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When brother-in-law King Charles seized her late husband’s lands, Gerberga decided to fight for her sons’ inheritance and her own power as queen mother and regent.

After Frankish King Carloman died at age 20 in December 771, Charles moved swiftly to seize the kingdom. Was it determination or desperation that made Gerberga flee with an entourage to Lombardy? Was it her idea or did her late husband’s magnates persuade her?

We don’t know how she reached the realm of Charles’s ex-father-in-law. She would have either had to cross the Alps or go by sea. The slow travel in general posed the danger of brigands, but add winter weather and at least one boy too young to ride, and this journey becomes especially risky.

A cropped image from the 1882 "Costumes of All Nations"

A cropped image from the 1882 Costumes of All Nations depicting Frankish costume (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons).

We don’t know much about Gerberga, except that she was a Frankish noblewoman selected by father-in-law Pepin to marry Carloman, but we can make a few guesses. Women typically were teenagers when they married and could be as young as 13. Men could marry at age 16. The most Gerberga and Carloman could have been married was four years, and their elder son was no more than 3 years old, barely old enough to start riding.

That this queen mother, perhaps as young as 17, made a dangerous journey to Lombardy with these two little boys tells us something about her character.

Seeking aid from Desiderius, the king of Lombardy, was not the safest thing to do, either, but she had no other choice. Desiderius had clashed violently with Rome before, and his retaliation was brutal and typically medieval (for more about him, see my guest post on Tinney Heath’s Historical Fiction Research blog). However, he was the powerful ally she needed – and one who was furious with Charles over the Frankish monarch’s repudiation of his daughter.

Desiderius saw her sons as a way to get back at Charles for the insult to his daughter and restore his alliance with Francia. He tried to get the pope to anoint her sons as kings, even seizing papal lands to pressure him. The pope refused and eventually asked for Charles to fulfill his vow as protector of Rome and come to his aid.

When Charles invaded in 773, Desiderius fled to Pavia, and Gerberga and her sons went to Verona, along with Lombard Prince Adelchis and a Frankish nobleman named Autchar. Adelchis escaped Verona and headed toward the Byzantine empire.

Charles, learning of Adelchis’s flight, went to Verona with a contingent of Franks, while most of the army held siege in Pavia. Gerberga surrendered voluntarily when Charles arrived.

The sources don’t say why she surrendered. Perhaps she realized she was deserted, knew there was no way she could win, and wished to avoid further bloodshed or the starvation and disease that accompanies a siege. Perhaps, she thought if she surrendered now, she and her sons would be sent to the cloister rather than executed.

The sources are silent about her fate, but having Gerberga and her sons in the cloister is plausible. They would have been among other troublesome relatives Charles sent to the monastery such as Desiderius and later on Charles’s first cousin Bavarian Duke Tassilo and even his eldest son, Pepin (often called Pepin the Hunchback – medieval folk were a tad insensitive).

Gerberga did not win her battle against her brother-in-law, whom we today called Charles the Great, or Charlemagne, but her story illustrates that medieval women were not damsels in distress waiting for a hero to rescue them.

Sources

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

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