Episode 44: The Last Great Merovingian Kings
In 584 Queen Fredegund gave birth to her fifth male child. Her four previous sons died at the ages of 8, 4, 1 and 1, due to disease and possible assassination so this new child’s fate looked bleak. The boy’s outlook became even darker after his father was assassinated and the vengeful Brunhilda sent her armies into Neustria. Fredegund did not give the boy a name to protect him against assassins who might identify him, and she secreted him to a royal villa in the north, in modern day Vitry-en-Artois. In the meantime, the Frankish Queen appealed to King Guntram of Burgundy to recognize the boy as heir to Neustria. Guntram was then occupied fighting his half-brother Gundovald, but when he secured his kingdom he agreed to accept the boy’s legitimacy, as part of a failed scheme to seize the kingdom while the boy was still in his minority. Around this the boy received his name: Clothar, after his grandfather, the last King of all the Franks.
From the age of 14 Clothar warred against a queen who hated him since before he was born, to end a grudge he had no part in starting. After 14 years of on-and-off fighting, Queen Brunhilda’s heirs died and the powerful nobles Arnulf of Metz and Pippin of Herstal betrayed the aged Queen. They delivered Brunhilda to Clothar, and she was stripped naked and drawn-and-quartered. On 10 October 613 the 28-year old man became Clothar II, King of the Franks. History remembers him as Clothar the Great, because under him and his son Dagobert, Francia experienced 26 years of internal peace and prosperity.
Clothar II was wise enough to know what few monarchs admit: that holding on to power is much harder than acquiring it. He immediately set about consolidating his reign by calling a Council of Paris. In 614 bishops from across Francia and even from Kent across the Channel, gathered to settle political issues. It was there that Clothar II issued the Edict of Paris (614), one of the most important documents of the entire Merovingian Period, perhaps the most significant single legal change since the Salic Law. Through the Edict, Clothar II gave away incredible power to the aristocracy and clergy to secure their loyalty.
Judges were appointed locally, not by the king’s men, as it was assumed locals would care for their own communities. Moreover, Clothar II granted numerous legal immunities to aristocrats. These two measures combined meant that powerful nobles exercised supreme power over their own lands, since royal officials were prohibited from even entering them. In addition, to the judicial immunities, many aristocrats received tax immunities, and those that weren’t immune could at least challenge tax rolls. Finally, the Edict held that people from one locality could not be a judge in another. This last measure affirmed Francia’s localistic character and lack of centralization. Provence, Aquitaine, Bavaria, Thuringia and Frisia, became near-autonomous regions.
The Edict gave clergy the right to elect their own and the king would confirm them, though bishops could not select their replacements, to prevent corruption. Bishops would officially dominate the church, and were above abbots and monks. Clerics would be judged by their fellows in courts, unless they faced criminal charges. Cases involving a cleric and a freeman would be overseen by an ecclesiastical provost and a public judge. Widows who became nuns or otherwise chose religious seclusion would not be forced to marry.
Clothar II understood that he could only rule with the consent of the nobility and church and sacrificed some of his authority in order to secure his throne. For good measure, he also gave offices and lands to elites who had aided him. His Francia was far different from Clovis’ early Frankish kingdom. He understood he could not rule as the undisputed master of his lands. By ceding power to localities he moved Francia towards manorialism, a socio-political structure under which countries were segmented into duchies and counties all ruled by different families housed in a manor. These lords had to raise soldiers when the king called them to defend the realm, but they otherwise ruled their own lands with little restriction.
Just as the political system changed, so too did the economic system. In northern Francia a system of bipartite manorialism dominated. In this system, lords owned plots of land which they rented out to peasants. Peasants worked this land to feed themselves and worked on the lord’s land to pay the rent. This system spread from Neustria across Francia and into Bavaria, though it struggled to gain hold in Provence due to prestanding agricultural practices. By the end of Clothar II’s reign powerful lords had large and wealthy manors, their own small armies loyal to themselves personally and larger local militias they could call upon, and they were in control of their own judicial system. By the 7th century Frankish nobles had near-total autonomy over their localities. The classical Western Roman Emperors and the Frankish warlords were now a thing of history, as Frankish kings’ power became far more limited. This became even more pronounced in 617 when two nobles, Warnacher and Rado, pushed Clothar II to make the role of mayor of the palace a lifetime appointment. Thereafter many laws were probably nobles’ petitions, which Clothar II couldn’t ignore.
