The Last Lombard King


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Lombard King Desiderius was in a good position in the spring of 771. Two daughters were married to dukes, and another had recently wed Charles, a king of Francia. Plus, two troublesome papal ministers were permanently out of the way.

A few months later, it would all start to fall apart with the death of Charles’s brother. And just three years after that, Desiderius would lose his kingdom in northern Italy and be imprisoned in a monastery. His son and heir, Adalgis, was in exile.

Alda, the Frankish teenage heroine of my novel The Cross and the Dragon, sees Desiderius as a madman who refused a bribe of gold in exchange for returning conquered lands. But the Lombard king’s story is much more complicated, a tale of power, intrigue, family honor, and revenge.

Intervening in Papal Succession

To understand Desiderius’s story, it helps to go back to 767, when Pope Paul I is dying. At this time, Desiderius had been king for 11 years, having seized power in a coup with Paul’s brother and predecessor as an ally. The alliance lasted only a few months, and the relationship between Rome and Pavia was uneasy because of a territorial dispute.

When Paul’s death was imminent in June 767, four aristocratic brothers from Roman Tuscany seized control of Rome, and one of them, Constantine, was elevated to the papacy, even though he was a layman (never mind canon law).

Papal minister Christopher and his son, Sergius, opposed this move but were forced to take refuge in the basilica of Saint Peter. They were allowed to leave when they asked to retire to a monastery, a common repository for political opponents. Instead of traveling to the monastery, they visited the duke of Spoleto and asked him to take them to his king, Desiderius. After hearing their case, Desiderius lent his support in the form of Spoletan soldiers and Waldipert, a Lombard priest.

The forces retook Rome and arrested Constantine. But Desiderius was not above installing a pope of his own liking. Waldipert and some Romans grabbed Philip, the chaplain at the monastery of Saint Vitas, and acclaimed him pope, with the intent of making him a figurehead. On Christopher’s bidding, Philip was quickly sent home and a cleric named Stephen was elevated to pope.

Eighth-century justice was brutal, even in Rome. Accused of plotting to kill Christopher and hand Rome over to the Lombards, Waldipert was blinded, and his tongue was cut out, the same fate as Constantine and some of his followers. Waldipert died of his injuries.

Desiderius at Court illustration

Desiderius holding court in what is believed to be an illustration to Alessandro Manzoni’s Adelchi, a 19th century tragedy (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons).


Desiderius probably wanted revenge, but he had to wait a few years. In the meantime, there was an opportunity to build an alliance with a Frankish king. King Pepin, who also had the title of patrician of Rome, died in September 768, and his sons, Charles and Carloman, succeeded him.

No one knows whose idea it was for Charles to marry one of Desiderius’s daughters, but it had the full support of Queen Mother Bertrada, even though Charles was already married. The Church saw itself as the protector of marriage, but it was not a sacrament in those days. (Desiderius also wanted Charles’s sister to marry Lombard Prince Adalgis, but that idea was nixed on the Frankish side.)

In 770, the pope was upset when he heard rumors of the Lombard-Frankish marriage, and a strongly worded letter that bears his name opposes the idea. Bertrada went on a mission to ensure peace between her sons, the duke of Bavaria who was also the kings’ first cousin and Desiderius’s son-in-law, the pope, and the Lombard king. She returned to Francia with the Lombard princess.

For Desiderius, Bertrada’s diplomacy had the added benefit of distancing the anti-Lombard Christopher from the pope. Around Easter 771, Pope Stephen sent a message that “the most abominable Christopher and his most wicked son, Sergius,” schemed with one of Carloman’s men to kill him. The intervention of “our most excellent son, King Desiderius,” saved the day. But the pope was also distressed to report that Christopher and Sergius were blinded. Because of the handiwork of Desiderius’s ally Paul Afiarta, Christopher died of his wounds while his son was imprisoned.


King Carloman’s death at age 20 in December 771 changed Desiderius’s fate. 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 the Agilolfing clan, an important family in Carloman’s former kingdom.

The divorce was an insult to Desiderius, and he must have seen an opportunity for revenge when Carloman’s widow, Gerberga, fled to his court with the boys.

