Monday, January 28, 2013

The Inlaws: Peacemaking Marriages III

For those who haven't followed the last two posts, you may wish to look back at the first post in this series, which gives a bit of historical context for the phenomenon of peacemaking marriages.  However, here are the basics of what you need to know:

We're following the marital lives of three 13th century couples in (or from) Florence, all of them examples of marriages contracted to make peace between warring factions - in this case, between Guelfs and Ghibellines.  We're exploring how this practice actually played out in people's lives (to the extent that we can find out, at a distance of nearly eight centuries).

The Second Couple

Beatrice di Farinata degli Uberti and Guido Cavalcanti were promised to one another in January 1267, part of a flurry of peacemaking marriages at a point in Florentine history when the Ghibellines had been in control of the city for six years, but were rapidly losing their grip on power after the death of Manfred, son of the late Emperor Frederick II, at the battle of Benevento in 1266.


Frederick II

Beatrice, records tell us, was probably called Bice (rhymes with eBay, and with a "c" as in "cello").  She was the daughter of the late, great Ghibelline military and political leader, Farinata degli Uberti, who had died in Florence in 1264, in the midst of that last period in which Ghibellines controlled the city (which they did as a result of Farinata's victory at Montaperti in 1260).

We don't know how old Bice was in 1267.  There's reason to believe that her betrothed, Guido, was in his teens, and it is quite possible that she was still a child, and that they would not live together as husband and wife for some time yet.

However, I suspect she was old enough to wed, because within a matter of months the Ghibellines were to be ousted again - or rather, to oust themselves, fearful over the imminent arrival of Charles of Anjou to take over rule of the city (which Florentine officials had asked him to do).

Had Bice been merely betrothed, and too young to leave with her husband-to-be and his family, I'm guessing the marriage would not have taken place.  So I think one of two things must have happened:  Guido was young enough, and innocent enough of having personally provoked the Guelfs, that he managed to stay in Florence, and the two then wed.  Or they married, rather than simply pledging their betrothal, in January 1267, and she left with him.

Guido Cavalcanti was the son of a knight, messer Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti, a prominent Guelf.  Guido was also one of the greatest poets of his day.  His contemporary, chronicler Dino Compagni, describes him thus:  "He was courtly and bold, but scornful, solitary, and studious."

Guido (on tombstone) being scornful and solitary

 Giovanni Boccaccio, who was born thirteen years after Guido died, features Guido in the ninth story of the sixth day of his Decameron.  He calls the poet "one of the finest logicians in the world and an expert natural philosopher" and "an exceedingly charming and sophisticated man, with a marked gift for conversation, and his outshone all his contemporaries in every activity pertaining to a gentleman that he chose to undertake."  (These translations are by G.H. McWilliam, from the Penguin Classics edition of the Decameron.)

He also tried to kill Corso Donati with a spear once, but his aim was not as good as his poetry, and he missed.  Besides, he was convinced that Corso had tried to have him poisoned once while he was on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.  Guido and Corso did not like each other very much.

Dante simply called Guido his "first friend."

Before we look at the marriage between the charming-but-scornful Guido and Bice the daughter of the great Ghibelline, let's have a look at their respective fathers.


Farinata and Cavalcante

Dante has installed both men in the Inferno, damning them for heresy.  The Ghibelline Farinata and the Guelf Cavalcanti occupy open tombs next to each other, which they will never leave.  Virgil (Dante's guide) informs Dante that Farinata is a follower of Epicurus, the Greek who denied immortality, claiming that the soul dies with the body.  Hence the permanent tombs, for in a tidy example of "the punishment fits the crime," these souls will not be resurrected at the Last Judgment. 

(We will see other charges against Farinata later.)

Farinata was christened Manente degli Uberti; Farinata is a lifelong nickname derived from his fair hair, like golden wheat.  He led the Florentine Ghibellines from 1239 till his death in 1264.  His troops drove the Guelfs out in 1248 and defeated them at Montaperti in 1260.  We are told, by Dante and others, that when a council of triumphant Ghibellines wanted to raze Florence to the ground after Montaperti, Farinata alone opposed them and saved the city, saying that he didn't defeat his enemies to destroy his city, but to live in it.  For this act, Dante accords Farinata's shade much respect.  He calls the Ghibelline chief "magnanimo," which I've seen interpreted as "great-souled."

