Charles Martel

Charles Martel
(d. 741)
   Son of Pippin II of Herstal and father of Pippin III the Short, Charles, later known as Martel (the Hammer), was an important Carolingian mayor of the palace, whose reign, after a difficult beginning, marked a significant step in the growth of his family's power and the erosion of the power of the Merovingian dynasty. His reign as mayor witnessed important changes in relations between his line and the Frankish church, not all of which were positive from the church's point of view. He did, however, support the activities of missionaries, including the great Anglo-Saxon St. Boniface, in the kingdom and along the realm's frontier, and was seen as a champion of the church by the pope in Rome, who sought his aid. Charles is best known for his victory over invading Muslims from Spain at the Battle of Poitiers, a significant, although generally overemphasized, military victory.
   Although he eventually came to command the entire Frankish kingdom and was able to pass this power on to his sons Carloman and Pippin, Charles Martel had few advantages at the time of the death of his own father, Pippin II, in December 714. Overlooked in the plan of succession to the office of mayor of the palace, which had come to rival the authority of the office of king in the early eighth century, Charles was in fact imprisoned by Pippin's widow, Plectrude. Charles, whose mother was one of Pippin's mistresses and so despised by Plectrude, was rejected for the office of mayor of the palace in Neustria by Plectrude in favor of her young grandson, Theodoald, whose father had been designated heir but who was murdered while praying at a religious shrine several months before Pippin's death. Despite these disadvantages, Charles managed to break out of prison and organize a warrior band to support his claims to power.
   The next few years were critical for Charles, who faced rivals from within his own family and from other Frankish nobles. His first attempt to acquire power, in fact, was a failure. He was defeated by the mayor, Ragamfred, who had defeated and deposed Theodoald, and the Frisian ruler, Radbod, in 715, and forced to withdraw to his private estates. In the following year Ragamfred, who was supported by the newly crowned Merovingian king Chilperic II, turned against Plectrude, who had retired to Cologne and seized a large part of the treasure of Pippin. Charles, in the meanwhile, had organized a new band of soldiers and fell on Ragamfred as he left Cologne, inflicting heavy losses on his rival. In 717, Ragamfred and Charles again met in battle at Vinchy, where Charles again won a major victory over his rival. At this point Charles felt secure enough to promote his own Merovingian king, Chlotar IV (d. 718), and he seized Pippin's fortune from Plectrude. He next faced battle in 719 from Ragamfred and Duke Eudo of Aquitaine, and once again emerged victorious, pushing the Aquitainians out of the kingdom and taking control of Ragamfred's king. Clearly, Charles was now the dominant figure in the kingdom and was able to appoint a true do-nothing king (as the last Merovingian kings are often called). Theuderic IV, on Chilperic's death in 721.
   Although he had secured his position as mayor of the palace by the early 720s, Charles's authority was not guaranteed, and he continued to expand his power in the kingdom throughout the 720s and 730s. During the next two decades, Charles imposed his authority over his fellow Franks and over tributary peoples along the frontier of the kingdom. In 723 he fought and defeated Ragamfred again, but Ragamfred remained in control of Angers until his death in 731. In the following years, Charles defeated the Saxons, Alemanni, Bavarians, and, in the later 730s, the Burundians, whose territory he subjugated all the way to the Mediterranean. His personal resolve and military skill enabled Charles to assume such great stature in the kingdom that he was able to rule without a Merovingian puppet after the death of Theuderic in 737.
   Charles also extended Carolingian power into Aquitaine, where his former rival, Eudo, continued to rule until his death in 735. Charles was able to take over Aquitaine after Eudo's death, in part because the duke had sought Charles's aid against the Muslim invaders from Spain. Indeed, Eudo faced not only the growing power of his rival to the north in the 720s but also the encroachment of the Muslims. Eudo managed, on occasion, to beat back the Muslim invaders with a mixed army of Aquitainians and Franks, but was clearly on the defensive in the face of successive successful raids in the early 730s. He had little choice but to seek aid from Charles, whose willingness to join with Eudo occasioned his most famous military victory. The raids of the Spanish Muslims had become so serious in the early 730s that they had begun to enter Frankish territory. One raid reached especially deep into Frankish territory, and on October 25, 732, somewhere between Tours and Poitiers, Charles and his ally fought a great battle that stopped the Saracen advance. Although perhaps a bit exaggerated because it was merely a victory over a raiding party and not an invading army, Charles's victory at the Battle of Poitiers was an important victory and was followed by his continued action against the Muslims, whom he pushed from Aquitaine by the end of the 730s. His victory and continued success against Muslim raiders were central to his subsequent reputation and his acquisition of Aquitaine.