But Clothar II was still the most powerful man in his vast kingdom, with larger armies, wealth and support than any other noble. Moreover, from his capital in Paris he controlled the court. If Clothar II couldn’t control the nobles in their own regions, he could bring regional elites to court to watch them and indoctrinate them. Those who showed loyalty to him would be appointed to offices in their home region. Aristocrats sent their sons and daughters to the royal court in Paris to be educated, make connections, get appointments and increase the family’s power, all of which was controlled by the king. Incoming aristocratic children learned with the royal children from a royal tutor and boys were given military training and lessons in rhetoric and notarial procedure. Thus, the court became a powerful control mechanism of the monarchy, and inadvertently, the cultural center of Francia bringing together educated peoples from all across the kingdom. Through the court, Clothar II adapted to his loss of direct power over his far-flung nobles and exercised the soft power of the royal person to manipulate inferiors to do his bidding.
Another major change that occurred in Clothar II and his son Dagobert’s reigns was the Christianization of royal tradition. Since Clovis, the Franks were the military leaders of Francia while the Gallo-Romans were the religious leaders. By Clothar II’s ascendency the Franks had a history of Christian adherence. Kings were seen as God’s chosen on Earth, they oversaw synods and church councils, confirmed bishops, sent missionaries abroad, and patronized monasteries and churches which were large and opulent, in contrast to the spartan Gallo-Roman monasteries. By the 7th century, the Franks developed their own Christian traditions. The old Gallo-Roman saints, who removed themselves from political life, were increasingly replaced by the Frankish priests who were deeply involved in political affairs, and sometimes even engaged in combat. Thus, Clothar II did not have the same legal power of his forebears, but he did control court and church ceremony, and the personal majesty of the royal person was often enough to impress nobles into doing his bidding.
In 622 Clothar II sent his 19 year-old son Dagobert north with an army to fight a group of rebellious Saxons. Together, father and son smashed their enemy and killed their leader. Having proved himself in battle, Dagobert was fit to be a ruler, which the northeastern nobility seized upon when they forced Clothar II to make his son king of an independent Austrasia. Dagobert might have been king, but the two leading nobles, Bishop Arnulf of Metz and Pepin I, mayor of the palace of Austrasia, were the real rulers of the autonomous country. Moreover, these cunning nobles played upon Dagobert’s vanity and successfully pitted him against his father. While Clothar II accepted his son as king of an independent Austrasia he tried to break off Alsace, the Vosges and the Ardennes but Dagobert refused to surrender any territory. Clothar II relented, and even killed a noble named Chrodoald upon request from Arnulf and Pepin. Clothar II even divided his kingdom further near the end of his reign when he made another son Childebert II the King of Aquitaine and tasked him with fighting the Gascons. This greatly annoyed Dagobert who wanted all of Francia for himself, and refused to share with his half-brother, which we’ll get to soon enough.
Clothar II was conciliatory to those nobles who supported him, but ruthless to any who opposed him. In 627 Warnachar, the mayor of the palace of Burgundy, died and the aristocrats of Burgundy asked Clothar II not to name a successor because they feared someone would consolidate power over them. Perhaps one benefit of being a relatively weak king is that the Burgundians saw how he failed to control Austrasia and decided he wasn’t their greatest threat. Clothar II accepted their request but at the time Warnachar’s son Godinus tried to seize power through marriage alliances and even married his stepmother Bertha. Clothar II intervened and had him executed at Chartres along with his followers. The following year, Dagobert learned that a duke named Brodulf wanted to put his son in control of Burgundy. The King of Austrasia had Brodulf executed; like his father, Dagobert tolerated powerful nobles but not rivals.
If Clothar II struggled with internal politics he was much more successful abroad. He allied with the Lombards in Italy, and maintained good relations with the Byzantine Empire. He also had the support of the church and presented himself as a deeply pious man. He did have multiple wives and concubines, which bothered priests, but he kept money flowing into the bishops’ coffers so they mostly kept quiet about his polygamy.
In 629, Clothar II died. When Dagobert heard the news he sped towards Paris where he claimed the title King of the Franks. Dagobert then set about making treaties with his neighbors to both secure his rule and defend himself against repercussions when he inevitably tried to kill his half-brother in Aquitaine. His most important treaty was with Byzantine Emperor Heraclius who agreed to recognize him. In exchange, the pious emperor demanded that all Jews within Francia be baptized. Sidenote, the 614 Edict of Paris included a stipulation that Jews could not pursue legal action against Christians, so there was a steady wave of anti-Judaism during this period.
By 630 Dagobert put down his pen and picked up his sword, but before he could put down his half-brother he faced an all-new threat to the east. Just like the Germans and the Huns before them, a whole new group of people known as the Slavs consolidated into an empire. What makes this story so incredible is that the warlord who brought them together, was a Frank. According to the Chronicle of Fredegar, a Frankish merchant named Samo made a fortune by selling weapons to Slavic tribes to help them in their revolts against the Avars. Samo grew in power and even led a revolt around 623, and by 626 the Slavs overthrew their masters. The cunning Samo used his wealth, popular following and a series of marriage alliances to seize power and was declared King of the Slavs, and ruled a vast kingdom centered around the modern-day Czech Republic.
