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The matrix dynasty of French royalty, theMerovingians were, however, for a long time victims of a "black legend", kept alive as early as the 6th century by Grégoire de Tours, then by their successors, the Carolingians, written by Eginhard. They thus became the "lazy kings" of images for schoolchildren until the 19th century (and beyond ...). Apart from Clovis, and for other reasons Dagobert I, the Merovingian period was like a black hole in the history of France. Let’s try to (re) discover these kings, and queens, on the border between the end of a "barbaric" Antiquity and a Middle Ages in which France was to be built. A construction to which the Merovingians themselves were far from foreign ...
The Merovingians: a mythical origin
The Merovingian dynasty is rooted in a tribe of Salian Franks, from a branch of the Frankish people living between the Rhine and the Scheldt. It owes its name to the legendary Mérovée, son or nephew of Clodion the Hairy, who would have reigned from 448 to 457 over a tribe of Franks Saliens, and would have been the ally of the Roman general Aetius against the Huns during the battle of the Catalaunic fields. . Its power was initially reduced to the kingdoms of Cambrai and Tournai, between present-day France and Belgium. After four more or less legendary rulers who were only tribal chiefs, Clovis I, king from 481 to 511 and son of Childeric I, became its true founder through his numerous conquests.
In 498 (?), Clovis and his warriors were baptized by the bishop of Reims Rémy, thus obtaining the support of the Catholic clergy and the Pope of Rome. Supreme leader of the Germanic tribes installed in Gaul, Clovis strives to merge Frankish customs and Gallo-Roman legislation, giving birth to the Salic law of the Frankish kings.
The Frankish kingdom "one and divisible"
On his death in 511, Clovis bequeathed to his sons an immense kingdom, with Paris as its capital and Catholicism as its religion. Then begins what may seem a paradox, especially if we compare to what the dynasties which succeeded the Merovingians were going to do: divided between the sons of Clovis, the Frankish kingdom did not remain any less united. Claude Gauvard thus speaks of a kingdom "both one and divisible". It is this apparent paradox that allows the Merovingians to continue to expand their territory, to become a continental power, and to resist civil wars. One time only ...
The division of 511 between Thierry, Clodomir, Clotaire and Childebert is inspired by the Roman system of civitates, thus confirming the continuity between the Frankish kingdom and the imperial tradition. If the latter is divided territorially and has four capitals (Reims, Paris, Orléans and Soissons), political unity is very real, and in large part because it is based on blood ties.
However, one should not idealize the situation, and quickly succession quarrels appear, with the death of the first sons of Clovis. First Clodomir (524), one of whose sons, Cloud, must flee and become a cleric before dying and giving his name to a well-known town. The rest of the kingdom of Clodomir is shared between the three surviving brothers. When the eldest son, Thierry, dies, things get a bit more complicated because his son, Théodebert, enjoys his prestige, which is superior to that of his uncles. He took the opportunity to assert ambitions that went beyond the borders of Gaul as he struck gold coins in his likeness, angering the Emperor Justinian. Théodebert died in 548, without having achieved his ends, despite conquests in Alémanie and Bavaria.
The situation finally settles with the extinction of the elder branch and the disappearance of Childebert. This allows Clotaire I to reign alone until 561. A new division takes place upon his death, once again between his sons, who numbered only three in 567 (death of Charibert I). It is then that the Frankish kingdom is divided into three regions which will know posterity: Austrasia (Rhine region, Champagne and Aquitaine), Burgondia (former Burgundian kingdom and kingdom of Orleans), and Neustria (Tournai region , “Normandy” and the Paris region). This decisive moment quickly coincided with a real civil war, which broke out in 570. The Frankish kingdom had previously been able to assert itself internationally.
The Frankish kingdom, an “international” power?
The sons of Clovis do not intend to stop at their father's victories and, despite their divisions within the kingdom, are united as regnum francorum for foreign policy. Clovis distinguished himself mainly with the conquest of Aquitaine, allied with the Burgundians. Yet it is they who are the first victims of his successors. The Franks take advantage of internal difficulties in the Burgundian kingdom, mainly religious quarrels between Catholics and Arians, to attack for the first time in 523, but they are repulsed. The same is true a year later, and the Franks lose Clodomir! More cautious, they wait ten years to retry the adventure, led by Childebert I, Clotaire I and Theodebert I. They emerge victorious, and the Burgundian kingdom is swallowed up by the Frankish kingdom, while being shared between the victors.
