Paul Budde
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    His personal interest is in medieval North Western Europe. Also covered is the local history of Bucketty, NSW, Australia.

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From Salli to Merovingians 250 – 750

The Salii

In the late 3rd century an estimated 100,000 Salii left Toxandria and moved further south, following the various rivers such as the Scheldt and the Lijs in search for new farming lands in Belgica Secunda. They came as far as the  Silva Carbonaria. Until this day this extensive forest is still forms more or less the language boarder in Belgium.

Salii moving into Europe

Language border

The original language used in the Low Countries is known as Old Dutch (Old West Low Franconian), which was used between 500 – 1150, this later developed in Middle Dutch or Diets (1150-1500). Brabantian was one of the five variants of Diets and was spoken in Brabant, the south of Gelre, Flemish Brabant, Antwerp and Brussels. At that time roughly a third of the Low Countries spoke Brabantine.

While relative latecomers in the migration, the Salians (Salii derived from the word for salty) were one of the most successful Germanic tribes. They started to shape what would become modern Western Europe.

They came from an area east of the river IJssel (Isala) in what is now the Netherlands (I in old Frankish most probably meant stream, water and sala dirty). This region is still called Salland. The very early (Roman) records are describing the Salii as pirates, indicating that they lived near the sea (Zuiderzee).

After invasions from the Saxons in 260, in exchange for military services, the Romans allowed the Salii in 297 to settle within Roman territory, among the Batavii. They were also put in charge of the Limes between Nijmegen and the sea. They formed alliances with other tribes living in this area. During the 3rd and 4th century this confederation of in origin different tribes became known as the Franks.

After the Romans left, much of their way of life as well as its infrastructure was maintained. This meant that there was a rather seamless transition from a Roman dominated society and culture to an increasingly more Frankish centred culture. Within the Frankish society most of the Roman institutions did find a continuation therefore our modern society has maintained until now many of the core element of this civilisation.

It’s highly likely that in this transition the Roman upper class within Gaul played an influential role in this process. This, in all probability, also saw them maintaining their important positions in society and public life as well as their wealth.

Over the next few centuries it has been this transition plus the continuation of at least some of the Roman institution and traditions by the church and in particular through its bishops – supported by the ‘supernatural’ powers of God and the Saints –  that more or less held the state together.

Claudius Silvanus

One of the most successful Franks in the Roman army was Claudius Silvanus, in 352 he rose to the rank of Magister militum (master of the soldiers), one of the most senior posts in the Empire. Under Emperor Constantius he drove the Germanic tribes, who were attacking Gaul, back beyond the Rhine. He completed this task by bribing the Germans with the taxes he had collected. As usual he also became entangled in Roman intrigue and there was an acquisition that he had proclaimed himself Emperor in Cologne in 355.

After he had defeated the Alamanni and the Franks at the Battle of  Tolbiac near modern day Zülpich not far from the Roman city Argentoratum (Stasbourg)  and thus reestablished Roman control along the norther border, Emperor Julian the Apostate granted in 358 only the Salian Franks (as they were known)  the status of foederati (semi independence in exchange for military services) and they were allowed to move to Toxandria (between the Scheldt and the Meuse most of current Brabant). This land had previous been inhabited by the Eburones. This might have been granted because of further pressure from other migrating tribes .

During that time, the Chamavi (Hamavai) migrated from perhaps the Hamburg region to their new lands, what became Hamaland (Gelderland – or Guelders in the Netherlands). It is most likely that the Salii had also mingled with the Frisii, Chamavi and Batavii.

A lose confederation of tribes existed  with extended family groups, kinship and religious ties. They gathered around a renown leader/noble, who was elected by the leading men of the tribe.  One of the mythical noble leaders was Merovech on which they based their dynasty, the Merovingians (see below).

The importance of their family ties is laid down in the Salic Law (Lex Salica).

Lex Salica

It is interesting to note that it were the very early traditional laws from the Salli, who established the ground rules for the laws that are, in its origin, the basis of most the laws still in use in continental Europe.

Dating back to pre-historic times they covered areas such as: inheritance, crime, murder, fines, compensation for injuries, slaves, theft. The earliest codification dates back to Clovis, somewhere between 507 and 511. Lex Salica became law during the reign of Charlemagne and this resulted in the spread of this set of laws throughout Europe.

One of the most important elements of this law was ‘agnatic succession’ whereby the throne or land would go to an agnate of the successor, a son, brother, nephew or nearest male relative. In the Middle Ages this law also applied to the inheritance of ordinary people, especially in relation to landownership.

Under this rule there were no illegitimate children, men were allowed to have more wives, however, it was a breeding place for feudal wars. This issue will reoccur time after time during the Merovingian period.

The colonisation by the Franks of Gaul and parts of Germania went rather slow. By the middle of the 5th century there were three enclaves from where they grew:

  • Lower Rhine (IJssel), Utrecht and the Veluwe
  • The Meuse and Mosel valleys
  • Tournai

A fourth area, around Reims was added later.

Slowly the foundations of their society started to change from a range of powerful men who based their wealth on power and plunder to one that of powerful men who based that on landownership. Informal governance structures started to emerge, based around the company and the protection provided through the  family ties, kinship and increasingly the Christian religion.

However, the violent streak of the raiding Franks was carried on into the reign of the Merovingian, especially in the period after the death of Clovis this violence reached an all time high.

The tribal leaders started to merge into kings and this based on heritage and the bloodline was sacred in this tradition. Tribal traditions were also carried forward into kingship, key attributes included long hair and the carrying around of the kings in wooden carriages. The long hair was in particular important and there are situations in the violent history of the Merovingians were death by sword was preferred over the cutting of their hair. War leadership, the accumulation of treasure and polygamy were other traditions dating back to their pagan origin. Later on through Christianity spiritual leadership was added to that as well.

The kings still depended on their followers and their loyalty required ongoing treasure. This was not yet a time where wars were fought for political reasons, the aim was to get plunder. Later on plunder was replaced by land and as we will see that will lead to an undermining of the position of the king.

Lands ruled by warlords

The Germanic tribes brought with them a society based on wealth creation through booty. Their yearly spring and summer raids – to obtain this booty – was a normal part of life and the upper-class of this society joined in these annual events. This was also linked to the obligatory system of gift giving, dating back to even much earlier times where sharing of food and other resources was a matter of survival. In tribal times, gifts were used as rewards for services rendered by the chieftain and gifts were use to obtain favours from those in power.The social importance of these gifts was also expressed in the culture of that period expressed in beautiful jewelry (Brioche of Dorestad – see video clip: National Museum Leiden) and richly decorated tableware and religious objects ( Gundestrup cauldron), similar decorations and symbols were repeated in book works (Book of Kelts) and architecture (Carolingian).

Decisions on raids and other affairs were taken at the annual assemblies of the free people of the tribe/country (at events called tings or things); a tradition that continued throughout the early Middle Ages. It was at these tings that the rulers had to proof to the assembly that they earned the right of absolute authority over politics, justice, legislation and military affairs, known as the ‘bannum’, this tradition continued in some European countries well into modern times.

With new lands and plenty of booty in the early days after the collapse of the Roman Empire many sons and brothers were able to set up their own raiding party and rapidly established their decentralised system based on their own (local) powers. Within a few hundred years a patch network of local warlords, who would develop into the Merovingian and Carolingian nobility, was established all over Europe.

But also elsewhere in Europe the summer raid system was well entrenched in the culture of the Scandinavian tribes (the infamous Vikings) and the clans in Ireland and Scotland.

However, such a culture was not very conducive to economic growth as basically nobody who lived in these lands was safe, as soon as somebody had built up some prosperity through farming or trade they became a prime target for raids.

Interestingly despite all the upheaval, many of the old Roman structures remained in place such as the administrative and political structure of the regions, the road systems and until Charlemagne arrived on the scene the border between the Merovingians and Franks remained the rivers Rhine and Maas. The Church carried many of the administrative and legal functions from the Romans over into the early Middle Ages.

Early forms of state organisation

Clovis became the founder of the Merovingian dynasty which remained the dominant rulers of Europe for the next 250 years. It was not until he arrived that we are starting to see a new trend towards the centralisation of power, however this never fully eventuated during this period, instead centralisation concentrated around three regions: Austrasia, Neustria and Burgundy

As the most successful warlords of his time, he was able to force sub-ordnance over less powerful warlords and as long as the top-dog delivered they remained happy. Through intrigue and marriage the relationships between the various families was maintained.

