By: Rebecca Halsey
Pick up a collection of fairy tales and you often see two types of women – the Maiden (Cinderella) and the Evil Queen (Stepmother). Fredegund, a Merovingian queen of early Francia, appeared to play both roles. Historical texts, particularly ones written by Gregory of Tours, associate her with the kind of cruel ambition that drives many of the female villains in folklore, and it is clear that Fredegund can be linked to many despicable attempts to retain power. What isn’t clear, largely because there are only a few sources for the time period, is whether these machinations were the only way women could exercise political agency.
The Merovingian dynasty was cemented by Clovis in the early 500s. By 550 the kingdom consisted of what is now the north of France and stretched as far East as modern-day Czech Republic. Unfortunately, the Merovingians had the habit of dividing the kingdom among their heirs, which made for dramatic feuds among brothers, cousins, and their wives. Technically, Fredegund was a queen of only a portion of Francia – Soissons, the part her husband inherited.
Because Fredegund was not born to a noble family, becoming a queen required considerable gumption. Some may consider Cinderella too gentle and passive, but even in the Disney version, Cinderella comes forward when she asks to try on the glass slipper at the end. Fredegund, a servant in King Chilperic’s house, similarly speaks up. As a lady’s maid to his wife, she points out the queen’s flaws, and the king becomes convinced that he should divorce his wife in favor of Fredegund.
The reversal – the rags-to-riches story – is one key part of the Cinderella fairy tale. “A dream is a wish your heart makes,” as they say. But pushing aside the other woman is just a glimpse at Fredegund’s modus operandi. In the Merovingian empire, queenship was fraught with the fear that you would be replaced next, and Fredegund dealt with this by regularly plotting against adversaries. When King Chilperic takes a third wife, she dies within a year – strangled – presumably at Fredegund’s command.
As a mother, reflecting on the political rivalries at play during this time period, I’m not sure how I would handle the fear that my children would be killed off by a rival at any time. But Fredegund’s schemes are truly awful. She solidifies her status as a villainess not only through actions devoid of any diplomacy, but also through a tendency toward self-preservation even over her children. For example, she tries to kill her own daughter, Rigunth, after they argue about who should be mistress. This account has been cited by folklorists as inspiration for the stepmother in an early version of the Cinderella story.
Maddingly, there is evidence that Fredegund even recognized her misdeeds. In one account, when two of her sons fall ill with dysentery, she tries to atone for her sins (in this case, extorting money from her subjects) by burning tax records. However, considering her other actions, I have to wonder if there were other motivating factors behind the destruction of these documents.
In at least one assessment of this time period, I read that queens like Fredegund and her main rival, Brunhild (a sister-in-law), were powerful because of their status as regent mothers, suggesting that their chief source of authority was the royal lineage of their sons. This undercuts the raw ambition, at least in Fredegund’s case, that landed her in that role in the first place. It also doesn’t explain why the exercise of this power was so particularly brutal.
I don’t think this female cruelty was limited to the Merovingians. Certain wives and mothers of Roman emperors expressed political agency in the same cruel fashion as Fredegund did. Not to mention the countless other myths and legends from early Europe that recount brutal queens or female warriors.
Fredegund was clearly ambitious from the start, but what was the catalyst for her to become the Evil Queen? Was it when her husband tried to cast her aside? Was it going toe-to-toe with her sister-in-law Brunhild, who was working to maximize power on behalf of her children also? Once married, did King Chilperic allow Fredegund to exercise authority or could she only work behind the scenes?
It doesn’t appear that Fredegund tried to hide her plots. For this reason, I imagine that she had to capitalize on fear to compete with the male-dominated, military style of leadership that valued strength and agnatic succession. At the very least, she may have believed instilling fear was her only option for success.
Gregory of Tours. History of the Franks. Boston: Wyatt North Publishing, 2012. E-book.
Larrington, Carolyne. Women and Writing in Medieval Europe. London and New York: Routledge, 1995. Print.
Wickham, Chris. The Inheritance of Rome. New York: Viking, 2009. Print.