• Ben

Season Three, Episode Three: Pépin the Underrated

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Gaining power is difficult, but holding everything together once you’ve arrived... well, therein lies the real challenge.

For Pépin, this was most certainly the case. He had lived out 37 years of his life prior to gaining the crown as the King of the Franks, but in those 37 years he had been a palace insider. He had had an insider’s view of who was who and had been able to learn on the job just how to run a kingdom. And as the Mayor of the Palace, he had been able to enjoy almost all of the perks of power without having to actually embody that authority. Pépin learned how to lead, enough so that he learned how to overthrow the Merovingians without making the same mistakes as his ancestors; he learned enough to make the alliances he needed to make his power grab ultimately successful.

King Pépin I
Pepin le Bref by Heinz-Dieter Falkenstein

In 751, Pépin brought everything together to place himself on the throne and to take the transformative step from subject to sovereign. Once he took that step, however, everything changed. For 17 years, Pépin had to run the state just as he had for most of the rest of his life, but now he also had to embody the state, a task he had previously been able to pawn off on Childeric III, the monk Pépin himself had pulled out of a monastery and declared “King.” Bringing these realities together in himself was difficult, as difficult as anything else he had done in his life. In his few quiet moments, King Pépin I found himself having a moment or two - fleeting moments, to be sure - where he was almost envious of how the Merovingians had been able to rule: They were simply driven about from place to place and told what to say. He envied his younger self for getting to rule and administer without having to be a figurehead. Now, whether he liked it or not, Pépin had to do everything, and he was finding that when you have to do everything, people love to test your ability to not miss a beat.

Take Waifarium for instance. Waifarium had been one of Pépin’s most notable dukes, responsible for administering the large and restive region of Aquitaine in the southwest. He had taken the duchy in 745 with the consent of Pépin and Pépin’s brother, Carloman the Elder. For 15 years, Waifarium had worked to hold the territory while also extricating the Umayyads from Francia. He had stayed with Pépin after the Merovingians were overthrown, and he had remained loyal during the Italian campaigns against the Lombards. By 760, though, Waifarium had had enough. Pépin had, in the Duke’s opinion, overstepped his authority when he had ordered Waifarium to give lands back to the Church and to heed Pépin’s orders as those given from senior to subordinate. Waifarium had refused, and Pépin had been forced to march against one of his most prized nobles. Charles, the king’s oldest son and a large boy in his mid-teens, rode in these campaigns to bring the unrepentant leader back in line.

As Waifarium rebelled, another leader showed his true colors and turned his back on the new Carolingian king. In this case, the betrayal belonged to Tassilo, the Duke of Bavaria. Tassilo had offered his fealty to Pépin and was a sworn vassal; more than that, he had been Pépin’s personal ward years earlier and had been installed in his position as Duke by the soon-to-be King himself. However, in 760, Tassilo married Liutperga, daughter of the Lombard king, Desiderius; his loyalties began to ebb from Pépin at this point and flow instead to the Lombards. By 763, Tassilo decided the time was right to challenge the ability of the king to handle combat on two fronts. Worse than that, Tassilo made this break while fighting alongside of Pépin in Aquitaine. He double-crossed his sovereign and left him short of the military forces that Pépin had expected to allow him to prosecute his campaign.

Despite all of this treachery, however, Pépin had survived. He was strong, stronger than any false claimant to the throne which he had so capably removed from the Merovingians, the throne he now promised to his Papally-anointed sons. He smothered Aquitaine with his forces, constricting Waifarium’s ability to move with every passing year. Pépin won castle after castle from his enemy, repairing the strongholds and then placing them into service for himself. He got closer, and closer, and closer to his prey, burning the fields and homes of Waifarium’s followers as he went along. Choosing the Duke over the King was a wicked choice, one which Pépin punished heavily.

His tactics worked; people turned on Waifarium as he lost more and more ground and city after city. After the loss of Bordeaux, Waifarium’s capital city, the Duke’s days were numbered. A treaty was signed to stop the hostilities, but despite the war being over, Waifarium’s people continued to take issue with their noble having led them down a destructive and ruinous path. One day in early 768, Waifarium, with his available options running low and his places left to run and hide bordering on non-existent, was called out and murdered by his own subjects.

