Half brother, all trouble, first half

Grifo, son of Charles Martel, is one of the more enigmatic figures of the eighth century. Depending on how you read the sources, he was either a world class trouble maker and usurper who deserved a bad end, or a good son criminally hounded out of his lawful inheritance. Let’s take a look at the various versions.

Charles Martel invaded the province of Bavaria in 725, as part of a successful campaign in the east. “When he had subjugated this land he returned home with treasure, and also with a certain [Pilctrude] and her niece [Swanahild].”1.Fredegar Continuations, ch. 12.2.As with all of the names we encounter, there are several spellings floating around. Pilctrude is also spelled Beletrudis and Pilitrude. Swanahild is also spelled Sunnichildis. I have gone with the most common usage. These were not just a couple of women he found along the way. Pilctrude was the wife of the Bavarian duke Grimoald, and the wife of his dead brother. I cannot imagine a more flagrant taunt than to take your enemy’s wife. It is not clear, however, that he took her for his own, so to speak.

Charles may have taken Pilctrude for the taunt, but Swanahild for her youth. A year later Grifo was born to the two of them. The question of Grifo’s legitimacy has eluded historians for centuries. The sources, virtually of which were written after the fact, by supporters of Charles’ older sons Carloman and Pepin, call Swanahild a concubine, thus ‘proving’ Grifo’s illegitimacy. But Charles’ first wife Rotrude, the mother of Carloman and Pepin, had died in 724, and there is nothing to prove or disprove a marriage to Swanahild.

There is much academic speculation about when Grifo became part of the inheritance. Fredegar noted in 739 that Charles “divided the kingdoms between his sons.”3.Fredegar Continuations, ch. 23. Pepin got Burgundy, Neustria, and Provence. Carloman received Austrasia, Swabia, and Thuringia, with no mention of Grifo. Remember the part about Thuringia.

Despite not being mentioned in the division of 739, the sources do allow that Grifo was given some territory along with his half-brothers on the death of Charles in 741. “He left three sons as heirs, Carloman, Pepin, and Grifo.”4.RFA, 741. Bernard Bachrach has looked at the Annals of Metz (which are untranslated for this period) and says Grifo’s portion, “constituted in the middle… of Charles’ principatum and composed from territory in Neustria, Austrasia, and Burgundy, was equal [in economic value, not land area] to that which had been designated for the shares that his half-brothers were to receive.”

In addition to the Royal Annals and the Annals of Metz, there is a letter from Boniface to Grifo in 741, addressing him as lord of Thuringia (probably part of the lands bequeathed by his father), and asking “… that if God gives you the power, you will aid the servants of God in Thuringia… Be assured that we bear you in mind before God, as your father, during his lifetime, and your mother also desired me to do.” But note that slightly questioning phrase of Boniface, “if God gives you the power,” as if Boniface isn’t quite sure how the wind will be blowing. Also note that Boniface believes Grifo to be lord in Thuringia, not Carloman, as Fredegar noted in 739. There is some speculation that Swanahild doubled down on Charles as death approached, and convinced him to include Grifo in the division.

Boniface, who had been working with lords and popes for some time, concludes his letter with a cautionary biblical quotes for Grifo. “What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”5.Boniface, Letters, XXXVIII. Unfortunately, Grifo did not heed those words.

Per Bachrach, the Annals of Metz record that the Frankish kingdoms were “greatly depressed” because Grifo was so young, so Carloman and Pepin decided to forcibly disinherit him. They gathered an army and besieged him at Laon, and after a short siege he surrendered. Keeping with their father’s traditions, the sons did not execute Grifo or his mother, even though the Royal Annals accused her of causing all the problems. “By her malicious counsel she aroused in him such high hopes of possessing the whole kingdom that he at once occupied the city of Laon and declared war on his brothers.” Once captured, they immediately divided between themselves the lands that Grifo had been given.6.RFA, 741 and 742. Again, was Grifo a younger brother whose inheritance was stolen, or a usurper in thrall to an aggrieved and overly ambitious mother?

Just to add to the fun at Charles’ death, Swanahild convinced Carloman and Pepin’s sister Hiltrude to go to Bavaria and marry Odilo, who had become duke of Bavaria in 736. Perhaps talking their sister into “replacing” herself as queen of Bavaria was the last straw for the brothers. After Laon Pepin took Swanahild and chucked her into the convent at Chelles, while Carloman took Grifo and imprisoned him at Neufchateau, in the Ardennes. For the time being, the brothers had dealt with family issues, and were able to focus on some revolts that had erupted on the death of Martel. Not coincidentally, one of those insurrections was in Bavaria, which the brothers apparently put down in 743, although the sources are not confident in this.7.Collins, Charlemagne, p. 81.

In 747, after six years of near constant warfare, Carloman had had enough. A pious man, he decided to retire from a life of rulership and retired to a monastery. Knowingly or not, he gave Grifo a new lease on life. Roger Collins believed Grifo escaped from his captivity.8.Collins, Charlemagne, p. 43. Bachrach, however, believes that one of Pepin’s first acts as ruler over all of Francia was to release Grifo and install him as ruler over a duchy of twelve counties, a region bordered by the Seine, the Loire, and the Breton frontier, with its capital at Le Mans.9.Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, pp. 41 -42. Perhaps Grifo had convinced him of his repentance, or perhaps Pepin hoped that time had softened Grifo’s rebellious nature. But whatever the reason, “Grifo… did not want to be under the thumb of his brother Pepin, although he held an honorable place.”10.RFA, 747.

Grifo, barely into his twenties, had already led a life of great adventure, and he was not even close to being done. While his greatest deeds were yet to come, he would be dead before he was thirty. We’ll cover that in the next post.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Fredegar Continuations, ch. 12.
2. As with all of the names we encounter, there are several spellings floating around. Pilctrude is also spelled Beletrudis and Pilitrude. Swanahild is also spelled Sunnichildis. I have gone with the most common usage.
3. Fredegar Continuations, ch. 23.
4. RFA, 741.
5. Boniface, Letters, XXXVIII.
6. RFA, 741 and 742.
7. Collins, Charlemagne, p. 81.
8. Collins, Charlemagne, p. 43.
9. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, pp. 41 -42.
10. RFA, 747.

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