They rapidly evolved into the second largest power in Europe next to the Roman Empire that was now ruled from Constantinople and became later known as the East Roman or Byzantium Empire. Here many of the Roman systems survived and were further developed in particular during the 6th century under Emperor Justinian.

Linked to the emerging centralisation of power was the need for a bureaucracy which was also needed to assist to amass and conserve resources both in land and its produce and in the royal treasure, this was basically provided by the clergy who were educated at the growing number of monasteries. They were the ones who started to implement organisational and administrative structures which greatly assisted in the economic and social development of the area.

In the early days however, bounties were  still seen as the key elements of establishing power. And the royal treasure was carried along during their traditional annual wars with each other.

There are unsolved arguments about the taxation system. Some historians argue that remnants of the previous Roman governance  system were used and which continued perhaps to well into the 10th century. The Roman taxation system ‘munera’ indeed has elements of later taxation systems. This involved obligatory public services (payments in kind) as well as payments in gold. Others however, conclude that there is a discontinuation between the Roman and the Merovingian taxation system.

Wealth however, was mainly measured in land ownership and it was ‘land’ that kept the Merovingian economy going.

It is under their governance that  cities such as Ghent, Brugge, Antwerp, Tournai, Kortrijk, and Valenciennes started to develop from local strongholds, religious places and farming communities into economic strongholds.

Next to land, under the powerful influence of missionaries, religion rapidly became another important political element of Merovingian nobility. There was an enormous emphasis on the salvation of the soul that would lead to a heavenly afterlife. The more monks available for praying, the more chance there was for the salvation of the soul of the king and his family. During Merovingian times more than 100 monasteries were founded in their region.

Barbara Rosenwiein describes this as follows: “Just as nowadays electrical wiring, roads and bridges are considered part of the essential infrastructure of the state, so in the early Middle Ages, religion and land were considered essential for the proper functioning of society.”1.

The monasteries did play a key role in the development of both religion and agriculture and thus in the society and the economy in general.

Immunities

In order to function properly these monasteries were given immunities. These early privileges provided them with the security that there would not be any interference in their affairs by either the kings or other earthly rulers, nor by bishops. These immunities fitted well in the very important above mentioned tribal tradition of gift giving and were therefore very extensively used.

The early immunities from Clothar II and his son Dagobert I were cut and paste versions from Roman law and early canonical regulations. Under Queen Balthild, the wife of Dagobert’s son Clovis II these immunities had become more institutionalised.

It was also at these monasteries that strategic thinking took place, education, administration and law were all important skills developed at these monasteries and the Merovingians and later the Carolingians, for centuries, relied on the intellectual skills from the clergy for their own secular organisations. The level of intellectual and political pursuit during Merovingian and Carolingian times has often been under estimated. The lack of actual writings as a result of this is not an indication of a lack of intellectual and political activity. A lot of this remained unwritten and was part of a process of oral communication and negotiations, which most certainly followed a process of significant progress during this period.

Immunities formed a significant part of this process and were also handed out to secular lords as gifts for services rendered to the kings. Overtime these immunities led to the creation of many separate jurisdictions. However, towards the end of the Merovingian era, this obligatory system of gift giving led to an undermining of cohesive central power.

Furthermore, the various noble families, with their immunities and their expanding wealth also kept there tribal feuds going according to old Frankish traditions. While the Carolingians briefly restored unity among themselves, the fragmentation continued soon after their reign end in the 10th century and this led to a continuation of that fragmentation during following period where the feudal system flourished. Some of that splintering is still a significant political feature of modern Europe.

Shortly after the Merovingian kings started to hand out immunities also the pope (628) and the first bishops (637) started to hand them out. There are close relationships between the content and the wording of these secular and ecclesiastical documents, indicating the close relationships between these two power structures.

Perhaps driven by the much more difficult cultivation of the lands in north-western Europe, in comparison to those around the Mediterranean, innovations were needed to improve the agriculture output in this region. This started to happen within structure of the Merovingian Empire and its emerging monasteries. The Roman economy was built on cheap labor (slaves) and this didn’t provide a stimulant for technological innovations.

The three field system made its entrance and the Chinese moldboard plow was very well suited for the much more heavy clays of the north-west.

More output resulted in surpluses, which in its turn created wealth and that allowed the Merovingians to increase their (fire) power.The cavalry – invented by Justinian’s general Belisarius was now also deployed by the Mervingians. And similar to developments in the east war lords started to become rewarded with land rather than booty.

Nevertheless, during their 250 years of history the Merovingian kings, their siblings and their supporting nobility would continue to fight each other.

Austrasia, Neustria, Burgundy

It is now for the first time that we are starting to see European territories as defined by their geographic names. The two areas that played the most important role in the Merovingian and Carolingian history were Austrasia and Neustria. However, these regions were culturally, ethnically and linguistically distinct. Burgundy was added later to the territory but also remained largely seperate from the other two

Austrasia

The kingdom of Austrasia was started by a nobility of Roman and Germanic extraction taking over the former Roman provinces of Belgica Prima (capital Trier), Germania Prima (capital Mainz), and Germania Secunda (capital Cologne)and the eastern part of Belgica Secunda (capital Reims). Traces of Roman civilization remained and later some of the key cities became the early episcopal sees (Mainz, Speyer, Worms, Verdun, Maastricht, Trier, Metz).

The name Austrasia (= north east) came into existence when it was split off from the Frankish Dominions after the death of Clovis.

It stretched from Reims in the west to the upper valley of the Weser River to the east. The northern boundary started at the mouth of the rivers Meuse and Rhine, down to the headwaters of the Meuse and Mosel, at the plateau of Langres.

The kingdom was further extended across the Rhine valley bordering the territories of Thuringia, Allemannia and Bavaria.

The region was distinctly Germanic with its capital in Metz.

Austrasie752

Neustria

This kingdom Neustria (= north west) came into existence when it was split off from the Frankish Dominions after the death of Clovis and was made up of the regions from Aquitaine to the English Channel, approximating most of the north of present-day France with Paris and Soissoins as its main cities. The region covered the area south of the Rhine Valley to the Loire Valley.

The region was a distinctly Gaul/Frankish and its capital became Paris.

The names of these two lands slowly disappeared during the following Carolingian period.

Burgundy

In 534 Chlothar I conquered Burgundy (See: Germanic, Goth and Viking Invasions).  Under Guntram(561-592) a new kingdom was established but this didn’t last long.  Nevertheless, Burgundy remained an independent region under the Merovingian kings. On several occasions Geneva (see video clip) was used as the capital by the counts.  From 596 till 662 they had their own Mayors of the Palace. Hereafter the office was united with that of Neustria, though Burgundy remained a separate realm.

The administration of Burgundy was briefly separated under Drogo (695-708), the son of Pippin the Middle, who was also duke of Champagne (from 690) and duke of Burgundy after the death of the mayor of the palace Nordebert in 697.

In 751 the Carolingians replaced the Merovingians  at the same time a  range of dynastic successions resulted in a split of the territory.

  • Kingdom of Upper Burgundy (Tranjurane) – around Lake Geneva
  • Kingdom of Lower Burgundy in the Provence
  • Duchy of Burgundy – west of the Saône
  • County of Burgundy – east of the Saône

The Treaty of Verdun (843) saw the border between East and West Francia also splitting Burgundy in two, the Duchy fell in West Francia and the rest in  East Francia.

The two kingdoms were reunited in 937 and were finally absorbed, in 1032, in the Holy Roman Empire under the German King Conrad II (former duke of Swabia). However, being at the far end of the Empire, German control was minimal and a string of independent counties started to emerge in the Rhone valley, in the Valentinois, at Orange and the Comtat Venaissin, but the most independent area became the Provence. So during the 12th century Burgundy started to shrink as these areas started to gain full independence. 2

It is also interesting to note that Switzerland grew from its Burgundian roots, significant parts came from the County of Burgundy.

The County of Burgundy remained loosely associated with the Holy Roman Empire (intermittently independent, whence the name Franche-Compté). By the mid 13th century the Empire had lost but control over most of their original Burgundian processions. Mainly through marriage arrangements opportunities arose to become more independent, however it was often challenged from both sides. It was finally incorporated into France in 1477.

After the last Duke of Burgundy Philippe de Rouvres unexpectedly died in 1361, without leaving any heirs behind, the Duchy ended up in the hands of the youngest son of the French King John II, Philip the Bold. The story of the Burgundians will now move to a Dukes of Burgundy.