Pépin was pleased.

By 768, with Waifarium now gone, Pépin next turned his forces east. Before launching this next campaign, however, he wanted to make a trip to Tours, to the Shrine of Saint Martin. He was tired and he just needed a few days to release his burdens, a safe and quiet place in which to take a small bit of repose before mounting up for battle yet again. He rode north, and as he progressed the fatigue he had first felt creeping upon him in Bordeaux grew overwhelming. He arrived to the shrine of the blessed saint in Tours in early September barely able to remain in his saddle. He was exhausted and visibly puffy from the exertion of his ride. His breathing had become labored and all the man wanted to do, this man in whom all Earthly power was vested, was to sleep.

Pépin was tended to by the best healers the Shrine had to offer while he rested from the road, but his health worsened regardless. One of the older men in the group, a man with a voluminous knowledge of the diseases of that age, assessed the King and passed judgement on his illness: dropsy. Dropsy was a death sentence, a condition which, once afflicted, would leave the afflictee with but a small amount of time to put their affairs in order before succumbing to the inevitable.

It was with this knowledge, knowing his mortality was nearing its end, that Pépin made his last decision. He mounted his horse and ordered his men to take him home to Saint Denis, just outside of Paris. He had been anointed King in Saint Denis in 754, forcing the Pope himself to come their and lay the Holy Oil on his head. His wife, Bertrada, was in Saint Denis; he would see her again before he died and lay in the splendor of that city in which he had enjoyed so many of his triumphs.

Finally - and in this sense, truly finally - Pépin planned his burial and internment in the Cathedral of Saint Denis. The Merovingians had buried many of their line in that church, and Pépin would not be outdone by the race whose line he had ended. If he had to die, he would overthrow the old guard one last time and make sure that he, as the first Carolingian King, would continue the trend of burying the royalty of Francia where they belonged. He was the King and it was his right.

Pépin arrived to Saint Denis on the 23rd day of September 768. He was escorted to his bed by his wife and his sons, and unable to speak by this time, he displayed his pleasure at being home with a smile and a nod. He took one last look around at those who would survive him, then closed his eyes and went to sleep.

Pépin I, the first Carolingian King of France, father of Charles and Carloman the Younger, husband of Bertrada, ruler of Francia, patricius of Rome, Protector of the True Faith and the man who established the Papacy as a truly consequential land holder, the man who placed the rulers of Francia on an even footing with the Emperors of the Eastern Roman Empire, died on 24 September 768. He was 54 years old.

With Pépin’s death, so began the reigns of King Charles, 25 years old, and King Carloman, who was 17. King Pépin was dead, but his legacy would live on in the form of these two young heirs. He had given them a head start in life that very few monarchs are given; how they took advantage of this gift was now up to them.

The King is dead; long live the new Kings!

This is Thugs and Miracles.


Season 3, Episode 3: Pépin the Underrated


Alright, welcome back! As always, I’m Benjamin Bernier, and this week we’re going to look back one last time at the life and times of one of the most horribly underrated Kings in all of French history, a guy who may have done more to establish the foundations of modern-day France than any other individual out there, and yet whose name remains lost to all but the most intrepid history nerds - and yes, I’m looking at all of you! - because he happened to sire the one name that everyone knows: Charlemagne. So, for the remainder of this episode we’re going to take a look at what Pépin I did after he returned back to Francia from Italy in 756 and how he spent the last decade and some change of his life. After that, we’ll break down the entirety of his reign using our Monarch W.A.R. rating, and we’ll see where he stacks up against the Merovingian kings who came before him. With all of that as appetizer, let’s turn our sights to 756 and figure out just what Pépin chose to do when he was finally able to stop bailing out the Pope. The Annales Regni Francorum, and for the rest of the show referred to as either as simply the Annales or the ARF, they were a wonderful guide on this quest, because they took us through Pépin’s last years one at a time. Most other sources just seem to want to get to Charlemagne, and it’s too bad... Pépin had a lot more going on than most historians gave him credit for. Anyway, rather than reading the Latin of the Annales to you word for word, allow us to summarize:

In 756, Pépin regained the Pope’s lost cities. The Lombard King Aistulf died, which honestly probably saved Pépin a third trip over the Alps. Fortunately for him, he never had to make that choice because ultimately, the new Lombard king, Desiderius, seemed like an okay guy. While that was happening, Emperor Constantine V was sending Pépin a bunch of gifts from Constantinople to Francia, to include an organ - and who doesn’t like an organ? “C’mon Baby Light My Fire” is probably just a few years off...