Dagobert decided he could not tolerate a powerful new kingdom on the eastern fringes of his realm and formed an alliance with the Lombards and Alamans to launch a three-pronged invasion of Samo’s Empire. The Lombards and Alamans ransacked a fair share of Samo’s kingdom, as the Frankish King of the Slavs consolidated his forces to meet Dagobert. The two kings and their armies met at the Battle of Wogastisburg and after three days of ferocious fighting Samo repulsed the Franks, who retreated. The Lombards and Alamans abandoned the campaign and Samo expanded his empire northward and even raided into Frankish Thuringia.
By 632 Dagobert gave up any hope of conquering Samo’s kingdom. His failure and apparent weakness inspired Duke Pepin of Landen to lead the Austrasian nobility in revolt against him. By 634 he appeased the nobles by making Austrasia an independent kingdom again, and put his three-year-old son Sigebert on the throne. A toddler ruling a warlike medieval kingdom sounds like a great premise for a movie, but it really doesn’t work out in the real world, and boring adults wielded real power. Specifically, Duke Adalgisil probably part of the Arnulfing House and Bishop Cunibert of Cologne, who was friends with Pepin, controlled Austrasia. Thus, the Arnulfings and Pippinids cemented their traditional rule over Austrasia.
Dagobert reeled from his military failures against the Slavs and the loss of direct control of the east, but some good news from the south came that warmed his heart: his assassins killed his half-brother Charibert II and his infant son. Even as he lost Austrasia, Dagobert regained Aquitaine. Around this time Dagobert raided Hispania and took 200,000 gold coins. In 631 a succession crisis occurred in Visigothic Spain, and one of the claimants to the throne named Sisenand promised Dagobert a 500 pound pure-gold plate in exchange for support. Dagobert sent his army south, took Zaragoza without a fight, and left with gold and a powerful ally to the south. Despite all his failures on the eastern border, these successes meant Dagobert was probably the richest Merovingian king who had ever ruled.
Sometime after Childebert II’s death a number of Gascons revolted. It was such a sizeable revolt that Dagobert sent ten dukes and the Burgundian patrician to invade. The Franks initially defeated the Gascons, who retreated back into the mountains. Even though the Franks secured most of the region, there were still some pockets of resistance, and Duke Arnebert led his men through the valley of Soule, where a troop of Gascons burst out and slaughtered them, in an event that bears a striking resemblance to The Battle of Roncevaux Pass, which took place a hundred years later and inspired The Song of Roland. Just as Dagobert put down the Gascons a revolt broke out in Brittany, though the mere threat of invasion was enough to quell the rebellion.
King Dagobert was not as strong as many of his forebears. By the time he became king the nobility were accustomed to being autonomous and forced him to cede even more power to them. He also struggled to maintain the borders of his empire against the new Slavic threat. But if Dagobert was not as glorious as his predecessors, Merovingian Francia was wealthier and more culturally productive than ever. Paris became one of the great cities outside the Mediterranean, with artists, thinkers and religious scholars flocking to court. Moreover, Dagobert ordered the construction of a basilica for Saint Denis, where monks chanted prayers for his health and well-being at all times of the day. When Dagobert died in 639 at the age of 35 or 36 he was buried at the basilica, setting a precedent that lasted until the French Revolution, 1,150 years later, as most of France’s kings lay buried there to this day. Dagobert’s patronage of Saint Denis elevated him as a royal saint, putting him on the level of Saint Martin. This move gave Franks their own important saint, and furthered their spiritual power, putting them on par with the Gallo-Romans.
Clothar II and Dagobert’s reigns were the glorious dusk of the Merovingian dynasty, before it receded into the pale twilight of the rois fainéants, the ‘do-nothing kings.’ From 639 to 737, and briefly from 743 to 751, the Merovingians were petty figureheads while the Mayors of the Palaces wielded real power. One of the last blows to Merovingian power occurred during Dagobert’s reign, when Ansegisel of the Arnulfings married Begga of the Pippinids, uniting the two powerful houses into what eventually became the Carolingian dynasty.
Bernard S. Bachrach, Merovingian Military Organization, 481-751, 1972
Patrick Geary, Before France and Germany: The Creation and Transformation of the Merovingian World, 1988
Alexander Callander Murray, Immunity, “Nobility, and the Edict of Paris,” Speculum , Jan. 1994, Vol. 69, No. 1 (Jan., 1994), pp. 18-39