The Merovingians were the line of Frankish rulers that controlled Gaul from 589 to 751. For centuries, this royal family—the ones who laid the groundwork for the French monarchy—suffered at the hands of a “dark mythology” spread first by Gregory of Tours in the sixth century and subsequently by the Carolingians under the pen of Eginhard. Until the twentieth century, students would be shown pictures of the Merovingians and call them the “lazy kings”. The Merovingian era was a mysterious black hole in French history, especially for the time of Clovis and other events connected to Dagobert I. Yet, these monarchs reigned during the transition point between “barbarian” antiquity and the Middle Ages, upon which the foundation of modern France was to be laid.
The mythical origin of the Merovingians
The Salian Franks, a subgroup of the Franks who lived between the Rhine and the Scheldt, are the progenitors of the Merovingian dynasty. The mythical Merovech, a son or nephew of Chlodio (also known as Clodion) ruled over a group of Salian Franks from 448 to 457 and fought with Roman commander Flavius Aetius against the Huns in the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, from which the city took its name. To begin with, he only had control over the French and Belgian border kingdoms of Cambrai and Tournai. Clovis I, son of Childeric I and king from 481 to 511, became the true founder through his great conquests after four more or less legendary monarchs who were only tribal leaders.
The bishop of Reims, Rémy, gave Clovis and his men baptism in 498 (?), winning them the backing of the Catholic church and the pope of Rome. By 500, he had the Burgundians paying tribute, and in 507, he defeated the Visigoths in the Battle of Vouillé. The Visigoths had been rejected by Spain. Soon after becoming master of much of Gaul, he united the Salian and Ripuarian Franks under his rule. Clovis, the paramount chieftain of the Germanic tribes who had settled in Gaul, was instrumental in the creation of the Salic law of the Frankish monarchs, which included elements of both Frankish tradition and Gallo-Roman law.
The Frankish kingdom, one and divisible
Clovis left his sons a vast realm after his death in 511. The capital was Paris, and the dominant religion was Catholicism. This marked the beginning of a contradiction, particularly when compared to the dynasties that followed the Merovingians: divided between the sons of Clovis, the Frankish kingdom was nonetheless united. Historians have therefore defined a “one and divisible” kingdom. This seeming contradiction was what enabled the Merovingians to become a continental power and extend their territory while avoiding civil strife. Only for a while.
By dividing the year 511 among Theuderic, Chlodomer, Chlothar, and Childebert, the Frankish monarchy was further linked to the imperial legacy of the Roman Empire. Even though the country was spread out geographically and had four capitals (Rheims, Paris, Orleans, and Soissons), there was real political unity because of blood ties.
It would be naive to think that things would remain peaceful after the deaths of Clovis’s first two sons. To begin, there was Chlodomer (524), whose son Clodoald had to leave and become a priest before dying and lending his name to a famous city. The remaining portions of Chlodomer’s realm were split among the three surviving brothers. Upon the passing of the oldest, Thierry, things got more difficult since his son, Theudebert, benefited from his father’s higher status compared to that of his uncles. Using this to his advantage, he struck gold coins bearing his likeness, earning the wrath of Emperor Justinian I and demonstrating his aspirations beyond Gaul’s boundaries. Despite his victories in Alemania and Bavaria, Theudebert died in 548 without realizing his ambitions.
The situation finally settled down with the extinction of the elder branch and the disappearance of Childebert. As a result, Chlothar I was able to rule on his own until 561. A new division occurred at his death, once again between his sons, who were only three in 567 (death of Charibert I). At this time, the Frankish kingdom was split into three sections, each of which would go on to become renowned in its own right: Austrasia (including the Rhine region, Champagne, and Aquitaine), Burgundy (including the ancient Burgundian realm and the kingdom of Orleans), and Neustria (the region of Tournai, “Normandy,” and the region of Paris). In 570, this “watershed moment” coincided with the outbreak of a genuine civil war. At one time, the Frankish monarchy had a strong worldwide presence.
