45 – The End of the Merovingian Dynasty

45 – The End of the Merovingian Dynasty

 
 
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Episode 45: The End of the Merovingian Dynasty

For roughly 120 years from the ascension of Clovis I to Dagobert the scions of the House of Merovech were the undisputed rulers of the Franks. The long-haired kings controlled incredible wealth, numerous holy places and were accomplished generals. For a long time it seemed the only people who could weaken the Merovingians were themselves. And so they did, in numerous civil wars which wracked the country. Despite his moniker ‘the Great,’ Clothar II did not have nearly as much power as his forebears, while his son Dagobert had even less. When Dagobert died in 639 it was clear to all that the mayors of the palace and select circles of powerful nobles dominated the country. Dagobert’s two sons were only children; Sigebert III was 9 when he became king of Austrasia, while his brother Clovis II was six. Intrigue, war, disease and pure happenstance meant that many of Dagobert’s descendants came to power as children and were under the sway of their nobles.

Despite their weakness, the Merovingians remained kings of Francia for the next hundred years. The mayors of the palace needed kings to approve their edicts and give them legitimacy as they struggled against rivals and so they used these children as pawns in their power game. After Dagobert’s death the Pippinids became the dominant force in Frankish politics and coalitions of nobles united against them, often while propping up their own rival Merovingians to legitimize their movement.

So, what did the kings do during this period? Older historians blasted them as rois fainéants, ‘do-nothing kings,’ who were the helpless puppets of greater forces. After I tell the story of Theuderic IV or Childeric III, we can look back on the Merovingians as a whole; but suffice it to say the claim that they were nothing more than hyper-corrupt, incompetent figureheads after Dagobert is widely overblown. These kings were often children and inherited a hostile political environment, thus their relative weakness is understandable. Moreover, some actually made important decisions and vied with nobles for authority. But momentum was against them.

In 630 one of Dagobert’s concubines gave birth to a healthy boy. The king understood that his nobles were the greatest threat to his son and knew he needed the church’s support. Fortunately, the Frank Amandus was revered for raising a man from the dead, founding monasteries and evangelizing to pagans. Unfortunately, Dagobert had him exiled for trying to make him dismiss his concubines. In what must have been an awkward series of correspondence, Dagobert asked Amandus to return and baptize his son. The priest who would eventually become Saint Amand agreed, returned to Francia and even silenced a storm while doing so. Amandus baptized the young boy as Sigebert III.

But fate makes fools of even the most powerful. While Dagobert feared his nobles might undermine his son, instead in 634 the Austrasian nobility, led by Pepin of Landen, demanded Sigebert III be made their king. Dagobert was reeling from military defeats by the Slavs and acquiesced to the Pippinids demands of an independent Austrasia. Sigebert III was educated by Pepin’s tutors and under his dominion as he angled to make Sigebert III a figurehead ruler while he controlled Francia. But his plans were thwarted when that same year, Clovis II was born and Dagobert announced the young boy would inherit Neustria and Burgundy, save Marseille, Poitiers and a handful of important cities which Sigebert III would control. On 19 January 639, Dagobert died and his children inherited Francia. Between 639 to 691 Francia was divided into two kingdoms: Austrasia and Neustria-Burgundy.

Even as fate made a fool of Dagobert it did the same to Pepin. Since Pepin divided Francia in two the Thuringians realized it was weak and their leader, Duke Radulf, declared himself King of Thuringia. Pepin’s son and successor Grimoald rallied Austrasia, put the nine year-old king on a horse and marched north. The Austrasians were initially successful as they massacred a Thuringian force. In response, Radulf called a levy, held up in a stockade on a hill above a bank and prepared for a siege. Grimoald began a siege but then realized not all of his magnates were loyal to Sigebert III and to the House of Pepin of Landen, which they viewed as becoming too powerful. Grimoald tried to overwhelm Radulf quickly with those forces loyal to him, as there was a significant contingent that held back. As such, Grimoald I probably wanted a quick victory to secure the booty needed to bribe his reluctant nobles. Grimoald I’s loyalists broke through the gates but Radulf understood that not all of the Austrasians were willing to fight so far from home and all he had to do was hold. Radulf’s forces counterattacked and surrounded Grimoald I’s. The Thuringians routed the invasion and Grimoald I had to get permission from Radulf to leave. This event scarred the young Sigebert III who wept in his saddle as he watched the slaughter. The boy king spent the rest of his rule serving God. He became a student of Saint Cunibert and patronized churches, hospitals and monasteries, while his Mayor of the Palace oversaw political affairs.

