Stories from German History - Florence Aston

The Rise of the Franks


During the fifth century after Christ, restless tribes wandered in many directions seeking new homes. Goths and Vandals, Huns and Norsemen, Angles and Saxons found fuller scope for their energies and broader lands for their increasing populations. In Western Germany the nation of the Franks was rapidly rising into power. When first heard of in history the Pranks were settled along the banks of the Lower Rhine between Cologne and the North Sea. In the early part of the fifth century, they occupied the district now known as Belgium and the region to the east of it. Their many tribes were merged gradually into one another, until all were at last united under the sway of either the Salian or Ripuarian Franks.

The Salian Franks were governed by the Salk law, by which the succession to the throne was limited to males. Their royal family traced its descent back to a monarch whom they called Pharamond. One of Pharamond's descendants was called Merowig or Meroveus, and after him the Frankish royal family were called the Merovingian line.

A descendant of Merowig was Clovis, who toward the end of the fifth century pushed the kingdom of the Franks westward into the land which we now call France as far as the Loire. Here he came into collision with the lingering remains of the ancient Roman Empire, and expelled the Romans from Soissons, where a pro-consul was still ruling. He learned from them many useful customs, one of which was the use of coinage. Clovis was an ambitious and unscrupulous man. Beginning by making alliances with his relations who were rulers of various Frankish tribes, he next proceeded to get rid of them. His treatment of Sigbert, his cousin, who ruled the neighbourhood of Cologne, may be cited as a specimen of his methods.

To Sigbert's son Clovis sent the following message "Thy father Sigbert is old and weak, and limps on one foot. If he were dead, the realm would be thine. My friendship would protect thee from harm." The son listened to these treacherous words, and caused his father to be murdered during the night as he slept, after which he sent messengers to Clovis, offering him a share of the wealth that the dead king had left behind. When the ambassador of Clovis appeared, he was shown great chests of treasure, but as the wicked son bent over one of these, the better to display its contents, the ambassador brought the heavy lid down on his head with much force and killed him. Thus perished the man who had slain his father, and another obstacle was removed from the path of Clovis, who thereupon appeared in Cologne and was elected king. When he had exterminated all the relatives he could find, Clovis lamented aloud that he had neither friend nor kinsman in the world. By this means he lured his remaining relatives from their various hiding-places, and when they came forward with professions of friendship, they found themselves trapped.

In spite of war and deeds of violence on all hands, it was in the reign of Clovis that Christianity made headway among the Franks. Clovis himself had married a Christian lady, Clothilde, daughter of a Burgundian king, who long and vainly endeavoured to persuade him to renounce the worship of Thor and Odin. He allowed her to have the first-born child baptized, but blamed the god of the Christians for its death, which occurred soon afterward. When their second child became seriously ill, immediately after baptism, Clovis reproached the Queen for her foolishness; but Clothilde prayed earnestly for the child's life, and as it recovered the King was somewhat appeased. While fighting against the Alemanni in the year 496, Clovis himself renounced idolatry in favour of the Christian religion. Convinced that Odin fought for his enemies, he determined to throw off his allegiance to that deity, and vowed to serve the god of the Christians if He would fight for him and grant him victory. In fulfilment of this vow, Clovis afterward received baptism from the hands of Remigius, Bishop of Rheims, who admonished him in these words: "Bow thy neck and pray to that which thou didst burn, and burn that to which thou didst formerly pray." Other German peoples were Christians also, but had embraced the Arian heresy—that is, the doctrine of a certain Alexandrian priest named Arius, who died in the year 886. He had preached a different conception of Christ's nature and of the relations of the three persons of the Trinity from that sanctioned by Rome. Orthodox Christians regarded these Arians as even worse than heathens, and this feeling prevented the Romans from intermarrying with the Germans, and retarded German progress in other ways.

The conversion of Clovis brought about an alliance between the Frankish kingdom and the Holy See that was of great importance for the history of Germany. It is from the History of the Franks, written by Gregory of Tours, that we derive most of our knowledge of Clovis and his descendants. Before he died, in the year 511, Clovis had made himself king of all the Franks and lord of the Alemanni, Visigoths, Burgundians and Thuringians. His kingdom embraced the whole of Gaul and a considerable portion of Germany. He made his capital at Paris, and may be called the founder of the great Frankish kingdom.

At Paris, in his palace and its neighbourhood, dwelt the most powerful of the King's knights. They were given no salary for their services, but rewarded with gifts of arms and horses, and of lands, which they held as a fief from the King. Many held various offices about his person. The knight who superintended the royal stables was known as the Marshal, the Chancellor acted as secretary, the Steward had charge of the catering for the Household, and the Chamberlain watched over the servants and guarded the treasures of the King. All these officers were in their turn controlled by the Major Domus, or Mayor of the Palace.

After the death of Clovis, the kingdom of the Franks was divided among his four sons, and for over a hundred years the history of the Merovingian dynasty is one series of quarrels and horrible murders. In spite of its evil rulers, the nation nevertheless continued to develop, and had no neighbours strong enough to disturb its unity. In the days of the last Merovingian kings, men groaned under oppression, and sighed for a monarch who might deliver them from the hands of robber barons and greedy courtiers, for the feeble figure-head who sat upon the throne clasped the sceptre with nerveless fingers that scarcely retained their hold. The miserable weakness of Childeric the Third and his predecessors was naturally not without consequences. Only too gladly had these monarchs relinquished their various duties, and allowed them to pass into the hands of servants, who thus rose to greater and greater power upon the ruins of their master's authority. Certain officers of the Household gained in this manner unlimited control in peace as well as in war.

