Bertrada of Laon – Not Mother of the Year

Bertrada of Laon is one of the very few women of the century about whom we can know anything more than just a name and a marital disposition. But from what we can see of her, particularly one series of events late in her life, she must have been a formidable lady.

She was born sometime between 710 and 727, in Laon, France, of noble parents. After that, we get nothing until she reappears as the wife of Pepin about 741, and the details immediately get fuzzy. No one is sure if she was Pepin’s first or second wife. In fact, it is hard to be sure just what a wife was back then, as the line between wife and concubine was not well defined. Also fuzzy were the rules on who could marry whom, based on how closely they were related. Always a problem when the 1% keep marrying each other.

At some point around 747 their first child was born, named Charles, who became Charlemagne. Due to the marriage question Charles was considered illegitimate when he was born. Within a few years of his birth Pepin and Bertrada’s union was officially recognized – what transpired to make the marriage legal is not recorded, but the deed was done. A few years later, in 751, she had a second child, Carloman, and after that a daughter, Gisela.

Bertrada was not a woman who stayed at the castle and supervised the spinning. Bachrach notes that it was Bertrada who supervised a distribution to the army called the donum militum, or “the gift to the soldiers.”1.Bachrach, Early Carolingian, p.66 The Annals record that she was with her brother-in-law Carloman when he died at Vienne in 755. More than a decade later both the Annals and Fredegar note her travels with Pepin on the campaigns in Aquitaine. In 767 she spent the fall and winter in Bourges, while the next spring she traveled deep into Aquitanian territory. From Bourges she followed the Loire all the way to Saintes, near the mouth of the Loire on the Atlantic coast. The sources don’t reveal that she went by boat, but it’s a nice thought.

At Saintes that summer Pepin could finally declare victory once the Aquitanian duke Waifar had been killed. But the wars had perhaps undone him, for he fell ill. He and Bertrada and the rest of the household traveled north to Paris, where he died at Saint Denis. After this she may have taken vows, for her form of address sometimes changes. The Annals and other royal sources continue to refer to her as Queen, but the pope begins addressing her as Deo Consecreta, which King translates as “religious lady,” but might be more accurately, if inelegantly and clumsily, be translated as Female Consecrated to God.2.King, Charlemagne, Caroline Code 44

Even if she did take vows, she was by no means a recluse. There were problems almost immediately between Charlemagne and his brother Carloman, as they squabbled about the division of lands and who would support whom against the inevitable uprisings after the king’s death. Bertrada mediated between the two of them, but also kept her eye on high strategy. It is during this time of unrest after her husband’s death that we see Bertrada truly walk the world stage.

It was in 770 that Bertrada evidently conceived a plan to resolve issues all across Europe. “Bertrada, the mother of kings, after a talk with her younger son Carloman at Seltz, traveled to Italy in the interest of peace.”3.Revised Annals, 770 Her trip to Saltz, in Carloman’s territory, was perhaps to give him a chance to get on the bus, so to speak, or, failing that, to tell him how things were going to be. She favored Charlemagne, which is understandable given that he was the older, and it was probably self-evident from an early age that Charlemagne was something special, so she conceived a plan to re-unite the kingdom and solve a prickly problem in Italy.

But she didn’t go straight to Italy. The original Annals note that “the Lady Queen Bertrada traveled through Bavaria to Italy.” The detour enabled her to talk to Tassilo, then duke of that region, whose daughter was married to King Desiderius of Lombardy. She headed there next, as noted in one of lesser known annals.4.“Queen Bertrada was in Italy for a meeting with King Desiderius.” King, Mossiac Annals, 770 Here’s where she really outmaneuvered everybody. She proposed that Charlemagne would put aside his current companion/wife/concubine and marry the king’s daughter Desiderata (I love that name). In return Desiderius would finally fulfill the promises of land and peace his father had made to the papacy in 755, under threat from Pepin, after Pope Stephen had traveled north to anoint Pepin as king of the Franks. That was the plan.

Sadly we have no physical description of Bertrada. But I like to imagine a small woman with bright, sly eyes, now in her 50’s, confronting the mighty Lombard king. Remember that this was one tough woman. She had married into the most powerful and ruthless family in Europe. Her father-in-law had raised himself from bastardy to a position so powerful he didn’t even need a king. Her brother-in-law had executed 4000 Saxons for betraying their vows. Her husband had deposed a king and raised himself to the throne. She watched her husband spend eight years waging near-unlimited war until it finally broke him, and she watched him die. She knew power. So it was probably without too much trouble that she convinced Desiderius of the virtue of her proposal.

Desiderata married Charlemagne and Desiderius granted the previously promised lands to the pope. And poor Carloman found himself encircled by Tassilo, Desiderius, and Charlemagne. Beautiful statecraft, if not qualification as the patron saint of mothers. Within a year Carloman was dead, and his wife and children fled to Desiderius. Charlemagne, with no reason to stay on good relations with the Lombards, sent Desiderata back to her father. Charlemagne and his mother got along well, according to Einhard, but his dismissal of his wife did not sit well. “Charlemagne’s own mother, Bertrada, lived with him in high honor to a very great age. He treated her with every respect and never had a cross word with her, except over the divorce of King Desiderius’ daughter, whom he had married on her advice.”5.Einhard, Charlemagne, book 3

Bertrada did live to a good old age, at least for the time. Since we’re not sure when she was born it is consequently problematic to say how old she was when she died in 783, but she could have been as old as 73. Several sources mention her passing, a mark of the high esteem in which she was held. As late as 802 she is included in an oath that the Aquitanians had to take to affirm their loyalty to Charlemagne.6.“From this day forward I am faithful to the most pious lord emperor Charles, son of king Pippin and queen Bertrada…” King, Charlemagne, Capitulary 14 We are fortunate to know her, even a little.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Bachrach, Early Carolingian, p.66
2. King, Charlemagne, Caroline Code 44
3. Revised Annals, 770
4. “Queen Bertrada was in Italy for a meeting with King Desiderius.” King, Mossiac Annals, 770
5. Einhard, Charlemagne, book 3
6. “From this day forward I am faithful to the most pious lord emperor Charles, son of king Pippin and queen Bertrada…” King, Charlemagne, Capitulary 14

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