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Article Published September 17, 1999

The Last Of The Merovingians
By Xenia Stanford

The Downfall Of The Merovingians and The Rising Roots Of The Middle Ages.

The Merovingian line ruled from 409 when Pharamond, the great grandfather of Clovis I, was chief of the Salian tribes to 752 when the last of them was deposed. Even if we count from the beginning of the Frankish empire in 486 when Clovis chased out the Romans, it is the longest reign of any family line in the history of France and possibly of any other nation.

However, after the death of Thierry III in 691 and the division of the kingdom into Neustria (the roots of France) and Austrasia (the roots of Germany), the Merovingians were little more than puppet kings. Increasingly the chief administrator to the king, called the Mayor of the Palace, was faced with keeping state affairs in order while the kings chose to play or wage wars with everyone around them, including their closest relatives.

Some list Dagobert III as the last real Merovingian king. However, he does not live up to the reputation of his forefather and original namesake Dagobert I, who in 628 had joined the kingdoms into one for a decade. Dagobert III's claim to fame, it is said, was that he fornicated himself to death as he had more wives and mistresses in his lifetime than even Henry VIII of England was to have. In 715 Dagobert III died in bed at age 34 apparently of exhaustion.

Gregory of Tours, the historian of the Franks during this period, wrote of the savage destruction these kings wrought even on their own families. His accounts show the Merovingians were well known for their family feuds and wars between brothers or cousins over the thrones of the various states of the Frank Empire. This, of course, was due to the Merovingian mistake of following the Salic Law, which divided inheritance and succession equally among all sons. However, Gregory also documents the family violence the kings exacted on their own spouses and children.


In the midst of this corruption the Carolingian administrators started to stand out as strong individuals capable of more than handling the king's finances and paperwork. The line of those we know as the Carolingians began with Pepin the Elder (circa 580-639) or Pepin of Landen. Some credit him with the true founding of the Carolingian dynasty though the dynasty name comes from Charles the Great or Charlemagne, the great great great grandson of Pepin the Elder.

During his years as administrator for the Merovingian rulers of Austrasia Pepin had watched his Queen Brunhild wage one of the longest and most bloody family feuds among the Merovingians. Brunhild was married to Austrasian ruler Sigebert I at the same time her sister Galswintha was married to Sigebert's brother Chilperic, king of Neustria. Fredegund, a long time concubine of Chilperic, murdered Queen Galswintha and married Chilperic becoming the Queen of Neustria. Queen Brunhild in an attempt to avenge her sister's death spent the next close to fifty years struggling to oust Chilperic and his new Queen. In 575 when it looked like Brunhild and Sigebert were winning the family feud, Queen Fredegund and King Chilperic had Sigebert killed and Brunhild captured. Brunhild managed to escape and ruled as regent for her son Childebert II. After Childebert died she continued to rule in the name of her grandson.

However, Clothaire II of Neustria, son of Queen Fredegund, had carried on the family feud on behalf of his mother. He solicited the help of Pepin the Elder, then Queen Brunhild's administrator. Pepin turned to Arnulf, Bishop of Metz, who also had no love lost for Brunhild as the later Merovingian rulers made life difficult for the church and its clergy. In 1613 Pepin and Arnulf assisted Clothaire's army in the capture of Queen Brunhild who was subjected to three days of torture and eventually a violent death. For the rest of his years Pepin the Elder continued as Mayor of the Palace for Clothaire II, now King of Austrasia.


The next famous Carolingian forefather was Pepin d'Herstal, the grandson of Pepin the Elder. Unfortunately those who have traced their roots back to Charlemagne and would like to pursue the line further back find a generation gap between Pepin the Elder and his grandson. It is not even known if Pepin's father was a Mayor of the Palace or even the son of Pepin the Elder. Perhaps the link was through a daughter of Pepin the Elder and not a son, which might explain why there is basically nothing written about Pepin d'Herstal parentage.

Nevertheless Pepin d'Herstal was to distinguish himself even more than his grandfather. In 680 he was appointed to the position of Mayor of the Palace. By 687 he had managed to combine the thrones of Austrasia, Neustria and Bourgogne. Although he left figurehead Merovingian monarchs in all three, he acted as the true ruler of a combined empire. He furthered extended this empire in 689 to include the Frisians who lived along the coast of the North Sea.

Following the death of Pepin d'Herstal in 714 a civil war broke out among the states. During this time Pepin's widow imprisoned the illegitimate son of her husband but he escaped and led the Austrasian forces to victory. This illegitimate son was so fierce and persistent in hammering back the armies of his opponents that he acquired the nickname "Martel" which means "the Hammer".


This Charles Martel or Charles "the Hammer" took the same title of Mayor of the Palace, as had his father and grandfather. However, like his father, he was in fact the ruler and managed to keep the kingdoms together for another decade from 732 to 742 AD. Though he vanquished many invading tribes including the Alamanni, Bavarians and Saxons, Charles Martel's most famous act was the victory at the Battle of Tours in 732 over the Moors, Muslims from Spain.

This meant the Frank kingdom remained Catholic, which had a significant impact on the continuation of the type of records already being kept by the clergy. This methodology eventually evolved into the parish registers, without which few if any of us would be able to prove any ancestors before secular civil registration. I know nothing about the records of Muslims or those of Spain but I do know that France became one of the countries where it is very possible to trace roots back to a period long before the institution of civil registration. The records maintained by the church and the clergy, as well as the secular state documentation instituted by the Carolingians, were the main reasons for this.


However, after Charles Martel stepped down in 742 AD the kingdom again split with the very last of the Merovingians, two sons of Chilperic II, taking the thrones of Neustria and Austrasia. One of these sons, Carloman of Austrasia, abdicated around 746, some say to go into the priesthood. His brother Childeric III attempted to take control of both kingdoms but was ousted by Carloman's Mayor of the Palace in 752.

This Mayor of the Palace was Pepin Le Bref or "the Short", the son of Charles Martel. Like his forefathers he retained the title of Mayor, although he too was in effect the King of France. In this case though he had no puppet kings and ruled solely in spite of his archaic title.

In 768 AD Pepin the Short died leaving his son, who was to become the greatest Carolingian and perhaps the greatest king of France, as his successor. This son became known as Charles the Great or Carolus Magnus in Latin but we know him best as Charlemagne. This great man was to truly change the history of France, mark the true beginning of the Middle Ages with feudalism, seignorialism and the code of chivalry. In fact, not only was he the father of feudalism but the father of the county system. His impact on the history of France and the rest of Europe was immense not just for the system of government he invented. He was also a man modern genealogists should praise for his influence over learning and record keeping by both church and state.

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