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Örjan Martinsson


The Frankish Kingdom

= Roman Empire   = Frankish foederati

The Franks were originally a confederation of Germanic tribes east of the Rhine that from AD 257 began to raid Roman territory. Because they were just one of several Germanic tribal confederations that ravaged the Roman Empire from the third century and onwards the Roman emperors had great difficulties to ward of their attacks. Not even the seas were safe from Frankish attacks since they also were capable pirates. But the Franks also had a positive influence on Rome by supplying many recruits to the Roman army and a Frankish tribe got permission by the emperor Julian to settle on Roman territory between the rivers Schelde and Meuse as foederati (ally) in AD 358. As foederati the Franks were obliged to assist the Roman Empire with troops but got in return complete autonomy in the area where they were settled. Thereby a Frankish state had been created that a few centuries later would dominate western Europe.

= Salian Franks 358   = Conquests to 460   = Conquests to 482

The Salian Franks was not the only Frankish tribe that settled on Roman territory. In about AD 430 Franks were allowed to settle in the area west of the Salian Franks' original territory and from the east of the Rhine came those Franks which have been called Ripuarians by the historians and who took possession of the area between the rivers Meuse and Rhine. Those Franks who remained in the Franks’ original territory east of the Rhine were called Eastern Franks. The leading Frankish tribe was the Salians and their kings united all Franks during the latter half of the fifth century. These kings were called Merovingians because they descended from Merovech whom the Franks believed to be son of a divine creature.

= Frankish Kingdom 482   = Conquests to 496   = Conquests to 507

The most famous Merovingian king was Clovis who ascended the throne about 482 AD. He was already from the beginning of his reign forced to fight rivalling Frankish leaders whom he brutally killed. The last remnant of the West Roman Empire was conquered in 486 when Clovis defeated Syagrius who had ruled over northern Gaul. That part of the Frankish kingdom would be called Neustria (the New Land) as opposed to Austrasia (the Eastern Land), which was the original core territory of the Franks. Clovis’ conquests were however far from over and he attacked and defeated the Germanic tribal confederation of the Alemanni in about 496 AD thus adding large territories to his realm. The influence from his Burgundian queen Clotilda persuaded him to convert to Christianity after the battle against the Alemanni. Clovis’s decision to join the Catholic church rather than the Arian branch of Christianity like the other Germanic peoples had great significance since he then could count on support from the population in his neighbouring kingdoms who regarded the Arians as heretics.

The struggle against the Alemanni was however not over until 502 when all their territory was conquered by the Franks, except for a minor area that was protected by the Ostrogoths. Before that Brittany had been forced into submission although they retained considerable autonomy. Clovis’ last conquest was Aquitaine, which was taken from the Visigoths in 507. Only an intervention from the Ostrogoths prevented a complete conquest of the Visigoth kingdom. That campaign also resulted in Clovis’s appointment to Roman Consul by the East Roman emperor, which increased the prestige of the Frankish kingdom and gave their claim to be an heir to the Roman Empire greater credibility.

= Frankish Kingdom 511    = Conquests to 537   = Vassal states

When Clovis died in 511 the kingdom was divided between his four sons. This followed a pattern that would be repeated during the following centuries and meant that the Frankish kingdom was only united during short periods. The Merovingian kings were however very belligerent and many of them died before they had spawn any sons, which prevented the kingdom from being permanently dissolved. But a consequence of the divisions was that the Merovingians in an increasing extent fought more among themselves than with external enemies. An exception was the period 531-537 when the Frankish kingdom again conquered vast territories. The Thuringian kingdom was destroyed and a part of it was conquered 531. The Burgundian kingdom was conquered 532-534 and as a result of the East Roman emperor’s war against the Ostrogoths the latter was forced to cede what remained of Alemannia together with Provence to the Frankish kingdom 536-537 in exchange for Frankish neutrality. At the same time Bavaria was forced to recognise Frankish supremacy and the Frankish kingdom strengthened its control over Aquitaine.

