Season Two, Episode 17: The Hammer
Charles was out of breath. He hadn’t moved about much in the past year, and the sudden exertion he had just now put forth was enough to drag the breath from his lungs. He was sore from having ridden on horseback for miles, and his back ached.
And he couldn’t have been happier about it.
You see, Charles had just broken out of prison. Okay, to say he had “broken out” gave the whole event quite a dramatic ring; in truth, his jailers had unlatched the door keeping him hostage and ushered him to the horse he had just dismounted, joining him along the way not as his captors, but as his soldiers. They had been the loyal servants of Austrasia, but when they realized that all hope in their current leader had been lost, they made the choice to turn toward the man inside the cell as their last, best chance at survival. They had watched the stragglers of their army come rolling back into Cologne and they had heard tales of the Lady Plectrude taking refuge inside of the church she had so recently commissioned. They had relayed all of this intelligence to Charles, and he listened intently. When they finally let him out, he repaid them by offering them a spot in his service. There was something about him that exuded confidence and intelligence, and the men joined his ranks without a second thought.
Now, as to being out of breath... Charles had willingly allowed himself to be set into prison a year earlier when his father, Pépin d’Herstal, died on 16 December 714. Plectrude, his stepmother, had been wild with grief over the twin losses of her son, Grimoald, and her husband all within a few months of one another. She had also become slightly mad for power, vowing that she would never allow Charles - a “bastard,” as she liked to call him, despite his mother having been married to Pépin as well - to run the kingdom. Between the violence of her outbursts and the strength she had held at the court at that time, Charles acted prudently and allowed himself to be taken prisoner. He knew that, while she may act rashly, Plectrude would never dare to harm him. What’s more than that, the men at court wouldn’t harm him - so long as he didn’t give them cause to do so.
So Charles had headed off to his gilded cage, a comfortable enough room for sure - but a prison is a prison. There he studied and he waited; he received news and intelligence on the happenings outside of his cell from loyal friends and the guards who warmed up to him. He thought of multiple courses of action that could occur, trying to play out each line in his head so he would know how to react when his time came to act. In a way, a longer stay in the cell, while horrible for him, would have been better for Austrasia’s interests, as it would have meant that Plectrude and her grandson, Theudoald - the boy she had shoved into power as Mayor of the Palace despite him being only eight years old - were doing well and leading the kingdom. However, Charles knew this stay wouldn’t be long: the guards told him about the general rumbling and discontent in the country that a woman and a child would try to lead them, and then they told him about how Odo, the Duke of Aquitaine, had declared himself independent from the rest of Francia. This was followed by news of battle, then news of broken forces, and then finally by the sound of the latch sliding free and the door to his cell swinging open.
Charles was a free man, but the cost of his independence had been the swift and brutal degradation of everything his father had built. He had to set things right.
And this is why, despite soreness and being winded, Charles couldn’t have been any happier at this moment than to be in a rough camp in the woods outside of Cologne. His physical strength would return quickly, of that he was sure, but he had had a gift that none of his enemies had had up until this point. He had had the chance to think and to plot, to prepare himself for what lie ahead. Now it was time to put those plans into action and to find out, once and for all, if he was a worthy successor to his father... or not. The next days, weeks and months would tell the direction of his story.
First things first, upon his arrival Charles was greeted by the remnants of the Austrasian court. They dropped to their knees as Charles’ feet touched the ground, proclaiming him as the Mayor of the Palace - they had always been on his side, didn’t he know? Charles looked past the groveling quickly; he had already seen how his arrival would play out in his head, and their sycophantic reception had been expected. With the niceties out of the way, he set to work finding out what they had done to regroup their soldiers and set up defenses for Cologne. Again, he was unsurprised when he learned that defenses were sparse, but he was happily surprised to learn that word had been sent out to rally the troops. Still, Charles knew that these men, fresh off of a humiliating defeat and now well aware that danger approached from both Neustria and Frisia, would be difficult to keep if he didn’t have a plan. At this thought, he smiled; after a year alone in a single room, he didn’t have one plan - he had twelve!
