Chilperic I

Chilperic I
(c. 537-584)
   Merovingian king from 561 to 584, Chilperic was the son of Chlotar I (d. 561) and grandson of the great king Clovis (r. 481-511). His reign as king was marred by almost constant warfare with his brothers, especially Sigebert, for control of the kingdom. The relationship between Sigebert and Chilperic was further complicated by their marriage practices and the enmity between Sigebert's wife, Brunhilde, and Chilperic's wife, Fredegund. Indeed, after the death of the two kings, Brunhilde and Fredegund continued the feud until Fredegund's death in 597. Chilperic's ambition, brutality, and corrupt ways are highlighted by his contemporary Gregory of Tours in Gregory's History of the Franks.
   Chilperic, according to Gregory of Tours, was "the Nero and Herod of our time" (379), and it is from Gregory that Chilperic's reputation for violence and deceit comes. Gregory notes that Chilperic destroyed many villages and brought many unjust charges against his subjects in order to seize their wealth. The king persecuted the bishops, whom he accused of taking all the wealth of the kingdom. According to Gregory, Chilperic's "god was in his belly" (380), and the king practiced all forms of vice and debauchery. Chilperic declared to his judges, "If anyone disobeys my orders, he must be punished by having his eyes torn out" (380-381). Although Gregory provides a memorable portrait of Chilperic, he was not the only one to do so, and other evidence provides a less brutal image of the king. The great poet Venantius Fortunatus wrote a panegyric praising the king for his authority and intellectual talents. Indeed, even Gregory recognizes that Chilperic had some literary talent and notes that the king wrote two books of poetry and composed hymns and other pieces for the mass. Chilperic also wrote a book of theology on the doctrine of Christ, added several Greek letters to the alphabet to reflect pronunciation of Frankish better, and added to the Salic law.
   Although he was more than the brutal king portrayed by Gregory, Chilperic is best known for the civil wars with his brothers, particularly the blood feud involving his wife, Fredegund, and his brother Sigebert and his brother's wife, Brunhilde. Hostilities did, however, precede his marriage with Fredegund, when Chilperic, who had inherited part of the kingdom with its capital at Soissons, attacked Sigebert's kingdom in 562. The attack began thirteen years of war between the two brothers, war that nearly led to the defeat and destruction of Chilperic. He was aided throughout the struggle by his ambitious and ruthless wife, Fredegund. She was not Chilperic's first wife, however. Indeed, Chilperic had previously married the Visigothic princess Galswintha. This had constituted a break with the usual practice of the Merovingian kings, who had married lowborn women. Indeed, even before his marriage to Galswintha, Chilperic took the serving maid Fredegund as a concubine and, possibly, wife. His marriage to Galswintha was inspired by Sigebert, who had previously married Galswintha's sister Brunhilde. Shortly after the marriage to Galswintha, who brought a sizeable dowry to the marriage, Chilperic had her murdered, possibly at Fredegund's request, and then married Fredegund. The murder of Galswintha may have worsened an already difficult situation between Sigebert and Chilperic.
   The civil wars between the two brothers were quite fierce; they may have been the worst wars in Merovingian history. After Chilperic's initial attack, Sigebert was able to counterattack and seize Chilperic's capital of Soissons. Chilperic was driven from his kingdom and eventually took refuge with his brother Guntram, who also faced invasion by Sigebert. In the mid-570s, Chilperic, allied with Guntram, and Sigebert once again came to blows. The situation was quite grave for Chilperic, because Guntram had made peace with Sigebert and Chilperic's son had been killed in battle by supporters of Sigibert. On the point of destruction, Chilperic learned that Sigebert had been killed. It is generally held that the murder was committed by agents of Chilperic's queen, Fredegund.
   Chilperic exploited his opportunity after the death of Sigebert and invaded his late brother's territory. He seized several cities formerly ruled by Sigebert and nearly disinherited Sigebert's heir, Childebert (d. 596). But the intervention of Guntram saved Childebert and stopped Chilperic's advance. At the same time, Chilperic faced the ambitions of Merovech, his son by one of his concubines. Merovech, having reached his majority and eager to rule as king, sought out and married Chilperic's rival Brunhilde. The marriage gave Merovech claim to a kingdom and returned Brunhilde to the game of Merovingian power politics. But the couple were no match for the ruthlessness of Chilperic and Fredegund, and Merovech, failing to secure power, asked a servant to kill him. Gregory, however, suggests that Merovech was murdered by Fredegund. Whatever the case, Chilperic survived the challenge and was now, in 581, bereft of any heirs. At that point, he made peace with Childebert, adopted him, and named him as heir. For the next three years, Childebert, Chilperic, and Guntram were involved in a complicated diplomatic and military struggle for predominance in the kingdom. Although Chilperic acquired the largest share of the kingdom, he was abandoned by Childebert, who once again allied with Guntram, putting Chilperic on the defensive. Before much further turmoil between the three occurred, Chilperic was murdered while hunting. He was succeeded by an infant son, Chlotar II, who was protected by his mother Fredegund and supported by an important segment of the nobility. It was in fact Chlotar II who ended the civil strife that had existed since the beginning of his father's reign when he overthrew Brunhilde in 613 and unified the kingdom.
   See also
 ♦ Gregory of Tours. History of the Franks. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1974.
 ♦ James, Edward. The Franks. Oxford: Blackwell, 1988.
 ♦ Lasko, Peter. The Kingdom of the Franks: North-West Europe before Charlemagne. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971.
 ♦ Wallace-Hadrill, J. M. The Long-Haired Kings. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982.
 ♦ Wemple, Suzanne. Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister, 500 to 900. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985.
 ♦ Wood, Ian. The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450-751. London: Longman, 1994.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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