From Merovingians to Carolingians - Dynastic Change in Frankia

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The Scene

When the last Merovingian king - Childeric III - was deposed in 751, the Merovingians were the oldest ruling dynasty in western Europe. That the dynasty, indeed the very Kingdom of the Franks, had endured for over two and a half centuries, makes it unique amongst the western states which succeeded the Roman Empire. Yet, after the death of Dagobert I in 638, most learned opinion agrees that Merovingian power began to fade. Wallace-Hadrill, for example, asserts there can be no question about the reality of the Merovingian decline after Dagobert I. Collins adds that after this time, the sources do not speak of the kings as being prime movers in the politics of the Franks. Traditionally, this decline is explained by the label applied to these later Merovingians: rois fainéants, “do-nothing kings”; kings who came to their seats as minors, were physically degenerate, and lived short, debauched lives, under the perpetual tutelage of the Mayors of the Palace. However, more recent opinion suggests that the eclipse of the Merovingians is not so easy to make sense of; that it was a complex and prolonged saga, the outcome of which was certainly not inevitable. Indeed, Wallace-Hadrill states that the accusation of degeneracy is unnecessary to account for the eventual deposition of Childeric III. What, then, had gone wrong for the Merovingians?

Background to the End: "I Hate This War"

Although the Merovingians are not considered to have lost their grip on practical power until the period after Dagobert’s death, the seeds of their decline had been planted much earlier, in the field of Merovingian kingship. Most Merovingian kings do not appear to have possessed a strong sense of res publica, or duty to the public. Many administrative functions were either considered the province of the Church, or were left in the hands of officials such as counts, dukes, and Mayors of the Palace. James notes that a Merovingian king, rather, was a “war-leader, judge, a potential source of patronage, and an object of awe and fear”. Davis describes the style of kingship as “despotism tempered by assassination”, though the institution of the Marchfield, which continued into the reigns of the so-called rois fainéants, suggests at least some type of representative administration and law-making. Notwithstanding, it was considered natural that, when a king died, his kingdom would be divided amongst his sons. This custom of dividing a kingdom as an inheritance is a cardinal fact in Merovingian history.

Wallace-Hadrill points out that Frankish society in general had no real reason to cherish an ideal of political unity; the Merovingians neither inherited nor propagated such as ideal. However, the practice of dividing a kingdom inevitably led to internecine feud and civil war. Davis comments on the ferocity and skill with which the Merovingians (and their queens) fought and assassinated one another, citing this as the main reason the inherited partitions did not gradually become smaller and smaller. Division of the kingdom would have inhibited the growth of a centralised and efficient royal administration. In addition, James notes that feud within the royal family ruptured family bonds and potentially weakened the dynasty.
The place of warfare in Frankish society reveals another clue for later Merovingian decline. A king could only prosper with the support and assistance of warriors, and these had to be rewarded in some way, with treasure or land. As such, a treasury and landed estates - such as the imperial fisc - were the keystone of a king’s political power. Both of these could most easily be won by warfare. Thus, with the cessation of territorial expansion in the seventh century, the Merovingians lost one of their main sources of revenue. James underlines this as a significant factor in their loss of power. Wallace-Hadrill concurs and goes further to say that a chief reason for the growing Merovingian political weakness was that they squandered the imperial fisc in gifts. However, he does caution elsewhere not to over-interpret the drying-up of Merovingian wealth; the kingship held its course for much of its final century with few of the benefits of estates to bestow. A lack of means might indeed have meant a lack of potestas (power), but not necessarily a lack of auctoritas (will or authority).

James maintains that civil war between Merovingian kingdoms was in fact profitable, at least for the winning side. Civil war replaced warfare with foreign powers as a source of booty. James also argues that the partition of the kingdom might have actually ensured the survival of the dynasty, though perhaps not individual kings. Instead of rebelling against the dynasty, rival magnates would rally around a rival Merovingian. While this might indeed have been the case, civil war continued to have some less favourable consequences for the Merovingians.

