Civil war!

“At this time Pippin was struck down by a high fever and died. He had held the chief position under the king for twenty-seven and one half years. Plectrude governed everything discreetly with her grandchildren and with the king.”1.Liber Historiae Francorum, ch.51, p.111. With the characteristic understatement of the early medieval chronicler, everything that is wrong is laid out in three simple sentences. Another chronicler ably lays out what happened next. “When Pippin died, the greatest disorder grew up among the people of the Franks.”2.Late Merovingian France, Annals of Metz, p.365.

Late in the year 714 Pippin of Herstal, Charlemagne’s great-grandfather, was almost eighty years old, and he was dying. He was the latest and most powerful member of the Pippinid family (also called the Arnulfings), who had first been noticed in the early 7th century. After waging wars of unification he had held the positions of both Mayor of the Palace of Austrasia and Neustria for more than twenty-five years, and had seen kings come and kings go. Most recently King Childebert III, the last strong Merovingian, had died in 711, after a reign of sixteen years. His son, Dagobert III, succeeded him, but the boy was only twelve at his ascension. It fell to Pippin to run the kingdom for the child monarch, which he did until he felt his end was near.

The position of Mayor had become almost as hereditary as the kingship, and Pippin was well placed to parcel out the position to at least two of his four sons, Grimoald II, Drogo, Charles, and Childebrand. Fortune, however, had not smiled on Pippin. Drogo and Grimoald, the children of Pepin’s marriage to Plectrude, were both dead. Drogo had died some years earlier, and Grimoald had been killed mere months before, assassinated on his way to visit his sick father. The killer was a Frisian named Rangar. Why a Frisian would have killed Grimoald is an odd question, because Grimoald had married Theudesinda, the daughter of Radbod, the Duke of Frisia, just a few years earlier.3.Fouracre, Charles Martel, p.53. The Annals of Metz, however, written with a pro-Pippinid view, refer to her only as a concubine.

That left Pepin with two grown sons to whom he could have passed the Mayorship, but they were children by Pepin’s concubine Alpaida. Pepin, fatefully, decided to pass the position to his grandson Theudoald, a boy of eight. The consequences are not hard to predict. “After his death his widow, the lady Plectrudis, took everything under her control. The end of it was the the Franks plotted a revolt.”4.Fredegar, Continuations, ch.8, p.87.

Why so great and powerful a man made this very unwise decision at the end of his life is unclear. Perhaps it was the prodding of a jealous wife who wished for her own family to thrive, and looked forward to wielding power herself. Whatever the reason, the result was four years of bloody civil war. In the greatest of ironies, the end result was exactly what Pippin and Plectrude had plotted to avoid.

Pippin of Herstal died on December 16, 714. Plectrude did her best to rule in her grandson’s name and to solidify her hold on power, but her efforts were not appreciated. “[S]he had decided to rule with feminine cunning more cruelly than was necessary.”5.Late Merovingian France, Annals of Metz, p.365. One of her first acts was to imprison Charles in a Cologne dungeon, but it was not enough, but that only delayed her inevitable deposition. Regions of the kingdom that Pepin had held together began to split away: Odo of Aquitaine declared himself independent, while in Neustria the nobility decided to make a play for power. These Franks, far from Plectrude’s power base in Austrasia, did not like the idea of being ruled from the east by a woman and a child.

A Neustrian force met young Theudoald and his army on September 26, 715 near Compiegne, and scattered the Austrasian forces. In what was probably his last act as mayor “Theudoald fled from his companions and escaped.”6.Fredegar, Continuations, ch.8, p.87. The emboldened Neustrians named one Ragenfrid as Mayor of the Palace. Then things started to really unravel.

Ragenfrid prepared for war against Austrasia, to reunify the kingdom under Neustrian rule, and to break the Pippinid hold on power. Ragenfrid had a card up his sleeve to play, when he and Rabod, duke of Frisia, announced their alliance. Perhaps here we see the reason for Theudoald’s assassination at the hands of a Frisian. The Franks had, while under Pippin, taken some land in south Frisia, and Pippin had championed the Christianization of the region. Perhaps Radbod offered his help in the civil war in exchange for the return of his former territory and freedom from spiritual interference. He couldn’t very well go to war with a mayor married to his own daughter, but if his son-in-law was out of the way, he could enjoy far more freedom of action.

In Austrasia these developments must have shaken the nobility out of their allegiance to their old master Pippin’s heir, for Charles either escaped from Plectrude’s prison or was set free, and was promptly acclaimed Mayor of the Palace of Austrasia. The unified kingdom that was Pippin’s creation was broken.

The boy king Dagobert III died in 715, at the age of fifteen, which gave Ragenfrid the opportunity to name a new king. Ragenfrid went to the monastery at Chelles and pulled out a monk named Daniel, who was the youngest son of Childeric II, king of the Franks until 675. Daniel, now about forty-three, was crowned as Chilperic II. Ragenfrid and Chilperic marched northeast, while Radbod marched southeast out of Frisia. Charles was caught in a pincers.

Charles scrambled, but he had not had time to prepare. “The warrior Charles went with his army to meet Radbod, and in the ensuing battle there was no small loss of brave and noble men. When Charles saw how his army had suffered, he retreated.”7.Fredegar, Continuations, ch.9, p.88. While Charles reorganized his forces in the hills of the Eifel region, Ragenfrid and Chilperic met Radbod outside of Cologne, Plectrude’s capital. After a short siege she capitulated. Plectrude gave over most of the Austrasian treasury and renounced her grandson’s claims to office. Flushed with success, the king and his mayor (or was it the other way around?) turned west for home.

If they had started to count the money and toast their success, they had badly underestimated Charles. He was waiting for them.


Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Liber Historiae Francorum, ch.51, p.111.
2. Late Merovingian France, Annals of Metz, p.365.
3. Fouracre, Charles Martel, p.53. The Annals of Metz, however, written with a pro-Pippinid view, refer to her only as a concubine.
4, 6. Fredegar, Continuations, ch.8, p.87.
5. Late Merovingian France, Annals of Metz, p.365.
7. Fredegar, Continuations, ch.9, p.88.

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