The Early Carolingians
Coin of Charles the Bald
1. The Merovingian dynasty,
from which the Franks were accustomed to choose their Kings, is thought to have lasted
down to King Childeric III, who was deposed on the order of Stephen II, the Pope of Rome.
His hair was cut short and he was shut up in a monastery. Though this dynasty may
seem to have come to an end only with Childeric III, it had really lost all power years
before and it no longer possessed anything at all of importance beyond the empty tide of
King. The wealth and the power of the kingdom were held tight in tie hands of certain
leading officials of the court, who were called the Mayors of the Palace, and on them
supreme authority devolved. All that was left to the King was that, content with his royal
title, he should sit on the throne, with his hair long and his beard flowing, and act the
part of a ruler, giving audience to the ambassadors who arrived from foreign parts and
then, when their time of departure came, charging them with answers which seemed to be of
his own devising but in which he had in reality been coached or even directed. Beyond this
empty tide of King, and a precarious living wage which the Mayor of the Palace allowed him
at his own discretion, the King possessed nothing at all of his own, except a single
estate with an extremely small revenue, in which he had his dwelling and from which came
the servants, few enough in number, who ministered to his wants and did him honor.
Whenever he needed to travel, he went in a cart which was drawn in country style by yoked
oxen, with a cowherd to drive them. In this fashion he would go to the palace and to the
general assembly of his people, which was held each year to settle the affairs of the
kingdom, and in this fashion he would return home again. 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.
2. At the time of Childeric
III's deposition, Pepin the Short, the father of Charlemagne, was already performing this
duty as if by hereditary right. Charles Martel, the father of Pepin the Short, had
performed the same office with great success, inheriting it in his turn from his own
father, Pepin of Herstal. It was Charles Martel who had crushed the despots who were
claiming dominion for themselves throughout the whole land of the Franks. It was he, too,
who had conquered the Saracens, when they were striving to occupy Gaul, in two battles,
one in Aquitaine, near the city of Poitiers, and the other by the River Berre, near
Narbonne. In this way he compelled them to withdraw into Spain.
It was customary for this title of Mayor of the Palace to be grated by the people only to those who outshone all others by family distinction and the extent of their wealth.
Pepin the Short, the father of Charlemagne, held the office for some years. under, if that is the word, King Childeric III, about whom I have told you. It had been handed down to him and his brother Carloman by their grandfather and their father, and Pepin shared it with his brother in the greatest harmony. Carloman then relinquished the heavy burden of administering a temporal kingdom and went off to Rome in search of peace, exactly for what reasons it is not known, but apparently because he was fired by a love of the contemplative life. He changed his dress, became a monk, built a monastery on Monte Soracte beside the church of Saint Sylvester. and there, in the company of the brethren who had come to join him for the same reason, enjoyed for some years the peace for which he longed. However, many noblemen from the land of the Franks kept journeying to Rome in the performance of their vows, as the custom is, and they were loath to miss visiting the man who had once been their lord. By their never-ending payment of respects they interrupted the calm which Carloman enjoyed so much and forced him to change his dwelling place. As soon as be realized that the perpetual repetition of this sort of thing must inevitably interfere with his plan, he left his mountain retreat and went off to the province of Samnium and the monastery of Saint Benedict on Monte Cassino, and there he passed in the religious life what remained of his earthly existence.
By the authority of the Pope
of Rome, from being Mayor of the Palace Pepin was made King. He ruled alone over the
Franks for fifteen years or more. Once he had finished the war in Aquitaine, which he had
undertaken against Waifar, Duke of that country, and waged for nine consecutive years,
Pepin died of dropsy in Paris. Two sons survived him, Charlemagne and Carloman, and
on these the succession of the kingship devolved by divine right. A general assembly was
convened, according to custom, and the Franks appointed the two of them to be their Kings,
on the express condition that they should divide the whole kingdom equally, Charlemagne
taking over the government of the part which their father Pepin had held and Carloman the
part which their uncle Carloman had ruled.
These conditions were accepted
on both sides and each received the half of the kingdom which had been allotted to him in
this way. This harmony continued between them, but with great difficulty, for many of the
partisans of Carloman did their best to break up the alliance, to the point that certain
of them even plotted to engage the two in warfare. However, the course of events proved
that this danger was more imaginary than real, for Carloman died, and his wife and sons,
together with a number of men who had been the leaders among his nobles, fled to Italy.
There, for no particular reason, except perhaps scorn for her husbands brother,
the widow placed herself and her children with her, under the protection of Desiderius,
King of the Longobards.
After having ruled the kingdom conjointly with Charlemagne for two years. Carloman died of some disease. Once his brother was dead, Charlemagne was elected King with the consent of all the Franks.