You get something of the measure of the man in these verses from the Inferno:
I had already fixed my eyes in his; and he was rising up with his breast and forehead as if he had Hell in great disdain.
When I stood at the foot of his tomb, he gazed at me a little, and then, as if scornful, asked me:  "Who were your forebears?"  (translation by Robert M. Durling)

Ah, Farinata.  Ever-proud, ever-partisan, uncowed by Hell itself.

And Guido's father, the knight Cavalcante, who had died around 1280?  Dante suggests, by placing him in this particular part of the Inferno, that his friend's father is a denier of the Resurrection.

Were these men in fact heretics?  Both, Guelf and Ghibelline, could have pointed to known Cathars in their family histories, but we do not know if either man espoused this dualistic belief, which was at that time very much under fire from the church.  But before we follow this thought further, let's look back at Guido and Bice.

The couple

So did they live happily ever after?  We have no idea.  They did produce a son, Andrea, and probably also a daughter, Tancia, who eventually married Giacotto Mannelli, from a Ghibelline family.  But Bice did have to undergo what must have been a deeply disquieting experience, about sixteen years into her marriage (if we can assume she was still alive at that point - we don't really know).

The disturbing event for Bice occurred in 1283, when Florence's chief inquisitor, Fra Salamone di Lucca, convicted the late Farinata and his late wife Adeleta of following the Patarine (Cathar) heresy, on the grounds that they had accepted the Cathar "consolation" ritual on their deathbeds.

His verdict was that their bodies, interred in Santa Croce, be exhumed, burned, and the ashes deposited in or on unconsecrated ground.  This would all have been done publicly.  It cannot have been easy for a daughter to see this, or even to hear of it happening in her city.  Was Bice old enough when Farinata died to remember him?  Was Adeleta her mother, or perhaps a stepmother?  We don't know.

And was Farinata really a heretic?  Florentines at this time, with the Guelfs solidly in charge, tended to lump Catharism together with Ghibellinism, not without some cause.  And yet, as we've seen, the very Guelf Cavalcanti also had Catharism in their ranks.  Ironically, if Farinata was indeed a Cathar, he would not have particularly minded the removal of his remains from consecrated ground, as he would not have believed in bodily resurrection.

But it was to the Guelf city's advantage to make this Ghibelline-heretic connection, because every time they condemned a Ghibelline for heresy, they could confiscate all his goods and his properties - including those long since passed on to heirs.  Thus, all of Bice's brothers and their sons shared in their parents' condemnation to some extent, and their property was forfeit and they were banished from Florence.

Bice herself, and her dowry, probably remained untouched.  Both were in the good Guelf Guido's hands, and unlikely to be disturbed.  But that still means she had to witness not only her parents' exhumation and posthumous punishment, but the impoverishment and banishment of her male relatives.

Unless she came to Guido at such a young age that she had managed to forget all of her birth family, I cannot believe that Bice, at least, lived happily ever after.

As for Guido, his love poetry featured one Giovanna (affectionately nicknamed "Primavera," or "Springtime"), and, later, Mandetta.  But courtly (and even not-so-courtly) love affairs do not tell us whether he lived with his Ghibelline wife in harmony or not.

In short, we will never know. 

Next time:  Ravenna Donati and Azzolino di Farinata degli Uberti

Images in this post are in the public domain by virtue of their age.

Monday, January 21, 2013

A Traitor Race: Peacemaking Marriage II

A wedding, and a wife repudiated

Last week I set out some of the background for the three specific examples of peacekeeping marriages I want to look at over the next three weeks.  If you missed it, scroll down or click here.  It will give you some insights into the power struggles, the Guelf-Ghibelline contests for dominance, the frequency of exile for the party out of power, and how often attempts were made to heal these rifts by crafting a marriage between a woman from one group and a man from the other.

The First Couple

The first couple I want to look at plighted their troth in the year 1239.  This union represented an attempt to bring Guelfs and Ghibellines together.  We do not know the given name of the bride, so I think we'll assign her one:  let's call her Lisetta.  No particular reason, just that it's a pretty name, and she needs a break, as you will see.