For two weeks Charles stayed in camp and received troops as they straggled to his position. He made sure that anyone joining him was treated well, given food and ale, as well as a personal visit from Charles himself to let them know that their embarrassment would be short-lived. “Stay with me,” he would tell them, “and I will deliver all of Francia to you.” The way he spoke, the confidence he exuded, went far to bring life and vigor back into the hearts of these men. Charles was quickly turning a band of refugees into a force - a force loyal to him.
At the end of the fortnight, Charles received word from his scouts: things were just about as bad as could be imagined. The Neustrians, now under the leadership of a Mayor named Ragenfrid, were approaching Cologne from the west. From the north and east, the city was approached by Redbad and his Frisians. Even the Saxons - the Saxons! - were getting into the fight, eager to inflict damage against the Franks simply on principle.
Beyond principle, however, there was also treasure. And it was around this that Charles chose to center his campaign, but in a way that no one else had ever considered. He explained his plan to his council; they thought he was mad. But then he proposed his idea to his men and, having no other banner to rally behind and trusting the logic of their charismatic leader, cheered and banged their shields loudly in approval.
The plan was simple: they couldn’t beat all of the forces arrayed against them at this time in open combat; they were too short on men, weapons, and other supplies. They were, however, stronger than most would expect in such a short time, and in this sense it could prove useful to allow their enemies to overestimate their weakness. They would ride to Cologne and act as if they were going to defend the city but ride off after a small skirmish. The idea of opening the city to their enemies was sickening, but Charles had a point insofar as they wouldn’t be able to hold it even if they tried. So let the enemy think them weak and drink and feast to the demise of the Austrasians. Let them load up on plunder and let them set back out for their home in Neustria in just a few days’ time. There, weary from the road and still far from home, weighed down by ill-gotten gains and with their heads still aching from too much ale, Charles and his men fall on their foe.
If the plan worked, they would meet a single enemy under conditions of their choosing, as opposed to staying in the city to contest multiple forces placing them under an insurmountable siege. Again, the men didn’t like the notion of allowing the enemy the taste of victory, even for a moment, but they saw the logic in what was told to them and agreed to follow the plan’s designs. They would fake a fight, they would flee to the forests of Eifel, they would regroup, and then they would bring the true battle on their terms. And if nothing else, they would have the pleasure of knowing that Plectrude would be left in Cologne to face the hordes alone; they only wished they would be there to see her face as she, she who had withered the greatness of Austrasia, would be forced to beg for her life on her hands and knees.
The plan was put into place. Charles and his force entered Cologne, intent on being “defeated.” They put up a good showing when the time came, actually fighting harder than Charles would have liked; he lost more men in Cologne than he had planned on losing, and at a time when every body was of the utmost value, this stung. Still, he managed to flee to Eifel, and he reformed his men. And then they waited. Twelve days after Cologne, Charles’ scouts let him know that Ragenfrid and his host had left the city and were headed west for home. They were loaded with treasure and had no desire to hold a city that hated them. Charles looked at his map, then sent a single word around the camp: Amblève. This was the name of the village at which he and his force would intercept their enemy and begin the process of taking back what was theirs. Again, plans were drawn, and again, the army set off to fight.
This time around, Charles again took actions that cut against the grain. His advisors had all expected an attack at dawn; this was how things had always been done. To catch the enemy while he still had sleep crust in his eyes was optimal, or at least so went the conventional wisdom. Charles doubted this truism. For one, an effective watch would allow the majority of a force to rest safely while on the road. Catching the enemy at dawn, unless they somehow managed to silence the watchers, simply meant that the enemy had had a good night’s sleep while the attacker had skulked around trying to get into a position unnoticed. And if a single person was noticed... well, there went the entire plan. Second, the enemy would expect them to attack at dawn precisely because this was the way it had always been done. For these reasons, Charles opted to strike later in the day, at noon.
At noon, the enemy force would have been up for several hours already and would be tired from marching. At noon, they would be hot and tired and looking forward to the midday’s rest and food. At noon, they would be the ones moving into an ambush, as opposed to Charles and his men having to bring the ambush to the enemy. And this was why Charles had chosen Amblève; at the current speed of advance, Ragenfrid and his force could be expected to try and make it to the village for their midday break. And when they did, Charles and his fighters - well-armed, well-fed, and well-rested - would be waiting for them. They would be outmanned, but surprise and freshness would bolster their numbers.