Merovingian Pagi

The Roman administrative system of pagi (gouw/gau) survived under Merovingian rule and many of these geographic areas still closely resemble the old Roman system. They often followed natural boundaries and most likely have also been influenced by the tribal lands of the Germanic people who lived here during that period. According to Germanic tradition tribal heads were elected by the warriors of the tribe. They also took charge of local justice, which took place on the ‘Ding’ days. Often three time a year with one as being the most important one in spring when the campaign for the next season would be discussed. During the Carolingian period counts were appointed as the administrative rulers of a pagi, again according the Germanic traditions these initial counts will have been the leaders elected by their peers. The title of count was at this stage not hereditary.

Pagi in Mid and Eastern Netherlands:

Pagi in Scheldt – Meuse – Rhine area:

  • Niftarlake (Utrecht and along the River Vecht)
  • Hettergouw (eastern Meuse shore between Cuijk and Roermond)
  • Duffelgouw (Land of Meuse and Waal)
  • Keldagouw
  • Mulgouw (land between Meuse and Rhine, from Arcen (Netherlands) to Erkelenz (Germany)
  • Walacra (Zeeland western Scheldt, between Easter Scheldt en Wester Scheldt)
  • Maasgouw, original Masau (western Meuse shore between Cuijk and Maastricht)
  • Tubalgo
  • Hattuaria

Pagi in Southern Netherlands, Belgium, North France, Luxembourg

  • Toxandria (Brabantine Kempen)
  • Haspengouw, at the Treaty of Meerssen consisted of four counties
  • Luikgouw (pagus Leuhius)
  • Condroz
  • Woëvre (county Ivois)
  • Arrelais
  • Ardennengouw (pagus Arduennensis)
  • Methingouw
  • Lommegouw (pagus Lomacensis)
  • Brabantgouw (pagus Bracbatensis), at the Treaty of Meerssen consisted of four counties
  • Henegouw (pagus Hanoniensis)
  • Cambresis or Kamerijkse
  • Vlaanderengouw (pagus Flandrensis), including Kortrijk, Waas, Gent
  • Doornikgouw (pagus Tornacensis), including Mélantois, Caribant and Pévèle
  • Artesië (pagus Artabatensis), including Oosterbant, Leticus, Scarbeius
  • Terwaan (pagus Taruanensis), including Ternois and Boonse
  • Mepsegouw (pagus Mempiscus)
  • Rijen or Rien (pagus Renensium)

The Dutch gouw and German gau is formed from the last part of the singular of pagi, pagus. The French Pays is also derived from pagi and most of the French pays are still more or less the same as the old pagi.

During Merovingian times the people living in these lands still very much saw themselves as part of a kin, tribal group with ‘contractual’ arrangements to that group. When we talk about Franci, Burgundiones, Angli, Saxones, Gothi, etc. these groups were at that time not yet political groups. From early on in the eighth century we start seeing that slowly these groups also started to be seen as political entities. Society started to be more organised around social groupings, rather than tribe and kinship. A process that was not totally completed until the 14th century.   3

However, as we even see in modern times, kinship and group awareness still continues with the developed economies in Europe as well as elsewhere; especially in some of the rural and regional areas.However, at a political level and especially in cities social groups have gradually become the dominated grouping of how people see themselves.

Brabant on the border of the Merovingian Empire

During the Turbulent Third Century most of the population in the northern boarder region of the Roman Empire had disappeared. In Oss the farming settlements that had been there for 2,000 years were all abandoned. It has also been argued that water levels had risen sharply which made occupation no longer feasible here. Also in 275 the region was struck by a severe plague epidemic, perhaps coinciding with the devastations of war? It remains a puzzle what happened with all the people who once lived there, did they fled with the Roman troops, was there wholesale murder involved, was it the plague, nobody knows. In less than 15% of settlements that were occupied during the Roman period, archeological evidence shows any continuation of farming activity, again more along the river Maas (Macharen, Lith, Teeffelen, Grave, Heusden) than elsewhere . In Oss it looks like the people who stayed moved to the Heuvel (a 6 meter high hill) where the medieval city started to evolve from;  only slightly south from where the old settlements had been. This could indicate that indeed climatic changes might have taken place that forced people to move to higher grounds. It is uncertain how much of the population were remnants of the original people and how many were newcomers? The fact that many of the place and field names remained in use might indicate that there is at least some continuation. Nevertheless during the period 250-400/500 Brabant remained largely unoccupied. Live went back to Neolithic subsistence conditions with again, settlements not much larger than one or two rather small farms, with only a few cattle.  House constructions were poorer than those from the Mesolithic, Bronze Age and Roman periods.

A slightly better indication of the situation in this region starts to emerge around 550/600. By now the Salli/Frankish culture had well and truly been adopted and/or established. This is evidence of the typical Frankish-Merovingian burial rituals. Burial grounds from this period show large numbers of graves in rows and they include a range of  gifts, including weapons such as the short sword, the sax. Some of the death are burred in coffins.  At the same time cremation also seemed to have continued be it in a minority of cases. This tradition lasted for a century after which these people are again disappearing from the archeological picture. In Brabant these rows of graves have been unearthed on the sandy grounds that had seemed to be totally abandoned after 275. Settlements in Brabant of these people were found in Meerveldhoven, Geldrop, Bergeijk, Veldhoven, Westerhoven, Hoogeloon, Dommelen, Ravenstein, Escharen, Nistelrode and Alphen. They seemed to have been occupied for not much longer than 100 years 4

The fact than many of the Merovingian settlements are situated on the higher grounds also indicates that because of high levels of ground water had made it more difficult to establish farms in the lower laying areas, again an indication that climate changes could have had an influence on the population of the people between 250 and 800.

Impressive artifacts from Merovingian warriors were found in Ravenstein and Macharen, indicating a continuation of at least sort of population in the region around Oss. The relative large amount of artifacts from this period that can be brought into relation of ‘war’ fits in well with the turbulent period that started after the death of the first Merovingian chieftain Clovis (see below). These war lords are seen as the predecessors of a new class of elite that started to emerge in the Carolingian period soon there after, the nobility. It is only later in history that we talk of kings – as in the sacral sense of the word. The very rare Merovingian coin treasure at Escharen is also an indication of this upcoming class.

While the Salii had entered these regions from the north the established themselves more to the south (Tournai/Doornik and the Rhine Valley/Metz). The new colonist that moved into Brabant around the 6th and 7th centuries therefore most likely would have come from these regions. Slowly their influence started to increase. As treasure was limited the Merovingian chieftain started to pay their warlords in land. The chieftain/king had automatically made himself the owner of all land that was not developed and he started handing that out as a payments/awards  for (military) services. In order to increase the value of the land development was needed and farmers were recruited by these local lords to do this; first they were free farmers, but increasingly they became employed and later on they were ‘owned’ (serfs) by the war lords. Increased movement of these war lords and their warriors also led to new developments, they mingled with the local populating if that happened peacefully or aggressively is not known. But the number of warrior graves starts to increase from 650/700 onwards.

Increasingly the local people again ended up in a border region this time between the Merovingians and the Frisii. With the Merovingian chieftain position  now  well entrenched as king in Christianity we see Christian influences also arriving in the border region, however, the majority of the people still held on to their pagan believes. Under the influence of Christianity cremation was forbidden and that is shown in the excavations of the burial grounds after 700. Missionaries now also started to arrive in these regions.

This is also the time of saintly relics, fitting perfectly in the transition from pagan to Christianity; a continuation of magic.

Frankenbeemd – Oss

The new comers most likely also settled in  Oss. From pre-historic times there is evidence that farmers had lived on the northern side of this area since the Bronze Age. Up to this date there is still a road called Vranckebeemd (Frankenbeemd). The first time this name is used dates back the 14th century Vranckenbeemde. I conclude from this that this name might go back to the migration time. As the local farmers would see these newcomers as ‘different’ they would have given them a name ‘Franken’ and at least some of them might have settled in this area. A ‘beemd’ is a name used in Brabant indicating a grassland property. It is also in this area where the Abby of Echternach held property, which according to legend was given to Willibrord (around 700), Willibrodus was heavily supported by the Frankish elite, and the ‘gift’ could well have been from prominent Franks living in this area.

