Help support New Advent and get the full contents of this website as an instant download. Includes the Catholic Encyclopedia, Church Fathers, Summa, Bible and more all for only $19.99...
The Franks were a confederation formed in Western Germany of a certain number of ancient barbarian tribes who occupied the right shore of the Rhine from Mainz to the sea. Their name is first mentioned by Roman historians in connection with a battle fought against this people about the year 241. In the third century some of them crossed the Rhine and settled in Belgic Gaul on the banks of the Meuse and the Scheldt, and the Romans had endeavoured to expel them from the territory. Constantius Chlorus and his descendants continued the struggle, and, although Julian the Apostate inflicted a serious defeat on them in 359, he did not succeed in exterminating them, and eventually Rome was satisfied to make them her more or less faithful allies. After their overthrow by Julian the Apostate, the Franks of Belgium, becoming peaceful settlers, appear to have given the empire no further trouble, satisfied with having found shelter and sustenance on Roman soil. They even espoused Rome's cause during the great invasion of 406, but were overpowered by the ruthless hordes who devastated Belgium and overran Gaul and a part of Italy and Spain. Thenceforth the Belgian provinces ceased to be under the control of Rome and passed under the rule of the Franks.
When they first attracted attention in history the Franks were established in the northern part of Belgic Gaul, in the districts where their Germanic dialect is still spoken. Gregory of Tours tells us that their chief town was Dispargum, which is perhaps Tongres and that they were under a family of kings distinguished by their long hair, which they allowed to flow over their shoulders, while the other Frankish warriors had the back of the head shaved. This family was known as the Merovingians, from the name of one of its members, to whom national tradition had ascribed a sea-god as ancestor. Clodion, the first king of this dynasty known to history, began his series of conquests in Northern Gaul about the year 430. He penetrated as far as Artois, but was driven back by Aëtius, who seems to have succeeded in keeping him on friendly terms with Rome. In fact, it seems that his son Merovaeus fought with the Romans against Attila on the Mauriac plains. Childeric, son of Merovaeus, also served the empire under Count Aegidius and subsequently under Count Paul, whom he assisted in repelling the Saxons from Angers. Childeric died at Tournai, his capital, where his tomb was found in 1653 (Cochet, Le tombeau de Childéric, Paris, 1859). But Childeric did not transmit to his son Clovis, who succeeded him in 481, the entire inheritance left by Clodion. The latter seems to have reigned over all the Cis-Rhenish Franks, and the monarchy was divided among his descendants, although the exact time of the division is not known. There were now two Frankish groups: the Ripuarians, who occupied the banks of the Rhine and whose kings resided in Cologne, and the Salians who had established themselves in the Low Countries. The Salians did not form a single kingdom; besides the Kingdom of Tournai there were kingdoms with centres at Cambrai and Tongres. Their sovereigns, both Salian and Ripuarian, belonged to the Merovingian family and seem to have been descended from Clodion.
When Clovis began to reign in 481, he was, like his father, King of Tournai only, but at an early date he began his career of conquest. In 486 he over threw the monarchy that Syagrius, son of Aegidius, had carved out for himself in Northern Gaul, and set up his court at Soissons; in 490 and 491 he took possession of the Salian Kingdoms of Cambrai and Tongres; in 496 he triumphantly repelled an invasion of the Alamanni; in 500 he interposed in the war of the Burgundian kings; in 506 he conquered Aquitaine; and at length he annexed the Ripuarian Kingdom of Cologne. Henceforth Gaul, from the Pyrenees to the Rhine, was subject to Clovis, with the exception of the territory in the southeast, i.e. the kingdom of the Burgundians and Provence. Established at Paris, Clovis governed this kingdom by virtue of an agreement concluded with the bishops of Gaul, according to which natives and barbarians were to be on terms of equality, and all cause of friction between the two races was removed when, in 496, the king was converted to Catholicism. The Frankish kingdom thereupon took its place in history under more promising conditions than were to be found in any other state founded upon the ruins of the Roman Empire. All free men bore the title of Frank, had the same political status, and were eligible to the same offices. Besides, each individual observed the law of the people among whom he belonged; the Gallo-Roman lived according to the code, the barbarian according to the Salian or Ripuarian law; in other words, the law was personal, not territorial. If there were any privileges they belonged to the Gallo-Romans, who, in the beginning were the only ones on whom the episcopal dignity was conferred. The king governed the provinces through his counts, and had a considerable voice in the selection of the clergy. The drawing up of the Salian Law (Lex Salica), which seems to date from the early part of the reign of Clovis, and the Council of Orléans, convoked by him and held in the last year of his reign, prove that the legislative activity of this king was not eclipsed by his military energy (see CLOVIS). Although founder of a kingdom destined to such a brilliant future, Clovis did not know how to shield it against a custom in vogue among the barbarians, i.e. the division of power among the sons of the king. This custom originated in the pagan idea that all kings were intended to reign because they were descended from the gods. Divine blood flowed in the veins of all the king's sons, each of whom, therefore, being a king by birth, must have his share of the kingdom. This view, incompatible with the formation of a powerful, durable monarchy, had been vigorously rejected by Genseric the Vandal, who, to secure the indivisibility of his kingdom, had established in his family a certain order of succession. Either because he died suddenly or for some other reason, Clovis took no measures to abolish this custom, which continued among the Franks until the middle of the ninth century and, more than once, endangered their nationality.
