.
Shelley: Yeah. We assume that, by all the available evidence and counting back that she’s 18. She could have been 19, she could have been 17 but she’s right around there.
Ann: Yeah, so extremely young, she hasn’t had children yet, I don’t think, because she’s only just barely gotten married herself.
Shelley: She was pregnant when this happened.
Ann: So, she’s pregnant, away from home, her dad dies, her sister is murdered. Right away, it’s not hard to sympathize with this scary situation she finds herself in. War is inevitable, I think, by him obviously murdering Galswintha. And so, this is where their two kingdoms, Chilperic and Sigebert go against each other, yes?
Shelley: Yes. And you know, essentially Brunhild most likely would like some vengeance but there’s also this third of Chilperic’s kingdom that’s in the balance because Brunhild is like, “You murdered my sister but those were her lands. I’m the heir now.”
Ann: Oh yeah, yeah.
Shelley: Sigebert’s like, “Yeah, you can’t just negate that land deal.” So, it’s clearly, we could say it’s for these moral reasons but at the heart of everything the Franks do, it’s always land. These people are obsessed with land. Part of it is like a third of the rival kingdom, they’re not just going to let it sit there.
Ann: Yeah, and I think this is where, and you talk about this in your book, but some previous writings about this, or I would imagine some of the old operas and things, say Fredegund was complicit probably in the murder of Brunhild’s sister and ever since then the two women just hated each other. Where it’s like, there’s more to it. I’m sure that was distressing obviously, but they’re both smart political actors in this, they’re not just crazy women having feelings.
Shelley: Absolutely. We could also think about how Sigebert and his court had been waiting to launch an attack on one of his brothers and this was the perfect opening. You can imagine what any country would do with this today. Like, “What? You killed the First Lady’s sister? Okay. We’ve wanted to invade you, we’re going.”
Ann: It’s the perfect reason. So, there’s another brother we haven’t mentioned which is Guntram. I always picture, I don’t know how much older he is, but he just seems old and kind of conservative and like, kind of… The other two are just messy and Guntram just seems more like a father figure, sort of.
Shelley: He is so pedantic. And later on, he cracks me up because he has these things where any time anything goes wrong or a war doesn’t go his way, it’s never his fault. It’s not like he’s not a great general but he’ll say things like, “If the youth had more religion in their lives, these things wouldn’t happen.” So, he’s very like, almost like even when he’s 30 he has the mentality of kind of like, you know, “Get off my lawn.”
Ann: Yeah, which is funny. It’s funny to hear somebody like that in the year 500. When you hear people like this now being like, “If teenagers didn’t spend as much time on TikTok…” it’s exactly that.
Shelley: It’s exactly that. It’s literally like, “If they would stop gallivanting around and go to church more, all our problems would be solved.”
Ann: So, you’ve got, I don’t know, that’s part of it, it feels like the classic setup of three brothers but just like in a fairy tale or something there’s this boring older guy, the youngest one is very ambitious, and there’s the middle one. But then, in this, Fredegund and Brunhild make a name for themselves in the midst of all this chaos. So, what does Brunhild, what is her role at this point? When they’re at war, Guntram comes in, the boring older brother, to mediate, and he gives her the land? Is that what happens?
Shelley: Essentially, he joins forces with Sigebert and is like, “Chilperic, you went too far, you can’t be doing this.” And the two brothers, you know, are essentially united and they’re encircling Chilperic’s land, and it looks like he’s going to lose, they’re going to take him down and the deal between the two of them is that, “We’re going to split whatever he has between the two of us.”
Ann: So, in general, I don’t… When I’m reading history books and I get to the descriptions of battles and things, I’m just like, “I’m going to skip several pages until other things…” [Shelley laughs] But these battles are more interesting to me because everyone is just figuring it out as they go along. It’s not just like a Napoleonic thing where it’s like, “I’m going to use this classic technique,” or whatever. And also, the weather is crazy. So, these wild wars happen between them, the brothers, which ends with Sigebert coming out on top. He gets Paris, I think?
Shelley: Yeah, and they’ve essentially kicked… Chilperic is on the run with Fredegund, and they’ve had to retreat to Tournai, which is in modern-day Belgium on the water, it’s a port city, I know that, should check that. So, he’s had to flea and kind of make a run for it and make a last stand in essentially a bunker in this remote city. So, they are like, if you consider like, how complete is this war? How mission accomplished are we? We’re at like, 95% at this point.
Ann: So, you’re mentioning a bunker and I’m like, is this where Fredegund gets the boys with the knives?
Shelley: Yes. So, at this point, Sigebert and Brunhild have marched into Paris and Paris, I should say, for the Merovingian brothers is like the city that everybody is supposed to split equally but they’re like, okay, “Me and Guntram, we’ve conquered it, we’re moving in,” and expecting to be crowned king of all of the Franks, that’s the plan. He’s won such a decisive victory and his brother is on the run. And yes, Fredegund is giving birth in this bunker in Tournai, and this is when, yes, the poison knives come in, if you’d like to remind everybody about those.
Ann: It’s one of my favourite Fredegund moments. It’s when she’s just given birth and I think her husband Chilperic is like, “Oh my god, what are we doing? We’re not doing well.” And she’s just like, “Pull yourself together.” She’s just given birth in a bunker in the middle of a war and then she gets these two servant boys and convinces them to go on literally a suicide mission because she has read these old books, presumably, and figured out how to get poison on knives, which is a new thing. If you have poison on your knife, you don’t have to be as exacting when you stab.
Shelley: Yeah. Just get it in somewhere.
Ann: So, she’s just like, immediately postpartum gets these two boys to agree to kill themselves and they go, and they assassinate Sigebert with these poison knives and suddenly, the tides turn for Chilperic and Fredegund.
Shelley: Yes, completely. I mean, this is essentially a victory camp. These guys are coming in, these boys, ostensibly to pay homage where people are just pouring in to say, “This is our new king,” and to crown Sigebert king of everything. And that’s how they’re able to get close to them and again, they don’t need to be successful they just need to get close enough. They’re taken out, it is a suicide mission, but they do their job, and Sigebert falls. Brunhild is waiting in Paris, at this point there are kids because this war has gone on a while. She’s waiting in Paris with her young kids expecting any day for the news to come that Chilperic has been finished off, everything is good, they’re king of everything. Instead, when the messengers come it’s completely, completely opposite. So now, not only has she lost her father, her sister, now she’s lost her husband, and she’s the mother of these young children and she’s in Paris and she knows that the opposing army is going to be coming and closing in any moment now, and she’s got to figure out what to do because clearly, you know, she’s next.
Ann: And also, her boys. They would want to get rid of these heirs who would be a threat to take over.
Shelley: At this point, she’s got two daughters and one son. It’s kind of amazing, I think, this is where I’m like, her ability to sort of scheme both of them but under pressure, this is immense pressure. Fredegund has just had this crazy postpartum borderline psychosis and managed to pull off this assassination and Brunhild has just had this shock and it’s been one thing after another, and she’s got to figure out how to keep her kids safe. What she does is she’s able to smuggle the boy out of Paris. We don’t know how accurate this is, but one version talks about how she lowers him in a basket out into the river, over into the river Seine, where he’s picked up by a rowboat and taken to safety. And then she sends her daughters in other directions and gets them over the border. And she stays put with all of her wealth and they’re saying this is almost like something from the animal world where it’s this technique to essentially draw the predator toward you while your offspring have this chance to get away.
Ann: And part of the thing about her wealth was there with her, she kind of had to stay. If it was going to be… right? She sort of stayed there to lure them in but also because how is she going to transport that? It would be stolen.
Shelley: Right. So, there is that. That’s the problem, they don’t have cars or caches. It’s large amounts of you know, heavy gold and booty and treasure and giant plates and chalices so you need to either… We do have instances where we have widows who are able to find people with a lot of horses and presumably a lot of trunks and pack up in the dead of night and go fast but that was not going to happen. She might have been able to pull it off, but she had the kids to worry about too.
Ann: And that’s the thing. So, what Fredegund did, they’re both in shitty, awful situations. Fredegund is flashier and that’s where I’m like, “Oooh,” having a baby, convincing these boys to do the stabbing. That’s the thing, Fredegund is flashier, but Brunhild is no less impressive, what she pulled off, getting these kids free, staying there must have been terrifying. And then what she would have probably anticipated would happen is that she would be either killed or sent to a nunnery which is like, where all the queens nobody knew what to do with were sent, which becomes a thing because it turns out they’re all in the same nunnery. [both laugh] But that’s what happens. Is this the point where she is sent off to the nunnery?
Shelley: She is sent off to the nunnery. I’m laughing because I’m thinking of this, did the guys not put it together? If we keep sending them all to the same spot, they might talk.
Ann: And they do. But this is where someone comes into the story. So, Merovech, how do you pronounce that?
Shelley: I say Merovek [phonetic] but again, we can be very fluid with the pronunciation.
Ann: So, this is, can you explain who he is?
Shelley: Sure. So, Chilperic had a first wife that he got rid of for Fredegund, although he probably didn’t marry Fredegund, and then sets Fredegund aside to marry Brunhild’s sister. But this first wife, her name is Audovera, if we want to confuse things with names more, but she has had sons. That’s the other puzzling thing, why Chilperic would do this, here’s this woman, she’s given him sons, everything is good and he’s just, no. But he has sent her to the same convent that Brunhild will end up with and she happens to have a son of marriageable age, he’s slightly younger than Brunhild but Brunhild is still young, so a couple of years younger. The two women get to talking. One solution is “Well, you could marry my son, technically your nephew by marriage, and you could have this secret marriage and you could launch a rebellion against Chilperic because now we have another son who might want this throne.” So, I think that’s also like, so you’ve gotten the kids out, then you’re captive, and then you’re going to plot a secret marriage, and then you’re going to plot a rebellion, you know, as one does.