What happens next is still debated by historians as sources vary. What we do know is that around 656 Sigebert III died and Grimoald I tried to make his son the new king, who is known to history as Childebert the Adopted. What’s debated is just how Grimoald I chose to do this. One possibility is that Grimoald I had Sigebert’s son, the future Dagobert II, tonsured and sent to a monastery in Ireland and put his own son in power. According to this version Grimoald I was caught, brought before the Neustrian King Clovis II and killed in Paris. Another version of the story is that Dagobert II had not been born at the time of Sigebert’s death and so Childebert the Adopted was allowed to rule for a time and even recognized as king by the Neustrians, before he was eventually overthrown by a coalition of nobles who feared the Pippinids’ power. Still another narrative holds that the Neustrians exiled Dagobert II, giving Grimoald I the chance he needed to seize power. While we don’t know exactly what happened what we do know is that for a brief period Austrasia was ruled by a Pippinid, rather than a Merovingian. The fall of Grimoald I’s son Childebert the Adopted meant that Brundechildis and Austrasians who opposed the Pippinids put a Merovingian on the throne, temporarily weakening the Pippinids. But this royal replacement did more harm to the Merovingians than the Pippinds who were powerful due to their wealth, land-holding and Arnulf and Gertrudis’ places as saints with their own cults. These two cults provided a sacred legitimization of the Pippinid line, in contrast to the Merovingian royal cult. This event set a precedent that the Merovingians could be replaced, something which the Pippinds would try again successfully in eighty years. In the meantime, the Pippinids lost control of Austrasia while a Duke Wolfoald became the new Mayor of the Palace.

While the Pippinids in Austrasia ruled through the child-king Sigebert III, there was open war between nobles in Burgundy under Clovis II. Clovis II was still a minor and his powerful mother Nanthild ruled as queen-regent until she was poisoned in 642, and the child-king came into the control of the Mayor of the Palace, who had almost certainly ordered his mother’s assassination as a means of consolidating power. However, the mayor, Flaochad, did not control Burgundy outright. Burgundy was more Romanized than Neustria and Austrasia and maintained the position of a patrician, a powerful military leader. By 643, Flaochad wanted to establish his supremacy over the patrician Willebad. Flaochad had Willebad condemned and with the young Clovis II under his watchful gaze he controlled the legitimate powers of the state. But Willebad wasn’t going down without a fight and he assembled his forces at Autun where he was defeated. Then according to The Chronicle of Fredegar, God struck the wicked Flaochad with a fever and he died 11 days later. Flaochad was replaced by Radobertus, who ruled as Mayor of the Palace of an independent Burgundy until 662, when Ebroin united the positions of mayor of the palace in Neustria and Burgundy.

When Ebroin ascended to the mayor of the palace of the united kingdoms of Neustria and Burgundy he faced violent opposition from Austrasia and nobles within his kingdoms. Francia was mostly united ethnically and linguistically, but power was divided between noble households and when one became too powerful other nobles formed coalitions against them. This already happened to the Pippinids in Austrasia, and now Ebroin had to face the same problem in Neustria-Burgundy. In 657 Clovis II died and Grimoald’s son Childebert the Adopted became Childebert the Executed. The legitimate heir to the thrones, Clothar III, was five years old, and due to his young age he was recognized as the figurehead ruler of all of Francia. Like the previous Clothars, he had united all of Francia under one king, but unlike his namesakes, he held no real power outside of his playpen. His mother Baldechildis tried to exercise power as queen regent by appointing bishops loyal to her cause and removing those who opposed her. According to one biased account, she had 9 bishops assassinated, which would be impressive even for a Frankish queen. By 665 the nobles forced her into retirement at Chelles monastery where she lived with possibly less-murdery sisters.

