A Frankish warrior of the 6th century AD. A variety of his arms, armour and equipment is shown. Note especially his decorated spangenhelm. The alternative helmet is also of Northern Iranian Asiatic origins, adopted by the Germanics, the Huns and the Romans. Painting by Angus McBride
By the beginning of the fifth century the Roman Empire was on its last legs, almost defenceless against the barbarians – Goths, Huns and Vandals – who swept down from the north-east, ever in search of warmer climates and more fertile lands. These were not invading armies; they were migrations of whole peoples – men, women and children. The eastern Goths (Ostrogoths), the western Goths (Visigoths) and the Vandals were at least semi-civilised; they were all of Germanic origin and were Christians. Unfortunately they were also Arian heretics, steadfastly maintaining that Jesus Christ was not, as the orthodox believed, co-eternal and of one substance with God the Father, but that he had been created by Him at a specific time and for a specific purpose, as His chosen instrument for the salvation of the world. This put them at loggerheads with the Church; but they had no desire to destroy the empire, for which they had nothing but admiration. All they asked was Lebensraum, somewhere to settle; and settle they did.
The Huns, on the other hand, were Mongols, and barbarians through and through. Most of them still lived and slept in the open, disdaining all agriculture and even cooked food – though legend has it that they softened raw meat by massaging it between their thighs and the flanks of their horses as they rode. For clothing they favoured tunics made either from linen or, rather surprisingly, from the skins of field mice crudely stitched together; these they wore continuously, without ever removing them, until they dropped off of their own accord. (A law was passed in 416 banning anyone dressed in animal skins or with long hair from coming within the walls of Rome.) The leader of the Huns, Attila, was short, swarthy and snub-nosed, with a thin, straggling beard and beady little eyes set in a head too big for his body. Within the space of a few years he had made himself feared throughout Europe: more feared, perhaps, than any other single man – with the possible exception of Napoleon – before or since.
These were the people who crossed the Rhine early in 451 and smashed their way through France as far as Orléans, before being defeated on 20 June by a combined Roman and Visigothic force on the Catalaunian Plains, just outside Châlons-sur-Marne. Had Attila continued his advance, French history might have been very different; but the situation was quite bad enough without him. As the whole machinery of the empire began to crumble, even communications across the Alps were broken; orders from Rome simply failed to arrive. The abdication in 476 of the last Emperor of the West, the pathetic child Romulus Augustulus – his very name a double-diminutive – is no surprise.
With the Roman Empire effectively gone – though the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople continued to claim authority – Gaul disintegrated into a mass of small barbarian states under so-called kings, dukes and counts. As we know, however, nature abhors a vacuum; sooner or later one state becomes stronger than the rest and ultimately achieves domination. This time it was the Salian Franks. Relatively recent arrivals, they first appeared in the area in the second century, and over the next three hundred years gradually merged with the Gallo-Roman populations, giving their name to modern France in the process. In the later fourth century their kingdom had been founded by a certain Childeric, son of Merovech, and was consequently known as the Merovingian; and it was Childeric’s son Clovis who became King of the Franks in 481. Uniting as he did nearly all Gaul under Merovingian rule, Clovis has a serious claim to have been the first King of France. His name, in its later version of ‘Louis’, was to be given to eighteen successors before the French monarchy ended.
It would be pleasant indeed if we could look upon Clovis in a heroic light, as we can Vercingetorix. Alas, we cannot. He was a monster. He eliminated his enemies occasionally in a legitimate battle – as he did in 486 at Soissons, when he effectively put an end to all Western Roman authority outside Italy – but far more frequently by cold-blooded murder, cheerfully assassinating all potential threats, Frankish and otherwise. It worked. By the time of his death around 513 – the precise date is uncertain – his rule extended over the greater part of modern France, Belgium and, to the east, a considerable distance into northern Germany. He had also reluctantly abandoned his initial Arianism – largely at the instigation of his Burgundian wife Clotilde – and on Christmas Day 496 had been received into the Catholic faith. On that day the fate of Arianism in France was sealed. Over the coming years more and more of his people were to follow his example, leading eventually to the religious unification of France and Germany, which was to endure for the next millennium. And it was thanks to that same baptism that, three hundred years later, Charlemagne and Pope Leo III could forge the alliance that gave birth to the Holy Roman Empire.
