A New Foundation

Barrie Brill

Charles had taken over the kingdom by military means. From 719, he took the title of dux et princeps Francorum—duke and prince of the Franks—which reflected the origin of his power, but also indicated that he was everywhere, after the king, the second man in the kingdom. In Neustria, as in Austrasia, he exercised a power that was by nature vice-regal and he was therefore called to extend it over all the territories recognizing the nominal authority of the Merovingian King of the Franks. But for Charles to succeed in imposing himself over the magnates of the other regions who had profited, like the Pippinids, from the decadence of royal power to emerge as an autonomous power, he had to find allies and enlarge his army. 

Charles first built on the inheritance of his father. The early Carolingians managed to emerge victorious because they understood how to reconcile the aristocracy with their projects. Those who entered their service and remained faithful to them could derive very substantial benefits from their fidelity. In the first rank were found, of course, the Austrasian clients of Pippin, but Charles added to them both Neustrians who entered into his alliance, and small landowners to whom he provided the means to equip themselves as warriors. Even the descendants of Plectrude profited. In 719, Hugo, grandson of Plectrude and a son of Drogo, was entrusted with the administration of the bishoprics of Paris, Rouen, Bayeux, Lisieux, and Avranches, as well as the abbeys of Saint-Denis, Saint Wandrille, and Jumièges, which allowed the mayor of the palace to control a large part of Neustria.

Charles Martel as Warlord

It is clear however that Charles was above all a warlord, insofar as he was able to impose himself by armed force, and had more troops than his father and above all troops that were organized differently. The means to hold his territories was to have at his disposal loyal followers who were settled on lands that Charles had entrusted to them—lands taken from the royal fisc (crown lands), the patrimony of the Pippinids, or the Church—in exchange for a commendatio that made the beneficiary a vassal who was expected to equip himself at his own expense and to follow Charles into combat in all circumstances when required. The land grant was an estate whose revenues would allow the vassal to fulfill his military responsibilities. This personal tie, which rested on vassalage, had not been invented by Charles. The tie, which consisted of a freeman placing himself in the service of a more powerful individual in order to receive protection and material support, goes back to the late Roman period. From the first centuries of the Middle Ages, powerful individuals would make grants of land to individuals who sought their support. The land granted to the individual remained the property of the individual who granted it—the individual who received the land was only granted usufruct. The grant was made in return for service that was more and more frequently limited to military service. From the seventh century, “private” armies existed within the Frankish aristocracy according to this model.

What was new under Charles Martel was the possibility of extending this system when the mayor of the palace had at his disposal the crown lands and Church lands to maintain his own vassals. At the same time, the old loyalty that linked the Merovingian king and his leudes[1] was dissipating in favour of the rise of families—mostly Austrasian—who would be the foundation of the Carolingian aristocracy and who had entered into the vassalage of Charles Martel. At this time, the status of the vassal was rising while the term vassus, that is to say, vassal, originally had designated a free man who was on the verge of falling into servitude, but its meaning was evolving to refer to important individuals. Now numerous important warriors entered into the bonds of vassalage and thus augmented their original power by the addition of lands held in favour of the mayor of the palace. 

Charles generalized a process that had been in existence for a long period that consisted in ensuring the fidelity and the military services of a free man in exchange for the grant of land in usufruct. The individual committed himself by a commendatio:  he recommended himself to a more powerful individual, and this individual provided him with a beneficium—a benefit or benefice—for the services rendered. It was in a way an anticipated reward that allowed the vassal to support his family and equip himself for military service that he owed to his lord. However, this equipment was becoming more expensive since the spearhead of the Frankish army was likely, since Pippin II, a cavalryman stabilized by their stirrups and protected by a breastplate on which were sewn metal plates.

Charles was certainly not the only individual to extend his military clientele, but he was the only one to have in his hands all the crown lands and the Church lands in order to maintain his own vassals and to maintain such a large army. From the ninth century, Charles Martel would be violently criticized by the bishops of the Frankish Church, notably by the Archbishop Hincmar of Reims, who denounced him as a spoliator of the lands of the Church who was suffering for his sins in hell [see Document 1]. At the beginning of the eighth century, Charles in fact pursued the policies of his predecessors. By utilizing a portion of the Church lands, he was no doubt only reaffirming the public character of these lands that had once been given by the Christian emperor or by the Merovingian kings to the Church, in return for a certain number of services.

Finally, it should be noted that in the exercise of power Charles Martel kept the reins of power in his hands far more than his father Pippin II, who had largely associated the members of his family in the exercise of power. The spouse of Charles does not appear in any charter and she does not seem to have played a political role, while their sons, Pippin and Carloman, never exercised any responsibility during the lifetime of their father, no more than did the three sons of his second spouse Ruodhaid. Unlike his father, Charles was not satisfied with supremacy over the two Frankish kingdoms of Neustria and Austrasia, but used his powerful army in an expansionist project that would eventually reach its culmination in the creation of the Frankish empire by his grandson Charlemagne. In the end, it was political expansion through war that was the foundation of Carolingian power since this is what reinforced the power of the chieftain and increased his wealth by booty and confiscation, some of which was then redistributed to his faithful followers.


Questions for Consideration

  1. What were the most important techniques used by Charles Martel to secure the power of the Pippinids?
  2. What are the limitations of ‘political expansion through war’ as a foundation of power?

  1. A Frankish aristocrat who had sworn an oath of fidelity to the king and belonged to the king's guard.


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The Ancient and Medieval World Copyright © by Barrie Brill is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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