The Austrasians were accustomed to self-rule and feared that a single king under Ebroin’s control would led to their annexation. Thus, in 662 Duke Wolfoald chose his own prepubescent monarch, and placed the nine-year-old Childeric II on the throne. In 673 Clothar III died and Ebroin raised his younger brother Theuderic III to the throne. The Neustrian-Burgundian aristocracy had enough of Ebroin’s rule and supported Childeric II as their figurehead. After a brief conflict, Ebroin was defeated and exiled to the monastery at Luxeuil in Burgundy, while Theuderic III was sent to Saint-Denis where they were supposed to live out the rest of their days in prayer, quiet contemplation, and maintain their distance from the murderous nuns.

With Ebroin out of power you are probably wondering, who ruled Francia? Well shockingly…the king did. Childeric II was 20 years old and could legally rule in his own right, unlike his recent predecessors. Moreover, he was king of all of Francia and aimed to be more than just a puppet for conniving nobles. Unfortunately for him, Childeric II made some disastrous decisions. First, he appointed the mayor of the palace of Austrasia, Duke Wolfoald, to be mayor of the palace over a united Francia. This outraged the nobles in Neustria and Burgundy since they balked at a foreigner ruling over them, and the aristocrats across Francia feared the Duke’s power. Childeric II’s second mistake occurred because of an incestuous marriage. Shortly after becoming king of Francia he decided he would marry his cousin. Leodegar, Bishop of Autun, protested the marriage and Childeric II had him exiled to a monastery. Now, exiling a bishop wasn’t the worst thing a Merovingian king had ever done; in fact it probably wouldn’t even crack the top 10, all of which were committed by one of the Clothars…Probably not the baby Clothar III. No, what made the banishment so bad was where Childeric II exiled him to. Leodegar was sent to Luxeuil, where he reunited with the recently tonsured Ebroin. Moreover, Merovingian monasteries were in close contact with noble patrons and so this holy refuge for religious men became Francia’s conspiratorial headquarters. Ebroin and Leodegar coordinated with other nobles and ordered Childeric II’s assassination between reciting hymns. In 675 Childeric was out hunting when he, his wife and five year-old son were murdered. He had only been king for two years.

When news arrived of the successful assassination, Ebroin and Leodegar immediately ended their friendship and each rode from Luxeuil in different directions. Ebroin murdered Leudesius, the mayor of the palace of Neustria and replaced him. He then supported a possible fake Merovingian named Clovis as the next king, while Leodegar supported Theuderic III. Ebroin needed a monarch in order to legally issue decrees and to raise an army, but once he took control of the treasury and had a strong force he dismissed Clovis, who disappears from the record, and supported Theuderic III. Ebroin quickly consolidated power and enacted revenge against Leodegar, when he had the bishop’s eyes removed and his tongue cut out. A few years later his vengeance rekindled and he beheaded the old ex-bishop, and the man with who he had shared prayers and assassination plots.

Now the Austrasians were in a bind. Ebroin was back in power and had his own Merovingian monarch to rubber stamp whatever he put in front of him. If only the Austrasians could find their own Merovingian king…But where? Well, remember how I mentioned the Pippinids exiled Dagobert II to a monastery in Ireland as part of a failed coup? Dagobert II and his supporters left the monastery and returned to Austrasia and he was declared king. For the next four years Ebroin and his puppet Theuderic III warred for supremacy against Duke Wolfoald his supporter Pippin II, and the recently-returned king Dagobert II. Pippin II raised a massive army and met Ebroin at Bois-Du-Faye on the border near Soissons, where he was decisively defeated. Yet again, the Pippinds were stymied in their quest for power and Ebroin looked as if he would unite all of Francia. But then the old mayor of the palace was assassinated, almost certainly by someone working for Pippin II. Around the same time, Dagobert II was assassinated, and Duke Wolfoald died, though by natural causes, battle, assassination or otherwise we don’t know. After so much bloodshed, Francia had enough war…for now. Waratton, the new mayor of the palace of Neustria-Burgundy made peace with Pippin II, the new mayor of the palace of Austrasia. Theuderic III became the figurehead king of all of Francia, as would his successors. But even though Francia had one king, it was still divided between aristocratic factions.

