Learn what you Love
Jan. 16, 2021

48 – Between Giants

48 – Between Giants

Pepin the short seizes the throne and founds a new dynasty.


Today’s episode is about Pepin the Short and of course, we have to start with his name. Pepin was not actually short; unlike peasants, aristocrats got enough food and were noticeably taller than most people. Moreover, northern Europeans were among the largest people in the world. Pepin is near-universally called ‘the Short’ in the Anglosphere due to a mistranslation of the French, “Pippin le Bref,” better translated as “Pepin the Brief.” Pepin ruled as King of the Franks for 17 years, which is hardly brief, but historians consistently measure Pepin against his father and son. Charles Martel ruled Francia as Duke and Princeps for 23 years, and his son Charlemagne ruled as king and later emperor for 46 years. Pepin was a powerful king who heavily influenced Francia and Europe, but unfortunately for his legacy he is incessantly overlooked because of his famous familial relations, to the point where his very name is a negative comparison with his immediate predecessor and successor. In fairness, this is pretty understandable given that Charles Martel reunited Francia after 80 years of division and repelled Islamic armies, while Charlemagne created the greatest empire in Europe since Rome and laid foundations for European society that would last until the French Revolution. Tough break.

Pepin was born in 714 in Jupille, near the modern-day city of Liège, Belgium, one year after his older brother Carloman. That same year, Pepin’s grandfather and namesake, Pepin of Herstal, died. As the leading political figure in Francia with no designated heir, his death led to a power struggle between rival members of the Pippinids. Pepin’s father Charles had the weakest claim and he was imprisoned in Cologne. After four years of warring Charles defeated his rivals and became master of Francia at which point Charles moved his sons to Saint Denis where the two were educated by the monks there. Saint Denis was among the premier monasteries in Francia, and in Europe north of the Alps as religious scholars from the British Isles regularly travelled through the area on their way to Rome. As Pepin grew his father reformed the church from a mostly religious institution into an organ of state power. Churches administered his empire and bishops took on a secular portfolio in addition to their religious duties. As Pepin learned theology he simultaneously learned how useful religion was as a tool for government control, which became a defining feature of his later reign.

In the 730s Pepin almost certainly worked as a bureaucrat coordinating church and state officials to expand his father’s power. At some point he married a noblewoman from the Danube named Leutberga, and together they had five children. We can only guess what their marriage was like because there are virtually no records of her; perhaps purposely so. While the two were married Pepin began an affair with Bertrada, daughter of the powerful Count Charibert of Laon, in what is today Aisne, France. Notably, her family founded and controlled the Prüm Abbey. It is possible that Pepin met Bertrada through work done with the abbey; we can’t be sure but there’s something delightfully devilish about an affair taking place in a Benedictine monastery. Pepin wanted to dismiss his first wife for her, which in and of itself would have been a scandal but to make matters worse, Bertrada was his second cousin. On 22 October 741 Charles Martel died, giving Pepin the chance to pursue his love…or lust, sometimes its hard to tell the two apart. Pepin dismissed Leutberga and sent their five children to a convent. The new Mayor of the Palace of Neustria had ceased loving her, if he ever did. Moreover, he needed to consolidate his power within Francia and so he married Bertrada.

Pepin and his older brother Carloman were Charles Martel’s sons by his first wife, Rotrude, but Martel had another son, Grifo, by his second wife Swanachild. In 741 Grifo was only 15 years old, which by Frankish law meant he was technically a man, but his only real power came from his mother’s connections. Pepin and Carloman took advantage of the young boy, er man, and disinherited him. Grifo led a rebellion at Laon but the brothers defeated him and sent him to a monastery, before dividing up the kingdom between themselves with Pepin taking Neustria and Carloman taking Austrasia. For good measure, the new mayors killed their cousin Theudoald, who had been part of a branch of the family that opposed Charles Martel. Aren’t medieval family trees wonderful? It’s as if the branches each had saws and started cutting each other off.

