Reintegration of the Peripheral Principalities

Barrie Brill

Charles Martel’s policy led him to intervene militarily against the new forms of political organization that appeared at the end of the seventh century. This involved moving against the peripheral principalities that had emerged in southern Gaul, as well as in the eastern Germanic lands.

Origin of the Principalities

At the end of the seventh century, the Kingdom of the Franks, that is to say all the territories that were under control of the Merovingian kings, witnessed a process of dissolution that was related to the weakening of the monarchy. In many regions, magnates, both secular and ecclesiastical, who had received from the Merovingian monarch the power to govern at the local level, were more and more tempted to exercise it autonomously, while still recognizing the nominal authority of the Merovingian king who remained the sole source of legitimacy. In the process they created a new form of political organization, the principality, which was a territory or region governed by a non-royal dynasty. The Kingdom of the Franks by the end of the seventh century had become a conglomerate of principalities whose leaders claimed equality with the mayor of the palace of Neustria-Austrasia who had arrogated to himself the title of princeps Francorum.

These principalities were of two kinds. First, especially in Burgundy, episcopal principalities had emerged that were made up of several dioceses whose bishop, like Savaric of Auxerre, assumed all the local administration not only exercising the powers of a count, but also possessing an army. Secondly, the majority of the principalities, such as Aquitaine, Bavaria or Provence, generally had a regional character and were led by an aristocratic family such as the Agilofings in Bavaria or the family of Maurontus in Provence. This should not be interpreted as hostility to Frankish domination since most of these families were of Frankish origin themselves and had been put in place, some as early as the sixth century, by the Merovingian king whose theoretical authority they continued to recognize. What was at issue was who could claim authority over all free men. Clearly the mayor of the palaces of Neustria and Austrasia had a delegation of power in the name of the Merovingian king. The chieftains of the peripheral regions felt that they had received a similar delegation of power concerning their principality from the king and did not have to bow to the wishes of Charles Martel who was only their equal and not their superior. Charles was determined to demonstrate that this was not the case. 

Aquitaine, Burgundy, and Provence

Aquitaine was a vast region that extended south of the Loire where Frankish penetration had never been very strong. Duke Eudo[1] had negotiated with Charles Martel in 720 and had been recognized as governing in an autonomous and legitimate manner. Eudo created a principality around Bordeaux and Toulouse, where he had to not only watch his northern border, but especially his southern border where he faced Muslim incursions from Spain.

The Iberian peninsula had been invaded by Muslim forces in 711 and quickly fell into their hands; they then advanced over the Pyrenees seizing Narbonne in 719, followed by Carcassonne and Nîmes in 725. This allowed them to launch numerous raids along the valley of the Rhône. In 721, the wali of Cordoba, Al-Samh ibn Malik al-Khawlani, laid siege to Toulouse. Eudo with his own troops, including Basque contingents, saved the city in a battle where the wali was killed.

Illustration depicting a battle scene with horsemen yeilding spears attacking each other
Figure 5.6 A drawing from 1756 of Eudo, Duke of Aquitaine at the Battle of Toulouse 721.

This victory of Eudo made a great impression on Christendom, and the Liber Pontificalis, the official chronicle of the popes, states that more than 375,000 “Saracens” [Muslims] fell, while Eudo only lost 1,500 troops—a greatly exaggerated number.[2] The account portrays Eudo as defender of Christendom.

Eudo did not manage to push the Muslims back over the Pyrenees and the situation remained very difficult. Around 729, Eudo made an alliance with a Berber chieftain who had rebelled against the wali of Cordoba, ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Ghafiqi. Eudo likely did this in an attempt to protect himself from further raids. However, this alliance turned out to be a mistake. The wali decided to lead an army in person to punish the rebel chieftain and his allies, forcing Eudo to seek military support from Charles. In March, 732, the army of ‘Abd al-Rahman attacked from the west from Pamplona and pushed into Aquitaine and attacked Bordeaux pillaging along the way. Eudo was unable to prevent this and the Muslim forces pushed into northern Aquitaine where they looted Poitiers. They continued their advance along the old Roman road to Tours, likely attracted by the most famous and wealthy sanctuary in all of Gaul, that of Saint Martin. This sanctuary had been enriched by the offerings of generations of pilgrims and monarchs since Saint Martin was the patron saint of the Merovingian dynasty. On the route to Tours, the Muslims encountered the army of Charles Martel on October 25, 732, and were defeated near the hamlet of Moussais. This was the famous “Battle of Poitiers” (or “Battle of Tours”) that was later seen by European chroniclers as the pivotal moment in halting the westward advance of Muslim power. More recently historians have questioned this perspective, given that Muslim sources generally accord the battle little significance. 

Several things should be noted. At the time, the battle revealed the superiority of the Frankish cavalry. Charles did not rush to rescue his rival Eudo. Essentially, he only blocked the passage of the Muslim forces to Tours. He did nothing to prevent the Muslims from ravaging Aquitaine for the next six months. This was not enough to break the principality of Aquitaine. However, when Eudo died in 735, Charles marched his troops into the Garonne valley and seized Bordeaux. He then forced the new duke, Hunoald, to pledge his fealty.