At this point it’s worth asking: why didn’t Theuderic III rule in his own right? He was an adult, and king of all Francia, while the mayors of the palace ruled over separate realms. Surely being a king meant something, right? Theuderic III did have some powers; edicts needed his approval and he was a symbol people could rally around. But these were largely ceremonial. By 680 the Merovingians lost control of the direct levers of power. First, Theuderic III was probably not the richest person in Francia, as the mayors of the palace held large swaths of important land. Second, without money he couldn’t afford an army personally loyal to him, while the mayors could. Third, aristocrats now dominated court, patronized artists, educators and scholars. Fourth, and connected to this, the nobles were far better connected than the king. From Clovis I to Dagobert I kings were the center of Francia’s aristocracy and all important people orbited around them, looking for patronage or support. Now, the mayors of the palace took up that position. The Merovingian house had been decimated and aristocrats regularly exiled, tonsured or even executed those who opposed them while their own families grew in size and took up important positions. Fifth, the nobility controlled the instruments of government and directly administered the country. Sixth, the mayors of the palace had reputations as military commanders, while the Merovingians had virtually no successful military experience after Dagobert I died. Seventh, and finally, the Merovingians literally forgot how to rule. After Dagobert I the Merovingian monarchs were mostly child-kings who were never put in positions of any real authority and so they lost the ability to command respect, inspire people, dictate orders or otherwise impose their will upon people. For all these reasons Theuderic III couldn’t rule Francia even if he wanted to, and he did want to. Theuderic III dreamed of being more than a mere figurehead and would pin his destiny to military success against the rising Pippinids.

When Waratton died in 686, Berthar became the new mayor of the palace of Neustria Burgundy. An ambitious noble, Berthar dreamed of uniting Francia under his rule and invaded Austrasia. King Theuderic III marched with Berthar as the 25 year-old wanted to be a strong king and knew the only way to do so was to prove himself in battle. In 687 Berthar and King Theuderic III met Pippin II’s forces at the Battle of Tertry and was decisively defeated. Berthar was removed from power and Pippin II forced Theuderic III to recognize him as the mayor of the palace of all three kingdoms, and even took up the title dux et princeps Francorum, “Duke and Princeps of the Franks.” Berthar succeeded in uniting Francia under one true ruler; it just happened to be his rival, who cowed Theuderic III back into his role as a ceremonial figurehead. Theuderic III was the last Merovingian to attempt ruling in his own right, and all his successors were pure figureheads under the power of the Pippin II and his descendants.

Meanwhile Pippin II consolidated his power over Neustria. His son Drogo married Berthar’s widow, thus absorbing the rival household of Erchinoald. Pippin II took over the Erchinoald family’s patronage of monasteries and thus became a powerful church patron. Through these they acquired bishops loyal to them in positions of power. Pippin II, or rather his subordinates, masterfully turned the court against his enemies, redistributing land through legal disputes. By the time of his death, Pippin II’s house eclipsed any other and their rule over Francia was virtually undisputed. According to the Annals of Metz, Pippin II even appointed Theuderic III’s successor, upon his death in 691. Clovis IV became the next figurehead king at the age of 14, and died within three years due to illness when Pippin II uplifted another figurehead Childebert III. Childebert III was another puppet but he did try to exercise some autonomy and occasionally ruled against the Pippinids in legal disputes, though this didn’t weaken their grasp on power. In 711 Childebert III died and was replaced by Dagobert III.