After the death of Clovis, therefore, his four sons divided his kingdom, each reigning from a different centre: Thierry at Metz, Clodomir at Orléans, Childebert at Paris, and Clotaire at Soissons. They continued the career of conquest inaugurated by their father, and, in spite of the frequent discords that divided them, augmented the estates he had left them. The principal events of their reign were:
The nobles had triumphed. They dictated to Clotaire II the terms of victory and he accepted them in the celebrated edict of 614, at least a partial capitulation of Frankish royalty to the nobility. The king promised to withdraw his counts from the provinces under his rule, i.e. he was virtually to abandon these parts to the nobles, who were also to have a voice in the selection of the prime minister or "mayor of the palace", as he was then called. He likewise promised to abolish the new taxes and to respect the immunity of the clergy, and not to interfere in the elections of bishops. He had also to continue Austrasia and Neustria as separate governments. Thus ended the conflict between the Frankish aristocracy and the monarchical power; with its close began a new period in the history of the Merovingian monarchy. As time went on royalty had to reckon more and more with the aristocracy. The Merovingian dynasty, traditionally accustomed to absolutism, and incapable of altering its point of view, was gradually deprived of all exercise of authority. In the shadow of the throne the new power continued to grow rapidly, become the successful rival of the royal house, and finally supplanted it. The great power of the aristocracy was vested in the mayor of the palace (major domus), originally the chief of the royal household. During the minority of the Frankish kings he acquired steadily greater importance until he came to share the royal prerogative, and eventually reached the exalted position of prime minister to the sovereign. The indifference of the latter, usually more absorbed in his pleasures than in public affairs, favoured the encroachments of the mayor of the palace", and this office finally became the hereditary right of one family, which was destined to replace the Merovingians and become the national dynasty of the Franks. Such then were the transformations which occurred in the political life of the Franks after the downfall of Brunehilde and during the reign of Clotaire II (614-29). While this king governed Neustria he was obliged, as has been said, to give Austrasia a separate government, his son Dagobert becoming its king, with Arnulf of Metz as councillor and Pepin of Landen as mayor of the palace (623). These two men were the ancestors of the Carolingian family. Arnulf was Bishop of Metz, though resident at court, but in 627 he resigned his episcopal see and retired into monastic solitude at Remiremont, where he died in the odour of sanctity. Pepin, incorrectly called of Landen (since it was only in the twelfth century that the chroniclers of Brabant began to associate him with that locality), was a great lord from Eastern Belgium. With Arnulf he had been at the head of the Austrasian opposition to Brunehilde.
