Season Two, Episode 15: The Prince Who Was Promised
Some, not without reason, do here put an end to the Reign of the Merovignians, because in truth and in effect they never had after this but only the vain and empty Title of Kings, their whole Kingdom, and even their Persons being in the Power of Pepin and his Children. He was crowned Mayre of the Palace through all France, and he took the Title of Duke or Commander of the French, according to the ancient usage of the Germans; that is to say they gave him all Authority in the Armies without dependance upon the King, but under whose name notwithstanding all Acts were passed; and that was the sole honour that remained still in him.
- François de Mézeray, A General Chronological History of France
How do you define legitimacy?
I ask this question not insofar as personal legitimacy - such as being born to a married mother and father - but rather, insofar as government. I mean, how do you justify monarchy?
How do you justify the notion that certain people were chosen, either by God or by fate, to sit in judgement over all of the other people of a land, to dispense justice and laws, to declare war and to demand loyalty?
Do the rules ever change?
These questions rested first and foremost in the mind of Pépin d’Herstal as he entered into the year 688 as the de facto leader of Francia. Over the course of the past decade, he had managed to subdue all of the other power players who would challenge him and his access to power. As the Mayor of the Palace to Theuderic III, he was the principal advisor to the king… and let’s face it, he was the king in all but name. Pépin maintained the title of Duke and Prince of the Franks, and there was no decision of state that was taken without his approval. The “king” may sign documents and treaties, but only when Pépin allowed.
This being the case, many had asked Pépin why he even kept King Theuderic around? Pépin never answered directly, but he knew the answer to the question: Theuderic was allowed to live and to “rule” mainly because it was easier and less tumultuous for everyone involved; history bore this out. You see, Pépin’s uncle, Grimoald, had tried to take the throne for himself and his son about 30 years earlier; the circumstances at the time were not all that much different for him than they were for Pépin now. The Merovingian kings were weak and acted as little more than puppets, a fig leaf to conceal the real rulers of the realm. The people, however, were really, really attached to that fig leaf. The pushback against Grimoald when he tried to get rid of the Merovingian government was intense, and it had ended with his tortured death and the disappearance of the son he had tried to raise to the throne. Pépin hadn’t been around for all of these shenanigans, but he had heard about them repeatedly throughout his life. And that’s why now, as he found himself in a position of more or less unquestioned power, he chose to retain Theuderic III rather than replace him.
There were other perks for Pépin to keeping a puppet in place; chief among these, he was able to push away almost all of the ceremonial aspects of ruling and focus exclusively on statecraft. On top of that, by putting his trusted lieutenant Nordebert in place in Neustria, he was able to exert control in Paris while operating out of his preferred region of Austrasia. From here, he could keep his eyes focused on the real prize: invading the areas east of Francia, taking and controlling lands that currently belonged to tribes such as the Frisians, Saxons and the Bavarians.
For Pépin, the calculations were simple. Return to the basics. Provide the people with loot, land and plunder. Expand the might and reach of Francia; if he did this, the Franks would come along without any need to cajole them into action. This is how Pépin planned to earn his legitimacy. He wasn’t going to allow himself to get entangled in the petty infighting and bickering that made up so much of the history of his people. The stories told of their time in power had been a long succession of kings fighting kings, expanding their holdings not by expanding Francia, but by weakening their sister states within their own borders. This was stupid, and Pépin knew it.
Looking all the way back to the beginning, if he had to choose any Merovingian in whom to compare himself, Pépin emulated Clovis. The man had been bold and brash; he had fought wars when war was needed, but he had also been happy to use marital ties to other groups as a way of growing his domains and allies. Most importantly, Clovis had been successful in deploying religion as a means of infiltration when no other way of reaching people was available. Pépin used and applied all of these lessons from his history.
He began with the bishops. Having the power of the government purse, he repaired all the breaches that he possibly could, restoring that which previous monarchs had taken from the Church. Bishops received lands and buildings, and were left with no reason but to fall in line with Pépin and claim his rule as enlightened and Godly. Next, just like his predecessors Clovis I and Dagobert I, Pépin made law and justice a central pillar of his governance; he defended the causes of the oppressed and ensured the welfare of widows and orphans. He acted as a beacon of hope for the people, and for this they came to his side with more zeal than they had for any king of Francia in many years.
Harnessing this excitement, Pépin now raised a proper army and led them on campaign against into Frisia; there he enjoyed tremendous success, compelling the king of that tribe, a man named Redbad, to render him obedience and to pay him tribute.
