The Merovingian Dynasty


So far, we’ve spoken about the Celts, which take us back several hundred years before the common era, the Roman period in Gaul, the development of post-Roman Franks, and the migrations of the Visigoths into the Iberian Peninsula. Now we’ll have a conversation about the further development of the Franks from a northern Germanic group surrounded by enemies into controlling Gallo-Roman dynasties.

Our story continues with the dynasty derived from a Salian Frank named Merovech (shown right). Earlier, the reader learned that, unlike other Frankish people, the Salians first appeared living inside the Roman Empire, within the Rhine River Delta, in the present-day Netherlands. Our information about Merovech is limited to two sources: (1) The Chronicle of Fredegar and (2) the writings of the bishop/historian known as Gregory of Tours.

The Chronicle of Fredegar is a title given to this work in the 16th Century, even though historians believe it is a product of the 7th Century — whose author remains a mystery. This story has several versions, one “history” ending in A.D. 642 and another in A.D. 768. It is light on history and heavy on myth — full of fantastical stories that try to increase the relevance of its subjects. Bishop Gregory’s account is amazingly brief — he mentions Merovech once and only to identify him as the father of Childeric I, a king of the Franks.

Linguists tell us that the Chronicle of Fredegar (in modern French, Frédégaire) was written in a genuine Frankish vulgar Latin, typical of Gaul — but beyond that, there is no factual basis for or corroboration of its stories of Merovech or his father, Chlodio.

Merovech (in French, Mérovée) (A.D. 411 – 458) was the King of the Salian Franks and the genesis of the Merovingian line of kings. He may have been one of several barbarian warlords who joined the Romans under General Aetius against Attila the Hun. If true, it was a wise decision. Merovech’s son was Childeric, who maintained good relations with the Romans. Whenever the Romans called upon Childeric for military assistance, he ensured his soldiers distinguished themselves in combat. His courage and coolness in battle were noted at Orleans and Loire and gave him favor with the Romans. As Merovech laid this foundation for Childeric, he did the same for his son, whom he named Clovis.

The Kingdom

It was Clovis who founded the Merovingian kingdom — which he may not have been able to do were it not for the favor the Merovingians maintained with the Romans. Note: the term Merovingian simply means the descendants of Mérovée.  Recall that Bishop Gregory of Tours remains the primary source of our knowledge about Merovech and Childeric.

Clovis, I (shown right) reigned from A.D. 481 to 511.  Thirty years was a long time in the Middle Ages. Still, within that time, he expanded Merovingian power throughout most of post-Roman Gaul, from the Silva Carbonaria in Belgium to the Somme, north of Paris.

Merovingian men distinguished themselves from other male Franks by wearing long hair — which became an easily recognized symbol of their right to rule all other Franks. Any Merovingian male who failed to distinguish himself in battle was taken from the ranks, his hair cut short and sent to a monastery. Such men were deemed unfit to rule over others.

Another demonstration of the legitimacy of power was hoisting a new king onto a battle shield by men whom he would lead into battle. The act symbolized the people’s confidence in their new King and may have been influenced by a Greek tradition in Plutarch’s day: Come back with your shield, or on it. Over many years, even as their power had begun to fade, the Franks continued to support Merovingian rule — they would accept no other family as their rulers.

When Clovis died, his kingdom was partitioned into equal parts among his four sons. This became a common practice among the Gauls that did not work to their long-term benefit. By dividing his land among male heirs, the Merovingian King set his sons upon one another, resulting in an almost constant state of civil war.

The Mayor of the Palace

Pippin II of Herstal

Being a king, even in a backwater like Gaul, was difficult. Someone had to take responsibility for recommending appointments to court positions, and then once made, someone had to supervise those people. Someone had to appoint counts, dukes, and commandants. The King performed these functions early in the Merovingian dynasty, but when royal authority was left to an infant, an adult needed to assume these duties. Such tasks fell to a regent. A viceroy took over such duties whenever a king became ill, injured, or otherwise felt disinclined to perform them.

To help the sovereign with the day-to-day tasks, Merovingian kings began to employ an official whose duty was to oversee the running of the King’s household. It was a long-held Roman tradition called major domus (supervisor of the household). The Merovingians incorporated this official as Major Palatii (supervisor of the Palace). Such mundane duties were one less worry for the monarch. (Pictured right, Pippin II of Herstal).

Over time, however, the Major Palatii took on additional duties and responsibilities, such as supervision of all court personnel, principal advisor to the King, and the individual who played a crucial role in granting nobility and land ownership. The Mayor of the Palace also commanded the King’s guard, supervised the King’s wards, and (in time) commanded the entire army in time.

The more involved the Mayor became in the day-to-day administration of the kingdom, the more obvious it was that no one was better placed to assume regency on behalf of the dead King’s infant heir. He was already performing these duties “in the name of the King.” After the 6th Century, the Mayor often made all critical decisions. The Mayor of the Palace gained the support of the landed aristocracy because they understood where their bread was buttered. Similarly, the clergy supported the Mayor of the Palace because he had the King’s ear on matters relating to the Church. Though forceful, when necessary, the Mayor of the Palace was seldom a dictator. He was a consummate politician.