Ann: This is where, like, what we were just saying, the fact that you’re sending all these discarded queens who are all really smart and really bent on revenge [Shelley laughs] to the same place it’s like, this is how, I don’t know, in Batman or something it’s like, why would you send all the villains to the same prison? Of course, they’re going to come up with a plan together.
So, they come up with this plan that they’re going to marry Brunhild, who is now a widow, to Merovech which happens secretly by this visit. This was something else when I was rereading this story, I was like, why do I recognize Praetextatus? This is a name… And I’m like, oh, that’s the guy who Fredegund later will murder in church.
Shelley: That’s why there’s a bit of a grudge there.
Ann: So, Praetextatus, part of the reason why he’s doing this is because Brunhild, I think with her money she’s paying lots of people, nobles, to support her because she has all this money.
Shelley: Yes, she has that money that she’s left behind and she’s handed it off to the bishop to, you know, take care of in her stead and he’s organizing things on her behalf. And the idea is that they’re going to launch this huge rebellion and Merovech, one of his… You know, Chilperic is using him as a general, so I should mention that he’s like a son that’s in good, he’s one of Fredegund’s stepsons, she doesn’t really like stepsons, but at this point, most of the fathers, if you have a son and he gets to a certain age you put him in charge of an army. So, Merovech has got his own army, he’s been helping his father fight what was Sigebert’s army, but now they’re saying, “Well, how about you go rogue, and you fight against your father?” And he’s like, okay. Part of that might also be, well, Fredegund is in the picture, she has sons that she’s going to want to put on the throne so this might be my one chance to kind of get her out of the way, otherwise, I’m always going to be this second-rate stepson/general. So, he has something at stake as well. And then they’re discovered!
So, it’s crazy. This rebellion is discovered, and they manage to play it off. They convince Chilperic, I don’t know how, that this is a love match, that this has nothing to do with rebellion but they’re just so smitten, Merovech was so smitten by her he just couldn’t help himself, and they just had to get married. He’s like, “Okay, I’m a little skeptical of this, I’m going to separate you guys. I’ll separate you because I don’t want you to be married.” But he’s buying the story. And then there are so many events I don’t want to necessarily drag everyone down into the nitty gritty but at some point, Chilperic realizes, this is a whole plan. Even though you’re separated, this is a whole thing where this marriage is really the pretext for you guys to take me out. And when he realizes that, things don’t end well for Merovech but they end up, Brunhild manages, yet again, to turn this to her advantage.
Ann: This is wild. Okay, can you walk us through, or walk me through, because I was like, did I miss a paragraph? Because Brunhild was sent to this nunnery, she did this scheme, she married Merovech, and then it ends with her going back to Austrasia and she’s, like, the regent now.
Shelley: Yeah, it’s like essentially… Chilperic separates them, and I don’t even know what he’s thinking at this point, and he gives her a choice. He’s like, “You can stand by Merovech, or you can go home.” Because at this point, she’s enough of a figure, he can’t kill both sisters and Spain has gotten its act together. He’s like, “You can go home, and you can choose your children. I’ll reunite you with your children and you can go home.” And she says “Okay.” And he’s so relieved that she’ll leave that she’s like, “Can I have all of my wealth too? Can I have that too?” And he says, “Are you leaving?” She says yes and he says, “Okay, yeah. She can have all of her wealth. Just go.” He’s just so happy to be rid of her.
Ann: It’s just like, I would have expected him to be like, “I’m going to keep you in this nunnery.” [chuckles]
Shelley: Maybe there’s a little overconfidence there, right? He’s just won, he’s the king of everything, what’s this woman going to do?
Ann: True, yeah.
Shelley: She’s got these young kids. So, he sends her back, she’s reunited with her kids, she has all this money and even though she says she’s going to leave Merovech, she doesn’t desert him, she’s spending all this time sending raiding parties to try to rescue him. At some point he’s hiding, even in Autrasia, he manages to escape, she helps him escape from his father, she keeps him hidden with an ally of hers, she’s bankrolling his subsequent attempts to rebel, and you know, get rid of his father. At one point, things do end badly with Merovech, exit stage left Merovech. But at this point, Brunhild has somehow managed to not only, like, wiggle her way back in but she’s like “Okay, now I’m regent for my young son so I’ll just rule here,” and the Austrasian nobles are like, okay.
Ann: She must have been, looking at the sequence of events, so smart but also making herself seem nonthreatening to get these men to agree to give her all these things, right?
Shelley: Yes, absolutely. And you know the other thing that, one thing we’re going to see throughout Brunhild’s career, I think is just something she has a talent for, she’s incredibly loyal and from the minute she arrives in Sigebert’s court as a new bride, she builds this circle around her of these young, ambitious but also, they’re real intellectuals, they’re kind of like poets and thinkers but also some generals. And whatever was the nature of that relationship, she must have had this incredible force of personality, but these men are loyal to her to the end of her life and she’s very loyal to them.
So, the people who she has in her corner believe that she will go kind of to the ends of the Earth in their defence and they behave similarly toward her. So throughout this, she would not have been able to pull this off if she hadn’t been so good at making alliances when she first landed in this strange kingdom because through all this sort of, all these twists and turns and crazy, you know, machinations, she has these men behind the scenes that she’s able to send money to or say, “Fund this here. Fund this there. Help me get across the border. Help hide Merovech here.” So, it’s really a testament I think, and we’ll see this later particularly with women, to her ability to build relationships and to kind of pull everybody in and look out for everybody. They become this core group that really lasts for like, 40, 50 years, it’s pretty amazing.
Ann: That’s so impressive to me, especially in the context of… Earlier this year I did a deep dive into Mary, Queen of Scots and one of the things when she got to Scotland, she never had that; no one ever was there. Similarly, she came from far away and then it’s like, here’s this court, but not having that support, that was a core reason why she didn’t succeed as Queen of Scots. Brunhild had that. So, on the one hand, there were people there who she could count on and that speaks well of them, but it also speaks well of Brunhild and her ability. Mary, Queen of Scots couldn’t read the room when she first got there, she didn’t know how the courtly stuff was playing out, but Brunhild clearly could kind of see what the factions were, who was a young, ambitious, smart person who it would make sense to ally with.
Shelley: And her mother was a famed diplomat. Hopefully, we’ll circle back to her, but I think that Brunhild had the advantage of learning on her mother’s knee, of seeing her kind of pull together, her father became king as a consensus candidate and her mother was behind the scenes whipping up the votes, so to speak. So, she learned and saw firsthand how the sausage gets made politically and had that advantage going in to know, this is how you wheel and deal in the back room and how you can forge these relationships that are going to be really helpful, that I don’t think a lot of queens… You know?
Ann: Yeah, absolutely. Again, I’m just looking at these notes which are from Wikipedia, but it says, “Not being a fighter, she was primarily an administrative reformer.” So, in terms of politics, Fredegund I always think about as just leading armies and scheming and manipulating and that’s what she needed to do where she was. But Brunhild came in with this political savvy and know-how and that is, I think, one of the big differences between the two of them.
Shelley: Yes. And also, you have to keep in mind, Brunhild for example, there’s this time when one of these allies who helped her out with Merovech and helped her become regent, he has luckily one of the easier names, Duke Wolf. I was like, oh, thank god.
Ann: Whenever I saw that, can I tell you, I don’t know if you know, at the end of Law & Order it’s always like, “Executive Producer, Dick Wolf” and so whenever I read in your book, I’m like, “Executive Producer, Dick Wolf.”
Shelley: [laughs] Well, executive producer, Duke Wolf but he’s pretty amazing but there’s this one point where he’s being ambushed by this rival noble faction and, you know, he’s outnumbered and Brunhild arms herself. The sources are very specific and clear about this, and puts, you know, with the full-on, as a man, they say and with the sword and everything and goes out and stands in between the two armies, so puts her actual physical body on the line. If you imagine what that’s like, particularly when these men are on horseback and they’re onto the teeth and they have throwing axes and, you know, there’s got to be some psychopaths in the bunch because this is what they do for a living is just murder. But she goes out on the field and stands in front of and defends her allies so we also see that that sends a message to every other ally where they see, “Duke Wolf did this for her, but she will go to the mat for him.” So, that risk she took, not only helped defend her allies but I think also sent a message that “When we have an alliance, I’m good for it. I’m not going to turn my back on you.”
Ann: That just sort of, the medieval PR of that, you know, just that instinctive knowledge that by doing this, it’s going to reverberate; people are going to say that I did this, they’ll see me doing this, and that will send a message, “This is how loyal I am, this is why it’s a good, if I’m on your side, you have to stick with me.” That was the part, this was a while ago but one of the podcast listeners was reading your book and then their daughter wanted to hear it as a bedtime story, and I think that was the part that they read. [chuckles]
Shelley: Yeah, that’s the most child-friendly part of this story.
Ann: Just hearing about this brave woman going out and implementing peace really, by just standing there, yeah.
But anyway, back to the murders. So, what happened next? Oh my gosh, so the thing with– So, she convinced Guntram… So, Guntram didn’t have children?
