Gertrude of Nivelles : biography
Pippin, Gertrude’s father served as mayor of the palace for much of his career.Fredegar ch 84 Somewhat like the shōguns of fifteenth-century Japan, the mayors of the palace were at first the king’s “first men,” but as time passed mayors became more and more powerful, eventually supplanting the kings. When Pippin died, his son Grimoald, Gertrude’s brother, had to struggle with Otto to become the new mayor of the palace.Fredegar ch 86 When Otto was killed ten years later, “the dignity of mayor of Sigebert’s palace and control of all the kingdom of Austrasia was thus decisively assured to Grimoald” and the Pippinids.Fredegar ch 88
Before Dagobert’s death, Pippin invited Dagobert to his house for a feast. It was considered a great honor for Pippin that the king accepted, and is further evidence of Pippin’s power and standing, as well as the power of his family. At this feast, the King put the family in an awkward position by asking Gertrude if she would like to marry the “son of a duke of the Austrasians” (See Marriage, below).
Gertrude’s Vita, thought by some to have been written by an Irish monk after Begga’s death in 693 (this is disputed by later scholars, see Gertrude in Literature, below), begins with Gertrude’s refusal to marry King Dagobert’s suitor, son of the duke of Austrasia and potential usurper of Pepin’s power.
In her Vita, King Dagobert asks Gertrude to marry the son of a duke of the Austrasians who is interested in Gertrude, “for the sake of his worldly ambition and mutual alliance.” Gertrude’s biographer describes how, “she lost her temper and flatly rejected him with an oath, saying that she would have neither him nor any earthly spouse but Christ the Lord.”McNamara et al 223
Catherine Peyroux argues that marriage politics in the seventh century certainly played a part in the king’s intervention on behalf of the Austrasion Duke. She wonders how much power, if any, Gertrude’s parents had over the identity of their daughter’s husband.Peyroux 51-52
Fouracre and Gerberding argue her refusal to marry the king’s chosen candidate and her determination to enter the religious life may have been dictated by her father’s precarious political situation.
Either way, the fact that Gertrude and her family were strong enough to resist the will of the king demonstrates the considerable power they held. It may have been this same power that allowed the family to hold on to their lands after the revolt of Grimoald, and furthermore secure the appointment of Wulfetrude, Gertrude’s niece, as abbess of Nivelles.
According to Suzanne Wemple, marriage was important politically in the Frankish lands, as it secured alliances and allowed families to consolidate their land holdings. For example, it is believed that the marriage of Begga and Ansegisel was critical is setting the stage for a Carolingian takeover of Austrasia.Wemple 54 The marriage of their son Pepin the Middle and Plectrude later secured the lands of Plectrude’s father, Seneschal Hugobert, and her mother Irmina of Oeren, because she had no brothers or sisters. These lands included “vast domains in the country between the Rhine, the Moselle, and the Meuse.” Wemple further explains that Begga’s sons further enhanced Pepin’s power by marrying women with political connections in the north and northwest.
Ian Wood supports this argument, claiming that “Carolinian power… was built up through a series of marriage alliances, each bringing estates and influence.”
Although “women were active in arranging matrimonial alliances” in Frankish society, “the personal feeling of a woman was of little consequence and she was expected to subordinate it to her family’s wishes.” Wemple hypothesizes that if Pippin I had lived longer, that he would have forced Gertrude to marry the son of the Austrasian duke for political reasons, and that the Pippinids would have supplanted the Merovingians sooner. She describes Itta as “acceding to Gertrude’s wishes” when she built the monastery.