I have been irritated by the sizeable gap in my list of infamous women. From the early Roman Empire (Messalina and Agrippina) there is a huge lacuna, in which Empress Wu floats about friendless, until Empress Matilda in the twelfth century. I couldn’t believe that the thousand between Nero’s mother and Saint Margaret’s granddaughter had produced only one woman whose reputation had been rendered into tatters by angry male historians.
I happened upon my most recent discovery’s name on a generally unremarkable blog. Our sources for her are limited and the information on the blog was brief and passing. Wikipedia, notoriously fallible but often a good first stopping point for the bibliography if nothing else, produced little more other than the name of her only major historian. In a happy coincidence, I found a copy of it in a second hand shop a short while later.
Gregory of Tours wrote his History of the Franks in the sixth century. A churchman (later canonised), he is far from an objective source. Indeed, for centuries there was no notion of objectivity in history. Gregory focused much of his attention on Chilperic I and his nefarious activities (though written safely after the former’s demise at the hand of an assassin). However, Gregory couldn’t resist sharing some of the stories of Chilperic’s wicked wife, Fredegund.
Fredegund was born into a poor family and started her career as a servant. Catching Chilperic’s attention, she became his mistress and watched as her lover made other women his queens. His first wife, Audovera, he tired of and sent to a convent. He then married Galswintha whom, Gregory tells us, he loved dearly because she brought great treasures as her dowry. What a top chap, indeed. Galswintha was noble by birth and did not take kindly to her husband’s public affair with a servant and begged him to allow her to return to her father, the king of Hispania, and offering to leave behind all the valuables she had come with. Chilperic soothed her with kind words, and then had one of his servants strangle her in her bed.
With the path clear, Chilperic married Fredegund. She was as ruthless and ambitious as her husband and Gregory paints a picture of perfect female cruelty. Not only did she send assassins after her husbands half-brothers and rivals but she abandoned her own young son when he was ill, bewitched slaves into murdering their master and attempted to murder her own daughter in a fit of rage.
With only Gregory of Tours as a major source for her life, she remains a shadowy figure. The accusations are levied against her with no means of testing their veracity. She is certainly a person I will be doing more research on but one I am not sure I will be able to find much more about, or at least, not much that is more concrete than Gregory of Tours’ gossip.
As with so many of the women here, we are faced with the quandary of whether or not we believe anyone capable of such crimes, and why we have more trouble believing a woman capable of them.