Ruling family of Frankish Gaul from the mid-fifth to the mid-eighth century, when it was replaced by Pippin the Short and the Carolingian dynasty. Creators of the most effective and longest lasting successor state to emerge in the post-Roman world, the Merovingians rose to prominence under their greatest king, Clovis (r. 481–511), who first forged various Frankish peoples into a unified kingdom. Although his successors were generally not his equals, they managed to expand the boundaries of the realm and strengthen the dynasty’s hold on the kingdom. For most of the two centuries after the death of Clovis, the Merovingian kings were among the most powerful and important of the rulers who came to power in Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. They were plagued, however, by internal strife, as each of the various descendants of Clovis strove to seize control of the kingdom under his own authority and at the expense of his brothers or other male relatives. Indeed, the central weakness of the dynasty was the tradition of dividing the realm among all legitimate, and sometimes illegitimate, male heirs. This often led to civil war, including the truly bitter competition between the Merovingian queens Brunhilde and Fredegund in the late sixth century. Despite this underlying structural weakness, the dynasty prospered in the seventh century under the kings Chlotar and Dagobert. By the late seventh century, however, the dynasty faced internal discord, early death and weakness of several kings, and an increasingly acquisitive nobility. Although certainly not the “do-nothing kings” (rois fainéants) of popular tradition, the late Merovingians became increasingly irrelevant in the kingdom by the late seventh and early eighth centuries. Their authority was severely curtailed by the rising power of the Carolingian mayors of the palace, who deposed the last Merovingian king, Childeric III, in 750.
The dynasty traditionally traced its origins to a certain Merovech, the son of a sea god, but the first historical king of note was Childeric I (d. 481), the father of Clovis. Little is known of Childeric’s reign other than what Gregory of Tours reported in his history and what appears in the later chronicle of Fredegar. According to Gregory, Childeric was a successful warlord from northeastern Gaul and Germany—modern Belgium and the Rhineland—who fought battles at Orléans and Angers, and also seized several islands from the Saxons when they fought the Romans. Childeric also negotiated a treaty with the Saxon leader Odovacar, possibly the same leader who deposed Romulus Augustulus in 476. Although a great warrior and successful conqueror, Childeric, according to Fredegar, was deposed for profligacy. Childeric, however, made an arrangement with one of his faithful followers, who was to agitate for Childeric’s return and then send the king half of a coin they had divided when it was safe to return. While in exile, Childeric stayed with a Thuringian king, whose wife Basina followed Childeric back to the Franks and became his queen because she saw in him a ruler of great power.
Two other sources, the king’s tomb at Tournai and a letter from Bishop Remigius of Rheims, provide information on Childeric’s reign. The burial site provides important information on the cultural sophistication and Romanization of the Franks already in the mid-fifth century. Although there is ample evidence of the “barbarian” nature of the Franks in the tomb, there is also evidence of Roman influence. The tomb was built near a Roman cemetery and Roman road and contains a brooch and Byzantine coins that suggest contacts with the imperial capital at Constantinople. Moreover, there was other jewelry of high quality. The bishop’s letter to Childeric’s son Clovis reveals the extent of Childeric’s domain and suggests that Childeric was in contact with the Catholic Christian bishops of Gaul.
On the death of Childeric in 481, his son Clovis ascended the throne, and it is with Clovis that the history of the Merovingian dynasty truly begins. Although well-known from the pages of the history of Gregory of Tours, Clovis must remain a shadowy figure; the portrait offered by Gregory is very much the creation of the bishop of Tours himself. Gregory’s king is depicted as having been in many ways God’s instrument, one that punished the wicked; expelled God’s enemies, the Arians, from Gaul; protected the saints, bishops, and church; and converted directly to Catholic Christianity from paganism. Indeed, one of the most famous tales of Clovis’s reign involves his conversion. His wife Clothilda, a Burgundian Catholic, sought to convert her husband to her faith, but with little success. Her efforts were hindered when their first son died after she had him baptized; Clovis questioned the power of the Christian God and preferred the power of the traditional gods of the Franks. Ultimately, Clovis converted, as Gregory tells us, during a battle that he was losing. He offered to convert to his wife’s faith if he should win the battle, which he did. Gregory then describes how Clovis accepted baptism, like a new Constantine, from the hands of Bishop Remigius, and with him 3,000 of his followers converted as well.
