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In The Cross and the Dragon, Frankish Queen Mother Bertrada gives my heroine, Alda, a medal of Saint Andrew, the saint women prayed to for a child. After almost three years of marriage, Alda and Hruodland have not conceived.

Bertrada tells Alda her prayers were answered after she and the late king, Pepin, were childless for three years. What she doesn’t tell Alda is how close she came to never being queen.

Bertha Broadfoot, 1848, by Eugène Oudiné

Bertha Broadfoot, 1848, by Eugène Oudiné at Luxembourg Garden, Paris, shows a powerful woman with a scepter in one hand and a man on a throne in the other (copyrighted photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons).

The historic Bertrada of Laon and Pepin, then mayor of the palace, came from adjoining lands and were married in 744. According to the most recent scholarship, they did not conceive right away.

After two years, Pepin sent an emissary to Pope Zacharias inquiring about illicit marriages. Was he looking for a way out of a marriage that failed to produce an heir? In 747, Pepin gets his answer from Pope Zacharias. Citing two canon, Zacharias says remarriage after divorce is prohibited.

By that time, Bertrada’s prayers might have been answered. Their first child Charles, whom we today call Charlemagne, was born in 748. With a healthy heir, you would think her position is secure, even as Pepin elected king of Francia in 750.

Yet a mystery arises in a 770 letter from Pope Stephen III to Charles and his brother, Carloman, who each inherited portions of their father’s realm and were both kings. The pope is responding to a rumor that one of them will marry the daughter of the Lombard king, his enemy. This is Queen Mother Bertrada’s idea, and Stephen is none too happy. He rails against the Lombards and tells the brothers they can’t set their Frankish wives aside.

“Remember this, most eminent sons,” the pope writes, “that our predecessor of holy memory, the Lord Pope Stephen, adjured your father, of most excellent memory, that he should in no wise presume to cast aside your lady mother, and he, as in truth a most Christian king, obeyed that salutary admonition.”

Stephen II was pope from 752-57. If Stephen did intervene to save the Frankish king’s marriage, it likely would have been in 754, the same time he strengthened Pepin’s kingship through anointing.

Why would Pepin want to divorce the mother of his two healthy sons? It might call their legitimacy as heirs into question and introduce instability into his rule when he was constantly fighting wars.

Although I have seen a reference to Pepin wanting to marry Angla, wife of Theodrad, it doesn’t make sense. If one pope told him he could not remarry after a divorce, a successor would have frowned on it as well, especially if he was breaking up another marriage. And who was Angla?

Bertrada and Pepin at St. Denis

Queen Bertrada and King Pepin are depicted together in 13th century funerary statues at the Basilica of Saint Denis, where they are entombed (photo by Sailko via Wikimedia Commons, used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License).

Pepin was not the only one anointed at St. Denis in 754. So were his sons and perhaps even Bertrada herself. Until his death in 768, Pepin was a steadfast husband.

The anointing in 754 is either one heck of a peace offering, or Pepin was not seeking a  divorce in the 750s. My theory is rather boring: Pope Stephen III named the wrong predecessor.

Still, if Pepin did try to divorce his queen, I cannot help but marvel at what a formidable personality Bertrada must have been to keep her marriage intact.

Iona, Tara, and Soissons: The Origin of the Royal Anointing Ritual by Michael J. Enright

Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to John Paul II by Richard P. McBrien

Holy matrimony: a treatise on the divine laws of marriage by Oscar Daniel Watkins

Carolingian Chronicles, which includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers

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