The Franks entered Roman history just as the empire was on the brink of destruction. They were a part of the foederati—Germanic allies of the Romans who first appeared during the time of Julian the Apostate at a time when the empire faced the Persian threat in the east and barbarian invasions in the west. Julian knew that it would be disastrous for the Roman army to face both enemies at the same time, so he came up with a solution that would benefit them all: he allowed the Franks and other Germanic tribes to settle in some portions of Gaul (as well as claim the privilege of Roman citizenship and all the rights that came with it) and in exchange, foederati warriors would fight as Roman soldiers. The Franconian Kingdom lasted from 487 to 843 AD as recorded on the Bible Timeline Chart with World History.
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The Franks were made up of smaller groups which were led by their own chieftains, but the tribe was ultimately led by the more powerful, long-haired Salian Franks. One of the greatest Salian kings was Merovech, a semi-legendary Frankish king who fought with the Romans and the Goths against Attila the Hun during the height of the Hunnic invasion. What remained of the fragile Roman domination in Gaul was erased by the Salian Franks in 457 AD. In the same year, they established a dynasty which they named Merovingian (after king Merovech). He was succeeded by his son Childeric who further strengthened the Frankish domination over Gaul versus Saxon and Alemanni invaders, as well as the last of the Western Roman kings.
Childeric’s son, Clovis, succeeded him as king. He spent the next ten years taking territory after territory from neighboring tribes. He married the Christian Burgundian princess Clotilde in 493 AD. She was instrumental in Clovis’ conversion from paganism to Christianity during a battle against the Alemanni. Just like the Emperor Constantine many years ago, Clovis prayed to and bargained with Christ for victory against the Alemanni and in return, he would convert to Christianity. The prayer was effective and the Alemanni surrendered to the Franks soon after. Mass conversion of Franks to Christianity soon followed and the new religion would hold them together as a new nation.
Clovis defeated the Arian Visigoth king Alaric II in the Battle of Vouillé and captured the city of Toulouse in 507 AD. The weakened Visigoths abandoned the city and fled to Hispania. The intervention of the Ostrogothic royal family and their troops drove the Franks out of the Visigoth’s Mediterranean territory of Septimania. To celebrate his victory over the Visigoths and his near-total domination of Gaul, Clovis established a new city as his capital: Lutetia Parisiorium, which would later become the present-day Paris. He also eliminated all other Frankish chieftains to consolidate his power and his sons—as well as the kings who succeeded them—would be known as the princes of the Merovingian dynasty.
King Clovis died in 511 AD and the crown, as well as his territories, passed on to his four sons: Theuderic claimed Reims; Childebert ruled Paris; Chlodomer received Orleans, and Chlothar took Soissons. In the years that followed, the three eldest brothers died from violence or illness, which left only the youngest, Chlothar I, as the ruler of the Frankish domain. He died in 561 AD. His territory was up for grabs for his four sons—a remnant of an old tribal rule that Frankish heirs would receive their territories through merit (most of the time, through violent means) and not through inheritance.
The struggle for domination in the Frankish territories took on a new meaning with the arrival of the Visigothic princess Brunhilda and her younger sister Galswintha. In 567 AD, one of Chlothar I’s son, Charibert, died and his territory was seized and divided by his three remaining brothers: Sigebert took Austrasia; Guntram ruled Burgundy, and Chilperic ruled Neustria. Sigebert then decided to strengthen his rule by making an alliance with the Visigoths down in Spain and proposed a marriage between himself and the Visigothic princess Brunhilda to her father, king Athanagild.
When he saw that his brother Sigebert made a formidable alliance with the Visigoths, Chilperic also made an offer to king Athanagild for the younger princess Galswintha. Eager to make another alliance with a powerful king up north, Athanagild sent Galswintha to her groom but this was a mistake she would later pay dearly with her life. Chilperic married a woman named Fredegund some time earlier, but he conveniently sent her out of the Neustrian court to accommodate his new wife. Apparently, Fredegund was still very much present in the king’s life and to Galswintha’s dismay, Fredegund freely entered the palace and showed up inside Chilperic’s chambers. The Visigothic princess was found dead in her room one day and rumors swirled around the kingdom that Chilperic and Fredegund arranged Galswintha’s death.