Once he had defeated the Muslims, Charles took advantage of the contingents that he had on hand to reduce the independence of the local magnates and episcopal principalities that had emerged due to the weakening of royal power in the last third of the seventh century. These episcopal principalities had emerged in Orléans, Sens, Auxerre, Autun, Mâcon, and Lyon. Most of the bishops were deported to Austrasia to spend the rest of their days confined to a monastery while the properties of the Church were distributed to the faithful followers of Charles Martel. These bishoprics were crucial in controlling the access routes to Aquitaine and especially to Provence.  

Charles appointed his own faithful followers and members of his family as counts in these regions. He also confiscated most of the abbeys that had belonged to these bishops and turned them over to members of his own family. In this way the Pippinids had numerous strongpoints in the region. This policy was not new since it took up what Pippin II had done in Neustria, but on a completely different scale. The network of abbeys under the control of the Pippinids formed the first ecclesiastical structure on which the new Carolingian power would be based. Furthermore, this policy of Charles Martel was the origin of the incorporation of the Church into the apparatus of the monarchy, a process that made the final seizure of power by the Carolingians possible.

By reducing the episcopal principalities of Burgundy and the Rhône valley, Charles had opened the way towards the south where the Franks faced the Muslims and an independent local nobility. The Battle of Poitiers had not ended Muslim incursions into Gaul but turned their attention towards Languedoc, which they already occupied in part. It seems that the success of Charles around Lyon had led the Patrician Maurontus of Provence, a leader of the local aristocracy, to ally himself with the Muslims of Narbonne and cede to them the strong point of Avignon. Maurontus, his family and his allies represented a portion of the nobility hostile to the Pippinid mayor of the palace. Charles designated his half-brother Childebrand to dislodge the Muslims at Avignon. He managed to seize Avignon in 737. This opened the route of Languedoc and Charles and his half-brother besieged Narbonne, which was the strong point of the Muslim presence in Gaul. They did not manage to seize Narbonne and on the return route the Franks pillaged and burned Béziers, Nîmes, and Agde to deprive the Muslims of strongholds. In 738, Maurontus again rose up in a revolt that provoked another expedition by Charles. Provence was definitively mastered by Charles in 739 likely with help from the Lombards. He then confiscated the lands of Maurontus and his supporters, redistributing them to his loyal Austrasian followers but also to some nobles in Provence who had supported his cause and rejected the authority of Maurontus. One local beneficiary of this was the family of Count Abbo who became the new strong man in Provence and later founded the Abbey of Novalese at the foot of Mount Cenis, from which he commanded the valleys and roads that led from Gaul to Lombard Italy.

Alemannia and Bavaria

In Alemannia, a county family had been placed in power by the Merovingian king; however, he had taken advantage of the weakening authority of Merovingian monarchy to take the title of duke. From 710 until 725, Lantfrid of Alemannia ruled as an independent prince and considered the mayor of the palace to be no more than his equal. In his legislative activity in the revision of the Alemannian law code Lantfrid mentions the role of the Merovingian king but completely ignores the duke of the Franks. Charles Martel moved militarily to reimpose Frankish authority in the region in two campaigns in 725 and 728. When Lantfrid died in 730, Charles launched two further military expeditions, in 730 and 732, to curtail the authority of his brother and successor Theudebald. Ducal authority was now limited to the Neckar valley and the eastern slopes of the Black Forest.

In Germany, the main rival to Charles was the Duke of Bavaria, Theodo of the Agilofing family. This family had been put in place by the Merovingian king in the sixth century and for a very long time had been considered as a dynasty. They led a region that had a strong regional identity and were traditionally allied with the Lombard dynasty. When Theodo died in 717, the duchy had been shared between his son and his nephew, Grimoald and Hugbert, who quickly fell into conflict with one another. Charles took advantage of the situation and launched two military campaigns in 725 and 728 that caused the fall of Grimoald, who died in combat. Charles imposed his candidate, Hugbert, nephew of the former duke, but in return the duke had to give up the northern portion of his territory, the Nordgau. Charles Martel returned also with considerable booty and several women of the ducal family, including Sunnichild, who became his second wife after the death of Chrotrude. When Hugbert died in 736, the duchy was entrusted to Odilo, a close relative of Sunnichild, who quickly pursued an independent policy and became, in the 740s, the leader of anti-Pippinid sentiment in the peripheral principalities.

Questions for Consideration

  1. In what ways did Charles Martel maintain power once it had be secured in a region?
  2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach to the maintenance of power?

Media Attributions

  1. Sometimes rendered Odo, or Eudes
  2. The Lives of the Eighth-Century Popes (Liber Pontificalis), trans. Raymond Davis (Liverpool, 1992), 8.


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