A Notable Mayor

The man I am writing about now was my 39th great-grandfather. He was an illegitimate son of Pippin II of Herstal (sometimes written as Pepin), the Mayor of the Palace of Austrasia — the traditional homeland of the Franks, a territory forming the north-eastern section of Gaul centered on Meuse, Middle Rhine, and Moselle rivers. In Latin, he answered to Carolus Martellus (A.D. 688 – 741) (pictured right).

By this time, the Merovingian kings were rulers in name only; the burden of governance fell upon the Mayors of the Palace — men who governed Austrasia and Neustria. In A.D. 687, Pippin annexed Neustria, which set into motion a necessity for armed conflict. Pippin successfully united the two kingdoms, but it remained a source of irritation to the Neustrians for a long time.

Pippin appointed his son Drogo as Mayor of Burgundy and his other son, Grimoald, in Neustria to facilitate his control over the combined Frankish kingdoms. Around A.D. 670, Pippin married Plectrude, who had inherited substantial estates in the Moselle region. She was the mother of Drogo and Grimoald — neither of whom outlived their father.  Pippin also had a mistress or (perhaps) a second wife. Her name was Alpaida, and she bore him two more sons: Charles and Childebrand.

Before Pippin died, Plectrude convinced him to disinherit the two illegitimate children in favor of his grandson, Theudoald (the son of Grimoald) — who, at the time of Pippin’s death in A.D. 714, was an infant — as were two other grandsons. Plectrude intended to rule as the Mayor’s regent on behalf of Theudoald. In effect, Carolus (Charles) was wholly neglected in Pippin’s will and stood no chance of finding himself in charge of anything. Plectrude failed to consider that the 26-year-old Charles was strong, intelligent, and focused.

Gaul was a male-dominated society. Few male landowners were keen on having a woman govern — no matter whose name she ruled under. From the instant of Pippin’s death, Plectrude faced a rebellion. King Chilperic II was under the direct power of the Mayor of the Palace in Neustria — still smarting by Pippin’s forced unification. It did not take long for the Neustrians to join forces with Frisians in Holland to eliminate Plectrude, her three grandsons, and Carolus.

Initially, Plectrude imprisoned Charles and attempted to govern in her own right. A resourceful Carolus managed to escape his confinement and set about raising an army of his own. With that army, in several battles lasting several years, Charles defeated the Neustrians, Frisians, and Austrasians, establishing himself as the new Mayor of the Palace of a re-united Frankish kingdom. During this time, Charles became known as the Hammer — Charles Martel.

In A.D. 720, Charles Martel began a campaign to eliminate his potential enemies: Bavarians, Lombards, and Alemannians. These battles brought all of present-day Southern Germany under Frankish control.

After defeating the Saxons in A.D. 730, Charles turned his attention to Aquitaine. These conflicts would prove more demanding since Duke Odo of Aquitaine (also called Eudes I) would not yield to Charles, even after he successfully sacked Aquitaine’s largest cities. Concurrently, Duke Odo was fighting Muslim Saracens from Al-Andalusa (the former territory of the Visigoths).

Charles, fully aware that a large army under Abd al-Raḥmân al-Ghafiqi was heading toward Aquitaine, determined to arrive before the Muslims — thereby choosing the ground upon which he would fight.

Charles Martel relied heavily on freedmen as his primary soldiery, but the increasing pace of military operations compelled him to create a strong cavalry of professional fighting men. The expense of horses and accouterments and well-armed cavalry was significant. Charles appropriated church land to defray these expenses, which did not please churchmen in Burgundy (principally), but as we all realize, necessity is the mother of invention.

Despite these unpopular decisions, Charles Martel remained popular among the churchmen and general landed aristocracy. Later, under Charles’ sons Pepin and Carolman, the Merovingians regulated land use and tenure by granting the warrior class tenure for life. They could use the land, but the Church retained permanent ownership.

Unending War

By A.D. 732, Charles Martel had united the Franks under a single banner. The biggest thorn in his side was the Saxons, but he punished them so unmercifully that they began looking for other places to live — choosing what became known as England’s Saxon Shore.

He was determined to punish the Saxons, who had invaded Austrasia — and punish them he did. Late in A.D. 718, he laid waste to their country to the rivers Weser, Lippe, and Ruhr and defeated them in the Teutoburg Forest, which secured the border of the Franks under Chlotaire.  When the leader of Frisia died in A.D. 719, Charles seized West Frisia with no local resistance, even though they had earlier rebelled when Charles’ father Pippin died. Charles’ appointment of local kings ensured him the loyalty and support of those he (supposedly) served as Mayor. In truth, these kings were mere figureheads, which is what Charles intended. In time, Charles would cease appointing kings and claim the land in his own right.

For twenty years, beginning in A.D. 711, Muslim armies of the Umayyad Caliphate had assaulted European kingdoms and territories, progressing through Hispania with some ease due to the relative incompetence of the Visigoth kings. They approached the Frankish territory known as Gaul. The Umayyads reached into Aquitaine and Burgundy, destroying and sacking Bordeaux. (At right, Duke Odo I of Aquitaine).

