Season Two, Episode 14: Knife's Edge
Victory rides on a knife’s edge. Oftentimes what appears to be a loss is actually the access point to a path not hitherto contemplated. In the case of Pépin d’Herstal, it was a loss that placed him on the road to immortality.
In 679, there were two main entities vying for control of Francia: the Neustrians in the east, and the Austrasians in the west. Both Kingdoms were under the control of Merovingian kings, but both of these kings were, for any number of reasons, under the control of their respective Mayors of the Palace. In Neustria, Theuderic III ruled with the advice of his Mayor, Ebroin, while in Austrasia Theuderic’s cousin Dagobert II ruled with advice from two men, Martin and Pépin.
Now, since 613 Francia had managed to avoid a repeat of the previous century, a period of time that was largely marked by civil war. In the nearly 70 years since the downfall of Brunhilda, the Merovingians had suffered coup attempts, early deaths and the occasional assassination, but they had managed to avoid getting involved in an internal war at any higher level. Well, that was about to change.
You see, Ebroin was a tyrant, at least if you asked the men leading the Austrasian kingdom. For Ebroin, Pépin and Martin were upstarts; he, Ebroin, had the true Merovingian king with him. Dagobert II, if he even was a true Merovingian, was a brain-addled puppet who had been brought to Austrasia from the far reaches of the northern sea after being away for two decades locked in a monastery. Theuderic wasn’t exactly inspiring, but at least his pedigree was never in doubt and he had lived amongst his people recently!
All of this allowed Ebroin to undoubtedly hold the upper hand. He was the elder statesman of Martin and Pépin; hell, he was Mayor by himself, a fact that in and of itself showed that he had more control of his territory than the bifurcated governance of Austrasia. He also had nothing to prove; Theuderic III was a proper king and his legitimacy was never in doubt. Neustrian lands provided plenty of money, and militarily Ebroin was as well-armed as his competition. Add to all of this that he had no reason to be the initiator of armed conflict, and his was simply the better position.
Martin and Pépin, on the other hand, had the harder assignment. They had to show their strength to gain converts, but to do so they had to levy armies. Conscription could provide numbers, but it rarely led to armies that were zealous in their cause. Once they had their army, they had to take it on campaign. This meant arming and feeding a moving force, not to mention attacking fortified positions. Being on the defense has historically been an easier position to take in battle, and the mid-7th century was no exception. Still, Martin and Pépin had to do something. Dagobert II was never going to be a true leader, and if they wanted to make a name for themselves under his charge it was going to be up to them to seize the initiative. And they did exactly that in 679, marshaling their forces and leading them to the field of battle just outside of Laon near a village known as Latofao and a forest known as the Bois-du-Fays.
As he remembered the battle, Pépin took pride in the fact that his soldiers, his conscript army, fought with an unexpected level of enthusiasm and gallantry. Still, even though they had served with distinction, their efforts were not enough to overcome Ebroin on that day. After several hours of fighting, the Neustrians were able to break the lines and send the Austrasians to flight. Once this occurred, all was lost and Ebroin, not wanting to leave remnants that may re-form to trouble him again, gave the order to cut every last soldier down and to set fire to anyone and anything along the way that had provided them succor of any kind. Above all of that, Ebroin wanted two things: the heads of Martin and Pépin.
Knowing they were marked men, Martin and Pépin set off in different directions. Pépin retreated into the safety of Austrasia, but Martin chose to hole himself up inside of the walled city of Laon. Both tactics worked, as both men were able to survive. The problem for Martin, however, was that he was trapped. Ebroin set himself up in a villa near Asfeld and began the process of waiting his opposing commander out of hiding; after all, if you have to conduct a siege, why not do so from a villa? Still, after a while even this got boring and Ebroin looked to speed things up. To do this, he chose to send two men, Aglibert and Bishop Reolus of Rheims, as his representatives to Laon. Once in the walled city, they found Martin and swore to him that if he came forth, Ebroin would cause him no harm. They even swore on holy relic boxes to prove their sincerity. Seeing this, Martin agreed to go. He gathered his companions and rode to Asfeld.
Once together, the parlay began immediately. Ebroin thanked his representatives for making the meeting possible, and asked them to bring forth the boxes holding the relics. They laid them on the table before their master.
“Martin,” Ebroin said. “I asked my two men, Aglibert and the good bishop, to undertake the mission to visit you and to make you promises. And they would never think to lie. They spoke my words and swore on these sainted relics...”