Everything was in place, and everything... went better than anyone could ever have imagined! Ragenfrid and his men, hot and sweaty under the weight of their booty, had failed to bring enough small ale and water with them and were tired and dehydrated when they came near to the village. These men, anxiously awaiting their reprieve in Amblève, were doubly disappointed when, in addition to no rest, they were forced into battle on the spur of the moment. They fell into defensive lines and were initially surprised to see the ambushing forces running in retreat from them. They began to laugh and, assuming the Austrasian attack was essentially over before it started, they broke their lines to collect various treasures left behind. Their focus was so intent on the little bit of booty before them that they hardly noticed the second line of attack appearing from the forest like wraiths materializing into corporal form. This line overtook and struck the Neustrians with all of their pent-up anger and frustration and, surprised at the speed and ferocity of the attack, the Neustrians collapsed into a state of panic; many were cut down as they tried to run, and those who did escape did so without the bulk of the treasure they had just stolen from Cologne. Among those who escaped were Ragenfrid and King Chilperic II; that they had gotten away was lamentable to Charles, but many a story was told later that night of the looks on their faces as they ran off down the road at full gallop, leaving their men behind to fend for themselves. For some reason, the Austrasian men simply couldn’t imagine Charles ever doing the same to them. They knew he would fight at their side or die in the effort, and this confidence in their leader made them love him all the more.
It was with this, as the spring sun set over the village of Amblève, that Charles stood up before his victorious soldiers and roused them with a speech. “Today,” he started, “is but the first in a string of victories. We have let the enemy know our strength, and they shuddered at the sight. Let Ragenfrid run off and tell everyone how Charles and his army unmanned him. Let Chilperic return back to his palace in Neustria, now less an army and with none of the treasures he thought he had won. Let the word go forth that Austrasia is back, that we never left, and anyone who ever dared to threaten us will soon enough get their reward in blood and iron. Tomorrow, we gather what was dropped and then move on to our next victory. We take back our city and then, at the time and place we choose, we will destroy all of our enemies. One. At. A. Time.”
The men went wild at this, and as they went to sleep that night, they congratulated themselves on having chosen the right side and the right leader. They dreamt of the victories yet to come, the victories they had just been promised.
They had no idea how prophetic, and against just how many enemies, Charles’ words would be.
This is Thugs and Miracles.
Season 2, Episode 17: The Hammer
Alright, welcome back! As always, I’m Benjamin Bernier, and this week... well, this week, welcome to Charles “The Hammer” Martel. I’ll be honest, up until this point you would be excused if you hadn’t heard of most of the names we’ve covered on this show. Clovis, Chlothar, Brunhilda, Fredegunda and Theuderic are not exactly household names; hell, even in France, the name of Dagobert is really mostly remembered because of the nursery rhyme associated with him and putting his pants on backwards. Charles Martel, however, is a name that most people are at a minimum aware of, and for many, the name is quite well known. With that said, however, I offer a disclaimer: Charles Martel, as we’ll see in just a few episodes, is best known for his defeat of the Saracens at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. It is because of this victory that many far-right groups in our current day and age have appropriated the memory of Charles Martel as a symbol of armed resistance to “invaders.” This has sickeningly manifested to a point wherein the Christchurch, New Zealand, perpetrator of two mosque shootings claimed to have been inspired by Charles Martel, and in the United States, the Charles Martel Society is an American white nationalist organization that is apparently quite active to this day. Honestly, I found a few things in the research that turned my stomach, so be careful and be aware if you decide to look up things about Charles yourself. Beyond that, let me just say right now that we think that the entire notion of white extremism is gross, reprehensible and idiotic, so if you’re here in the hopes of hearing us glorify Charles Martel as some sort of medieval protector of whiteness, well, you’ve come to the wrong place. You’re gross and reprehensible, and you can go away; to paraphrase signs from what you probably think was a “better time”: we don’t serve your kind here.
