Episodes of Medieval Warfare from the History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours

gregoryoftoursOne of the most important sources from the early medieval period is The History of the Franks, written in the late sixth century by Gregory of Tours, the bishop of Tours for twenty-one years and an important political figure in the Merovingian kingdom.

Book Seven: Chapters 34 to 38

In this episode from the year 585, Gundovald the Pretender, who claimed to be a son of Lothar I, is being chased by the army of Guntram, King of the Franks.

34. Now when Gundovald heard that an army was approaching, he crossed the Garonne and made for Convenae with Bishop Sagittarius and the dukes Mummolus and Bladast; Waddo was also with him, but Duke Desiderius had abandoned his cause.  The city crowns an isolated height; with no other mountain near. A great spring issuing from the foot of the hill is enclosed by a very strong tower; men go down to it by a covered way and thus draw water without being exposed to view. Gundovald entered the city at the beginning of Lent, and addressed the people of the town in these words: “Ye know that I am chosen king by all men in the realm of Childebert, and that I have with me no small power. But since my brother, King Guntram, bath sent a huge army against me, ye must bring within the walls all your provisions and all your gear, that ye perish not for want before the divine goodness bringeth me increased support.”  They believed his words, and collecting within the walls all that they could lay hands upon, prepared to make resistance.

At this juncture King Guntram sent a letter to Gundovald in the name of Queen Brunhild, advising him to forsake and disband his army, himself keeping out of sight and passing the winter at Bordeaux: he wrote this with cunning intent, in order that he might learn of him more fully what he meant to do.  But Gundovald remained at Comminges, and spoke to the people, saying: “Behold, the army draweth nigh; sally forth now, and make resistance.” They sallied forth; but his men seized and closed the gates, shutting out the bishop and all the people, and took possession of everything which they found in the town. They discovered such quantity of corn and wine that if they had stood fast like men, provision had not failed them for the space of many years.

35. By this time news had reached King Guntram’s dukes that Gundovald was on the farther bank of the Garonne with a great multitude of their enemies, and that he had possession of the treasures which Rigunth had taken with her. They pressed forward, and their cavalry swain the Garonne, some being drowned in the river. The rest, on reaching the far bank, went in search of Gundovald, and found camels laden with a great weight of gold and silver, and exhausted horses which he had left behind along the roads. Hearing later that Gundovald and his men were now within the walls of Convenae, they left behind their wagons and baggage with the less able-bodied, and dispatched the more active men, as they were already across the river, to follow up the enemy. Moving forward with all speed, they came to the church of the holy Vincent near the boundary of the city of Agen, where the martyr is said to have finished his fight for the name of Christ.  They found it filled with all manner of treasure belonging to the inhabitants of the place, who hoped that the church of so great a martyr would never be violated by Christian men.  The doors were most carefully fastened. But when the approaching troops were unable to break them open, they lit a fire and burned them down, whereupon they carried off all the property and gear that they found, and all the church plate as well. But the divine vengeance then and there filled many of them with affright. For the hands of some were supernaturally burned, and sent forth a great smoke, like that which rises above a fire. Others were seized by an evil spirit; thus possessed, they shouted in their frenzy the martyr’s name.  A great number began brawling and wounded each other with their own spears. The remainder of their body pro–ceeded on their march, not without great alarm. To cut the story short, they all came together again at Convenae (that, as I have written, was the name of the place); the whole force now pitched tents in the country about the city, and there remained encamped.  They ravaged all the surrounding region; some of the soldiers, goaded more deeply than the rest by avarice, strayed too far from their comrades and were put to death by the peasants.