Pepin and Carloman’s joint rule was contested immediately. In 742 Alemannia revolted and while Carloman and Pepin were busy restoring order Aquitaine’s Duke Hunoald, son of the legendary Duke Eudo, sacked Bourges and the fortress of Loches. The two brothers put down those revolts, but then in 743 Hunoald united with Duke Odilo of Bavaria in another uprising. As Francia teetered, Pepin made the Merovingian Childeric III king, ending the interregnum. He hoped to use this figurehead and calm the realm, though this didn’t work. In 744 the Saxons revolted, and Hunoald led another rebellion in 745. Hunoald was finally defeated and he surrendered, took a monk’s vow and joined the monastery at Île de Ré, an island off the west coast of France. His son Waiofar became the Duke of Aquitaine and there was peace for a time. Though no sooner had this conflict ended that Alemannia revolted.

Carloman marched against the Alemanni since it was part of his territory. After a number of battles, Carloman called the lords of Alemanni to a meeting at Cannstatt in modern-day Stuttgart to discuss a peace settlement. Thousands of great and petty lords attended, hoping to strike a balance between their rights and the Frankish lord’s expectations. But constant war and rebellion had exhausted Carloman’s patience. He accused the lords of high treason and executed all of them. The Blood Court at Cannstatt ended Alemanni leadership and terrified the nobility of Francia into submission. The following year Carloman abdicated his role as Mayor of the Palace of Austrasia. We don’t know exactly why, though given what he had been through he was probably weary of war and constant betrayal, and decided to retire to Italy to live as a monk, first in Monte Soratte, then Monte Cassino. His 17-year-old son Drogo inherited Austrasia, while Carloman pursued a life of prayer.

That same year, Pepin’s wife Bertrada gave birth to their first child, a boy who Pepin named Charles after his father. Pepin wanted to leave behind a strong, united realm for his son and decided to move against Drogo while simultaneously putting down a new revolt by Grifo. Pepin succeeded and by 750 he became the sole ruler of Francia. But Pepin was not universally recognized as Grifo and Drogo had their supporters, while regions like Aquitaine regularly caused problems. The Mayor of the Palace decided the best way to secure his rule and legacy was to make himself king. Pepin sent a letter to Pope Zachary asking if it were right for a king to have no power, as Childeric III did. Zachary took the hint; the papacy needed Frankish support against the Lombards, especially since the Byzantines were retreating from Italy. The Pope told Pepin that it was not right for a king to have no power. Pepin took this letter and really ran with it. On 751 Pepin cut Childeric III’s long hair and sent him to a monastery. He gathered his nobles at Soissons and, in front of his large army, asked them to elect him king. All those who didn’t want to be executed, or at least disfavored, agreed.

Before the coronation ceremony Pepin decided that if he were to become king he had to change the nature of kingship itself. At that time kingship in Francia was based upon descent from Merovech, whose family, the Merovingians, had led their people for hundreds of years. Pepin was not a Merovingian, nor was he so powerful that he could rule through pure force. Pepin had to unite the nobles of Francia under some new paradigm they could agree to, and one which the Merovingians had no claim to. Pepin chose religion as the force that would enshrine his dynasty and unify the realm. Religion was the tool that Pepin and his father had used to administer Francia for decades and in the chaos of his youth devotion to Catholicism was the only commonality among the Franks and their vassals. In 751 at Soissons the Mayor of the Palace inaugurated a whole new basis for rule: instead of sovereignty coming from noble privilege, Pepin claimed that God had chosen him as ruler.

In this ceremony he was assisted by his friend and counselor, an Irish monk named Vergilius. The Irish had a tradition of anointing kings with oil in a ceremony known as unction, which Pepin decided to replicate. This practice originated in the Bible as holy men and kings were anointed with oil as a demonstration of their special relationship with God. The most famous Biblical figure this was associated with was none other than Jesus. His honorific “Messiah” in Hebrew, or “Christos” in Greek literally means, “anointed one.” The devout Pepin aspired to Biblical kingship, or at least its pretenses, and decided he would be anointed like a figure from Scripture.
The ritual was more than just a copy of Biblical tradition, but a response to the religious foundations of Merovingian rule, that being the baptism of Clovis I. Clovis I used baptism to secure his power among his Catholic followers and signal their transition from paganism. Pepin almost certainly decided that since a religious ceremony inaugurated the first king of all the Franks, a new religious ceremony was needed for a new dynasty. Moreover, anointing with oil was an extension of religiosity beyond what the Merovingians were capable of. Baptism was a universal ceremony for all people to enter the church, which they received in childhood or upon new conversion. Anointing with oil was an elevation within the church that only a select elite received. Thus, Pepin was symbolically communicating that his dynasty had advanced to a new level of religiosity beyond that of the Merovingians. Pepin was not the first person to propose the Divine Right of Kings doctrine, but he made this the foundation of Francia, one of the two most important countries in Europe. When his son Charlemagne created the Frankish Empire and followed his father’s practice the Divine Right of Kings became the basis for legitimate European rule across most of the Continent.