At this Ebroin opened the lids of each box and turned them upside down in front of the group. Nothing fell out.
“Unfortunately, these boxes are quite empty, as you can see. Their word, given in good faith, was therefore meaningless. And my words, which are all that now matter, served no purpose except to bring you here and to stop wasting my time. You started a war, and now I will end it.”
At this, Ebroin’s men, armed with spears, swords, shields and daggers, swooped in on Martin and his unarmed companions. Their work was quick and definitive.
After the debacle at Latofao, Pépin retreated to Metz to reconsider his position and his next move. And it was here that he received word just a month later that his King, Dagobert II, had been cut down while on a hunt near the village of Stenay. Pépin sent orders to have the King buried in the local church of that area; there was simply no use in spending money on the funeral of a king that no one in the kingdom cared for. With the death, however, Pépin was now alone in Austrasia as a leader. His co-Mayor had been murdered and his King assassinated. Beginning 680, he sat alone atop the Austrasian hierarchy.
And this state of affairs held for a while; after some time, the new normal became just... normal. Pépin led the administration of Austrasia as well as anyone had up to that point, and the need to bring in a new King, especially after so many recent debacles, failed to gain any traction as an actual necessity. Meanwhile, it was only a short amount of time before amazing news came out of Neustria: Ebroin, after years of over-taxation and confiscating the lands and properties of his people, finally overreached. He had looked to take the property of a wealthy noble, Ermenfroi, under spurious pretenses, and rather than simply giving in, Ermenfroi gathered several of his companions and awaited an opening in the Mayor’s security. Finding the hole they needed one day, they fell upon Ebroin with daggers and years of pent-up frustration and malice. Just like that, the main antagonist of Pépin’s life was no longer an element to have to factor into the equation.
Several years after the death of Ebroin, Pépin once again led his army in anger against the Neustrians, and once again they came to battle in a location near to Laon. This time the battle took place near the village of Tertry, and this time the Austrasian army fought for more of a purpose than mere conscription. At Tertry they ruled the day, pushing aside the Neustrian army that felt they had a right to Austrasia simply because the only remaining king in Francia was theirs.
No problem, Pépin had thought before the battle. If they want Theuderic to be the king of Austrasia, we’ll take Neustria. If he’s still alive when we’re done, I’ll be happy to let him remain as king.
And that was how, in the year 687, Pépin found himself sending his faithful follower Nordebert into Paris to deliver the news to King Theuderic III that, quite literally, there was a new Mayor in town. Following his victory at Tertry, Pépin now administered all of Francia, and even gave himself a title commensurate with his position: dux et princeps Francorum, Duke and Prince of Francia.
Pépin was pleased that he had won at Tertry, not just for the obvious reasons of winning, but also because doing so was a positive affirmation of his right to rule. In the past decade he had gained tremendously through his loss at Latofao: his co-Mayor was no longer around as a possible rival, and Pépin had been able to consolidate power under himself once he returned to Austrasia alone. The death of Dagobert had removed the fig leaf of who was really in charge, and the unexpected death of Ebroin had removed his key impediment to power. If he had won at Latofao, perhaps Martin would still be alive. Perhaps Dagobert wouldn’t have gone hunting on his ill-fated trip to Stenay. And perhaps Ebroin would have been chastened, less haughty, and less likely to make the demands that ultimately led his own people to rise up against him.
If Pépin had won at Latofao, he may have lost everything he eventually gained.
This is Thugs and Miracles.
Season Two, Épisode 14: Knife's Edge
Alright, welcome back! As always, I’m Benjamin Bernier, and this week we’re finally looking at the do-nothing kings, les rois fainéants, as exactly that: kings who sat the throne, and besides the title and crown, had very little to say in the actual administration of the land over which they nominally ruled. In this case, we’re looking at Theuderic III, whose Mayor of the Palace was the aforementioned Ebroin, and Dagobert II, led by Martin and Pépin d’Herstal. Looking deeper, we’re going to examine the knife’s edge that not only victory sits upon, but history as a whole. I say this because quite simply, and as evidenced in the opening story, things could easily have broken Ebroin’s way as much as they did Pépin’s. And let’s face it: the two men were really not all that dissimilar, even though the scribes advocating for the Carolingians in later years would do their best to hide this fact.