Shelley: No. And you know what, he had had them… This was part of the reason he was such a stick in the mud. When he was younger, he had this series of wives and mistresses who all fight, and one poisoned the others kids and his kids died. I think he got religion and was like, “Wow, I better shape up because that went badly so I’m swearing off women and wine and I’m just going to go to church and lecture other people.” So, he had children at one point, he has a daughter I should say but, you know, women don’t always count for much and Guntram was old school, he was not seeing his daughter as his heir. So, it’s odd to say they have no children. He has no male children, no surviving male children and he, you know, Brunhild manages to get him to agree that he will make her son his heir so when he dies, her son will inherit both kingdoms, two out of three.
Ann: Which is amazing. We hear later on how Fredegund kind of manipulates Guntram by being like, “Oh no, I’m just a poor woman. Won’t some man help me?” and then she gets what she wants. So, I have to imagine Brunhild, to get Guntram to do what she wants, she’d have to play up, “Oh if only a man would adopt my son as his heir,” to convince him.
Shelley: Yes. “You were so good to his brother, and it would mean so much to my dead husband. Whatever shall I do?” Absolutely.
Ann: But this is a major– In this longstanding, now years-long battle between these brothers and these kingdoms, this is major for Brunhild to have her son, the one who escaped in the basket out the window down the river or whatever, named as the heir to two kingdoms is massive.
Shelley: Huge. Absolutely.
Ann: And kind of an act of war, one might say.
Shelley: Yes. Certainly, one could say that. It would be perceived that way.
Ann: Yeah. So, she’s doing, this is like the stealthy… Fredegund, I don’t know, it’s just like flashy assassinations and Brunhild is just so clever and so smart but low-key but just as devastating in her own way. So, then her daughter, Ingunda, was married to a Visigothic prince which connects her kingdom with her homeland.
Shelley: Yes. So, here’s where I think Brunhild’s mother comes in and Brunhild’s ability, we talked about her forming these loyal networks, but her networks with other women are what I think really set her apart as a monarch. Why this is really fascinating, is if we talk about her mother Goiswintha for a moment.
Ann: Please. You’ve been wanting to this whole time.
Shelley: I have. I’m like, let me just keep bringing it back to Goiswintha. So yes, I’m going to do a little arm-twisting here. But what’s fabulous about Goiswintha is that she has been her husband the king’s number one advisor. She has two daughters, and the daughters are raised to be the heirs, there are no male children and they’re like, “We’re going to train them up to be the heirs.” And then there’s a point where her husband has died and she marries the next king, his successor. What’s amazing about this is that she’s menopausal, she’s not having any more kids. He doesn’t marry her to have heirs and in fact, he has sons already from a previous marriage from a woman who has died. So, what he’s marrying her for is her political acumen, to bring the kingdoms together. She has stepsons and she’s able to turn one of the stepsons against his father and she’s like, we’re going to split what is Spain in half and have our own kingdom and I’m going to marry my granddaughter (Brunhild’s daughter) to him.
So, there are like three generations of women; we’ve got Brunhild, Brunhild’s mother and Brunhild’s daughter who are all working together and their plan is that they’re going to have this portion of Spain and then the lands that Chilperic had given to Galswintha and then she died and now Brunhild is claimed as her own, those are going to be the lands and they’re envisioning this, basically forming their own kingdom, these three women. I think that is just, we think of just… I mean, that’s beyond cheeky, that’s kind of revolutionary, right? These women who are ready to not just work behind the scenes or step in as regents but are kind of conceiving as having their own kingdoms and they’re going to connect them through the women.
What’s fascinating too is even when that falls apart, Goiswintha is able to get to the next stepson and she’s revolted against her husband, armed revolt against her husband, now this is the second time, she has a second try with the next stepson. Eventually, that one fails as well and she ends up in jail as an old woman or is sent to a convent, and then we hear that it sounds like she committed suicide from the sources, they’re a little unclear. But you imagine, I think that is so telling about who Brunhild is to imagine this woman as her mother that’s married to two kings, leads two rebellions, and then rather than sit around in a convent is like, that’s enough, I’m out.
Ann: This makes me think about, this is skipping ahead but eventually, once Brunhild and Fredegund are both dead, the men who are left behind are like, “No one can ever know women were this powerful ever because then they’ll know that it’s possible.”
Shelley: [laughs] Yeah.
Ann: But Brunhild saw her mother do this, so she knew it was possible. If people don’t see that – and I don’t just mean being a queen in oldy times – but if you don’t see someone doing a thing, you don’t know you can do it.
Shelley: You know what, Brunhild’s daughter, unfortunately, dies in a plague, but had she survived, or we think about how many other, you know, repercussions we have. But even Brunhild we know she forms relationships with her daughter-in-law and her niece. So, she’s constantly– The women, I think what’s so heartening is that they don’t see themselves as isolated actors, they see it as completely possible that they can band together and affect change and that they can rule with one another’s help and that’s what really blew my mind when I was doing the research to see the evidence of that.
There’s this great treaty that will come along a little later, the Treaty of Andelot, where Brunhild is signing it as an equal party to men but a third of that treaty is devoted to women and it’s her saying “In order to sign this, you have to promise me, my daughter-in-law, my niece that we keep our property, you can never put us in a convent, you can’t tell us what to do, and our heirs can’t be told what to do with their property.” So, essentially carving out an independent path, not just for themselves but for the next generation, that they have that foresight. A lot of people are in it for themselves or for the immediate, but they’re definitely thinking long-term.
Ann: This is where, again, your book is called The Dark Queens, it’s about two different people but I think this is a major difference between… Just the more we talk, the more I see how Fredegund and Brunhild are so different as people but Fredegund, you never hear about her siding with women and maybe there weren’t people around or she didn’t have the familial connections because she was enslaved and stuff.
Shelley: I think too, some of it could just be the sources might be a little biased because of what survived and what hasn’t. So, we have to assume that Fredegund is also able to pull off some of what she pulls off, whether that’s catching the king’s eye, you’d have to have female servants help you; you have to have people say, “He’s going to be here at this time,” and she obviously had a lot of male servants who were willing to go on suicide missions for her. There certainly have to be other women and we know a few more minor instances. So, we don’t know just because she’s not titled and in Brunhild’s case, the women that she is kind of colluding with happened to be more illustrious, happen to be princesses or queens or, you know, royal cousins. So, there just happens to be more of a royal record.
But I do think this is pretty unique. And the fact too that when she’s corresponding, she’ll correspond to the female regent of Byzantium, or she’s constantly forming these networks with a former mother-in-law, with Radegund, with multiple generations of women and so it’s not just younger women for example that are reaching out, she really has this, it seems that she has a handle or a concept of what women can do if they work together. We see that in the convent when she works with the former ex-queen.
Ann: [laughs] The First Wives Club, yeah.
Shelley: First Wives Club. But we see it over and over again and I think that was one thing that has really been written out of history and to see that evidence is just really, it’s heartening and also makes me so angry that we’ve been sort of robbed of that idea that there was not just a single powerful woman or a pair of powerful female rivals, but there are these kind of entire groups of women, it also makes you understand how centuries later, people would be so terrified of these cabals of women, of witches, or whatever because there is this precedent for groups of women being able to affect real change.
Ann: I can only imagine when you were researching to start putting this all together and realize this is what was going on because that’s… I’ve covered so many queens and royal women on my podcast and I can’t remember anything like this. The closest I can think of is maybe Catherine de’ Medici, I know she was pen pals with like, people in the Ottoman Empire and things like that and she had her flying squadron of lady spies.
Shelley: [laughs] Awesome.
Ann: Which this kind of reminds me of a bit. It also feels very modern in a way and that’s what’s funny because I think there’s this overall impression that things used to be bad for women and they’ve been getting better steadily ever since, which is false because things have been good and bad and up and down and whatever. But this is the year, whatever, 550 or something and this is happening and she’s… Anyway, this is why your book is so important and I’m glad that you were able to read these ancient manuscripts in, I’m sure, terrible handwriting.
Shelley: [laughs] Some of the scribes had great handwriting but yeah, others, not so much.
Ann: Yeah. That’s why I’m appreciative to you specifically for this but to anyone, the historians who do this stuff so I can read a nice typeset book that summarizes what these ancient documents said.
Okay, so Chilperic dies. Wait, no. Yes! No. Wait. Sorry, the names are confusing to me.
Shelley: Her son. Are you talking about Brunhild’s son Childebert?
Ann: Yes, maybe. Let me think, so Brunhild, there’s this thing, she tries to do this thing by marrying her daughter, doesn’t work. She ruled Austrasia until Childebert came of age but then she kind of kept on ruling.
Shelley: Yes. That was what’s amazing. There’s a royal pair that goes on barges– And her son is married, we should add this. He’s married with kids and she’s… We don’t know how her daughter-in-law feels about her, but she looks out for her daughter-in-law. Her daughter-in-law in fact helps her foil a coup, so there’s obviously, even if they hate each other personally, there’s some loyalty there, they look out for one another. But her daughter-in-law, when there’s the royal pair, it’s mother and son, his wife doesn’t appear, it’s the two of them. One fabulous tidbit I found was that when people were executed or imprisoned for forgery, it was always Brunhild’s signature and seal and not her son’s. So, even when they’re supposedly co-rulers, and they signed everything together, it was both of their names oftentimes, hers was first, it kind of tells you something if the criminals know, “You really need to learn how to forge mom’s signature, not the king’s signature,” where the power lies.
