In the early months of 772, Bertrada was the queen mother of Francia, one of the most influential political positions, yet I doubt anyone would envy her situation. Her younger son, King Carloman, had died on December 4 at age 20, and her elder son, King Charles, quickly seized his late brother’s realm, denying her grandsons their inheritance.
On top of that, Charles divorced a Lombard princess, the wife that Bertrada had picked out for him, and married Hildegard, the daughter of an important count in his brother’s kingdom.
In medieval Francia, there is more a stake than a mom embarrassed by her son’s scandalous behavior. In royal circles, marriages were a means of building alliances. Charles’s marriage to Hildegard solidified his hold on Carloman’s lands, but his divorce endangered Francia’s relationship with Lombardy.
For a little context, let’s rewind four years. On his deathbed in 768, King Pepin divided his lands between sons Charles and Carloman, following Frankish custom. Charles’s kingdom formed a crescent around Carloman’s. Charles was 20 and Carloman, 17, and both likely were already married to brides their father had chosen.
The brothers did not get along, and tensions increased when Carloman refused to help his brother quash a 769 rebellion in Aquitaine. Enter Queen Mother Bertrada, who had taken the widow’s veil. Bertrada might have wanted to prevent a civil war and preserve the kingdom her husband had built.
It’s unclear whether Lombard King Desiderius or Bertrada thought up a union or two between their children, but she agreed to a marriage between Charles and one of Desiderius’s daughters, even if that meant setting aside Charles’s then wife, Himiltrude, and offending a noble Frankish family. A marriage between Charles and a Lombard meant Charles would have access to Italy without passing through his brother’s realm and therefore less reason to attack his brother.
The spring and summer of 770 was a mix of slow, dangerous travel and diplomacy for Bertrada. She spoke first to Carloman then traveled through Bavaria, the duchy held by the kings’ first cousin (also Desiderius’s son-in-law), and crossed the Alps, traversing steep slopes on horseback. In Rome, she reassured the pope, who had written a strongly worded letter against the idea, that this arrangement would be beneficial, then went to Lombardy and returned to Francia with the princess.
After Charles second marriage, Bertrada’s importance at court is evident. In his letters, the pope addresses her first.
The arrangement strengthened Charles’s relationship with Lombard and Rome, but apparently, one of Carloman’s legates, Dodo, didn’t think it was good for his lord. Whether Carloman agreed with Dodo is unclear – the pope gives the king the benefits of the doubt. Nevertheless, in the spring of 771, the pope’s minister turned on him, with warriors led by Dodo. Desiderius came to the pope’s rescue and used that opportunity to take a brutal revenge on the minister.
Sometime that year, Carloman became ill and died several months later. That’s when Bertrada saw all her handiwork fall apart.
In writing The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, I had to grapple with what it would have been like for Bertrada in the aftermath of Carloman’s death. One element that affects my portrayal of her comes from Einhard’s biography of Charlemagne, in which he says the monarch treated his mother with respect and had her in his household. Their only disagreement was the Lombard princess, whom he had married to please her.
I decided she would support her son, but she would be angry, especially as the Franks go to war with Desiderius in the fall of 773.
Bertrada’s widowed daughter-in-law was not about to let her toddling sons lose their kingdom without a fight. That daughter-in-law, Gerberga, is the subject of next week’s post.
Charlemagne: Translated Sources, P.D. King
Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Walters Scholz with Barbara Rogers
“Pavia and Rome: The Lombard Monarchy and the Papacy in the Eighth Century,” Jan T. Hallenbeck, published in 1982 by Transactions of the American Philosophical Society
The Life of Charlemagne, Einhard, translated by Evelyn Scherabon Firchow and Edwin H. Zeydel