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The Carolingian dynasty’s victory at the Battle of Tours is considered a turning point in European history. Source: Bender235 / Public Domain.

The Carolingian Dynasty - Puppeteer Rulers In Early Medieval Europe


The Carolingian dynasty was a Frankish noble family that rose to power during the 8th century AD. Under the Merovingians, the Carolingians obtained the office of mayor of the palace. As the authority of the Merovingian rulers gradually slipped from them, power became increasingly concentrated in the hands of the mayors, so much so that they were the ones who were effectively ruling the kingdom. Nevertheless, the mayors chose to retain the Merovingian kings. During the reign of Pippin III, however, the last Merovingian ruler was deposed, and this may be considered to be the official start of the Carolingian dynasty.

Origin and Early History of the Carolingian Dynasty

The Carolingians derive their name from ‘Carolus’, the Latin form of ‘Charles’. It is unsurprising that there were several members of the dynasty by the name of Charles, the most prominent of whom being Charlemagne.

Nevertheless, the name of the dynasty refers to Charles Martel, who is generally regarded to be its founder. Some sources, however, claim that the Carolingians are named as such thanks to the significance of Charlemagne.

Charles Martel, founder of the Carolingian dynasty. (Arnaud 25 / Public Domain)

Charles Martel, founder of the Carolingian dynasty. (Arnaud 25 / Public Domain )

The roots of the Carolingian dynasty may be traced all the way back to Arnulf, the bishop of Metz. Along with Pippin I (known also as Pippin of Landen, or Pippin the Elder), Arnulf is the earliest known ancestor of the Carolingians. Both Arnulf and Pippin were prominent figures in the Merovingian court during the 7th century AD and played a prominent role in its politics.

For example, in 613 AD, the two men led a rebellion against Brunhild, the Merovingian regent, which brought about her downfall. Their actions also allowed the Frankish lands, which was at that time divided between Austrasia and Neustria, to be reunited under a new king, Chlothar II.

The relations between the two were further strengthened by the marriage of Arnulf’s son, Ansegisel, to Pippin’s daughter, Begga. Prior to Charles Martel, the line of Arnulf and Pippin became known either as ‘Arnulfing’ or ‘Pippinid’.

Ansegisel and Begga had a son, Pippin II (known also as Pippin of Herstal), who, like his maternal grandfather before him, held the office of the mayor of the palace of Austrasia. During this time the Kingdom of the Franks was divided once again, but Pippin triumphed over the Neustrians in 687 AD at the Battle of Tertry and reunited the kingdom once more. In addition, Pippin adopted the title dux et princeps Francorum (Duke and Prince of the Franks) and was the mayor of the palace of both Austrasia and Neustria.

Although the Merovingians continued to occupy the throne, their authority was now severely reduced, and Pippin was effectively the ruler of the entire kingdom, though as a power behind the throne. For instance, Pippin chose to retain Theuderic III as king, and after his death, replaced him with three successive Merovingian rulers.

Carolingian dynasty family tree. (Cherubino / Public Domain)

Carolingian dynasty family tree. (Cherubino / Public Domain )

Pippin died in 714 AD and his death threw the Kingdom of the Franks into a short period of disarray. Pippin’s only surviving legitimate son, Grimoald, was assassinated several months before his own death. Therefore, the mayor of the palace left his three young grandsons as his heirs, and his wife, Plectrude, was to hold power until they came of age.

When Pippin died, however, a struggle for power immediately broke out. Pippin had an illegitimate son, Charles, who, due to his status, was entirely left out from his will. Charles, however, was young, strong, and determined, and was certainly a threat to Plectrude and her grandsons.

Therefore, Pippin’s widow had Charles imprisoned and tried to rule the kingdom in the name of her grandsons. At the same time, the Merovingian king, Chilperic II, who was under the influence of Ragenfrid, the mayor of the palace of Neustria, decided to reassert his authority. Therefore, he joined forces with the Frisians in Holland to attack the heirs of Pippin.

France at the death of Pippin of the Carolingian dynasty, 714. (Vladimir Solovjev / Public Domain)

France at the death of Pippin of the Carolingian dynasty, 714. (Vladimir Solovjev / Public Domain )

In the meantime, Charles succeeded in escaping, assembled an army, and gained a victory over the Neustrians at Amblève, near Liège, in 716 AD. He defeated them once again in the following year at Vincy, near Cambrai. Realizing that it would be futile to oppose Charles, Plectrude submitted to him.