36. Many of their number would often go up the hill and speak with Gundovald, reviling him and saying: “Art thou that painter fellow who in the days of King Lothar used to daub the walls and vaults of oratories? Art thou he whom the people of Gaul used often to call Ballomey? Art thou he who several times was shorn and banished by the kings of the Franks for these very pretensions which thou makest today? Tell us plainly, most miserable of men, who was it that brought thee hither? Who gave thee the heart to set foot within the frontiers of our lords and kings?  If any man invited thee, declare it with a loud voice. Behold, death standeth plain before thine eyes; look on the pit of thy destruction which so long thou hast sought, and into which thou shalt be cast headlong! Tell us, man by man, the names of thine abettors, and make those known to us by whom thou were invited.” When he had listened to what they said, Gundovald drew nearer, and taking up his position above the gate, replied: “No man is ignorant that my father Lothar ever detested me, or that my hair was cut short first by him, and later by my brothers. This was why I joined Narses; prefect of Italy, in which country I took a wife and begat two sons. Upon her death, I took my sons with me and withdrew to Constantinople. I was received right graciously by the emperors, and lived there down to the present time. Some years ago, Guntram Boso came to Constantinople, and I eagerly questioned him how it fared with my brothers; from him I learned that our royal house was grievously diminished, and that of our line no males remained but Guntram and Childebert, a brother and a brother’s son; for the sons of King Chilperic had perished with him, and there was left only one young child.  My brother Guntram had no sons; my nephew Childebert was without power. Guntram Boso having set these things forth at length, gave me an inventation to return, saying: ‘Come; all the chief men of King Childebert’s realm call for thee, and not one hath dared mutter a word against thee. It is known to us all that thou art Lothar’s son. An thou come not, there is none left in Gaul to rule his kingdom.’ I gave him many gifts, and in twelve sacred places received his oath that I might enter this realm in safety.  I therefore came to Marseilles, where the bishop received me with the greatest kindness, for he had letters written by the chief men of my nephew’s kingdom.  I then went to Avignon, according to the wish of the patrician Mummolus. But Guntram Boso, regardless of his oath and promise, stole from me my treasures and took them for himself. Learn, therefore, that I am a king, even as is my brother Guntram. But if too great a hatred rageth in your minds, at least conduct me to your king, and if he knoweth me for his brother, I will do according to his will. If ye will not do this, then let me return to the place whence I set out. For I will go away, and do no harm to any man. If ye would know the truth of what I say, make inquiry of Radegund at Poitiers and Ingitrude at Tours, for they will confirm my words as true.” While he made this harangue many men followed his words with reviling and with taunts.

37. The fifteenth day of the siege had dawned, and Leude–gisel was preparing new engines for the destruction of the city. There were wagons fitted with rams covered with wattle-work and planks, under which troops could go forward to destroy the alls. But as soon as they came near they were overwhelmed with such showers of stones that all fell who approached the wall. The defenders threw down on them vessels of burning pitch and grease, and others filled with stones. When night forbade further fighting, the assailants returned to their camp.

With Gundovald was Chariulf, a citizen passing rich and powerful, who had many stores and repositories in, the city, and from whose substance the garrison was, for the most art fed.  But Bladast, seeing the trend of events, feared that if Leudegisel captured the place he would put them all to death. He therefore set fire to the church house, and when all the besieged crowded to put out the flames, took to flight and got away. The next morning the enemy attacked again, and made fascines to fill up the deep valley which lies on the eastern side; but this device did the enemy no damage.  All the time BishopSagittanus was going round the ramparts in arms, and with his own hand hurling stones from the walls.

38. When the besiegers saw that their efforts availed nothing, they sent messengers to Mummolus in secret, saying: “Acknowledge thy true lord, and desist even at this late hour from thy frowardness. What madness constraineth thee, that thou servest a man unknown? Thy wife and thy children are taken captive; thy sons are surely slain. Whither rushest thou? To What canst thou look forward but thy ruin?”  On receipt of this message he replied: “I see that our: dominion draweth already to its end, and our power declineth. But one course remaineth; and had I surety that my life should be safe, I might spare you many toils.” When the messengers were gone, Bishop Sagittarius, with Mumniolus, Chariulf, and Waddo, proceeded to the church, and there they made mutual oaths that if they were assured of their lives, they would renounce their loyalty to Gundovald, and surrender his person to the enemy. The messengers came back with a promise that their lives should be spared. Mummolus said: “Grant but that, and I will surrender this man into your hands; I will acknowledge my lord and king, and straightway seek his presence.” Thereupon they promised that if he would keep his word, they would receive him with kindliness, and if they failed to obtain his pardon from the king, they would place him in a that he might escape punishment of death. They promrised this under oath, and took their departure.

