Gateway to the Classics: Peeps at History: France by John Finnemore
Peeps at History: France by  John Finnemore

The Merovings and Carlovings

When Clovis died his kingdom was divided among his four sons. This was a custom of the Franks, and a very bad one, too; for it led to endless strife among a number of small rulers, each of whom wished to enlarge his kingdom at the expense of his neighbours. The family to which Clovis belonged was known as that of the "Merovings," or "mighty warriors," and the Kings of his line are called the Merovingian Kings. There were twenty of them in all, and their history is that of men who grew weaker and more worthless as the Crown was handed from father to son. They were selfish, idle men, who never attempted to perform any kingly duty, but enjoyed kingly state in slothful ease, and are known in history as the "Puppet Kings." This title was well deserved, for, while the Merovings were Kings in name, the power of ruler was exercised by officers of the Court, who were known as Mayors of the Palace. As a rule, the Mayor of the Palace was an able and powerful man, who not only managed the affairs of the kingdom, but managed the King himself as well.

Early in the eighth century the Mayor of the Palace was a very brave and wise man, who was called Charles Martel—that is, Charles the Hammer. He won this name because he was strong and dauntless, and struck his enemies most dreadful blows. Such a man was badly needed in the land of the Franks, for terrible foes were approaching its borders. These foes were the Saracens—hosts of fierce warriors from Arabia, and followers of Mahomet. They were marching from country to country, aiming at conquest and the spread of their religion. They invaded Africa, crossed into Spain, pushed northward over the Pyrenees, and entered the territory of the Franks. Everywhere they burned, plundered, and destroyed, and slew those who would not adopt their faith; their object was to sweep through Europe and conquer it for Mahomet.

The Mayor of the Palace met them at Tours, and there was fought one of the greatest battles in the world's history, when the Frankish hosts and the hordes of fiery Saracens strove together for mastery. Charles won, and Europe was saved. Vast numbers of the Moslems were slain, and the rest were driven out of France.

Charles the Hammer was followed in his office by his son Pepin, but the Franks were now tired of their Puppet Kings, and wanted a real leader and ruler. The line of the Merovings was set aside, and in 752 Pepin was crowned King of the Franks, and both title and power were given to a strong man. Pepin ruled wisely and well, but he was followed by a son so great and powerful that Pepin is remembered to this day more because of his son than for anything he did himself.

This son was the mighty Charlemagne, Charles the Great, the most famous monarch that France has ever known, and one of the greatest rulers the world has seen. Charlemagne came to the throne in 768, and at once made his power felt in Europe. He won so many lands by the sword that his kingdom became very large, and he ruled over a great part of Western Europe—over France, a large part of Germany and Italy, and the North of Spain. He received from the Pope of Rome the proud title of Emperor of the West.

The Saracens were still deadly foes, and were never tired of marching from Spain to assail the Christian Franks. Charlemagne attacked the Moslems and drove them across the Pyrenees, and tore the northern part of Spain from their grip. The right hand of Charlemagne in dealing with the fierce Saracens was his nephew Roland, a brave and noble knight, who was never happier than when fighting for the poor and feeble who needed his help. In many a battle had he overthrown the Moslem foe, and the latter feared and hated him very much.

But one day, as Roland and a few followers were passing through a deep, narrow valley, called the Valley of Roncevaux, they were trapped in it by a horde of Saracens who held the heights above. The Moslems hurled rocks and trees down in order to crush the little band of Christians, and soon none save Roland was left alive. Then he seized the horn which hung about his neck, and blew a tremendous blast to summon help. The Saracens knew the ringing note for the call of Roland, and it filled them with such fear that they fled in all directions. But as they fled they hurled a last avalanche of rocks and stones into the valley, and Roland fell, crushed to death.


Statue of Charlemagne

Charlemagne was a great warrior; he was a still greater ruler. When he had made conquest of a district, he treated its people kindly, saw that order was kept, introduced laws, and did his best for the welfare of his new subjects. Many of his laws were wise and good, and, in forms suited to modern times, they exist in France to this day. He had a deep respect for learning, and set up many schools. There was a school at his own palace, and the head of it was an English monk named Alcuin, one of the most learned men of the day. Charlemagne often visited this school, and one day he heard that some of the boys, sons of great nobles, were very idle and careless. He spoke very sharply to them. "You think," said he, "that because your fathers are rich men that there is no need to attend to your lessons, and that you need only amuse yourselves. Let me tell you that you will never receive honours and favours from me if you behave in such a way. You will get no good from Charlemagne till you have shown yourselves deserving of it."

This great King died in 814, and was laid in a splendid tomb at Aix-la-Chapelle.

He was followed by a line of Carlovingian Kings: the Carlovings, who took their name from their founder—Charlemagne, or Carl the Great. Among the Carlovings there were some able rulers, while some were weak and worthless, but never one who could wield the sceptre of Charlemagne. In time his wide dominions were broken up and shared among many Princes, and the power of the Carlovings grew less and less. The line of Charlemagne ruled from 814 to 987, and during the early part of this period the Normans (the Northmen) made good their footing in the land.

After the death of Charlemagne there was terrible confusion and misery in the land of France. One Prince fought with another, there was continual bloodshed and strife, and the unhappy people suffered worst of all. It was useless to sow crops, for the fields were trampled by war-horses, and the barns were plundered by hungry soldiery. Famine stalked through the land, and was followed by pestilence. Towns and villages were destroyed by marauders, or set on fire by warring parties; and the Saracens rushed in from Spain, and swept across the country with fire and sword.

In the midst of these troubles there appeared on the northern coasts fleets of long warships, bearing the pagan Northmen of Norway and Denmark. These Normans sailed into the mouths of the rivers of the north, pushed up the broad streams, and landed on the banks to plunder towns, villages, and farmhouses. At first they came only in search of booty, but in time they seized the land and made their homes in it. Within seventy years after the death of Charlemagne, the Normans had taken a great part of the north of France for themselves.

When it was seen that it would be quite impossible to drive the Normans away, it was resolved to make friends with them. A Carlovingian King, Charles the Simple, offered terms of peace to the great Norman chief, Rolf or Rollo. If he and his people would become Christians and agree to accept Charles as their overlord, then Rolf should receive the daughter of Charles in marriage, and become the ruler of the province in which he dwelt. Rolf agreed, and thus became a vassal of King Charles, and the first Duke of Normandy.

As time went on the authority of the Carlovings grew steadily weaker. This was owing to the great power which lay in the hands of the nobles of the land. Each Baron ruled like a little king in his own district; he built for himself a great castle, where no enemy could easily reach him; he had a strong band of soldiers, who guarded him and assailed his enemies; he governed the farmers and peasants of the neighbourhood at his own will. Some of these lords were so powerful that they could offer defiance to the King himself, and when a number joined their forces they could bear him down easily.

Now, among these great Barons there was one who was called the Duke of France. He ruled over the district around Paris, and towards the end of the Carlovingian period, the Duke of France was the most powerful and important Baron in the country. Then, when the last Carloving died in 987, Hugh Capet, Duke of France, was chosen King, and the line of Charlemagne came to an end.

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