Pepin’s audacity shocked many European observers, quite possibly even the Pope. There doesn’t seem to be anything in the meticulous Vatican records regarding Pepin and Zachary’s correspondence; which could be due to information lost over ages, but could also mean that the wily Frank made up this whole affair in order to seize power. Either way, the papacy couldn’t afford to oppose Pepin. The declining city of Rome was part of a crumbling political union, the Exarchate of Ravenna, set up by the Byzantines to protect the Italians from foreign invaders. Spoiler alert, it didn’t work out, and the Lombards continually conquered more territory until in 752 they prepared to besiege Rome.

Sidenote, the former Duke Hunoald had moved from Île de Ré to Rome where he joined a monastery connected to Saint Peter’s Basilica. As a former military strategist it is likely that he led a defense against the Lombards before going back to reading Scripture and praying for peace and calm.

Zachary died that year and Stephen II became Pope. Since Byzantium was busy fighting the Arabs he turned to the only power who could help him. In November 753 Stephen II became the first Pope to travel north of the Alps. Along the way he was escorted by Pepin’s young son Charles and a Frankish retinue until they reached Paris where he stayed at Saint Denis. Sources disagree on who was more honored; the Franks recount that they treated each other as equals while Vatican records claim that Pepin honored the Pope as his superior. In April the king and pope discussed how they would mutually support each other. Pepin agreed to safeguard the Pope from the Lombards in exchange for his participation in an elaborate ceremony. On 28 July 754 the Pope re-anointed Pepin as king and gave him the title patricius Romanorum, Patrician of the Romans. The Pope also anointed his young sons Charles and Carloman as kings and heirs of Francia. For the first time the Pope anointed a secular ruler and this practice of Popes bestowing God’s divine support upon European monarchs continued for over a thousand years.

The Pope’s blessing provided the final piece that Pepin needed to secure his throne. In 753 as the Pope travelled north, Pepin defeated his rival family members. Royal forces defeated his half-brother Grifo at Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne and killed him. Pepin’s loyalists captured Drogo who was tonsured and put into a monastery. When Pope Stephen II came up to Francia Pepin’s brother Carloman accompanied him to beg for Drogo’s release and a return of his inheritance. Pepin imprisoned his brother, who died the following year. Pepin’s brothers were dead, his more distant relatives were in monasteries, the nobility pledged to him and he had been anointed by the Pope, so that by 754 Pepin had finally secured his power.

With Francia under control, Pepin sent emissaries to King Aistulf of the Lombards promising an indemnity in exchange for giving the pope back his lands. The re-anointed Frankish king didn’t care to fight for the pope’s lands as he wanted to conquer Septimania and quash the rebellion du jour in Aquitaine. Aistulf said, “Let me think about it…no,” and so Pepin reluctantly marched south and crushed the Lombards at Susa along the Alpine pass. The Franks chased Aistulf to his capital at Pavia and besieged it. Aistulf recognized his position was terrible and sued for peace. The Lombard monarch agreed to give back all the lands he had taken and officially recognize the Pope as the secular ruler of those states. This treaty, known as the Donation of Pepin, was remarkably important in European history; it established the Papal States, a country which existed in various forms until 1870 with the modern Italian unification. Moreover, it gave the Pope his own secular domain, making him a political figure in addition to his religious powers. This was the first time that the Pope ruled as a secular head of state, though as a sidenote, it wasn’t the first time the Pope claimed secular lands to rule. The Lombards previously recognized Pope Gregory II as a secular ruler in 728 with the Donation of Sutri, but then reneged on that agreement, which should give you a clue as to what happens next.