Anyway, Pépin was on a monarch high, and his enemies are either dying or sending him gifts. He needed one last thing to make it a trifecta, and he received it in 757: “Tassilo, duke of the Bavarians, commending himself by his hands to the vassal, swore many and innumerable oaths, laying on his hands the relics of the saints, and promised fidelity to King Pépin and his aforesaid sons, to Sir Charles and Carloman, as a vassal of right mind and firm devotion to justice, as vassals ought to be his masters.” Pépin was pretty much on the top of his game at this point.

Soon enough, Pépin took a run at the Saxons as a way to expand territory. This was perhaps a little heavy-handed, what with the ARF telling us, “Many massacres occurred among the people of the Saxons,” but they did ultimately offer “up to 300 horses every year” to the Franks to get them to stop. Now, this is one of those moments where we have to remind ourselves that the 8th century was different than the 21st, and while we think it’s not a particularly good trade to massacre people in order to get horses given back in tribute, back then they felt differently. The ARF writes this entire scene out as more of a fact that happened and avoids making any judgement calls about it, which is probably because in the 8th century it was little more, in the source’s opinion, than a fact that happened and undeserving of judgement.

Moving to 758, we find out that “a son was born to King Pépin... he lived two years and died in the third.” This is the sad part of the story, but one that is not really that shocking considering the state of health care, infant mortality and general hygiene at this time. And for what it’s worth, this may have been a blessing in disguise, given that this child, had he lived, would have been 10 at around the time Pépin is going to die. Young monarchs often had trouble in this age, especially when older claimants would sometimes simply eliminate their junior relatives so as to eliminate contenders for the crown. It had happened before (and here’s looking at you, Chlothar I and Childebert I). Now, none of this necessarily means that bad things would have happened to a junior claimant to power, but it may be just as well that we never found out how Pépin would have added the new prince into his inheritance.

From 760 on, the ARF goes over most of the things we spoke about in the opener: The betrayals by Waifarium and Tassilo, the fights by Pépin to set his wayward subjects back in line, the capturing and repurposing of castles. We’re told that Pépin pushed his way into Aquitaine and the city of Orléans in 766, ultimately repairing a castle in “Argentom, which Waifarius had previously destroyed... Pippin built up a famous castle [and] sent the Franks there to confine Aquitaine.”

However - and this speaks to how well Pépin must have felt his military adventures were going, because he was able to focus on more than just the immediate threats confronting him - the King is said to have found time to hold synods to at least attempt to patch up relations between the capital-E East and the capital-W West. In 767, he held a synod “between the Romans and the Greeks concerning the Holy Trinity and pictures of the saints.” We’ve no word on how well this synod worked out, and it’s hard to believe it achieved too much considering that tensions between East and West were far from over, but at least he tried. On top of that, it tells us quite a lot about Pépin that the Eastern Romans considered him a strong enough monarch in the first place to even consider holding such a meeting; if he weren’t in firm control of his territory and in a strong position of power over Waifarium and Tassilo - and anybody else who might challenge him - it’s hard to believe that the Emperor would have sent emissaries to talk with him.

Pépin spent the rest of 767 on a tour of all that he had conquered in his now 16 years as King. He traveled through “Aquitaine, through Narbona, Tolosa, and likewise at Albiens and Gavuldan.” Later in 767, he traveled to Vienne (that’s the city in Burgundy, not the one in Austria) and Bourges; it was in this latter city where he would receive word of the death of Pope Paul I, the second of the Pope brothers we spoke of in the last episode and a person very possibly complicit in the forged Donation of Constantine. The advice Paul almost certainly sent to his brother, Pope Stephen II, and the pleas he himself sent to Pépin over the decade of his Papacy, painted him as a key early player in the budding relationship between the Popes and the Frankish Kings.