Merovigians: An “international” power
Despite internal strife, the sons of Clovis were united as regnum francorum on foreign policy and had no intention of resting on their father’s laurels. Clovis’s most notable victory, achieved while he was still an ally of the Burgundians, was the conquest of Aquitaine. Of his successors, however, they were the first to fall. In 523, the Merovingians launched their first offensive against the Burgundian kingdom, taking advantage of internal troubles caused by theological disputes between Catholics and Arians. However, they were unsuccessful in this endeavor. A similar event occurred the next year, and the Franks once again lost Chlodomer. Childebert I, Chlothar I, and Theudebert I waited 10 years to attempt again, this time with more caution. As a result of their victory, the Burgundian monarchy was absorbed into the Frankish realm, and its territory was split among the conquerors.
The emperor at Constantinople took notice of the Merovingians’ successes. The dominance of the Ostrogoths in Italy was the fundamental problem. The Ostrogoths, seeing the Franks as a threat who might perhaps become Byzantine allies, granted them Provence in exchange for their neutrality before the emperor. When the Franks invaded Provence in 537, they weren’t trying to improve their looks so that they might reach the Mediterranean. With this conquest, the Franks had practically restored Roman Gaul’s unity; all that was missing was Septimania, which they had not been able to take from the Visigoths.
While Chlothar I and Theuderic I were busy conquering Provence to the south, they were busy annexing the western half of the kingdom of Thuringia via an alliance with the Saxons and a decisive military victory against its monarch. Two years later, Theodosius I invaded Alemannia, Bavaria, and Northern Italy for a brief period. The progress of the Franks was stopped only when the Lombards arrived in the area in the 560s. The conflict in the south also played a role.
The civil war hits the kingdom of the Merovingians
Charibert I, son of Chlothar I, died in 567, and his passing resulted in a fresh partition within the Merovingian realm. This time, however, it sparks a full-fledged civil war between King Sigebert’s three brothers, Chilperic, Gontran, and themselves. The Merovingians’ hazardous tactic of making marriage connections with their opponents, the Visigoths, also contributed to the outbreak of war.
At the conclusion of the sixth century, women were crucial in political fights. Brunehaut, wife of Austrasian King Sigebert I, and Frédégonde, wife of Neustrian King Chilpéric I, were bitter rivals. The first was the daughter of the Visigoth king Athanagild, and she blames the second for the death of her sister Galswinthe, who had been married to Chilperic I before. The death of the Visigoth ruler without a successor stoked jealousy, especially on the part of Chilperic, which only made the situation worse.
Then the hellish whirlwind and faide, rituals unique to the Germanic peoples, were set in motion. Both Sigebert I (575) and Chilperic I (584) were murdered due to the conspiracies of their respective queens. As the 570s progress, the fight becomes more violent, and Gontran does everything he can to stay on the sidelines. Brunehaut has taken control of Austrasia since her husband’s death and has presented his son, Childebert II, to the throne. This one swiftly confronts Frédégonde’s son, Chlothar II, and the battle escalates once again into a more beautiful conflict, despite Gontran’s best efforts to broker a truce (Treaty of Andelot, 587).
After Gontran’s untimely death in 592, his nephew Childebert II inherited the throne and ruled for four years until his own untimely demise. So, Theudebert II and Theuderic II go on with their fight against Chlothar II.
However, when her claim to the throne of Brunehaut was challenged more and more in Austrasia, the queen was forced to seek sanctuary in Burgundy with Theuderic II. However, the fact that she angered the local nobility certainly didn’t help her cause. Also, Childebert II’s offspring joined the fray in due time, much to the delight of Chlothar II, who didn’t have high expectations of them. Theuderic II imprisoned his brother Theudebert II in a convent and passed away in 613. Brunehaut sought to regain control by installing one of its great-grandsons, but he was betrayed by the nobility and eventually executed by his competitor.
The end of Antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages
Brunehaut, a Visigothic princess who was “still extremely Roman,” is considered by some modern historians to symbolize the end of Antiquity. Prior to the rise of the Pippinids, the era of Chlothar II and, notably, his son Dagobert confirmed the unity of the Frankish realm (according to the 7th-century Chronicle of Fredegar).