Charles Takes Control of the Carolingian Dynasty

In 719 AD, Charles vanquished Ragenfrid at Soissons and forced him to retreat to Angers. This marked the end of the opposition against Charles, and he became the undisputed mayor of the palace, and effectively the ruler of the Franks. Nevertheless, Charles still considered Neustria to be a threat, and launched military campaigns against it, finally subduing the Neustrians in 724 AD.

Once he had secured his position from internal threats, Charles was able to focus his energy on external threats to the kingdom. Charles had to deal with problems on the kingdom’s eastern borders. Over there, the Saxons, Frisians, and Bavarians were giving the Franks trouble, as they frequently conducted raids into Frankish territory.

The Carolingian dynasty had to deal with invasions into their territories, here the Saracen Army is outside Paris, 730-32 AD. (Mathiasrex / Public Domain)

The Carolingian dynasty had to deal with invasions into their territories, here the Saracen Army is outside Paris, 730-32 AD. (Mathiasrex / Public Domain )

The campaigns against them were long, some lasting as late as the 730s. These military actions, however, did not eliminate the problem completely, as the raids continued whenever the opportunity presented itself. Charles had spent much of his early reign campaigning in the north and the east.

Once he had dealt with the problems in those parts of the kingdom, Charles was able to turn his attention to the south. Charles’ southern neighbor was the Kingdom of Aquitaine, whose ruler, Eudes (known also as Odo), had been an ally of Ragenfrid. Charles invaded Aquitaine twice in 731, but ultimately failed to force Eudes into submission. Although Aquitaine was certainly a threat to the Franks, there was an even greater one lying beyond its borders.

The Threat to the Carolingian Dynasty

In 711 AD, the forces of the Umayyad Caliphate invaded the Iberian Peninsula, which was under Visigothic rule at the time. In a short period of seven years, the entire peninsula was conquered by the Muslims. Since then, the Umayyads of Iberia had been a constant threat to the Franks. Like the Saxons, Frisians, and Bavarians, the Muslims also conducted raids into Frankish territory.

Furthermore, under the leadership of Anbasa ibn Suhaym al-Kalbi, the governor of al-Andalus (the name given by the Muslims to the Iberian Peninsula ), they even managed to reach Burgundy and sacked Autun in 725 AD. Another governor, Abd al-Rahman ibn Abd Allah al-Ghafiqi, marched into Bordeaux and defeated Eudes in 732 AD. One of the reasons for Eudes’ devastating defeat was the use of cavalry on the Umayyad side.

The Aquitanian army consisted almost entirely of infantrymen and was easily routed by the charge of the Umayyad heavy cavalry. It may be mentioned that Eudes had won a decisive victory over the Umayyads in 721 AD at the Battle of Toulouse. During that battle, however, the Umayyads were taken by surprise, and therefore were not able to mobilize their cavalry for battle.

After the victory over Eudes at Bordeaux, the invading Umayyads laid waste to the area, while Eudes fled northwards. The Umayyads pursued the fleeing king, who appealed to Charles for assistance. The mayor of the palace only agreed to aid Eudes if he submitted to him, which he did.

According to one source, the Umayyads were intending to sack the Abbey of St Martin of Tours, the holiest and most prestigious Christian shrine in Western Europe at the time. When Charles heard this, he immediately mobilized his troops to defend the shrine. Whatever the truth, the Battle of Tours was fought between the forces of Charles and Abd al-Rahman on the 10th of October 732 AD.

Charles Martel, ruler of the Carolingian dynasty, at Battle of Tours. (Levan Ramishvili / Public Domain)

Charles Martel, ruler of the Carolingian dynasty, at Battle of Tours. (Levan Ramishvili / Public Domain )

The Victory of the Carolingian Dynasty

As the Umayyads approached Tours, they were surprised to find Charles’ army opposing them. Charles had avoided the old Roman roads, so as to conceal his army’s movements from the enemy. In addition, it seems that the Umayyads had not sent scouts ahead of their army, as doing so would have alerted them to the arrival of Charles’ army.

Apart from that, Charles placed his army on a wooded hill and commanded them to take up a defensive position. Being on a hill meant that the Umayyads would have a harder time attacking them, while the woods served to conceal their true strength. The Umayyads, on the other hand, had numerical superiority (though they may not have been aware of it, since the woods made Charles’ army look more numerous than it was) in addition to their cavalry (though this was neutralized as they were charging against the grade).