Now, we’ll undoubtedly get more into that relationship in future episodes; at this moment, though, I want to take a moment to consider the land holdings in which Pépin traveled through in 767. You see, if one were to look at a map of Charlemagne’s grand empire - and we recently posted one to our Instagram account to save you some hassle - but if you were to look at that map, you’d see that it incorporated essentially all of modern-day France, a tiny portion of northern Spain, much of modern-day Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and the top half of Italy. But think about it: Pépin had already been to almost all of these areas. He had pushed the borders and made deals with different groups, such as the Saxons who we spoke about earlier and their agreement to provide 300 horses a year to the Franks. Pépin had been to Italy and demolished the Lombards, twice, to the point where he felt it within his prerogative to grant cities there to the Pope. He never officially pulled these areas into his own domain and claimed Kingship over them, but he most certainly created the conditions that would allow other highly-rated kings - such as say, Charlemagne - to do exactly that. Pépin was never officially the Holy Roman Emperor, but he laid the groundwork for his son to get that title.

All of this is to say that Pépin, in our estimation, is pretty grossly underrated by historians. He took the work his father, Charles Martel, had done, and he moved the ball forward. Martel had beaten the Umayyads - sure, he had the high-profile victory - but he had never worked with the Popes and he had never officially been crowned king. Pépin had done both, and solving the puzzle of how to move on from the Merovingians get less credit from most than it should. By doing all of this, he made it possible for his son to become Charlemagne. But because Pépin was couched between “The Hammer” and “The Great,” he somehow was given the nickname of “The Short.” It’s a nickname that makes no sense, since no contemporary source makes a deal about his height, and at 17 years, his reign as king was far from short. Pépin’s nickname is nonsense, unless it relates to how historians view his stature with the two giants on either side of him. But since he was, in our opinion, a towering figure himself, we feel safe in our assertion that Pépin has been historically, almost criminally underrated!

Alright, returning from our tangent and finishing his timeline, the ARF tells us to that in 768, years after he had started the struggle in Aquitaine, King Pépin received word that his nemesis, Waifarius, had been slain. Pépin was a victor, but the sweetness of the win was going to be short-lived. Not long after, Pépin traveled north and “made a speech to Saint Martin, and arrived at St. Denis, and there ended his days... lords Charles and Carloman were elevated to the throne.”

Pépin died on 24 September 768 in St. Denis and was buried in the basilica - the first non- Merovingian king to do so. In a life filled with so many firsts, it seems poetically fitting that his death would mark yet another. Of course, Pépin’s death kept up with a Merovingian tradition that was decidedly unhealthy: the splitting of the kingdom amongst male heirs. As we said earlier, this could have been even more complicated had Prince Pépin, the child who died in his infancy in 760/61, had lived long enough to take part in this dispersal of the inheritance. Luckily for Charles and Carloman - yet very unfortunately for young Pépin - this wasn’t the case. However, that doesn’t mean that things were drama-free; the fragmenting of the territory has always been a sure-fire way to stoke resentment, intra-family rivalry and civil war, and this splitting of Francia wasn’t really going to be a whole lot different. But we’ll get into that starting in the next episode. For now, it’s time to really consider Pépin’s place in history and think about how he rates compared to the other Frankish kings. Unlike the last of the Merovingians, this first Carolingian has given us quite a lot of food for thought!


W.A.R. RANKING: Alright, as we begin our discussion about Pépin’s legacy and his point total for our Monarchy W.A.R. chart, let’s get the easiest category out of the way quickly, his length of reign. Now, Pépin was effectively ruling the Franks as the Mayor of the Palace for many years, but he only became the king, once and for all, in 751. He held on to the crown until his death in 768, all of which gives us a length of reign of 17 years. And that’s good for three points.

