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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Prehistory to Roman
French kingdoms
     Charles Martel
     Charles the Great
     The Carolingian inheritance
     Three slices of Francia

Normans and Capetians
The Valois dynasty
16th century
Louis XIII
Louis XIV
18th century
Political turmoil
Third Republic
Fifth republic
To be completed

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Charles Martel: 727-741

After asserting his rule over the traditional territories of the Frankish realm, Charles wages long campaigns against the pagan Germanic tribes who constantly raid his northern and eastern borders - Frisians, Saxons and Bavarians. (He also lends strong support to the missionary activities of St Boniface, hoping that conversion to Christianity will tame the heathens). Barbarians on these frontiers have been a constant threat for centuries to settled Gaul. But in recent decades there has also been a new and powerful group of intruders pressing in from the south - the Arabs in Spain.

They have advanced rapidly northwards through Spain in the few years since their arrival in 711. They are soon beyond the Pyrenees.


Narbonne is taken in 720. An extended raid in 725 brings the Arabs briefly into Burgundy. There is then a lull until 732, when a Muslim army takes Bordeaux, destroys a church near Poitiers and rides on towards Tours. Here the Arabs are confronted by an army of Franks led by Charles Martel.

It is not known precisely where the battle (known either as Poitiers or Tours) takes place, but it is won by the Franks. It marks the end, in the west, of the apparently inexorable advance of the Arabs. A few years later they withdraw to Spain and never again threaten Gaul. It is a significant turning point. Even so, an uprising by the Berbers of mercenaries in Spain in 741 causes the eventual Arab retreat from Gaul, rather than this one defeat on the battlefield.


The turning back of the Muslims is what assures Charles Martel his place in popular history. But his family's supplanting of the Merovingian rulers is an achievement of equal significance.

Charles himself maintains the fiction of Merovingian power. At first his son Pepin III (also known as Pepin the Short) does the same. He appoints a new puppet king, Childeric III, in 743. But in 751 he decides to replace him on the throne himself. Before doing so he secures the approval of the pope. Such direct involvement in the dynastic politics of Europe is a significant departure for the papacy.


Charles the Great: 768-814

The only empire which has ever united France and Germany (apart from a few years under Napoleon) is the one established in the 8th century by Charlemagne, the grandson of Charles Martel and son of Pepin III.

On the death of his father in 768, Charles - whose name Charlemagne is a version of the Latin Carolus Magnus (Charles the Great) - inherits the western part of the Frankish empire, a coastal strip from southwest France up through the Netherlands into northern Germany. Three years later his brother Carloman dies. Charlemagne annexes Carloman's inheritance - central France and southwest Germany. By the time of his own death, in 814, he rules much of the rest of Germany together with northern Italy.


The Carolingian inheritance:814

Charlemagne intends, in the tradition of the Franks, to divide his territory equally between his sons. But the two eldest die, in 810 and 811, leaving only Louis - who succeeds as sole emperor in 814. His subsequent name, Louis the Pious, reveals a character different from his father's; he is more interested in asserting authority through the medium of church and monastery than on the battlefield.

Charlemagne's great empire remains precariously intact for this one reign after his death. Its fragmentation begins when Louis dies, in 840. But the name of Charlemagne in legend and literature remains vigorously alive .


The region united by Charlemagne includes, in modern terms, northeast Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, much of Germany, Switzerland, Austria and north Italy. In 840, on the death of Charlemagne's son Louis the Pious, war breaks out between his three sons over their shares of this inheritance.

A division between the brothers is finally agreed, in 843, in a treaty signed at Verdun. The dividing lines drawn on this occasion prove of lasting and dark significance in the history of Europe.


Three slices of Francia: 843

Two facts of European geography (the Atlantic coast and the Rhine) dictate a vertical division of the Frankish empire, known in Latin as Francia. The three available sections are the west, the middle and the east - Francia Occidentalis, Francia Media and Francia Orientalis.

It is clear that Francia Occidentalis will include much of modern France, and that Francia Orientalis will approximate to the German-speaking areas east of the Rhine. Francia Media, an ambiguous region between them, is the richest strip of territory. Allotted to Charlemagne's eldest son, Lothair I, it stretches from the Netherlands and Belgium down both sides of the Rhine to Switzerland and Italy.


This central Frankish kingdom is in subsequent centuries, including our own, one of the great fault lines of Europe. The northern section becomes known as Lotharingia (the territory of Lothair) and thus, in French, Lorraine; between it and Switzerland is Alsace. As power grows or decreases to the west or the east, in the great regions emerging slowly as France and Germany, these Rhineland provinces frequently change hands or allegiance.

So, for many centuries, do the Low Countries, Burgundy and northern Italy.


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