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Celebrating Women Series: Kim Rendfeld on Bertrada, Queen Mother and Diplomat

Welcome to the second article in the “Celebrating Women” for Women’s History Month! It’s my first author guest article series to celebrate women in history or women making history! Thank you to Kim Rendfeld for offering the second article in this series. If you’d like to continue on with the tour, which runs March 19-31, 2014, follow along each day on the main blog or head to this blog page, Women in History, which will be updated daily with the scheduled link.

Bertrada: Queen Mother and Diplomat

by historical author Kim Rendfeld



In the early months of 772, Bertrada was the queen mother of Francia, one of the most influential political positions, yet I doubt anyone would envy her situation. Her younger son, King Carloman, had died on December 4 at age 20, and her elder son, King Charles, quickly seized his late brother’s realm, denying her grandsons their inheritance.

On top of that, Charles divorced a Lombard princess, the wife that Bertrada had picked out for him, and married Hildegard, the daughter of an important count in his brother’s kingdom.

In medieval Francia, there was more a stake than a mom embarrassed by her son’s bad behavior. In royal circles, marriages were a means of building alliances. Charles’s marriage to Hildegard solidified his hold on Carloman’s lands, but his divorce endangered Francia’s relationship with Lombard.

For a little context, let’s rewind four years. On his deathbed in 768, King Pepin divided his lands between sons Charles and Carloman, following Frankish custom. Charles’s kingdom formed a crescent around Carloman’s. Charles was 20 and Carloman, 17, and both likely were already married to brides their father had chosen.

The brothers did not get along, and tensions increased when Carloman refused to help his brother quash a 769 rebellion in Aquitaine. Enter Queen Mother Bertrada, who had taken the widow’s veil. Bertrada might have wanted to prevent a civil war and preserve the kingdom she and her husband had built.

It’s unclear whether Lombard King Desiderius or Bertrada thought up a union or two between their children, but she agreed to a marriage between Charles and one of Desiderius’s daughters, even if that meant setting aside Charles’s then wife, Himiltrude, and offending a noble Frankish family. A marriage between Charles and a Lombard meant Charles would have access to Italy without passing through his brother’s realm and therefore less reason to attack his brother.

The spring and summer of 770 was a mix of slow, dangerous travel and diplomacy for Bertrada. She spoke first to Carloman then traveled through Bavaria, the duchy held by the kings’ first cousin (also Desiderius’s son-in-law), and crossed the Alps, traversing steep slopes on horseback. In Rome, she reassured the pope, who had written a strongly worded letter against the idea, that this arrangement would be beneficial, then went to Lombardy and returned to Francia with the princess.

After Charles second marriage, Bertrada’s importance at court is evident. In his letters, the pope addresses her first.

The arrangement strengthened Charles’s relationship with Lombardy and Rome, but apparently, one of Carloman’s legates, Dodo, didn’t think it was good for his lord. Whether Carloman agreed with Dodo is unclear – the pope gives the king the benefits of the doubt. Nevertheless, in the spring of 771, the pope’s minister turned on him, with warriors led by Dodo. Desiderius came to the pope’s rescue and used that opportunity to take a brutal revenge on the minister.

Sometime that year, Carloman became ill and died several months later. That’s when Bertrada saw all her handiwork fall apart.

In writing The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press) and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (forthcoming, Fireship Press), I had to grapple with what it would have been like for Bertrada in the aftermath of Carloman’s death. One element that affects my portrayal of her comes from Einhard’s biography of Charlemagne, in which he says the monarch treated his mother with respect and had her in his household. Their only disagreement was the Lombard princess, whom he had married to please her.

I decided she would support her son, but she would be angry, especially as the Franks go to war with Desiderius in the fall of 773. Bertrada’s widowed daughter-in-law was not about to let her toddling sons lose their kingdom without a fight, and she crossed the Alps, seeking an alliance with a Lombard king furious over Charles’s insult to his daughter.

Article Sources

Charlemagne: Translated Sources, P.D. King

Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Walters Scholz with Barbara Rogers

“Pavia and Rome: The Lombard Monarchy and the Papacy in the Eighth Century,” Jan T. Hallenbeck, published in 1982 by Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

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

Author Kim Rendfeld, Biography~

Kim Rendfeld’s debut novel The Cross and the Dragon, a tale of love amid wars and blood feuds, opens as Charlemagne’s Franks prepare for war with Lombardy. Bertrada also appears in Kim’s second novel, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, a tale of the lengths a Saxon mother will go to protect her children.

For more about Kim, visit kimrendfeld.com or her blog, Outtakes from a Historical Novelist, kimrendfeld.wordpress.com.

E-mail: krendfeld@gmail.com
Website: kimrendfeld.com
Blog: kimrendfeld.wordpress.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld
Twitter: @kimrendfeld

9781611792270-CrossandDragon-small2The Cross and the Dragon, Synopsis~

A tale of love in an era of war and blood feuds.

Francia, 778: Alda has never forgotten Ganelon’s vow of vengeance when she married his rival, Hruodland. Yet the jilted suitor’s malice is nothing compared to Alda’s premonition of disaster for her beloved, battle-scarred husband.

Although the army invading Hispania is the largest ever and King Charles has never lost a war, Alda cannot shake her anxiety. Determined to keep Hruodland from harm, even if it exposes her to danger, Alda gives him a charmed dragon amulet.

Is its magic enough to keep Alda’s worst fears from coming true–and protect her from Ganelon?

Inspired by legend and painstakingly researched, The Cross and the Dragon is a story of tenderness, sacrifice, lies, and revenge in the early years of Charlemagne’s reign, told by a fresh, new voice in historical fiction.

“Kim Rendfeld has an addictive style of writing. The strong characterization… held my interest, and I took particular pleasure in the originality of the setting. The Cross and the Dragon is a book I truly enjoyed reading.”
Roberta Gellis, author of the Roselynde Chronicles

“This sweeping epic… [is told] in an elegant, convincing manner. The author gives us… realistic and likeable characters, making it a pleasure to dive in to a multi-layered tale.”
Publishers Weekly (manuscript review, 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition)

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