Photographic book

France in the 7th and 8th centuries


Charles Martel
Charles Martel

During the 7th century, power within the royal government began to shift from the often ineffectual kings to increasingly influential court figures known as the mayors of the palace. This position was frequently held by the Arnulfing family, later and better known as the Carolingians. This family had strong ties to the great nobles of the kingdom and gradually strengthened the position of mayor of the palace. By the early 8th century, the Carolingians had become the real, if not the official, head of government.

Charles Martel became mayor of the palace in 714 and consolidated military control over outlying regions of the kingdom. To gain support for his operations, Charles Martel distributed church lands among his retainers. This action furthered the interpenetration of the church and the state that had begun in early Merovingian times. These two institutions were so deeply joined that they did not become fully disentangled in France until the 20th century. When he died in 741, Charles Martel was buried in the abbey of Saint-Denis near Paris, which later became the burial site of many French kings.

Charles Martel’s sons, Pepin the Short and Carloman, succeeded him. Carloman retired to a monastery in 747, leaving Pepin to rule alone. Pepin had to put down revolts among the magnates but was eventually able to strengthen his position. By 751 he had largely abandoned the title of mayor of the palace in favor of the Latin title princeps (source of the title prince). Pepin was ready to end the pretense of serving a king. The last Merovingian was bundled off to a monastery that year, and Pepin became the first Carolingian monarch.

He was acclaimed as king by an assembly of Frankish nobles and anointed by Saint Boniface, the English missionary known as the Apostle of Germany. Two developments made Pepin’s coup d’état possible. First, the Carolingians had accumulated vast estates, which he used to pay off supporters. Second, the church was interested in legitimating Pepin’s usurpation of the throne.

The pope consecrated Pepin as king in 754 in return for much-needed military support against the Lombard tribes who threatened papal security in Rome. The church’s blessing was decisive in making Pepin’s coup a success. The Frankish magnates could accept Pepin as king from considerations of greed and power. However, only the church’s support could effectively remove the stain of usurpation that marked Pepin’s seizure of the royal title. The consequences were profound for both France and the papacy. Pepin expanded Frankish rule farther south into Aquitaine, reaching perhaps as far as the Garonne River and Bordeaux, although the kingdom’s political center remained in the north. Pepin capitalized on his relationship with the church and ruled his freshly annexed territories through a network of abbots who were politically loyal to him.

The church suffered spiritually from its increasing use by secular authorities, but Pepin’s reign coincided with a movement to reform the church, which his successor would push much further. Under Pepin’s rule, the movement sought to standardize the liturgy and the organization of the clergy throughout the kingdom. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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