Throughout some two hundred and fifty of those years, the Merovingian dynasty ruled France – and came dangerously near to destroying it. The good old days of settled government were over; cities and towns were left to fall into ruin. The Frankish kings, immediately distinguishable from their subjects by their shoulder-length blondish hair – said to represent the sun’s rays – journeyed endlessly from one village to the next with their officials and their men-at-arms, carrying with them their huge triple-sealed coffers of treasure and cheerfully waging countless and pointless little family wars. Even when they were not so engaged, violence was never far away. For an example we have to look no further than Clovis’s son Chilperic, whom the later French chronicler Gregory of Tours dubbed ‘the Nero and Herod of his time’ and who took as his second wife Galswintha, daughter of the Visigothic King of Spain. The marriage was not a success, and one morning Galswintha was found strangled in her bed. This seems to have been the work of a serving-maid called Fredegund, who had long been the king’s mistress and whom he married a short time later. Now it happened that Galswintha had a sister, Brunhilda, who was the wife of Chilperic’s brother Sigebert. The murder caused a series of fearsome wars between the two brothers, until in 575, just when he had Chilperic at his mercy, Sigebert was murdered by Fredegund. Chilperic lived on for another nine years – during which time he introduced eye-gouging as a new sort of punishment – before being stabbed to death in 584 by an unknown assailant, probably one of Brunhilda’s men; but he was posthumously avenged when his son Chlothar II seized Brunhilda and had her lashed to the tail of a horse, which was then sent off at a gallop.
There were in theory twenty-seven Merovingian kings, but it will be a relief to the reader that their detailed history will play no part in this book. In fact even this figure can be only a very conservative estimate, since for much of the time France was once again broken up into an infinity of minor kingdoms; frequently there were several kings reigning at the same time. Mention must be made, however, of one, simply since he is the most famous of them all: Dagobert I who, as every French schoolboy knows, put on his trousers inside out.6 But he also did a good deal more. In 630 or thereabouts he annexed Alsace, the Vosges and the Ardennes, creating a new duchy, and he made Paris his capital. Though his debaucheries were famous – hence the perfectly idiotic little song – he was deeply religious and founded the Basilica of Saint-Denis, in which he was the first French king to be buried. From the tenth century onwards all but three were to join him there.
These were the dark ages; and in France they were very dark indeed. The only glimmering of light came from the Church which, unlike the State, remained firm and well organised. By this time the ecclesiastical hierarchy had been securely established, with a bishop in every diocese and a conscientious if largely uneducated priesthood. Meanwhile, thanks to the benefactions of the faithful and the efficient exaction of tithes, church property was steadily increasing – as indeed was church power: every ruler knew all too well that he was in constant danger of excommunication or even of an interdict, which would condemn not only himself, but all his subjects as well. The monasteries too were beginning to make their presence felt. They had long flourished in the east, where there was only one monastic order, that of St Basil; but the Basilians were essentially contemplatives and hermits. St Benedict, the sixth-century father of monasticism in the west, had very different ideas. The black-robed Benedictines were communities in the fullest sense of the word, dedicated to total obedience and hard physical labour, principally agricultural. But they also found time to study, to copy manuscripts – immensely important in the centuries before the invention of printing – and generally to keep alive a little spark of learning and humanity in the bleak, depressing world in which they lived.
Then the Muslims arrived. In 633 – just a year after the Prophet’s death – they had burst out of Arabia. The speed of their advance was astonishing. Within thirty years they had captured not only Syria and Palestine, but also most of the Persian Empire, Afghanistan and part of the Punjab. They next turned their attention to the west. Constantinople looked too tough a nut to crack, so they swung to the left and headed along the shores of North Africa. At this point their pace became slower; it was not before the end of the century that they reached the Atlantic, and not till 711 that they were ready to cross the Straits of Gibraltar into Spain. But by 732, still less than a century after their eruption from their desert homeland, they had made their way over the Pyrenees and, according to tradition, pressed on as far as Tours – where, only 150 miles from Paris, they were checked at last by the Frankish king Charles Martel in an engagement which inspired Edward Gibbon to one of his most celebrated flights of fancy:
A victorious line of march had been prolonged above a thousand miles from the Rock of Gibraltar to the banks of the Loire; the repetition of an equal space would have carried the Saracens to the confines of Poland and the Highlands of Scotland; the Rhine is not more impassable than the Nile or the Euphrates, and the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pupils might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the Revelation of Mahomet.
