Thursday, February 13, 2020

End of the Merovingians

As I posted last week, medieval people could and did get rid of monarchs.  It was unusual, it was difficult, and it didn't always work.  The usual reason was that the monarch had become a tyrant.  Today I want to blog about the first known example of people getting rid of a monarch for incompetence.

Let's go back to the middle of the eighth century.  The Merovingian dynasty had ruled the Franks for three centuries, since the Frankish people (Germanic in origin) had come wandering west into the Roman Empire and settled down in what is now France to become Roman themselves.  These descendants of the Sea Serpent as the kings considered themselves wore their hair long as an apparent symbol of status—most Romans and Romanized peoples in the Empire had short hair.  They converted to Christianity in the late fifth century and were learned, cunning, and by all accounts ruthless.

The above is a modern reproduction of a Merovingian-era belt buckle.

By the middle of the eighth century the dynasty appears to have weakened, or at least run short of male heirs.  At least one monk had to be brought out of the cloister to become king, and at one point the mayor of the palace, who one might think of as chief of staff or even secretary of state, ruled without a king for several years, acting in the name of the last dead king.

In 751 this mayor of the palace's son, Pippin (called "the Short," his wife was called Bertha "Broadfoot," people tended to have nicknames for their rulers) decided he himself should be king.  But this was going to be complicated.  Pippin and his older brother, who had been co-mayor of the palace with him until deciding to go to Italy and become a monk, had found themselves a Merovingian king, Childeric III, probably a boy, and put him on the throne.  So how to get him off the throne?

The argument used was that Childeric was incompetent.  Pippin said that he wrote to the pope, Zacharias, asking if someone who actually wielded royal power, meaning himself, should in fact be the king.  According to Pippin, the pope agreed.  It is at any rate clear that Pippin was formally elected king by the great Frankish lords, which was standard, that the bishops anointed him as king, almost like baptizing him, which was not standard, and two years later he had Zacharias's successor as pope come and bless him and his sons.  This last wasn't standard at all.

So it appears that, in order not to look like a usurper, Pippin lined up the full force of secular and religious power to support his ascension to the throne.  But the story gets even more complicated.  What happened to Childeric?

Strangely, nobody at the time said anything about Childeric.  Contemporary accounts speak of how wonderful it was that Pippin should have been elected, crowned, anointed, and blessed, but without a whisper of how Childeric was removed.  Even the account of Pippin writing to Pope Zacharias shows up for the first time only forty years later, and the contemporary biography of Zacharias doesn't mention it, which would have to be considered odd, since the popes then were very close to the Frankish kings and mayors of the palace.  It may well have been so shocking to end the Merovingian dynasty after three centuries that no one at the time wanted to mention that aspect.

Well after the fact, it was said that Childeric had become a monk, which was indeed a common fate for Merovingian kings if a brother or cousin in the dynasty pushed someone off the throne.  But it is also possible that Childeric had just died, and Pippin and his successors needed the story of the removal of an incompetent to justify seizing the crown, rather than ruling in the name of a dead king or finding another Merovingian boy somewhere.  After all, the same account that says that Childeric had been shuffled off to a monastery says that he had a son who was shuffled off with him.

The story of the removal of an incompetent blossomed in the following years.  Some seventy years after the fact, Charlemagne's biographer Einhard gave a long and vivid portrait of how bad the Merovingians had become.  They were too feeble to ride a horse, he said, and had to be driven around in an ox-cart like some peasant.  They sat on the throne with a long beard dangling to their knees (but Childeric was a boy?), saying whatever the wise mayor of the palace told them to say.  Einhard mistakenly named not Zacharias but his successor (Pope Stephen), the one who actually came to Francia and blessed Pippin, as the one who agreed that Pippin should depose the last Merovingian.  In this account, it was a real kindness to the Merovingian kings and to the Franks to get them out of the way.

This tale of the fainéant (do-nothing) Merovingian kings was so compelling that historians believed it for 1200 years.  Lately, however, the Merovingians have seen something of a scholarly rehabilitation.  For more on the end of their dynasty, see the article, "Childeric III and the Emperors Drogo Magnus and Pippin the Pious," in the journal Medieval Prospography (volume 28, 2013).

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval monarchs and so much more, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available from Amazon and other ebook platforms.  (Also in print!)

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