But he had another problem to deal with. Pope Stephen died February 3, 772. While Stephen was sick, Paul Afiarta exiled or imprisoned enemies and for good measure, had the blinded Sergius strangled, but his efforts to succeed Stephen failed. Deacon Hadrian, Afiarta’s enemy, was made pope, freed prisoners and exiles, and ordered an investigation of Afiarta, who was later executed. Hadrian was no friend of Desiderius.

Two months into Hadrian’s papacy, Desiderius risked Frankish intervention and invaded papal territories, trying to pressure Hadrian to anoint Carloman’s sons as kings, one way to avenge the insult to his daughter. The pope refused. Even as Desiderius was conquering papal cities, Hadrian was reluctant to ask for Charles’s aid, wanting to preserve Italy’s independence.

The pope’s threat of anathema kept the Lombards away for a while, but the pressure got to be too much. Hadrian asked for Charles’s intervention. In 773, Charles, who had just fought his first war with the Saxons, tried diplomacy and offered gold in exchange for the conquered territory.

Desiderius Lombard camp illustration

Desiderius’s camp

Desiderius refused, which at first seems baffling because he did not want a war with the Franks. His predecessor was forced to make territorial concessions when a Frankish king invaded Italy 17 years ago. Perhaps, Desiderius thought the pope would demand an invasion anyway. In that case, holding onto the territory would weaken his opponent.

Desiderius might also have thought that he would lose lands but not his whole kingdom. Charles’s father, Pepin, had been content with a treaty. Once the Franks’ backs were turned, Desiderius might have reasoned, he could reconquer lost territory, just as he did a few months into his reign. For details about Charles’s first war in Lombardy, see my earlier post about Charles’s family feud and the fate of the Church.

In the end, things for Desiderius turned out far worse than he might have imagined. Perhaps Charles thought that if he didn’t remove Desiderius from the throne, he would continue to threaten Rome and distract the pope from praying for Francia, an important duty in age that believed in divine intervention.

To Charles, the prayers worked. After months of holding siege with Desiderius in Pavia, Charles went to Rome for Easter in early April 774. The Lombard city finally fell that June.


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

Charlemagne: Translated Sources, P.D. King

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

This post was first published on Jan. 7, 2013 on author Tinney Heath’s blog Historical Fiction Research.

Fear of Death vs. Fear of Hell


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In the 750s, Saint Lebwin needed to make a decision: stay in his native England and its familiarity or sail to a foreign land and preach to a possibly hostile audience.

His hagiography says God called Lebwin to be a missionary, but Lebwin hesitated. He might have known about Saint Boniface’s martyrdom in Frisia. Perhaps, Lebwin admired Boniface for his faith and bravery, and believed Boniface was assured his place in heaven. But Lebwin might not have wanted to meet his end that way.

Medieval people were afraid death like the rest of us.  Maybe even more so, because the priests’ sermons often included eternal punishment for those who disobeyed. Or suffering for a while in Purgatory. Fear for the fate of his soul might have motivated Lebwin the third time God admonished him to go to the Continent.

Once he left home, Lebwin remained committed to his mission, despite the dangers. For more about him, see my post on English Historical Fiction Authors.

Saint Lebwin

An illustration of Lebwin by Frederick Bloemaert, between 1635 and 1650 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

No Such Thing As Medieval Journalists


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Writing a guest post comparing historical novelists and journalists reminded me of another consequence of a society having only a select few who can write: no fair, independent truth-tellers.

In Charlemagne’s day, writing was left to the clerks. Charlemagne himself could read but not write, despite some attempts later in life to scratch out letters on a wax tablet. Those clerks served the Church or were employed by an aristocrat. Their purpose was to do what the boss wanted, not provide a fair, objective account of events for the masses.

Not that it would make much difference for medieval folks. While secular and Church nobility formed alliances with royalty, commoners had no say in who would lead them. As imperfect as our politics are today, our citizenry does have that say, and the independent voices of journalists are critical in decision making.

Journalists aren’t perfect—no one is. And I, a former newspaper reporter and editor, am the first to criticize short-sighted corporate decisions in the interest of the next quarterly profit. But the people who shared the newsroom with me were honest professionals verifying their facts and trying to tell all sides of a story.

For more about how novelists and journalists face similar issues, see my post at Home Row.