So it was that by the year 691, four years into his rule as the Prince of the Franks, Pépin had managed to earn the loyalty of the Church, the love of the people, and the riches of a land outside of his own borders. His success was impressive, and placed him on a level of esteem with his people that most simply forgot that there was any other ruler than Pépin himself. And this was the state of play when Theuderic III, who had ruled for 17 years at this time, became ill and died just shy of his 40th year. He had lived a life well longer than most of his immediate predecessors, yet he was barely known in the realm when he passed. He had lived and died as a king, and at the end almost no one cared. His young son Clovis was thrown into his place upon his death, but this young sovereign never suffered any illusions as to his place in the construct of power. Pépin ruled, and Clovis IV served as King at that man’s pleasure.
Pépin may not be the King, but in every other way he was the legitimate ruler of Francia.
This is Thugs and Miracles.
Season Two, Épisode 15: The Prince Who Was Promised
Alright, welcome back! As always, I’m Benjamin Bernier, and this week we’re looking at the end of Theuderic III… which just happens to also be the beginning of Pépin d’Herstal as princeps, the Prince/Duke of the Franks. Remember, Theuderic and Pépin went to battle twice before Pépin took over in his new role, so to say that the two men had a good working relationship would be a complete lie. Their relationship, if it can even be called that, is more akin to a master and servant, but in this case the roles were reversed. A king in almost any other context would be served by his advisors, but in this case the king is in place for no other reason than to legitimize the advisors. In losing at Tertry, Theuderic became little more than an object to be possessed, and for the rest of the Merovingian Dynasty, this was all that the kings would be.
We’ll get to a review of Theuderic’s life and times in just a few minutes, but before we do that I want to take a good look at Pépin d’Herstal and just how we got to where we are now. Pépin is a transformative figure, a person whose addition to history is almost without equal… and he’s also nearly completely overshadowed by his son, Charles Martel, who is credited with defeating an Islamic invasion of Europe; his grandson, who would eventually manage to wrest the French crown from the Merovingians; and his great-grandson, Charles, who would become better known as Charles the Great, a.k.a. Charles Magnus, a.k.a. Charlemagne. So who was Pépin d’Herstal?
Pépin was born in 635 to his mother, Begga, and his father, Ansegisel. If these names sound familiar to you, well, thats because this isn’t the first time we’ve talked about these two; they’re the children of Pépin de Landen and Arnulf of Metz, respectively. In case you’re just joining us, or if you’ve forgotten what happened way back in last season and in Episode One of Season Two, Pépin de Landen and Arnulf of Metz were two of the key advisors in Austrasia when Queen Brunhilda went to battle against Chlothar II. They abandoned her on the battlefield before a single blow was thrown, and it was due to their betrayal that Chlothar was able to take over all of Francia without so much as a drop of blood being shed. Well, that is, except for Brunhilda. But I digress.
Pépin de Landen and Arnulf, head of the Pippinids and Arnulfing clans, managed to live full and rich lives, and the coming together of their children unified these two powerful groups into one. This power marriage resulted in Pépin d’Herstal, the physical embodiment of the union. To paraphrase The Big Lebowski, he pulled the whole room together. Anyway, born in 635, young Pépin was allotted a front row seat to history. He would have been 21-years-old when his uncle Grimoald tried to pull off the coup, and he would have been able to learn from what went wrong in that attempt. After that, by 680, Pépin would have been a 45-year-old man with battle scars, both literal and figurative, from a lifetime spent in service to Austrasia. He would have seen the weakening of the Crown, the use of multiple spurious “kings” as stand-ins for actual royalty, and the outsized strength that could be held in the hands of a single person... who was not the king. Seven years after this, he would stand in charge of all of Francia, and it was at this point that this man - now in his mid-50s, every bit an elder by the standards of the day - would finally be able to pull everything together and apply the strength of his family along with the lessons learned in a long and productive life.
And this brings us to today’s opener, wherein we saw Pépin offering land, money and authority back to the Church; offering justice and laws to the people living under his rule; and turning the guns of state out from within Francia and instead toward outside tribes from whom he could gain land and treasure to expand the power of the Franks. From all of this, he comes off as an effective, intelligent leader who was - quite literally - born for the role in which he now served. He also seemed to have a good sense of timing, or at least, a fear of overplaying his hand, when he refused to depose the Merovingian king whom he nominally served. The attachment to a monarch apparently dies slowly, and Pépin likely saw no benefit to testing fate - and potentially ending up like his uncle - when he had all of the benefits of kingship at his disposal regardless of whether he was properly called “king.” For what it’s worth, I personally find this to be a very humble and self-aware approach to take; many people wouldn’t be able to get so close to touching the Crown without taking a chance at grabbing it, and by remaining just Pépin, Pépin removed an impediment to his maintaining power, one that may have emboldened his enemies and given them an excuse to rally behind a deposed monarch.