Lisetta was the daughter of the Guelf leader Ranieri dei Buondelmonti, who in turn was the son of the famous Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti whose disastrous peacemaking betrothal in 1216 is the stuff of legend, and also the subject of my recently published novel, A Thing Done.  As the granddaughter of Buondelmonte, she well represented the Guelf party.  The chronicle tells us she was both wise and lovely.

Her betrothed was Neri Piccolino degli Uberti, the son of Iacopo, who was the son of Schiatta degli Uberti (also a character in my book, and Buondelmonte's nemesis).  Neri was brother to the great Farinata degli Uberti, the Ghibelline leader who Dante treats with such respect in his Divine Comedy (although he did respectfully install the great Ghibelline in the Inferno).

Dante encounters the great Farinata in Hell
So Lisetta and Neri were wed.  We do not know how old they were (though he was already a knight, so not just out of childhood).  We do know that it went badly very quickly, and we know that the Buondelmonti were still nursing a grudge over the events of 1216.

One version of the story says that the disaster happened at their wedding banquet, hosted by the Buondelmonti in Campo di Valdarno.  In this version, the banquet is a trap - the unsuspecting Ghibellines (Neri's family and allies - besides the Uberti, the Caponsacchi, the Amidei, the Fifanti, and other clans - and, presumably, Neri himself) attend, confident that the new marriage will prevent any untoward incidents.

They were wrong.  The chronicler known as Pseudo-Brunetto Latini tells us that at the end of the meal, someone (the bride's father, perhaps?) gave a signal, the Buondelmonti and their allies and their men turned on their unprepared guests, and before the melee was done, several men had lost their lives.  Among them, one of Schiatta's sons (Iacopo, Neri's father) and Oddo (Oderigo) dei Fifanti, also a player in the 1216 events.  They were killed by Simone Donati, a member of a family closely allied with the Buondelmonti.  You'll be hearing more about Simone in a later post. 

Another version says that the incident occurred two years after the wedding, but otherwise the particulars are similar.  This seems more likely to me, because the necrology at Santa Reparata (Florence's cathedral at that time) indicates Oddo's date of death as 29 November 1241. 

Whether the couple had two years of marriage or only a few hours, the chronicles report that once Neri returned from battling his in-laws, he repudiated his bride, saying harshly, "I do not want to beget sons of a traitor race."  (As far as we know he hadn't yet begotten any at this point.)  Lisetta returned to her father's house - we can only guess how she felt about any of this - and her marriage was annulled.

Her father Ranieri (who the stories suggest was the prime mover behind the ambush) then pledged her to another knight, Pannocchino de' Conti Pannucchiesci of Siena.  Lisetta protested; the prospect of being a countess was not enough to win her over.  This was not another peacekeeping marriage, but still, she had decided that her own peace was more likely to be kept if she entered a convent.  Nevertheless, she was wed against her will.

As the story goes, when the Count came to "take his joy in her in the way that was owed," she told him she could not enter into marital relations with him, because she was "already married to the wisest and best knight in Italy, messer Neri degli Uberti."  

(And if you suspect that this account may have been written by an Uberti partisan, you're in good company.  A lot of historians think it may have come originally from a now-lost Uberti ricordanza, or family record.  I can certainly think of a few other things she might have said instead.)

The Count must have been rather taken aback by this, or by whatever she actually did say, but he kindly agreed to release her from her obligations and let her enter the convent.  She lived out her days in the convent of Montecelli, probably happy to be out of her family's reach, and thumbing her nose at the lot of them. 

Lest you think that was the end of it, fast-forward to the peacemaking efforts of papal legate Cardinal Latino Malabranca in 1279-80.  One of the Cardinal's main aims was to reconcile the Uberti with the Buondelmonti. The Uberti were in exile; the Cardinal made the decision to readmit many of the Ghibellines including some of the Uberti, but he drew the line at letting the sons of Farinata come back into the city.  The Uberti who did return made a sort of peace with most of the Buondelmonti.

Cardinal Latino Malabranca

But the sons of Ranieri dei Buondelmonti would not agree.  They accepted both exile and excommunication rather than end their quarrel with the Uberti, and they rode away from Florence, still proud, still angry.  Such was the power of long years of bitter hatred.