Gregory also describes the great conquests of Clovis over rival Franks, Romans, Visigoths (an almost crusade-like battle against Arian Christians), Burgundians (to avenge injuries against his wife), and others. Clovis occasionally employed great trickery to defeat his rivals, but all, in Gregory’s eyes, in a good cause. Perhaps the best illustration of the character of Clovis is given in Gregory’s tale of the ewer of Soissons. After defeating the Roman “king” Syagrius of Soissons, Clovis came into possession of great booty, part of which was a sacred vessel of importance to the bishop of Soissons. Honoring a request from the bishop, Clovis asked if the follower to whom he had given the vessel would return it. But the follower refused and cut the vessel in half, offering the king only his share. Later, Clovis cut his follower in half with a great blow with his broadsword, declaring that this was what the warrior had done to his cup at Soissons. The tale was designed to demonstrate Clovis’s authority and, more importantly, his devotion to the Catholic bishops even before his conversion.
Although a marvelous and memorable portrait, the image presented by Gregory of Tours is most likely not a portrait of the historic Clovis. Rather, Gregory’s portrait was intended for Clovis’s descendants, who failed to obey the bishops and the church and divided the kingdom in civil war. The historic Clovis was rather different from Gregory’s portrait. Although he was a good friend of the bishops, Clovis most likely did not convert directly to Catholic Christianity; at the very least he leaned toward Arianism before receiving baptism from the Catholic Remigius. Moreover, he was most likely not the ruthless barbarian Gregory made him out to be. He was most certainly a successful warrior king, but he also seems to have been influenced by Roman culture. Most notably, his codification of Frankish law in the Lex Salica (Salic law), a written Latin version of Frankish custom, suggests the influence of Roman legal traditions. Clovis also borrowed Roman administrative techniques, particularly those involving collecting taxes. In 511, Clovis divided his kingdom among his sons, which traditionally has been understood as an example of the personal nature of Merovingian kingship (so that division of the kingdom would simply be the division of his personal property among his heirs). This division, however, followed Roman administrative boundaries, with each region having a Roman city as capital, and may have been influenced as much by Roman as Frankish traditions.
The legacy of Clovis was undoubtedly a mixed one, however. Although he had established a great kingdom and forged important connections with the bishops of Gaul, he also established the tradition of the division of the realm—traditionally recognized as the fatal flaw in the history of the Merovingian dynasty. The division practically guaranteed that civil war between the descendants of Clovis would occur regularly, and within a decade of his death civil war had indeed broken out. The sixth century was particularly plagued by this problem, which was exacerbated by the Merovingian practice of polygyny and serial marriage. As a result of royal marriage practices, only little influenced by the increasing Christianization of the Merovingians and their kingdom, there were numerous claimants to the throne, especially since both legitimate and illegitimate sons could succeed their fathers. Moreover, heirs to the throne had to be recognized by all other Merovingian kings, and often war was the only means to enforce a claim or depose a pretender. Although certainly a problem, civil war did have the benefit of eliminating those with weak claims to the throne and strengthening the ties between the Merovingian kings and the Frankish aristocracy and episcopacy.
The most famous example of a civil war, or blood feud, among the Merovingians was that of the queens Fredegund and Brunhilde, the wives of Chilperic I (r. 561–584) and Sigebert (r. 561–575) respectively. The traditional competition between rival Merovingian kings may have been worsened by the hatred that existed between their queens, who were motivated by a thirst for power, the concern to protect their families, and possibly, in Brunhilde’s case, the desire for revenge. Although the Merovingian kings had been in the habit of marrying lowborn women, Sigebert married a Visigothic princess, Brunhilde, which inspired Chilperic to do the same. Perhaps already married to Fredegund, who was at least an important concubine, Chilperic married Brunhilde’s sister, Galswintha, whom he murdered, possibly at Fredegund’s instigation, shortly after the marriage. This led to the promotion of Fredegund and the beginning of several decades of assassinations and attempted assassinations of bishops, kings, and queens. Fredegund engineered the murder of Sigebert, Chilperic, and several bishops, and attempted to murder Brunhilde. Despite her best efforts, Fredegund was survived by Brunhilde—often just as ruthless as her rival in promoting the interests of her male heirs—who ruled the Merovingian kingdom through her sons and grandsons during the last decade of the sixth century and the first decade of the seventh. In 613, however, the nobility of Austrasia—one of the three subkingdoms that emerged in the sixth century, along with Neustria and Burgundy—rallied behind Fredegund’s son Chlotar to depose Brunhilde, try and condemn her for numerous crimes, and execute her in the most brutal fashion.
