Who was Himiltrude?
Was she Charlemagne’s first wife, whom he divorced to marry a Lombard princess? Or was the mother of Charles’s eldest son, Pepin, merely a concubine?
Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard calls her a concubine, and some scholars agree with him. But as you can see from the title of this post, I think she was a wife. Here is what Pope Stephen said in an angry letter to both Charles and his younger brother, Carloman, fearing one of the Frankish kings would wed the daughter of his political enemy, the king of the Lombards: “Moreover, most gentle and most gracious God-instituted kings, you are already, by His will and decision and by your father’s order, joined in lawful marriage, having accepted as most illustrious and noble kings wives of great beauty from the same land as yourselves.” (Charlemagne: Translated Sources by P.D. King.)
No one disputes Carloman was married. When he died in 771, his widow, Gerberga, fought for their sons’ rights. While Stephen’s successor, Hadrian, refused to anoint Carloman’s son, he didn’t argue they were bastards. He would have had an easier time if he could.
It makes no sense that Charles and Carloman’s father, Pepin, would arrange for only his younger son’s marriage when he planned to split the kingdom between his heirs, following Frankish tradition. A matter of political alliances, marriage was much too important to be left to young men. When Pepin died in 768, Charles was 20, and Carloman was 17.
Little is known about Himiltrude other than she was a Frankish noblewoman and Pepin’s mother. Her skeleton might have been found at the double monastery of Nivelles, which was connected to the royal family.
We don’t who was abbess at Nivelles at the time, so this allows a novelist some creative speculation. Might appointing Himiltrude to rule an abbey, and control its property and other assets, have been something of a divorce settlement to keep peace with her family?
Still, medieval women often did not go away quietly. Gerberga crossed the Alps and sought help from the ruthless Lombard king, the father of Charles’s second ex-wife.
As for Himiltrude, it is possible she bided her time and waited to see if Charles would treat her son right.
Might she have become bitter as she watched another woman’s sons be named heirs to the kingdom? Might she have plotted against her ex-husband to place her own son on the throne and become queen mother, the most powerful woman in Francia? At least one scholar has speculated as much, based on the little evidence that is available, and for me, that was good enough to incorporate into Queen of the Darkest Hour.