Next week, the second couple - one of the several couples united in a peacemaking effort in 1267.

Images in this post are in the public domain by virtue of antiquity.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Till Vendetta Do Us Part: Peacemaking Marriages I

"To the bride!"

Throughout the 13th century in Florence, every time the internecine violence reached a point where everyone agreed something had to be done, efforts to make peace - whether instigated from within the city or from outside - involved contracting marriages between the two warring families. 

In this post I'd like to give a little bit of background for this peculiar practice (which is certainly not unique to Florence, nor to the 13th century, but which still strikes me as a little strange, and probably thought up by somebody male.)  Imagine that you are a young (perhaps very young) woman in Florence.  You have been told all your life that the members of another faction are your bitter enemies, the devil incarnate.  Perhaps they have caused members of your family harm, or threatened to.  And now - suddenly - you're going to marry one.  You're going to have his children, and they and you will be under his absolute control.  If his family turns on yours again, too bad - your loyalties must now lie with your husband.

I'm going to list a few of the best-known occasions where this technique was employed through the century, mention a few specific pairings, and then, in my next few blog posts, I want to give a little post-wedding history for three of the couples.  But it won't make sense without a little historical and political background; hence the divided post.

We'll pass over the peacemaking marriage famously proposed in 1216, because I can't discuss it here without introducing spoilers for anyone who might want to read my book.   And I would really like for you to read my book.  Suffice it to say that a knight, one Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti, in an effort to resolve a conflict, was betrothed to a young woman whose family was allied with the powerful Uberti family, and "happily ever after" is not exactly how it went.

Marriage of Buondelmonte, by Saverio Altamura (1858-60 ca.)

In spite of that, 23 years later the Buondelmonti and the Uberti tried it again.  This time it was a granddaughter of Buondelmonte, whose name we don't know, promised to Neri Piccolomino degli Uberti, the grandson of Schiatta degli Uberti (who's also in A Thing Done).

Do you think that turned out any better?  No?  Very good - full marks for that answer.  We'll return to the unfortunate couple in next week's post.  For now, we will take a look at the rest of the 13th century.

By 1267, when a whole cluster of these marriages appears, party lines have been more firmly drawn.  With the clarity of hindsight we can see that the Buondelmonti were ringleaders in the proto-Guelf (pro-papal) party, though it was not yet called that, and the Uberti were the stalwarts at the head of the proto-Ghibelline (pro-imperial) party, also not yet called that.   This party division was not specific to Florence; it was to be found across Italy.

In the 13th century Florence had a pattern of upheaval that consisted of first one party gaining the ascendancy and then the other.  The party on top typically would exile the leaders of the opposition, and then the prevailing party would seize and destroy (or redistribute) the property of the exiles, up to and including pulling down their towers and destroying their homes.

The Wheel of Fortune

Then, when the wheel of Fortune turned, the triumphant exiles would return and cast out the other guys, and would then have a go at the property their enemies had been forced to abandon (including getting as much of their own side's property back into the hands of its original owners as they could). 

This resulted in a lot of rubble in the streets and a lot of very annoyed people.  It could mean total ruin for a family, but often it did not, because even then wealthy Florentines tended to have investments outside the city.  And nobody ever bothered exiling anybody except the rich and powerful.

So the exiles would leave, grumpily making their way toward a nearby city with a government sympathetic to their party, or in some cases to their own country castles and lands, to set up a shadow government, try to attract allies, plot and scheme, and then, when they thought the time was right, to make their own bid for power.

The 1267 nuptials followed a six-year period of Ghibelline supremacy and Guelf exile.  The Ghibellines' triumph at the bloody battle of Montaperti on September 4, 1260 had naturally resulted in an exodus of Florentine Guelfs.

Battle of Montaperti
But on February 26, 1266, it was the Guelfs' turn to triumph, in the battle of Benevento, north of Naples.  Moreover, Manfred, the son of the late Emperor Frederick II, was killed in that battle, leaving the Ghibelline party not much to rally around in the way of an imperial force.