Rounding out our look at Pépin, let’s look at his expeditions beyond the Frankish borders, and in particular let’s take a look at the fight against the Frisians. The leader of this group, Redbad, took power after King Adgild; the only reason I bring up this succession is to note that Adgild had apparently been quite amenable with the Franks, taking more of a “go-along-to-get-along”-type attitude toward his interactions with the group. He may even have submitted the overlordship of Dagobert II which, through the transitive property, means that he had accepted the overlordship of Pépin since Dagobert was the Mayor’s puppet king. Well, Redbad didn’t agree with his predecessor’s ideas on Frankish hegemony, and it appears that early in his reign he decided to put an end to both Frankish subjection and Christianity in Frisian lands. This gave Pépin a three-fold reason to move against Redbad: to return the Frisians to the faith, to return the Frisians to Frankish submission and, most importantly, to take control of Frisian lands that were simply too valuable to ignore. For geographical context, Frisia was located in what is now the modern-day nation of the Netherlands; one of that country’s provinces still retains the name Friesland, and it doesn’t take much to realize why the Franks would want to call this land their own. The location is directly adjacent to the North Sea, and to get there the Franks would have needed to cross the headwaters of the Meuse, the Scheldt and the Rhine Rivers. For purposes of agriculture, trade and simple expansion, this was prime real estate.
Now, I wish I could offer you a wonderful fight scene at this point, an epic look at the intricacies of medieval battle, but from what I can tell, the Battle of Dorestad - the meeting between the Franks and the Frisians near the River Rhine - appears to be one of those fights that, while locally important, no one seemed to have taken the time and energy to properly chronicle. What we know of the battle is that Pépin and his forces ruled the day, forcing Redbad to retreat to an island and cede much of his territory to the invaders. However, we learn several things from this battle and its aftermath. First, it happened somewhere between 689-695, squarely in the middle of Pépin’s time as the Prince of the Franks. He would have been largely free to prosecute his attack without having to worry about internal strife; he was truly in control of the land. Second, Pépin must have been a formidable general; his ability to raise the army, invade a foreign land with multiple strong natural defenses and castles, and to then hold the territory after his initial incursion all speak to a military leader with much more ability and foresight than most that we’ve spoken of to this point.
Pépin was more than just a military general however; once he won the battle, he looked to employ the 7th century version of a whole-of-government approach to securing his conquest. He immediately restored the bishopric of Utrecht, and, according to The Catholic Encyclopedia is said to have sent Willibrord, a disciple of Wilfrid, to Rome to be “consecrated Bishop of the Frisians by Sergius III on 21 Nov 695… he also received the pallium from the pope. On his return he laboured among the people assigned to him; to raise recruits for future apostolic work he founded a monastery at Utrecht, where also he built a church in honour of the Holy Redeemer and made it his cathedral. In 698 he established an abbey at the Villa Echternach… the donation being legally confirmed in 706.” Finally, beyond the Church, Pépin also used his own family to confirm the peace with Redbad, a fact that speaks highly both of how important Pépin considered Redbad to be both as a political rival and leader. In 711, according to de Mézeray, “After many Wars, having not been able wholly to bring under him Redbad, Duke of the Frisians, he Pépin not only came to an Agreement, but likewise allied himself with him, by Marrying his Son Grimoald to that Kings Daughter.”
That, dear friends, is where we’re going to leave the history for this week. We have, at this point, a good idea of the type of person, leader-wise, Pépin d’Herstal was. There’s a part of me that can’t help but think that the Franks as a whole had to have been starved for a good leader at this point, and Pépin seems to have been the right person for the task. He was, with his blood ties, essentially the prince who was promised. He is crowning kings and running the government. He has his son, Grimoald, being groomed to take on roles of greater importance, and has used the young man as a political tool to strengthen the kingdom when doing such was of vital import to the Kingdom. Pépin d’Herstal was all in on making the Franks a truly great empire. With that said, what about the Kings who were being towed along in his wake? To do that, let’s rate them; between 687 and 711 there were three kings: Theuderic III, Clovis IV, and Childebert III/IV, (the number depending on whether or not Childebert the Adopted is counted in the pantheon of Frankish kings). As Childebert was still alive in 711, we’ll save rating him for a later time.
