The Sluggard Kings
Clovis, you will remember, was the first of the Merovingian monarchs. Dagobert was the last who was worthy to bear the name of king.
After the death of Dagobert twelve princes of his race ruled, but little is remembered of them save only their names.
They were weak and lazy, these Merovingian kings; indeed, they became so lazy that they were called the "Sluggard Kings," and sluggard is a name which no one, and least of all a king, should ever bear.
These sluggard or do-nothing kings sat upon the throne and pretended to rule.
If an ambassador from a distant land came to the court of France, he was brought into the king's presence to deliver his message. And the do-nothing king would seem to listen, but when he answered, the words he spoke were those that had been put into his mouth by his chief minister.
The chief minister of these Merovingian kings was called the Mayor of the Palace. At first these mayors were only stewards of high rank, but when they saw the weakness and laziness of the kings, then, little by little, they seized upon the power which was slipping from the hands of the listless race of Meroveus, and became the real rulers of the land.
You will be almost sorry for these kings, in spite of their foolish lazy ways, when you hear how they were treated by the Mayors of the Palace.
To begin with, the kings had no money, save a small sum which was given to them by the mayor, and even the amount of that varied according to the minister's mood.
The kings owned no palaces, but were lodged in poorly furnished houses in the country, and there they held their dreary court, surrounded by a few roughly dressed servants.
When they wished to drive, no carriage was ordered for these make-believe kings. A cart drawn by a yoke of oxen and guided by a cowherd was the only chariot they knew.
One of the most powerful of the mayors was named Pepin. Pepin was a duke, and although he never tried to change his title to king, he could easily have done so had he wished.
For twenty-seven years Duke Pepin ruled France. While a lazy, shadowy figure sat upon the throne and was called king, Pepin led the warriors forth to battle. And when the Pope, as the Bishop of Rome was now called, sent teachers or missionaries into France, it was Pepin who protected them from the fierce German tribes who were still wandering over the country.
As Christmastide drew near in the year 714 a.d. Pepin died. His son Charles now became Mayor of the Palace.
Charles seemed to think that the Franks could not be ruled unless a king was on the throne. He therefore saw to it that one of the sluggard kings should still sit there, for well he knew that such a king would not interfere with him.
A strong ruler was needed in France, for the country was threatened with a great danger. The Saracens or Arabs, followers of the Prophet Mahomet and enemies of the Cross, had spread all over the southern world.
In India they had taught their faith and put to death those who refused to accept it. In Spain, too, they had forced their faith upon the people, and in 718 a.d. possessed most of that country.
Then in 782 a.d. the Saracens determined to cross the Pyrenees, the mountains that separated Spain from France.
This was the great danger that threatened the country. And you will remember that Charles, in fighting against the Saracens, was fighting for the Christian faith as well as in defence of his country.
The Saracens, having crossed the Pyrenees, fell upon the town of Bordeaux and sacked it. They then crossed the river Garonne, and laid waste the province of Aquitaine.
The leader of the Saracens was named Abdel-Rahman He had heard of the rich abbeys, filled with treasures, that were to be found in the city of Tours, and thither he now led his army. Already the Saracens were beneath the walls of the city, when they heard that the Franks were approaching in great numbers.
Abdel-Rahman ordered his troops to fall back on Poitiers, a town quite near to Tours, and there, for a week the two armies faced one another. Then Abdel-Rahman's patience gave way, and at the head of his horsemen he ordered a general attack.
The Franks were already drawn up in battle array. They stood there," says an old writer. "like solid walls or icebergs and the Saracens were amazed to see how tall and strong the enemy seemed."
As the battle raged, a small body of Franks crept round to the Arabs' camp, perhaps in the hope or robbing it, or, it may be, wishing to attack the enemy in the rear.
The Saracens had much booty in their camp, and Abdel-Rahman's horsemen seeing the Franks, as they believed, falling upon it, at once left their post to defend their treasure. But they fell into disorder, broke their ranks, and soon the whole army was in confusion. Meanwhile the main body of the Franks, shouting their war-cry, clashing their shields, pressed in among them and beat them down, slaying Abdel-Rahman, their leader.
Night fell, and both armies withdrew to their tents The Franks were early astir, eager to finish the fight. But in the camp of the Saracens all was strangely still. A few Franks were sent to find out what the enemy was about. They entered the camp unhindered. In the tents not a soldier was to be seen, for under cover of the darkness the Saracens had beat a retreat, leaving their booty behind them.
The battle of Tours or Poitiers, for it is called by either name, was a very important battle, for by the victory of the Franks, not only France, but Europe was saved from becoming the home of the fierce followers of Mahomet the Prophet.
It was because of the heavy blows that Duke Charles showered upon the Saracens at the battle of Tours, that he was from henceforth called Charles Martel, or, as the word Martel means hammer, Charles the Hammer. After the battle of Poitiers in 781 a.d. , Charles did not rest until he had swept the Saracens utterly out of France.
To reward his warriors for their valour on the battlefield, Charles the Hammer robbed the churches of their treasures; he even made some of his soldiers, bishops and priests. This made the Pope very angry. But it was in vain that he rebuked Charles. Charles was all-powerful and would have his own way.
The Pope's anger did not make the duke cease to protect the missionaries who were sent from Rome to teach the German tribes the faith of Christ.
One of these missionaries was St. Boniface. You will remember his name with interest when I tell you that he was born in Wessex, which was once the name of the south-west of England.
Charles wrote a letter and sent it, not only to the bishops, but to all those dukes and counts who had power in the land, to tell them that St. Boniface was under his care.
St. Boniface was grateful for Charles's protection, and from the heart of Germany, where he was working among the fierce pagan people, he wrote a grateful tribute to the powerful duke.
"Without the patronage of the Prince of the Franks," said St. Boniface, "without his order and the fear of his power, I could not guide this people, or defend the priests . . . and handmaids of God, or forbid in this country the rites of the pagans and their worship of idols."
In 787 a.d. the Merovingian king whom Charles had placed upon the throne died, and during the last few years of his life Charles the Hammer ruled without a shadowy sluggard king sitting upon the throne.
Charles himself died at the age of fifty-two, and his brave warriors wept because he would lead them forth to battle no more.