Battle of Benevento
And yet the Ghibellines hung on in Florence, and the Guelfs didn't return for over a year.  It was a struggle for the Ghibellines, because the populace, weary of both the major parties, managed to move themselves into leadership positions, displacing the Ghibellines and resisting efforts by the Guelfs to take advantage of the Ghibellines' rudderless state and return.  It got to the point where the Ghibelline forces were mobilizing to square off against members of the populace, when a Ghibelline leader made what military strategists generally refer to as a Dumb Move.

Guido Novello, of the Conti Guidi (long a power in Tuscany), led his troops out of the city in order to come in again from a more strategic angle.  And while the Ghibellines were outside the city walls, the populace closed the gates.

Conti Guidi
Conti Guidi (variant)

Imagine that.  You try to get yourself into a better position, and while you're out maneuvering (and being out-maneuvered), those insolent plebs you were about to attack go and change the locks.  Machiavelli, who believed that Guido fled the city in fear of the people, says in his Florentine Histories, "...for the people who had been able to drive him out only with difficulty were able to keep him out with ease."

Chronicler Giovanni Villani says that when the dejected Ghibellines reached nearby Prato, "they bitterly reproached each other, but after a thing ill-judged, and worse carried out, repentance is in vain."  Hmmm.  "A thing ill-judged."  That would make a great title...

Thus did the Ghibellines go out with a whimper, never to have the rulership of Florence again.  Next the pope, Clement IV, persuaded the reluctant populace that they really should re-admit the exiled Guelf (pro-papal, remember?) party.  Popes in those days could be extremely persuasive; thus it was that the Guelfs returned, in April of 1267.

Clement IV, a persuasive pope

That sets the stage for the 1267 marriage contracts.  The defeated Ghibellines had trickled back, the Guelfs came home, and the pope wanted everyone to make peace.  

Among the couples united in that effort:  Iacopa, whose father was Guido Novello (remember the locked-out Ghibelline?), betrothed to Forese di Bonaccorso Adimari.  Bonaccorso, Forese's father, was caption of the Florentine Guelfs for over thirty years, so it doesn't get much Guelfer than that.  Bonaccorso's brother Bindo affianced Selvaggia degli Ubaldini, the daughter of a prominent Ghibelline house.


 Marriages were contracted between the Ghibelline Strinati family and the Guelf della Tosa.  That peace lasted for a time, but it must have been brittle - in 1301, we learn from chronicler Neri Strinati, the della Tosa attacked and robbed the Strinati houses, and "again in the same night the gang of the Medici [allied with the della Tosa] came to our house," where they stole everything that was left, and, as Strinati says in his Cronichetta, they "left the children, male and female, naked in their cribs, carrying off the clothing and bed linens."  One wonders if any of those children might have had a della Tosa grandmother.

della Tosa

Two other marriages were contracted at that time, both of which we will look at more closely in the next few blog posts:  Guido Cavalcanti (poet, and Dante's "first friend") was promised to Beatrice, daughter of the late Ghibelline leader Farinata degli Uberti (Guido Novello's predecessor); and Beatrice's brother Azzolino was given for wife Ravenna Donati.  Ravenna was the sister of Corso Donati, who I've often written about in these posts, and the daughter of Simone Donati, who played a role in the tale of the 1239 marriage that I'll recount in an upcoming post.  She was also a cousin of Dante's wife, Gemma Donati.



The Florentines were still at it in 1279, when the papal legate Cardinal Latino Malabranca Orsini arrived to make peace between warring factions (which by then included Guelfs arguing with other Guelfs, as well as Guelfs vs. Ghibellines).  Among the squabbling Guelf families he united were the Adimari (like Bonaccorso, above) and the Tosinghi; and the Donati (Ravenna's family) and the Pazzi.

Cardinal Latino

I have a theory that Gemma Donati's father Manetto promised his daughter to Dante (which he did in 1277, when Dante was 12 and Gemma probably younger) because he didn't want her to be available for such a peacemaking marriage.  As a leader in Florence and a prominent Guelf, he would have known early that efforts were afoot to have a papal peacemaker come to the city, and he also would have known that his own family would be one of the first to be considered for peacemaking unions.

I like to think that he wanted to spare his daughter such a fate, and so he arranged for her early betrothal to the poet-to-be, who lived a few doors down the street and was of a lower social station than the Donati.  Perhaps Manetto decided that to keep his daughter safe and nearby, he was willing to give the new couple a great deal of financial help, if needed, if it would keep her free of a union with a hostile family.  (He did indeed provide a lot of financial backing for Dante, all the way up to the point where Dante was exiled, and presumably assisted Gemma afterwards.)