At this point, Pippin II was an old man. Born in 635, he had lived under the reign of 10 different kings, even more if we count claimants to the throne. In 714, at the age of 79, Pippin II announced his son Grimoald II would succeed him. Pippin sent for his son but on the way to Metz he was assassinated at the Basilica of St. Lambert at Liège. On the 16th of December Pippin II died, without leaving an heir. The Pippinids followed in the footsteps of the Merovingians, and when their patriarch died a succession crisis broke out over who would rule Francia. The Pippinids divided into three main camps. The first and most powerful camp, centered around Theudoald, the son of Grimoald II and therefore rightful heir to the throne. Theudoald was a minor, and therefore not up to the task of ruling, which may have meant he was even more popular since he could be controlled. The second camp supported the children of Pippin II’s eldest son, Drogo, who were: Hugo, Arnulf, Pippin and Godefrid. The latter two were minors. The third and least powerful segment rallied behind Charles, or as we might pronounce it in English, ‘Charles.’ Charles was an adult, unlike most of his rivals, but he was also Pippin II’s bastard son by a concubine, rather than through his rightful wife Plectrudis, which severely weakened his claim. At the outset of the power-struggle Plectrudis imprisoned Charles and put her grandson Theudoald in power.

The Neustrian aristocracy took advantage of the succession crisis and revolted against their Austrasian overlords. They assembled an army and defeated Theudoald’s forces near Compiègne. The Neustrians then elected Ragamfried as mayor of the palace. He allied with the Frisians and their king with the greatest name of all time: Radbod. You’d think Radbod would be enough of an ally, but Ragamfried also secured the aid of the Aquitanian duke Eudo to fight the overly-powerful Pippinids and together they attacked their center of power at Metz. By this time Charles had escaped his stepmother’s captivity and organized the Austrasians. Dagobert III died and the Neustrians chose a cleric named Daniel, allegedly the son of Childeric II, and made him king under the name Chilperic II, while Charles chose his own Merovingian, Clothar IV, to be his figurehead king.

Charles met Ragamfried and Radbod’s forces in northern Austrasia where he was defeated and forced to flee into the mountains of Eifel. With Charles on the run, the Neustrians besieged Cologne and seized much of the Austrasian treasury. Ragamfried marched his forces back towards Paris, laden down with booty, when Charles army ambushed them at Amblève. The Austrasians smashed the Neustrians and Charles marched into Neustria. For five years he moved from city to city, establishing his control over it and Burgundy. Then he subjugated the Frisians, Alemanni and Thuringians. Meanwhile, Provence was wracked by feuds between nobles, weakening the region. In the 720s-730s the prince Maurontus invited the Muslims of the recently-conquered Septimania to help fight Charles but the Muslims used the opportunity to invade Provence. Charles seized upon the opportunity to depict himself as the savior of Christianity and liberator of Provence against foreign invaders, and marched south. He conquered the territory, put an ally power in power and seized land from those he considered traitors. Said ally had no heirs and when he died the Carolingians seized his vast estates.

Charles proved just as capable at bureaucracy as he was at war. Charles couldn’t dominate royal courts, where the Merovingians could rally opposing nobles. Instead, he used the church. Between 700-730 the episcopal lordship changed radically. Bishops’ power used to derive from their control of sacred places, holy objects, wealth and family connections. Under Charles, bishops’ power came exclusively from secular administration of one or more dioceses. The new church would be ruled over by his kinsmen and allies who largely ignored the church’s religious or secular education aims, local cultural traditions and the niceties of episcopal consecration and election. Charles exploited this and his cousin Hugo was bishop of Paris, Rouen, Bayeux and possibly Lisieux, Avranches and Evreux while holding the offices of abbot in St. Wandrille, St. Denis and Jumièges. This type of pluralism became increasingly common as Charles put his family and loyalists in charge of virtually every important office. Bishops needed the mayor of the palace’s approval to hold their position, that is until Charles’ son Pepin the Short made himself king, at which point they needed the king’s approval, meaning that Charles and his successors could appoint their own men directly to positions of power.