On the death of Clotaire II, Dagobert I, his only heir, reestablished the unity of the Frankish monarchy and took up his residence in Paris, as Clovis had done in the past. He too was soon forced to give Austrasia a separate government, which he confided to his son Sigebert III, with Cunibert of Cologne as his Councillor and Adalgisil, son of Arnulf of Metz and son-in-law of Pepin, as mayor of the palace. Pepin, who had lost royal favour, was temporarily deprived of any voice in the government. The reign of Dagobert I was one of such great pomp and outward show, that contemporaries compared it to that of Solomon; however, it marked a decline in the military prowess of the Franks. They subdued, it is true, the small nations of the Bretons and Basques, but were themselves beaten by the Frankish merchant Samo, who had created a Slavonic kingdom on their eastern confines. Dagobert relieved the situation only by exterminating the Bulgars who had taken refuge in Bavaria. Like most of his race, Dagobert was subject to the females of his family. He died young and was buried in the celebrated Abbey of Saint-Denis which he had founded and which subsequently became the burial-place of the kings of France. After his death Austrasia and Neustria (the latter united with Burgundy) had the same destiny under their respective kings and mayors of the palace. In Neustria the young king, Clovis II, reigned under the guardianship of his mother, Nanthilde, with Aega, and later Erkinoald, as mayor of the palace. Sigebert III reigned in Austrasia with Pepin of Landen, who had returned and was installed as mayor of the palace after the death of Dagobert. The history of Austrasia is better known to us as far as 657 because, at that time, it had a chronicler. On the death of Pepin of Landen in 639, Otto, mayor of the palace, took the reins of power, but was overthrown and replaced by Grimoald, son of Pepin. Grimoald went even further; when, in 656, Sigebert III died, he conceived the bold plan of seizing the crown for the benefit of his family: He banished young Dagobert II, son of Sigebert, to an Irish monastery. Not daring to ascend the throne himself, he followed the example of Odoacer and gave it to his son Childebert. But this attempt, as bold as it was premature, caused his downfall. He was delivered up to Clovis II by the Austrasian nobles and, so far as can be ascertained, seems to have perished in prison. Clovis II remained sole master of the entire Frankish monarchy, but died the following year, 657.
Clotaire III (657-70), son of Clovis, succeeded his father as head of the entire monarchy under the guardianship of his mother, Bathilde, with Erkinoald as mayor of the palace. But like Clotaire II, in 614, Clovis was constrained in 660 to grant Austrasia a separate rule, and appointed his brother Childeric II its king, with Wulfoald as mayor of the palace. Austrasia was now overshadowed by Neustria owing to the strong personality of Ebroin, Erkinoald's successor as mayor of the palace. Like Brunehilde, Ebroin sought to establish a strong government and, like her, drew upon himself the passionate opposition of the aristocracy. The latter, under the leadership of St. Léger (Leodegarius), Bishop of Autun, succeeded in overthrowing Ebroin. He and King Thierry III who, in 670, had succeeded his brother Clotaire III, were consigned to a convent, Childeric II, King of Austrasia, being, summoned to replace him. Once again monarchical unity was re-established, but it was not destined to last long. Wulfoald, mayor of Austrasia, was banished, also St. Léger. Childeric II was assassinated and for a short time general anarchy reigned. However, Wulfoald, who managed to return, proclaimed King of Austrasia young Dagobert II, who had come back from exile in Ireland, while St. Léger, reinstated in Neustria, upheld King Thierry III. But Ebroin, who meanwhile had been forgotten, escaped from prison. He invaded Neustria, defeated the mayor Leudesius, Erkinoald's son, who, with the approval of St. Léger was governing this kingdom, reassumed the power, and maltreated the Bishop of Autun, whom he caused to be slain by hired assassins (678). He afterwards attacked Austrasia, banished Wulfoald, and had King Thierry III acknowledged. The opposition shown Ebroin by the Austrasian nobles under the leadership of Pippin II and Martin was broken at Laffaux (Latofao), where Martin perished, and Pepin disappeared for a while. Ebroin was then for some years real sovereign of the Frankish monarchy and exercised a degree of power that none save Clovis I and Clotaire I had possessed. There are few characters of whom it is as difficult to form a just estimate as of this powerful political genius who, without any legal authority, and solely by dint of his indomitable will, acquired supreme control of the Frankish monarchy and warded off for a time the reforms of the aristocracy. The friendship professed for Ebroin by Saint Ouen, the great Bishop of Rouen, seems to indicate that he was better than his reputation, which, like that of Brunehilde, was intentionally blackened by chroniclers who sympathized with the Frankish nobles.