So why do I say this? Let’s look at the two men side-by-side. First off, Ebroin and Pépin both clearly had ambition and a taste for power, a taste they pursued despite some pretty drastic setbacks. For Ebroin, the death of Chlothar III had resulted in his loss of power and an all- expenses-paid journey to a monastery/jail in Luxeuil. For all intents and purposes, his addition to the history books should have ended there. For Pépin, the setback in his case came mostly from the utter debacle that was Childebert the Adopted. His uncle had been Grimoald, meaning that the “king” at the heart of the attempted coup was Pépin’s cousin. Add to that, it was Grimoald who had tonsured Dagobert and sent him to a monastery, and all that occurred in 656. By 679, where our story begins today, there was only a 20-ish year period of time that had elapsed; it was far from ancient history. The fact that Pépin’s family had managed to stick around in power, much less having Childebert the Adopted’s cousin placed as Mayor to the once-deposed king, made for odd bedfellows.
Along those same lines, another point of similarity between Pépin and Ebroin was their use of spurious Merovingians to retain power. Ebroin had used Clovis III, the supposedly forgotten bastard son of Chlothar III, as a prop to get back to the royal court; he promptly “lost” young Clovis when Ebroin was able to get back into the good graces of Theuderic III. As we discussed last episode, Pépin basically did the same with Dagobert II. The fact is, no one seemed to be able verify the king’s identity when he returned from his time in the Irish monastery; it’s as likely that he was as much of a prop as Clovis III, and just as easily discarded when his political use waned.
Finally, there’s nothing that really tells us that Pépin was a better administrator than was Ebroin. In this case, we’re left with the old adage of “History is written by the victors.” Ebroin lost, and the corresponding documentation of his rule, such as the Chronicles of Fredegar paint him as a tyrant. Just check out this passage:
“Ebroin oppressed the Franks with ever increasing cruelty until at last he set ambitions for a Frank named Ermenfroi, whose possessions he wanted to steal. Ermenfroi... gathered together a troop of friends during the night, and throwing himself on Ebroin he killed him. After this action, he took refuge with his riches near Duke Pépin in Austrasia.”
Fredegar doesn’t say that Pépin was great, just that he wasn’t Ebroin. And the fact that Pépin allowed Ermenfroi to take refuge in Austrasia actually would seem to make later battles kind of inevitable; think of what would happen today if a head of state were killed, and then the assassin were to be given refugee status by another country. The emotions of anger, betrayal and deceit would be raw, and these emotions are nothing new. The fact is, the leadership styles of Ebroin and Pépin were likely not too different at this time. Pépin may have changed over the years, and as we’ll see, he had a nice, long tenure once he fully became “Duke of the Franks,” but at the time he went to battle with Ebroin it was just as likely that people were choosing to fall behind him and Martin because they were the heads of the Austrasian government, not because they had a choice in who they preferred.
Speaking of preference, however, the Neustrians did have a chance after the death of Ebroin to name a new Mayor, and when they did we really get an insight into just how disjointed local government was at this time in Neustria. Again from Fredegar:
“Then the Franks having deliberated, established in place of Ebroin, in the dignity of mayor of the palace, Waradon, an illustrious man. Waradon having received hostages from Duke Pépin, they made peace together. Waradon had a son, named Gislemar, skillful and active, skillful in council, and who governed the palace in place of his father; by his extreme skill and his wiles, he succeeded in supplanting his father in his own charge. Bishop Saint Ouen reproached him frequently for this action, urging him to make peace and to ask for his father's forgiveness; but he did not consent and persisted in the hardness of his heart. There arose between Pépin and Gislemar many disputes and civil wars. Gislemar having marched in Namur against the army of Duke Pépin, took a false oath, and killed a large number of nobles of this army. From there having returned home, because of his conduct towards his father and his other wickedness and deceit, Gislemar, struck by the judgment of God, as he had deserved, his soul guilty. Upon his death, his father Waradon returned to his former dignity. In this time, the bishop Saint Ouen, full of virtues, ascended to the Lord. Then also died Waradon, mayor of the palace. He had a noble and wise mother, named Ansflède, whose son-in-law Berthaire was created mayor of the palace; he was a short man, of little intelligence, angry and light-hearted, and often despising the friendship and advice of the Franks who were indignant at it... Pépin, having raised an army, advanced as an enemy to make war against King Theuderic and Berthaire. Having met near the city of Vermand in a place called Tertry, they came to blows. Pepin and the Austrasians having carried the day, and King Theodoric and Berthaire fled. Pepin, victorious, pursued them and subdued the country; then Berthaire was killed by flatterers, false friends... Pépin, having in his possession King Theodoric with his treasures and in charge of the government of the whole kingdom, returned to Austrasia. He had a noble and wise wife, named Plectrude, and had two sons, the eldest of whom was named Drogon and the younger Grimoald.”