Part of this change occurred due to evolution within the church itself, as in the 7th-8th centuries Anglo-Saxon missionaries replaced Irish missionaries as the most important foreign proselytizers in Francia. The Anglo-Saxons were very different from the Irish, who had decentralized monasteries, and the French, who had their own local church traditions. First, the Anglo-Saxons had an episcopal hierarchy set up by papal agents sent from the Vatican. Second, the Anglo-Saxon church regularly worked with the Anglo-Saxon kings. Finally, they were strict Benedictines, with a set hierarchy. All this meant that they were skilled bureaucrats who served at the pleasure of the Pope and king, rather than their local communities or church. Conquest of foreign land and church administration went hand-in-hand as Charles used the new church to administer his lands. Missionaries from Britain, working with the papacy, organized administrative political units in Thuringia and Alemannia so that when Charles conquered them he could easily put his own men in positions of power.

There were some negative side effects to Charles’ reformation of the church. The focus on secular administration, rather than education possibly led to a decline in letter-writing and literacy. After Hugo’s death his successors at Rouen and St. Wandrille were illiterate. Meanwhile Aquitaine and Provence were ravaged in the wars of pacification and their education facilities declined. Moreover, since the church was an organ of the king’s secular power it was less attentive to the spiritual needs of its people. These changes had a significant negative impact on Francia, but in the short term, the church allowed Charles to consolidate his rule into a more concerted, loyal and rational system than the Merovingians had done.

By the late 710s Charles defeated Plectrudis and the other Frankish rival claimants to power. He even let Ragamfried and his half-brothers live, an uncharacteristically benevolent action given the time, though he did probably kill Arnulf and either Gotfrid or Pippin when they tried to rebel against him. Through martial brilliance, deft-politicking and the strong support of the church, Charles became the undisputed master of Francia, and felt secure enough to replace Clothar IV with the more legitimate Theuderic IV as his puppet king of a united kingdom. Only one area remained outside Charles’ rule: Aquitaine. For a long time Aquitaine, had been an autonomous region so its leaders could have a free hand in fighting the Basques. In that time Aquitaine became one of the richest regions within Francia due to its trade routes with Hispania and the Basques. When the Pippinid civil war broke out in the early 8th century Duke Eudo simply ended the pretense of subservience to the ruler of Francia.

So far I have talked almost exclusively about Francia since this powerful kingdom was, for the most part, the master of its own destiny. But the entire eastern hemisphere was undergoing a momentous change, which impacted Francia’s southern border. In 711 an Arab Muslim force first attacked the Visigothic Kingdom of Hispania. By 714 the Visigothic kingdom was collapsing; only Septimania remained outside the control of the Islamic armies. At first, Eudo benefitted from the relative weakness of his southern rivals. Then in 719 Muslim armies conquered Septimania, ending the Visigothic rump state and creating their own province. The new rulers of Hispania were emboldened by continual success and in 721 they sent an army which besieged Toulouse. Eudo crushed the invaders with the help of his Basque allies and even received praise from Pope Gregory II as a defender of the Christian faith.

Eudo’s initial success halted the northern Islamic advance, and soon Muslim leaders began fighting over power. Eudo was surrounded by enemies on all sides, and in 730 married his daughter to the Berber commander of the province of Cerdaña, Uthman ibn Naissa, who was then in rebellion against the Umayyad Caliphate. These two nobles hoped to carve out a territory for themselves amidst the greater powers, but both Charles and the Umayyads refused to let them secede. Charles had just quelled a Saxon uprising when he heard about the marriage, which he condemned as unchristian, though he was probably more concerned that the renegade duke was making powerful allies. In 731 Charles amassed his forces and invaded Aquitaine, winning numerous victories. Meanwhile, Uthman ibn Naissa was defeated and executed by the governor of the new Islamic territory of al-Andalus, Abd al-Rahman ibn Abd Allah al-Ghafiqi. Next, Abd al-Rahman amassed a large army with forces from as far away as the Levant and Yemen and marched north to Bordeaux. The Muslim army met Eudo in open combat and utterly smashed them before sacking Bordeaux. With no other choice, Eudo called upon Charles. The Duke of Aquitaine and the Duke of Francia combined their forces and met the large Islamic army somewhere between Poitiers and Tours. On 10 October 732 at the Battle of Poitiers, often called the Battle of Tours in English sources, Charles and Eudo decisively defeated the southern invaders, even killing their leader Abd al-Rahman…And in case you’re wondering, I will have more to say about this battle in a future episode; but for now, we’re talking about the fall of the Merovingians and the rise of the Carolingians. Charles’ victory gave him a reputation as a hero of the Christian faith and he gained the nickname ‘Martel,’ ‘the hammer.’