Charles’ defensive strategy worked and his seasoned soldiers were able to withstand the onslaught of the Umayyads. The turning point of the battle came when (according to Frankish histories), rumor spread among the Umayyads that Charles had sent scouts to sow chaos among the Umayyads by raiding their camp and by freeing as many slaves as possible. Muslim accounts, on the other hand, note that the rumors were true and Charles did send scouts to attack the Umayyad camp.

Incidentally, these accounts note that the raid occurred on the second day of the battle, while the Frankish sources record that the battle only lasted one day. In any case, this ploy was meant to draw part of the Umayyad army away from the battlefield, and this succeeded. As many Umayyad cavalrymen returned to the camp to defend it from Charles’ scouts, the rest of Umayyad army thought that they were in full retreat and began to flee as well.

Abd al-Rahman tried to stop the retreat but was killed while trying to do so. The Frankish army rested in place through the night, believing that the battle would resume the following day.

The Umayyads, however, did not show up for battle and Charles feared an ambush. It was only after scouts were sent to the Umayyad camp that the Franks realized that the enemy had hastily retreated during the night.

Due to his victory at the Battle of Tours, Charles earned his byname, ‘Martellus’ or ‘Martel’, which means ‘the Hammer’, possibly a reference to Judas Maccabeus (‘the Hammerer’) of the Maccabean Revolt. Prior to the 20th century, Charles’ victory over the Umayyads at the Battle of Tours was viewed as a turning point in world history, as it halted the Muslim advance into Europe, and prevented the conquest of the entire continent by the Muslims.

Charles Martel's military campaigns in Aquitaine, Septimania, and Provence after the Battle of Tour-Poitiers (734–742). (Iñaki LLM / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Charles Martel's military campaigns in Aquitaine, Septimania, and Provence after the Battle of Tour-Poitiers (734–742). (Iñaki LLM / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Historians today, however, are not entirely in agreement with this traditional view. Nevertheless, it is clear that Charles’ victory consolidated the Kingdom of the Franks. The Battle of Tours enhanced Charles’ reputation and authority, and Eudes had no choice but to swear his allegiance to him after the battle.

Aquitaine, which had till then been an independent kingdom, finally became a Frankish territory. Still, Eudes remained its ruler, but Charles quickly asserted his authority in the kingdom following Eudes’ death in 735 AD.

Charles died in 741 AD and the kingdom was divided between his two legitimate sons, Pippin III (known also as Pippin the Short) and Carloman. Interestingly, Charles did not seize the title of ‘king’ from the Merovingians during his lifetime but was in fact a king in all but name. For instance, when Theoderic IV, the penultimate Merovingian ruler , died in 737 AD, Charles did not take the throne for himself, but left it vacant.

Charles Martel divides the power of the Carolingian dynasty between Pippin and Carloman. (Guise / Public Domain)

Charles Martel divides the power of the Carolingian dynasty between Pippin and Carloman. (Guise / Public Domain )

It was only in 743 AD that a new Merovingian king, Childeric III, was crowned by the two mayors. One possible reason for this is that Carloman and Pippin needed to legitimize their rule in the face of the many rebellions that broke out following their father’s death. In 747 AD, Carloman entered monastic life in Rome, a decision that was made after several years of contemplation, thus leaving Pippin in sole control of the kingdom.

The Carolingian Dynasty Seizes More Power

Pippin was not content with ruling as mayor and desired the crown of the Merovingians for himself. Therefore, in 750 AD, he sent a letter to Pope Zacharias with the following question, “Is it wise to have kings who hold no power of control?”.

The pope replied, “It is better to have a king able to govern. By apostolic authority I bid that you be crowned King of the Franks”. Thus, with papal approval, Childeric was deposed and sent to a monastery. Pippin was crowned king at Soissons in November 751 AD.

Lastly, it may be said that 751 AD marks the end of the Merovingian dynasty and the official beginning of the Carolingian dynasty. The latter would reach its zenith during the reign of Pippin’s son, Charlemagne, who was famously crowned emperor on Christmas Day in 800 AD by Pope Leo III.

After Charlemagne’s death, however, the Carolingians went into decline and their realm eventually broke up. This division would have a significant impact on the subsequent history of Europe , as it marked the beginning of the Kingdoms of France and Germany.

Top image: The Carolingian dynasty’s victory at the Battle of Tours is considered a turning point in European history. Source: Bender235 / Public Domain .

By Wu Mingren


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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