Charles Martel, Princeps and Subregulus (Prince and Viceroy)

Barrie Brill

In all his activities, Charles Martel behaved like a true princeps, that is to say, filling the charges that were normally those of the king, particularly with regard to the Church. In 737, King Theuderic IV died after ruling for sixteen years. Charles did not see the need to appoint a successor. Charles may have acted like a king, but had always had a Merovingian in whose name he had acted. Did the mayor of the palace fear to bring from the shadows a young Merovingian who might be able to group around himself the still numerous opponents of Charles? It is more likely a sign of the growing confidence of Charles due to his military successes. Perhaps he wanted to keep his own sons and relatives and all other potential candidates to the throne in suspense to temper the ambitions of some by those of others?

The French historian Olivier Guillot has given another form of response that is more institutional, since he gives the title of “prince” attached to Charles Martel considerable importance.[1] In short, being  princeps, as the Liber Historiae Francorum continuously refers to Charles after 721, would signify the assumption of the prerogatives of a Roman emperor, including being the source of the law and, in the kingdom of the Franks, to freely dispose of ecclesiastical offices and the goods of the Church.[2] Thus, the princeps could easily do without a king. There are reasons why the continuator of the Chronicle of Fredegar might not be taken at face value. The author of the text was Childebrand, the half-brother of Charles, who likely wrote shortly after 751. Perhaps he projected on Charles truths that are only testified under his son Pippin. And while we might suspect the continuator of the Chronicle of Fredegar, surely Pope Gregory III is to be believed when he addressed to Charles three letters copied and preserved in the Carolingian archives in which the pope sought the support of Charles as subregulus—viceroy—in the quarrel that opposed the pope to Liutprand, king of the Lombards:

At this time, the holy father Gregory sent to the princeps Charles from the Roman see of Saint Peter the Apostle, an embassy provided with the keys of the tomb along with the chains of Saint Peter as well as rich and numerous gifts; such as never had been seen nor heard of before.[3]

The papal letters and presents had no effect. Charles received the pope’s messengers with honour, but limited his response to an embassy to Rome in 740 led by Grimo of Corbie and Sigebert, a hermit at Saint Denis. While they brought fair words to the pope and gifts for St. Peter’s, they brought no military support. After all, Charles had no quarrel with the king of the Lombards who had provided him support when he was fighting in Provence and who had also adopted his son. While Gregory III met with little success, his appeal illustrates the prestige of Charles in Rome. 

Although Charles had never attempted to seize the crown, many details demonstrate that he wanted to be placed on the same level as the royal dignity. Perhaps this why at some time after 734 he had sent his son Pippin to the court of the king of the Lombards so that Pippin would be adopted by Liutprand according to Lombard custom. The ceremony involved Liutprand cutting the hair of Pippin and presenting him with the weapons that made him a young adult warrior. Whatever the real advantages of this adoption, in any case, it made Pippin the “son of a king”. It might be also noted that Charles had tended to use the Merovingian palaces of the valley of the Oise as his residences and more tellingly that he did not choose to be buried at Metz, following the custom of his family, but rather at the abbey of Saint-Denis, a royal foundation in the heart of Neustria and the necropolis of the Merovingians since Dagobert I. His son Pippin had been educated at Saint-Denis as well.

An image of Charles Martel dividing his kingdom between his sons Pepin and Carloman
Figure 5.9 Charles Martel invests the two kingdoms of Austrasia and Neustria to his sons Carloman and Pippin.

On the eve of his death, in the late spring of 741, Charles “with the counsel of the magnates”, that is to say with the support of his closest followers, partitioned the Frankish kingdom as if he were a king, favouring the two children he had with Chrotrude, his first wife. His eldest son Carloman received the eastern portion—that is to say, Austrasia, Alemannia, and Thuringia (without Bavaria), while the younger son Pippin would “rule” over Neustria, Burgundy and Provence; Aquitaine was not mentioned. This partition conformed to the Merovingian tradition that generally associated Austrasia and its Germanic territories on the one hand and Neustria and Burgundy on the other. This partition did not mention Grifo, the son that Charles had had with the Bavarian Sunnichild. This partition of Charles was ratified by the leading nobles who certainly had an interest in assuring that the mayors of the palace remained Pippinid.

The last years of Charles, whose health had been poor since 739, were marked by a strengthening of what might be called a “Bavarian party” around Sunnichild for a number of reasons. First and foremost, there was the presence at the Frankish court of the Duke of Bavaria, Odilo, who was a close relative of Sunnichild. Odilo had taken refuge at the Frankish court after being driven out by the Bavarian aristocracy and had caused a scandal by seducing the daughter of Charles, Chiltrude. From this union was born in 741 Tassilo, a future duke of Bavaria. The final reason is likely due to the fact that it was Sunnichild and Grifo, and not Carloman and Pippin, who surrounded Charles in the last months of his life and finally succeeded in obtaining as an inheritance some counties located at the very centre of the kingdom, straddling Austrasia, Neustria, and Burgundy.

When the mayor of the palace, who had almost reached the royal dignity, died at his palace of Quierzy on October 22, 741, he had insured the supremacy of his family over an immense portion of the kingdom of the Franks. He was buried at St. Denis beside the Merovingian kings. It was the end of a great reign of over a quarter of the century. At the beginning of the eighth century, it seemed as if Europe was moving towards a fragmented political order of autonomous princedoms ruled by local dukes. Charles Martel had arrested this process and assembled under a central authority nearly every region of the west. His success was due to the warrior followers whom he set up in the subdued regions and enriched with land, abbeys, and bishoprics. Charles had supported missionaries such as Boniface and Pirmin and seems to have understood that their work not only brought Christianity to the Germanic peoples, but also at the same time drew these converts into the sphere of Frankish influence. Despite his many accomplishments, Charles Martel is most often remembered for only two events of his reign: the victory at Poitiers and the secularizations of ecclesiastical property [Document 1]. The power of Charles had been such that, at the death of king Theuderic IV, he did not think it was necessary to replace him. However, when Charles died in 741, his two sons, Carloman and Pippin, who had received the bulk of his inheritance, faced a rebellion that revealed the limits of Pippinid power.

Questions for Consideration

  1. Why would the leading nobles have endeavoured to ensure the continuation of Pippinid power, rather than a restoration of Merovingian authority?
  2. What were the limits of Pippinid power in 741?

  1. Olivier Guillot, “Princeps à l’époque carolingienne, une prééminence l’emportant sur le titre de roi?” in A. Dubreucq & Chr. Lauranson-Rosax (dir.), Traditio iuris (Lyon, 2005), 213-231.
  2. The anonymous Liber Historiae Francorum stands with Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks and Fredegar’s Chronicle and its continuations as the three sources that together provide the outlines of what took place in Merovingian Gaul. See B. Krusch, ed., Liber Historiae Francorum [Scriptores Rerum Merovingicarum: Monumenta Germanica Historica (Hanover, 1888), vol. II.
  3. Second Continuator of Fredegar, chapter 22, see B. Krusch, ed., Fredegarii et aliorum Chronica, Scriptores rerum Merovingicarum, vol. II, 178-179.


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