When the Franks left Aistulf waited until winter when the passes would be covered in snow and invaded papal lands and besieged Rome. Hunoald, the former Duke of Aquitaine, helped defend the city and was killed. The Pope begged Pepin for help, and the thoroughly-annoyed Frank sent his own messengers to Aistulf who basically said, “How many times do we have to teach you a lesson old man?” Aistulf refused to back down, so that by spring the Franks invaded again, defeated the Lombards in battle again, and besieged Pavia again. Aistulf sued for clemency and Pepin accepted although this time he made the Lombards a tributary state and took hostages. The Franks left and before Aistulf could cause any more trouble he fell off his horse and died, passing on the kingdom to his son Desiderius.

Italy was politically stable, at least by medieval Italian standards, which granted isn’t a high bar, but at least Pepin could finally go to war with his more immediate enemies in Septimania and Aquitaine. In 751 Duke Waiofar of Aquitaine realized he needed to expand his power to defend himself against the new King of the Franks. He decided the best way to do so was to overthrow the Islamic rulers of Septimania, so that way he could pose as a hero of Christianity and powerful lord, at which point the majority Christian population would declare allegiance to him. Waiofar made the bold decision to attack the capital of Narbonne and surprisingly succeeded in sacking it. This inspired the Visigothic lords of Septimania to renounce their fealty to their Islamic overlords, but hilariously they then declared for Pepin. Pepin was a far stronger political leader, his father was the legendary defender of Christendom Charles Martel, and in a few years he was going to be the first king anointed by the Pope so for all those reasons, Waiofar inadvertently handed the southern coast to his greatest enemy.

Pepin invaded Septimania in 754 and warred with the Islamic holdouts until 760. The Franks were unmatched in open combat but their siege equipment was poorly developed and so Muslims could hold up behind fortresses. The embittered Waiofar united with the Basques and Gascons to harass the Franks, and help the Muslims who he had literally just tried to topple a few years earlier. Narbonne held on for years due to an influx of supplies and soldiers from the Emirate of Córdoba, but in 759 the Gothic inhabitants of Narbonne wearied of the fighting, killed the Islamic guards and threw open the gates. Within a year Pepin controlled Septimania. The small region was hardly a prize at this point; half a century of war meant the territory was scarcely populated and its cities were devastated. But this victory meant that Islamic forces were pushed beyond the mountains and into Spain and Francia had full control of the Mediterranean coast from the Pyrenees to the Alps.

Immediately after Narbonne fell Pepin moved on Aquitaine. He denounced Waiofar’s seizure of church lands as unjust, even though medieval kings did this all the time, including his own father Charles Martel and possibly even Pepin himself. In 760 he ravaged the countryside while taking Toulouse, Albi and the capital at Rodez. This began a nine-year long brutal war characterized by raiding, counter-raiding and scorched earth tactics on both sides. While Pepin sacked Aquitaine, Waiofar marched into Burgundy where rebellious nobles joined him in ravaging the region. In 763 Waiofar sued for peace but Pepin refused any arrangement that didn’t give him absolute authority over all of Aquitaine. His forces continued a campaign of terror, burning villas, vineyards and even attacking monasteries. One chronicler recounted that there were many former villages where “there was no settler [left] to work the land.” A number of Gascons loyal to Waiofar fought the Franks, but were defeated and they and their families were deported into Francia and dispersed. Pepin’s brutality worked and by 766 Waiofar’s followers had largely abandoned him. In 768 Waiofar and much of his family were in hiding in the forest of Périgord, when his subordinates revolted and massacred them. His surviving son Hunoald II continued the revolt but retreated to Gascony within a year, at which point the terrified Gascons turned him over to the new king Charles, after which he disappears from history. After decades of independence or semi-autonomy, Aquitaine was now back in Frankish hands, and Pepin ruled over all of what is today modern-day France, with the exception of Brittany which was a vassal state, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and much of western Germany, while the Lombard kingdom of Italy and some polities on his eastern German borders were his vassals.