By 613, Chlothar II had reunited the Merovingian kingdom after a long period of civil war, waged since the death of his grandfather Chlothar I in 561. However, instead of exercising a centralised administration, the three kingdoms of Neustria, Austrasia and Burgundy continued to have their own “palace”, with Aquitaine being divided amongst the three. Further, in the Edict of Paris of 613, Chlothar allowed that counts be appointed from their own region by local bishops and magnates. Davis and Moss both claim that Chlothar was forced to make these concession by the aristocracy. Moss asserts that the Austrasian aristocracy had in fact been necessary agents in Chlothar’s victory. While such a “bargain” does not need to have occurred, the Edict certainly announces an official curtailing of the power of a Merovingian king, and an increase in the role of the aristocracy.

Davis sees the preceding period of civil war as being responsible for the events of 613. He argues that in a time of uncertainty, an ambitious man trying to make his way in the royal service would have been most successful allying himself with the local Mayor of the Palace, who was after all the “prime minister”, thus creating a form of vassalage. Such a system of vassalage would have played a large part in weakening the power of the kings. This argument has some merit, though it does rely on the assumption that vassalage to the Mayor - rather than the king - would have been of greater benefit, and that protection from a “despotic” king and his agents was necessary. Davis further proposes that an army of vassals would have been a more effective fighting force than the king’s “host”. Thus, it is not hard to imagine the kings coming to rely upon their more powerful aristocrats, such as their Mayors. It is conceivable, then, that the Edict of 613 could have been the result of pressure from aristocrats. In any event, the civil wars undoubtedly contributed to growing divisions between the kingdoms, which Wallace-Hadrill asserts could only weaken kingship, by increasing the power of local magnates.

As mentioned earlier, Chlothar’s son Dagobert I was the last Merovingian who is considered to have wielded real power. But Wallace-Hadrill does argue that the eventual removal of the Merovingians could not have been predicted at the time of Dagobert’s death. The seeds of the Merovingian decline still had to sprout and grow. Further factors were needed to provide the conditions for a continued decline.

The "Rois Fainéants"

Undoubtedly, one of the reasons that the later Merovingians were labelled rois fainéants, is that several began their reigns as minors, under the influence of dowager queens as regents and, perhaps more significantly, Mayors of the Palace. On Dagobert’s death in 638, his kingdom was divided between his two young sons: the nine year old Sigebert III, who had been king in Austrasia since 634, and the five year old Clovis II. Wallace-Hadrill reasons that it was the youthfulness of these kings - and the two that followed: Childeric II in Austrasia and Chlothar III in Neustria - not any incapacity to rule, that explains how the magnates came to deputise for the Merovingians. Sigebert spent his entire reign under the supervision of the Austrasian Arnulfings, a family already rich in property; similarly Clovis under Neustrian magnates such as Aega and Erchinoald. During these minorities, regents and Mayors were appointed by the aristocracy, rather than the kings. From this period onwards, few of the Merovingian kings are seen as exercising much personal power. Thus, a crucial transformation had occurred from 638 to c.660 in the exercise of authority in Francia. There is a difference between these Merovingians and their predecessors. Those who engineered their ascendencies and exclusions, and their assassinations, were members of the aristocracy, not other Merovingians. This is not to say that this sort of thing had not occurred before, but now it was the rule rather than the exception. Such a transformation might also have been facilitated by the diminishment of Merovingian military credibility. For example, Sigebert III lead his army to a defeat at the hands of the Thuringians in 639. While his defeat may be attributed to contradictory advice from his magnates, the humiliation fell squarely on the shoulders of Sigebert: “he sat on his horse weeping unrestrainedly”. Though it should be remembered that Sigebert was only ten years old at the time, Wallace-Hadrill sees this as another sign of the Merovingian decline.

The kingship of infant Merovingians further facilitated the formation of factions of aristocrats, focussed around controlling the office of Mayor of the Palace. The possibility emerged then of one faction gaining control. A pertinent example is provided by Wood. When Chlothar III died in Neustria in 673, Ebroin the Mayor seems to have chosen a successor - Theuderic III - without any support. He did not summon the magnates to the formal elevation, and even prevented them from approaching the king. This ultimately led to his and Theuderic’s tonsuring, though they were both able to return in 675. Significantly, what Ebroin had shown was that it was possible for one faction to exclude others from the king’s court. In doing so, Wood argues, he undermined the position of the court in the Merovingian kingdoms, and thus the very tradition of the Marchfield. Thus, “a power structure on which the dynasty had depended was under threat”, and kings had to rely more on force of personality in order to exercise any authority.

