The Frankish Empire
The Merovingian Dynasty
The Franks were one of the many Germanic tribes that crossed the Roman Empire's northern frontier to invade and then settle in Roman territory in the fifth century. Without leaving their homeland, the Germanic Franks gradually expanded into northern Gaul where they played only a minor role until they were led by the warrior chieftain Clovis (r. 481/482 - 511). Through his skill as a leader and warrior, Clovis united the Frankish tribes under his leadership, defeated the last Roman governor in Gaul and annexed Aquitaine in southwestern Gaul from the Visigoths in 507. Except for Provence, Clovis successfully conquered all of Roman and Visigothic Gaul, and transformed it into the Kingdom of the Franks, Francia. Clovis' successors, known as the Merovingian kings, expanded the Frankish domain by capturing Provence from the Burgundians and southern Germany from the Thuringian Kingdom.The Invasion of Italy by the Ostrogoths 490
The Germanic Kingdoms before the Reconquest by Justinian 530
The Reconquest by Justinian 565
A very important factor to Clovis' success was his and his people's conversion in c.496 to Christianity, not like the other Germanic kings to Arianism which was considered heretical, but to orthodox Roman Christianity. Clovis' conversion assured the Franks of the support of the powerful Catholic hierarchy of Gaul and Rome, and made Frankish domination more acceptable to the Roman Catholic population of Gaul.
The Merovingians had a poor sense of government and administration, and the Frankish practice of dividing the kingdom equally among the king's sons was their greatest liablity in their attempt to create a unified Frankish state. In 511, Clovis' kingdom was divided among his four sons, creating the new political units of the Kingdoms of Reims, Orléans, Paris and Soissons. In 561, a new division was made, and when one of the four kings died in 567, yet another partition created Austrasia from the Kingdom of Reims, Neustria from the Kingdom of Soissons, and Burgundy from the Kingdom of Orléans. This repeated partitioning not only reaffirmed these new political units, but they also undermined the strength of the Frankish Empire, which ws being raided at its frontiers. The Slavs and the Avars posed a threat on the northeastern frontier, the Lombards on the southeastern frontier and the Muslims on the southwestern frontier. In 613, the king of Neustria took control of the other two kingdoms and a united Frankish Kingdom was created with its capital in Paris.
The Carolingian Dynasty
By the seventh century, the Franks were one of the dominant forces of western Europe. The Frankish kings, however, were dependent upon the aristocracy to help them govern the kingdom, and with time, the Merovingian king became only a figurehead. Real power lay in the hands of the nobility, overshadowed by officials called the "Mayors of the Palace". From the ascent to that post of Pepin I of Austrasia (d. 639), that office was held by the Carolingian family. The Carolingian "Mayors of the Palace" founded their own dynasty when Pepin III, "the Short" (r. 751 - 768), deposed the last puppet Merovingian king and had himself elected king by an assembly of nobles and anointed at his consecration by bishops. Pepin the Short was able to claim the crown for himself by concluding an alliance with Pope Stephen II in which Pepin recognized the papacy's temporal power around Rome - the future Papal States - and promised to protect the papacy from the Lombard threat in Italy.The Pope Makes the Carolingian Kings
The Frankish Empire at the Death of Pepin III 768
Pepin the Short, who had two sons, Carloman and Charles, continued the Frankish practice of dividing his kingdom equally among his heirs. With the death of Carloman, however, Charles, known as Charlemagne ("Charles the Great", r. 768 - 814), emerged as the sole ruler. Charlemagne brought the Frankish kingdom to its greatest height by considerably extending Frankish territory. As King of the Franks, he consolidated his authority in Gaul and defeated the Lombards in 774. In 778, he marched into Muslim-held Spain. A defeat of his rear guard in the Pyrenees Mountains formed the theme for the heroic epic Le Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland). In campaigns lasting more than thirty years, Charlemagne brought pagan Saxony and Frisia under control. He also annexed the western areas of present-day Czech Republic, Austria, and parts of Hungary and Croatia. In three campaigns, Charlemagne was also able to defeat the Avars by 796. Charlemagne saw himself as the defender of Roman Christianity, and the monks and priests who followed his armies undertook religious conversion where he undertook conquest.
By the end of the eighth century, Charlemagne had created a kingdom that reunited vast areas of what had been, four centuries earlier, parts of the Western Roman Empire, adding to it areas of central and eastern Europe that the Romans had never conquered. On December 25, 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor in Rome, thus inaugurating what later came to be known as the Holy Roman Empire. For the first time since 476, when the last Roman emperor was deposed by a German chieftain, a ruler in the west was emperor. Charlemagne's coronation, at the hands of the pope, made him a sacred ruler with both spiritual and temporal authority.
Charlemagne's capital was at Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) and the palace that he built there became the most important centre of learning and cultural revival in western Europe. The emperor assembled Europe's best scholars and placed them in key positions of responsibility. He founded schools throughout the empire, thus launching what has come to be called the Carolingian Renaissance.
Charlemagne's sole surviving son, Louis the Pious (r. 814 - 840), attempted to regulate the question of succession in order to maintain the unity of the empire. He decided to entrust the imperial title and authority over the entire kingdom to his eldest son, Lothair I, but divided the empire into three dependent kingdoms, one for each son. The birth of a fourth son upset his plans and led to scheming and plotting among them. In the Treaty of Verdun (843), the three surviving Carolingian kings agreed to partition the empire into three equal and independent kingdoms along a north-south axis: Lotharingia (modern Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Alsace-Lorraine and Italy); the Kingdom of the West Franks (roughly modern France); and the Kingdom of the East Franks (roughly modern Germany). Lothair kept the imperial title, but it was now meaningless as his authority over the other kings was only nominal. Fragmentation continued even after the Treaty of Verdun. When Lothair died in 855, his middle kindom was divided among his three sons. Three kingdoms were created: Italy, Burgundy and Lotharingia which were eventually absorbed into the eastern kingdom which restored partially the Holy Roman Empire in the tenth century. This constant partitioning of the empire ended Frankish imperial unity and drew the outlines of future nations: Germany, France and Italy. Even smaller political entities emerged, such as duchies and counties, many with names still recognizable today: Brittany, Champagne, Bavaria and Saxony.The Final Breakup of the Frankish Empire 880
The Emergence of Western European States 910
The internal fragmentation of imperial authority caused by weak Frankish rule and by the emergence of ambitious local magnates coincided with external agents of disintegration. Invaders attacked the empire from every direction; the most serious threat came from the Scandinavian Normans (Norsemen) or Vikings. Their skill as seamen enabled them to raid Europe's coasts and penetrate up its rivers throughout the ninth century. Europe's great cities all fell victim to Viking raids. But like other invaders in European history, the Vikings eventually settled in the lands they invaded and adopted Christianity. The northern French province of Normandy testifies to the settlement of the Norman invaders. The Muslims, from the south, and the Maygars or Hungarians, from the east, also attacked major areas of the empire. Throughout the ninth century, Frankish royal authority in each of the Carolingian kingdoms steadily declined under the growing independence of local aristocracy, and as a result of the massive invasions. By the end of the ninth century, Carolingian power had disappeared.
Copyright © 1996, The Applied History Research Group