The unlikely link between a sixth-century queen and Macbeth

The Dark Queens book coverWhile working on The Dark Queens: The Bloody Rivalry that Forged the Medieval World, Shelley Puhak stumbled across a connection between her subjects and Shakespeare.

Her book is a dual biography of Brunhild and Fredegund, two queens who, as long-term regents for their underage male relatives, ruled over most of sixth-century Western Europe. Fredegund was born a slave; Brunhild was a Visigoth princess. Despite their vastly different backgrounds, they ended up as sisters-in-law and political rivals who negotiated with emperors and popes, revitalized cities, revamped tax policy, and conducted a decades-long civil war—against each other. Echoes of one conflict in that war, the 593 Battle of Droizy, have been preserved in Macbeth’s final act, when Birnam Wood arrives at Dunsinane.

The excerpt below from The Dark Queens explores this intriguing connection.


EXCERPT:

Brunhild had long had her eye on Soissons, a city right on the border of the two kingdoms. In 593, after coming into possession of even more land and troops, Brunhild decided to make her move. She approved an attack on Soissons and her nobles invaded the surrounding villages and towns, devastating the countryside and burning all of the crops to the ground.

Fredegund had no hope of beating the opposing forces in outright combat. She decided the battle to defend Soissons should occur at the enemy’s camp 15 miles away in the fields of Droizy; her only chance was a surprise attack. Fredegund followed the dictums of military handbooks such as De re militari, the same way a male Roman field commander might; she chose the battlefield, and she opted for trickery when confronted by a much larger army.

Fredegund ordered her army to march at night, not a typical maneuver. She also counseled her men to disguise themselves. A row of warriors led the march, each carrying a tree branch to camouflage the horsemen behind him. Fredegund had the added inspiration of fastening bells to their horses. Bells were commonly used on horses that were let out to graze; the enemy had hung bells around to their own mounts when they set up camp, so they could be more easily rounded up in the morning.

The earliest surviving record of the Battle of Droizy comes to us from the eighth century chronicle Liber Historiae Francorum (The History Book of the Franks), but the usually terse chronicler becomes so incredibly specific in this one instance that it seems they are drawing upon details immortalized by an account in a local monastery or an oral history. In this telling, Fredegund is unsure whether the ploy will work: “At first light, let’s fall upon them, and who knows, maybe we’ll beat them.”

But a sentry is suspicious. He asks, “Weren’t there fields in those places over there yesterday? Why do we see woods?”

Another sentry, though, laughs off this alarm: “But of course you have been drunk, that is how you blotted it out. Do you not hear the bells of our horses grazing next to that forest?”

With the warning disregarded, Brunhild’s forces slept and at daybreak, they found themselves surrounded.

*

Scholars and folklorists have found later iterations of this “walking forest” in the 11th and 13th centuries. The strategy was used to overthrow Bishop Conon of Trier, a contemporary of the historical King Macbeth, and employed by a Danish king to defeat his adversaries. But the Fredegund story predates the earliest of these battles by over three centuries.

There are also mentions of magical “walking forests” in Celtic myths, preserved in such works as the Cad Goddeu, the Ulster Cycle, and The Second Battle of Mag Tured, but they are difficult to date. The earliest extant version of these dates to the twelfth century, but the Ulster Cycle was probably first recorded in the eighth century, around the same time as the only surviving account of the Battle of Droizy.

Did these myths incorporate a garbled version of Fredegund’s victory? Equally plausible is that the queen’s maneuvers, and the myths themselves, are all rooted in some older pagan source. Perhaps Fredegund was raised in a Celtic community before her enslavement and remembered a fireside tale of enchanted fighting trees.

Whatever her inspiration, Fredegund’s strategy saved Soissons. Her army slaughtered Brunhild’s forces and then went on the offensive, plundering the villages of the area. When Fredegund returned back home, she did so like a true Frankish warrior—“with much booty and many spoils.”


Excerpted with permission from The Dark Queens by Shelley Puhak (Bloomsbury 2022). Shelley Puhak is the author of three award-winning books of poetry and a past reader in the Folger’s O.B. Hardison Poetry series. The Dark Queens is her nonfiction debut. www.shelleypuhak.com


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