As a result, Duke Odo called upon Martel for his assistance. He responded with an estimated 30,000 combat-experienced ground troops — with (possibly) an additional 5,000 mounted cavalry. He would face around 80,000 Umayyad light and heavy cavalry.

Lacking sophisticated logistical systems, field armies lived off the land by necessity. In late September, the Saracen leader Abd al-Raḥmân al-Ghafiqi headed north with a substantial army and, after a few successful skirmishes, approached the wealthy city of Tours. History remembers this battle as the Battle of Tours and Poitiers because the actual fighting occurred between those two cities.   This is where al-Raḥmân ran into Charles the Hammer.

Abd al-Raḥmân was under some pressure — from several quarters at once. The Saracen army was mounted, and his soldiers were dressed in summer-weight uniforms with winter approaching. Thousands of horses demanded forage and adequate food for as many men. In contrast, Martel’s army was well-clothed, ready for winter, and prepared to confront the infidels.

Al-Raḥmân’s cavalry faced Martel’s infantry — al-Raḥmân was confident that his heavy and medium horsemen would chase the Franks away. Martel knew better. By the time Al-Raḥmân approached the battle area, Charles the Hammer had already claimed the best terrain. A thick forest concealed the Franks, denying al-Raḥmân a reasonable estimate of how many Franks awaited battle. Charles was a fierce fighter but patient and disciplined. He would fight his enemy but on his terms. For seven days, Charles Martel kept his men behind a shield wall. For those seven days, al-Raḥmân fretted about Martel’s army.

Some historians claim that Charles Martel had been contemplating a confrontation with the Umayyads for a decade. Whether true, Martel was ready for the encounter in October A.D. 732. Historians claim that Abd al-Raḥmân was stunned to find Martel waiting for him. Martel’s decision not to attack was wise — he would kill more of the enemy as they attacked Frank’s impenetrable shield wall, which was positioned on the tops of steep hills and inside thickly forested land. By the time Muslims reached the Martel’s phalanx, they would already be tired.

For seven days, al-Raḥmân waited for the arrival of the main body of his mounted army. At that time, he sent out sorties to harass the Franks. Few of these skirmishers survived their assault. Over those seven days, the Saracens became frustrated because they could not penetrate the Frankish line. On the other hand, Martel was running rampant inside al-Raḥmân’s head. He was not worried about the Saracen cavalry, but al-Raḥmân was very worried about Martel’s infantry — as he should have been. At a time when few kingdoms could afford a standing army, Martel’s men were seasoned, battle-hardened, and backed up by militia who served them as logisticians — bringing food and forage and helping to harass the enemy.

On the day of the battle, al-Raḥmân trusted in the tactical superiority of his cavalry and had them charge Martel’s shield wall repeatedly throughout the day. Despite these assaults, Martel’s shield wall did not break. The highly disciplined Franks withstood the Saracen attacks, though Arab sources claim that the Saracen cavalry broke through several times. The well-trained Franks accomplished what was impossible: infantry withstanding a heavy cavalry charge.

Arab historians naturally praise al-Raḥmân as a first-rate commander and an able administrator. They claim that he was the best governor of Al-Andalus. Evidence of his irreplaceability as a ruler was demonstrated upon his death at the Battle of Tours. With his death, the Saracen army collapsed. Al-Raḥmân’s son attempted another invasion of Gaul in A.D. 736 — this time, by sea. The expedition landed in Narbonne and moved to reinforce the Saracens in Arles for an inward march. With the assistance of the Lombards, Charles Martel descended on the Islamists at Montfrin, Avignon, Arles, Aix-en-Provence, Nimes, Agde, and Béziers.  Martel crushed one Saracen army at Arles as it rushed out to meet him, and then he seized the city and burned it to the ground. He then moved to defeat the Moslems at Narbonne but could not destroy the city because he lacked siege engines.

The Mayor Becomes a King

In A.D. 737, the Merovingian King Theuderic IV died. Charles, titling himself Major Domus et. Princeps et dux Francorum decided against appointing a new king — and nobody demanded one. The King’s throne remained empty until Charles’ death. Except for one conflict with the Saxons in A.D. 738, the kingdom remained (relatively) peaceful.

Charles used this peace to integrate outlying realms into the Church. He constructed dioceses in Bavaria, Salzburg, Regensburg, and Freising. He appointed Boniface as archbishop of all Germania east of the Rhine. In A.D. 739, Pope Gregory III petitioned Charles for his military assistance against the Lombards, but Charles refused out of loyalty to his past Lombard ally.


Charles Martel passed away on 22 October A.D. 741 in present-day Picardy. He is buried at Saint Denis Basilica in Paris. Before his death, Charles divided his property among his three sons and laid the foundation for his son, Pepin, to become King in A.D. 751 and, later, his grandson, whom we all know as Charlemagne.

Next week, a visit with the Vascones (Basque)

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in ANTIQUITY, EUROPE, HISTORY, MILITARY, RELIGION. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Merovingian Dynasty

  1. Andy says:

    Always glad to see your work show up in my inbox.



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