Not a journalist: Einhard’s biography of Charlemagne is far from an objective account (15th century, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Coming Nov. 2, 2016: ‘The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar’


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When the rights for my first two books reverted to me, my goal was to get both of The Ashes of Heaven's Pillarthem back up on the market on my terms. So, it is with pleasure that I announce The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar will be rereleased Nov. 2, 2016. The ebook is available for preorder at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, and iTunes. Like The Cross and the Dragon, Ashes will also be available in print at Amazon and other vendors. If you’d like an email when the print book is available, send a note to kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

I wrote Ashes as both a companion and a counterpoint to Cross and Dragon. Unlike journalism, fiction is telling a story from a distinct point of view, which by its nature means others are excluded. My heroine and hero in Cross and Dragon are Frankish Christian aristocrats, and I wanted to know what the history was like for the pagans in Continental Saxony, especially the commoners. A family of Saxons hijacked the plot of my second book, and Ashes was born. Here is the blurb:

Can a Mother’s Love Triumph over War?

772: Charlemagne’s battles in Saxony have left Leova with nothing but her two children, Deorlaf and Sunwynn. Her beloved husband died in combat. Her faith lies shattered in the ashes of the Irminsul, the Pillar of Heaven. The relatives obligated to defend her and her family instead sell them into slavery.

In Francia, Leova is resolved to protect her son and daughter, even if it means sacrificing her honor. Her determination only grows stronger as Sunwynn blossoms into a beautiful young woman attracting the lust of a cruel master and Deorlaf becomes a headstrong man willing to brave starvation and demons to free his family. Yet Leova’s most difficult dilemma comes in the form of a Frankish friend, Hugh. He saves Deorlaf from a fanatical Saxon and is Sunwynn’s champion—but he is the warrior who slew Leova’s husband.

Set against a backdrop of historic events, including the destruction of the Irminsul, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar explores faith, friendship, and justice—a tale described by reviewers as “transportive and triumphant,” “captivating,” and “compelling.”

If you’d like to know more, you can read an excerpt and the first chapter at my website,


An Abbey as a Divorce Settlement?


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In The Cross and the Dragon, my heroine, Alda, is frustrated that she hasn’t been able to conceive a child. The stakes for her are higher than an emotion, as you will see in this excerpt.

TCATD_FINAL_SMALL“I have something to give you,” Bertrada said. Halting her steps, she reached into an embroidered pouch on her girdle and withdrew a small gold disk on a chain. “It is a medal of Saint Andrew. I did not conceive for the first three years I was married, but after I prayed to him, Charles quickened inside me.”

“I … I … thank you,” Alda stammered.

Alda gazed at the medal in her hand. It showed an image of a haloed, bearded man with an odd-looking cross in the background. She picked out the Latin words for “saint” and “pray” in the inscription along the edges. She kissed the medal.

“You have been a good wife to Hruodland,” the queen mother said, “and I pray that his seed takes hold in your womb. But if God does not answer our prayers, perhaps He is calling you to a vocation. Taking the veil would be honorable and richly rewarded.”

Alda’s cheeks burned and her spine stiffened. Should I not bear a son, she wants to free Hruodland for another marriage by offering me an abbey. Alda chose her words carefully. “I thank you for the medal and your prayers. I will heed God’s will, whatever it may be.”

Closing her fingers around the medal, she tried to push aside the doubts creeping into her mind. Is Hruodland trying to set me aside?

Although Alda is fictional, her circumstances are not. Marriage was not a sacrament, but ending the relationship the wrong way could result in a feud. If the wife willingly took the veil, both families could walk away with something. The woman would have land and people to rule and could maintain an influence in politics. This brings up another question: was a medieval woman better off as a countess or an abbess? Visit Annie’s Whitehead Casting Light upon the Shadows for my perspective.

A New Saint for My Heroine


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I had not decided I would write about Saint Wigbert until I saw this tantalizing bit in The Catholic Encyclopedia: “during an incursion of the Saxons (774) his remains were taken for safety to Büraburg.”

Büraburg? Where the heroine of Queen of the Darkest Hour is from? Let me rewind a tad and make a confession. Fastrada, Charlemagne’s fourth wife—or third if you believe royal propaganda—was from east of the Rhine, but exactly where is uncertain. I’ve seen Thuringia and the Main valley. For her to feel real to me, I needed a specific place, so I picked the hilltop fortress of Büraburg. It was a not a royal property, and just as important, it was a strategic location. A Frankish king still at war with the Saxons would want to ally himself with whoever controlled the place.