Chlothar II was able to succeed to the throne on his own when the “faide” (the right to take revenge) collapsed. The faide had resisted Brunehaut and Fredegund, and afterwards their sons. The Merovingian dynasty reached its pinnacle under the leadership of the monarch and, much more so, his son Dagobert in the early 7th century. However, the problems rapidly started with Dagobert’s successors and ultimately led to the establishment of the Pippinids, who at the time were not a dynasty. The Pippinids played a crucial part in the Merovingian political system, but Charles Martel eventually succeeded Pepin of Herstal (also known as Pepin II).
Chlothar II and the regna
After his Merovingian competitors and Queen Brunehaut were killed in the early 610s, King Chlothar II, who had been in power since 584, was left to govern alone. Nonetheless, the aristocracy of the Frankish kingdom was on the verge of a revolt due to the kingdom’s continued division into the three regna of Austrasia, Neustria, and Burgundy. Chlothar II needed to “seal the peace” and legitimize his rule.
Inspired by Clovis, in 614 he called meetings in Paris with the nobility, but also the bishops, and nearly simultaneously, in October of that year, he proclaimed the Edict of Paris, which effectively resolved the theological and political challenges facing the realm. In this way, Chlothar II secured the backing of the powerful and the clergy while strengthening his own position. Even if he ruled Neustria himself, he was still the most powerful ruler in the Frankish realm, and he didn’t hesitate to punish the powerful nobles of the other regna who tried to exert their independence by imposing on him, like Godin, who demanded to be made mayor of the Burgundian palace in the year 627.
The monarch was still under pressure to negotiate with the regnum, especially with Austrasia, and the situation had not improved. Because of the regnum’s importance in the war against the Avars and the Wendes, its nobles successfully lobbied King Theodoric to send his young son Dagobert to them. Among these great men was Pepin I, also known as Landen.
The reign of Dagobert I
Chlothar II called a new assembly two years before he died, and the acts that were passed showed the beginnings of the idea of a holy monarch. His son Dagobert took over after his death in 629, and the family relocated from Austrasia to Neustria. Dagobert’s authority seems to have been accepted by all three regna, including his own region of Austrasia. Caribert, his brother, was sent to Aquitaine and died there in 632 after being banished there. After taking the throne, Dagobert I immediately traveled to Burgundy to reassure the nobility. He eventually settled in Paris. His primary advisor was Saint-Éloi, whose father Chlothar II had been the goldsmith and bishop of Saint Ouen.
The Austrasian “problem” remained. When the great ones of the regnum held key posts like mayor of the palace, they were difficult to govern because of the regnum’s might. On the throne of Austrasia in 632, Dagobert placed his son Sigebert. A year after the birth of his son Clovis, he bestowed the thrones of Burgundy and Neustria onto him. His death in 639 caused yet another partition of the Frankish empire.
The time of Dagobert’s rule coincided with the beginning of Islam and, in particular, the first Muslim conquests. The Byzantine emperor approached the Frankish king in a similar fashion to the way he had previously approached previous Frankish monarchs. The lessons of history had been learned, and while diplomatic missions may have been exchanged (as in 629) the conditions were no longer favorable for the formation of an alliance. But Friegarius tells us that the Franks likely knew of Basileus Heraclius’ problems with the Arabs in 637 and 641.
In the early years of the 7th century, the Merovingians pursued an independent foreign policy that had nothing to do with Byzantine interests in the Near East. Dagobert’s primary concern was strengthening the regnum francorum’s frontiers, particularly in Aquitaine (along with Gascony) and Brittany. Around the year 635, he got down to business, but if he subjugated the Basques, he would have to settle for a diplomatic settlement in Brittany rather than really conquering the area.
The Franks installed governors in the eastern regions of Thuringia, Alemania, and Bavaria in exchange for tribute. Dagobert used the danger presented by the Wendes, a group of Slavic people residing in Pannonia, to his advantage, although he was ultimately unsuccessful in conquering them. At long last, the Frankish monarch showed an interest in Friesland, although he was ultimately unsuccessful in establishing his rule there.
The “lazy kings” and the mayors of the palace
After Dagobert’s death in 639, the Merovingian throne was divided between his sons Sigebert III and Clovis II. As predicted, the first ascended to the throne of Austrasia, while the second ruled over Neustria and became more independent with the help of Burgundy. Soon enough, issues started to arise.