There has been a long raging discussion regarding a reference in the Sallian Laws to ‘Mallobergium Ohseno’, this has been interpreted as a possible reference to Oss. It could be translated to the malberg of those who are herding oxes. There are more references to the importance of cattle in this area (Roman references), the hill in Oss (Heuvel) could perhaps have been such a malberg – this is the place were the local Franks came together for their ‘ding’ meetings and where justice was spoken.

If we look back to the property taxes (cijnsen) that were levied in Oss by Echternach we see these properties all in the area of the Frankenbeemd (Ussen, Amsteleind, Katwijk) also on and around the Heuvel and on the road to the oldest settlement 7km south along the Kortfoort (shortest road). While some of these properties most likely date back from Merovingian and Carolingian times the first real evidence dates from 1069 when Pope Alexander II confirms the right of the Monastery in Echternach over certain properties in Oss 5.

During the late Middle Ages it looks like that most of these properties were now in use by the Brabant elite, which of course again makes sense as large sections of ‘church land’ were re-appropriated by the local nobility after the Carolingian period.

The Merovingians

Pharamond, Clodion and Merovech

Merovech (Merovee, Merowig) is known as  the founder of the Merovingian dynastic.

However, the earliest known ancestor of the dynasty is Pharamond, who died in 428.

The next known leader is Clodion (Chlodian), called the Hairy, he succeeded Pharamond in 429 and became chieftain of Cambrai (Kamerijk), after he took control over northern Gaul around 430-440. He died in 447. Merovech (presumably the son of Clodion),  took over the leadership in that same year.

He gained his reputation in battle and acquired a patchwork of properties most probably in the old Salii heartland in what is now Belgium and the Netherlands.  He fought at one of the most important battles in European history together with many other Germanic leaders and the Roman military leader Flavium Aëtius against Attila and his Huns the battle took place in 451 at the Catalaunian Plains near Chalons  in Austrasia (modern day France).

The subsequent kings based their power and wealth on landownership and the exploitation of that land by hunting and agriculture, through a system of domains (hoven). These domains started to become the power-base of the rest of the Merovingian nobility; especially as we will see below those who made it to become the mayors of the palace.

Childeric I

Childeric was born around 436 and was married to Basine of Thuringia. He succeeded his father Merovech in 457.  In 463 Childeric defeated a Saxon chieftain called Eadwacer, who had conquered Angers in Western  Gaul. It is possible that this defeat forced the Saxons to cross the Channel into Britain.

Tournai (Doornik) became the first capital of the Salian Franks. The earliest royal burial dates from here.

Tournai – Doornik

Tournai existed already in Roman times and came into the possession of the Salian Franks in 446. Under chieftains Chilperic and his son Clovis, Tournai was the capital of the Frankish realm. In the year 486, Clovis moved the centre of power to Paris. In turn, a native son of Tournai, Eleutherius, became bishop of the newly created bishopric of Tournai, extending over most of the area west of the Scheldt. This region would, nearly four centuries become the County of Flanders (862). This took place under the reign of Charles the Bald.

In 817 Louis the Pious granted the cathedral in Tournai portions of one of his estates in the region so the bishop could generated sufficient income so he could afford to enlarge the canons’ cloister.

Our Lady Cathedral (building started in 1146) that we visited in 2007 most probably dates back to these early day and while we where there archaeological research had revealed roman bath foundations as well as early church foundations.

In 481/2 Childeric died and his rich grave was discovered in 1653, I saw the collection in 2014 in the museum of the BNF in Paris. Interestingly, the grave also contained valuable gifts from Byzantium, indicating relationships between the two rulers ( the new Barbarian rulers who took over from the Romans all pledged their allegiance to the (Eastern) Roman Empire, Clovis did the same). From the writings of Bishop Gregory of Tours we also know that Childeric was a literate man.

Grave objects Merovingian King Childeric I - BNF Paris

Grave objects Merovingian King Childeric I – BNF Paris

 

Gregory of Tours

Gregory was the 18th bishop of Tours (he claimed that he was related to 13 of them) and was, like most of the other bishops in that time, a member of the old Roman senatorial nobility, his father was a powerful count in Auvergne. Gregory was a man with ambition, had many enemies and had its own political agenda. He also one of the first historian and wrote the History of the Franks. 6

Childebert I (front), Clovis I

Tombes of Childebert I (front) and his father Clovis – St Denis Paris

Clovis/Chlodovech

Clovis  was born in Doornik around 466 and at the age of 15 took over the leadership after the death of his father in 481. Under his rule Saxons were recruited into a standard army and they became an essential part of the Merovingian war machine.

Under Clovis the main Merovingian centre of power became a rather small area around Paris. Remarkably they were able to assert their powers directly and indirectly over a much larger area than most of the other Germanic tribes. This development had a long lasting effect on the region, which is still with us today in the form of the country of France.

Consolidation under Clovis:

  • In 486 he conquered the last Roman stronghold in Gaul, the ‘Dukedom’ of Soissons and the rest of northern Gaul.
  • Through marriage and war he unified, between 481 and 493, many Germanic tribes under Frankish rule such as the Thuringians and the Alamanni.
  • Through other strategic marital alliances with the Burgundian chieftain (his wife Clotilde was the niece of him) and he married his sister to Theodoric the Great the king of the Ostrogoths
  • While south west Gaul (Gascony/ Aquitaine )was also officially in the hands of the Franks this region maintained most of their independence and at several times did have their own kings.
  • The other branch of the Franks, known as the Ripuarians, lived on then other side of the river Rhine and their power centre was around Cologne. After Clovis was crowned king in 481, these two branches merged into one (see below).
  • At the battle of Dijon in 500, he also concurred the Burgundians; another tribe from north east Europe which after the migration had settled in the Loire region. However, as we will see further, at least for the time being they remained largely independent from the Franks.
  • In 507 he conquered the Visigoths in southwest Gaul.
  • The following year he defeated the rest of the Visigoths at the Battle of Poitiers where Clovis himself killed  King Alaric II and the rest of Gaul was now brought under Mervingian control.

His conquest was ruthless and savage, which was even recognised by Bishop and historian Gregory of Tours, who excused his hero by stating that savage in the name divine vengeance.

 

Ripuarian Franks

The Ripuarian Franks (west of the Rhine) did not join the Salian Franks in their travels into Toxandria and from there to Gallia Belgica and instead they extended their powers around the Middle Rhine, generally around Cologne, the Silva Carbonaria became the boarder between the two groups. In 406 the Ripuarian Franks together with the Vandals, Sueven and the Alans at Mainz attacked the Salian Franks who were the protectors of the Roman boarder. The Salian Franks were first defeated and went further south along the river Scheldt, however, they fought back and regained most of their lost territory again.

Under Clovis the two Frankish tribes were literally joined, somewhere in Lorraine and slowly the difference between the two groups started to fade away. Ripuaria was extended with a further nine provinces and became now known as the kingdom Austrasia, the eastern party of the Frankish empire. Within Austrasia the various gouwen (shires) retained their own leading families. One of the most powerful gouw was Hattuarië (Hettergouw) from where Hamaland and later Gelre emerged.

Notre Dame Reims

Under the influence of  Clotilde, Clovis was baptised in 496 (or 503), in what is now the Notre Dame cathedral in Reims where he was crowned by Archbishop Remigius (Dom Rémy).

In 508 he became king of all the Franks. Perhaps be it still in name only, still respect for the Roman Empire – Clovis offered suzerainty to the Emperor, he received expensive gifts from the Emperor but  there never was an attempt of any effective control or influence from the Emperor over the land of the Franks.

He became the first Christian European ‘king’. From his time onwards most subsequent French kings were crowned in this cathedral. We visited this magnificent cathedral in Reims in 2006.

Clovis was at that time also the only orthodox  Catholic monarch in Europe as the (Eastern) Emperor Anastasius supported the’ heretic’ Monophysite breakaway and the Goths the heretic Arianism version.

Conveniently as a Christian king his barbarian and bloodthirsty wars were from now on interpreted by the historians of that time (e.g. Gregory of Tours) as divine vengeance. However, violence could only be applied in the name of God and Gregory (and others) also used the same violent God to implant fear in the Merovingian rulers to not upset the Gods and the Saints. They would not permit anybody to do anything against their will, otherwise they would used their supernatural powers against them. This allowed the Church to secure the safety of their properties, parish  churches and monasteries. The protection of  their patron St Vincent made Clovis to abandon the attack on Saragossa.