Okay, moving past that unfortunate disclaimer, let’s look at the actual history of the man who would come to be known as “the Hammer.” And let’s start with that awesome, WWE- like surname. Here’s the thing: it actually is a WWE-like surname that was bestowed on Charles, especially after his victory in Poitiers in 732. At the time we’re talking about Charles in the opener he would have simply been known as Charles, a 26-year-old last- best-hope to keep Austrasia from being wiped off of the map altogether. The naming convention at this time was not one of family names; if second names were needed for the purposes of disambiguation of important people, they usually took the form of place names. Hence, we have Pépin de Landen and Pépin d’Herstal in Charles’ patriarchal line, both referring to the town where they were from. Neither of these men had a last name of “Martel,” nor were they ever referred to as such. The French word marteau means hammer (the verb of this, marteler, means “to hammer” or “to strike”), and as such it appears that Charles had such a long undefeated stretch as a general that he was given the nickname, which then became just his name. It’s quite an honorific; I mean, plenty of generals have smashed their way into the history books, but few of them have ever had their success sewn into their name in such a way, not even Napoleon!
So, let’s now take a look at our opening story: it was constructed based on the facts passed down in a very few sources, mainly the Liber Historiae Francorum, and even at that I’ll be the first to admit that liberties were taken, mainly with the timeline. Pépin d’Herstal died in late 714, and Charles was imprisoned by Plectrude right after the older man’s death and spent about a year cooling his heels. The Battle of Compiègne was fought on 26 September 715 and was a rousing victory for the Neustrians and effectively the end of Plectrude and Theudoald; we can safely assume Charles left prison somewhere shortly after this loss, and then went to battle with Ragenfrid in early- to mid-716 at the Battle of Amblève. Long story short, the timeline in which Charles escaped from prison, gathered an army, lost a battle in Cologne, re-grouped his forces and brought them back to the field in Amblève was extremely tight and speaks to his abilities, both militarily and as a leader in general. To have brought together an army at a time when flash mobs were not yet a thing, fresh off of a loss and a prison sentence, speaks to his charisma and the Austrasian’s desperation. And then there’s that “loss”...
Now, I’m a fan of perfection, and perhaps my OCD is kicking into overdrive over the fact that there’s a single mark on Charles’ record, but from everything I’ve read, the way Charles approached Cologne comes off more as Cologne and Amblève being tied together as part of an in-depth strategic maneuver. At the tactical level, Charles took what he could scrape together, force-wise, and applied them to a hasty defense and planned retrograde from Cologne. He likely was able to understand that holding the city was going to be nearly impossible, and even if he did, the cost in blood would be too high for him to sustain. Remember, he had to deal with the Neustrians, the Frisians, and the Saxons; he had to conserve his forces, while simultaneously making all of these groups believe that he had been broken and sent to flight. Sun Tzu himself would have been proud of the tactics, all of which led to a bloated, unsuspecting Neustrian force, laden with war spoils, walking down the road into a trap near Amblève in short order.
Turning our attention away from Charles for just a moment, who was leading the Neustrians at this point? I have mentioned Ragenfrid repeatedly up until this point; who was he? Well, without getting too in-depth - because, quite simply, his place in history is more as a placeholder and catalyst than as a true historical personage - Ragenfrid was a Neustrian who was selected by his other Neustrians to become Mayor of the Palace in 714-15 following the death of Pépin d’Herstal. The Neustrians were tired of being lorded over by the Austrasians, and they certainly didn’t care for the whole woman/child construct being inflicted upon them again. They selected one of their own to fill the hole left by Pépin, they pushed Plectrude and Theudoald back to Cologne, and everything else would have been just fine if it hadn’t been for that meddling kid, Charles.
The Neustrians had control of the Merovingian king, Dagobert Ill, the son of Childebert III and a boy of about 15 years when this coup took place. He died in or around 715, another Merovingian king with no addition to history other than his name, and we’re not told exactly how he died. Illness is perfectly likely, but political expediency is also perfectly likely. As the boy-king hadn’t had any children yet, the discovery and naming of the next king fell to Ragenfrid. He located Daniel, the son of Childéric II, who you’ll remember as the assassinated king from way back in Episode 12. At the time of the assassination in 675, Childéric was killed along with his entire family - save for Daniel. Daniel was sent to a monastery as an infant and more or less forgotten about, until now. Now in 715 - 40 years later! - he was located, brought out of the monastery and pressed into service as the new King of Neustria. Ironically enough, he was replacing a Dagobert; Dagobert II had also been pulled out of a monastery for convenience’s sake and put on the throne, just in Austrasia rather than Neustria.