Ebroin's disappearance afforded full scope to the power of the family which was now called on to give a new dynasty to the Franks. Forced to remain in obscurity for over twenty years. consequence of Grimoald's crime and downfall, this family finally reappeared at the head of Austrasia under Pepin II, inappropriately called Pepin of Heristal. There flowed in the veins of Pepin II, son of Adalgisil and of St. Begga daughter of Pepin I, the blood of the two illustrious men who, by the overthrow of Brunehilde, had established a moderate monarchy in Austrasia. Despite the defeat inflicted on him by Ebroin, Pepin remained the leader and the hope of the Austrasians, and, after the death of his adversary, vigorously resumed the kingdom which was then disturbed by the rivalry between Waratton, mayor of the palace, and his son Gislemar. From 681 to 686 the functions of mayor of the palace were alternately discharged by Waratton and Gislemar, again by Waratton, and finally, at his death, by his son-in-law Berthar. Pepin, who seems to have had amicable relations with Waratton, would not acknowledge Berthar, whom he overthrew in the battle of Testri near Soissons (687); in this way Austrasia avenged the above-mentioned defeat at Laffaux. The death of Berthar, assassinated in 688, removed the last obstacle to the authority of Pepin in Neustria, who was thenceforth simultaneously mayor of the palace for all three kingdoms. So vast was his power that from that date history merely mentions the names of the Merovingian kings whom he kept on the throne: Thierry III (d. 691), Clovis III (d. 695), Childebert III (d. 711), and Dagobert III (d. 715). Indeed, it is only for a traditional fiction of history that Pepin II is not put down as the first sovereign of the Carolingian dynasty. The direction of the destinies of the Frankish monarchy now passed from the hands of the Salian into those of the Ripuarian Franks. These constituted the Germanic element of the nation which took the place of the Roman party in the government. Their policy was better adapted to the spirit of the times inasmuch as it abolished the traditional absolutism of the Merovingians. Finally the Carolingians had the merit and the satisfaction (for it was both) of re- establishing unity in the Frankish monarchy which had been so frequently divided; from 687 to 843, that is, for over a century and a half, all the Franks were united under the same government. But Pepin II did not confine himself to restoring Frankish unity; he extended the frontiers of the monarchy by subduing the Frisians, his neighbours on the north. These restless barbarians, who occupied a large portion of the present Kingdom of the Netherlands, were fanatical pagans; Ratbod, their duke, was a bitter enemy of Christianity. Pepin forced him to surrender Western Frisia, which nearly corresponded to the present provinces of South and North Holland, and obliged him to keep the peace for the rest of his life.
Pepin could now consider the Kingdom of the Franks as an hereditary patrimony, and he conferred the mayoralty of Neustria on his son Grimoald. At his death in 714, which was subsequent to that of his two sons Grimoald and Drogon, he bequeathed the entire monarchy, as a family heritage, to his grandson Theodoald, Grimoald's son, still a minor. This act was a political blunder suggested to the clear- minded Pepin on his death-bed by his wife Plectrude. Pepin had a son Charles by a mistress named Alpaïde, who at his father's death was twenty-six years of age and quite capable, as events showed, of vigorously defending the paternal inheritance. It cannot be said that the stigma of illegitimacy caused him to be put aside, for Thedoald was also a natural son, but the blood of the ambitious Plectrude coursed through the latter's veins, and she reigned in his name. The people, however, would not now submit to the regency of a woman any more than in the time of Brunehilde. There was a universal uprising among the Neustrians, Aquitainians, and Frisians. Elsewhere may be found an account of these struggles. (See CHARLES MARTEL.) Here it suffices to say that Plectrude was soon cast aside and Charles Martel, whom she had thrown into prison, escaped and placed himself at the head of the national Austrasian party. Defeated at first, but soon victorious over all his enemies, Charles reduced nearly all the rebellious tribes to obedience, not only those just named, but also the Bavarians and Alamanni. His greatest service to civilization was the glorious victory over the Arabs between Tours and Poitiers (732), which earned him the name of Martel, the hammer. This conquest saved Christianity and preserved Europe from the power of the Mussulmans. It was not, however, Charles's last encounter with the Arabs; he banished them from Provence and in 739 defeated them again on the banks of the Berre near Narbonne. This sovereign, whose exclusively military career consisted in restoring, by dint of force, an empire that was crumbling away, could not escape the accusation of having abetted violence in others and resorted to it himself. He has especially been charged with secularizing many ecclesiastical estates, which he took from churches and abbeys and gave in fief to his warriors as a recompense for their services. This land actually remained the property of the ecclesiastical establishments in questions but its hereditary usufruct was assured to the new occupants. This expedient enabled Charles Martel to collect an army and secure faithful followers. Another no less censurable practice was that of conferring the highest ecclesiastical dignities whose only right was that they were loyal soldiers of Charles Martel. However, it must be remembered that those measures enabled him to muster the forces with which he saved Christian civilization at Tours. He also aided efficaciously St. Boniface in his project of spreading the Christian Faith throughout Germany. Such were the popularity and prestige of Charles that when, in 737, King Thierry IV died, he saw no necessity of providing a successor for him, and reigned alone. He died at Quierzy-sur-Oise 21 October, 741, after having divided the provinces between his two sons: Carloman received Austrasia with its Germanic dependencies, and Pepin, Neustria, Burgundy, and Provence, while Grifon, a natural son, was excluded from the succession as Charles himself had been.