It has been argued that the credibility and support that Clovis received made it much easier for other pagan war lords to become Christians. It started to give these tribal chieftains a level of legitimately in a society that slowly started to become more sophisticated. What started of as booty raids, became wars in the name of the Church to conquer pagan lands in order to convert them to Christianity and of course in the meantime take possession of their lands, treasury and people. Under the banner Christianity he defeated the Visigoth in Spain in 507. The same sentiment was used by Charlemagne when he slaughtered the Saxons and the same principles applied five centuries later in proclaiming the crusades.

While Christianity certainly made significant inroads until well into the 7th century  we still  find at that time rich warrior graves, clearly linked to the old pagan tradition.

During Clovis time it was possible to choose under which law one would like to be governed, Roman law or Lex Salica (Salian Code) the latter based on torture, trial by combat and wergild.

Clovis had united most of the Gaul and Germanica regions into one empire, not included were the southeastern part of the Burgundians and the coastal strip along the Mediterranean. But his empire was never truly united; there was no central authority and therefore it has never been officially recognised as Europe’s first empire. The Frankish hereditary tradition remained and led time and time again to a split up of  their hard won territories.

Saint Clotilde Notre Dame

Clotide wife of Clovis (St Clotde Notred Dame Paris)

Clovis had married Clotilde in 493 and they had four sons:

  • Chlothar I (Clothar)
  • Childebert I (Childeric)
  • Chlodomer
  • Theuderic I

They also had a daughter Chrotilda, who married the Arian King Amalaric of the Visigoths (Hispania).

Clovis died in 511

What’s in a name

The Frankish form Chlodovech was Latinised as Chlodovechus, from which came the Latin name Clovis, which evolved into: Ludwig (German), Lodewijk (Dutch), and Lewis (English) these are just a few of the over 100 possible variations.

Based on the writings of Gregory it can also be concluded that the Merovingians were also able to collect taxes, also indicating that there still were administration systems in place.

The Clovis Children and Grandchildren

Sons Clovis Married children Territory
Chlothar IBorn 497Died 561 524 Guntheuc, widow of brother Chlodomer none Kingdom Soissons, cities of Laon, Noyon, Cambrai, and Maastricht
532 Radegund, daughter Bertachar, King Thuringia none
Arnegund sister Radegund Childeric, King of NeustriaCharibert, King of ParisGuntram, King of BurgundySigebert, King of AustrasiaChlothsind x Alboin, King of the Lombards
Ingund, sister of Aregund Chilperic, King of Soissons
Chunsina (or Chunsine) Chram
Childebert IBorn 496Died 558 Unmarried None Kingdom of Paris. North Somme, West English Channel, Armorican peninsula (Brittany)
ChlodomerBorn 495Died 524 Guntheuc TheodebaldGuntharClodoald (later known as St Cloud). Kingdom of Orléans incl. bishoprics of Tours, Poitiers and Orléans.
Theuderic IBorn 484Died 534 Daughter of Sigismund of Burgundy Theudebert I x Deuteria Kingdom of Rheims incl. Metz (Austrasia)

Note: The grave of Arnegund (2nd wife Chlothar I) was found under a small basilica as St Denis in Paris. She lay in a stone sarcophagus wrapped in beautiful garments and jewellery. She most probably had died around 570. We visited the graves in St Denis in 2014.

Clothar I

After Clovis death in 511 his land was, according to Frankish tradition, divided between his four sons. There were the usual Frankish family feuds and murders but there was also a lot of cooperation between the brothers, their battlefield moved further south during this period. In the end the surviving brother Chlothar ended up with a nearly intact and in some places extended territory.

Chlothar I (Clotaire)also called the Old (le Vieux) was very ambitious, and was the main force behind the expansion. His known wives include: Chunsène, Gondioque, Ingone, Arégonde, Radegonde and Vultrade.

Jewellery from the grave of Queen Aregond

Jewelry from the grave of Queen Aregunde

He was the chief instigator of the murder of his brother Chlodomer’s children in 524 (Clodoald managed to escape), and his share of the spoils consisted of the cities of Tours and Poitiers. He took part in various expeditions against Burgundy and, after the destruction of that kingdom in 534, obtained Grenoble, Die, and some of the neighbouring cities.

Burgundy at that time bordered on the lands of the Allamans and together with the Franks they often worked together within the context of the foederati to extend their territory, rather than keep on wandering.

When the Ostrogoths ceded Provence to the Franks, Chlothar received the cities of Orange, Carpentras, and Gap. In 531, he marched against the Thuringii with his nephew Theudebert I, King of the Rheims area.

In 536 the Byzantine Emperor asked the assistance of the Merovingians against the invading Ostrogoth. He based the request in the fact that the Ostrogoths followed the Arian Catholic flavour unlike the Romans and the Merovingians who both followed the orthodox version. The natural alliance was of course with the Goths, not the Romans.  Intimidation resulted that the Merovingians didn’t assist the Goths. Two years later however, during one of the sackings of Rome, Theudebert used the Burgundians to assist the Goth and told the Emperor that they handled on their own accord, after the sacking of Milan Theudebert changed its tactics and invaded Italy on its own and defeated both the Goths and the Romans, only to be defeated by a (self inflicted) dysentery epidemic that killed their soldiers by the thousands. They missed the organisation and logistic support and rapidly retreated. 7

In 542, Theudebert together with his brother Childebert I went to war with the Visigoths of Spain.

It was during this time that – in 543 – Bishop Gregory of Tours reported the first plague that hit Gaul, only a year after it decimated Constantinople. Thirty years later a plague was reported in Clermont-Ferrand and in 588 the epidemic raged through Lyons, Bourges, Chalon-sur-Saône and Dyon arriving in Marseille in 588.

In 553 the Allemanni (by now a tributary nation to the Merovingian) used the chaotic situation in Italy after the defeat of the Goths and went on a plunder raid. They reached central Italy unopposed but one part of the raiding expedition was hit by the plague and the other group became to ambitious and tried to take on the Romans near Capua were they were annihilated by the Romans.

On the death of his great-nephew Theodebald in 555, Chlothar annexed his territories around Orleans. On Childebert’s death in 558 he became (without any major violence) sole king of the Franks.

Chlotar also ruled over the greater part of East Francia, made expeditions into Saxony, and for some time exacted from the Saxons an annual tribute of 500 cows. The end of his reign was troubled by internal dissensions, his son Chram rising against him on several occasions. Following Chram into Brittany, where the rebel had taken refuge, Chlothar shut him up with his wife and children in a cottage, which he set on fire. Overwhelmed with remorse, he went to Tours to implore forgiveness at the tomb of St Martin, and died shortly afterwards.

In 561 the Avars – a tribe (or federation of tribes)  originating from Central Asia, following the Hun migration. After an internal conflict many Avars were massacred and fled further west. Here they were unsuccessful in persuading the Roman Emperor Justinian to grant them land within his empire and the Avars tried their luck further west and entered the lands of the Merovingians, however the were defeated and retreated to the lower Danube region (Hungary).

The mother of all family feuds

As indicated, Austrasia and Neustria had become the two core parts of the Merovingian Empire, but these names only received prominence after the death of Chlothar I in 561 when the Frankish dominions were split again and divided under his four surviving sons.

However, before that happened, immediately after the death of his father, Chilperic endeavoured to take possession of the whole kingdom, he seized the family treasure amassed in the royal town of Berny and entered Paris. His brothers, however, compelled him to divide the kingdom with them.

  • Charibert, King of Paris 561- 567
  • Guntram, King of Burgundy, with its capital at Orleans 561 – 592.
  • Sigebert, King of Austrasia 561 – 575
  • Chilperic I, King of Soissons, together with Amiens, Arras, Cambrai, Therouanne, Doornik and Boulogne 561 -584

Siegbert and Chilperic

In 567, Sigebert married Brunhilda an Arian Visogoth princess possibly from Toledo. The wedding took place at Siegbert’s palace in Metz. In 2009 we visited this place now called Court D’Or; the Merovingian palace was built on the foundations of a large Roman baths complex.

Brunhilda had converted from Arianism to Catholic Christianity just before the wedding. They had three children: Ingund, Chlodosind, and Childebert II.

In response to Sigebert’s noble marriage, his brother Chilperic went to Spain for Brunhilda’s sister, Galswintha. He had already repudiated his first wife, Audovera. However, Galswintha ordered him to purge his court of prostitutes and mistresses and he soon grew tired of her. He and his favourite mistress, one Fredegund, conspired to murder her within the year. He then married Fredegund.