Now, next, let’s look at Pépin’s wife, Bertrada. She is noted to have been his only wife, and she produced plenty of children for him. Additionally, she is said to have held his ear in matters of state; after Pépin’s death, she also would help to guide her sons in their new kingships. She is buried in Saint Denis alongside of her husband, and holds the honor of having been anointed at her husband’s coronation along with their children. All of this latter part came just a few years after her marriage to Pépin was officially sanctioned by the Church, because it appears that she was too closely related to her dear husband, and the Church wouldn’t allow the union until it became pretty obvious that Pépin was going places - if you know what I’m saying - and it was best to stay on his good side. So she became his lawfully wedded bride - and through that she was able to legitimize Charles. That’s right folks: Charlemagne was born a bastard. Kinda gives new context to the idea of rising from humble beginnings!

Anyway, the only thing truly going against Bertrada, historically, is her nickname: Broadfoot, or depending on how you translate it, Bigfoot. That’s right folks, this Queen of France is remembered as Bertha Bigfoot, once again adding to my argument that historical nicknames are usually stupid, childish and misinformed, and that they tell us more about the person bestowing the nickname than about the actual person. In this case, the name appears to have come from a 1270 poem written by Adenes Le Roi, who used the notion of the Queen’s possible clubfoot as fodder for his work The Romance of Bertrada Broadfoot. So yes, 500 years removed from her life and citing a medical condition that she may or may not have had and that was completely out of her control, Le Roi made sure that this otherwise impressive woman, wife of the first Carolingian King, Queen of the Franks and mother of Charlemagne, is remembered not for any of that, but as “Broadfoot.” Pardon my French, but what an asshole. Anyway, based on the actual, pertinent and verifiable information we have at hand, we think Bertrada deserves a much higher historical ranking, and that’s why we’re giving her an eight out of a possible 10, placing her high in France’s pantheon of Queens.

Okay, on to the other categories. Next up is alliances, and this one strikes us as kind of a no-brained. Not only did Pépin convince one Pope to let him overthrow a dynasty, but he convinced another to cross the Alps and crown him in person in Francia. And then with the Donation of Pépin given to the Popes in exchange... well, this is the beginning of 1,000 years of direct history between the Franks and the Vatican. On top of this, Pépin was able to maintain ties to Constantinople, receiving gifts from the Emperor even after he refused to give Ravenna back to the Eastern Romans. That, to us, is pretty huge - and worth 10 points.

Next on the rankings list is monuments, and this is going to be the first category where Pépin scores a zero. While he used sites such as Saint Denis and built castles for defense, which we feel falls more under infrastructure than cultural/historical monuments, he simply did not build anything that left a lasting legacy to his greatness in stone. So... zero. But remember, our scale goes from -10 to +10, so a zero isn’t the end of the world; at least he didn’t go the wrong direction!

Next is legal, and for this we have to consider the synods Pépin presided over as king. He is noted as having held meetings of the Franks in fields, bringing the people together in a way that allowed them to address the problems they were having, while still ultimately acquiescing to the notion of Pépin as the supreme leader of the land. He also held synods to try and patch up relations between the East and the West, most notably the 767 synod in which they discussed the issues “between the Romans and the Greeks concerning the Holy Trinity and pictures of the saints.” None of this was overly amazing, and new law codes weren’t written, but Pépin still showed in no uncertain terms that he was the ruler of the land and the administrator of justice - which is, in our opinion, is kind of what a king is supposed to do. Overall, we’re going to give him a four in this category.

Now, let’s look at significant military victories and defeats. But really, it’s just victories; Pépin is noted as having been undefeated. Now, how much of that was strategic prowess and how much of that was simply having the biggest army in the land, built by a father who’s known as The Hammer, is open to debate. Still, undefeated is undefeated, and that means something. Pépin completed his coup, expanded the borders, sent the Lombards to flight on their home turf and pushed the Umayyads off of Frankish soil. He wasn’t to be trifled with. Still, he never notched a specific turning point battle; Charles Martel had Tours, Clovis had Tolbiac... even Constantine I, the Roman Emperor par excellencewho everyone seemed to want to emulate, had the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Pépin’s record, to use a boxing analogy, seems to have been padded from fighting a string of lesser fighters and washed-up ex-champs. So without a marquee win, we respect Pépin’s undefeated record with a six. A winning record against a stronger schedule probably would have brought this up higher.

