Charles in charge

When we last left Charles he had been defeated by the Frisian king Radbod and retreated to the hills of the Eifel, south of Cologne. After that stumble it would have been easy for the Austrasian elite to simply accept the new order of things. But Charles was the oldest male Pippinid, and that family had come to mean something over the decades. Charles himself, if his later career is any indication, must have been an extraordinary personality, and the Austrasian nobility flocked to his banner in the forest. As the Neustrian forces passed by, heading back to Paris after their successful siege of Cologne, he struck.

The Battle of Ambleve was the first of an unbroken string of victories for Charles that lasted until his death twenty-five years later. He used unconventional tactics, such as attacking at noonday, which was traditionally a time of rest, and most famously, a feigned retreat that drew Ragenfrid’s booty-crazed forces into a disorganized dash for loot before he turned and counterattacked. Charles recovered much of the treasure Plectrude had given over to Ragenfrid to relieve the siege of Cologne, but he did not stop with that. He cleaned up opposition by the lesser nobility in the realm as well.

In March of 717, on his way to fight, Charles asked permission of Bishop Rigobert of Rheims to stop and pray there. Rigobert refused, so Charles responded that if won the next battle he would be back to dispense punishment. Charles then pursued the Neustrians to Vinchy, and, mindful of the psychic and material toll of civil war, opened negotiations.

The leader Charles, however, in the manner of his ancestors sends his legates to Chilperic, requesting conditions of peace. And lest the blood of the noble Franks be poured out among them, he urges that the leadership of his father be restored to him. He says that it is known to all that his father Pippin had once governed the western Franks with justice and piety and that he demanded nothing other than that he should be in charge of those whom his father had once governed by rightful authority. And when Chilperic and Raganfred heard this, they were filled with great indignation. Not only did they deny him this authority, but they threatened to deprive him of that which he had inherited from his father’s rule. And they warned him that he should prepare for battle on the following day, that he would there undergo the judgement of divine justice, and that divine authority would declare who ought to turn to rule the kingdom of the Franks.1.Earlier Annals of Metz, in Fouracre and Gerberding, Late Merovingian France, p.369.

Apparently the king and mayor did not feel that their defeat was a matter of divine justice.

This battle truly broke the Neustrian force, and Charles chased them all the way to Paris before turning back. He stopped at Rheims to exile Bishop Rigobert and put his own man, Milo, in this place.2.Fouracre, Charles Martel, pp.64-69. The vita Rigoberti is another saint’s life that needs to be translated.

Then he continued on to Cologne to deal with Plectrude, who abandoned all pretense of authority and gave over everything to Charles. His Austrasian authority now firm, Charles named his own king, Choltar IV, in opposition to Chilperic. Now Francia had two mayors and two kings, a situation that could not last for long.

Chilperic and Ragenfrid needed more support, and so appealed to Odo of Aquitaine. They offered him recognized kingship over his realm, in exchange for help against Charles. Odo readily agreed, and early in 718 their combined forces met Charles at Soissons, in a last attempt to stem the Austrasian tide. It worked about as well as any other attempt to halt the tide. The Chronicle of Fredegar states that Odo didn’t even fight, but fled when he saw Charles’ might. In the event, this was the last confrontation of the Frankish Civil Wars.

After the final debacle at Soissons Ragenfrid fled to Angers, not far from Brittany. Chilperic and Odo fled south across the Loire, into Aquitaine. Charles chased them, but was not able to catch the fugitive king. Sometime in 718 Charles’ puppet king Chlotar IV died, just another in a list of kings dying conveniently for the sake of the mayors’ plans.

In 719 Charles was firmly in charge. Plectrude had been neutralized, Ragenfrid was holed up on the borderlands, Radbod had been kicked back into the Frisian marshlands. The last bit of housekeeping was the erstwhile king of Francia, who enjoyed Odo’s hospitality. Charles sent a legation to Odo, who, in exchange for mutual promises of non-intervention, sent Chilperic (along with many gifts) back to Charles for disposition. The war was over, and Charles’ uninterrupted ascendancy had begun.

Some of those on the losing side fared better than others. While not specifically mentioned by the sources, Duke Radbod of Frisia’s gambit to recover his lost territory from the Franks had failed, and he died in 719. We need not read too nefarious a coincidence into his death, as he had ruled for almost forty years. King Chilperic was allowed to live, and in fact struck a deal with Charles, the terms of which were that he would remain king over all of Francia, and Charles would be mayor alongside him. Chilperic, however, also died what must be considered a conveniently early death in a couple of years later, in 721, and thus freed Charles to name a king more of his choosing.

His stepmother Plectrude is not mentioned again, so let’s say that he probably sent her to an abbess somewhere. Young Theudoald, who was last seen fleeing the battlefield at Compiegne in 715, later appears in a charter dated 723, and is mentioned as dying the same year as Charles, in 741.

Ragenfrid evidently also came to some agreement with Charles after his arrival at Angers in 718, because he is not heard from again until 724, when he made a last attempt to expand his influence. “[He] tried to rise up against Charles. And Charles led an army against him and shut him up in the city of Angers. Taking his son as hostage, he, with his usual faithfulness, conceded that he should have that county for himself as long as he lived.”3.Earlier Annals of Metz, in Fouracre and Gerberding, Late Merovingian France, p.370. Without any other sources we are quite helpless to try and identify the source of Charles’ magnanimity in this instance, the most egregious case of rebellious behavior.

Part of it may have been a consciousness of his own overwhelming personal power. Reading about Charles is like watching a tsunami video – he simply will not be stopped. The reason that Charles didn’t pursue Odo and Chilperic in early 718 when he had them on the run was that he decided to go fight the Saxons instead. He turned his army around and marched almost two hundred miles to the east, and emerged victorious, of course. If you can pull that off, are you really worried about a failed noble brooding away in the hinterlands? Perhaps he thought Raganfrid worked more as an object lesson alive than dead.

“[Charles] was, in fact, in a stronger position than his father Pippin had ever been, for having broken the power of the old Neustrian families, he was not fettered by their privileges.”4.Fouracre, Charles Martel, p.74.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Earlier Annals of Metz, in Fouracre and Gerberding, Late Merovingian France, p.369.
2. Fouracre, Charles Martel, pp.64-69. The vita Rigoberti is another saint’s life that needs to be translated.
3. Earlier Annals of Metz, in Fouracre and Gerberding, Late Merovingian France, p.370.
4. Fouracre, Charles Martel, p.74.

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