Long story short, Ebroin seems to have had Neustria under control, even if he had to be relatively heavy-handed with his nobles to do so. When he died/was assassinated, the power vacuum left in his wake was filled by no less than three people: Waradon, Gislemar and Berthaire. Waradon seemed to want to appease Pépin, Gislemar seemed to want to try to undermine everyone, and Berthaire was a weak enough leader for Pépin to overcome, ultimately leading to Pepin’s role as ruler of all the Franks.
And this is where we leave behind Ebroin. In my opinion, he was the last person standing between Pépin and greatness, and it was his assassination that ultimately allowed the Carolingians to grow into the powerhouse they would become. And this is the knife’s edge I started this entire episode talking about. If not for Ebroin’s death, history would be much different. He was an even match to Pépin, a heavyweight, and it’s very easy to craft an alternative history wherein Ebroin’s assassins would have found Pépin before Pépin’s found him. Had that been the case, the histories would undoubtedly tell us of the craftiness and duplicity of the Pippinids, how they attempted to steal the kingdom from the good and righteous Mayor Ebroin. Instead, we’re told of how Ebroin was last seen by a group of monks being rowed along in a slow boat to Hell, how he was cruel and how he lied and how he stole. What we can’t see in that alternative history is the second-, third- and fourth- order effects that would have come about from this relatively minor shift in the story. Without Pépin d’Herstal’s victory at Tertry, there would have been no Charles Martel, no Pépin le Bref, no Charlemagne. It’s possible the Merovingians would have had a longer time to sit on the throne, even if they were nothing more than puppets, and it’s possible that the interactions between the Franks and the Umayyad Caliphate would have gone differently, leading to an expansion of Muslim armies well beyond the Pyrenees and Tours. In short, it’s possible that almost everything we know about history and the way things eventually turned out could have been completely different if it hadn’t been for the death of Ebroin in 681 on the edge of a knife held by Errmenfroi and guided by Pépin. But that’s how history goes: a different decision here, an avoided assassination there... everything would have changed, could have changed, but in the it didn’t, and here we sit to talk about it.
CONCLUSION: Alright, on that note we’ll wrap up for the week! Ebroin is out, Pépin d’Herstal is in, and Theuderic III is officially the King of all the Franks. The title held much more power and authority when it was held by Clovis, Chlothars I and II, and Dagobert I, but it’s still recorded in the history books that Theuderic gets to write his name alongside these other, stronger monarchs. With that being noted, how will the rest of Theuderic III’s reign turn out? Given that the Carolingians are now fully re-energized after the debacle of Grimoald and Childebert the Adopted, how does Pépin react to having to once again don the fig leaf of Merovingian power and authority? Remember, from 680-687 he didn’t have to fake the funk at all in Austrasia; there was no king, and Pépin was able to retain power, raise armies, and watch the Neustrians fall apart from within. So how does he respond this time to the idea of having to have a Merovingian to cement his legitimacy? We’ll find about this and more, next week!
OUTRO: Before we go, as always, the music used for the show comes from Josh Woodward and includes his songs “Bully” and “Lafayette.” For a free download of these songs or hundreds of other great tracks, check out his site at joshwoodward.com. Notes on this episode, an updated monarchy tree, our Instagram feed, and a list of other great history podcasts are all available online at thugsandmiracles.com; please visit and sign up for the mailing list so we can keep you up to date with announcements on new shows and our monthly newsletter. Speaking of email, you can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, you can hit us on Twitter at @thugsandmiracle (with no “s” on the end), or you can leave a comment on Facebook and Instagram at @ThugsAndMiracles. We’re constantly putting up photos and pictures that illuminate our story, so be sure to check them out on the socials. If you don’t have those accounts - and believe me, I can honestly understand why you wouldn’t! - you can also see the pictures we post on the T+M website. Finally, we always love to get new reviews, so if you take a moment to leave us one we’d appreciate it more than you’d know. We know you have a ton of options when it comes to podcasts and we’re happy that you’re here with with us; we appreciate you!
Okay, once again, my name is Benjamin Bernier. We look forward to seeing you in just one week as we get deep into the rule of Pépin II and look at just how he acted as king without ever actually being the King, in the next episode of Thugs and Miracles.