The blood court; Judge Carloman, presiding

In the year 746 Carloman, duke of the eastern Franks and son of Charles Martel, ordered the leaders of the tribe of the Alamanni to gather at a place called Canstatt. They were probably worried at what to expect of the summons, for Carloman and his brother Pepin had defeated them in 742 and 744, and both times the Alamanni had given oaths of fidelity and hostages. But yet again they had broken their oaths, sacrificed their hostages, and rebelled against the Frankish mayor of the palace. What did the Frankish duke want of them now?

Carloman was not a vicious man. Indeed, he was more pious than his brother, and was probably already thinking of a life beyond that of a duke. But that day he had hard choices to make. No longer could the Alamanni rebel against and defy the Frankish order.

Carloman gave a signal, and the slaughter began. “Most of those who had rebelled were put to the sword.”1.Fredegar, Continuations, c29. Thousands would die before the Blood Court of Canstatt was over.

Within a year Carloman had made his next big decision. He passed leadership of the east to Pepin and went to Rome, where he “came devoutly with some of his followers to St Peter prince of the apostles.” Of course, anyone who is hoping for a warm welcome should bring a little something, and so he did. “His many other gifts presented to St Peter the apostle included a great silver arch, before the confessio, weighing 70lb.”2.Liber Pontificalis, Zacharias, 94, c21. He later took vows of poverty and chastity at the hand of Pope Zacharias himself.

There is no way to know if that is how he saw himself from the beginning of his life. We don’t even know when that life began. The best that can be said is that he was the older son of Charles Martel and his first wife Chrotrude. Carloman came first, perhaps in 708, and Pepin followed in 714.3.Fouracre is the only source I’ve found that hazards these dates. Neither child is really heard of until Charles dies in 741, and left his kingdom (he had ruled without a Merovingian king for the last seven years) to his two sons by Chrotrude and another son Grifo, by his second wife (the word concubine is also used) Swanahild.

Apparently the leading families of Francia weren’t too keen on a tripartite division, with an adolescent Grifo taking the vital middle geography. Some sources say that Charles granted Grifo anything at all only at the insistence of Swanahild. Whatever the family dynamics, the brothers “quickly gathered an army, besieged Laon, and captured Grifo… To make sure everything was safe at home while they were abroad, Carloman took Grifo and held him at Neufchateau in the Ardennes Mountains, where Grifo was said to have remained in custody until Carloman left for Rome.”4.Royal Frankish Annals, 741. At that point the brothers could turn their attention to a brewing revolt by the leaders of Bavaria, Aquitaine, and Alammannia.5.Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p39.

For five years they fought, campaigning every year, sometimes together, sometimes on their own. But when they were in the east, and Aquitanian duke Eudo crossed the Loire to sack Chartres, the Frankish counts in the region did nothing. The brothers may have believed that the counts needed a king to cement their loyalty to the non-royal family, which led them to reestablish the Merovingian kingship.6.Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p40. They elevated Childeric III to the throne in 743.

It is important to remember that Carloman was much more than just a lord and conqueror. Even during the constant battles, the raising of armies, and the internecine warfare, he found time to advance Christianity in his realm. He worked with Boniface, the English monk who had begun proselytizing and organizing the church in the east more than twenty years earlier. They organized several church synods in Austrasia, in 742 and 744. According to Boniface, Carloman wanted to “do something toward reforming and re-establishing the ecclesiastical discipline, which for a long time, not less than sixty or seventy years, has been despoiled and trampled upon.”7.Letters of Boniface, XL, in early 742. No doubt Carloman supplied the leadership, while Boniface actually conducted the gatherings.

The problem was that the bishoprics had come to be seen as hereditary, and noble families used the positions as secular rulers. Some gauge of the problem can be seen by the ecclesiastical orders Carloman later issued in his name. For a priest “falling into carnal sin… he shall be imprisoned for two years, first flogged to bleeding and afterward further disciplined at the bishop’s discretion.”8.Letters of Boniface, XLIV, in 743.

By 747 the immediate danger to the kingdom had passed, and a beginning had been made on the necessary ecclesiastical discipline. Carloman’s son Drogo had come of age, who was the only male heir of the brothers. The time was right to retire from public life and join a monastery. Perhaps the Blood Court really had been the last straw. Carloman left Austrasia for Rome, secure in the knowledge that Drogo would continue as mayor of Austrasia under Childeric III. But Pepin had grander ideas.

While the sources are silent on his motivations, Pepin desired to depose the Merovingians and make himself king. In pursuit of this goal he needed to finalize an alliance between the Franks and the papacy so that he would have papal sanction for his efforts. The papacy had been pushing the idea for the last thirty years, to build a bulwark against the encroaching Lombards. Charles Martel, however, had been allied with the Lombard king Liutprand for many years, and so nothing ever came of Rome’s efforts. Pepin, however, took the opportunity to break one alliance to build another in furtherance of his quest to become de facto king, and not just de jure.

Carloman’s attitude to the regime change is unknown, however he remained a staunch ally of the Lombards and their king Aistulf. The Carolingian sources, trying to put the best face on a family feud, say that it was Aistulf who sent Carloman north in 753 to try and dissuade his brother from breaking the Lombard alliance. Carloman went to see his brother, but he may also have had his son Drogo’s interests in mind, for apparently Pepin had been pushing Drogo to the side.

The trip was in vain, and served to illustrate both the ruthless nature of kingship and the changed political order. Drogo and Carloman were both sent to monasteries, and Carloman died in 755. The life of Stephen II in the Book of the Popes outlines the coda of Carloman’s life:

Carloman, brother of kindly king Pepin, who had been living a devout monastic life for some considerable time in St Benedict’s monastery, was persuaded with devilish enticements by the most unspeakable Aistulf, who sent him from there to the province of France to obstruct and oppose the business of ransoming the State of God’s holy Church of the Romans. When he got there he exerted himself to the full and strove mightily to subvert the affairs of God’s holy Church just as he had been sent to do by the unmentionable tyrant Aistulf. But God was propitious and Carloman totally failed to divert to his purpose the steadfast heart of his brother the christian Pepin king of the Franks; instead His Excellency Pepin realized the criminal Aistulf’s cunning and asserted that he would fight with all his strength for the matter of God’s holy church exactly as he had formerly promised the blessed pontiff. Then the holy pope and the king of the Franks consulted and agreed together: as Carloman had vowed himself to God to lead the monastic life they placed him in a monastery there in France, where some days later God called him and he departed this life.9.Liber Pontificalis, Stephen II, 94, c30.

The Carolingians were not a family to put blood before power.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Fredegar, Continuations, c29.
2. Liber Pontificalis, Zacharias, 94, c21.
3. Fouracre is the only source I’ve found that hazards these dates.
4. Royal Frankish Annals, 741.
5. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p39.
6. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p40.
7. Letters of Boniface, XL, in early 742.
8. Letters of Boniface, XLIV, in 743.
9. Liber Pontificalis, Stephen II, 94, c30.

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