The Frankish victories attract the attention of the emperor in Constantinople. The main stake is the domination of Italy over which the Ostrogoths still reign. The latter, who understood that the Franks were a danger and potential allies of the Byzantines, offered them Provence to obtain their neutrality against the emperor. The Franks do not need to be prayed for and entered Provence in 537, thus accessing the Mediterranean! With this acquisition, the Franks almost reconstituted the unity of Roman Gaul; only Septimania remains, which they fail to wrest from the Visigoths.
Further north, Thierry I and Clotaire I allied with the Saxons and defeated the King of Thuringia, annexing the western part of his kingdom in the same year as the conquest of Provence. Two years later, Theodebert I conquered Alemania and Bavaria, and for a time northern Italy. In fact, it was not until the arrival of the Lombards in the 560s that the Frankish advance stopped. Civil war is also not unrelated to it.
Civil war strikes the kingdom of the Merovingians
The death of Charibert I, son of Clotaire I, in 567 brings about a new division. But this time, it causes a real civil war between the three brothers of the king: Sigebert, Chilpéric and Gontran. War also due to a risky strategy of matrimonial alliances with neighbors - and rivals - Visigoths.
Women play a central role in political struggles at the end of the 6th century. The rivalry is exacerbated between Brunehaut, wife of King of Austrasia Sigebert I, and Frédégonde, wife of Chilperic I, king of Neustria. The first is a Visigothic princess, daughter of King Athanagild, and she accuses the second of having had her sister, Galswinthe, previous wife of Chilperic I, killed! The situation is worsened by the fact that the king of the Visigoths dies without an heir, which stirs up desires, in particular those of Chilpéric precisely ...
The faide, characteristic of the Germanic peoples, and the infernal spiral. The intrigues of the two queens lead to the assassinations of Sigebert I (575), then of Chilpéric I (584)! Gontran tries to stay a little away from the conflict, which becomes armed from the beginning of the 570s. On the death of her husband, Brunehaut holds the reality of power in Austrasia, and puts forward his son Childebert II. The latter quickly opposed the son of Frédégonde, Clotaire II, and the war started again, despite the attempts at peace initiated by Gontran (Andelot pact, 587).
The situation was further complicated with the death of Gontran in 592, and the entry into the running of the sons of his nephew, Childebert II, who had succeeded him but had died four years later. Théodebert II and Thierry II therefore continue the war against Clotaire II, quickly in difficulty.
However, Queen Brunehaut is more and more contested in Austrasia, and she must take refuge in Burgondia with Thierry II. But here, too, it has drawn the wrath of the local aristocracy. In addition, the sons of Childebert II in turn enter into a rivalry, to the delight of Clotaire II, who did not ask for so much. Thierry II locked up his brother Théodebert II in a monastery, then died in 613. Brunehaut then tried to regain control and place one of his great-grandsons, but she was handed over by the aristocrats to her rival, who had her executed. after a long ordeal.
The end of Antiquity, the beginning of the Middle Ages?
Some of today's historians, including Geneviève Bührer-Thierry and Charles Mériaux, mark the end of Antiquity with the death of Brunehaut, a Visigothic princess "still very Roman". The advent of Clotaire II, and especially of his son Dagobert, "[seals] the unity of the Frankish kingdom" (according to the chronicle of Frédégaire), and probably marks its peak, before the emergence of the Pippinides ...
The end of thefaide having opposed the queens Brunehaut and Frédégonde, then their sons, allowed Clotaire II to ascend the throne alone. The king, and even more his sonDagobert, contribute at the beginning of the 7th century to the height of the Merovingian dynasty. However, the trouble starts very quickly, from the successors of Dagobert, and causes the rise in power of what is not yet strictly speaking a dynasty, the Pippinides. The latter, thanks to their strategic role in Merovingian power, eventually supplanted it with a certain Charles Martel.