The Rise of the Mayors of the Palace

In Austrasia, the most powerful faction that developed centred around the Arnulfing (or Pippinid) house. Although they had no hereditary right, some member of the Arnulfing house held the office of Mayor from 639 to 751. As all unitary Merovingian kings during this period chose to exercise their authority from Neustria, the Arnulfings could gain even greater control over resources and patronage in their region. In 687, Mayor Pippin II, possibly at the invitation of a local faction, invaded Neustria and defeated Berchar, the Neustrian Mayor. Pippin then became “the chief ruling agent of King Theuderic”. The Kingdom of the Franks was thus united for the first time under one Mayor. That Pippin was now undisputed master of Francia, Collins calls an oversimplification, explaining that his rule over Neustria and by extension Burgundy was normally vicarious. However, Pippin could exercise a great deal of personal power in Neustria, perhaps best illustrated when he gave the Neustrians his illegitimate and infant grandson Theudoald as Mayor in 711. Pippin chose the Neustrian Mayors, who operated under his banner.

Authors such as Davis and Moss regard the ascendancy of the Arnulfings in 687 as the effective end of the Merovingians. Other authors are less convinced. There are in fact numerous instances of Merovingian kings exercising some authority after this date. Wallace-Hadrill, for example, states that from c.660 to the removal of Childeric III in 751, there exists no less than 75 royal instruments, with kings still exercising largitas with what remained of the imperial fisc. Using evidence from charters and more specifically placita, Wood contends that kings still retained their judicial power. More significantly, he shows that of the seven placita surviving from Childebert III’s reign (695-711), three uphold claims against the sons of Pippin II (with one even showing Pippin as a witness). Childebert does not behave as a king “under-the-thumb”. It is perhaps not surprising to find him referred to in the Liber Historiae Francorum as a “famous man”.

However, there is little evidence that after Chilperic II (715-721) the Merovingian were anything more than puppets of the Arnulfings. Chilperic might have been the last with the force of will necessary to operate in the king’s weakened position. Here it must be remembered that the sources for this period of Frankish history are limited. In Collins’ view, there is little evidence and much of it is “through the distorted mirror of the Carolingian historiographical tradition”. With the possible exception of the Liber Historiae Francorum, the sources for this period, including the Chronicle of Fredegar, are either non-contemporary or written in a region of Arnulfing/Carolingian rule or ascendancy. It is fair to say, therefore, that the last Merovingians do not speak for themselves. Indeed, James refers to them as “misty figures”; it is difficult to distinguish between what they did versus what was done in their name.

The End is Nigh

That the Merovingians managed to endure till 751 does suggest that they were still necessary in some way. Indeed, Pippin II’s son Charles Martel (the first Carolus) elevated Chlothar IV in Austrasia in 718 in response to Chilperic II being elevated in Neustria by the now independent Mayor Ragamfred. Furthermore, when Chlothar died in 719, Charles negotiated for the return of Chilperic II from Aquitaine, where the latter had fled. In 743, Charles’ sons Pippin III and Carloman I, elevated Childeric III, after an interregnum of six years. The Merovingians still provided legitimacy: they were the ancient dynasty under which the Franks and their church had grown up. They could have endured indefinitely, and there is no indication that the Carolingians (as they might now be called) had the kingship as their ultimate goal. The Continuator of the Chronicle of Fredegar, for example, states of Theuderic IV (721-737) that “(he) still reigns over us and looks forward to years of life”.
The eventual deposition of Childeric III, therefore, could be said to have occurred quite suddenly.

