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Visigothic kingdoms: 5th - 8th century AD

During the 5th century the Visigoths rule a large kingdom in southern France and frequently campaign south of the Pyrenees into Spain. In both contexts they are acting as allies of Rome. But in 475 a Visigothic king, Euric, declares his independence and energetically extends his own territory on his own account.

Spain is at first of secondary importance to the Visigoths, compared to France. But in 507 Euric's son is defeated by Clovis, king of the Franks, north of Poitiers. The French territory of the Visigoths is reduced to a coastal strip from the Pyrenees to the Rhône.

The Merovingians: 5th - 8th century AD

The Franks provide the dynasty which can be seen as the first royal house of France. From them, in origin one of the Germanic tribes, the word France derives. The dynasty itself is called Merovingian, from Merovech - a leader of the tribe in the mid-5th century of whom nothing is known but his name.

The fortunes of the Franks begin with his grandson, Clovis. When Clovis inherits the crown, in about 481, he is only fifteen. The tribe's capital is then at Tournai, in what is now southern Belgium.

The reign of Clovis is a turning point in European history on two counts: his establishment of the first great barbarian kingdom north of the Alps; and his adoption of Roman Catholic Christianity, when the other barbarian rulers in Gaul are at this time all Arians (see the Spread of Arianism).

Clovis extends his power from the Somme down to the Loire by using an unscrupulous blend of warfare, intrigue and murder to assert his authority over other Frankish tribes in the region. He then sucessfuly demands tribute from the Burgundians in the southeast and, more significantly, drives the Visigoths from the southwest. By 507 the whole of France, except a narrow strip along the Mediterranean, is his acknowledged realm.

In achieving this territorial success, Clovis has been much helped by his acceptance of the Roman version of Christianity. Many Christians in Gaul, loyal to Rome, accept him as a liberator from the Arian Visigoths.

His conversion follows a classic Christian pattern, involving a victory in battle (as with Constantine) and an already pious wife (as with Ethelbert of Kent). Clovis marries a Burgundian princess, Clotilda, who unlike the rest of her people is a Catholic. Her efforts to convert her powerful pagan husband bear fruit once he believes that Jesus has helped him defeat a rival Germanic tribe, the Alamanni, who have recently moved west across the Rhine into Alsace.

Clovis's victory over the Alamanni, taking place at some time between 495 and 506, is followed by a scene of mass baptism. A faith good enough for the king must be good for the army too. At Reims the bishop baptizes Clovis and some 3000 of his soldiers.

Clovis makes his capital in Paris, where he commissions the writing of the ancient pre-Christian code of law of the Salian Franks. His Frankish kingdom will lapse for a while into chaos; Paris will not immediately retain its central status; and only parts of the Salic Law will later be followed. But the kingdom of Clovis is unmistakably a new departure of great significance for northern Europe and for France.

Austrasia, Neustria and Burgundy: 6th - 7th century AD

After the death of Clovis, in 511, his territories are divided between his four sons. In the long term this form of equal inheritance will weaken the Merovingian realm, but for the moment expansion continues. The rich and important territory of Burgundy, formerly a tribute payer, is annexed as part of the Frankish kingdom in 534.

Gradually three separate kingdoms emerge within the wider Frankish realm. The original tribal territories, approximating to modern Belgium and northeast France, becomes known as Austrasia. The lands acquired by Clovis in central France are called Neustria (neu meaning 'new'). And Burgundy retains its own identity.

For more than two centuries after the death of Clovis these kingdoms are at least nominally ruled by his descendants, in varying combinations (Neustria and Burgundy often go together). Occasionally rulers are strong enough to unite the whole realm under central control - Clotaire II and his son Dagobert I are the most notable examples, from 613 to 639.

After the death of Dagobert the Frankish kings gradually lose power to their own lieutenants, in a pattern similar to what is happening at this same time in Japan (the process leading there to rule by shoguns). The Frankish equivalent of the shogun is the mayor of the palace.

Mayors of the palace: 7th - 8th century

In the Roman empire large households were run by an official known as major domus ('mayor of the house'), from whom we derive our major-domo. The Frankish kings adapt this system, calling their chief administrative officer major palatii, the mayor of the palace.

Administrators of this kind always tend to enlarge their own fief. The mayors of the palace gradually add to their domestic duties the roles of tutor to royal princes, adviser to the king on matters of policy and eventually even commander of the royal army. From the mid-7th century the usual conflict between Austrasia, Neustria and Burgundy evolves into a power struggle and outright warfare between the mayors of the respective palaces.

In 687, for the first time, one mayor controls all three kingdoms. He is Pepin II, who fights his way to this pre-eminence after becoming mayor of the palace in Austrasia in 679. His rule can be seen, with hindsight, as the start of a new royal dynasty. But the turmoil following his death in 714 makes this seem, at the time, improbable.

Pepin's only male descendants at his death are legitimate grandsons and an illegitimate son, Charles. Civil war results, by 727, in victory for Charles. His military prowess brings him the title Charles Martel ('the Hammer'). And from his Christian name (Carolus in Latin) his descendants become known to history as the Carolingians.

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