In Winning His Spurs, the Muslims often refer collectively to the crusader armies comprised of Saxons, Normans, French, Burgundians and various types of German as ‘Franks’. In the same way that Saladin’s equally multi-ethnic mix of men called their enemies Franks, so the Christians called their foes ‘Saracens’ – an equal oversimplification. However, the Seljuq Turks who manned the borders with the Byzantine Empire could be forgiven for introducing the general term because the Greeks of Constantinople also referred to their co-religionists as ‘Franks’. There was good reason, for the Franks had indeed the most numerous of contacts with the Orient in the early medieval period. Who were the Franks?
The Franks are first named in Roman sources in about 245 AD when they tried to attack Mainz. By the 260s they were also making a name for themselves as pirates. Frankish raids on Gaul continued through the third and early fourth centuries. Many small groups of Franks, captured by the Romans during these raids, were allowed to settle in the empire as peasant-farmers with an obligation to provide recruits for the army. From the mid-fourth century the Franks gradually expanded into Roman territory west of the lower Rhine. Compared to the great migrations of other German peoples it was unspectacular, but it created a solid power base for the Frankish conquest of Gaul, which occurred under the Merovingian dynasty after the final collapse of Roman power in the 470s.
The Franks were not newcomers but a confederation of tribes that had been living along the east bank of the Rhine between the river Main and the North Sea since at least the first century BC. The name ‘Frank’ is presumably one which they gave to themselves, as the word means ‘bold’ in their language. As a social group, the Franks expanded their territory after 358 BC into Toxandria – today part of Holland and Flanders – between the mouths of the Scheldt and Maas rivers. The collapse of the Rhine frontier after 406 gave the Franks the opportunity for further expansion and by around 440 their lands reached as far west as the River Somme.
At the time the Franks had no centralised institutions and were ruled by a number of petty kings. Though they were politically disunited, the Franks had begun to lose their original tribal identities and coalesce into two main groups, the Ripuarians, who lived in the original homeland on the Rhine, centred around Cologne, and the Salians, on the new lands west of the Rhine.
The first recognisable dynasty is known as Merovingian after Merovech (died c.460), whose name means ‘sea-fighter’ – in all probability a successful pirate. Nothing is known about him other than that he was the father of Childeric, king of the Salian Franks settled around Tournai. By the time of his death in 482, Childeric had emerged as the major military power in northern Gaul and had laid the foundations for rapid Frankish expansion under his ruthless son Clovis.
Clovis (also Chlodweg or Hlodwig, c.465–511) continued his father’s expansion spectacularly until his kingdom included the whole of Gaul north of the River Loire. This newly conquered area became known as Neustria, the ‘new lands’, as distinct from the Ripurian Franks’ Austrasia, ‘the ‘old lands’. A crushing victory over the Visigoths brought the whole of Aquitaine under his control. Finally, Clovis briefly united the two branches of the Franks by eliminating Sigibert the Lame, king of the Ripuarian Franks.
In the half-century after Clovis’s death, the Franks and their Merovingian kings extended their power and influence over much of western Europe, despite the division of the Frankish kingdom between his four sons. The unstable situation this created resulted in endless civil wars for the next 250 years. Dynastic turmoil did not interfere with the expansion of the Merovingian kingdom. Burgundy and provence all fell to Frankish domination. By the 540s Frankish conquests had made the Merovingian kingdom the greatest power of western Europe. The influence of the Merovingians extended far beyond their borders and they were able to present themselves as overlords of the Saxons, Frisians, Jutes, Danes, Bretons, Basques and Visigoths. When King Childebert sent an embassy to Constantinople c.550, he even included some Angles to back up his claim that he ruled Britain.
The centre of Merovingian government was the royal palace, organised as a household. The most important officer was the mayor of the palace (major domus), who managed the royal estates and supervised the other officers. Between 639 to 751 a succession of monarchs who ascended the throne as children and died in their 20s before they could establish their authority inexorably let the real power to pass into the hands of the mayors.
In 747 Carloman, Mayor of Neustria, retired to a monastery and left his brother Pippin III the Stout (or Pepin the Short), Mayor of Austrasia, control of the whole kingdom. In 750 Pippin deposed the weak King Childeric III and had himself crowned king of the Franks the following year. He unexpectedly received the blessing of Pope Stephen II after he fled Italy to escape a Lombard invasion. In return Pippin promised to evict the Lombards and return the lost papal
lands, which he did, creating the medieval Papal State. While with Pippin, the Pope also annointed his two sons, Charles and Carolman, as kings, securing the Carolingian succession.
The kingdom was divided between the two sons on Pippin’s death, but Carolman and Charles fell out and eventually the whole kingdom fell to the man who history knows as Charlemagne the Great (768–814) for various reason but certainly for his conquest of western Europe, from the Spanish side of the Pyrenees to central Europe, from the edge of Denmark to the toe of Italy. The greater part of his conquests became known as the Frankish kingdom, of Francia and later as France. Unhappily, the centralised government under Charlemagne typically collapsed on his death, the kingdom being divided and sub-divided between his descendants
Faced with a breakdown of order in the Carolingian kingdom due to invasions by Moors from the south and Norsemen (Vikings) from the north, the petty kings organised their own defences in what slowly evolved into the feudal system.
Following the death of Louis V (986–87), last of the western Carolingian kings, both the Church and the leading nobles of France gathered to choose a successor. They elected Hugh Capet (987–96), whose extensive feudal holdings included Paris. One of his leading supporters was the Archbishop of Reims, the primate of the country. Although none of the nobles wanted one of their peers to establish a ruling dynasty, the Capetians – of whom
Philip II Augustus, who appears in Winning His Spurs, was Hugh’s great-great-great-great grandson – retained control of France until the 14th century. As is made clear in the story, at the time of the Third Crusade, Philip II was still engaged in internal battles with his poweful barons to extend royal power to all of France.
The Capetian kings had three roles. They controlled their own duchy, acted as feudal overlords of their more extensive domains, and acted as the feudal superiors of other leading French nobles. Although the French crown was nominally in control, the Capetians were unable to curb the independence of some leading nobles, men like the Counts of Toulouse or Normandy. In this, the feudal structure adopted in the Holy Land was similar, since the King of Jerusalem had little or no authority over the nobles who ruled in Tripoli and Antioch.
During Philip I’s reign (1060–1108), Capetian France was divided into approximately 15 major feudal domains. The royal demesne (feudal lands of the king) in the Île de France was just one of these. Outside Paris, the king’s authority was minimal. Before his accession, the royal demesne had been shrinking, but Philip reversed the process, and even added to his own royal lands. His successors, particularly his great grandson Philip II, continued this expansion.
Between the Church and the feudal system, 11th century France (and England after 1066) was reasonably well governed, which ensured a relatively stable and prosperous realm. It was natural, therefore, that the Crusader States of Outremer should look to France as a model for their organisation. And a perfectly good reason for the Muslims to regard their Christian enemies as ‘the Franks’.
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King Clovis of the Franks is baptised a Christian by Bishop Remegius, c.496, from a 14th-century manuscript, which inspired several later versions.
Rise of the Frankish kingdom from the accession of Clovis to 814, the time of Charlemagne the Great's death.