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The Franks were one of several west Germanic tribes who entered the late Roman Empire as foederati and established a lasting realm in an area that is part of today's France and Germany, forming the historic kernel of these two modern countries.

The Frankish realm underwent many partitions and repartitions, since the Franks divided their property among surviving sons. This practice is one of the reasons it is so difficult to describe precisely the dates and physical boundaries of any of the Frankish kingdoms and whoever ruled the various sections. In essence however, two dynasties of leaders succeeded each other, the Merovingians and then the Carolingians.

The word frank meant "free" in their language. There were initially two main subdivisions within the Franks, the Salian ("salty") and the Ripuarian ("river") Franks. By the 9th century, if not earlier, this division was in fact virtually non-existent, but continued for some time to have implications for the legal system under which a person could be tried.

Table of contents
1 Foundation of the Frankish kingdom
2 The Merovingians
3 The Carolingians
4 Legacy
5 Related articles

Foundation of the Frankish kingdom

The earliest Frankish history is not very clear. Our main source is Gregory of Tours, who quotes from otherwise lost sources like Sulpicius Alexander and Frigeridus and probably from oral sources of the Franks around him, the latter with healthy scepticism. Apart from this there are some earlier Roman sources like Ammianus and Sidonius Apollinaris

Modern scholars of the Roman-Germanic period have suggested that the Frankish people emerged from the unifications of various earlier, smaller Germanic groups inhabiting the Rhine valley and lands immediately to the east, events perhaps related to the increasing disorder and upheaval experienced in the area as a result of the war between Rome and the Marcomanni which begin in 166, and subsequent conflicts of the late 2nd century and the 3rd century C.E. For his part, Gregory states that the Franks originally lived in Pannonia, but settled on the banks of the Rhine. There is a region in the northeast of the modern-day Netherlands -- i.e. north of the Roman border -- called Salland, that may have been named after the Salians.

Around 250 a group of Franks, taking advantage of a weakened Roman Empire, penetrated as far as Tarragona in Spain, plaguing this region for about a decade before being subdued and expelled from Roman territory. About forty years later, the Franks had the Scheldt region under control and interfered with the waterways to Britain; they were pacified by Roman forces, but not expelled.

In 355-358 the later Emperor Julian once again found the shipping lanes on the Rhine under control of the Franks and again pacified them. A considerable part of Belgica was given to the Franks. From this time on they become foederati of the Roman Empire. A region roughly corresponding to present day Flanders and the Netherlands south of the rivers becomes a Germanic region down to this day. (Dutch is spoken there now). The Franks thus became the first Germanic people who permanently settled on Roman territory.

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From their heartland they gradually conquered most of Roman Gaul north of the Iberian Peninsula. At first they helped defend the border as allies; for example, when a major invasion of mostly East Germanic tribes crossed the Rhine 406, the Franks fought against these invaders. The major thrust of the invasion went south of the Loire river. (In the region of Paris, Roman control persisted until 486, i.e. a decade after the fall of the emperors of Ravenna, in part due to alliances with the Franks.)

The Merovingians

The reigns of earlier Frankish chieftains -- Pharamond (about 419 until about 427) and Chlodio (about 427 until about 447) -- are thought to owe more to myth than fact, and their relationship to the Merovingian line is uncertain.

Gregory mentions Chlodio as the first king who started the conquest of Gaul by taking Camaracum (today Cambrai) and expanding the border down to the Somme. This probably took some time; Sidonius relates that the Franks were surprised by Aetius and driven back (probably around 431). This period marks the beginning of a situation that would endure for many centuries: the Germanic Franks became rulers over an increasing number of Gallo-Roman subjects.

In 451 Aetius called upon his Germanic allies on Roman soil to help fight off an invasion by the Huns. The Salian Franks answered the call, the Ripuarians fought on both sides as some of them lived outside the Empire. At this time Merovech was king of the Franks. Gregory's (oral) sources did not seem sure whether Chlodio was his father.

Clovis engaged in a campaign of consolidating the various Frankish kingdoms in Gaul and the Rhineland, which included defeating Syagrius in 486. This victory ended Roman control in the Paris region. The later conversion of Clovis to Roman Christianity, instead of the Arianism of the other Germanic peoples, may have helped to increase his standing in the eyes of the Pope and the other orthodox rulers.

In the Battle of Vouillé (507), Clovis, with the help of Burgundy, defeated the Visigoths, expanding his realm eastwards up to the Pyrenees mountains.

Because they were able to worship with their Catholic neighbors, the Franks found much easier acceptance from the local (Roman) population than did the Visigoths, Vandals, Burgundians. The Merovingians thus built the most stable of the successor-kingdoms in the west.

The Merovingians adhered to the Germanic practice of dividing their lands among their sons, and the frequent division, reunification and redivision of territories often resulted in murder and warfare within the leading families. So, on Clovis's death in 511, his realm was divided between his four sons, and over the next two centuries the kingship was shared between his descendants.

The Frankish area expanded further under Clovis' sons, eventually covering most of what is today France, but including areas east of the Rhine river as well, such as Alamannia (today's southwestern Germany) and Thuringia (since 531). Saxony however was left to be conquered by Charlemagne centuries later.

After a temporary reunification of the separate kingdoms unter Clotaire I, the Frankish lands were once again divided in 561 into Neustria, Austrasia, and Burgundy.

The chief officer of each kingdom was the Mayors of the Palace. From about the turn of the eighth century, the Mayors tended to wield the real power in the kingdom, laying the foundation for the new dynasty, the Carolingians.

The Carolingians

The Carolingian line is considered to have started with the deposition of the last Merovingian king and the accession in 751 of Pippin the Short, father of Charlemagne. Pippin had succeeded his own father, Charles Martel, as Mayor of the Palace of a reunited and reerected Frankish kingdom comprised of the formerly independent parts.

