The Merovingians were once leaders of the most important of the post-Roman ‘barbarian’ successor states in Western Europe. However, in recent years they have seen their names used in a new twilight world of film references and pseudo-history / conspiracy literature. Given the dynamic and brutal lives the real Merovingians led, and their importance at a crucial time in the evolution of the Europe we now recognize, their real history deserves to be better known.
The Earliest Merovingians
In the declining decades of the Roman Empire a large number of German peoples entered and settled, at first adopting many of the Roman systems. As the Empire then disappeared a hybrid Western Europe emerged, with the Bishops and the towns working with the new Germanic derived leaders. One of these, The Franks, probably originated in the Rhine region out of earlier groups (although their origin myth linked them back to the Trojans) and were involved in the third and fourth century border history of Rome. The Merovingians were a branch of the Franks who emerged in the fifth century and settled in the west later in this process, and they believed they were descended from Merovech, who was linked to a sea god, having supposedly been fathered by a Quinotaur as his human mother swam.
This man is indistinct, and no one takes the sea god seriously, but a branch of the Franks, now known at the Salian Franks, had settled around Tournai by the later fifth century, and were led by Childeric, a descendant of Merovech who sometimes worked within the declining Roman system. His tomb was found in the modern age, a rich mixture of Roman and German burial practices but much of the treasure was later stolen. Childeric was also the main character in the most famous legend linked to the Merovingians: that he saw a vision of lions, then bears, then dogs, and was told this represented the generations of his dynasty.
In around 481/2 Childeric’s son Clovis took over. Having established himself and defeated a Roman ruler called Syagrius, Clovis set about expanding his power, including conquering the other Salian Franks and other Germanic groups, such as the Alemanni, as well as winning land off the Visigoths and other major forces. His capital was set up in Paris, and Clovis has traditionally, although anachronistically, been seen as the father of France. His power spread so far that in 508 the Eastern Emperor Anastasias gifted him some sort of imperial present, aiding Clovis in merging the Germanic and Roman elements of his kingdom. Equally important for the future of Gaul / France, Clovis converted to Christianity, possibly first to Arianism, but then to full Catholicism, and his people would - over time - change with him. This further bound the Merovingians and the existing Romano-Gauls together.
When Clovis died in 511 he was succeeded by his children and the kingdom was divided between the four sons. The deciding factor in placing the vague boundaries was each son ending up with equal wealth and power, and not anything recognizably geographic. Theodoric I was the eldest son, with Clodomir, Childebert I and Clothar I also taking land. The Paris region was divided among the four, and Childebert took Paris itself, Theodoric Rheims, Clodomir Orleans, and Clothar Soissons. This was not tradition, and may reflect a compromise between Clovis’ newer sons getting land, and the proven warrior son of an earlier wife getting something to prevent a rebellion. The wars of expansion continued to the south and easy, with alliances of brothers (and sons) fighting and dying, eventually defeating the Burgundians at the cost of Clodomir - whose children the other Merovingian leaders killed to take his land; they split Burgundy between them - gaining land in the Ostrogothic kingdom, reaching another sea: the Mediterranean, taking Thuringia – where the niece of the Thuringian leader, Radegund, enters Merovingian history as a prisoner taken by Clothar - Bavaria and more. They still could not, however, conquer the Visigothic region of later France known as Septimania, and attacks in Italy had little long term effect.
Given that, once each line went extinct the survivors would divide the estatesup between themselves, there was plenty of sibling conflict, but in 588 Chlotar was the last man standing and he ruled a reunited kingdom.
When Clothar died in 561 the kingdom was divided in the manner of Clovis’ heirs but with a far larger kingdom to separate out, albeit after Chilperic tried to take sole power. Thus time the four sons were Guntram, Charibet, Sigebert and Chilperic, but Charibert died soon after in 567, and the end result was a kingdom seemingly in permanent conflict, with Chilperic and his wife Fredegund, and Sigebert and his wife Brunhild, the best of enemies thanks to Fredegund inspiring her husband to kill his wife: Brunhild’s sister (although Chilperic and Sigebert had fought before over land.) There was plenty of conflict between the brothers, and Guntram tried on occasion to side with Chilperic, but Sigebert came close to wiping Chilperic out before being assassinated by Fredegund’s agents. As these warred the boundaries of the Merovingian lands, now the dominant force in Western Europe, came under pressure from the Lombards out of Italy, the Avars out of the Danube, and the continuing survival of Septimania. Nevertheless new regions emerged out of the bickering, with Austrasia, Neustria, and Burgundy forming up.
