Himiltrude: Charlemagne’s First Ex-Wife

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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.

Empress

Might Himiltrude have seen herself as an empress? (From Costume of All Nations, 1882)

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.

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Did Charlemagne Worry about Too Many Heirs?

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When Fastrada married Charlemagne, she did not need to bear a son to ensure her place as queen. Her predecessor Hildegard had already provided Charles with three boys, and she and Charles likely made plans on how to divide kingdom among her sons, with Pepin (Himiltrude’s child) receiving a prize archbishopric.

Had Fastrada born a son, he too would have expected a kingdom, at the expense of his brothers. How Fastrada and her family felt about her children remains a mystery, and it provides fodder for a novelist. In Queen of the Darkest Hour, Fastrada and her father want a boy while Charles has a different desire.

For more about why Charles might have prayed for a girl, see my post on Susan Keogh’s blog.

Charlemagne's family tree

Charlemagne’s family tree from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514) (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Portable Reliquaries: Many Saints in One Small Space

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In Queen of the Darkest Hour, I have a newly baptized Christian swearing an oath on saints’ relics. A lot of saints’ relics. It is possible, if the holy objects are tiny enough for a portable reliquary.

Medieval portable reliquaries were the size and shape of a purse. It is possible a pilgrim could visit multiple sites, collect miniscule, ordinary looking objects, and house them inside the portable reliquary before it was gilded with metal and decorated.

Portable reliquaries allowed pilgrims to be in the presence of a saint even when they had returned home. They were also handy in politics, when someone promised to be a vassal to his lord.

In Queen, this new Christian was an important person—it would be a spoiler for me to identify him—and he was provided with two reliquaries for his vow to King Charles, my heroine’s husband: “By the bone fragments of the holy martyrs Ewald the Fair and Ewald the Black, the hairs of the holy martyr Ursula, the oil of the lamps burning above the tomb of the holy martyr Boniface, the stone chip from the tomb of Saint Lioba, the dust from Saint Willibald’s and Saint Walburga’s graves, and a splinter from the True Cross, I make this oath and will keep it all my days, so help me God, creator of the heavens and earth.”

For more about portable reliquaries, see my post on English Historical Fiction Authors.

Portable Reliquaries

In the front left, a 9th century gold-gilt wooden reliquary with a 12th century enameled cross (photo by Kleon3, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons)

Two Queens. Two Epitaphs. Lots of Speculations.

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Comparing and contrasting the epitaphs for Hildegard and Fastrada, Charlemagne’s third and fourth wives, can lead some misreading between the lines.

When they died—Hildegard in 783 and Fastrada in 794—Charles treated them the same. He had them interred with honors within a church, the most desirable of hallowed ground. He donated land to the Church and paid for Masses on behalf of their souls, and he commissioned epitaphs. Paul the Deacon is loquacious in his praise for Hildegard. What Theodulf wrote for Fastrada is shorter:

“Here lie the glorious remains of Queen Fastrada, whom cold death snatched away in the bloom of life. Noble by birth, she was united in marriage to her mighty husband, and nobler still, she is now united to the King of Heaven. The better part of her soul, King Charles himself, she left behind, to whom a merciful God may grant long life.”

Theodulf was famous for a lengthy poem lauding the royal family, so scholars have speculated on whether the epitaph’s brevity means something.

Was Fastrada so awful that Theodulf had a hard time finding something nice to say about her and was being tactful? If Theodulf had also written Hildegard’s epitaph, I would give credence to that.

Queen chess piece

A 19th century queen chess piece inspired by Charlemagne (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Instead, I’ll provide a little speculation of my own. It is possible Paul’s grief drove him to write verse upon verse while Theodulf’s impaired him. Having supervised an obit desk, I can attest that grief affects everyone differently. Theodulf’s later poem praising Charles’s family was crafted under different circumstances. We don’t know how long it took the poet to compose or how many revisions he made.