Pepin and Carloman reigned together until 747, supporting each other in their various enterprises and combating the same enemies. During the first years of their administrations they had to subdue the revolts of the Alamanni, as well as those of their brother Grifon, and of Odilo, Duke of Bavaria. They conquered all the rebels, but left to Aquitaine and Bavaria their national dukes while they abolished the Duchy of Alamannia. They also undertook the great work of reforming the Frankish Church, into which several generations of civil wars had introduced great disorders. National councils convoked, by their efforts, in Austrasia (at Estinnes, or Lestinnes) and Neustria (at Soissons) the work of which was completed by a large council attended by the bishops of both countries, were largely instrumental in restoring order and discipline in the Church, in eliminating abuses and in rooting out superstition. St. Boniface, the soul of this great work, after having, to some extent, created the Church of Germany, had also the glory of regenerating the Frankish Church. While in this twofold task of defending the kingdom and reforming the Church, the two brothers thought of reinstating a Merovingian king (743), although for six years the nation had existed without one. It would seem that they were led to do this by the necessity of removing one of the objections that could be made to their authority, at a time when it was assailed on all sides and when they were treated as usurpers. Under these circumstances they placed upon the throne Childeric III, the last Merovingian king.
When the task common to both brothers was nearly accomplished, Carloman, yielding to the inclination he had always felt for the religious life, relinquished all his states in favour of Pepin and retired to a cloister on Mt. Soracte near Rome (747). Pepin, who thus remained alone at the head of the vast Frankish monarchy, reaped all the fruit of their combined labours. It was easy for him to subdue a last revolt by Grifon, who perished in Italy. Afterwards he enjoyed a few years of peace, a rare privilege in those stormy times. Having now become the undisputed master of the greatest nation of Europe, and confident of being able to transmit intact to his sons the power he had received from his father, Pepin considered the question whether the time had not come to assume the name to which his sovereign authority entitled him. Such a step could hardly be objected to when he was virtually king. Since the Merovingian who occupied the throne was there only at Pepin's will, it was surely Pepin's privilege to remove him. Einhard describes the character of the royalty of the last Merovingians whom the princes of Pepin's family tolerated or replaced upon the throne.
This king to whom nothing royal had been left save the title of king, sat on the throne and, with long hair and unkempt beard, played the part of master. He gave audience the ambassadors who came from various countries and issued replies that had been dictated to him, as if coming from himself. In reality outside of a hollow name and a doubtful pension paid him at the will of the mayor of the palace, he had nothing for his own save a small farm where he lived with a small number of serfs. When he went out, he rode in an ox-cart driven by a rustic driver. In this vehicle he annually attended the Champs de Mai. The mayor of the palace alone controlled public affairs.
This description, it is true, is somewhat of a caricature, and there is evidence in public charters that the position of the Merovingian kings was not as insecure as Einhard says. Nevertheless, it expresses well the marked contrast between the humiliating position of the king and the exalted, powerful standing of the mayor of the palace. It can be understood, therefore, that in 751, Pepin and the Frankish nobles might well discuss the question as to whether he should assume the kingly crown. The question had a moral side, namely, whether it was lawful to assume a title which seemed to belong to another. It was decided to appeal for a solution to the sovereign pontiff, recognized by all as the custodian and interpreter of the moral law. A Frankish embassy left for Rome and submitted the question to Pope Zachary. The latter's reply was given in the form of a declaration of principles admirably embodying Catholic doctrine on this important point: "ut melius esset", said the pope, "illum regem vocari, qui potestatem haberes, quam illum qui sine regali potestate maneret" [it were better for him to be called the king who holds the power than the one who remains (king in name) without the regal power]. Reassured by this decision, Pepin hesitated no longer, and had himself proclaimed king at Soissons in 751. Childeric III was sent to end his days in a cloister. The nature of the authority with which Pepin was invested was emphasized for the first time among the Franks, by the coronation ceremony, which imparted a religious nature to his power and imprinted upon him a sacred character. It has been said, but without proof, that St. Boniface attended the coronation. In this way, after having exercised the royal power almost uninterruptedly for over a century, the descendants of Arnulf and Pepin finally assumed the title of sovereign and the Carolingian dynasty replaced that of the Merovingians on the Frankish throne.
APA citation. (1909). The Franks. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06238a.htm
MLA citation. "The Franks." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06238a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Michael C. Tinkler.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. September 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is webmaster at newadvent.org. Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.