In 1290, the Florentines were still making these marriages.  In that year, the priors not only mandated two marital liaisons between the della Tosa and the Lamberti, they actually pledged 1400 lire of the city's money toward the necessary dowries.  Such a deal - peace, if it works, and the woman's father doesn't even have to provide the dowry.

Next week:  the fate of Unknown Buondelmonti Lady and Neri Piccolomino degli Uberti.

Images in this post are in the public domain, with the exceptions of the heraldic devices of the Adimari, the Conti Guidi (two lions), the Cavalcanti, and the Ubaldini, which are from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, created by Massimop; and the heraldic devices of the Uberti, the Conti Guidi (one lion) and the della Tosa, which are also from Wikimedia Commons and under the same licensing agreement, created by Sailko; and the picture of Pope Clement IV, also from Wikimedia Commons, same license, created by Marianne Casamance.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Last Lombard King: Kim Rendfeld Guest Post

I'd like to welcome Kim Rendfeld, author of The Cross and the Dragon, bringing us a guest post about the Lombard King Desiderius.  Kim's novel is receiving excellent reviews, and I'm delighted to feature an example of her in-depth research and its rich results.

Now, here's Kim:

The Last Lombard King

Lombard King Desiderius was in a good position in the spring of 771. Two daughters were married to dukes, and another had recently wed Charles, a king of Francia. Plus, two troublesome papal ministers were permanently out of the way.

A few months later, it would all start to fall apart with the death of Charles’s brother. And just three years after that, Desiderius would lose his kingdom in northern Italy and be imprisoned in a monastery. His son and heir, Adalgis, was in exile.

In a scene from Alessandro Manzoni's Adelchi, the title character is dying in the presence of Charlemagne and his father, Lombard King Desiderius.  Historically, the prince escaped from Charlemagne and caused trouble later. 

Alda, the Frankish teenage heroine of my novel The Cross and the Dragon, sees Desiderius as a madman who refused a bribe of gold in exchange for returning conquered lands. But the Lombard king’s story is much more complicated, a tale of power, intrigue, family honor, and revenge.

Intervening in Papal Succession

To understand Desiderius’s story, it helps to go back to 767, when Pope Paul I is dying. At this time, Desiderius had been king for 11 years, having seized power in a coup with Paul’s brother and predecessor as an ally. The alliance lasted only a few months, and the relationship between Rome and Pavia was uneasy because of a territorial dispute.

When Paul’s death was imminent in June 767, four aristocratic brothers from Roman Tuscany seized control of Rome, and one of them, Constantine, was elevated to the papacy, even though he was a layman (never mind canon law).

Papal minister Christopher and his son, Sergius, opposed this move but were forced to take refuge in the basilica of Saint Peter. They were allowed to leave when they asked to retire to a monastery, a common repository for political opponents. Instead of traveling to the monastery, they visited the duke of Spoleto and asked him to take them to his king, Desiderius. After hearing their case, Desiderius lent his support in the form of Spoletan soldiers and Waldipert, a Lombard priest.

The Lombard camp in what is believed to be an illustration to Alessandro Manzoni's Adelchi

The forces retook Rome and arrested Constantine. But Desiderius was not above installing a pope of his own liking. Waldipert and some Romans grabbed Philip, the chaplain at the monastery of Saint Vitas, and acclaimed him pope, with the intent of making him a figurehead. On Christopher’s bidding, Philip was quickly sent home and a cleric named Stephen was elevated to pope.

Eighth-century justice was brutal, even in Rome. Accused of plotting to kill Christopher and hand Rome over to the Lombards, Waldipert was blinded, and his tongue was cut out, the same fate as Constantine and some of his followers. Waldipert died of his injuries.


Desiderius probably wanted revenge, but he had to wait a few years. In the meantime, there was an opportunity to build an alliance with a Frankish king. King Pepin, who also had the title of patrician of Rome, died in September 768, and his sons, Charles and Carloman, succeeded him.

