“The long-haired kings.” The phrase is familiar, but of all things why would hair be the signifier of kingship? The sources don’t tell us why, but they do tell us that long hair was important.
Gregory of Tours has a couple of examples. While summarizing some of the earliest writings about the Franks, he notes that they came from Pannonia and “set up in each country district and each city long-haired kings.”1.Gregory, History, book II, section 9
Gregory also tells the story of Chararic, a rival king of Clovis I. Clovis defeated the king and sons, then “had their hair cut short.” He did not kill them, but had them imprisoned in a monastery.2.People too important to kill but too troublesome to let loose were commonly sent to a monastery. Later, however, when the sons “were threatening to let their hair grow again and then to kill [Clovis], he had their heads cut off.”3.Gregory, History, book II, section 41
It is easy to say that kings were important and that they ruled kingdoms. Easy but meaningless – we need a working definition. What did it mean to be a king in the 8th century?
The nature of kingship had evolved since the Germanic tribes moved west over the Rhine to displace Roman rule in the first centuries after Christ. Evidence is sparse and sketchy, but the tribes were ruled by war band leaders that the Romans interpreted as kings. The members of the tribe owed personal allegiance to the leader, received protection from him, and shared in the victories and defeats of the tribe.
These early kings came from powerful families that came to be characterized as “noble.” Gregory of Tours noted that after the Franks crossed the Rhine they “set up in each country district and city long-haired kings chosen from the foremost and most noble family of their race.”1.Gregory, History of the Franks, book 2, chapter 7 Thus the Merovingian line was founded, and Clovis became their first great king.
The king also functioned as a lawgiver and judge. While the kings would discuss and debate matters at the yearly general assembly of the Franks, the resulting capitularieswere issued over the king’s signature. As the maker of the laws, the king was also the ultimate judge. The nobility had the privilege and access to take their disputes to the king for resolution.
It is not solely with temporal responsibilities that a king is known. The early Germanic leaders were believed to possess a special connection to the supranatural world. The king was not a god, like the pharaohs, or deified after death like the Roman emperors, but a liaison to the gods. That special connection persisted through the bloodline, and so rule descended through families. This religious and spiritual element devolved easily to Christianity as the faith spread through Europe. The king was still a war leader, and it was in the fulfillment of this duty that his hold on power rested. But he had also become God’s representative, His chosen vassal on earth.
The king’s religious and spiritual role did not change the fact that the leader of a people must be seen and heard to be effective. The dukes and counts of the realm needed the king’s presence to validate their own rule.3.Bernhardt, Itinerant Kingship, p50 Pepin and Charlemagne spent much of the year traveling, either at the head of their armies, or to the annual assembly, or to various towns and manors. It was a traveling court. When they could not go themselves, they sent personal delegates, missi dominci, in their place.
To all this we must add the non-material but crucial role of symbol of the nation, of the gens, of the people. In our own day western societies continue to maintain the symbolic position of head of state, be it a republican president or monarchical queen. In a non-technocratic age when so much was personal, the king was essential.
Essential but not omnipotent. When Pepin was raised as the first Carolingian king, one near-contemporaneous account notes that, “King Pepin had been raised to the throne of the kingdom by [the pope and ritual] and election by all the Franks.”4.Dutton, Carolingian Civilization, p.13 As early as the first century Tacitus noted that “The power even of the kings is not absolute or arbitrary.”5.Tacitus, Germania, book 7 As noted above, the capitularies issued by the king were written after debate amongst the great men. The king ruled in conjunction with and the approval of the ecclesiastical and secular magnates of the kingdom.
War leader, law giver, judge, symbol of the tribe, and bridge between god and man, the early medieval king filled many roles. No mere Mayor of the Palace or duke would do.
The next source you should know about is a biography of Charlemagne, the Vita Karoli, written not long after his death. But like all sources from this time (or any time), you have to approach it with caution.
A noble and learned man named Einhard, born around 770 of a noble family from the eastern part of the realm, wrote the biography in his retirement, about a decade after Charlemagne’s death. Einhard came to the king’s court in 791 after an extensive monastic education, a group of scholars that Charlemagne had been gathering around him. He was a tiny man with a busy mind – Lewis Thorpe, translator of a popular edition of , notes that the Bishop of Orleans compared him to a busy ant. Einhard was apparently one of the brightest stars in the firmament, and it fell to him to write the great man’s biography after his death in 814.
Let’s take a look at the basic political geography of the Franks.
Two kingdoms made up the core of the Frankish lands, Neustria in the west and Austrasia in the east. They can be very roughly compared to France and Germany, with many caveats. We’ll start with Austrasia, traditionally the larger, stronger of the two, and the homeland of both the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties.
Austrasia occupied the drainage area of the lower Rhine, including the Main and the Meuse rivers. The Franks did not, however, control the mouths of the Rhine and the Meuse, rather leaving those under control of the Frisians. They did control the coast south of the Meuse, down to approximately the Franco-German border today. When you think of Austrasia, think of Belgium, Luxembourg, the eastward part of the Netherlands, and north-western Germany. The countryside tends to open and flat. The German army took this path in the opening blow of the First World War in their march on Paris (the infamous “right wing”).
Pepin and his father Charles both were born and lived under the Merovingian dynasty. The line dated back to the reign of Childeric, who became king of the Salian Franks around 457. His father, Merovech, was said to be born of the union between his mother and a sea monster known as a quinotaur, in one of the dark ages’ most intriguing legends.
The Merovingians ruled the Franks for the next three hundred years. By the late 7th century, however, the palace office holder known as “the mayor of the palace”* came to hold more and more power. After Martel emerged victorious from a civil war in 718, he appointed Chilperic II as king. When Chilperic died Charles enthroned Theuderic IV. This was the era of the rois faineants, the do-nothing kings.