Pippin was an elected king. Although this happened infrequently, a general rule in Germanic law was that the king relied on the support of his leading-men. These men reserved the right to choose a new leader if they felt that the old one was unable to lead them in profitable battle. While in later France, the kingdom became hereditary, the kings of the later Holy Roman Empire were unable to abolish this tradition and continued to be elected until the Empire's formal end in 1806.

Pippin solidified his position in 754 by entering into an alliance with Pope Stephen III against the Lombards; this papal support was crucial to silencing any objections to his new position. Pippin donated the re-conquered areas around Rome to the Pope, laying the foundation for the Papal States, of which only Vatican City remains today, and in turn received the title patricius Romanorum, protector of the Romans.

Upon his death in 768, the kingdom was once again divided between Pippin's sons, Charles and Carloman. However, Carloman withdrew to a monastery and died shortly thereafter, leaving sole rule to his brother, who would later be named Charlemagne and become an almost mythical figure for the later history of both France and Germany.

From 772 onwards, Charles conquered and eventually defeated the Saxons to incorporate their realm into the Frankish kingdom. This campaign expanded the practice of non-Roman Christian rulers undertaking the conversion of their neighbors by armed force; Frankish Catholic missionaries, along with others from Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England, had been entering Saxon lands since the mid-8th century, resulting in increasing conflict with the Saxons, who resisted the missionary efforts and parallel military incursions. Charles' main Saxon opponent, Widukind, was baptized in 785 as part of a peace agreement, but other Saxon leaders continued to fight. Upon his victory in 787 at Verden, Charles ordered the wholesale killing of thousands of pagan Saxon prisoners. After several more uprisings, the Saxons were only defeated for good in 804. This expanded the Frankish kingdom eastwards up to the Elbe river, something the Roman empire had only attempted once, and at which it failed in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (9 AD). In order to more effectively christianize the Saxons, Charles founded several bishoprics, among them Bremen, Münster, Paderborn, and Osnabrück.

At the same time (773-774), Charles conquered the Lombards and was thus able to include northern Italy into his sphere of influence. He renewed the Vatican donation and the promise to the papacy of continued Frankish protection.

In 788, Tassilo, dux of Bavaria rebelled against Charles. The rebellion was quashed and Bavaria was incorporated into Charles' kingdom. This not only added to the royal fisc, but also drastically reduced the power and influence of the Agilolfings (Tassilo's family), another leading family among the Franks and potential rivals. Until 796, Charles continued to expand the kingdom even farther southeast, into today's Austria and parts of Croatia.

Charles thus created a realm that spanned from the Pyrenees in the southwest (actually, including an area in Northern Spain after 795) over almost all of today's France (except Brittany, which was never conquered by the Franks) eastwards to most of today's Germany, including northern Italy and today's Austria.

On December 23 and 24, 800, Charles was crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III in Rome in a ceremony that formally acknowledged the Frankish Empire to be the successor of the (Western) Roman one. The coronation gave the Empire the backing of the church, and permanent legitimacy to Carolingian primacy among the Franks. This connection was later resurrected by the Ottonians in A.D. 962. Charlemagne's position as Emperor was later acknowledged in 812 by the Byzantine Emperor of the time, Michael I.

Upon Charlemagne's death on January 28, 814 in Aachen, he was buried in his own Palace Chapel at Aachen.

Charlemagne had several sons, but only one survived him. This son, Louis the Pious, followed his father as the ruler of a united Empire. Sole inheritance was a matter of chance, rather than intent. When Louis died in 840, the Carolingians adhered to the custom of partible inheritance, and the Empire was divided in three in the Treaty of Verdun in 843:

Western Europe around 870.

  1. Louis' eldest surviving son Lothair became Emperor and ruler of the Central Franks. This kingdom was in turn divided among his three sons, into Lotharingia, Burgundy and (Northern) Italy. These areas would later vanish as separate kingdoms.
  2. Louis' second son, Louis the German, became King of the East Franks. This area is the kernel of the later Holy Roman Empire, which eventually evolved into modern Germany. For a list of successors, see the List of German Kings and Emperors.
  3. His third son Charles the Bald became King of the West Franks; this area is the foundation for the later France. For his successors, see the List of French monarchs.

On the map to the right, the area outlined in green is controlled by Louis II, the area in yellow is controlled by Louis the German, and the portion in purple is controlled by Charles the Bald.


Although an historical accident, the unification of most of what is now western and central Europe under one chief ruler provided a fertile ground for the continuation of what is known as the Carolingian Renaissance. Despite the almost constant internecine warfare the Carolingian Empire endured, the extension of Frankish rule and Roman Christianity over such a large area ensured a fundamental unity throughout the Empire. Each part of the Carolingian Empire developed differently; Frankish government and culture were extremely dependent upon the individual ruler and his aims. Those aims shifted as easily as the changing political alliances within the Frankish leading families. However, those families, the Carolingians included, all shared the same basic beliefs and ideas of government. These ideas and beliefs were rooted in a background that drew from both Roman and Germanic tradition, a tradition that began before the Carolingian ascent and continued to some extent even after the death of Louis the Pious and his sons.

When modern historians (from the late 18th century on) hearken back to an example of a unified Europe, they turn to the Carolingian Empire, not the Roman Empire. Whether the Carolingian Empire lasted (or, it could be argued, ever really existed as an Empire per se) in a geographical or political sense is immaterial. The model of several individual kingdoms (or regna, to give them their proper names) under one rule clearly resonates today. It may be argued that the divisions of Verdun still provide the general borders of Germany, France, and Italy, but it would be ill-considered to suppose that they provide any clear cultural divide. They cannot divide the Germanic-Roman Christian legacy begun by the Carolingians.

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