Then Mummolus, with Sagittarius and Waddo, went to Gundovald and said : “Thou knowest, thou that standest here before us, what oaths of fealty we took to thee. But hear now a wholesome counsel. Depart from this city and present thyself before thy brother, as thou hast often wished to do. For we have already held conference with these men, and they have told us that the king desireth not to lose thy support, since of the royal line so few remain alive.” Gundovald saw through their treachery, and said with many tears: “It was by your invitation that I was brought to Gaul, and of my treasures, including an immense weight of gold, silver, and divers precious things, part is kept back in Avignon, and part was plundered by Guntram Boso. All my hope was placed in you, next to God’s aid; I gave you all my confidence; by your help I ever hoped to reign. If ye now have spoken to me falsely, lay your account with God, for He shall judge my cause.’ To this Mummolus made answer: “We have said nothing with treacherous intent; and, behold, already there stand at the gate, stout men of war awaiting thy coming forth. Now therefore put off my golden baldric which thou wearest, that thou seem not to go forth in a bravery; gird on thy own sword, and restore me mine.” He replied: “I see well enough the double purport of these words: that these things of thine which I have worn till now as symbols of our friendship are now to be taken from me.’ Mummolus then solemnly swore that no evil should be done him.

So they went out from the gate, and Gundovald was received by Ullo, count of Bourges, and by Boso; but Mummolus and his followers drew back within the city and made the gate fast behind them. When Gundovald saw that he was betrayed into the hands of his enemies, he lifted up his hands and his eyes to heaven and cried: “O Eternal judge, and true avenger of the innocent, Thou God from whom all justice proceedeth, who hatest a lie, in whom is no guile nor craft of malice, to Thee do I commend my cause, that Thou avenge me swiftly on those who have betrayed me, innocent of all offence, into the hands of mine enemies.” Having said these words, and made the sign of the Lord’s Cross, he went away with the men of whom I have written. When they had gone some distance from the gate, the city being surrounded by a valley with precipitous sides, Ullo pushed him down, shouting as he did so, “Behold your Ballomey who declareth himself son and brother of kings!” He then thrust at him with his spear, wishing to run him through, but the rings of his hauberk turned the blow, and made it harmless. Gundovald then rose and tried to go back up the hill, but Boso hurled a stone and struck his head so that he fell and breathed his last. A crowd of men came up and pierced the body with their spears. They then bound his feet with a rope and dragged him through the whole camp; the hair of his head and his beard were plucked out, and he was left unburied on the spot where he was slain.

On the following night the chief men in the town secretly removed all the treasures which they could find, including the church plate. The next morning the gates were opened and the besieging army was admitted. All the common people within were put to the sword, and the priests of the Lord, with those who sewed them; we a massacred before the altars. When all were dead, so that there remained no one that pisseth against a wall, they set fire to the city with all its churches and other buildings. They left nothing but the naked ground.

Book Nine: Chapter 31: How King Guntram sent an army into Septimania (589)

31. King Guntram levied an army to invade Septimania.  Duke Austrovald had already gone to Carcassonne and taken the oath of allegiance from the inhabitants, whom he subjected to the king’s authority. Guntram now dispatched Boso with Antestius to take the other cities. Boso at his coming behaved with arrogance, treating Duke Austrovald with contempt, condemning him for presuming to enter Carcassonne without him, and moving thither himself with a force composed of men from Perigueux, Bordeaux, Agen, and even Toulouse. While he was proceeding in this high-handed way, the Goths received information of his doings, and laid an ambush for him. He pitched his camp on the banks of a small river near the city and set himself down to feast, drinking his fill, and loading the Goths with taunts and abuse. But the enemy suddenly fell upon him and his companions, and took them unawares in the midst of their carouse. They raised shouts and sprang up to resist their assailants, who offered weak resistance and made as though they fled. The Franks pursued, when of a sudden the men in ambush leapt out upon them; they were taken between two forces and almost exterminated.  Those able to make away mounted their horses and escaped with difficulty, leaving all their gear on the field; they took with them none of their private effects, deeming themselves lucky to get off with their bare lives. The pursuing Goths took possession of the whole camp, which they pillaged, making prisoners of all the unmounted men.  There fell in this place about five thousand men, and more than two thousand were led into captivity. But of these last many were set free; and returned to their own country.