The two generations following the fall of Brunhilde, from 613 to 638, were a time of the resurgence of the dynasty and in many ways its high point, as well as the moment of the first appearance of members of the family that became the Carolingian dynasty. In gratitude for his support, Chlotar II (r. 613–629) made Pippin of Landen, an early Carolingian, mayor of the palace and granted other concessions to his family and that of Arnulf of Metz, who had formed a marriage alliance with Pippin. Balancing the interests of the major aristocratic families of the realm would be one of the chief concerns of Chlotar and his son Dagobert (r. 629–638/639). They did this by promoting the status of the monarchy as a sacral institution against the nobility, and also by legislating actively. Chlotar issued numerous diplomas and charters; he passed the Edict of Paris in 614, which has often been seen as a surrender of royal power but may be better understood as a means by the king to force the aristocracy to ensure law and order throughout the kingdom. Clearly the king was successful in this; Fredegar notes that Chlotar reigned happily (feliciter), suggesting a time of peace and order. Chlotar, and Dagobert after him, laid the foundations for a chancery—an essential tool for the diplomatic activities of the kings—and built up a sort of school at the royal palace, to which the sons of nobles were invited to be educated, strengthening ties between the monarchs and the nobles. Moreover, to further their hold on the kingdom and to establish a counterweight to the power of the nobles, Chlotar and, especially, Dagobert drew closer to the church. Dagobert, for example, strengthened the dynasty’s ties with the powerful abbey of St. Denis near Paris.
Despite the successes of Chlotar and Dagobert, the Merovingians suffered a period of decline after Dagobert’s death. Although the dynasty suffered over the course of the next century, the decline was not as precipitous as is traditionally held. Indeed, the dynasty kept a firm hold on the throne until the usurpation of Pippin the Short in 751, and even then the first Carolingian king faced opposition and took very cautious steps to secure the throne. An earlier attempt at usurpation by the Carolingian mayor Grimoald in the 650s failed, a failure that demonstrates the continued authority of the Merovingian line. In the 650s and 660s, Clovis II and his wife Balthild had a successful reign, and Balthild after her husband’s death was an effective regent who refashioned the dynasty’s relations with the church and reformed the church in the kingdom. At the same time, however, the Merovingians faced increasing competition from various factions of the nobility, particularly from the later Carolingian line. The nobility of the subkingdoms came more and more to compete for access to and control of the monarchs, many of whom were weakened by youth or incompetence. The office of mayor of the palace became increasingly important in the late seventh century, and the mayors of the two main subkingdoms, Austrasia and Neustria, competed for control of the kingdom. In 687, Pippin of Herstal confirmed the ascendancy of his family and reunified the kingdom when he defeated his rival mayor at the Battle of Tertry.
By the late seventh and early eighth century, the Merovingian dynasty was being gradually replaced by the Carolingian dynasty. Effective control of the kingdom had been taken by Pippin and his successor Charles Martel, even though the Merovingians continued to issue charters and remained on the throne. During Charles Martel’s reign as mayor of the palace, the various Merovingian kings who held the throne were increasingly marginalized, even if not to the extent portrayed by Einhard in his description of the last of the line (who owned only one estate, were maintained by the Carolingians, and trotted out once a year in a donkey cart to appear at a council of state). In fact, the Merovingians had become so irrelevant to Martel’s ability to rule that during the last four years of his life he ruled without a king on the throne and divided the realm between his two sons, Pippin the Short and Carloman, just as the Merovingian kings had done. His successors were forced to restore a Merovingian, Childeric III, to the throne in 743 because of political unrest in the kingdom, but he was little more than a figurehead. In 750, Pippin felt secure enough to depose Childeric and usurp the throne. He petitioned the pope for support in his deposition, perhaps feeling it necessary to substitute the sanction of the church and the Christian God for the divine aura that Childeric could claim as the descendant of a sea god.
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