Clotaire II and theregna
Supposed to be king since 584, Clotaire II ended up ruling alone after the death of his rivals and Queen Brunehaut in the early 610s. However, the Frankish kingdom was still divided into three regna, Austrasia, Neustria and Burgondie, and the aristocrats are agitated. Clotaire II then had to legitimize his power and "seal the peace".
In 614, taking inspiration from Clovis, he therefore gathered in Paris assemblies with the aristocrats, but also the bishops, and almost simultaneously settled the religious and political problems of the kingdom, with the edict of Paris, promulgated in October of this year. Clotaire II thus secured the support of both the leaders and the clergy, while consolidating his own power. Although he personally reigned over Neustria, he nevertheless remained the preeminent ruler ofregnum francorum, and do not hesitate to punish the adults of othersregna having aspirations of independence, like Godin, who tried to force him to appoint him mayor of the palace of Burgondie in 627.
Tensions remained all the same, and the king was constantly forced to negotiate with theregna, especially Austrasia. The latter's aristocrats get the king to send his young son Dagobert home, which allows them to take advantage of the latter's youth to exercise real power over thisregnum, which happens to be strategic in the fight against Avars and Wends. Among these great ones, a certain Pépin Ier, said of Landen.
The reign of Dagobert I
Two years before his death, Clotaire II once again united the assemblies and in the promulgated acts already began to appear the idea of a sacred royalty. He died in 629, and his son Dagobert succeeded him, leaving Austrasia for Neustria. The legitimacy of Dagobert is apparently not contested by the greats, whether those of Austrasia, where he comes from, or the other tworegna. However, he had a brother, Caribert, but he sent him to Aquitaine, where he died in 632. Dagobert began his reign with a trip to Burgundy, to reassure the aristocracy of his intentions. Then he moved to Paris. Saint Eloi, goldsmith of his father Clotaire II and bishop of Saint Ouen, becomes his main adviser.
The Austrasian "problem" remains. Theregnum is powerful, its great therefore difficult to control, occupying strategic positions, as mayor of the palace. Dagobert still manages to install his son Sigebert on the Austrasian throne in 632. Two later, he destines his newborn son, Clovis, to the kingdoms of Burgondia and Neustria, thus ensuring his succession. On his death in 639, the Frankish kingdom was again shared.
King Dagobert's foreign policy
Dagobert’s reign is contemporary with the emergence of Islam, and more particularly with the first Muslim conquests. Like his predecessors, the Frankish king was sought after by the Byzantine emperor. But past experiences have served as a lesson and, if there are exchanges of embassies (as in 629), the time is not for alliance. However, we know from Frédégaire that the Franks were probably aware of the troubles of thebasileus Heraclius with the Arabs between 637 and 641.
The foreign policy of the Merovingians in the first decades of the 7th century is far removed from Byzantine concerns in the Middle East. For Dagobert, it is a question of consolidating the borders ofregnum francorum, mainly in Aquitaine (with Gascony) and Brittany. He got down to it around 635, but if he subdued the Basques, he had to settle for a diplomatic agreement in Brittany, without getting his hands on the region.
In the East, Thuringia, Alemania, then Bavaria are subject to tribute and their rulers appointed by the Franks. Dagobert takes advantage here of the threat of the Wendes, the Slavs settled in Pannonia; he does not succeed in subduing them. Finally, the Frankish king began to take an interest in Friesland without however being able to really gain a foothold there.
The influence of the mayors of the palace
When Dagobert died in 639, it was his sons Sigebert III and Clovis II who shared the kingdom. The first becomes as expected king of Austrasia, the second king of Neustria, as well as the support of Burgundia, more and more autonomous. The problems start quickly.
First in Neustria, where Clovis II is far too young to rule. The exercise of power is shared between his mother Nanthilde, who was not queen but a servant married in 629 by Dagobert because Gomatrude had not given her a male, and the mayors of the palace, Aega first, then Erchinoald . The latter manages to marry the young king to Bathilde, an Anglo-Saxon slave, in 648. She takes advantage of the death of her husband in 657, then that of the mayor of the palace a year later, to exercise power and try to reunite theregnum francorum. Indeed, rivalries are growing with Austrasia.
