Here comes the hammer

Charles Martel was one of the most extraordinary men of the early medieval period. He rose from illegitimacy 1.which, in truth, was not as big of a deal back then as the term implies today to become a man so powerful he ruled without a king. He consolidated the Frankish realms, beat back a Muslim army of incursion, assisted in the Christianization of Germany, and divided the lands between his sons, just like a king. By his death he had laid the foundations for the Charlemagne’s empire, and, ultimately, Europe itself.

Charles was born in 688, in Austrasia, to Pepin of Herstal and his concubine, Alpaida. While Pepin was Mayor of the Palace of Austrasia, and thus a man of considerable power, Charles’ very existence led Pepin’s wife Plectrude, not unnaturally, to do her best to exclude him (and his full brother Childebrand) from considerations of succession. When Pepin died in December 714 Plectrude actually had Charles imprisoned, rather than risk him ruining her grandson Theudoald’s chances of succeeding to the Mayorship.2.Their son Gromoald had already died.

Unfortunately for Plectrude her efforts succeeded only in exacerbating the traditionally chaotic post-death power scramble. The nobility didn’t like the idea of a child as Mayor, with Plectrude as the obvious power behind the mayor, behind the throne. Within a few months the Neustrians had appointed their own mayor. Soon Charles, not a man to be denied, had escaped from prison in Austrasia and been proclaimed Mayor. Civil war ensued.

I will cover the civil war in another post, but suffice it to say that Charles emerged as Mayor of the unified kingdom within a few years. During the war Charles displayed both a ruthless military cunning, particularly in the battle of Ambleve, as well as a surprising sense of mercy. Rather than having his enemies killed, the traditional disposition of the defeated, he would dispatch them to religious retreats. He initially continued the tradition of Merovingian rule, however meaningless, and appointed Chlotar IV king. Charles would go through several kings over the next fifteen years.

Charles spent the next ten years consolidating his power internally, while expanding the frontiers of the kingdom externally. He fought and beat the Frisians and Bavarians, and continued fighting the Saxons.3.His grandson Charlemagne would be doing the same thing fifty years later. Charles encouraged the Christianization of Germany, giving his support to Willibrord and Boniface in their efforts beyond the Rhine. In 732 a new menace appeared from Hispania, south of the Pyrenees.

His victory at the battle of Tours made Charles’ name, both in his life and for all time, and earned him the sobriquet, “the Hammer.” After Tours Charles lived another nine years, but he did not rest. He spent a lot of time reorganizing different areas of the kingdom, and continuing the battles at the frontiers. He reconquered the Frisians in 734, and made incursions into Aquitaine and Bavaria. He continued his battles with the Arabs in Provence, allying with the Lombards.

One of the most notable events of Charles’ reign was a non-act, when he declined to appoint a new king on the death of Theuderic IV in 737. For the first time in centuries the Franks were ruled without a king, and continued to be ruled without a king for the next four years, until his death in 741. His sons didn’t have quite the same power and influence, and so found a Merovingian to elevate.

At his death Charles Martel was the undisputed ruler of Francia. He divided the kingdom primarily between his two sons Carloman and Pepin, but, in a faint echo of the circumstances at his own father’s death, included a sliver of land for his son Grifo, at his second wife’s insistence. This caused trouble for years. Charles left no doubt that the Pippinid family were the de facto hereditary kings of the realm. His son Pepin would make it official when he deposed the last king and had himself anointed. Martel’s military genius, administrative acumen, and political ability set the stage for the continued growth and power of Francia.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. which, in truth, was not as big of a deal back then as the term implies today
2. Their son Gromoald had already died.
3. His grandson Charlemagne would be doing the same thing fifty years later.

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