Ann: This is also very Catherine de’ Medici coded because she, three of her adult sons were the king but kind of, she was really in charge. Technically maybe, yeah. So, this is where… Okay so, it seems like in this era, in these kingdoms, things can never just be okay for any long period of time. Eventually, it’s like, things are good, someone is going to be like, “Mm, are they though?”
Shelley: Yeah. You just got the harvest in, and you were going to relax and take a nap. Nope.
Ann: So, this is where some of the dukes conspire to assassinate her son, but the plot was discovered and this is where they went to join Guntram, is that right?
Shelley: Yeah. I mean, I would say that the factions are incredibly complicated in terms of the different factions at court and Brunhild’s, some of her allies end up being forced out into Guntram’s territory in order to keep the peace or to be, keep their heads attached, where she can’t guarantee their safety, things have gotten that hairy. But that dukes revolt in some ways is foiled by her daughter-in-law and that’s a great story, how her daughter-in-law, you think of the loyalty is recovering from a horrific childbirth and it seems as though the baby has died and she’s been unconscious or injured so it seems like there’s been a lot of blood loss or it’s not really clear but people presume that she’s unconscious and she overhears something, they’re not as careful. She drags her bleeding self from the bed, it says that she can’t walk but to her mother-in-law to say “Look, this is going down. There’s this attempt going to be this attempt on your life and my husband’s life,” and she’s able to stop it.
Ann: That’s like Days of Our Lives, you know?
Shelley: Right? There’s no way. Your editor would say, “Come on, this is ridiculous.” That’s why it’s so over the top and kind of ridiculous that I know you’re going over the chronicles you’d have to be like, “This can’t be right,” and kind of, over it and over it because it is like a soap opera, it’s ridiculous.
Ann: I don’t know. It just feels like the next thing that’s going to happen is someone’s long-lost twin comes in and then they switch places. Everyone thinks you’re unconscious but you overhear… Anyway, this is what I mean when I was reading it and I was screen-capturing every page like, “This is a great story, this is a great story.” And what a gift to you as a writer to be able to be the one who writes this down because yeah, you don’t have to make it up. It’s there!
Shelley: It’s there.
Ann: But you’re right. An editor would be like, “Let’s tone this down.” [laughs]
Shelley: there’s a little too much. We should mention too, throughout this time, Fredegund is sending assassins–
Shelley: Constantly. And there’s this one fabulous scene where Brunhild sends them back like they’re a package. Sometimes she cuts off their hands, but she sends them back to Fredegund, I think it’s almost like this, “Nice try, do better next time.”
Ann: This is the era where I just think of the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote where it’s like, trying and trying and trying but Brunhild is just like, “No, it’s not going to happen.” And Fredegund is like, “This is my one move! Sending boys with poison knives. [laughs] I don’t have a Plan B.”
So, then we have the– Or did we already get to this? The Pact of Andelot which secured the succession, we talked about that. Anyway, then Guntram died and Brunhild’s son Childebert succeeds to the kingdom, immediately making war on Fredegund’s son who is overseeing Neustria. So, your book gets into the story itself is like, we’re getting into sons, then we’re into grandsons, then we’re into great-grandsons, and that’s where they start naming people after previous people and my little brain… How did you even write it, honestly? [laughs]
Shelley: It was really hard, and I know there was one part where I talked to my editor and was like, can we just give them nicknames? And he was like, “No.” But you know, I do think if anybody ever does this, fiction or whatever, that would be nice. There’s a point too where all of the grandkids have the same, their names all start with “Theu,” and even the girl. So, it was like, are you kidding me? Can you guys, can we just call them like, T-Bert? But that seemed a little too contemporary. [laughs]
Ann: This is like, on TV, The Spanish Princess, which is based on the Philippa Gregory book, you’ve got Margaret Beaufort, and then you have Margaret Pole, and she’s Maggie and then you have Margaret Tudor and she’s Meg. They had to.
Shelley: Right? But I was like, what is the– Can you make Theudebert, Teddy? That would be lovely. It would have made things so much easier.
Ann: Yeah. And I’m going to say, honestly, whoever wrote this Wikipedia confused some of these names, when I’m trying to read this. So, we’re at war. Fredegund is kind of regent for her son, Brunhild is regent for her son and now their sons are going to war but really, it’s the two women who are kind of in charge of both places. So, war, yet again. Let’s see, Childebert, Brunhild’s son dies aged 26, I think in battle?
Shelley: No actually… So, this is one of those mysterious deaths. Every time you’re like, okay, we’ve had a peaceful transfer of power, Guntram has died of old age, that’s kind of a rarity and there’s a will and it’s very clear, Brunhild’s son takes over, everybody is like, “Pheuf,” relief, right? Nope. So, he dies, and his wife dies but it seems as though it’s natural causes and the reason for that is two-fold. It’s not in battle, it’s very sudden. The fact that his wife dies as well is significant but also, no one, we do have a lot from this time period, there’s not a gap in the records and no one mentions it, they just say that he died. But because we have such this history and habit of turning any sort of mysterious death into a rallying cry for potential war and invasion, “This person was assassinated,” it seems as though there was a hint of poison that they would have made the most of that, that would have really helped the propaganda and public relations campaign. But for all intents and purposes, it’s pretty interesting, it’s like, Childebert died but essentially everything stayed the same because Brunhild was in charge and now Brunhild is back in charge as official regent for her grandkids. So, it hasn’t been that big of a shake-up, it’s just the name of the guy that she’s representing has changed.
Ann: Yeah. So, this is her grandson Theudebert. Theudebert became king of Austrasia and Theuderic, her other grandson, king of Burgundy and these are the ones with identical-looking names. This is what it says here, “Peace would elude the Franks for many years more.” [chuckles]
Shelley: [laughs] That’s a bit of an understatement.
Ann: I would say that’s the permanent state of things. Okay, so what happens here? So, her elder grandson is Theudebert, she was staying at his court, and he exiled her. Why did he do that?
Shelley: So, essentially, there’s a lot of factions. There’s her core group and then there’s this more sort of, they’re fundamentalists and there’s also this group that is based in what we would now call Switzerland that really are– I hate to use modern terms but they’re very close to what we would consider now the libertarians; they don’t want to pay taxes for the people in the city, they don’t understand why they should contribute to the common defence, you know, why should they pay for someone’s road over here? Why do they have to pay taxes at all? So, they’re essentially pushing back, pushing back, pushing back and they’re able to get their claws into her oldest grandson. So, she leaves on, it’s not great terms, and goes south, goes into Guntram’s kingdom and decides she’s going to set up shop there favouring the younger grandson.
Ann: And this is where there are stories that are not true that are like, “She was found out wandering.”
Shelley: Yeah and you know what she does, she goes to the city that’s called Autun, and she goes on this huge building spree, she’s on an infrastructure project where she’s like, “Okay, I’m going to repair the roads,” and she wants to build herself this incredible city and there are still ruins today that have the churches and the hospitals and the things that she starts building. So, she’s not cast out and wandering around, this is more of a strategic move of, “I’m not really getting along with the older grandson and his new wife and his advisors, so I’m going to go with the younger one. Our world views are aligning a little bit better and I’m going to open up shop down here.”
Ann: But then, as per ever, the two brothers, which are her two grandsons, they’re brothers of each other, go to war against each other because this story is one of unrelenting wars between brothers.
So, okay. Tell me what happens next.
Shelley: Essentially, we have these two brothers in a war. Another thing I want to bring into this because we’re talking about the next generation is Brunhild does set up an alliance with her granddaughter and installs her in this palace to kind of keep an eye on this separate area of the territories so she’s still always, building alliances, constantly. So, I mentioned that she goes on a building spree, she has this new church, and she has a new convent. So, this whole idea that the whole story that Brunhild was kicked out and this idea that the grandsons are fighting, it’s hard to know, I guess we have to sort of dig through all of that. So, she goes with Theuderic and part of the reason for that is he’s willing to let her operate the same way that her son did, and the ambassadors address them as Queen Brunhild and King Theuderic.
Ann: Right, so her basically in charge, him just also there.
Shelley: And he also, instead of marrying a really strongheaded woman keeps having concubines who have kids. That means that there are heirs, there are a lot of sons, but he’s unmarried so she can kind of continue as queen so she’s operating exactly as she used to. This is also the period where rather than being cast out, Brunhild also forms an alliance with the Pope, Pope Gregory and Christianises Britain, which I just want to mention because I think in terms of significance, if she doesn’t do this and Kent doesn’t become Christian, this alters, I think for those of us in North America, how things affect, you know, us here, now, today.
She’s also holding church council, so that’s really important. And there’s this great move where she even takes up a powerful bishop who would be today, the equivalent of an archbishop, and has a rape allegation and has him brought up on rape charges against a noblewoman which I think is sort of, again, we have this idea of Brunhild forming these alliances or rallying with other women. And so, she’s fighting but at this point in time, she’s obviously earned herself some enemies in the church as well because they don’t really like it if you… Not only is she good friends, buddy-buddy with the Pope, that’s kind of alarming, but she’s also going after this really powerful archbishop.
At this point in time, there’s this new strain of Christianity that creeping into Francia and it’s coming in from Ireland, the Irish monasteries and they’re known for lots of corporal punishment, they love beating themselves and they decide that they want to come into Francia and into continental Europe and found more monasteries that are based on this model. They’re what we would essentially consider to be more fundamentalist and they’re really heavy-handed. Pope Gregory and Brunhild, when he’s sending out their missionaries, their goal is like, you go in, you find the local traditions and you adopt. So, if there’s a Pagan temple, you’re like, “This is cool, who is your Pagan goddess? Okay, we could also call that person Saint Margaret and you could just do the same thing and you could just call it Saint Margaret’s Day,” and they’d say okay.