Theodulf’s attitude toward women comes into play as well. He did write “A Woman’s Wiles,” urging men not to be manipulated by their wives. But when he refers to the king as “the better part of her soul,” he likely is referring to Fastrada and Charles’s close relationship—the original meaning of “better half.”

Perhaps, we are complicating something simple. Theodulf might have been acknowledging the grief of a bereaved husband while trying to comfort him. He says Fastrada is “united with the King of Heaven” yet left her husband all too soon.

Who Was the Real Queen Fastrada?

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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.

Launch Day for ‘Queen of the Darkest Hour’

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When I was considering Queen Fastrada’s story for my third book in the days of Charlemagne, I knew it would be different from anything else I had written—and that was a good reason to do it.

My heroine and antagonist, Fastrada and her stepson Pepin, were real people, and I needed to tread carefully. Fortunately for this novelist, not much is known about them, and the history has gaps that an author can fill with whatever best suits the story.

And now after several years, on and off, of research, writing, and revising (and revising again and again), I am proud, excited, and thrilled to announce my third novel is out in ebook and print. In Queen of the Darkest Hour, Fastrada must stop a conspiracy before it destroys everyone and everything she loves.

Queen of the Darkest Hour

The story opens in 783, the day before her wedding to Charles, king of the Franks and a widower with seven children and an eighth on the way by a concubine. Fastrada is haunted by the Saxons’ attack on her home fortress, and more wars loom. Yet her greatest peril lurks within the castle walls: Pepin, Charles’s son by his embittered former wife. Blaming his father for the curse that twisted his spine, Pepin rejects a prize archbishopric and plots with his uncle and mother to seize the throne.

Based on historic events during Charlemagne’s reign, Queen of the Darkest Hour is the tale of a family conflict endangering an entire country—and the price to save it.

Queen of the Darkest Hour is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBooks, and Smashwords. If you’d like a preview before you decide, you can read an excerpt and the first chapter at kimrendfeld.com.

Alcuin: the Palace Schoolmaster in Charlemagne’s Court

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When Fastrada married Charlemagne in 783, she was joining a court full of intellectuals, most of whom were foreigners. For the sake of storytelling, I couldn’t include all those scholars in my latest novel, Queen of the Darkest Hour, but Alcuin of York appears as a secondary character. He is the master of the Palace School, teaching King Charles and his family.

Ever since I started researching 8th century Francia and Saxony, Alcuin has fascinated me. Although he lived more than 1,200 years ago, some of his ideas are relevant today. Below are a couple of gems I’ve come across.

In a letter to Meginfrid the chamberlain (although the real audience is King Charles), Alcuin outlined how the process of converting pagans to Christianity should work: teach first, then baptize, then expound on the Gospel. “And if any one of these three is lacking, the listener’s soul cannot enjoy salvation. Moreover, faith, as St. Augustine says, is a matter of will, not of compulsion. A person can be drawn to faith but cannot forced to it.”

Regarding the arts, he said, “My master Ecgberht used to tell me that the arts were discovered by the wisest of men, and it would be a deep and lasting shame if we allowed them to perish for want of zeal. But many are so faint-hearted as not care about knowing the reason for such things.”

That got me wondering: how did Alcuin become such a wise man? What was his origin story? See today’s post on English Historical Fiction Authors for the answer.

Charlemagne and Alcuin

Detail from 1830 painting by Jean-Victor Schnetz (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

 

What Does the Medieval Night Sky Tell Us about God?

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Medieval astrological charts

From a 9th century manuscript (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In Charlemagne’s day (748-814), astronomy was a blend of natural philosophy and religion, a study of the creation—and the creator.

Medieval people saw God’s hand in everything, from providing a good harvest to feed them through winter to healing the sick to deciding the victor of the war. So they would do what they could to gain God’s favor. Three days of litanies were part of the military strategy. In the medieval mind, searching the night sky for clues to God’s will made sense.

