In sixth-century France, Merovingian royals Basina and Clotilda were forced into a nunnery. They decided to lead their sisters in an uprising against their abbess instead.
Illustration by Calum Health
The women of the Merovingian dynasty in Gaul (present-day France) made Game of Thrones look tame. Trapped in a system that incorporated multiple wives, concubines, and no specific order of inheritance, survival for themselves and their children required ruthlessness, cunning, and a knack for violence. Any losers lucky enough to survive would be forcibly interred into a monastery or convent, with the expectation that they would stay there in order to limit their influence over royal affairs.
But even this cutthroat world had its limits, and a respect for the sanctity of the church was one of them—and it made the princesses Basina and Clotilda’s armed takeover of their convent an act that rocked the medieval world.
Basina, daughter of Chilperic I and his first wife Audovera, was a survivor through and through. Her stepmother Fredegund (wife number three) took advantage of an outbreak of disease to rid herself of her rival's children by sending them to the infected city. When this failed to kill them, she took the more direct route and sent soldiers to finish the job. Basina's brother and mother were killed, and Basina was raped. In sixth century Gaul, this left her unmarriageable and therefore removed her claim on the family lands and wealth. The only way her remaining family could mitigate the supposed shame of her abuse was to force her into a convent.
Her cousin Clotilda (also known as Clothild) seems to have had a less traumatic, or at least less noteworthy, entry into religious life. When she turned rebel leader, the daughter of King Charibert I and a peasant-born concubine lent heavily on her status as royal progeny. She is thought to have announced her uprising at the convent with the declaration: "I am going to my royal kin so they will know of our indignity, for here we are abased. I am treated not as the daughter of a king but as the spawn of filthy slave girls."
Gregory of Tours, the bishop and chronicler who recorded their story, is keen to depict the princesses as spoiled brats, especially Clotilda, whom he described as “swollen up with boastfulness.” Some of their complaints were reasonable; they described their experience of convent life as one of “starvation, nakedness, and above all of beating". But they also made the more outlandish claim that their abbess, Leubovera, allowed strange men to enter the abbey and knock up their fellow nuns, and that she had castrated a man and kept him in the convent. There may have been a grain of truth to their accusations. Several pregnant nuns and a local eunuch, albeit one who denied ever meeting the abbess, were produced to back up the fallen princesses.
Professor Paul Fouracre, a professor of medieval history at Manchester University, believes that the roots in the rebellion lay in Basina and Clotilda’s desire to protect their rank and power.
“Basina and Clotilda were real princesses,” he explains. “They could not bear someone of lesser status having authority over them, even though they were nuns and that person was their abbess. In the Merovingian Age social insult was to be avenged with violence.”
In fairness, the princesses did attempt a non-violent solution at first. With 40 rebellious sisters in tow, the pair left the convent—an excommunicable act in and of itself—and decamped to Tours to throw themselves on the mercy of Gregory, with Clotilda appealing to her uncle, King Guntrum, to remove Leubovera. He duly promised to send a royal commission to resolve their problems with the abbess, but the men never arrived.
The nuns decided to take matters into their own hands. Establishing their base in the nearby church of St. Hilary, the princesses scrounged up a diverse cast of mercenaries that, according to Gregory, included "murderers, sorcerers, adulterers, runaway slaves and men guilty of all other crimes." Their little army's first task was to beat up the party sent to formally excommunicate the women. Then they turned their attention to the convent itself, seizing its lands before finally attempting to abduct Leubovera herself. At first, they accidentally carried off the prioress Justina instead (also Gregory's niece, which might explain his later hostility towards the women), but they succeeded in nabbing Leubovera on their second try. Basina herself took on guarding the abbess to ensure she wouldn't escape.
At this point things got complicated. The local bishop roused the townsfolk, saying that no-one would be baptized until the situation was resolved, and Clotilda responded by threatening to kill the abbess should anyone try to rescue her. The two cousins then quarrelled, leading to Basina reconciling with Leubovera and switching sides. Finally, King Guntrum’s men successfully put down Clotilda’s mercenary army, and the two princesses were put on trial.
Leubovera denied all of their claims, or otherwise sought to explain them away. She maintained that she had absolutely never allowed strange men to impregnate her nuns and was innocent of all the other charges the princesses laid against her. Leubovera was found innocent and the two princesses were punished with excommunication.
Royal blood, however, has its privileges. The excommunication was to prove temporary. Both women were pardoned at the request of the king and welcomed back into the body of the church. While Basina chose to return to the convent—presumably confident in the knowledge that the abbess knew better than to cross her again—Clotilda was provided with a better option. The ruthless dowager queen Brunhilda, who was later accused of conspiring to murder ten Merovingian kings, gifted her with a sizeable estate. (Perhaps she recognized in Clotilda a kindred spirit; either way, the disgraced princess lived happily on her villa until her death. For all their bloodthirsty misadventures, Basina and Clotilda were only acting in accordance with their royal blood.
“Women were subject to violence when they had no power, but those who did have power by virtue of royal blood or marriage could rule with an iron fist,” Fouracre explains. “Just look at the list of all-powerful Merovingian queens: 'Jezebels,' monsters, and merciless in the eyes of discomfited churchmen. Basina and Clotilda were in good company!”