War broke out between Neustria and Austrasia when news of Galswintha’s death reached Queen Brunhilda. This went on for seven years and the situation worsened when Fredegund hired assassins to poison Sigebert in Austrasia. The assassins successfully carried out this mission, which left Brunhilda in charge of Austrasia as a regent for her young son Childebert II. To enlarge their territory, Queen Brunhilda also persuaded the heirless Guntram of Burgundy to leave his kingdom to her son after his death and she proved to be a good ruler of both courts.
Meanwhile in Neustria, Chilperic died and Fredegund rose to rule his kingdom upon his death. He died without an heir, but some time later, Fredegund announced that she was pregnant with Chilperic’s son, Chlothar II. Childebert II also received the kingdom of Burgundy upon Guntram’s death and he ruled it (plus Austrasia) with his mother. When Childebert II died, his mother once again assumed the position of regent for her young grandchildren who divided Burgundy and Austrasia between them. Chlothar II and her mother Fredegund took advantage of Childebert’s death and tried to take Paris but were unsuccessful; Fredegund died later and her son was left to rule Neustria on his own.
It seemed that Brunhilda’s “meddling” became too much for one of her grandchildren as Theudebert II threw her out of the kingdom after he was proclaimed king of Austrasia. She sought refuge in Burgundy, in the court of her younger grandchild Theuderic II and once again dominated the Burgundian court. She masterminded several assassinations of noblemen and officials, as well as meddled in Theuderic’s marriage to a Visigothic princess. Theuderic was exasperated and he was eager to get rid of his grandmother for good, but could not do something about it. Instead, he joined forces with his cousin Chlothar of Neustria and went to war against his brother, Theudebert of Austrasia. The cousins invaded Austrasia, killed the king’s son, and imprisoned Theudebert, while Brunhilda later had Theudebert killed in prison in revenge for driving her out of Austrasia.
Nobody benefited from all the scheming and violence in the end as Theuderic died without an heir less than a year after the invasion. Brunhilda was also executed by Chlothar II after Austrasia and Burgundy’s mayors of the palace (Warnachar and Rado) invited him into the kingdoms to prevent the old queen from recovering her power. With Brunhilda gone, Chlothar now ruled all three Frankish kingdoms but the mayors of the palace worked out a deal with him that allowed them to rule each kingdom independently. In 615 AD, Chlothar issued the Edict of Paris, a law that proved to be disastrous for the Merovingian dynasty as it included conditions that the king was not allowed to meddle in the affairs of the mayors of the palace and that they could not be kicked out from their positions. Through the Edict of Paris, Chlothar essentially gave away most of his powers over Burgundy and Austrasia.
Change of Hands: The Kingdom Under the Mayors of the Palace
The Neustrian king Chlothar sought to establish a presence in Austrasia by installing his son Dagobert as king of Austrasia, but the real power was in the hands of the mayor of the palace: Pepin the Elder. After Chlothar died, a younger son named Charibert attempted to rule Neustria but was thwarted by his brother Dagobert who later had him assassinated in Aquitaine. He continued to rule all three territories until his death in 639 AD; Neustria and Burgundy were then passed on to his son Clovis II while Sigebert III took Austrasia. But the position of the mayor of the palace also became hereditary after Pepin the Elder passed it down to his son Grimoald—a departure from the rule that the mayors of the palace should be appointed by the king.
Grimoald turned out to be more ambitious than his father when started to convince the Merovingian king Sigebert III to adopt his son, but this plot was thwarted upon the birth of Sigebert’s son. When Sigebert died, Grimoald organized a coup and banished the dead king’s heir, Dagobert II, to a monastery in England; he then declared his son (later named as Childebert the Adopted) as the ruler of Austrasia. This gave Clovis II of Neustria and Burgundy an excuse to invade Austrasia; Grimoald and the unfortunate usurper Childebert were executed during the invasion.
The banished Dagobert II never got the chance to reclaim his throne after Clovis II declared himself king of Austrasia and appointed his own official, Erchinoald, the mayor of the palace. The throne of Neustria, Austrasia, and Burgundy passed on to Clovis’ very young sons and for the rest of their reigns, the kings remained only as mere puppets (roi fainéant) for the more-powerful mayors of the palace.
Pepin II of Herstal, Pepin the Elder’s grandson, became the mayor of the palace in 680 AD after the death of the Merovingian ruler of Austrasia. He became the ruler of Austrasia since the throne was vacant and he shrewdly refused to elect another candidate for the king’s role. This was an act which provoked the Merovingian ruler of Neustria, Theuderic III who immediately organized an invasion into Austrasia. His troops were defeated by Pepin’s army and Theuderic was forced to concede the position of mayor of the palace of all three Frankish kingdoms to Pepin.
