The Lombards: A Powerful Medieval Kingdom

Theodelinda, queen of the Lombards, marries Agilulf, duke of Turin
Theodelinda, queen of the Lombards, marries Agilulf, duke of Turin

Origin

The Lombards were a Germanic tribe that originated in Scandinavia and migrated to the region of Pannonia, which is roughly modern-day Hungary.

The period of their migration is often referred to as “The Wandering of the Nations” or “The Great Migration,” which is thought to have taken place between 376-476 CE. However, some scholars believe that these migrations may have started earlier and lasted longer than the traditionally accepted dates.

The Lombards are first mentioned in Roman texts in the 1st century CE by historians such as Velleius Paterculus, Strabo, and Tacitus. The earliest comprehensive account of the Lombards’ history is found in ‘The History of the Lombards’, written by Paul the Deacon in the 8th century CE. This work is based on an earlier text called ‘The Origin of the Lombards’, but it has been criticized by historians because it relies on a variety of sources, some of which are not clearly identified and are of questionable reliability.

Additionally, Paul the Deacon’s work includes some accounts that he himself labels as “silly,” and others that are considered to be highly questionable, such as the claim that a prostitute gave birth to seven children at once, one of whom became the Lombard king Lamissio. Despite these issues, historians have still relied on The History of the Lombards for information on the early history of the Lombards.

They allied with the Eastern Roman Empire against the Italian Ostrogoths and fought for Rome against Totila at the Battle of Taginae in 552 CE.

In 568 CE, they invaded Italy en masse, establishing the Lombard Kingdom under their king Alboin (r. c. 560-572 CE). Their kingdom grew in size and strength until it encompassed almost the entirety of modern-day Italy; it lasted until 774 CE, when it was defeated by the Franks; thereafter, only small city-states under other powers existed in Italy. Their name lives on in the contemporary northern Italian region of Lombardy.

 

Early History

Lombard possessions in Italy: the Lombard Kingdom (Neustria, Austria and Tuscia) and the Lombard Duchies of Spoleto and Benevento

Lombard possessions in Italy: the Lombard Kingdom (Neustria, Austria and Tuscia) and the Lombard Duchies of Spoleto and Benevento

Paul the Deacon explains that the ancestors of the Lombards were a Scandinavian people known as the Winnili. Ibor and Aio, the leaders of a subgroup of this tribe, migrated south with their mother Gambara, eventually settling in the region referred to by Paul as Scoringa (near the Elbe River).

The Vandals “coerced all the neighbors into war,” Paul writes, and “sent messengers to the Winnili, telling them to pay tribute to the Vandals or prepare for the struggles of war.” The two brothers determined “that it is better to maintain liberty through arms than to tarnish it through tribute payments” and informed the Vandals that they would rather fight than become slaves. Their problem, however, was that they lacked a large fighting force and were therefore certain to be outnumbered by the Vandal army.

Gambara of the Winnili then approached Freia (also given as Frigg or Frigga), Odin’s wife, and requested that she grant victory in battle to her sons. Freia told Gambara that the women of the Winnili should “pull their hair down and put it on their faces like a beard,” and that they should be with their husbands in the early morning and stand in the same way so that Godan could see them from the direction he usually looked from his east-facing window.

The women arranged themselves in lines with their hair tied to resemble beards, and the following morning, when Odin looked out his window at sunrise, he saw them standing in formation on the battlefield. He asked, “Who are these bearded men?” Freia then stated that, since he had just given the tribe its name, he should also give them the victory, which he did; thus, the Winnili became the “Longbeards,” who eventually became the “Lombards.”

Paul claims that the name “Langobards” is derived from the length of the men’s beards, which they refuse to cut or trim. Most scholars believe their name derives from one of Odin’s names, Langbaror, as the tribe had, at some point after leaving Scandinavia, devoted themselves to the worship of Odin.

The Lombards, according to Paul, “suffered great privation from hunger” and “were filled with dread” after their victory over the Vandals.”

After a number of other adventures (including battles and single combat with a variety of foes), they settled in the region east of the Elbe known to Paul the Deacon as Mauringa, which corresponds to modern-day Austria. Here, the Saxon Confederacy ruled over them for a while, but then they rose up under their king Agelmund (son of Aio) and lived on their own for the next thirty years.

Paul now relates the story of the prostitute who gave birth to seven unwanted children and then threw them into a fish pond to drown. Upon stopping at the pond to give his horse water, King Agelmund discovers that one of the children is still alive, so he rescues him and raises him as his own son.

