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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: June 2014

2 - The creation of Carolingian kingship to 800


Replacing the ruling dynasty

We began Chapter 1 with the elevation of the Carolingian Pippin, generally known as Pippin III, or Pippin ‘the Short’, to the kingship of the Franks. Almost everything about this event is uncertain. The best evidence for Pippin's accession comes from his charters – the single-sheet documents through which legal business like property transactions were habitually enacted. A charter of 20 June 751 was issued in the name of ‘the illustrious man Pippin, mayor of the palace’. By the time of another court case on 1 March 752, Pippin was styled ‘king of the Franks’ (rex francorum). At some point between these dates, therefore, Pippin had replaced Childeric III, last king of the Merovingian family that had ruled the Franks for over 250 years. That Pippin and his brother Carloman, jointly mayors of the palace (the most senior non-royal office in the Frankish kingdom) had themselves established Childeric as king just four years earlier gives some indication of the strong position from which Pippin could launch this bid for the throne. But the precise mechanics of the takeover are entirely unknown. Although our texts are often difficult to date precisely, the strongest likelihood is that, the charters apart, all our Frankish sources for the events of 751 were written after 768, when Pippin died and his sons succeeded to the kingship. In other words, these texts probably formed part of a deliberate and retrospective attempt to establish the ease and propriety of Pippin's succession in order to make that of his sons (who were, after all, not Merovingians but children of a usurper) seem routine.

A cluster of texts containing one or other version of a narrative about Pippin's acquisition of the kingship were written in a context in which the Carolingians were already dominant. The most famous rendition of the story is that of Einhard in his Vita Karoli (Life of Charlemagne), probably written around 817, who claims that by 751 the Merovingian family ‘had in fact been without any vitality for a long time and had demonstrated that there was not any worth in it except the empty name of king’. But Einhard was simply echoing the various sets of annals compiled in the last years of the eighth, and first decades of the ninth, century. The most influential, and probably the earliest, of these are the so-called Annales regni francorum (Royal Frankish Annals), according to which legates (they are named as Bishop Burchard of Würzburg and Fulrad the chaplain) were sent to Rome to gain Pope Zacharias's sanction for the replacement of Childeric III with Pippin. This the pope duly gave, commenting, in the words of the annalist, that ‘it was better to call him king who actually possessed royal power’. Pippin was therefore anointed king (the annalist says that this was performed by the renowned English missionary Boniface) and Childeric III was tonsured and sent to a monastery. Reports along these lines also appear, with less detail, in the Continuations to the Chronicle of Fredegar, and in a text known as the Clausula de unctione Pippini regis (the clause on the anointing of King Pippin). Each of these has periodically been dated as roughly contemporary with the events of 751, but the argument for a later date is stronger in both cases: the Continuations were most likely added to the Chronicle of Fredegar in the period 768–86, while the Clausula looks certain to have been written in the ninth century. Their composition after the kingship had been passed successfully to a second generation of Carolingians makes it highly unlikely that they could have presented an objective record of 751, even if one could be recalled. Moreover, their partisanship looks all the more striking if we compare them to texts written in Rome, which are the only ones, apart from the charters, that may be roughly contemporary. Despite the growing general interest of papal biographers in the papacy's contacts with Francia, the Life of Pope Zacharias, part of the collection of papal biographies known as the Liber pontificalis, breaks off its narrative in 749, while the collection of letters between the popes and the Carolingians, the Codex Carolinus, includes no letter between 747 and 753. It may be that the Roman authors placed no great importance on Pippin's elevation; alternatively, these apparent oversights may point to a deliberate attempt to restrict or manipulate the memory of 751. Either way, the silence from Rome casts doubt on the later version of events contained in Frankish sources, and in particular on the notion that Pippin's seizure of the kingship was sanctioned beforehand by the pope.

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