Story of the Middle Ages - S. B. Harding

The Mayors of the Palace

You have already seen how Clovis built up a strong kingdom in Gaul and Germany; and then how the power slipped away from the hands of his descendants, until they became mere "do-nothing" kings. An old Frankish writer says: "The kings had only the name, and nothing save means for meat and drink. They dwelt in a country house all the year, until the middle of May. Then they came forth to greet the people and be greeted by them, and to receive their gifts. After that they returned to their dwelling, where they remained until the next year."

The real power was now in the hands of the great nobles who acted as the King's ministers. The chief of these was called the "Mayor of the Palace"; and at the time when the Moors came into Spain this office was handed down from father to son in a powerful family, which possessed rich estates in the Rhine valley, and could command a multitude of warlike followers.

Three years after the Moors had crossed over into Spain, the old Mayor of the Palace died, and the office passed to his son Charles. This was a serious time for the kingdom of the Franks. Civil wars now broke out anew among the nobles; the Saxons from Germany broke into the kingdom from the North; and the Moors were pressing up from Spain into the very heart of France. The young Mayor of the Palace, however, proved equal to the occasion. The civil wars were brought to an end, and all the Frankish lands were brought under his rule. The heathen Saxons were driven back to their own country. Then, gathering an army from the whole kingdom, Charles marched, in the year 732, into Southern France to meet the Moors.

Battle of Tours


He found their army near the city of Tours, laden with the booty which they had taken. The Moors expected another victory as great as the one which had given them Spain; but they found their match in Charles and his Franks. All day long the battle raged. Twenty times the light-armed Moors, on their fleet horses, dashed into the ranks of the heavy-armed Franks; but each time Charles and his men stood firm, like a wall, and the enemy had to retreat. At last the Moors gave up the attempt; and when day dawned next morning the Franks found that they had slipped off in the night, leaving behind them their tents and all their rich booty.

This battle forever put an end to the conquests of the Moors in France. It was this battle also, perhaps, that gave Charles his second name, "Martel," or "the Hammer"; for, as an old writer tells us, "like a hammer breaks and dashes to pieces iron and steel, so Charles broke and dashed to pieces his enemies."

At all events, the fame which Charles Martel won by his actions, and the ability which he showed as a ruler, enabled him to leave his power to his two sons when he died. Again there was a war between the Mayors of the Palace and the nobles who ruled over portions of the kingdom, but again the Mayors of the Palace won. Then, when quiet was restored once more, the elder of the two sons of Charles gave over his power to his brother Pepin, and entered a monastery, in order that he might spend the rest of his years in the holy life of a monk.

This left Pepin (who was called "Pepin the Short") as the sole Mayor of the Palace. There was still a Merovingian prince who sat on the throne, but he was a "do-nothing" king, as so many had been before him; and he only said the words that he was told, and did the things that were given him to do.

Of course this could not go on forever. Every one was getting tired of it; and at last Pepin felt that the time had come when he might safely take the title of king. First, messengers were sent to the Pope to ask his opinion. The Pope was now eager to get the aid of the Franks against the Lombards in Italy; so he answered in the way that he knew would please Pepin.

Merovingian King deposed


"It is better," he said, "to give the title King to the person who actually has the power."

Then the weak Merovingian King was deposed. His long hair was cut, and he was forced to become a monk, and was shut out of sight in a monastery; and Pepin the Short was anointed with the sacred oil, and was crowned King in his place.

As long as Pepin lived, he ruled as a strong and just king. When he died, the crown went to his children, and after them to his children's children. In this way the crown of the Franks continued in the family of Pepin for more than two hundred years.