CONCLUSION: Alright, we’re going to leave it there for this week! Ragenfrid and his hand- selected king, Chilperic II, are on the run for Neustria, Charles has notched his first major victory, and Plectrude is holed up in Cologne with her glory days of power and governance now behind her. When we come back next week, we’re going to look at the continuing growth of the legend that was “the Hammer.” We have to remember, we’re only in 716 at this point, and Poitiers didn’t take place until 732. This 16-year gap between the beginning of Charles’ time in power and his epic run-in with the Saracens is fascinating and does as much to mark the end of the Merovingian Dynasty as almost any other time or action that we’ve mentioned up until this point. We have four more Merovingian kings left before we’ve finally exhausted the list of their dynasty and officially move on to the Carolingians; three of these kings will occur on Charles’ watch. Spoiler alert, he’ll end up weakening the Merovingian hold on power to the point wherein once the reigning king died in 737, Charles simply didn’t appoint a successor. One more Merovingian king would get put on the throne after Charles died, but at that point the damage had been done; the Merovingians were just about over.
PROGRAMMING NOTE: I expect Episode 18 to be the lead-up to 732, Episode 19 to be entirely devoted to the Battle of Poitiers and its knock-on effects, and Episode 20 will finish our examination of Charles Martel. Episodes 21, 22 and maybe 23, if needed, will move us to Pépin le Bref (or Pépin the Short) the son of Charles and the man who would finally, once and for all, wrest the crown from the Merovingians. And that will pretty much leave us wrapping up Season 2 in Episode 24, wherein we’ll look back at the entirety of the Merovingian Dynasty and write their obituary. I was trying to get to a full 25-episode season like Season 1, and we may still get there yet if the content is full enough for us to do so, but I’m not going to stretch things out if there’s no reason to simply for my love of round numbers. I think it’s fair to have taken the entirety of the Merovingian Dynasty from cradle to grave in these first two seasons and starting the discussion of Charlemagne as we head into a programming break... well, it’s unfair to everybody. So that’s the plan for the next two- three months; as with all plans, to paraphrase von Moltke the Elder, it’s perfect, but we’ll see how it looks after first contact with the enemy. We’ll figure it out together!
OUTRO: Fully wrapping up for the day, we want to say thank you once again to Kristin Robyn Terpstra at The History Cache podcast for promoting us on her last show and for letting us use the audio of her episode on Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great, in our feed last week. If you haven’t listened to that yet, do yourself a favor and you’re welcome. Once you’re done, head over to her site at historycachepodcast.podbean.com and subscribe to her feed so you can listen to Parts II and III of that trilogy and also catch everything else she has done. Kristin is awesome and we never miss an episode; given that her next show discusses a woman who fell two miles from the sky and into the jungle when her plane broke apart after being struck by lightning on Christmas Eve, 1971... well, need I say more?!
Okay, 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 the site as we’ve given it a ton of updates this week, 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.
And staying with social media, big news for T+M this week... we launched a YouTube channel! That’s right: now you can catch the show pretty much everywhere! The channel at the moment is simply the show’s audio playing along with a backer image, but we’re looking forward in due course to uploading interviews and maybe even doing a live show. We’re always looking for ways to expand and grow, and well, this is June’s attempt at doing exactly that. The channel went live on the 1st, so check it out!
Finally, as we were just talking about how to contact the show, please know that my favorite way for someone to catch my attention is with a five-star rating and a review on your podcatcher of choice; thank you to dad9195 and zachrice for dropping some awesome comments on Apple Podcasts recently. We appreciate you having taken the time to let the world know that you enjoy the show, and for that, we appreciate you!
Okay, once again, my name is Benjamin Bernier. We look forward to seeing you next week as we move into the next phase of the Hammer’s career, in the next episode of Thugs and Miracles.