Pepin’s political accomplishments were the most spectacular victories for a Frankish monarch, since his immediate predecessor, which as I mentioned at the beginning of this episode is why he doesn’t get much recognition. But as far as kings go, he was a remarkably successful leader, having conquered the ever-rebellious Aquitaine and Septimania, which meant that Islamic power was confined to the south of the Pyrenees and Francia was virtually unchallenged across its vast holdings. Meanwhile, he reduced the powerful Lombards to a tributary state. Finally, he quelled numerous rebellions within Francia and at the fringes of his empire. The only significant threat that remained were the Saxons, who Pepin was preparing to war against just before he died.

But Pepin’s reign wasn’t just war and religion, though that sums up quite a lot of it. Pepin expanded Frankish cultural and diplomatic influence abroad. He and Byzantine Emperor Constantine V exchanged embassies and swore friendship to each other. In 763 he attended a debate in Gentilly just outside Paris where Greek-speaking Byzantines discussed theology, including their controversial position on iconoclasm which was much-hated in the West. Delegates even discussed a marriage between Constantine V’s heir Leo and Pepin’s daughter Gisela, though these were unsuccessful. Later, the Lombard King Desiderius asked for Gisela’s hand in marriage, though this fell apart as well, at which point Gisela gave up on men and became the abbess of Chelles, and a good thing too, because from her position she became a major figure in the Carolingian Renaissance. Because why chase men when you have a scriptorium?

Pepin also established cordial relations with the Abbasid Caliphate when he sent envoys to Baghdad in 763 and received a counter-delegation in 767, both of which gave gifts to the other. One might think that the Catholic Franks and the Arab Muslims wouldn’t get along but they actually had a number of things in common. First, they had mutual adversaries. The Franks hated the Emirate of Córdoba as a threat to its southern border while the Abbasids opposed them as a rival Muslim power whose Umayyad leaders denounced them as illegitimate. Meanwhile, both sides contended with the Byzantines in their own way. For the Arabs the Byzantines were an enemy to be conquered; the Franks had much better relations with the Eastern Roman Empire but still understood that as their power and influence expanded into Italy they bordered Byzantine possessions, which inevitably led to tensions. The second reason why these two got along is that both were usurpers looking to legitimize their rule. The Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads in 750 while Pepin overthrew the last Merovingian king the following year. The third reason Pepin and the Caliph got along was purely economics: the Abbasids controlled trade to the rich east and the Franks were a large market that controlled much of Europe’s trade north of the Mediterranean with the outside world. The fourth reason was simple geography; neither side threatened each other which meant it was much easier to get along. The final reason, which I have to stress, is that the religious divide wasn’t as large as some modern people believe it was. Christians believed Muslims had heretical views, but since they lived beside Arians and even pagans, Muslims were not some great evil but just another people who needed their “come-to-Jesus” moment. Likewise, Muslims viewed Christians as backward and stubborn, and while they shared some religious tenets and beliefs Christians didn’t accept the Last Revelation of the Latter Prophet so their religion was incomplete. It wasn’t until the Crusades that Christian-Muslim relations collapsed, but before then these two sides were not determined to fight the other just because of their divergent beliefs, and regularly allied with each other for political reasons. Thus, Pepin initiated cordial relations with the Caliphate which continued under his son Charlemagne.

On 24 September 768 Pepin died at Saint-Denis. His body was interned in the basilica where it rests alongside his father’s and most of the kings of France. Pepin was a remarkably successful king. He continued his predecessor’s work of expanding the role and power of the church while using it to administer and justify his rule. He extolled piety as the foundation for his kingdom, sponsored religious development and initiated ceremonies which were new to the Franks, such as unction. He redefined sovereignty from the power of kings which they inherited from their predecessors, to the power of kings bestowed upon them by God. He conquered Septimania and Aquitaine while subjugating the northern half of Italy as his allies and tributaries. Finally, he quelled numerous foreign threats, internal rebellions, revolts from dependent states, and insurrections from rival claimants. Pepin isn’t remembered as fondly as his father or son but his reign cemented his predecessor’s work and laid the foundation for his successor’s.

In the next episode we’re going to start talking about his eldest son, who became the most influential European since Augustus.



Encyclopedia Britannica


Joanna Story, Carolingian Connections: Anglo-Saxon England and Carolingian Francia, c. 750-850, 2003.

Matthew Innes and Simon MacLean, The Carolingian World, 2011.