It all started in Neustria, where Clovis II was obviously too young to rule. His mother Nanthilde, who was not a queen, but a servant married in 629 by Dagobert since Gomatrude had not given him a boy, had some degree of influence alongside the mayors of the palace, Aega and subsequently Erchinoald. By 648, the young king had been married off to the Anglo-Saxon slave Bathilde. Following the deaths of her husband in 657 and the mayor of the palace the following year, she used the opportunity to assert her authority and try to reunify the regnum francorum. Actually, things were becoming worse with Austrasia.
During Dagobert’s reign, Pepin I established the mayors of the palace as a powerful political institution in the eastern regnum. King Sigebert III made an effort to displace the Pippinids by showing favoritism to a different dynasty. Despite this, Grimoald, son of Pepin, also rose to the position defined by Bishop Didier of Cahors as rector of the whole court, or indeed of the entire realm. Given the Pippinids’ prominence at the period, several historians speculated that Sigebert III’s assassination in 656 could be the catalyst for the first Pippinid “coup.”
In the end, the issue was reduced to a simple matter of succession and competition between the mayor of the palace and the queen, but this highlights the fact that males, and especially Pippinides, had tremendous power in this position. Grimoald and his protégé Childebert, whom he had appointed king at the cost of Dagobert II, son of Sigebert, who had been banished to Ireland, had to be removed from power, and the Neustrians’ and Bathilde’s aid was required to do so. The king of Austrasia in 662, however, was Childeric II, a son of Bathilde.
Rivalries between the Merovingians that benefited the Pippinids
The Pippinids’ challenges were short-lived. In the long term, they would be able to reclaim prominence thanks to the competition between Neustria and Austrasia, as well as the conflicts amongst the great ones inside the regna.
In 665, King Chlothar III of Neustria was in the hands of the new mayor of the palace, Ebroin, who forced out Queen Bathilde. Tensions among the elites reached a boiling point in 673, when Ebroin installed Theuderic III, the son of Clovis II and Bathilde, as Chlothar III’s heir, to the dismay of the favored king of Austrasia, Childeric II. In the years that followed, things only worsened, and civil war broke out in Neustria. One of the victims was named Ebroin, who was murdered in the year 682. However, the basic concept of the Merovingian succession was not questioned at the time, even though the succeeding rulers were weak and challenged.
Dagobert II of Austrasia was killed a few years after his return from exile, when the issue that plagued Neustria spread there. After the death of Wulfoad, a competitor of Ebroin’s, the Pippinids returned to the palace, where they were still strong but closely monitored by the other aristocracy. In the early 680s, Duke Pepin II of Herstal rose to the position of Mayor of the Palace of Austrasia. At the Battle of Tertry in 687, he vanquished his Neustrian enemies who were aligned with the Burgundians, and he also captured the riches of Theuderic III.
The end of the Merovingians
It was with Pepin of Herstal, mayor of the palace, that the Merovingians finally met their demise. But the palace mayor only removed the king’s veneer of authority rather than removing him entirely. Only members of the Pippinid dynasty, the mayors of the palaces in Neustria and Austrasia, held the latter. After Pepin II’s death in 714, his descendants became even more entrenched. This was despite efforts at revolt by the other grandees. However, it was his son Charles who ultimately asserted authority, whether it was against the Neustrians of Rainfroi in the 720s, the Arab-Berbers of Poitiers (the Battle of Tours) in 732, or the Frisians in the following year.
After the death of the last Merovingian, Theuderic IV, in 737, Charles Martel did not establish himself as king by dismissing the heir, Childeric III. Carolingian historiography (heirs to the Pippinids) labeled the last Clovis descendants, beginning with Pepin II, “the indolent kings.” They were installed there by the mayors of the palace, although they had little actual authority and were often deposed by internal strife and external rivals (like Chilperic II during the Rainfroi/Charles battle).
The Merovingian rulers eventually gave way to a new dynasty, the Carolingians, in 751, but not before Charles’ son, Pepin the Short, came to power.