Whereas when this strain comes in and there’s this one monk, Columbanus, he just burns their churches down, he finds their favourite trees and burns them down and then he’s like, “Why are they getting in fights with me? [Ann chuckles] Why do I keep getting in trouble?” But then they also start this whole thing, this group, they’re already mad at Brunhild and they’re like, “You’re letting your grandson live in sin with all these concubines and you have this luxurious lifestyle and you’re not supporting us.” And they’re ganging up with these anti-tax people in the mountains. So, if you want to picture these fundamentalist monks and Christians and this sort of anti-big government coalition and they’ve decided like, “Oh, Brunhild is a bit of a problem. We don’t like the power she has; we don’t like what she’s telling us to do. Let’s have a tax rebellion, let’s get rid of her.”
Ann: She’s been so influential and so successful for so long. No one else has been. No one else has lived that long. Usually, when someone is this powerful in this place and time, they get assassinated. So, it’s impressive that she lasted as long as she did.
Shelley: It is. She’s still doing this, you’ve got to keep in mind, at this point we’re mid-fifties and then she’s in her sixties. This is really just a long life, period, given there’s no clean water or, you know, regular doctor visits, and she hasn’t died in childbirth but also, in terms of the wars. But she’s still managing to keep her head on top, there’s the tax rebellion that’s pitting grandson against grandson and I guess, you know, at one point, her grandson, Theuderic, both the grandsons are going to end up dead and then we’re getting down to great-grandsons.
Ann: Which is the second Sigebert?
Ann: Sigebert, in this story, number two. So, this is at this point, Brunhild is now the regent of her great-grandson?
Ann: Catherine de’ Medici wishes that she… [chuckles] Yeah. Okay, so she made it through this tax rebellion and everything.
Shelley: And the deaths of both grandsons. So, there are four great-grandchildren left behind. They’re all really, really young, they’re all minors still. So, she’s thinking, you know, maybe what I can do is the oldest boy, Sigebert, he’s like 11, what if he rules the kingdoms by himself, we can up his age, he’ll be of age, which would be 15, pretty soon. So, she’s like, “Don’t be worried, I’m just going to be regent but just for a couple more years because it’s just this one guy. I won’t let the younger ones, they’re so young, so he’ll take over. We’ll go to a single heir, so we don’t have to keep splitting everything up, we’ll just have this one boy and I’ll just be regent for a couple more years, so you don’t really have to worry.” This is the point where Fredegund’s son is like, “I’m going to ally myself with some of the people that were dissatisfied with Brunhild and we’re going to try to take her out together.”
Ann: So, this is the thing, Brunhild has been, for the last several decades, through her son, grandson, she’s been ruling over Austrasia and Burgundy, but Fredegund’s son has been ruling over Neustria. Is that right?
Ann: I was starting to feel like, “Oh, Brunhild is in charge of all of them,” but no, no. There’s still Fredegund’s son.
Shelley: And they’ve been steadily chipping away at that kingdom so it’s really small. It’s down to what we would consider to be Normandy in France and a little adjoining area. So, it’s kind of a sliver of a kingdom at this point and she seems to be ruling all of it.
Ann: Right. So, then we’ve got… This is like Fredegund’s, from beyond the grave, revenge, one might say, through her sons. So, her son teams up with the anti-Brunhild people and is this where she’s taken captive and put on trial?
Shelley: Yeah, so essentially, and the interesting thing is we have a bishop and a noble who say, we’re going to invite Clotaire, that’s Fredegund’s son, to come rule us instead. They wouldn’t be able to pull this off if it wasn’t for the treachery of an inside man, so she’s been able to count on Brunhild, these loyal folks, for so long and they’ve started dying off and she’s had to replenish the ranks. And one of these guys is like, “Hey, great-grandkids, ride out with the army, I’m right behind you,” and then they’re in this sticky situation and then they realize the whole army has turned and left them on their own. And so, they’re able to capture the princes, three of the four, and also, they’re able to capture Brunhild and Brunhild’s granddaughter. So, most of the royal family is rounded up.
What’s really, I think, fascinating too is there is this lost prince, there’s always a lost prince isn’t there, in fairy tales? But he’s able to get away and they spend so much time and energy trying to hunt this boy down and he simply disappears, but it seems as though he gets out of town because we can track where he went by the people who are arrested for helping him. But he never turns up, but we know there’s one of these grandsons, a 10-year-old, who somehow, the sources say, mounts a horse and flees, never to return.
Ann: And that’s, I mean, we never find him but that could have turned into those guys who showed up to be like, “I’m actually the prince in the tower,” some sort of fake Anastasia could have shown up at some point to be like, and in this Days of Our Lives saga, I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened. Anyway, so she’s captured, the royal family is captured, and her grandchildren are killed? Or the girls sent away, and the boys are killed?
Shelley: The girls are sent away, and he’s gotten three of the four. Of those three, he executes two of them and sends one of them, he keeps one in reserve because you’ve got to always have a spare just in case dysentery takes out all the men again. So, two of the great-grandsons are killed. Her granddaughter is shut away in a convent, and then they are going to decide what they’re going to do with Brunhild, who at this point is a very old queen.
Ann: She’s in her seventies, I think.
Shelley: Yeah, late sixties, early seventies.
Ann: So, she was accused of the death of ten kings of the Franks.
Shelley: Yes. And some of those are people that Fredegund, Clotaire’s mother, had killed. So, you know, it’s kind of like, everything gets laid at her feet.
Ann: And some of them are people who just died in battle or of natural causes. It’s like, every king who had recently died, she was accused of personally murdering.
Shelley: We’re going to just wrap it all up with a bow, everything was her fault and once we get rid of her, there are sunnier days ahead.
Ann: Also, it’s a way for Clotaire to clear his mother’s name, Fredegund, because if he wants his reputation to be clean, it can’t be like, you’re the son of the woman who did all these things.
Shelley: Right, very good point.
Ann: And that’s why the whole Fredegund being buried and it’s like, “She was the mother of a king,” It’s like, really cleaning away some of what she did to make him seem better. And basically, it’s a show trial. This is not, [laughs] she’s not going to be found innocent of this. She’s found guilty and a camel shows up and she’s executed in fairly dramatic circumstances.
Shelley: This is incredibly dramatic and in fact, it might be the most brutal execution of a queen that we know of. So, first, on a camel, it’s like why would they even, I mean, they have to go and get this camel, it’s not as though there are camels just running around battlefields of Francia.
Ann: In your book, you mentioned like, this is the one detail all of the retellings say, they all say it’s a camel. It’s not that someone misinterpreted, they all say specifically, camel.
Shelley: But the thing that is really interesting is like, from Egypt to Byzantium, when they were deposing a king – so, this is a king’s death that she’s going to endure, which is really interesting – they would have them be paraded around on a camel facing backwards and was the opposite of when an emperor rode triumphant into a city he came in. So, this was them like, “We are symbolically showing you the door.” And even where she came from, they would sometimes do this with a donkey but particularly, the Byzantine Empire did this with a camel.
So, they got the camel, and they made her ride it backwards. In a way too to show that she’s foreign, really to point to her foreign roots, this is not a Frankish woman, we’re not going to do a Frankish ceremony on her, we’re going to do what these strange people in the east do with their kings. So, they’ve also tortured her, at this point when they take her out, they’ve tortured her for three days, so we know that they say that she’s a “sorry spectacle.” So, we know she’s a great-grandmother, we know she’s been tortured, we assume that she’s not looking like she’s in really good shape, they’ve done something to her to physically demean or embarrass her. And then they tie her, the sources differ on this, but she’s tied to a horse, some say the hooves, some say tails some. How she’s bound is it she’s bound by arms and legs, some people say it’s her hair, one arm and one leg. So, the sources are all hazy on…
Ann: Well, here’s the thing, you’re seeing this happen, can you fully take in what you’re seeing? You know?
Shelley: It’s so ridiculous. She’s essentially killed, she’s ripped to death by wild horses. So, she’s tied to the horse or horses, and they give the signal, give the horse a smack, and it gallops across this rocky terrain and that’s the end of Brunhild. But even worse, so she’s obviously not in good shape when they have her body but then they make sure, they say her final grave was the fire, her bones were burned. So, not only is she dead but they make sure they can’t have a body. There can’t be a martyr, there can’t be a tomb, she is literally obliterated, completely obliterated.
Ann: So Fredegund, there’s still and a couple of people who listen to the podcast have listened to where Fredegund is buried and I’m always so touched and excited when I see it. But Brunhild, there’s not a place to visit for her.
Shelley: So, there’s part of her sarcophagus and there’s the remains of this church. So, the church itself… There was a crypt, she had built herself a tomb in this crypt in a church that she built in that city of Autun and it had all these marble columns. There were sketches that were made of it before the crypt itself was destroyed before the revolution. But it seems that somebody who was at the execution scooped up her ashes, because it was just ashes that were found there, and put it in the sarcophagus, that people still created some sort of tomb, or at least that’s what was relayed.
The thing we have to keep in mind too is now, looking back, we know who won, so with the benefit of hindsight it’s like, oh, Clotaire wins. But at the time, people didn’t know, they didn’t know if that other great-grandson was going to show back up and there was a lot of opposition. There are a lot of records saying there are bishops who are rebelling, there are other forces, there are these nobles who are banding together, trying to get rid of Clotaire and he, you know, there are assassination attempts against him, there are people pushing back. So, it’s not as though Brunhild is left alone and friendless; she definitely has allies, she has people on her side but the timing, they’re not able to get there, there’s no rescue party coming in and saving the day. But you can still go, it’s a really small museum in Autun and I went there, and the slab of her marble sarcophagus, not her remains, is there and you can touch it and see it.