The universe had to be orderly, and Carolingians relied on Roman books to explain it: Pliny’s Natural History, Macrobius’s Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, Martianus Capella’s Marriage of Philology and Mercury, and Calcidius’s Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus. Early medieval intellectuals placed Earth at the center of the universe and the sun, moon, and seven planets revolving around it in eccentric patterns—that is, circles within each other but not sharing the same center—and at different angles to the Earth’s plane. Planets, the keepers of God’s time, could also move in epicycles, loops along a circle.

King Charles himself took a keen interest in astronomy and corresponded with scholars about phenomena such as eclipses and the size of the moon. His biographer Einhard elaborates, “He learned how to calculate and with great diligence and curiosity investigated the course of the stars.”  Charles passed on his interest in astronomy, along with the six other liberal arts, to his children, both sons and daughters. In a poem, the scholar Alcuin mentions a daughter gazing at the night sky and praising God, who created it.

The pursuit of knowledge fit into Charles’s imperial ambitions. In 780, he recruited foreign intellectuals, and in the decade that followed, workers were converting the royal villa at Aachen to a palace, one of many construction projects Charles would undertake.

Astronomical events were important enough to record in the annals. The year 810 saw two eclipses of the sun and the moon, and 812 had a midday eclipse of the sun. To Einhard, those eclipses, spots on the sun lasting seven days, and a ball of brilliant fire that fell from the sky during a war were among the signs that Charles was near the end of his life.

Einhard says Charles ignored the omens. Perhaps the emperor decided not to make a big deal of them publicly. But a year after that last eclipse, the 65-year-old monarch in declining health appeared to be putting his affairs in order. He invited his son Louis, the king of Aquitaine, to the assembly in Aachen, placed a crown on Louis’s head, and named him co-emperor. Charles also ordered that his grandson Bernard be called king of Italy, succeeding Louis’s late brother.

A few months after the assembly, a high fever and pleurisy sent Charles to his bed. He died a week later on January 28, 814. The annals say nothing about the sky that night.

Sources

Einhard’s The Life of Charlemagne translated by Evelyn Scherabon Firchow and Edwin H. Zeydel

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

P.D. King’s Charlemagne: Translated Sources

Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, by Pierre Riché, translated by Jo Ann McNamara

Planetary Diagrams for Roman Astronomy in Medieval Europe, Ca. 800-1500, Volume 94, Part 3, by Bruce Eastwood and Gerd Grasshoff

A History of Western Astrology Volume II: The Medieval and Modern Worlds by Nicholas Campion

Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe by Stephen C. McCluskey

Ordering the Heavens: Roman Astronomy and Cosmology in the Carolingian Renaissance by Bruce Eastwood

This post was originally published July 27, 2016, on Unusual Historicals.

The Prince and the Courtier, a Medieval Mystery

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During my research for Queen of the Darkest Hour, I encountered Osulf, a pupil of the scholar Alcuin and part of Prince Karl’s retinue. (Karl, also called Charles the Younger, stood to inherit the bulk of Charlemagne’s empire but preceded his father in death.)

The poet and courtier Theodulf alludes to Karl and Osulf in a parody of Virgil’s Second Eclogue, about the shepherd Corydon and his love for the boy Alexis. What is a novelist to do?

My answer: whatever works for the story. The parody is one poem by someone who saw Alcuin as a rival and likely saw a vulnerability in Osulf. Not many people know about the poem, and it doesn’t prove anything. For my tale, I needed Karl to be interested in women. So here is how I handled the matter, as my heroine, Queen Fastrada, worries about her stepsons’ intentions with the daughter of count:

Karl was a different story. Courtiers had complained he was too close to a British Saxon man in his retinue, one of Alcuin’s pupils, and she had felt relieved when his guards told her they had seen him with a harlot from time to time. “He hasn’t threatened a noblewoman’s chastity,” she said. “How was he with Richilde during the hunt?”