= Frankish kingdom    = Conquests   = Losses

The continuous divisions of the kingdom between the Merovingians had the effect that three Frankish part kingdoms came into being, Neustria in the west, Austrasia in the east and Burgundy in the south. The peripheral areas like Brittany, Aquitaine, Alemannia, Thuringia and Bavaria often tried to gain independence and the repeated struggles between the Merovingians gave them several opportunities to do so. The Thuringians became independent after the death of Dagobert I in 639. Aquitaine refused to acknowledge the Merovingians' rule after the murder of Childeric II in 675. The already autonomous states of Brittany and Bavaria freed themselves from the Franks during the latter half of the seventh century. Finally Alemannia managed to gain its independence 709-712. The conquests that were made during the same period could not compensate these losses. A few areas in the Alps had been conquered from the Lombards in 575 and western Friesland was subjugated in 689. But the Frisians made just like the other peripheral areas several attempts to regain their freedom.

The Merovingian kings did not only lose territory during this period, their power in the remaining parts of the Frankish kingdom were also reduced as a result of under aged kings. The office of Major Domus had been created to manage the kingdom until they came of age, but since it became permanent and hereditary the holders of these offices became the real rulers of the Frankish kingdom even when the kings were adults. In the battle at Tertry in 687 the Major Domus of Neustria and Burgundy was defeated by his Austrasian colleague Pepin of Heristal who thereafter ruled the entire Frankish kingdom.

= Frankish kingdom 714   = Conquests to 768   = Vassal state

When Pepin of Heristal died in 714 his six year old grandson Theudoald became the new Major Domus. The office that had been created to manage the kingdom when the kings were minors had now grown to be so powerful that it self could be inherited by minors. Pepin’s illegitimate son Charles Martel however did not accept this transition of power and proclaimed himself Major Domus and became the first ruler of the Carolingian dynasty, which definitely deprived the Merovingians of their power. The following decades were almost without interruptions spent on wars when the Carolingians tried to reconquer the lost territories and ward of attacks from the Arabs, whose invasion in 732 was repulsed in the battle at Poitiers. The struggles to unify the kingdom were hard but successful. Thuringia, Alemannia and Bavaria were finally subjugated in 744. Bavaria retained their old autonomy but ceded all land north of the Danube. The Franks took control over the Balearic islands in 754 and conquered Septimania from the Arabs in 759. Aquitaine was reconquered in 768. An alliance with the pope led to two successful campaign against the Lombards 754 and 756. At the same time the Carolingians strengthened their power within the Frankish kingdom and Pepin the Short deposed the last Merovingian king in 751 and had himself elected king.

= Frankish Kingdom 768  = Conquests to 814   = Losses 798
  = Loosely held territories

Pepin the Short died in 768 and left Western Europe’s strongest kingdom to his two sons Charlemagne and Carloman. The latter died 771 and Charlemagne could use the resources of the unified kingdom to expand it in all directions. When the Lombards threatened the Pope again, Charlemagne invaded Italy and made himself king of the Lombards 774. The Lombard principality of Benevonto in southern Italy would however only recognise Charlemagne’s supremacy for brief periods. In contrast to the quick conquest of the Lombard kingdom, the subjugation of the Saxons in the northeast (772-804) was a long and bloody affair. To break the Saxons' will to resist, Charlemagne massacred thousands of them and only through deportations of Saxons and resettling of Franks and Slavs in their place was the region finally pacified. Bavaria, which always had been an unreliable vassal, was annexed to the Frankish kingdom in 788 after its duke had conspired with Lombards and Avars. The Avar Empire with its centre in Hungary was crushed 791-796 whereupon the Slavic areas in Central Europe recognised Charlemagne’s supremacy. Eastern Friesland was conquered 784-785 and Brittany acknowledged Frankish supremacy 799. The campaigns against the Arabs were less successful but Charlemagne managed to extend his influence to the river Ebro 812, although the Arabs in their turn had taken the Balearic Islands in 798.

The Conquests of Charlemagne were so huge that people thought he had restored the West Roman Empire. A consequence of that was Charlemagne’s coronation to emperor by the pope in 800. But the Frankish tradition to divide the kingdom between the kings’ sons made the unity only temporary. The Frankish kingdom was also a feudal state that was held together by lucrative wars of plunder in the neighbouring countries. When the kingdom expanded its territory, the prospects of lucrative plundering decreased and with that also the loyalty of the nobility when they no longer could expect to be richly rewarded for their services. Because of this the Frankish Empire would after the death of Charlemagne in 814 disintegrate under both internal and external pressure into several different kingdoms, which in their turn were divided into numerous petty feudal states.

Read about the dissolution of the Frankish Empire on this page.

List of Frankish kings