Fredegonde

Tomb Fredegund (St Denis Paris)

The 1st marriage had resulted in four children Theudebert, Merovech, Clovis and Basina. With Fredegund he had another four children: Samson, Righunt, Theuderic and Chlothar II.

Soon the two brothers, Sigebert and Chilperic, started a war. Sigebert defeated Chilperic who than fled to Doornik. Germanus the bishop of Paris arranged a brief peace. But soon after, Sigebert started to siege Doornik. Fredegund had Sigebert assassinated with poisoned daggers.

Brunhilda

Siegbert’s wife Brunhilda was made prisoner and kept in Rouen. However, very soon after his death – in order to secure her release – she married Merovech the son of her arch enemy Chilperic. However, rather unexpectedly for Chilperic, this marriage led to a war between father and son and Chilperic had his son captured and send to a monastery.

Infuriated, Brunhilda now seized control of Austrasia in the name of her son Childebert II, as the heir of his murdered father Siegbert. After the death of his own two own sons, his uncle Guntram (of Burgundy) adopted Childebert as his son. Male protection was seen as an essential survival tool in these violent and cruel circumstance.

Not being a warrior, Brunhilde, as queen of Austrasia, was primarily an administrative reformer, with a Visigoth education. She repaired the old Roman roads, built many churches and abbeys, constructed the necessary fortresses, reorganised the royal finances, and restructured the royal army. However, she antagonised the nobles by her continued imposition of royal authority wherever it was lax.

Brunhilda detested Fredegund for the murder of her sister and the conflict with her flared up once more upon the death of King Chilperic in 584 (also stabbed to death with daggers). Now as the regent of Neustria, Fredegund was in a position to renew the war with her old enemy.

Fredegund put an army of Saxons together to assist her nephew Childebert in his fight against his uncle Guntram. After Childebert had taken over Burgundy in 593 he immediately started a war with his nephew Chlothar – the sun of Fredegund – of Neustria.

Childebert died in 596 and Brunhilda immediately attributed the death of her son to Fredegund however, the latter died a year later and this finally ended the thirty year long conflict between the two sisters-in-law.

Brunhilda now tried to govern Austrasia and Burgundy in the name of her grandsons, Theudebert II and Theuderic II- the sons of ChildebertII. However, while they defeated Chlotar in 599, once again peace eluded her as her two grandsons in 605 started to war each other.

Theuderic defeated and captured his brother Theudebert in 612, whom the queen was now claiming was in fact the son of a gardener, Theuderic brought him and his royal followers to Brunhilda, who had him put up in a monastery. She probably had him murdered (along with his son Merovech) in order to allow Theuderic to succeed to both thrones unhindered.

Theuderic died in 613 and was succeeded by his bastard son Sigebert, a child. Thus, for the last time in a long life, she again ended up as the regent, this time for her own great-grandson,;she indeed proved to be a real survivor.

However, when the 70 year old Brunhilda started yet another war with Neustria, she was abandoned by Warnachar, her mayor of the palace of Austrasia, and Rado, her mayor of the palace of Burgundy. The grand old lady was imprisoned and tortured on the rack for three days before being ripped apart between four horses, thus ending the long and bloody feud between Austrasia and Neustria.

Many scholars have seen Brunhilda as inspiration for both Brunhild and Kriemhild two rival characters from the Nibelungenlied.

Sons Chlothar I Wife Children Region Mayors of the palace
Sigebert I+575 Brunhilda +613 Childebert II (son) – +596 see belowTheuderic and Theudebert +612 (grandsons)Sigebert II (great- grandson) Austrasia and Burgundy Parthemius (until 548)Gogo (c. 567-581), during the minority of Childebert IIWandalenus (from 581), during the minority of Childebert IIGundulf (from 600), under Theudebert II
Chilperic I+567 unknownFredegund +597Galswintha Theudebert,Chlothar II (son)Merovech Neustria
Charibert Paris and surroundings After his death in 567 split between Siegbert and Chilperic, Paris was shared.
Guntram+592 Veneranda Marcatrudis Austrechildis +580 Two sons who died suddenly in 577 (eye for eye event?)Two daughters Burgundy After Guntram’s death in 592, Childebert II took over

It is also interesting to note here that these tribal inheritance laws have been one of the major reasons for the unstable dynasties throughout most of the Middle Ages. The example with Brunhilde might have been one of the most violent ones, inheritance management often occupied the largest part of the monarch’s time. Some of the double marriages organised by the Burgundian and Hapsburg rulers had a long lasting effect on history of Europe.

By the end of the feud the Merovingian Empire was in ruin. There was little food to feed the population  there was  lack of clean water the population had dropped by an estimated 3% during the period. The old Roman infrastructure of administration, law,  roads and aqueducts was in disrepair.

It had also severely undermined the credibility of the position of the king as the various nobility had been able to lift their power  position during the feud. From now on the position of the nobles would further increase, eventually resulting in the situation that the mayors of the palace were holding the actual power.

Gregory of Tours saw the grandchildren of Clovis as being involved in ‘unproductive’ violence.

The Barberini ivory - Le Louvre

The Barberini ivory – Le Louvre

The Barberini ivory is a Byzantine ivory leaf from an imperial diptych dating from Late Antiquity. It represents the emperor as triumphant victor. It is generally dated from the first half of the 6th century and is attributed to an imperial workshop in Constantinople, while the emperor is usually identified as Justinian, or possibly Anastasius I or Zeno. It is a notable historical document because it is linked to queen Brunhilda of Austrasia. On the back there is a list of names of Frankish kings, all relatives of Brunhilda, indicating the important position of queens within Frankish royal families. Brunhilda ordered the list to be inscribed and offered it to the church as a votive image.

Merovingian heydays

Chlotar II

After the violent murder of Brunhilda, the nobility – 613 – appointed Chlothar II (born 584) son of Chilperic I and Fredegund as the new king of Neustria and in that same year he finally subdued Austrasia and reunited the realm. While wars continued to rage the two empires more or less stayed under one king who reigned from Paris.

The first wife of Chlothar II was Haldetrude (ca 575–604) and their son Dagobert was born in 603. Chlothar’s second wife was Bertrada. His third wife was Sichilde, who bore him Charibert II and a daughter, Oda.

After the partition of the region – in 567 – into three main political territories (Neustria, Austrasia and Burgundy) the Franks had gone from strength to strength, consolidating their powers under Clothar II and his son Dagobert ( who co-reigned as King of Neustria). A prolonged period of stability arrived, which led to the economic boom of the 7th century and trade started to flourish, this was largely controlled by the Frisii, who dominated trade at the mouth of the Rhine and the Rhine Delta.

The economic value of this was clearly understood by Dagobert and his successors and in the following century the Frisii where subjugated by the Merovingians.

Edict of Paris 615

In the Edict of Paris – a very early form of a constitution – Chlothar II officially reserved many rights to the Frankish nobles. He also decreed that the mayoralty of the palace would be a lifetime appointment. The Charter also put the Merovingian monarchy squarely under ecclesiastical control. This greatly pleased the nobles, from whose ranks the bishops were exclusively drawn.

It also excluded Jews from all civil employment.

By these actions, Chlothar lost his own legislative abilities and clearly formed the foundation for the rise of the (Carolingian) mayors who would eventually dispose of the king and put themselves on the throne.

Chlothar II died in 629 after 45 years on the throne.

