Mayor of the Palace – not what you think it is

Before we get into what the Mayor of the Palace was, let’s be clear about what it wasn’t: using today’s definitions, there was no mayor (the leader of a city), and there was no palace (a permanent royal residence). The Latin term is maior domus. A better reading of the term would be something like “leader of the domicile.” Let’s talk about what the position meant for those who held it, and by the end we’ll have a better understanding of the position by comparing the mayor to a modern equivalent.

As with many things in early medieval Francia, the maior domus and other court positions (known as the palatium) originated from Roman institutions. In any monarchical government power is highly personal, and in Francia that personal power was held by the Merovingian kings and their court. “The Frankish royal court consisted of a permanent establishment of household officials who were drawn from the magnates. The court revolved around the king, and it was held wherever the king was, which was usually in one of a half a dozen or so favoured places situated on royal estates.”1.Fouracre, Charles Martel, p.28. Here we can see where the idea of the ‘Palace’ part of the job title comes from. In the Frankish world there was no equivalent to Buckingham Palace, a single building solely associated with the head of state.2.Charlemagne attempted to build something like that with his palace at Aachen, but that took many decades yet. Instead, the palace, the embodiment of the state, was wherever the king and his court happened to be, or, you could say, domiciled.

Over time the role of the mayor came to hold more power and prominence. “In Merovingian Francia the key figure here was the mayor of the palace, for he controlled access to the king and effectively he was the broker between the interests of the magnates and those of the ruler. The mayor of the palace was regarded as the most important non-royal person in the kingdom…”3.Fouracre, Charles Martel, p.28. The three Frankish regions or sub-kingdoms of Austrasia, Burgundy, and Neustria all had their own mayors.4.Wallace-Hedrill, Long Haired Kings, p216. While the kings were strong, the mayor functioned as the king’s right arm, but by the second half of the 7th century the kingship had weakened due to internal conflicts. The mayor became ever more powerful as they deputized for young kings in Burgundy and Austrasia. “The office of maior had indeed become a princely position. Prior to the seventh century, the term princeps had referred only to imperial or royal office. Now increasingly maiores were claiming sovereignty.”5.Geary, Before France and Germany, pp.200-01.

There is no better example of an attempt to grab sovereignty than Grimoald, the mayor of Austrasia. In 656 he tried to have his son adopted by the Merovingians and made king, as Childebert III. Both were ambushed and killed by the Neustrians. The gambit failed, but was obviously a harbinger of things to come. The last strong king was Childeric II, who ruled from 661-675. He was killed along with his pregnant wife after starting a blood feud with another family. “[H]e was master in his own house and able to resist over-mighty mayors, the roots of whose tyranny had lain in the opportunity of a succession of minors.”6.Wallace-Hedrill, Long Haired Kings, p233. The death of Childeric signaled the beginning of the end of the Merovingian dynasty, and the beginning of the “do-nothing” kings noted by Einhard. This led to a fracturing of the realm.

[T]he same diminishing of royal power combined with the consolidation of regional power that pushed the maiores of Neustria and Austrasia toward quasiroyal status was having the same effect on dukes in other areas. In Thuringia, Frisia, Aquitaine, Alemannia, and Bavaria the maiores were becoming more independent. By the early eighth century, even bishops were exercising a principatum in the territories. As their common bond, a relationship with a powerful Merovingian king, disappeared, such independent lords felt no similar allegiance to the Pippininds, who were at best their equals, and in many cases their social inferiors.7.Geary, Before France and Germany, pp.200-01.

The most famous mayor of all was Charles Martel. His father was Pepin of Herstal, the first mayor to hold power across the entire realm. Charles used the reigns of power the mayorship gave him to push himself from relative obscurity to the pinnacle of the realm. He became so powerful, in fact, that he didn’t even bother ‘appointing’ a new king when one died in 737, but instead ruled using the title of Mayor. The kingdom had no king until Charles’ sons Pepin and Carloman, themselves now Mayors of Neustria and Austrasia, felt compelled to raise Childeric III to the throne, probably in an effort to consolidate their hold on the realm by resurrecting old loyalties to the royal family.

Oddly enough there is no detail on what a mayor actually did every day. The secondary sources I’ve cited here don’t provide examples, nor does Einhard when he talks about the position:

The wealth and power of the kingdom were held tight in the hands of certain leading officials of the court, who were called the Mayors of the Palace, and on them supreme authority devolved…. [The king was given] a precarious living wage which the Mayor of the Palace allowed him at his own discretion…. It was the Mayor of the Palace who took responsibility for the administration of the realm and all matters which had to be done or planned at home or abroad…. It was customary for this title of Mayor of the Palace to be granted by the people only to those who outshone all others by family distinction and the extent of their wealth.8.Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, ch.1-2, pp.55-56.

It wasn’t until Carloman had retired to a monastery and Pepin had arranged to have himself anointed as the new king did the position of mayor disappear. One man now held all power, and if you could be called king or mayor, which title do you think was dropped? It was never mentioned again.

In our world there are no palace mayors, but someone in a kingdom still has to run the show while the king or queen is off on parade or opening a new canal. As parliamentary democracy rose in England the monarch gradually lost the reigns of power to a group of ministers who oversaw the functions of government. Eventually one minister came to be the ‘first among equals,’ and his position was later codified as the ‘prime’ minister, the one who takes “responsibility for the administration of the realm and all matters which had to be done or planned at home or abroad.” Which brings us to the 21st century, which, sometimes, turns out to be not that different from the 8th.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1, 3. Fouracre, Charles Martel, p.28.
2. Charlemagne attempted to build something like that with his palace at Aachen, but that took many decades yet.
4. Wallace-Hedrill, Long Haired Kings, p216.
5, 7. Geary, Before France and Germany, pp.200-01.
6. Wallace-Hedrill, Long Haired Kings, p233.
8. Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, ch.1-2, pp.55-56.

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