   Charles established his control in the Frankish kingdom by his military victories, but he was able to maintain that control by introducing new means to rule, including the appointment of family members to key positions in the church and the establishment of important new ties between his family and the church. He made numerous appointments to episcopal and abbatial office, sometimes deposing the supporter of a rival from the offices in order to make his appointment. He deposed one of Ragamfred's supporters as abbot of Fontanelle and replaced him with his nephew Hugo, who was later made bishop of Rouen and Paris. He appointed his lay supporter, Carivius, as bishop of Le Mans, and made another noble follower bishop of Redon. These appointments were made repeatedly throughout Charles's reign, and were made in both the heartland of the kingdom and regions like Aquitaine that were a new or restored part of the realm.
   Many of the appointments were secular nobles with little training or inclination for the job, who often did more harm than good to the church. Indeed, by the ninth century, his reputation for secularizing church lands found him consigned to hell by religious writers. They did, however, strengthen Charles's position in the kingdom, improve his ties with noble families in newly acquired territories, and, ironically considering the lack of concern for things spiritual the appointments showed, strengthened his ties with the church. At the very least, appointment of lay followers to important ecclesiastical offices brought access to the church's wealth and lands to Charles.
   Despite a poor record of appointments, Charles was not completely neglectful of the church, and his reputation for secularizing church property is generally exaggerated. Perhaps his most important connection with the church was his support and protection of the Anglo-Saxon missionary Boniface. The great apostle to the Germans, Boniface was allowed to introduce reform to the Frankish church and was afforded protection by Charles during his evangelical missions among the pagan Saxons. Boniface also reinforced Frankish attention to Rome and St. Peter. The Anglo-Saxon missionary visited Rome, received approval to preach from the pope, and was made the pope's representative in the Frankish kingdom. Boniface's devotion to Rome was reflected by the Franks, who came to the attention of the papacy during the time of Charles Martel. So great had Charles's reputation become that when Pope Gregory III needed help against the Lombards in the 730s he turned to Charles. The Carolingian mayor could not help the pope at the time, but the invitation foreshadowed similar communication between Pippin the Short and Pope Stephen II in the 750s. Indeed, the connection between Rome and the Carolingians that began to form during the reign of Charles was to be essential to the ultimate triumph of the dynasty.
   By the end of his life Charles was clearly the dominant figure in the Frankish kingdom, and he could afford to rule without a Merovingian figurehead during the last four years of his life. Like a traditional Frankish king, he divided the realm between his two sons, who both ascended to the office of mayor on their father's death in 741. Charles's reign was critical to the ultimate success of his family. His military victories and ability to attract supporters from the aristocracy strengthened his family, and his recognition by the pope elevated Charles and his dynasty above the other families of the realm. Although the achievement of the kingship had to wait a generation, the groundwork for Carolingian succession to the throne was laid by Charles Martel.
   See also
 ♦ Wallace-Hadrill, John M., ed. and trans. The Fourth Book of the Chronicle of Fredegar with Its Continuations. London: Nelson, 1960.
 ♦ Bachrach, Bernard S. Merovingian Military Organization, 481-751. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972.
 ♦ Fouracre, Paul, and Richard A. Gerberding. Late Merovingian France: History and Hagiography, 640-720. Manchester, UK: University of Manchester Press, 1996.
 ♦ Riché, Pierre. The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe. Trans. Michael Idomir Allen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.
 ♦ Wood, Ian. The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450-751. London: Longman, 1994.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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