Modern historians are quick to point out that the Battle of Tours is scarcely mentioned by contemporary or near-contemporary Arab historians, and then only as a comparatively insignificant episode. The evidence of these writers strongly suggests that the troops encountered by Charles Martel were simply members of a raiding party who had ventured perhaps hundreds of miles in advance of the main army, and that the so-called battle was little more than a protracted skirmish; but we shall never know for sure. More important for us is Charles Martel himself. By the seventh and eighth centuries the Merovingian kings had descended so far into dissipation and debauchery that they had effectively ceased to rule. The real power of the kingdom now rested with a distinguished head official known as the Mayor of the Palace, a post that had by now become hereditary, and was held by succeeding members of the house of Pepin. Charles Martel – ‘the Hammer’ – had succeeded his father in 715, and was de facto ruler of France for the next quarter of a century until he was succeeded by his son Pepin the Short. Not a moment too soon, this spelt the end of the Merovingians. In 751 Pepin forced the last king, Childeric III, into a monastery and had himself proclaimed King of the Franks by the Pope. In doing so he founded a new royal dynasty, named after his father, the Carolingian.
Pepin was by far the greatest European ruler of his time; it was, however, his misfortune to be overshadowed by one greater still – his son Charles, better known as Charlemagne, who came to the throne on Pepin’s death in 768. Thanks to his immense size, his energy, his health and his prodigious vigour – he had five legitimate wives and four supplementary spouses – and the simplicity of his life, wearing as he did (except on state occasions) the linen tunic, scarlet breeches and cross-gartering of his Frankish subjects, Charlemagne was to become an almost legendary figure, whose authority was to spread far more widely than that of his predecessors. In 774 he captured Pavia and proclaimed himself King of the Lombards; returning to Germany, he next subdued the heathen Saxons and converted them en masse to Christianity before going on to annex already-Christian Bavaria. An invasion of Spain was less successful – though it provided the inspiration for the first great epic ballad of western Europe, the ‘Chanson de Roland’ – but Charles’s subsequent campaign against the Avars in Hungary and Upper Austria resulted in the destruction of their kingdom as an independent state and its absorption within his own dominions. Thus, in little more than a generation, he had raised the kingdom of the Franks from being just one of the many semi-tribal European states to a single political unit of vast extent, unparalleled since the days of imperial Rome.
And he had done so, for most of the time at least, with the enthusiastic approval of the papacy. It was nearly half a century since Pope Stephen II had struggled across the Alps to seek help against the Lombards from Charles’s father Pepin; Charles himself had been in Rome on a state visit in 774 when, as a young man of thirty-two, he had been welcomed by Pope Hadrian I and, deeply impressed by all he saw, had confirmed his father’s donation of that central Italian territory which was to form the nucleus of the Papal States. And in 800 he came again, this time on more serious business. Pope Leo III, ever since his accession four years before, had been the victim of incessant intrigue on the part of a body of young Roman noblemen who were determined to remove him; and on 25 April he had actually been set upon in the street and beaten unconscious. Only by the greatest good fortune was he rescued by friends and removed to recover at Charles’s court at Paderborn. Under the protection of Frankish agents he returned to Rome a few months later, only to find himself facing a number of serious charges fabricated by his enemies, including simony, perjury and adultery.
By whom, however, could he be tried? Who was qualified to pass judgement on the Vicar of Christ on Earth? In normal circumstances the only conceivable answer to that question would have been the emperor at Constantinople; but the imperial throne was at that time occupied by a woman, the Empress Irene. The fact that Irene had blinded and murdered her own son was, in the minds of both Leo and Charles, almost immaterial; it was enough that she was a woman. The female sex was believed to be incapable of governing, and by the old Salic tradition was debarred from doing so. As far as western Europe was concerned, the throne of the emperors was vacant.
