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Martyrs as depicted in the Lombardy temple show what women might have worn (from Wikimedia Commons)

Sculptures of martyrs in the Lombard Temple show what women might have worn (from Wikimedia Commons)

All we can say with certainty about King Charles’s (Charlemagne’s) second wife is that she was a Lombard princess, the daughter of King Desiderius and Queen Ansa, and that she was married to the Frankish king for about a year (770-71).

We don’t even know for certain what her name was. Because of a misreading of a medieval book, she has been called Desiderata, but scholarship from historian Janet L. Nelson indicates her name might have been Gerperga.

Yet what little we know of her illustrates what was expected of an aristocratic woman, particularly a royal one, in eighth century Europe.

Desiderius and Ansa apparently had one son and four daughters. They expected their son, Adalgis, to succeed his father as king. Before Desiderius seized power in a coup in 756, his eldest daughter, Anselperga, became an abbess. Not a bad gig for a medieval woman, who could treat the abbey as her fiefdom and still have an influence on worldly affairs. In addition, prayers from her abbey would help ensure that God was on her family’s side.

After he became king, Desiderius and Ansa made sure their other daughters’ marriages were politically advantageous to their realm in northern Italy. Princess Adelperga married the duke of Benevento in southern Italy, and Princess Luitperga married the duke of Bavaria, King Charles’s first cousin, whose territory was to Lombardy’s northwest.

Exactly who initiated marriage negotiations to have Charles marry Gerperga is unknown, but it had the full support of Desiderius and Charles’s widowed mother, Bertrada.

Bertha Broadfoot, 1848, by Eugène Oudiné

Bertha Broadfoot, 1848, by Eugène Oudiné at Luxembourg Garden, Paris. (copyrighted photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons).

A letter bearing Pope Stephen’s name shows a man very upset that a Frankish king, either Charles or his brother, Carloman, might marry the daughter of his political enemy. Frankish Queen Mother Bertrada went on a diplomatic mission to ensure peace between her sons, reassure the pope that it would be in Rome’s best interest to allow the marriage to go through, then go to Lombardy and return to Francia with the princess.

As is common in medieval marriages, Gerperga likely would have been a teenager. Technically, a woman had to consent to a marriage, but that consent could be beaten or starved out of someone. It is easy to say these women were pawns, but their position is more complex than that.

For one thing, a father, or a mother acting as regent, could just as easily order a son’s marriage. Charles and Carloman were already married on their father’s order, something the pope points out in his outraged letter arguing against a Frankish royal marriage to a Lombard.  Desiderius wanted Adalgis to marry Charles’s sister, but that idea was nixed on the Frankish side.

Another thing to consider is when a character in a historical novel complains of a “useless girl,” he is mistaken. In arranging their children’s marriages, Desiderius and Ansa did not consider the girls useless. They relied on the three who were married to secure alliances, two of them close to Lombardy. Even after Desiderius lost his kingdom, there is evidence of the princesses’ influence as wives. In later years, Luitperga would be accused of encouraging her husband’s disloyalty to Charles, and Adelperga would temporarily assume power in Benevento after her husband’s and elder son’s deaths.

We have no clue of how any of these women, including Gerperga, felt about the choices their parents had made for them. Was Gerperga happy her father had chosen a 22-year-old, tall, and broad with muscle rather than an old man? Did she have any misgivings that Charles was setting aside a Frankish woman to marry her? Did she marry him because of a sense of duty to her country?

Just as Gerperga’s marriage was created by politics, so was it destroyed. King Carloman died at age 20 in December 771, and Charles seized his brother’s lands, even though Carloman had two young sons. To solidify his place as king of all Francia, he repudiated the Lombard princess and married a young woman from an important family in Carloman’s former kingdom.

To Desiderius, the repudiation of his daughter was an insult, and it might have been one reason he sided with Carloman’s widow, Gerberga, when she sought his aid to have her sons anointed as Frankish kings. The war that followed in 773-74 was a high stakes family feud involving the fate of Rome. (For more on Charles’s war in Lombardy, see my previous posts in Unusual Historicals and Historical Fiction Research).

The ultimate fate of Charles’s second wife remains a mystery. A 16th century writer using a now-lost 8th century document calls her Berchthraeda and says she was sent home gravely ill and died in childbirth, bearing a son. He also says Charles married someone to whom he had been previously betrothed, and there’s not much evidence of that.

The Royal Frankish Annals say an unnamed Lombard princess was captured, along with Desiderius and Ansa, when Pavia fell in 774 after a long siege, but they are silent on what happened to her afterward. If Gerperga was captured in Pavia, it is possible that she wound up in a cloister, the repository for many of Charles’s troublesome relatives.

Sources

After Rome’s Fall: Narrators and Sources of Early Medieval History, edited by Walter A. Goffart, Alexander C. Murray, University of Toronto Press, 1998 “Chapter 9: Making a Difference in Eighth-Century Politics: The Daughters of Desiderius,” Janet L. Nelson, pp. 171-190

Charlemagne: Translated Sources, P.D. King

Carolingian Chronicles, Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Walter Scholtz with Barbara Rogers

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