Dagobert I of Australia

In 623, still during his life, Clothar had to give the kingdom of Austrasia to his young son Dagobert I. This was a political move as repayment for the support of Bishop Arnulf of Metz and Pepin I, mayor of the palace of Austrasia, the two leading Austrasian nobles, who were effectively granted semi-autonomy.
He married Nanthild and they had the following children:
  • Clovis II, who inherited the rest of his kingdom at a young age when his father died.
  • Regintrud who married into the Bavarian Agilolfings.
He also had a mistress named Ragintrudis (Ragnetrude) and they had a son:
  • Sigebert III
His other wives were:
  • Wulfefundis (Wulfegunde)
  • Bertechildis (Berthilde)
  • Gomentrude
Throne of Dagobert - BNF Paris

Throne of Dagobert (BNF museum Paris)

Dagobert was one of the most successful Merovingian kings (and also the last effective one). He was able to unite the Franks and the Saxons to fight the encroaching Slavs who served under Pannonian Avars. In 631 they fought three battles against them. The first two were quite successful, but the main fighting force was defeated in a three-day battle near a place referred as Wogastisburg.
On the death of his father in 629, Dagobert inherited the Neustrian and Burgundian kingdoms. His half-brother Charibert claimed Neustria but Dagobert opposed him. Brodulf, the brother of Sichilde, petitioned Dagobert on behalf of his young nephew, but Dagobert – in good old Frankish tradition – assassinated him and gave his younger sibling Aquitaine.
 Charibert died in 632 and his son Chilperic was assassinated on Dagobert’s orders. By 632, Dagobert had Burgundy and Aquitaine firmly under his rule, becoming one of the most powerful Merovingian kings.
 Also in that year, the nobles of Austrasia again revolted under the mayor of the palace, Pepin of Landen. In 634, Dagobert appeased the rebellious nobles by putting his three-year-old son, Sigebert III, on the throne, thereby ceding royal power in the easternmost of his realms, just as his father had done for him eleven years earlier.
Under Clothar II and Dagobert we start to see for the first time the development of a court with talented and largely aristocratic young men, they both occupied ecclesiastic and secular positions. They included:
  • Desiderius, royal treasurer and later bishop of Cahors
  • Audoin, referendary (sort of proto chancellor), later bishop of Rouen.
  • Eligius, goldsmith of the king and later bishop of Noyon
  • Paul, later bishop of Verdun
  • Sulpicius, later bishop of Bourges
Heilige Eligius patroon van de goudsmeden

St Eligius

This group was also in close contact with the Irish monk Columbanus (see Missionaries and Monasteries). The court participated in a fierce devotion to monasticism.

Good King Dagobert – as he became to know – was devoutly religious and was also responsible for the construction of the Saint Denis Basilica, at the site of a Benedictine monastery in Paris. He died in 639 in the abbey of Saint-Denis and was the first French king to be buried in the new Basilica. We visited the place 2014.

Tomb of Dagobert I

Tomb of Dagobert I

The fair that took place at the festival of St Denis lead to the establishment of one of the first trading places in northern Europe. The original market was most likely around winter supplies.

It also from this period that we have the first ‘immunities’ (see above). They were also issued in the previous period – including in the Late Imperial period – but it is most likely that this period of peace led to the further developments of this system, and perhaps even started to replace some of the ‘in kind’ giving Frankish tradition. The monasteries were the largest beneficiaries of the privileges.

It wasn’t before long that immunity was followed by exceptions and St Denis became central here. Certainly under Clovis II it had become a ‘royal monastery’ – and during that period exceptions were added that led that final control of whatever happened in St Denis was in the hands of the king.

The boy kings

The pattern of division and assassination which characterise even the reign of the strong king Dagobert, would continue for the next century until Pepin the Short finally deposed the last Merovingian king in 751, establishing the Carolingian dynasty.

Certainly after Dagobert however, the key players in this divisive situation was the nobility. While the region is referred to as Austrasia and Neustria, this was not a true geographic event but an ongoing battle between the noble families that ruled these areas. They in particular quarreled about about the lands that lay in-between them, which was mainly the rich farm lands around Reims. The Merovingian (boy) kings as such hardly played any role in these conflicts. More on this further below.

However, the Merovingian kings where the direct decedents of Clovis and they were seen as sacred, this was also further highlighted by the long hair and long beards that these kings wore, a tradition that dated back to their tribal leaders. Hair cutting was seen as a loss of prestige and regal credibility. Queen Brunhilda preferred to let some of her boys killed rather than that their hair was cut.

The Merovingian boy-kings (vegetating kings, rois fainéants) remained ineffective rulers who inherited the throne as young children and lived only long enough to produce a male heir or two, while real power lay in the hands of the noble families who exercised feudal control over most of the land. These nobles required from these kings generous payments, in the form of land. The kings themselves kept some tasks  especially in relation to religious affairs (kingship was now a divine institution) and they remained very active in founding monasteries and donating land and immunities to them.

Clovis II

Clovis II (637 – 655 or 658) – a minor for almost the whole of his reign) succeeded his father Dagobert I in 639 as King of Neustria and Burgundy. His brother Sigebert III had been King of Austrasia since 634. He was initially under the regency of his mother Nanthild until her death in her early thirties in 642. This death allowed him to fall under the influence of the secular magnates, who reduced the royal power in their own favour.

Clovis II’s wife, Balthild, was an Anglo-Saxon aristocrat sold into slavery in Gaul. She had been owned by Clovis’ mayor of the palace, Erchinoald, who gave her to him to garner royal favour. She became the regent over their son who later became Clovis III and that position was instrumental in maintaining the peace in the kingdom.

Clovis II was buried in Saint Denis Basilica, Paris.

Charles Martel, Clovis II, Isabelle of Aragon, Philippe II and IV

Charles Martel, Clovis II, Isabelle of Aragon, Philippe II and IV Tombs St Denis Paris

Clovis II and Bathild had three sons who all became kings after the death of their father.

Clothar III, Childeric II, Theuderic III

The eldest son of Clovis II, Chlothar III  (654-673) , succeeded him in 657

Their second eldest, Childeric II (650-675), was – in 670 – placed on the Austrasian throne by Ebroin. He was married to Bilichilde. He was assassinated while hunting in the forest of Bondy.

The youngest, Theuderic (Thiery) III (654 – 691),  succeeded Childeric in Neustria and in 679 became the sole king of the Franks. He was a puppet king under the Mayor of the Palace Ebroin, who may have even appointed him without the support of the nobles.

The real power however, was with the warring  mayors. In 681 the Neustrian mayor of the palace, Waratton, made peace with Pepin of Heristal, mayor of the palace of Austrasia. However, on Waratton’s death in 686, the new mayor, Berthar, made war with Austrasia but Pepin vanquished the Burgundo-Neustrian army under Berthar and Theuderic III at the Battle of Tertry in 687, thus paving the way for Austrasian dominance of the Frankish state.

Theuderic married Clotilda, a daughter of Ansegisel (Arnulf family) and Saint Begga of Landen.

They had the following children:

  • Bertrada of Prüm (676-740), married Martin of Laon
  • Clovis III, (682-695)
  • Childebert III, king (683-711)

He married Amalberge (Saint Amalaberga) before 674, daughter of Wandregisis and Farahild. They had a daughter:

  • Chrotlind, born about 670

And possibly:

  • Clovis III, king of Austrasia (675-676)
  • Clotaire IV, king of Austrasia (717-719)

After the death of his father in 692 , Clovis III became a puppet king under his uncle Pepin II, mayor of the palace of Austrasia. He assumed the throne at the age of nine and died when he was only thirteen.

He was succeed by his brother Childebert III, he again was a puppet king under the same Pepin.

While attention was focused on combatting the Frisians in the north,  upon the death of Childebert in 711, areas of southern Gaul increased their independence; Burgundy under Bishop Savaric of Auxerre, Aquitaine under Duke Odo the Great, and Provence under Antenor. He was buried in the church of St Stephen at Choisy-au-Bac, near Compièg

Childebert was succeeded by his 12 year old son son Dagobert III (699-715). Real power, therefore still remained with Pippin However, when Pepin died in 714. it opened up the  conflict between his heirs and the Neustrian nobles who elected the mayors of the palace.

Chilperic II

(information taken from Wikepedia)

It was now the turn of Chilperic II to became the next puppet king he was the grandson of Good King Dagobert.

Born in ca 672 as Daniel, the youngest son of Childeric II. He was the last Merovingian king to exercise any authority on his own.

As an infant, he was carried off to a monastery to protect his life from the internecine feuding of his family. There, he was raised as Daniel until the death of Dagobert III in 715, when he was taken from the monastery — at the age of 43 . He took the royal name of Chilperic II

First, it appeared that he was supposed to be but just another tool in the hands of Ragenfrid, the mayor of the palace of Neustria, acclaimed in 714 in opposition to Theudoald, Pepin of Herstal’s designated heir. Chilperic, however, was his own man: both a fighter and a leader, always at the forefront in battle at the head of his troops.

In 716, he and Ragenfrid together led an army into Austrasia, then being warred over by Pepin’s wife Plectrude, on behalf of her grandson Theudoald, and Charles Martel, the bastard son of Pepin of Herstal.

The Neustrians allied with another invading force under Radbod, King of the Frisians met Charles in battle near Cologne, then held by Plectrude. Chilperic was victorious and Charles fled to the mountains of the Eifel. The king and his mayor then turned to besiege their other rival in the city. Plectrude acknowledged Chilperic as king, gave over the Austrasian treasury, and abandoned her son’s claim to the mayoralty.