Ann: I just, so many things in this keep tweaking because I’ve been going so deep into Mary, Queen of Scots this whole year. It’s similar, when she was executed, they burned her clothes, they didn’t want any speck of blood that could be turned into a relic, that could be turned into anything that could make her seem like a martyr, so it seemed like it was a similar thing where it’s like, “We need to erase all trace of this person.”
Shelley: And then that’s what they do, they go through the historical records. Simple things like taxes. Not saying she was great but just like, it’s like those years never existed, they just take it right out.
Ann: We’re going to get into the scoring shortly but why is the name Brunhild well known? Like, there’s an opera or something?
Shelley: I don’t know if it’s… Both women’s stories are kind of co-opted into this amalgam, but that kind of composite character is usually named Brunhild and so that’s pretty interesting and I don’t know if that’s just because that was the forbidden name or that she was slightly better known because she lived a little longer than…
Ann: Than Fredegund, yeah.
Shelley: There’s also this idea too that she has roads named after her. When I was in France, you can still ride on a road and they’re named after her, the French version of Brunhild but you can go ride on these roads. Because she was such, in terms of building empire, she built things. Even though they got rid of her, things, places, and roads that were associated with her, one wonders if that’s kind of why her name lived on.
Ann: Well, I can see behind you just in the video, you have one of those hats with the horns on. What’s that connection? Before I read your book, before I knew anything about anything, Brunhild, somehow in my head, I was like, “Oh yeah, the hat with the horns, the Viking lady in the opera.” What is that?
Shelley: That’s exactly how I encountered that too, I have to tell you. The hat you see with the horns was something I had bought for a Halloween costume and when I stumbled across the story of Brunhild and Fredegund in source material I was like, “Wait, is that opera horn helmet lady?” And I was like, “It is!” and was kind of completely blown away. I think part of that is the story that gets attached to Brunhild– Fredegund is essentially erased; they’re like, let’s make her nice, let’s make her pretty, she’s the mother of a king and we’ll keep her around but in this very sanitized version. Brunhild is like, “She’s really bad. If you vote for her, if you go with her, if you ally yourself with her, she’ll rip the kingdom apart,” and then there are these characters that are like, oh, their choices in the myths and the folklore that they are used in becomes this woman who, what she does can rip the kingdom apart and essentially, her story becomes grafted onto these Norse legends.
Ann: So, what I want to, again, just so the listeners know, I sent you an explanation of the scoring categories and I also let you know how Fredegund scored so that you know kind of what… Not that we necessarily always want to compare the two against each other but just so you know what the gauge is. I didn’t tell you this before but there is when I do these episodes, if there’s somebody who is really helpful, there’s an award I give called the Lady Jane Seymour Memorial Award for Outstanding Supporting Performance, and that’s if there’s a person in this story who was a real one, who was really there. I’ve done 100 and something episodes, there are like six people on this list. Most of the people I talk about don’t have someone in their corner. Is there someone who you feel from Brunhild’s story, would be this? I feel like her mom might be this.
Shelley: Her mom. Oh my gosh, there are almost too many which I think is going to be problematic because they can’t all get it. I think her mom is pretty amazing. There’s also Radegund, there’s a new book out by E.T. Dalley, by the way, that just details her life.
Ann: There’s not! Is there? I was reading your book and I was like, “I’m obsessed with Radegund.”
Shelley: There is a brand-new book and it’s out with the University of Oxford. I wish I had it upstairs with me, but I have it downstairs. I can send you a copy of the cover but it’s just out and it’s marvelous.
Ann: Listeners, I will 100% put a link to that in the show notes because I was… Radegund, I was like, I want to know more about her! Okay.
Shelley: Yeah, so I feel like Radegund is also this rebellious queen, we didn’t even touch her story, who really helps Brunhild when she first lands there and proves to be a real ally and goes toe-to-toe and advocates for her behalf with the Byzantines and I think sets this course of what a Frankish ex-queen can manage. But certainly, seems as close, she has this really powerful mother in Spain, but she also has this mother figure in Francia who helps set her up.
Ann: I have, in this category, I’ve got for some of them, I have this person’s whole family is on here. So, I could say Radegund and Goiswintha for Brunhild.
Shelley: Pseudo mother-in-law.
Ann: Yeah, listeners, I will 1000% do a Radegund episode later because, the part of her story that’s in your book, I was like, I didn’t remember this from before, but this is iconic behaviour. I’ll say one thing which is she was married to this guy she didn’t want to be married to so she just really embraced religiosity in a really aggressive way where she would be like, he’s like, “Time to go to bed, wife” and she would be like, lying on the floor in a hairshirt, like, screaming until he was like, “Let’s just send you to a nunnery.” Then she was like, great. Then she took over the nunnery and was a power player. She was like a queen in the nunnery. Anyway, it’s a great story.
Shelley: It is a great story. So, definitely having those kinds of female queens in her corner, huge help, huge bonus.
Ann: Definitely. This is where I like to recognize people who help out because again, it’s not often. A lot of people are stranded out there on their own doing the best they can, so it’s nice when somebody helps somebody. Okay, so the categories. Just to recap for everybody, if you’re listening to this and you haven’t heard the Fredegund episodes, just so you know, a perfect score in this is 40. Fredegund continues to have the highest score anyone has ever gotten which is 38 out of 40 and I, in fact, renamed this whole thing as the Fredegund Memorial Scandaliciousness Scale in her honour, [chuckles] because I felt bad that I didn’t give her a 40.
Shelley: And we’ve got Scandaliciousness, right? Scheminess, Significance, and Sexism. I have to tell you, I found Scandaliciousness the most difficult so maybe can we put that one last?
Ann: Definitely, definitely. Let’s start with what I think is an easy one which is Significance.
Ann: In terms of what she did for how long, the fact that there are roads named after her still. But can you explain where you would score her for Significance?
Shelley: I would do 9 out of 10 and here’s why. First recorded female judge in Western history, check mark. Christianising Britain, instrumental in that, check mark. Roads, city, check mark, check mark. As you said, long-term diplomacy, tons of treaties, alliances, all of it. I think her significance is huge and is still impacting our lives today. The only reason I’m saying 9 out of 10 is because I think she has been erased or her tale has been, I guess, certainly twisted and perverted in terms of how it’s been passed down to us in history. Although, I still think she has more brand name recognition than Fredegund. People don’t necessarily who she is but that name, they’ve heard something about it, is she in an opera, what’s that woman? So, she’s somehow managed to survive, and if you consider that it’s been 1,400 years, I’m like, that’s pretty amazing.
Ann: So, in this category, Fredegund got an 8, so I think it makes sense that what Brunhild… Even just to really explain to people so they really understand the significance, Brunhild is the one who sent the person to England to start making that country have Christians in it, which shaped all of English history; the schism of Protestant and Catholic, and the Puritans coming to America. Someone else might have done that later, but Brunhild is the one who did that.
Shelley: Right. And she funds that and also funds a lot of things that happen in the Church. Pope Gregory was huge and the fact that he was besties with a woman certainly changed some of his catechism and canons and approach. There’s a point where Pope Gregory goes out on a limb because up to then, women when they had their periods weren’t allowed in church and he was like, “You know, it’s not a sin to be menstruating, they should be allowed in church.” And you wonder how much of this is him having relationships with powerful women like Brunhild who are like, “Hey, let us in church.” But that seems really progressive.
Ann: Honestly, for today it still is. Even with the Christianity thing, I’m just remembering now how you described the Christianity she was raised with which is kind of more open to other people and not super fundamentalist and that’s the approach that they took when they went to England which you described earlier. Instead of burning down the church, let’s kind of change things a little. So, the fact that that was her approach is part of why it was successful and that changed the course of everything because England as a Christian power blew up. But yeah, the fact that there are still roads and the name recognition, I respect that. I respect that she gets higher than Fredegund in that. Honestly, I’d have to listen back, I’m not sure how I gave Fredegund an 8 but I’m biased. [laughs] It just sounds like Brunhild did a lot more specifically significant things. I might have just thought Fredegund was significant to me personally. And she is significant! I forget if we were recording when I told you, but someone told me they named their car Fredegund, someone sent me a picture of their avatar in Pokémon or something called Fredegund. I have to say, in my Peloton account, my name is Fredegund. [laughs]
Shelley: I love this.
Ann: You had to choose a name and it has to be a name no one else has chosen and I’m like, no one else has chosen Fredegund, first of all, a travesty. Second of all, I get it.
Okay. Let’s do Scheminess because this is like, a high score obviously. I explained it to you but it’s scheminess for her, I think literal, but also just cleverness, being able to pivot to see what’s going on and react to it in a smart way, to have a plan and then for those plans to actually happen and then to actually work. Just to be one step ahead, kind of.
Shelley: Yes. I’m 10 out of 10 here because I feel like she had a plan B and a plan C, you know? Even the whole idea of “Okay, husband dies, I’m in convents, secret marriage rebellion, got my kids back, now I’m regent, now I do this.” You know, when she would be a diplomat or be negotiating like, “That didn’t work. All right, I’m trying this way.” She always had a great handle on the big picture, the big players where Francia fit in internationally and I think that’s one thing that she kept her head and her wits about her and was really able to take the long view.
