At the death Clovis I in 511, his realm was divided among his four sons, Theuderic I, Chlodomir, Childebert I, and Chlotar I. Despite the frequently bloody competition between the brothers, they managed among them to extend Frankish rule over Thuringia in approximately 531 and Burgundy in 534 and to gain sway over, if not possession of, Septimania on the Mediterranean coast, Bavaria, and the lands of the Saxons to the north. By 558 Chlotar I was the last surviving son of Clovis I, and until his death in 561 the Frankish realm was once again united.
In 561 the realm was again divided between brothers—Charibert I, Guntram, Sigebert, and Chilperic I—and again family strife and intrigue ensued, particularly between Chilperic and his wife, Fredegund, in the northwest of Gaul and Sigebert and his wife, Brunhild, in the northeast. Dynastic struggles and increasing pressures exerted on the realm by neighbouring peoples Bretons and Gascons in the west, Lombards in the southeast, Avars in the east prompted a reorganization of the Frankish kingdoms.
Several eastern regions were merged into the kingdom of Austrasia, with its capital at Metz; in the west Neustria emerged, with its capital first at Soissons and later at Paris; to the south was the enlarged kingdom of Burgundy, with its capital at Chalon-sur-Saône. Overall Frankish unity was again achieved in 613, when Chlotar II, son of Chilperic I and king of Neustria, inherited the other two kingdoms as well. On the death of Chlotar’s son Dagobert I in 639, the realm was divided yet again, but by that time the kings of the two regions, Neustria and Burgundy on the one hand and Austrasia on the other, had been forced to yield much of their power to household officials known as Mayors of the Palace.
Under the Merovingian dynasty, the Mayor of the Palace was the manager of the household of the Frankish king. The office existed from the sixth century, and during the seventh it evolved into the “power behind the throne” in the northeastern kingdom of Austrasia.
The Mayor of the Palace held and wielded the real and effective power to make decisions affecting the kingdom, while the kings had been reduced to performing merely ceremonial functions, which made them little more than figureheads. The office may be compared to that of a prime minister, all of which have similarly been the real powers behind some ceremonial monarchs.
In Austrasia, the mayoral office became hereditary in the family of the Pippinids. In 687, after victory over the western kingdom of Neustria, the Austrasian mayor, Pippin of Herstal, took the title Duke of the Franks to signify his augmented rule.
Charles Martel (c. 688 – October 22, 741) was a son of the Frankish statesman Pepin of Herstal and Pepin’s mistress, a noblewoman named Alpaida. As Duke and Prince of the Franks and Mayor of the Palace, Charles Martel was the de facto ruler of Francia from 718 until his death. Charles successfully asserted his claims to power as successor to his father as the power behind the throne in Frankish politics. Continuing and building on his father’s work, he restored centralized government in Francia and began the series of military campaigns that re-established the Franks as the undisputed masters of all Gaul. Much attention has been paid to his success in defeating an Arab raid in Aquitaine at the Battle of Tours. Alongside his military endeavours, Charles has been traditionally credited with a seminal role in the development of the Frankish system of feudalism. Charles Martel, ceased bothering with the façade of a king, and the last four years of his reign (743–47) were an interregnum.
The Carolingian dynasty takes its name from Carolus, the Latinised name of Charles Martel. The name “Carolingian” (Medieval Latin karolingi, an altered form of an unattested Old High German word karling or kerling, meaning “descendant of Charles” cf. MHG kerlinc) or “the family of Charles.”
Pepin III the Short (c. 714 – September 24, 768) was the younger son of Charles Martel and his wife Rotrude. Pepin’s upbringing was distinguished by the ecclesiastical education he had received from the monks of St. Denis. Succeeding his father as the Mayor of the Palace in 741, Pepin reigned over Francia jointly with his elder brother Carloman. Pepin ruled in Neustria, Burgundy, and Provence, while his older brother Carloman established himself in Austrasia, Alemannia and Thuringia. The brothers were active in suppressing revolts led by the Bavarians, Aquitanians, Saxons, and the Alemanni in the early years of their reign. In 743, they ended the Frankish interregnum by choosing Childeric III, who was to be the last Merovingian monarch, as figurehead king of the Franks.
Being well disposed towards the church and Papacy on account of their ecclesiastical upbringing, Pepin and Carloman continued their father’s work in supporting Saint Boniface in reforming the Frankish church, and evangelising the Saxons. After Carloman, who was an intensely pious man, retired to religious life in 747, Pepin became the sole ruler of the Franks. He suppressed a revolt led by his half-brother Grifo, and succeeded in becoming the undisputed master of all Francia. Giving up pretense, Pepin then forced Childeric into a monastery and had himself proclaimed King of the Franks with support of Pope Zachary in 751. The decision was not supported by all members of the Carolingian family and Pepin had to put down a revolt led by Carloman’s son, Drogo, and again by Grifo.