With all of that said, where does King Theuderic III of the Merovingians rate? With 17 years of reign under his belt, he gets three points… and that’s honestly where the positive numbers stop. After this, we can’t find another category in which to grant him points, but we can find two in which to knock him pretty heavily: Significant Military Victories/Defeats and Control of the Court. As to the first of these, I’m knocking him five points. He was deposed from power by his older brother early on, and when he finally made his way back to the throne he was in power to see one significant victory at Latofao. This, however, was greatly overshadowed by his later loss at Tertry, a loss that effectively ended any pretense of independence held by the King, and not just himself, but the Kingship writ large. He had always been a puppet before Tertry, but this loss in 687 removed even a figment of doubt about the King’s role in government. And this, this loss of power, is why we’re going to schwack Theuderic the ten full points for his lack of control of his court. Theuderic was completely at the whim of whomever was Mayor; when they were strong, such as in the case of Ebroin and Pépin, he looked strong. When they were weak, such as in the case of Waradon, Gislemar and Berthaire, the effect was catastrophic. Hence how we started today’s episode, quoting de Mézeray: “In truth and in effect they never had after Theuderic III but only the vain and empty Title of Kings.”
When everything is tallied up, Theuderic III get a Wins Above Replacement, a W.A.R., of -1.2; this is the worst rating given out yet! However, think about it: Theuderic, amongst all of the other kings who scored poorly, he had the longest length of reign. He was relatively old by the standards of the day, not some child-king. And his reign is the one that ushered in the direct and inexorable fall of the Merovingians to the Carolingians. Finally, and this may have been beyond Theuderic’s ability to control as well, but by dying when he did he began anew the cycle of minority kings taking the thrown when his son, Clovis IV, took his place at the age of 13. Theuderic can’t be blamed for that necessarily, and he can’t be blamed for coming to power when his brother was in a position of power to depose him. And he can’t be blamed for being Ebroin’s puppet and he can’t be blamed for the loss at Tertry. Except, Theuderic III was a king, a grown man, and that means that as a leader everything that happened in his Kingdom can be attributed to him. And most of what happened was bad, especially insofar as the power and prestige of the Dynasty he nominally led. His impotence moved the Merovingians well along the road to their ultimate deposing, and it’s for this impotence, this lack of power or ability or charisma of any kind - especially when compared to men such as Ebroin and Pépin, who had these traits in spades and led the country in his name - that we’re ranking Theuderic III as the worst king yet.
Moving on to Clovis IV, well, we’ll make his rating quick and defer to de Mézeray’s review of the young sovereign’s reign: “He died about the end of the year 694 or in the beginning of 695, Being Aged Fourteen or fifteen years, and neither had seen nor done any thing that was Memorable in his Reign.” Clovis IV gets a zero for his reign, having never truly had a chance to rule. No matter what though, he’ll always be remembered in history as having been a king; in that respect, he will always be remembered. It’s the historical version of The Price is Right consolation prize.
CONCLUSION: Alright, on that note we’ll wrap up for the week! Childebert IV is on the throne in the year 711 and calling the shots… well, not really calling the shots, but he does get to wear the shiny crown and get to be called “King,” so that’s neat for him. When we come back next week we’ll take a look at how Pépin, our real leader, is faring in his domestic policies and his personal life. Along those lines, we’ll be introduced to the two loves of his life, Plectrude and Alpaida; these two ladies will become pivotal parts of our story, as well as the children they’ll bear for Pépin. Their stories are vaguely reminiscent of those two earlier queens, Brunhilda and Fredegunda, and just like those two, the result of their rivalry will have profound effects on the history yet to come.
OUTRO: Okay, before we go, just a little something different for this week...
In the past month I’ve been working with an audio course company called Listenable to create a truncated version of what we’ve learned so far. The course, unsurprisingly called “History of the Merovingians (451-613),” breaks down the first half of the Merovingian Dynasty into bite-size chunks: 15 lessons of less than 10 minutes each. If you’re new to the podcast and want to get the Cliff Notes version of what we discussed in Season 1, or if you just want a quick refresher without having to go through all 12 1/2 hours and 25 episodes, then you should head on over to Listenable to give them a try. On top of my course, they also offer powerful, bite-sized audio courses authored by well‑loved experts on a variety of subjects. It’s a perfect format for listening and learning, especially on-the-go. You can give them a try for seven days completely free; if you appreciate the content we’ve brought to you so far and want to help the show out, this is a perfect way to do so. I’m pretty excited about the whole experience and like that I have a new way to get this amazing story out to the world, so please, click the link and check out Listenable.io or search for Listenable in the Apple App Store.
Alright, 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 email@example.com, 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 really do truly appreciate you!
Okay, once again, my name is Benjamin Bernier. We look forward to seeing you next week as we explore the relationship dynamics of one powerful man, two willful and ambitious women, and fate of their children, the heirs to the non-throne of Pepin II. Get ready for all of this and more, in the next episode of Thugs and Miracles.