No one knows whose idea it was for Charles to marry one of Desiderius’s daughters, but it had the full support of Queen Mother Bertrada, even though Charles was already married. The Church saw itself as the protector of marriage, but it was not a sacrament in those days. (Desiderius also wanted Charles’s sister to marry Lombard Prince Adalgis, but that idea was nixed on the Frankish side.)

In 770, the pope was upset when he heard rumors of the Lombard-Frankish marriage, and a strongly worded letter that bears his name opposes the idea. Bertrada went on a mission to ensure peace between her sons, the duke of Bavaria who was also the kings’ first cousin and Desiderius’s son-in-law, the pope, and the Lombard king. She returned to Francia with the Lombard princess.

For Desiderius, Bertrada’s diplomacy had the added benefit of distancing the anti-Lombard Christopher from the pope. Around Easter 771, Pope Stephen sent a message that “the most abominable Christopher and his most wicked son, Sergius,” schemed with one of Carloman’s men to kill him. The intervention of “our most excellent son, King Desiderius,” saved the day. But the pope was also distressed to report that Christopher and Sergius were blinded. Because of the handiwork of Desiderius’s ally Paul Afiarta, Christopher died of his wounds while his son was imprisoned.


King Carloman’s death at age 20 in December 771 changed Desiderius’s fate. Charles seized his brother’s lands, even though Carloman had two young sons. To solidify his place as king of all Francia, he repudiated the Lombard princess and married a young woman from an important family in Carloman’s former kingdom.

The divorce was an insult to Desiderius, and he must have seen an opportunity for revenge when Carloman’s widow, Gerberga, fled to his court with the boys.

But he had another problem to deal with. Pope Stephen died February 3, 772. While Stephen was sick, Paul Afiarta exiled or imprisoned enemies and for good measure, had the blinded Sergius strangled, but his efforts to succeed Stephen failed. Deacon Hadrian, Afiarta’s enemy, was made pope, freed prisoners and exiles, and ordered an investigation of Afiarta, who was later executed. Hadrian was no friend of Desiderius.

Two months into Hadrian’s papacy, Desiderius risked Frankish intervention and invaded papal territories, trying to pressure Hadrian to anoint Carloman’s sons as kings, one way to avenge the insult to his daughter. The pope refused. Even as Desiderius was conquering papal cities, Hadrian was reluctant to ask for Charles’s aid, wanting to preserve Italy’s independence.

The pope’s threat of anathema kept the Lombards away for a while, but the pressure got to be too much. Hadrian asked for Charles’s intervention. In 773, Charles, who had just fought his first war with the Saxons, tried diplomacy and offered gold in exchange for the conquered territory.

A 1493 miniature from the Chronicles of France, printed by Antoine Verard, depicts Pope Hadrian I meeting Charlemagne.

Desiderius refused, which at first seems baffling because he did not want a war with the Franks. His predecessor was forced to make territorial concessions when a Frankish king invaded Italy 17 years ago. Perhaps, Desiderius thought the pope would demand an invasion anyway. In that case, holding onto the territory would weaken his opponent.

Desiderius might also have thought that he would lose lands but not his whole kingdom. Charles’s father, Pepin, had been content with a treaty. Once the Franks’ backs were turned, Desiderius might have reasoned, he could reconquer lost territory, just as he did a few months into his reign. For details about Charles’s first war in Lombardy, see my Family Feuds post in Unusual Historicals.

In the end, things for Desiderius turned out far worse than he might have imagined. Perhaps Charles thought that if he didn’t removed Desiderius from the throne, he would continue to threaten Rome and distract the pope from praying for Francia, an important duty in age that believed in divine intervention.

To Charles, the prayers worked. After months of holding siege with Desiderius in Pavia, Charles went to Rome for Easter in early April 774. The Lombard city finally fell that June.

Images in this post are from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.


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

Charlemagne: Translated Sources, P.D. King

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

Kim Rendfeld is the author of The Cross and the Dragon, a tale of love amid the wars and blood feuds of Charlemagne’s reign. Her novel opens on the eve of the Franks’ invasion of Lombardy. For more about Kim and her fiction, visit her website or her blog


Tinney Heath says:  Thank you so much, Kim.  It never fails to amaze me how much we can learn about people who lived so long ago.  Desiderius's story is fascinating, and your research is an inspiration.