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Brunhilda of Austrasia: the original of Wagner's Valkyrie?

Where, you might ask, is Austrasia? The answer is that it no longer exists, but back in the 6th to 8th centuries it formed part of the area of western Europe ruled by the Franks, comprising lands currently occupied by north-eastern France, Belgium and western Germany.

The name Brunhilda might be familiar from the Ring Cycle of operas by Richard Wagner, which were based on Norse and Germanic mythology. In the legends she was a Valkyrie who snatched the bodies of slain warriors from the battlefield and took them to Valhalla.

However, there really was a woman named Brunhilda who was a powerful ruler, but not quite as imagined in the stories told by Icelandic bards and Richard Wagner.

The real Brunhilda was born in what is now central Spain in around the year 543. She belonged to the Merovingian dynasty of the Franks, who had taken control of much of what had formerly been the western Roman Empire.

She married Sigebert, whose grandfather had been Clovis, the first king to unite all the Franks. Sigebert ruled the eastern part of the Frankish realm (i.e. Austrasia) while his half-brother Chilperic ruled the western part (Neustria).

Sigebert was assassinated in 575, after which Brunhilda ruled as regent for her young son Childebert. When he became a teenager he ruled in his own right, but on his death aged only 26 Brunhilda once again became regent, this time for her grandsons, Theudebert and Theuderic.

As regent, Brunhilda ruled well. Under her administration many old roads were repaired, troublemakers were kept quiet and the religious life of the province was supported with the commission of new churches and abbeys.

However, in order to stay in charge it was important that neither grandson achieved enough power to challenge her authority, and she managed this by setting them at war with each other. She also arranged for one of the grandsons to be supplied with concubines so that he would not marry and bring a wife into Court who might oppose her.

Brunhilda was in her 60s when she acted as regent for the final time, this being for her great-grandson Sigebert II after the death of Theudebert.

However, Brunhilda’s hold on power could not last for ever, and her end came as a result of a long-standing feud with Fredegund, who had been the wife of her brother-in law Chilperic, the King of Neustria, many years before. Chilperic had been married to Brunhilda’s sister Galswintha, but when Galswintha died in mysterious circumstances, Chilperic married Fredegund. Brunhilda had long suspected that Fredegund had had a hand in Galswintha’s death.

By 613 Fredegund was dead, but her son Chlotar took up the cudgels on his mother’s behalf. He accused Brunhilda of having been responsible for a number of murders, including those of her husband Sigebert and her brother-in-law Chilperic. Chlotar defeated Brunhilda in battle and then had her executed by being torn apart by wild horses.

The real Brunhilda had a life filled with drama and intrigue, ending in a particularly violent and unpleasant way. It is no surprise that she was the inspiration for later myths and legends, however much they may have strayed from the real story.

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