“When he grew up, he became such a vigorous youth that he was also very fond of fighting, and after Agelmund’s death, he led the kingdom’s administration,” according to Lamissio.

Lamissio rose to power following a Bulgarian raid in which Agelmund was murdered and his daughter was abducted. The princess was rescued by Lamissio after he rallied the Lombards, defeated the Bulgarians, and rescued her.

Other kings, such as Lethu, Hildeoc, and Gudeoc, followed Lamissio, and, possibly due to overpopulation and a lack of resources, or possibly due to conflict with the Huns, they moved to the Danube region c. 487 CE after Odoacer of Italy destroyed the Rugii tribe residing there.

At this time, they came to the attention of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, which invited them to Pannonia to defend the region against the Gepid tribe, or, according to other sources, they were part of the Thuringian (Goth) hegemony, which disintegrated, and they migrated there independently. This is the period, approximately 526 CE, when the first “certainly historical king,” Wacho,” ruled the Lombard tribe. They defeated the Pannonia-dwelling Heruls and seized their ancestral lands.

 

Friends and Foes of the Rome

The Lombards, under the leadership of kings Wacho and Audoin, prospered during their time in Pannonia. After Audoin’s death in 560 CE, his son Alboin became king and was known as one of the greatest Lombard leaders.

Alboin, according to some accounts, formed an alliance with the Avar king Bayan I to defeat the Gepids in battle in 567 CE, with Alboin himself killing their king Cunimund and using his skull as a cup.

However, it’s possible that it was actually Bayan I who proposed the alliance and killed Cunimund before giving the skull to Alboin. Nevertheless, once the Gepids were defeated, the Avars took control of the region due to the agreement Alboin made with Bayan I before the battle, which stated that all Gepid land and resources would go to the Avars, instead of the Lombards. The reason for Alboin’s acceptance of these unfavorable terms remains unclear.

In order to form an alliance against the Avars, Alboin, chief of the Lombards, married Rosamund, daughter of King Cunimund of the Gepids. However, by that time the Avars had grown too strong and the Gepids too weak, so Alboin decided to leave the region.

Many Lombard soldiers had previously served in the Roman army under General Narses in Italy, where they had performed well in battles such as the Battle of Taginae in 552 CE, which resulted in the defeat of Totila, king of the Ostrogoths and the re-conquest of Italy by the Roman Empire.

These soldiers still remembered Italy as a land of plenty, and they either suggested to Alboin that they migrate there, or according to other sources, Narses himself invited them. Regardless of how the idea came about, in 568 CE, Alboin led the Lombards out of Pannonia and into northern Italy.

 

Rosamund forced to drink from the skull of her father (1650-1660)
Rosamund forced to drink from the skull of her father (1650-1660)

The Lombard Conquest and the End of Alboin's Reign

When Alboin and his Lombard people invaded Italy in the late 6th century, they met little resistance and quickly conquered many cities, with the exception of Pavia, which required a three year siege to take. By 572 CE, Alboin had taken control of most of Italy and set up his capital at Verona.

He divided the country into 36 territories, called “duchies,” each governed by a duke who answered directly to the king. This system allowed for efficient government, but also left too much power in the hands of the individual dukes, leading to varying levels of prosperity across the regions. 

As Alboin focused on securing the kingdom’s borders, he left the day-to-day governance to his subordinates, resulting in a lack of unity among the territories. In 572 CE, King Alboin was killed by a group of conspirators led by his wife Rosamund who, according to Paul the Deacon, had never forgiven Alboin for killing her father.

After the loss of their leader, the various Lombard territories became even less unified and were eventually threatened by outside forces, such as the Franks and the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire had spent significant resources to retake Italy from the Ostrogoths following the death of Theodoric the Great in 526 CE.

In c.582, the emperor of the Byzantine Empire, Maurice established the Exarchate of Ravenna, aimed at retaking Italy from the Lombards. But the Exarchate failed as the Italian people did not want to return to the rule of the empire and pay higher taxes to support its wars.

 

Alboin's Legacy: The Rise of the Lombard Kingdom and its Successors

The Frankish Merovingian King Chlothar II in combat with the Lombards

The Frankish Merovingian King Chlothar II in combat with the Lombards

In the face of an impending imperial attack, the Lombard dukes united and selected Authari as their king in 586 CE. Authari successfully defeated the Byzantine forces that opposed them, but lost land in another battle the following year.

To bolster his position, he attempted to arrange a marriage with the daughter of a Frankish king, Childebert II, but the plan fell through when Childebert instead married his daughter to a Visigoth king. As a result, the Franks allied with the Byzantine Empire against the Lombards and invaded Italy, capturing several important cities.