Ann: And I think also, she had the canniness to know who to team up with, who would be loyal to her. Even stuff like standing in the middle of the battle, things that were… It was genuine, but it was also a way that she knew to get people to be loyal to her, she knew the value of that.
Shelley: Crafting spectacle to her advantage, yes. She was a great politician and diplomat and a lot of those skills I think would still work today.
Ann: Definitely. And that’s where so much of it feels modern to me in a way like I could really easily transpose what she was doing into a more modern setting because it’s a very timeless way to be smart about a really fraught political situation. You get strong allies, you make sure they know that you’re loyal to them, be loyal to them back, and then, yeah. Especially for somebody who was in power for as long as she was, was so important to have those alliances.
Then we have the Sexism. So, this is where it’s like, how much did being a woman hold her back? How much more could she have enacted if she hadn’t had to be busy dealing with… If she could have just been a ruler in her own name instead of having to wait for a son and then a grandson. In a way, it didn’t hold her back because she kind of still did become the ruler, but at the same time, if she hadn’t had to dedicate brain space to having to be like, “Oh Guntram, I’m just this poor little widow, won’t you help me?” If she could have just done stuff.
Shelley: Yeah, and I mean, if you think of how effective she was, she managed to be and then you imagine if she wasn’t, you know some of the resistance to her was purely that she was a woman. So, if you take that resistance out of the equation and you have more people kind of on board with her ideas and her reforms, I think that’s huge, that’s consequential. That was part of what… She always had to go about it slant but she clearly had the chops to be a ruler. She crafted herself I think like a lot of Roman emperors do. So yes, I think sexism was huge. It’s amazing she was able to accomplish as much as she did but I kind of mourn what more she could have done. You can be queen for that long and hang onto power for four generations while everything is going to hell in a handbasket around you, that’s amazing. And then you take the burden of not having sexism, you take that off her back and imagine unburdened, how much more she could have accomplished. I’m 10 out of 10 here. Where are you leaning?
Ann: I’m leaning toward 10 out of 10 as well because also there’s the way that her life ended up, the way that she was sort of, her name continued on in legend but I think this is how you describe it in the book but it’s just like, her and Fredegund, the men who came after them with a more fundamentalist, religious background were like, “Women can’t know this is possible so let’s hide this.” If that hadn’t happened and if like you said, if she had been able to rule on her own terms, not just sideways as the grandmother of the king, I think she’d be on par with Julius Caesar or Genghis Khan. I think that’s the level she could have reached if it was a society that didn’t hold her back to this level.
Shelley: I could see that. Also, despite sexism for her constantly looking out for other women, that was also something for me where I was like, wow! That she still found time to do that but also as you’re saying, if that could have really been allowed to blossom after her death, if people could have continued that, and they tried they certainly did and there are certainly other great examples of women who tried to follow in her footsteps and took her as an example but if that had been more widely known, can you imagine? There has to be someone somewhere whose story was snuffed out and with a good example, or a really clearly delineated map, could have also made a huge difference.
Ann: You mentioned in your book, there’s one or two other Frankish queens and one of them tried to do some stuff and then she was sent to a nunnery because the men were just like, “We can’t have a Fredegund Brunhild scenario again, we need to nip this in the bud.” But so many people are like, Queen Elizabeth I or whatever, she’s very well known for being a successful female monarch who was also like, “I’m basically a man, don’t worry about it,” because that’s what she had to do. But what Brunhild was actually like, I didn’t even read the second half of her ridiculous Wikipedia article that I feel like I need to go in and edit but it’s like, “She proved her ruthlessness!” And I’m just like, shut up Wikipedia. But she’s got this weird reputation where I think she should be… I’m in my kitchen, looking at the fridge, I have these magnets of great women from history and it’s like Cleopatra, Elizabeth I and I’m like, if her story is better known, Brunhild’s story is just as impactful as those it’s just not known and that’s largely because it was stomped out and also she was kind of cut off at the knees because she wasn’t allowed to really flourish the way that Elizabeth was, for instance.
This brings us to, and I agree, this is challenging, the Scandaliciousness because Fredegund has that. Fredegund is like, come on. [laughs]
Shelley: She’s 10 out of 10 there, isn’t she?
Ann: She is, Fredegund got a 10 out of 10 in that category because even if all she did was be someone who was enslaved who then got the king to divorce his wife and murder his next wife to be with her, that’s… So, Brunhild I think… And this is tricky, it depends on how you define scandalous because there are people in the era who are like, “Oh my god, she’s a woman who knows how to read and write, terrible,” probably. But she was accepted in her leadership role because she made these canny alliances. She was never– or was she? Was she ever accused of adultery or anything?
Shelley: No. I mean, there was always… Later in life, in her fifties, they accused her of having an affair with a governor she installed, and she was at this point in her mid-fifties, and it was like, “Oh, that’s why you installed that younger man. Secretly you’re sleeping with him, you old bat,” kind of thing. So, there were allegations against her when she was sort of, at that point, a grandmother.
Ann: But you know what is scandalous that she did? Doing the nunnery scheming and then marrying Merovech and then starting a coup.
Shelley: There’s a lot of it. I think you absolutely hit the nail on the head earlier when you were talking about how the things she pulls off are no less daring and audacious but she goes about things in a much quieter, more measured way and by virtue of her background, she’s a little less scandalous because as you said, they might question the extent to what she wields power but no one is questioning whether she should have a seat, at least at the periphery of the table. Like, “Okay. We understand why she’s here.” So, it wasn’t necessarily scandalous because she was able to play it off as, “Well, I’m just doing this to watch out for my son. I’m just doing this to watch out for my grandsons,” which made it palatable in a way Fredegund was not. But then at the same time you’re like, she’s taking on the Church and she’s taking on these nobles and she’s doing things that, you know, arming herself as a man and acting as a judge. So, there is certainly a scandalous element but certainly not to the degree where people are like why is she even doing this? Particularly because she has a mom who does these sorts of things so people can be like, “Where is she getting these ideas from?” It was clear that they were like, “Oh, she’s trying to be just like her mom,” or “She’s trying to follow in this person’s footsteps.”
Ann: The reason I have the four categories that I have is because it’s rare for somebody to score highly in everything. There are some people who were really, really, really scandalous but then they’re not very significant or that sort of thing. She’s significant, she’s got the scheminess but the scandalousness, that wasn’t her personality, I don’t think, to be like, to try and shock people intentionally or unintentionally. When people are shocked by her, well not shocked, but you said the thing about, “She must be having an affair with that guy,” that’s not her behaviour causing that, it’s not because she’s running around topless with him.
Shelley: [laughs] That would have been awesome.
Ann: It was just people… That’s more sexism, that’s more just like, “A woman and a man are friends, that means they must be lovers.” So, I don’t know… I don’t see Brunhild, there’s definitely a level there, the secret marriage. But the way that she glossed things over with her allies made it, so no one came against her in that way like the way they did to Fredegund like, you’re having this affair. Because Fredegund was just messy, that was just her way. Brunhild…
Shelley: Was very polished.
Ann: Yeah. So, I don’t think she’s scandalous and I don’t think she’d want to be thought of as such.
Shelley: No. And I think she scandalized people with some of the things she did, but she had built up such a power base. Certainly, there were people like, “Hold on, you’re signing this treaty as if you’re a king. You’re expecting the title of a king. You are sitting as a judge,” that was kind of like [gasps]. But again, she had clergy, she had nobles who were like, “No, no, no, it’s okay, it’s all right. just look the other way. It’s good.”
Ann: And that’s kind of the thing for this category I tend to think of. In her time, did people look at her, was she seen as a scandalous person or not? I think for the most part she was not because she had the kind of bureaucracy supporting her, so people weren’t scandalized by what she did, even if the things were maybe scandalous. So, I don’t know where that lands.
Shelley: Yes, the very end. I think when she’s like, “Okay, I’m going to take over again as regent. Don’t worry, just for a couple of years,” that people were a little scandalized because obviously then they rise up against her. So, that was the one time when they were like, “Hold on, hold on. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. You can’t do this a fourth time.”
Ann: And that’s the thing too, sorry to interrupt, but had she been scandalous, they would have sent her to a nunnery much earlier. She couldn’t really afford to be.
Shelley: Right. So, it was like, they really, she was able to push it all the way to the limit and they were like “Hold on. No, no, no, no, no. You can’t trick us again. Not number four.” So, there is an element there. But it’s not true, I don’t think, scandaliciousness.
Ann: Yeah. What do you think about a 5?
Shelley: That feels good to me.
Ann: Yeah. Because it’s there but it’s not… So, that leaves her with a total score of 34. In terms of this scale, Fredegund is still higher than her but 34 is certainly one of the highest scores, she’s definitely top 10 with that. Catherine de’ Medici has 35.5, so only a little bit more, as I said before. But Catherine de’ Medici had scandalous moments; she had her flying squadron, and she had poison rumours. I think that’s why she’s a bit higher.
Shelley: Yeah. A few massacres in there.
Ann: Exactly. Brunhild, there’s a lot of wars, there are a lot of battles, but she was never like, “Let’s kill all the Protestants today.” So, that’s lovely. Thank you so much. Are you allowed to talk about your next book?
Shelley: I am a little bit. I’m right now deep in the archival documents for the Blood Countess which will be going over the cold case for Elizabeth Báthory, and for listeners who don’t know who she is, she is the 16th-century Hungarian countess who is supposed to be the most prolific female serial killer in history. Although, you know, what I’m doing is essentially looking at brand new evidence and also reassessing some old evidence and looking at this through a feminist lens to talk about, was she framed and if so, by who? And can we conclusively settle once and for all the question of her guilt?