Book Ten: Chapter 9: How King Guntram’s army marched into Brittany (590)

9. Meanwhile the Bretons committed, great ravages in the districts of Nantes and Rennes. King Guntram therefore ordered an army to be levied for war against them, sending to command it dukes Beppolen and Ebrachar. But Ebrachar feared that if they won a victory Beppolen might usurp his dukedom; he therefore started a quarrel, and during the whole march they were assailing each other with abuse, taunts, and curses. Wherever they passed; they burned, slew, robbed, and committed every sort of crime.  Thus they came to Vilaine; this river they crossed, and reached the Oust.  Here they destroyed the housesnear by, and constructed bridges; thus their whole army passed over. Beppolen was now joined by a certain priest, who said to him: “If thou wilt follow me, I will lead thee to [the Breton leader] Waroch, and show thee all the Bretons assembled in one place.” When the news of Beppolen’s expedition reached Fredegund, she commanded the Saxons of Bayeux, wearing their hair cut in the Breton manner an dressing themselves after the same fashion to march in support of Waroch; for she had a grudge of long standing against Beppolen.  As soon as Beppolen came up with the men who were willing to follow him, he gave battle, and for the space of two days made great slaughter of these same Bretons and Saxons. But Ebrachar had already withdrawn, taking with him the greater part of the troops, refusing to come back until he heard of his rival’s death. On the third day of the battle, his companions being already slain, Beppolen, though wounded, still defended himself with his spear; but at length Waroch and his aforesaid allies rushed in and slew him, for Beppolen had been shut in between narrow passes and the marshes, and more of his men perished in the bogs than by the edge of the sword.

Ebrachar now advanced to Vannes, for Bishop Regalis had sent his clergy out to meet him c with crosses and chanting of psalms, and he was thus escorted into the city. It was said at this time that Waroch attempted to take refuge among the islands, and that he had ships laden with his gold and sliver and other effects; but that when he was in the open sea, a storm arose, some of the ships were sunk, and he lost all the property which they carried. He now came to Ebrachar to sue for peace, handing over hostages and rich gifts, and pledging himself never again to act to the injury of King Guntram. After he was gone, Bishop Regalis with his priests and the inhabitants of his city took like oaths of loyalty, declaring ‘that they were in nothing guilty against their lords the kings, nor had they ever done frowardly to theirprejudice; they were held in duress by the Bretons, and lay under a heavy yoke’. Peace having been thus concluded between Ebrachar and Waroch, the latter spoke as follows: “Withdraw now to thy country, and tell the king that I Will fulfill all his commands– of my free will. And that thou mayst have the fullest trust in my word, I will give thee my nephew as a hostage.” And he did so, and there was an end of the war, wherein a great multitude had fallen, both of the royal army and of the Bretons.

So the army returned from Brittany. But while the stronger were able to pass the river Vilaine, the weaker men and the poor people with them were unable to get across, and had to remain on the western bank. Then Waroch, regardless of his oath and of the hostages which he had given, sent thither his son Canao with an army. Canao captured and bound the men whom he found on the hither bank, slaying all who resisted; some who tried to swim across on horseback were carried down to the sea by the force of the stream. Some of the men thus taken were afterwards freed by the consort of Waroch by taper and tablet; so they returned to their homes. Ebrachar’s army, which had crossed the river first, was afraid to go home as it had come, fearing to suffer from the people the same treatment which it had meted to them; it therefore took the road by Angers, making for the bridge over the Mayenne.  But a small party which crossed first at this bridge was stripped, beaten, and exposed to every kind of indignity. The army in its passage through the territory of Tours pillaged on all sides, and despoiled many, for the inhabitants were caught unawares. Many of those who took part in this expedition went to King Guntram and declared that Duke Ebrachar and Count Wiliachar [of Orleans] had been bribed by Waroch, and had caused the disaster to the army. When Ebrachar presented himself, the king showered reproaches on him and ordered him to quit his presence. Count Wiliachar fled, and remained in hiding.

This translation is from The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, edited by O.M. Dalton (Oxford, 1927)

This entry was posted in Primary Sources and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.