10 May 2017

Mad Mothers: Frankish Queen Gerberga

Empress costume from
The Costumes of All Nations (1882)
When brother-in-law King Charles (Charlemagne) seized her late husband’s lands, Gerberga decided to fight for her two sons’ inheritance and her own power as queen mother and regent.

After Frankish King Carloman died at age 20 in December 771, Charles moved swiftly to seize the kingdom. Was it determination or desperation that made Gerberga flee with two little boys and an entourage to Lombardy?

We don’t know how she reached the realm of Charles’s ex-father-in-law. She would have either had to cross the Alps or go by sea. The slow travel, in general, posed the danger of brigands, but add winter weather and at least one child too young to ride, and this journey becomes especially risky.

We don’t know much about Gerberga, except that she was a Frankish noblewoman selected by father-in-law Pepin to marry Carloman, but we can make a few guesses. Women typically were teenagers when they married, often at age 13. Men could marry at age 16. The most Gerberga and Carloman could have been married was four years, and their elder son was no more than 3 years old, barely old enough to start riding.

That this queen mother, perhaps as young as 17, made a dangerous journey to Lombardy with these two small children tells us something about her character. 

Seeking aid from Desiderius, king of the Lombards, was not the safest thing to do, either, but she had no other choice. Desiderius had seized power in a coup in the 750s and clashed violently with Rome before. His retaliation, blinding an enemy, was brutal and typically medieval. However, he was the powerful ally she needed—and he had his own grudge against Charles. The Frankish monarch had repudiated Desiderius’s daughter to free himself to marry into the powerful Agilolfing clan, an alliance to help him claim his late brother’s lands.
Desiderius' court, from
the tragedy Adelchi (published 1845)

Desiderius saw Gerberga’s sons as a way to get back at Charles for the insult to his daughter and restore his alliance with Francia. He tried to get the pope to anoint the little boys as kings, even seizing papal lands to pressure him. The pope refused and eventually asked Charles to fulfill his vow as protector of Rome and come to his aid.

When Charles invaded in 773, Desiderius retreated to Pavia, and Gerberga and her sons lit out for Verona, along with Lombard Prince Adalgis and a Frankish nobleman named Autchar. Adalgis escaped Verona and headed toward the Byzantine empire.

Charles, learning of Adalgis’s flight, went to Verona with a contingent of Franks, while most of the army held siege in Pavia. Gerberga surrendered voluntarily when Charles arrived.

The sources don’t say why she surrendered. Perhaps she realized she was deserted, knew there was no way she could win, and wished to avoid further bloodshed or the starvation and disease that accompanies a siege. Perhaps, she thought if she surrendered now, she and her sons would be sent to the cloister rather than be executed.

The sources are silent about her fate, but having Gerberga and her sons in the cloister is plausible. They would have been among other troublesome relatives Charles sent to the monastery such as Desiderius and later on Charles’s first cousin Bavarian Duke Tassilo and even his own eldest son, Pepin (often called Pepin the Hunchback—medieval folk were a tad insensitive).

Gerberga did not win her battle against her brother-in-law, but her story illustrates that medieval women were not damsels in distress waiting for a hero to rescue them.

My characters see Gerberga as the strong-willed young woman she is. My aristocratic Franks don’t have much sympathy for her, though, as you will see in this excerpt 

**From The Cross and the Dragon**

“It’s God’s will.” Theodelinda laid her hand over Alda’s. “I will have our priest dedicate tomorrow’s prime Mass to the princess. The rest of the royal family, are they well?”

“Yes, Countess. Did you know Gerberga and her sons surrendered in Verona?” he asked excitedly.

With wide eyes, Alda and Theodelinda shook their heads. “I thought our army was holding siege at Pavia, where Desiderius is hiding like the rat he is,” Alda said.

“This is the first we’ve heard about the king’s sister-by-marriage,” Theodelinda added, leaning forward. “Please, have some more wine.”

“Lady Alda, you are correct.” The merchant took a drink. “Our army has had an enormous camp outside Pavia’s walls since autumn, but Gerberga and her sons fled to Verona with Desiderius’s son. Our king and some of his men gave chase. The Lombard prince escaped, but Gerberga did not resist.”

“Where are they now?” Alda asked.

“I know not.”

“And Desiderius is still in Pavia?” Theodelinda asked.

“Yes. Our king even spent the Feast of the Resurrection in Rome and prayed for the Lord’s aid. Yet the siege continues, and the Lombard king refuses to surrender.”

“Damned Lombards!” Alda said. “The queen mother was right. They are strong, stubborn sons of whores.”


Charlemagne: Translated Sources, P.D. King

Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Walters Scholz with Barbara Rogers

“Pavia and Rome: The Lombard Monarchy and the Papacy in the Eighth Century,” Jan T. Hallenbeck, published in 1982 by Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

The Life of Charlemagne, Einhard, translated by Evelyn Scherabon Firchow and Edwin H. Zeydel

Kim Rendfeld is the author of two novels set in 8th century Francia: The Cross and the Dragon, about a young noblewoman contending with a vengeful jilted suitor and the anxiety of losing her husband in battle, and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, about a peasant going to great lengths to protect her children. Her work in progress, Queen of the Darkest Hour, features Fastrada, Charlemagne’s influential fourth wife. Connect with Kim on her website (kimrendfeld.com), her blog (kimrendfeld.wordpress.com), Facebook (facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld), and Twitter (@kimrendfeld).