Charles spent the next five years of his reign campaigning against the Muslims in Septimania and Provence with limited success, while putting down revolts across Francia. In 737 Theuderic IV died and Charles broke precedent ruling without a king. For six years Francia was without a king, and Charles continued consolidating his rule through the church, which increasingly relied on the Franks. By the early 8th century the Byzantine Empire was crippled by wars against Sassanid Persia, civil wars and ultimately Islamic invasion, and the Franks were the only power that could defend papal independence from invaders. In 739 Pope Gregory III directly appealed to Charles to help defend Papal independence from the Langobards, and sent him a key to the Tomb of Saint Peter. Thus began a long relationship between the Popes and the Carolingians. As the papacy relied on the Carolingians, they sent numerous relics from Rome, which gave spiritual power directly to Charles and his descendants. In Merovingian Francia relics were connected to holy places and administered by an independent church, but now holiness came from Rome through the Carolingians who secured Francia’s connection to sacred artifacts. The Carolingian control of the church was so complete that by 742 Charles’ son and successor Carlomann could call a council of bishops who concluded their synods in his name, rather than theirs or the pope’s.

Charles’ remarkable life ended 22 October 741 when he died just north of Paris at the age of 52 or 53. He was buried in Saint-Denis, just north of Paris proper, where he remains today. Upon his death, his two sons by his first marriage, Carlomann and Pepin, ruled as co-mayors of Francia. But another son Grifo, born from Charles’ second wife, demanded he be given part of Francia. His half-brothers refused and forced him into a monastery at Laon. In 743 the two brothers wanted to further legitimize their rule and invited Childeric III to be King of Francia; unbeknownst to them, he would be the last Merovingian king.

In 747 Grifo escaped and with the help of his great uncle led a rebellion in Bavaria. At nearly the same time, Carlomann abandoned his political life and travelled to Rome where Pope Zachary ordained him in the church. With his older brother preaching the love of Christ and his half-brother raising hell in Bavaria, Pepin became the single most powerful person in Francia. He invaded Bavaria and put his own puppet on the throne, though Grifo continued giving him grief-o for the next 6 years, until he was killed in 753.

But before killing his half-brother, in 751 Pepin was ready to make history. He sent a letter to the Pope, asking, “In regard to the kings of the Franks who no longer possess the royal power: is this state of things proper?” At which point Zachary replied that it was not. Pepin had Childeric III’s long hair cut, removing his right to rule, and placed him in a monastery. Pepin then asked his nobles if they would support his claim to kingship, and since they didn’t want to be stabbed they all agreed it was a great idea. In 751 at Soissons, the nobles and Pepin’s army attended a ceremony, wherein Pepin was declared King of the Franks, the first Carolingian on the throne. Thus, ended one dynasty which had ruled for 242 years. Pepin inherited from his father a massive kingdom, a more rational system of political control through the church, and a strong relationship with the Papacy which provided spiritual authority directly to the King of the Franks.

One note on Radbod, since he has too awesome a name to let go. During the 710s, Duke Radbod was entertaining an Anglo-Saxon missionary named Willibrord and learning Christianity from him. He was nearing the point of baptism when he asked Willibrord if his ancestors were in hell for being pagan. Willibrord replied, “yes.” Radbod then refused to be baptized since he didn’t want to spend eternity without his family. Absolute legend.

 

Sources:

Bernard S. Bachrach, Merovingian Military Organization, 481-751, 1972

Before France and Germany: The Creation and Transformation of the Merovingian World by Patrick Geary, 1988

Encyclopedia Britannica

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