In theregnum from the east, the influence of the palace mayors began during Dagobert’s reign, with Pepin I. The new king, Sigebert III, attempts to ward off the Pippinids by favoring another family. This did not prevent Grimoald, son of Pépin, from also acceding to this strategic position, described by Bishop Didier de Cahors as "rector of the whole court or rather of the whole kingdom". The role of the Pippinids at this time is already so important that historians for a time believed that the death of Sigebert III in 656 could have caused a first Pippinid "coup". It is ultimately only a problem of complex succession, and of rivalry between the mayor of the palace and the queen, but it shows the decisive influence of the men in this position, and in particular of the Pippinids. Finally, the intervention of the Neustrians and Bathilde was needed to remove Grimoald and his protégé Childebert, whom he had made king to the detriment of Dagobert II, son of Sigebert, exiled in Ireland! Yet it was Childeric II, son of Bathilde, who was king of Austrasia in 662.
Rivalries betweenregna which benefit the Pippinides
The difficulties of the Pippinides are only temporary. The rivalry between Neustria and Austrasia, but also the tensions between large within theregna, eventually allow their return to the foreground.
In Neustria, the new mayor of the palace, Ebroïn, dismisses Queen Bathilde in 665 and holds King Clotaire III in his hand. Tensions then explode with the great, amplified in 673 when Ebroïn imposed the son of Clovis II and Bathilde, Thierry III, as successor to Clotaire III, to the detriment of the king of Austrasia Childeric II, favorite of the aristocrats. The situation only got more complicated in the following years, and Neustria fell into civil war. Ebroïn is one of the victims, assassinated in 682. However, if the successive kings are weak and contested, the very principle of the Merovingian dynasty is not called into question for the moment.
The problems of Neustria end up reaching Austrasia, where Dagobert II is assassinated a few years after his return from exile. The instability and the vacancy of the post of mayor of the palace after the death of Wulfoad, rival of Ebroin, brought about the return of the Pippinides, a family still powerful but watched over by other aristocrats. It was one of them, Duke Pépin II de Herstal, who became mayor of the Austrasian palace in the early 680s. In 687, he beat his rivals from Neustria, allied with the Burgundians, at the battle of Tertry, s 'seizing at the same time the treasure of Thierry III!
The "lazy kings" and the end of the Merovingians
The coming to power of the mayor of the Pépin de Herstal palace marked the beginning of the end of the Merovingians. Yet the mayor of the palace leaves the king in place, content to strip him of the essence of his power. The latter is in the hands of those who then take the title of "princes", the mayors of the palaces of Neustria and Austrasia, only from the Pippinid family.
This asserted itself even more with the successors of Pepin II, despite attempts at rebellion by the other great ones upon the latter's death in 714. It was his son Charles who won against the Neustriens of Rainfroi in the 720s, but also against external enemies, Arabo-Berber in Poitiers in 732, or Frisians two years later.
However, Charles Martel did not make himself king, even on the death of the last Merovingian, Thierry IV, in 737, when he dismissed the successor Childeric III. The last descendants of Clovis, from the advent of Pepin II, have been referred to by Carolingian historiography (heir to the Pippinides) as "the lazy kings". They are placed on the throne by the mayors of the palace, are tossed about with winds and rivalries (like Chilpéric II during the Rainfroi / Charles struggle), and no longer wield any real power.
However, it was not until 751, and the advent of Charles's son, Pepin the Short, that the Merovingian kings in fact gave way to a new dynasty, that of the Carolingians.
- G. Bührer-Thierry, C. Mériaux, France before France (481-888), Belin, 2010.
- S. Lebecq, The Frankish origins, 5th-9th century, Seuil, 1990.
- The Merovingians, by Jean Heuclin. Ellipses, 2014.
- R. Le Jan, Family and power in the Frankish world, 7th-10th century, Publications de la Sorbonne, 1995.
- R. Le Jan, Les Mérovingiens, PUF, 2006.