Büraburg also gave me fuel for the story. I could place my heroine there as a child while the Saxons attacked. Those traumatic events would follow her into adulthood and shape how she felt about the pagans so close to her lands and how she advised her husband. Now I learned my Fastrada was in the physical presence of a saint while stones from catapults crashed into the walls.

I originally had Fastrada revering Saint Ursula of Cologne, who with her virginal companions (by the 9th century legend has the number at 11,000) were martyred in the city but later saved it.

But Wigbert was with her in a literal sense during a crisis, so he will continue to have a presence in my version of events. For more about Wigbert, see my post on English Historical Fiction Authors.


St. Wigbert” by Klemens Löffler, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912.

Stations of the Cross at Buraburg

Stations of the Cross at Büraburg in 2013 (photo by By AxelHH, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Charlemagne’s Family Feud and the Fate of the Church


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Charlemagne and Pope Hadrian I

A 1493 miniature from the Chronicles of France, printed by Antoine Verard, depicts Pope Hadrian I meeting Charlemagne (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain image).

When he was merely King Charles, one of Charlemagne’s family feuds involved his ex-father-in-law, along with his widowed sister-in-law and her young sons, and the fate of the Church hung in the balance. For Alda, the heroine of The Cross and the Dragon, these were current events.

On his deathbed in 768, King Pepin followed Frankish custom and split the realm between his surviving sons, Charles and Carloman. Charles was 20, and Carloman was 17. Both were married to Frankish women Pepin had picked out for them.

The brothers did not get along. Charles put down a rebellion in Aquitaine in 769, with no assistance from Carloman. The queen mother, Bertrada, intervened and worked to ensure peace between her sons along with their cousin Tassilo, the duke of Bavaria, and Lombard King Desiderius, one of whose daughter was the Bavarian duchess.

This was a time when marriages were a means of diplomacy, and in 770, Bertrada was arranging a marriage between Charles and a Lombard princess. In the summer of that year, Pope Stephen III wrote an impassioned letter to both brothers urging them not to marry her. In 770/71, Charles divorced his first wife, the mother of his eldest son Pepin (also called Pepin the Hunchback), and married the Lombard princess.

Shortly after Carloman died (December 4, 771), his widow, Gerberga, fled to Italy with their two young sons. Meanwhile, Charles divorced the Lombard and married Hildegard, whose father ruled over land that used to be in Carloman’s kingdom. She was also from the powerful Agilolfing clan as was Tassilo. Like his father, Charles seized land from his nephews.

In 772, the same year as Charles’s first war in Saxony, Desiderius was trying to get Pope Stephen’s successor, Hadrian I, to anoint Carloman’s sons. The Lombard king seized papal cities and threatened Rome. The pope asked Charles to fulfill his father’s oath as patrician of Rome and come to his aid.

After attempts to bribe Desiderius failed, Charles crossed the Alps in the fall of 773. Desiderius fled to Pavia, while Gerberga and her sons fled to Verona, accompanied by Desiderius’s son, Adalgis. Charles laid siege to Pavia, then took a smaller force to Verona, where Gerberga surrendered voluntarily. Adalgis escaped and became an official in the Byzantine court, and years later, he would cause trouble for his ex-brother-in-law.

Charles returned to Pavia. As the siege wore on, he visited Rome at Easter, presumably seeking divine intervention. He finally won after a year-long siege, seized the Lombard crown, and sent Desiderius, his wife, and a daughter to the cloister.

History is silent on the fate of Gerberga and her sons, yet one can reasonably speculate they, too, ended up at an abbey. After all, it is how Charles’s two other family feuds ended, one involving his eldest son, Pepin; the other with the duke of Bavaria and his family.

A version of this post was originally published at Unusual Historicals on April 25, 2012.


Charlemagne: Translated Sources, P.D. King

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

Charlemagne: Empire and Society, edited by Joanna Story

The Heroine’s Hometown Is Fictional. Really.


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I’m happy to welcome my friend author Donna Cronk to Outtakes. Donna has written two contemporary Christian novels whose widowed heroine Samantha Jerrett must start over and decides to do so in a small town that feels familiar to anyone who’s lived in one, both the good and the not-so-good. Here, Donna discusses the place that inspired her.—Kim 

By Donna Cronk

Donna CronkI have no idea how one is supposed to write a novel.

Does one come up with a story outline? Start with a character or two and tell their stories? Does it all begin with a theme?

