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Were Rulers of the Merovingian Empire Lazy Kings ?

Merovingian lazy king

History has proved that the reign of the Merovingians has never ceased to fuel legends and received ideas. But is the image of laziness or roi fainéant that identified with that of the first Frankish dynasty grounded in reality?

Royal power weakens

The legend of lazy kings originates in the period of political unrest following the death of King Dagobert in 639, and promotes the rise of the Pippinids family (Charlemagne's ancestors) from the second half of the 7th century. Gaul was then divided into several territories (Neustria, Australia, Burgundy and Aquitaine) shared by the last Merovingians.

With each succession, the distribution of land inheritances causes civil wars and assassinations and gradually leads to the weakening of power. At the same time as these disorders, regional aristocratic clans were formed in the 7th century, supporting figures called the “mayors of the palace”. They are officials of the royal court whose task is to manage the sovereign's domains and who can allocate plots to nobles as a reward for services rendered to the crown. They became more and more powerful, enjoyed increasing autonomy and, during the 7th century, supported by the nobility, they set out to conquer royal power.

And here are the lazy kings !

In Neustria, the Mayor of the Palace, Ebroin, seeks, in 673, to impose his authority by pushing on the throne a king ludion, Theuderic, third son of Clovis II and of the queen Balthild. Theuderic III is considered the first lazy king. Manipulated by Ebroin several times, then pushed aside, he obediently accepts to ascend the throne or come down from it to be sent to a convent. The kingdom is then subdivided into autonomous or independent principalities, and the Pippinids family ends up taking power in this region.

In 687, Pepin of Herstal defeated the Neustrians at the Battle of Tertry and became mayor of the palace of King Theuderic, now his hostage. Charles Martel, natural son of Pepin II, also master of Austrasia and Neustria , continues the work of unification of the Franks which ended under the reign of his son, Pepin the Short, crowned king in 751 after the dismissal of Childeric III, the last representative of the Merovingian dynasty.

When Carolingian propaganda steps in

The interest of the Carolingians, successors of the Pippinids, in developing the legend of lazy kings is thus obvious: it legitimizes, in a way, their seizure of power. The oldest version we have of this legend is that of Einhard, Charlemagne's secretary and biographer. It is repeated in the 10th century, then in the 13th century, in the Grandes Chroniques de France. In all these texts, the Merovingian kings are discredited and compared to their disadvantage to the Carolingian rulers. If they don't rule it is because they are lazy. They are incapable of fighting, while the Carolingians, like Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew, are heroic warriors. They are debased, because they have abandoned the noble way of life. The best proof: they do not travel on horseback, but are dragged in oxcarts.

The Merovingians are also considered ridiculous because they wear long hair, a source for them of royal legitimacy and power, while the Carolingians see it as a sign of their bestiality. They are also described as drunkards or, again, monstrous beings, comparing them to animals "with hairs which grew along their backbones like pigs" ...

The Republic does not need lazy kings !

This very tenacious tradition is repeated in the history textbooks of the Third Republic. The most commonly used textbook then, that of Lavisse, insisted that only Charles Martel could defend Gaul against Arab invasions: “In the age of lazy kings, Gaul was invaded again. Is our country going to become Muslim? The Merovingian kings are unable to defend it ... "

Yet the founder of the dynasty, Clovis, is still magnified. It is because this “official history” bases its account of the constitution of France on the glorious acts of a few great heroes like Vercingetorix, Charles Martel, Charlemagne and Roland, Du Guesclin or Joan of Arc, and can therefore include the first king of the unloved dynasty. Only the big names are valued and the Merovingians, except Dagobert, because they did not personally achieve an exceptional feat or work, are forgotten in history.

Lazy, perhaps, but violent, surely!

The sons of Chlodomer

In 534, two of the children of Clovis' second son, Gunthar and Theodebald, were murdered by their uncles Chlothar I and Childebert. The first is stabbed by Chlothar, and the second, as he begs his uncle to spare him, is strangled. The third of the sons, Clodoald, is saved and becomes a monk in a convent.

Theudebert

Son of Childebert, who died in 595, he was assassinated as well as his son Merovech by his brother Theuderic, in 612.

Saint Leodegar of Poitiers

In 677, the bishop of Autun fell into the hands of his enemy, the mayor of the palace of Neustria, Ebroin. They cut off his tongue, slash his cheek and lips, force him to walk barefoot through a pool strewn with sharp stones, and finally his eyes are put out.

Brunhilda

The wife of Sigebert, third son of Chlothar I, reigned until 613, when she was arrested by the nobles who wanted to get rid of her. She was eighty years old at the time, but her great age did not prevent her enemies from inflicting terrible torture on her. She dies tied by the hair to a galloping horse. Two of her great-grandchildren, Corbon and Sigebert, are killed along with her.

Chilperic

The second son of Chlothar I takes Fredegund as his third wife. She has murdered two of the three sons Chilperic had from his first marriage to Audovera, and also Galswintha, his second wife, found suffocated in her bed, murdered. Chilperic was himself killed in 584, either by Fredegund or by Brunhilda, his sister-in-law.