Looking at political influence and control of the court next, we have to give Pépin a lower rank simply because he spent the last decade or so of his reign fighting against recalcitrant leaders in Aquitaine and Bavaria. It was hard to keep everyone in line, but points are not awarded for things being hard. With that being the case, we’re giving Pépin two points here. Likewise, we’re awarding him two points for economics. He upgraded the Frankish currency, which was necessary and nice, but not really the stuff of super-high grades. It’s better than nothing, so here again... we’ve got two.

Okay, so we’re on to the last two categories: infrastructure and societal changes. Earlier I noted that Pépin had no real lasting monuments built for posterity, but he is noted as having built up and repaired castles throughout Francia that enabled him to retake and hold territory. Considering that he was finally to subdue Aquitaine and rid himself of Waifarius - within his lifetime - we have to hand it to him that he was thinking smarter and not always harder. And we like that kind of logic, so here he gets a five from us. And that leaves us with societal changes. Well, with the first successful transfer of power, dynasty-wise, in 300 years and the successful tying of the Papacy to royal power, we don’t think that Pépin could have been much more impactful. Hence he receives a 10 in this final category.

Alright, when we tally everything together and divide by 10, Pépin I receives a remarkable 5.0 on the W.A.R. scale! This places him at the level of a history changing reign, and that sounds about right. To date, Pépin is number two only to Clovis I; considering that the earlier king basically launched the entire French project, that’s impressive company to be compared with. Also, consider that Pépin only reigned as a proper monarch for 17 years, and that he died relatively young at the age of 54. With another 10 years under his belt, who’s to say that he wouldn’t have changed some of these numbers and had more of an effect on history than he already had. Then again, had he lived longer, his son Charles would have had an attendantly shorter reign, and that means that the scion would have had less of a mark on history. Who knows... if Pépin had had the extra time that Charles got instead, maybe we’d be talking today about Pépinmagne and Charles le Bref, rather than the other way around!


OUTRO: Alright, that is all for today’s episode! Happy New Year to you, and may the next 363 days be better for all of us than 2021 was... and 2020... and, yeah, I’m going to just stop... Seriously though, happy holidays and thank you for spending some time with us as T+M now enters into its fourth calendar year of existence! Also, we want to give a special shout-out to Dirk Hoffman-Becking at the History of the Germans Podcast; our interview episode with him went live on New Year’s Day, and he has a separate interview that we conducted available on his feed. Long story short, you should have no shortage of T+M- related content available for you to start your New Year!

Before we go, we want to remind you as always that notes on this episode, the completed Merovingian monarchy tree and the new Carolingian tree, our Instagram feed, our updated podcast recommendation page and a bunch of other cool stuff is available online at ThugsAndMiracles.com; check out the site and make sure you sign up for the newsletter! There are a lot of new things coming for the show this year, and if you’re signed up, we’ll be sure to keep you in the loop and the first to know.

If you want to get in touch with us, you can write to us at thugsandmiracles@gmail.com or find us on most of the major social media platforms. We’ve continued to enjoy stellar engagements with some really smart and really exciting people on the socials, and we’d love for you to be a part of that community with us and drop some comments. Finally, just as we said at the start, you can send us a line and/or a donation at Patreon.com/ ThugsAndMiracles; your donation helps us keep the lights on and the bills paid here at the show, but more importantly, it gets you access to some cool extra T+M content. And who wouldn’t want that, amiright? Find your level of support and we’ll be sure to say thank you here on the show.

Okay, we appreciate everything that all of you do to help keep us growing, whether it’s through Patreon, by leaving a review on your podcatcher of choice, by sending us messages through the socials, or simply by enjoying each episode. We know that we wouldn’t be here without you, and for that, we do thank you.

Alright, again, my name is Benjamin Bernier. Get ready for a fun and action-packed 2022, and if you’re listening to this as you had back from vacation, get home safely. We will talk to you again in just 10 days with Episode Four, Season Four, of Thugs and Miracles.