When Guntram died, Sigebert’s son Childebert II took his land; he died three years later, and his two sons Theudebert and Theuderic II split it. They would fight together, but the latter would kill the former and his family, and then die of illness. Brunhild, still alive and jumping from relation to relation to keep power, now switched to one of Theuderic’s sons Sigebert II. However, the Merovingians as a dynasty were never in danger of losing their kingdom in their civil wars as the disaffected almost always sought out one of the other Merovingian kings, rather than another family.
Clothar II and Dagobert
In one of those strange co-incidences which has helped generations of students, the Merovingian lands were to be reunited again, in 613, under Clothar II. A son of Chilperic and Fredegund (who had eliminated Chilperic’s other sons by other women, and lost several of her own) he survived thanks to his uncle Guntram’s support, and he had ruled Neustria since 584, but when Brunhild and her line were snuffed out in 613 by rebel aristocrats, Clothar acquired the whole lot, and moved his capital to Paris. There was a partition of the kingdom to give his son Dagobert somewhere to rule, which began a split of the east and west kingdom that kept occurring: Neustria and Burgundy together, Austrasia separate, and when Clothar died Dagobert succeeded to the whole kingdom. He fought border wars but with no real expansion or loss, and was very much still working to Roman Imperial memory.
The Failure of the Merovingians
Dagobert died in 639 leaving two sons: the adult Sigebert III, already head of a sub kingdom, and the young Clovis II. The Neustria / Burgundy and Austrasia split followed. Clovis reached adulthood, but is said to have gone mad (supposedly after taking relics and treasure from St. Denys); he died in 657. A succession of Merovingian kings ruled land which was declining and fraying at the edges as conquered peoples ejected them, but the real transfer of power was going on in the structure of the governments. The Mayors of the Palace were a position of power below the kings, and slowly these came to have more power, prestige and day to day importance. The history of the kingdom is hazy in the sources in this era.
One challenge came with Ebroïn, Neustrian Mayor of the Palace, who tried to select the Merovingian succession and was forced into exile as Childeric II came over and united the kingdom once more. But he offended his supporters, was assassinated, and Ebroin returned and slaughtered his opposition. Meanwhile in Austrasia the Mayors were the Pippinids, or as they later become known, the Carolingians. The Pippinids became Mayors for aiding Clothar II in the struggle against Brunhild, and held the role through Pippin I, Grimoald - who had a son crowned king, until Grimoald was captured and executed; the son survived, but the episode is unclear: had he married a Merovingian princess? - and then Pippin II, who managed to win the struggle against Neustria (aided by Ebroïn’s assassination) and dominated under a series of Merovingian monarchs who came to be deemed the ‘Do Nothing’ kings because the power was in the Mayor’s hands. Now Merovingians were being killed by aristocratic factions, not just other Merovingians.
Pippin II died in 714 with only a grandchild as his official heir, and the Merovingians firmly in decline. Onto the stage there now emerged Charles Martel, a dynamic Carolingian leader who used his position as Mayor to wage a series of campaigns against Neustrians in the north, Muslims to the south west, Aquitaine to the south, and others to the east. Such was the consolidation of the empire and Charles Martel’s power that, when the Merovingian king Theodoric IV died in 737, Charles ruled without a Merovingian. Only when he died in 741, and the lands were divided between Caroloman and Pippin the Short (the III) was a Merovingian forced out of a monastery to become King Childeric III in 743. This didn’t last long, as after the wars to settle the succession against rivals Caroloman entered a monastery and Pepin the Short expelled Childeric III from the throne in 751 and had himself elected and crowned king with the Pope’s blessing. The Merovingian era was over, the Carolingians had begun. Charlemagne would follow.