Now, nothing stood in Pepin’s way and he promptly crowned himself the duke and prince of the Franks. Although the Merovingians still ruled Neustria and Burgundy, it was Pepin alone who held all the real power over the Frankish lands. His death in 714 AD left the position of the mayor of the palace vacant (his legitimate sons died before him) but Charles Martel, an illegitimate son born to his concubine, contested the claim of Plectrude, Pepin’s legitimate wife, that her young grandsons should inherit the position. Plectrude had Charles imprisoned to prevent him from becoming the mayor of the palace, but he escaped and spent the years that followed fighting Plectrude and other claimants for the position.
It was not until 717 AD that he eliminated all other claimants to the position and succeeded as mayor of the palace. Charles Martel also went on to lead the combined forces of Aquitanian and Frankish forces to defeat the Arab-Berber army in the Battle of Tours-Poitiers in 732. By 737 AD, the Merovingian puppet king he appointed years before had died and Charles Martel was the sole ruler of the Frankish kingdom.
After Charles’ death in 741 AD, his sons Carloman and Pepin the Younger rose as mayors of the palace. Unlike the Merovingian brothers before them, the siblings did not go to war for territories as Carloman relinquished his kingdom, had himself consecrated as a monk, and spent the rest of his life in the monastery of Monte Cassino. In 751, Pepin removed the last of the Merovingian king from the throne and declared himself the king of the Frankish kingdom. He sent the deposed Merovingian king, Childeric III, to a monastery where he died years later and marked the end of the domination of the Merovingian dynasty.
Pepin the Younger died in 768 AD and the territories were divided between his sons Charles (Charlemagne) and Carloman. The realm was now divided into two: Charles ruled the northern section of the land and Carloman ruled the southern portion that bordered Al-Andalus. Charles also strengthened his rule with his marriage to a Lombard princess but discarded his first wife for a thirteen-year-old Alemanni girl after one year. His brother, Carloman, died in 771 AD which meant that Charles was now the sole ruler of the Frankish empire.
Charlemagne subdued the Saxons in 772 AD and ended the domination of the Lombards in Italy in the years that followed. He sent the Lombard king Desiderius to a monastery (a punishment the Frankish rulers seemed to favor) and crowned himself king of Lombard Italy in its capital Pavia. He made an ill-advised treaty with the administrator of Al-Andalus in an effort to take back the city of Zaragoza from the Muslims, but Charlemagne and his troops were forced to march back to Frankish lands in humiliation after the administrator changed his mind. He besieged the Vascones who lived on the rugged Pyrenees in his humiliation, but he paid the price for his miscalculation when his troops were massacred by the tribe in revenge as they marched home. The loss of his men was so devastating that he never ventured south into Al-Andalus for the rest of his life.
Charlemagne was involved in a conflict with the Byzantine empress Irene after she broke off the engagement of her son Constantine VI to the Frankish king’s daughter Rotrude. In a bid to strengthen his own rule, Pope Leo crowned Charlemagne as the emperor and Augustus of Rome. This was a direct hit to Empress Irene who, as ruler of the Byzantines, claimed to be the rightful and legitimate heir of Rome and its former territories. The empress could do nothing and Charlemagne claimed more of Europe in the years that followed. His realm spanned from Sweden in the north to the border of Al-Andalus in the southern end, as well as the former territories of the Lombards in Italy. Before his death, he divided the kingdom between his sons but all except Louis the Pious (the ruler of Aquitaine) had died by 813 AD. Louis found himself the sole ruler of the vast Frankish kingdom consolidated by his father after his death.
Louis the Pious had planned to snip off some lands from Lothair’s (one of his sons by his first wife) domain so he could give them to a younger, more favored son by his second wife. Furious, Lothair and his brothers united against their father and the civil war which raged between them for three years unraveled all of Charlemagne’s efforts to unite the Frankish land. Louis was forced to make concessions to his other sons and left the reduced domain of Neustria to his child by his second wife, Charles the Bald, when he died in 840 AD. Civil war once again erupted between the brothers and they were forced to divide the land once again in 843 AD in the Treaty of Verdun.
Picture By Edward Armitage – Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1207772
Bradbury, Jim. The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare. London: Routledge, 2004.
Costambeys, Marios, Matthew Innes, and Simon MacLean. The Carolingian World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Gregory of Tours. The History of the Franks. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1927.
Wood, I. N. The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450-751. London: Longman, 1994.
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