In 750, Pippin III - now the sole Mayor - sent two emissaries to Rome to ask Pope Zacharias: how should a ruler enjoying no power rightly continue to bear the title king? Such a call to Rome illuminates a strategic side to Pippin’s thinking; his choice of emissaries reveals much regarding his influences and motivations. One emissary was an Englishman called Burghard. Englishmen, such as St. Boniface, had been conducting missionary work with the support of Charles Martel, and there is no indication that Pippin ever withdrew this support. English practice and sympathy would have regarded a rex sine potestate, “a king without power”, as an anathema, and the spread of such views might have been sponsored by people such as Boniface. It would certainly have been expedient for Boniface to support any Carolingian move in that direction; he needed their assistance for his missionary work. The other emissary was a Frank named Fulrad, Abbot of the Merovingian monastery of St. Denis. Both Pippin III and Carloman I had been educated at St Denis, and Fulrad was one of Pippin’s closest advisers. The choice of Fulrad reflects Pippin’s need to gain the support of the Merovingian church for his intended action. The Merovingians themselves had earned the gratitude of the Catholic church in the time of Clovis I, and both church and crown enjoyed a special relationship. The church had on the whole benefited from Merovingian patronage, and, being a conservative institution, would not easily have abandoned their old benefactors. Without the approval of the church, no amount of secular support would have won Pippin the throne. The visible support of the St. Denis community, represented by Fulrad, would have been decisive in swaying the loyalties of the church from the Merovingians to the Carolingians.

Pippin’s request would have also been in keeping with Papal and scriptural tradition: kings should be seen to rule, as Old Testament kings had ruled. In addition, Pippin’s envoy had caught the Pope at a critical time. The Lombards were threatening Rome from the north, and the Papacy had need of a protector. The Franks, under the Carolingians, were the most secure and powerful Christian state at the time; it was in the interests of Pope Zacharias, and his successor Stephen II, that the Carolingians be strengthened in their power by being given the kingship. The Merovingians could no longer provide what was needed for the church. Thus, according to the Continuator of the Chronicle of Fredegar, Papal sanction was given and Pippin, with the consent of all the Franks, was “consecrated by the bishops and received the homage of the great men”. Childeric III and his son were tonsured and sent off to a monastery. Wallace-Hadrill argues that the coronation ritual possibly compensated not so much for the lack of royal blood, but for the loss of face for breaking an oath of fidelity. It eased the consciences of both the Carolingians and the Frankish people. With this new rite, they could uphold the institution of kingship without the “blood of Meroveus”. Therefore, the Merovingian dynasty could now be replaced.


Wallace-Hadrill has variously referred to the deposition of Childeric III as a coup d’etat, a violent removal, and a dismissal. Indeed, the end was unpredicted and, in retrospect, multifarious in its genesis. The Merovingian kings had lost their power through a diminishment in their ability to reward their followers; a consequent need to rely on their increasingly powerful magnates, particularly during civil war, and a succession of minority kingships during a crucial period. The Mayors of the Palace came to rule in their stead. But the Merovingians did not simply fade away; they were removed after a final desertion by the church, engineered by the Carolingian Pippin III. Perhaps the best summation was made by Pope Gregory VII. Looking back on the actions of Zacharias, he observed that Childeric III had not been removed for any moral defects. Rather he - and by extension the Merovingian line - was deposed quod non erat utilis, “because he was not useful”.


Bachrach, B.S. (ed.), Liber Historiae Francorum, Kansas: Coronado Press, 1973.

Collins, R. Early Medieval Europe 300-1000, London: MacMillan Educational, 1991.

Davis, R.H.C. A History of Medieval Europe: From Constantine to Saint Louis (Second Edition), London: Longman Group UK, 1988.

Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, transl. L. Thorpe, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969.

Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, transl. L. Thorpe, Harmondworth: Penguin Books, 1974.

Halphen, L. Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire, transl. G. de Nie, New York: North-Holland Publishing, 1977.

James, E. The Origins of France: From Clovis to the Capetians, 500-1000, London: MacMillan Press, 1982.

James, E. The Franks, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988.

Moss, H.St.L.B. The Birth of the Middle Ages 395-814, London: Oxford University Press, 1972. (Originally published in 1935).

Wallace-Hadrill, J.M. The Long-Haired Kings, and Other Studies in Frankish History, London: Methuen & Co., 1962.

Wallace-Hadrill, J.M. Early Medieval History, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1975.

Wallace-Hadrill, J.M. (ed.), The Fourth Book of the Chronicle of Fredegar, with its Continuations, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Wallace-Hadrill, J.M. The Frankish Church, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.

Wallace-Hadrill, J.M. The Barbarian West 400-1000, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1996.

Wood, I. The Merovingian Kingdoms 450-751, London: Longman Group UK, 1994.

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