Charles was fully aware, when he travelled to Rome towards the end of 800, that he had no more authority than Irene to sit in judgement at St Peter’s; but he also knew that while the accusations remained unrefuted Christendom lacked not only an emperor but a pope as well, and he was determined to do all he could to clear Leo’s name. As to the precise nature of his testimony, we can only guess; but on 23 December, at the high altar, the Pope swore a solemn oath on the Gospels that he was innocent of all the charges levelled against him – and the assembled synod accepted his word. Two days later, as Charles rose from his knees at the conclusion of the Christmas Mass, Leo laid the imperial crown upon his head, and the whole congregation cheered him to the echo. He had received, as his enemies were quick to point out, only a title: the crown brought with it not a single new subject or soldier, nor an acre of new territory. But that title was of more lasting significance than any number of conquests; it meant that, after more than four hundred years, there was once again an emperor in western Europe.
Historians have long debated whether the imperial coronation had been jointly planned by Leo and Charles or whether, as appeared at the time, the King of the Franks was taken completely by surprise. Of the two possibilities, the latter seems a good deal more likely. Charles had never shown the faintest interest in claiming imperial status, and for the rest of his life continued to style himself Rex Francorum et Langobardorum – King of the Franks and Lombards. Nor, above all, did he wish to owe any obligation to the Pope; there is every reason to believe that he was in fact extremely angry when he found such an obligation thrust upon him. Leo, on the other hand, was creating an all-important precedent. By crowning Charles as he did, he was emphasising that both the empire and Charles at its head were his creations. The world could make no mistake: it was to the Pope, and to the Pope only, that the emperor owed his title.
Although Charlemagne is credited with what is known as the Carolingian Renaissance, vastly increasing the numbers of monastic schools and scriptoria in his dominions, he himself was almost certainly illiterate. There is a theory that he could read a bit; but his biographer Einhard writes rather touchingly about the emperor’s attempts to master the art of writing, telling us of the wax tablets he kept under his pillow to practise on when he could not sleep. He tried hard; ‘but’, wrote Einhard, ‘his effort came too late in life and achieved little success’. In the words of Sir Kenneth Clark, he simply couldn’t get the hang of it. It hardly mattered: this astonishing figure, more than half barbarian, kept his newly forged empire together by the strength of his personality alone; after his death in 814 its story is one of steady decline, first by family partitioning and finally with virtual disintegration following the extinction of his line in 888. It was probably inevitable: like, ultimately, its Roman predecessor, the Carolingian Empire carried with it the seeds of its own destruction. It was simply too big: proper communication across its length and breadth was impossible.
By his only son, Louis I the Pious, Charlemagne had three grandsons, who after much strife reached an agreement on the division of their territories in 843 at Verdun. Charles the Bald received, very roughly, all France west of the Rhône and the Saône; to Louis II the German went Austrasia (most of north-east France, Belgium and western Germany), Bavaria, Swabia and Saxony; while the youngest, Lothair, had to be content with a long strip of land running from the North Sea, along the valleys of the Meuse, the Rhine and the Rhône, then southwards through the length of Italy into Calabria. It was the partition at Verdun that created the modern countries of France and Germany, together with that territory between them, Alsace-Lorraine, that has bedevilled their relations ever since.
Furthermore, although Charlemagne’s empire perished, his ideas did not. Henceforth, the western Europeans were almost able to forget about Constantinople. Before 800, there was only one empire in the Christian world – the empire of Augustus, Trajan and Hadrian, which was not a jot less Roman for having had its capital transferred to the Bosphorus. But the Bosphorus was nearly 1500 miles from Paris; the West now had an emperor of its own, on its very doorstep. And that emperor had been crowned by the Pope in Rome. In Merovingian days most of the kings had been little more than the leaders of bands of thugs; the Carolingians and their successors would be the Lord’s anointed. Emperor and Pope would rule jointly, hand in hand, the former physically protecting the latter, the latter ensuring not only the spiritual but also the cultural well-being of his flock. To be sure, later centuries would see this system break down on countless occasions, but the thought was always there. After Charlemagne, Europe would never be the same again.