If another novelist were to portray Karl and Osulf as lovers, I wouldn’t argue with the choice. This type of work is called fiction for a reason, and it allows plenty of room for speculation.

For more about Karl and Osulf (and Alcuin and Theodulf), see my post on English Historical Fiction Authors.

Charlemagne's court

By Jean-Victor Schnetz, 1830 (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Intellectuals: The Start of the Carolingian Renaissance

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In 780, Frankish King Charles might have been thinking about his realm’s long-term future and wanted to give his empire an intellectual foundation, one to associate Francia with ancient Rome and rival the Byzantines.

At that time, the man we today call Charlemagne had ruled for 12 years and had conquered Aquitaine and Lombardy. Although he was still warring with Saxon tribes, he had gained significant territory. The father of six (with No. 7 on the way) was 32, no longer a young man by medieval standards.

He and his queen, Hildegard, who was from a long-established, powerful family, started a journey to Rome, perhaps with empire-building on their minds, judging by what happened in Rome the following spring.

But first the royal family needed to spend the winter in Pavia. There, Charles might have met Paul the Deacon, a Lombard who wrote Historia Romana and other works and had taught in the overthrown court of Pavia, and Peter of Pisa, a deacon and poet who would later teach the king Latin grammar.

1499 depiction of Charles and Hildegard

1499 depiction of Charles and Hildegard (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

 

When the Frankish royals resumed their journey in warmer weather, Charles met Alcuin in Parma. Alcuin, a Saxon from Britain, already earned a reputation as master of the cathedral school at York, and Charles invited him to lead the Palace School in Francia. Alcuin agreed, after he got permission from his superior upon his return to York.

In Rome, the pope anointed Charles and Hildegard’s three- and four-year-old sons as subkings, and their six-year-old daughter was betrothed to the child emperor of Byzantium. The Frankish king and the pope apparently discussed Charles’s uneasy relations with his cousin the duke of Bavaria, resulting in high-level diplomatic talks later.

After Easter, Charles and Hildegard returned to Francia in the company of intelligent men: Peter of Pisa; Paul the Deacon; Paulinus of Aquileia, who would later write about theology and play a role in converting the conquered Avars in the 790s, and Fardulf, a poet who in the 790s exposed a plot to overthrow Charles and was rewarded with the abbey of Saint-Denis.

Charles’s intellectuals would come and go in fulfilling their other roles, and his circle of scholars would expand to include other nationalities such as Theodulf, a Visigoth from Hispania and leading satirist, poet, author, and bishop of Orléans, and Dungal from Ireland. The circle had a few Franks such as Angilbert, Charles’s trusted aide, diplomat, poet, lay abbot of Saint-Riquier who would transform the place into a center for learning, and later almost-husband (technically a Friedelmann) of Charles’s daughter Bertha.

Charlemagne and Alcuin

1830 painting by Jean-Victor Schnetz of Charlemagne and Alcuin (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

These thinkers and writers were sometimes rivals who were not above teasing and sniping at each other in their poetry. But thanks to them and others, Francia produced more literary work than before.

Charles’s own education level in the 780s is unclear, but it was higher than most of his illiterate countrymen’s. Likely, his mother taught him his first lessons, and she hired a churchman to tutor him as he got older. By the end of his life, he could read but not write. He could converse in Latin in addition to his native Frankish and understood Greek better than he could speak it. He enjoyed the liberal arts ranging from literature to math to music and astronomy, studied philosophy, and had his sons and his daughters educated.

He never stopped learning, and in old age, he tried his hand at writing. He didn’t need that skill. He had clerks for that as did the rest of the nobility. But this hunger for knowledge might been another reason he recruited intellectuals.

Originally published on Unusual Historicals.

Sources

Einhard’s The Life of Charlemagne translated by Evelyn Scherabon Firchow and Edwin H. Zeydel

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

Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riché, translated by Jo Ann McNamara

Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance, edited with an introduction by Peter Godman