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Was Queen Fastrada, Charlemagne’s fourth wife, truly cruel or was she the victim of a backlash against strong-willed, influential women—a backlash we’ve seen in the 20th and 21st centuries with Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton? That question launched me into writing Queen of the Darkest Hour and making Fastrada my heroine.

I first heard of Fastrada while researching my debut novel, The Cross and the Dragon. Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard attributes attempted coups to “the cruelty of Queen Fastrada.” What did this woman do? I thought.

Einhard never elaborates, and since Hildegard was Charles’s queen at the time of my first two books, The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, I set the question aside, figuring that whatever it was, Fastrada must have been a bad person. That is, until I encountered Fastrada again in the Royal Frankish Annals, when she and Charles were overjoyed to see each other upon his return to Worms from Rome.

Maybe there was more to this story. Like how Thuringians might have resented Charles making peace with a Saxon leader who had wreaked havoc on them. Or an eldest son destined for the Church when he really wanted to be a future king like his brothers.

The royal family in Pippin the Musical, with Barry Williams (Pippin), I.M. Hogson (Charlemagne), Louisa Flaningam (Fastrada), and Adam Grammis (Lewis) (public domain via Wikimedia Commons).

What’s known about Fastrada: She married King Charles in October 783, a few months after the deaths of Queen Hildegard and Queen Mother Bertrada. She was joining a family with seven children and possibly an eighth on the way. She was from East Francia, an area where Charles needed an alliance during his ongoing wars with the Saxon peoples, but we don’t know where exactly in East Francia. We don’t know when she was born or what she looked like.

Documentary evidence indicates she and Charles loved each other and that she was influential—only people with power or influence attract enemies. Fastrada died in 794, possibly before her 30th birthday. The cause of her death is not disclosed. There is a clue of a chronic illness in a 791 letter, in which Charles asked her to write to him more often, specifically about her health.

She and Charles’s marriage produced two daughters, both of whom became abbesses. Unlike Hildegard, Fastrada was not the mother of future kings, and the lack of sons might have contributed to the posthumous trashing of her reputation.

Allegations of her cruelty come years after the deaths of Fastrada and Charles. In addition to Einhard, the anonymous writer of the Revised Royal Frankish Annals cited her bad behavior as the reason eldest son Pepin conspired to overthrow his father. Like Einhard, the Reviser doesn’t specify the alleged atrocities, and he implies skepticism about the rebels’ motives.

Cruelty, by medieval standards, was persecuting one’s own people—massacring the enemy was something to brag about. In the primary sources, the closest we come is blinding Thuringian rebels. But in the medieval mind, that brutality is justice for people who deserved death. Nor was this punishment unique to the Franks. The Romans and the Byzantines used this technique on political enemies.

A novelist can make any decision in portraying Fastrada, including a harpy. However, I believe she made a scapegoat to explain the plots against her husband. I chose to make her a true medieval woman with the beliefs and biases that come with her time, yet a sympathetic teenager who wants to be a good wife to her much older husband, a good mother to his children, and a good advocate for her people in East Francia.