Ann: I was so excited when I came across a mention that this book was coming out next year. I’m like, “[gasps] A book about Elizabeth Báthory from a feminist lens! [gasps] Shelley is writing it!” I was so excited because I do think– I did an episode about Elizabeth Báthory years ago in 2019 and at the time I was like, this is going to be a cool episode about this lady serial killer and right away I was like, this doesn’t feel right. All the evidence about her, I’m like, wait, this all feels real fake. And the fact that she’s in the Guinness Book of World Records I’m like…
Shelley: It’s so off and let me tell you, it’s been a deep dive. The evidence is scattered across the archives of four different countries but as you piece it together, it’s fascinating, I always find what you can still find out and what’s still out there waiting to be discovered but I think this is a case too of real life being stranger than fiction. And I think as crazy as her story is right now, the accepted story that we know of her torturing virgins and this sort of pseudo-masochistic…
Ann: Bathing in blood.
Shelley: Yeah. You know, the real story is just as wild a ride if not more so.
Ann: I’m really happy to see that too because after I did my Elizabeth Báthory episode, there have been a couple of books come out in the last couple of years that are like, “The Blood Countess, she’s a vampire!” And I’m just like, “Augh, really?” I did an episode! Didn’t everyone hear it? Haven’t we all changed our minds? No?
Shelley: I can’t believe that they didn’t listen to it. We need to get that, yeah.
Ann: We need to get onto that. But you are going to be coming back when that book comes out because I’m excited to read it and to talk to you. So, listeners, please know.
Shelley: And thank you so much for that kind invitation and the work that you do. I think it’s amazing what you do with this podcast and getting the word out about all of these, like, most of them are really neglected figures and it’s just amazing the work you do so, thank you.
Ann: Thank you so much. I hope everybody knows, you can be Team Fredegund, you can be Team Brunhild, you can be Team Both. People don’t have to choose. But do you have a favourite?
Shelley: You know, I have been accused of being Team Brunhild and I think I’m like, no wait, it’s just because there were slightly more sources from her life, and it is like having to choose between your children. A lot of days I feel more like a Fredegund, not that I have anywhere near the nerve, she had ice in her veins. But I want to be a Fredegund, do you know what I mean? When I’m standing in the grocery line I want to be like, “I could just assassinate that person that stole my parking spot.” But unfortunately, no, I am not a Fredegund, as much as I would like to be, but I so admire her chutzpah. At the same time, I think you know, I’m always rooting for Brunhild particularly when I was like, “Yes! You’re standing up for other women. Yay, you.” So, it depends on what day you catch me on. There are definitely some days where I’m Team Brunhild all the way and then there are other times when I’m like Fredegund. Fredegund, Fredegund, Fredegund.
Ann: I think it’s like the angel and the devil on your shoulder but it’s like Brunhild and Fredegund where it’s just like, “I want my parking spot!” And then it’s like, let’s talk kindly to somebody and then gently get what we want by working together. It’s situational, who one wants to embody. Yeah.
Shelley: Yeah. Are you still firmly Team Fredegund?
Ann: I can’t not be. I went into your book and I’m like, “I’m going to read this book from a Brunhild point of view,” and I was reading it because it starts off with Brunhild and then your chapter, you’re just like, “And then a servant was there,” and I’m like, “Oh my god, who is the servant?” And then it’s like, “And then he loved her,” and I’m like [gasps]. And then at the end, you’re like, “And her name was Fredegund.” And I’m like, “Yes it was! Fredegund!” And I was like, “No, Ann, you’re reading this from Brunhild.” But I love her so much. In reading the book and talking to you, I’m definitely… I don’t want to have to be one over the other, but I will say, Fredegund is maybe my favourite person I’ve ever profiled on the podcast, she just hits every sweet spot for me so it’s unfair to put anyone against her, but I will say, Brunhild, I have a new appreciation for her. At first, I read it and was like, “She’s the one working against Fredegund, she’s my enemy,” but it’s like no, no. She’s also a cool and interesting person. The men are the enemy. Both of them are the heroes.
Shelley: Well, I appreciate you having an open mind.
Ann: [chuckles] Thank you so much. This is something that listeners have requested for a while so I’m glad to give Brunhild her due and I’m glad that she takes her place in the pantheon of Vulgar History.
Shelley: Thank you so much for having me.
So, Shelley’s book is called The Dark Queens: The Bloody Rivalry That Formed the Medieval World. It’s an incredibly good book. The story that we just talked about, you heard how she described it, she describes it all so well. So, it’s fascinating history just like, bananas plot twists but it’s actual stuff that actually happened and she writes it in a really accessible way where I think you’ll enjoy it if you’re a professor of history, if you’re a person who just likes to read random books, it’s such a good book, paperback is available. And as we get more information about her Elizabeth Báthory book, the Blood Countess, rest assured, I will let you know. But you can keep up with Shelley and what she’s up to at ShelleyPuhak.com. If you don’t know how to spell that it’s in the show notes as well.
I also want to let you know that you can keep up with me at Instagram.com/VulgarHistory, I don’t know why I described it like that. It’s just @VulgarHistoryPod on Instagram, not @VulgarHistory on Instagram, that’s an erotic account run by other people who are not affiliated with me, but I wish them all the best. I’m also on various other social medias @VulgarHistory. Wherever you are, I’m probably there and you can message me if you have ideas. You know what? Let me know if you’re Team Fred or Team Brun, as I’m thinking of her now, or Team Both. I’m curious. For sure I’m going to put a poll on Instagram when this episode comes out.
You can also, because you know, the festive holiday season, gift-giving is upon us, you can get merchandise for this podcast at VulgarHistory.com/Store. As I’m speaking, I’m pretty sure there’s a sale, a discounted sale going on and if there’s not one going on today, probably tomorrow or the next day because this time of year, there are constant sales. That’s hosted on Tee Public. If you’re outside the US, you can get better shipping if you go to VulgarHistory.Redbubble.com. Hopefully, by the time you’re hearing this, I’ve got some festive holiday merch available which is designed by Karyn Moynihan from the Double Love podcast, and it says, “Tits The Season.” So, if you want to get Vulgar History stuff to get you through the holidays, that’s there.
You can also support the podcast on Patreon at Patreon.com/AnnFosterWriter where for $1 a month you get early, ad-free access to episodes, for $5 or more a month you get that, the early, ad-free access, as well as bonus episodes, things like Vulgarpiece Theatre where I talk about costume dramas with Allison Epstein and Lana Wood Johnson. We’re about to do one about The Lion in Winter, which is going to be an interesting discussion and you can hear why when we get to that. Also, I do the After Show there where sometimes I have extended conversations with podcast guests, and So This Asshole where I talk about men from history. And also, if you join the Patreon, we’re at 480 members right now and I have vowed that when we get to 500 members, I will do a John Knox episode of So This Asshole. You can join the Patreon for free as well if you just want to, like, get the numbers up to make me do that.
Anyway, you can also get transcripts from recent episodes at VulgarHistory.com, thank you to Aveline Malek from The Wordary for providing these transcripts of our recent episodes. I do want to let you know, with the festive gift-giving season upon us, et cetera, I do have a gift guide that I’ve been updating constantly on Instagram @VulgarHistory. So, there’s a highlight there that’s a Vulgar History Gift Guide where I’m highlighting small businesses that sell things that I think would be good gifts to give someone in your life that is maybe you that are Vulgar History reminiscent. For instance, there’s a cross stitch pattern of Fredegund, I have the link on there to buy that, Mary, Queen of Scot’s ghost dolls, and various things. Also, if you want to get somebody the gift of me, a video of me, I’ve joined Cameo just for this holiday season so if you want to get a little video from me, Hepburn may or may not appear, her contract stipulates that she will not be tied down. Anyway, I’m on Cameo as well. [meow] Here’s Hepburn. She might show up just like that if you get a video from me on Cameo, she might not.
Anyway, our brand partner, Common Era Jewellery is a great option for gift-giving as well. This is a 100% women-owned business, using 100% recycled gold and they make beautiful pieces that are inspired by women from history and women from mythology, including people like Boudica, Cleopatra, Agrippina, and Ann Boleyn. As you’re listening to this, I do believe that they… So, they make pieces in solid gold, and they also have a more affordable gold vermeil. I believe the Anne Boleyn gold vermeil should now be available. If you’re going to be buying some pieces from there, please remember you can always get 15% off all items from Common Era by going to CommonEra.com/Vulgar or using code ‘VULGAR’ at checkout.
I’ve got a really exciting episode next week, it’s our festive holiday spectacular. There are some interesting connections in that episode to this week’s episode, Fredegund and Brunhild do come up. So, stay tuned for that. And until next time, keep your pants on and your tits out!
Vulgar History is hosted, written, and researched by Ann Foster and edited by Cristina Lumague.
Transcribed by Aveline Malek at TheWordary.com
Learn more about Shelley and her work at shelleypuhak.com.
Buy The Dark Queens from bookshop.org and support Vulgar History with this link: https://bookshop.org/a/1419/9781639730759
Here’s the Radegund book Shelley spoke about. Radegund: The Trials and Triumphs of a Merovingian Queen by E.T. Dailey (published by Oxford University Press).
Get 15% off all the gorgeous jewellery and accessories at common.era.com/vulgar or go to commonera.com and use code VULGAR at checkout
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