Beats me.

I can only tell you how my first novel, Sweetland of Liberty Bed & Breakfast, came about, and how I continued the story with That Sweet Place: At Home in the Heartland.

The writing started with a place—a most specific place to me, but a place that each reader envisions in her own way. That place, whatever name you give it, is called home.

For me, home is Liberty, Indiana, because that is my hometown. Even though I’m transparent that when I wrote the books, Liberty is in my mind the backdrop for the action, I decided to call the town something else. After all, it was Liberty where my novels unfolded, but it was a fictional version of Liberty. So I called it Freedom.

I’m told that people in my real hometown try to figure out who is real, who is not, and most of all, who is the real-life nasty character—Samantha’s nemesis—the one I call Ellen.

They don’t believe me when I tell them that Ellen is made up, that she was necessary to set up conflict and move the story forward. They hear me out, then whisper, “I think I know who she is.”

I’ve had readers from other small towns tell me that surely I modeled the cover picture of the bed and breakfast after a house in their hometowns. Well, no, I didn’t.

Yet I love it when the story, characters, and plot resonate with readers from near and far. I like to think it’s because the stories are believable and the characters transferrable to people we’ve all known. Don’t we all tend to see ourselves through literature?

Union County Courthouse

Union County Courthouse in Liberty, Indiana (photo by Donna Cronk)

The first book began as a reaction to The Empty Nest. As life spun out of control when my boys left home, my longing for home, true home, got the best of me.

My husband mentioned that there’s nowhere else in retirement he would rather live than Liberty, Indiana. And that’s when I started this fictional story about a woman whose life is a mess, so she returns home. And there she gets into another mess. Place, even if it is home, doesn’t save us from ourselves.

My stories unfolded in this unique place I call Freedom. My main character went home again. And I got to go along for the ride.

Won’t you join me there?

That Sweet Place coverDonna Cronk lives in Pendleton, Indiana. By day, she is a newspaper journalist in New Castle, Indiana. By night she enjoys creating inspirational programs for women. Her novels are Sweetland of Liberty Bed & Breakfast and the sequel, That Sweet Place: At Home in the Heartland. They are on Amazon. Contact her at newsgirl.1958 [at] gmail [dot] com. Visit her website at

Yes, ‘Barbarians’ Did Have Art


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Several years ago, a then-critique partner commented on my reference to a mural in an early medieval building in The Cross and the Dragon—something like, “Weren’t they barbarians? How could they have art?”

Justice and warfare in eighth century Europe fits my modern-day definition of barbaric. Despite that grim reality, the need for art and beauty transcends time and geography. Cultures lacking our scientific knowledge and technology will display their creativity and skill, even in everyday objects like a clay pot or woven basket.

The Dark Ages was no exception to the yearning for art. In fact the Franks, so-called barbarians, had many attributes of a civilized society: poets, scholars, theologians, doctors and midwives, books and music, skilled craftsmen, and artists. Most of that without the benefit of a textbook.

So I’ve come to a couple of conclusions:

  1. A long-ago society can still be civilized, even when it lacks some of our 21st century standards.
  2. To assume a society was bereft of art denies its people their humanity.

For more about a particular early medieval art form, see my post about Carolingian frescoes on Unusual Historicals.

Carolingian Fresco of the Flight to Egypt

A fresco of the flight into Egypt, circa 825, Monastery Church of Saint John in Müstair, Switzerland (public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Medieval Kids Didn’t Choose How They’d Spend Their Lives


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No medieval child was ever asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

That question reveals how we Americans value our individualism. From a very young age, we’re taught that we determine our fate.

No so in the Middle Ages. That decision was in the hands of the parents, everything from whom their child would marry to whether they’d join the clergy.

Charlemagne and Byzantine Empress Irene, for example, arranged a betrothal between his 6-year-old daughter and her 10-year-old son in 781. Seven years later, each monarch took credit for breaking off the agreement, even though the teenage bridegroom was upset. (We don’t know how the bride felt.)

That same concept applied when parents gave a young child to the Church. This comes to mind as I write another post about medieval parents who did just that. In fact, if we are to believe the source, it’s the very reason the father got married in the first place. See my post about Saint Wilgils at English Historical Fiction Authors for more.

St. Willibrord Sculpture

Wilgils’s son, Willibrord (photo by Ytzen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)