In an effort to gain allies against the Frankish and Byzantine forces, Authari subsequently married the daughter of a Bavarian duke, Theodelinda. However, he died before any military action could be taken and was succeeded by his relative, Agilulf.

Agilulf brought peace with the Franks, strengthened the kingdom’s borders, and centralized power under his rule. The Byzantine Empire was occupied with other conflicts and was unable to challenge the Lombards, allowing Agilulf to rule in relative peace.

Despite religious differences between Arian Lombards and the mostly Catholic population, sectarian violence was not prevalent in the Lombard kingdom. Over time, the Lombards adopted the customs, dress and manners of the Romans, renouncing their pagan practices for Catholicism and giving their children Roman names at baptism.

After Agilulf’s death, his wife Theodelinda ruled until her son Adaloald came of age and took the throne. Adaloald was later deposed by Arioald, his brother-in-law and an Arian, before Rothari became king and expanded the Lombard kingdom’s territories in Italy, reducing the Byzantine Empire’s holdings to only a few regions.

 

Frankish Invasion and the Collapse of the Lombard Kingdom

After Liutprand’s death, the Lombard Kingdom experienced a decline, with internal conflicts and invasions from Slavic tribes on the border. However, this situation improved when Liutprand came to the throne in 712 CE, and expanded the Kingdom and formed a strong alliance with the Franks.

However, his successors were not able to maintain this stability and prosperity. The final king, Desiderius, was able to conquer Rome and drive out the Byzantine Empire, but his ambition led him to conflict with Pope Hadrian I, which resulted in Charlemagne of the Franks intervening.

He broke the Frankish-Lombard alliance and defeated Desiderius in battle in 774 CE, seizing the lands of the Lombards and ending their rule in Italy. Some territories under surviving Lombard dukes remained, but there was no longer a centralized Lombard government and the culture and people were absorbed into the Frankish kingdom.

 

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Recommended Books

History of the Lombards (The Middle Ages Series) by Paul the Deacon
History of the Lombards (The Middle Ages Series) by Paul the Deacon
History of the Lombards: A Captivating Guide to a Group of Germanic Peoples Who Invaded Italy and Ruled Large Areas of the Italian Peninsula by Captivating History
History of the Lombards: A Captivating Guide to a Group of Germanic Peoples Who Invaded Italy and Ruled Large Areas of the Italian Peninsula by Captivating History
The Lombards: The Ancient Longobards by Neil Christie
The Lombards: The Ancient Longobards by Neil Christie
Italy and her Invaders. Part Four. Invasion and kingdom of the Lombards by Thomas Hodgkin
Italy and her Invaders. Part Four. Invasion and kingdom of the Lombards by Thomas Hodgkin
In the Manner of the Franks Hunting, Kingship, and Masculinity in Early Medieval Europe by Eric J. Goldberg
In the Manner of the Franks Hunting, Kingship, and Masculinity in Early Medieval Europe by Eric J. Goldberg

Featured Image

The Iron Crown of Lombardy, originally an armlet or perhaps a votive crown, as suggested by its small size, was presented to the Cathedral of Monza, where it is preserved as a holy relic. No firm record exists of its use for coronations before that of Henry VII as Holy Roman Emperor in 1312.

The Iron Crown of Lombardy consists of a broad circle of six gold plates connected by hinges and held rigid by an inner ring of iron measuring approximately 0.50 inches (1.25 centimeters) in width. It is embellished with jewels and translucent enamel and appears to be of Byzantine construction.  The iron ring does not appear in early descriptions, and it may have been added in the 12th century; it was not described as being made from a nail used in the Crucifixion of Christ until 1585 or later. After much debate, the Congregation of Relics at Rome in 1717 authorized the exposure of the crown for veneration without issuing a definitive ruling on the matter.

Sources

  • Peters, E. (1907). Library of Congress Catalog Card. http://www.thule-italia.org/Nordica/Paul%20the%20Deacon%20-%20History%20of%20the%20Lombards%20%281907%29%20%5BEN%5D.pdf

  • History of the lombards. (2019). Google Books. https://books.google.com.mt/books?id=y23cDwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false‌

  • ‌Iron Crown of Lombardy | holy relic | Britannica. (2023). In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Iron-Crown-of-Lombardy

  • Mark, J. J. (2014, December 6). Lombards. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/Lombards/

  • Great History. (2023). King Alboin: how and why did the Lombards end up in Italy [YouTube Video]. In YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nfK7Re7dGpM

  • British Library. (2023). Www.bl.uk. https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/paul-the-deacon-history-of-the-lombards‌

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