At this juncture, events took a turn against Chilperic. As he and Ragenfrid were leading their triumphant soldiers back to Neustria, Charles fell on them near Malmedy and in the Battle of Amblève, Charles routed them and they fled. Thereafter, Charles Martel remained virtually undefeated and Chilperic’s strong will was subdued in a series of campaigns waged in Neustrian territory.

In 717, Charles returned to Neustria with an army and confirmed his supremacy with a victory at Vincy, near Cambrai. He chased the fleeing king and mayor to Paris before turning back to deal with Plectrude and Cologne. On succeeding there, he proclaimed one Clotaire IV king of Austrasia (possible son of Theuderic III) in opposition to Chilperic. In 718, Chilperic, in response, allied with Odo the Great, the duke of Aquitaine who had made himself independent during the contests in 715, but he was again defeated by Charles, at Soissons. The king fled with his ducal ally to the land south of the Loire and Ragenfrid fled to Angers. Soon Clotaire IV died and Odo gave up on Chilperic and, in exchange for recognising his kingship over all the Franks, the king surrendered his kingdom to the mayoralty of Charles over all the kingdoms (718).

In 719, he was officially raised on the shield as king of all the Franks, but he survived but a year and his successors were mere rois fainéants (d0-nothing-king). He died in Attigny and was buried in Noyon.

Theuderic IV and Childeric III

The first of the last two puppet kings is Theuderic IV (born 713)  he was king from 721 until his death 737. He was the son of king Dagobert III. He was under the controls of Charles Martel, who had taken him from the Abbey of Celles where he was brought up

After his death, the Frankish throne remained vacant for seven years, until Pippin the Short arranged for Childeric III, the last Merovingian king, to succeed him.

Childeric III (714-753) was king from 743 to his deposition in 751. Neither his parentage nor his relation to the Merovingian family are known for sure. He may have been the son of Theuderic IV.

When, in 747, Carloman – Mayor of of Austrasia – retired into a monastery, Pippin III (the Short) resolved to take the royal crown for himself. In 752, Childeric and his son Theuderic were placed in the monastery of Saint-Bertin or Childeric in Saint-Omer and Theuderic in Saint-Wandrille. Childeric died about four years later.

However, the sacred position of the Merovingian kings was a serious obstacle for the mayors in order for them to be able to depose of a king.This became possible because of the strong relationship that the Merovingians had established with the missionaries and in through Boniface they had even established a strong relation with the Pope, this was important for obtaining the legitimacy of the coup that ended the Merovingian dynasty and brought to Carolingian (Charles Martel) dynasty to the throne. ( see: Carolingians).

Merovingians and their Mayors

With the establishment of a unified territory the king needed to appoint mayors who were the overseers, the managers, of the various domains (hoven). Initially they were not much more than public officers; however, already from the beginning their position was very significant. They rapidly were able to make this a hereditary function and over time their power further increased, and eventually the most powerful family – the Pippins – took over the power from the Merovingian kings.

Merovingian mayors

Key families in this Merovingian land were among others the:

  • Arnulfings (Austrasia – between Mosel and Meuse with Metz as centre). They married into the Pippin family.
  • Pippinids (Austrasia – from Landen east of what is now Brussels)
  • Adalgesil (Austrasia – with lands on the Woëvre plains, Hunsrück, Ardennes,Trier and in the valleys of the Chiers, Meuse and Ourthe rivers.
  • Agilolfings in Bavaria. The Bavarians were another Germanic tribe that evolved perhaps from an amalgamation of other tribes who ended up after the wash up ending the Roman Empire, they might even have a Frankish history. However, they were annexed by the Franks under Dagobert.
  • Goduins, from the vicinity of Toul, along the border with Burgundy. Goduin himself became duke of Alsace, early in the 7th century.

 

There were a range of noble families operating in similar ways and through war, friendship (homage) and marriage the Merovingian nobility became the leading rulers of large parts of Western Europe. They build their medieval villas – large fortified farms – which slowly developed into more prestigious buildings for the kings.

In order to keep the peace with the often feuding nobility the kings facilitated access to the court and court functions. This worked as this period became the Golden Age of the Merovingian period. However, this heralded also the beginning of a new period where the nobility started to challenge the kings for supreme power.

The two leading families at the start of this era of the mayors were the Arnulfings and the Pippines, they, as we saw before, had both been heavily involved in the defeat and death of Queen Brunhilda. This event formed the single largest reason for their rise to power.

With hindsight the battle of Tertry in 687 became a turning point. It was here that Pippin – a rich landowner in Austrasia – triumphed against the Neustrian aristocracy. He became the unchallenged mayor of the palace and his heir would later on start the Carolingian dynasty.

Kings and Mayors of the Palace

King Reigning period Mayor Neustria In office Mayor Austrasia In office
Chlothar II 584 – 629 Landric until 613 Landric until 612Warnachar 612-617, also in Burgundy Hugh (Chucus) 617-623
Dagobert I 629 – 639 Gundoland 613–639 Pippin the Elder 623-629Adalgisel 633-639
Clovis II 639 – 657Siegbert III (Austrasia) Aega 639–641 also in Burgundy Pippin the Elder 639-640Otto 640-642 or 643Grimoald I 642/643-656, died 662
Clovis III 657 – 673 Erchinoald 641–658 Wulfoald 656-680
Ebroin 658–673
Theuderic II 673 – 687First reign Wulfoald 673–675 Pippin the Middle 680-714
Childeric II 673 – 675 Leudesius 675 disposed
Theuderic III 687 – 691Second reign Ebroin 675–680 (again)
Waratton 680–682 disposed by son
Gistemar 682
Waratton 682–686 (again)
Berthar 686–688
Clovis IV 691 – 695 Pippin of Herstal 688–695 represented in court by his follower Nordebert
Childebert III 695 – 711 Grimoald II 695–714 son of Pippin
Dagobert III 711 – 715 Theudoald 714–715
Chilperic II 715 – 721 Ragenfrid 715–718 Charles Martel 715-741
Theuderic IV 721 – 737 Charles Martel 718–741
Childeric III 743 – 751(disposed) Pippin the Short 741–751 – son of Chilperic II Carloman 741-747, died 754 or 755 Pippin the Short 747-751

Notes:

  • Pippin the Middle (of Herstal) took the title Duke and Prince of the Franks (dux et princeps Francorum) after his conquest of Neustria in 687 (but lost it again)
  • Theudoald was the ‘illegitimate’ son of Grimoald II, designated heir of his grandfather Pippin, driven out of Neustria by the nobility, surrendered claim in 716. Nobility acclaimed Charles Martel
  • Charles Martel, ‘illegitimate’ son of Pippin the Middle
  • Pippin III (or the Short, or the Younger) became King of the Franks in 751 (died 768)
  • Berthar was the son-in-law of Waratton, lost the Battle of Tertry to Pippin the Middle in 687, murdered in 688 or 689.
  • Ragenfrid took power in Neustria in 714 or 715, but was defeated by Charles Martel in 717 (definitively 718) and fled, died 731

After Clovis, the kings traditionally reigned from Paris, while the stronghold of the most important mayors was in the old Roman capital of Trier and surroundings. In order to limit the powers of the mayors the kings appointed different mayors in Austrasia and Neustria (from competing families), however towards the end of the periods the Pippins were strong enough to combine the functions in both territories. With the power moving away from the kings to the mayors the centre of power moved further east cumulating in Aachen under Charles the Great. This shift also had its influence on the Low Countries as the Pippins domains included properties in Utrecht, Nijmegen, Tongeren and Maastricht.

When the Carolingian Empire started to disintegrated many of the mayors simply became their own bosses in the domains and pagi they governed, they became the early counts of the pagi. In its turn pagi were split which resulted in more war lords (eg. Bracbatensis – Brabant – was in 843 split into 4 counties).

For the continuation see: Carolingians


  1. Barbara Rosenwein, Negotiating space, 1999
  2. Vanished Kingdoms, Norman Davies, 2011, p87-149
  3. Understanding the Middle Ages, Harald Kleinschmidt,2000, p109, 114
  4. Onder heide en akkers, Evert van Ginkel and Liesbeth Theunissen, 2009, p229
  5. Geschiedenis van Oss, Jan Cunen, 1932, p 21
  6. Jaarboek voor Middeleeuwse geschiedenis, 12|09, Frederik Keygnaert, p12
  7. Justinian’s Flea, William Rosen, page 259