The sovereigns themselves had been only too glad to entrust the cares of State to able ministers, while they themselves, to quote Gregory of Tours, "gormandized like brute beasts," with no thought for their unhappy subjects except that they occasionally signed State documents or appeared in royal robes on days of public ceremony. One day in the year certainly the people saw their king, and that was at the great annual review of troops. According to ancient custom the King was conveyed to the scene in a chariot drawn by oxen, and descending, took his place on a throne set upon the open plain in full view of all his subjects.

First among the officers in the Royal Household was the so-called Mayor of the Palace, whom historians name in the Latin tongue the Major Domus. This officer stood next to the King in time of peace, held chief command in war, and for nearly a hundred years was the real ruler of the Franks under the feeble, useless Merovingian kings. This position steadily grew in importance, for it had been held by able men, to whom the kings had gladly entrusted troublesome duties, whom the nobles willingly supported by common consent, and whose leadership was sanctioned by the Church in return for privileges and endowments secured.

One of the greatest Mayors of the Palace was the famous Charles Martel, 'the scourge of the Saracens.' During his term of office there appeared in Europe a formidable foe, the Arabs, or Saracens, and for a time it seemed as if the fate of the whole continent hung in the balance. The Arabs lived in Arabia on the eastern side of the Red Sea, and about one hundred and fifty years before the invasion of Europe their great prophet, Mohammed, had lived and preached, leaving behind him a nation of worshippers devoted to his teaching. A poor and nomad people, the Arabs had never left their land before, but after the death of Mohammed, they determined to go forth and conquer the world, converting the nations to their faith. They invaded Persia, Egypt, Northern Africa and most of Spain, If the conquered people became Mohammedans, they were treated with kindness, if they refused, they were made slaves or even put to death.

Having conquered Spain, the Arabs advanced upon France, where Charles, the Mayor of the Palace, went forth to meet them. In the great battle of Tours, in the year 782, 800,000 Arabs were killed, and Charles earned the name of 'Martel' or 'the Hammer.' In vain did the Arabs, mounted on fleet Barbary horses, rush to the charge, shrieking their wild battle-cry of 'Allah and Mohammed!' Reckless of danger, since death in war against Christians meant an eternity of happiness, they fought dauntlessly, but the Franks were better armed and better disciplined, and mowed them down like grass.

Christendom was saved, and the Arabs driven back over the Pyrenees. After this mighty victory Charles Martel's influence was greater than ever, and he was henceforth known as Duke of the Franks.

In his days the office of Mayor of the Palace had already gained so sure a footing as to be recognized as hereditary, so upon his death, in the year 741, he was succeeded in it by his son, Pippin the Short.


Pippin was no man to be despised, small though he was in body. Indeed, deficiency in height did not prevent him from being the most powerful warrior of his day.

Once when the courtiers were amusing themselves by witnessing a conflict between a lion and a bull, the idle conversation reverted to the diminutive Pippin, and the nobles present made merry at his expense.

Without a word the resolute Mayor entered the arena, where the lion had even then thrown the huge bull to the ground, and with one powerful stroke of his sword he severed the mighty head of the lion from its body. A second stroke and the head of the prostrate bull rolled in the dust, while a murmur of awe ran through the throng.

"David was small," said Pippin the Short, "but nevertheless he slew the mocking giant who made merry at his size." The nobles were much impressed, and respected the man for what he was. The feeble Childeric's authority continued to dwindle until he became a mere puppet on the throne. Finally Pippin, the Mayor of the Palace, sent messengers to Rome charged to seek out Pope Zachareias and say to him: "Who deserves to be King of the Franks: he who rules the realm, or he who bears the name of King?" And the Pope replied: "He who rules the realm ought also to bear the name of King." Fortified with the Holy Father's support, they took the useless Childeric from his throne. His long yellow hair, sign of kingship, was shorn from his head, and Pippin the Short sent him away to serve God as a monk in a cloister, since he was incapable of serving Him as king. Pippin the Mayor was then elected King of the Franks, in full assembly of the people, at Soissons, in the year 751. Thus passed the last of the Merovingian kings; the family of Pippin being known henceforth as the Carlovingians, from the name of Charles Martel, his warlike father. Pippin ruled well and wisely, and did not forget to show his gratitude to the Pope who had befriended him. He went with an army into Italy, and conquered a strip of land new Rome from the Lombards, which he presented as an offering to the Pope, in return for which Pope Zachareias bestowed upon Pippin the title of Protector of the Holy City. This was the origin of the States of the Church. The Holy Father would have wondered much, however, had he inquired more particularly into the state of Christianity among the Franks. They had indeed been partially converted, for during the eighth century pious missionaries from England, Scotland and Ireland had set foot upon the shore of their ancient fatherland to preach the gospel of Christ. But these priests were few in number, and the men whom they taught were wild and ignorant, so that among the Franks the services of the Church were often blended with heathen rites, and the crucifix erected side by side with the image of Thor the Thunderer.

The most famous of these Christian missionaries was a certain Anglo-Saxon monk named Winfried, who, according to the fashion of those days, was known by the name of Bonifacius.

A native of Wessex in Britain, he was consumed with desire to preach the word of God among the heathen, and in the year 715 landed on the coast of Friesland with his gospel tidings

Pippin and the Bull


There he was at first apparently successful, for Ratbod, the Duke of the Frisians, listened with interest to his teaching, and at last prayed for baptism at his hands. But with one foot in the river in which the holy rite was to be celebrated, he turned and asked Bonifacius whether he would see his own Frisian forefathers in heaven one day. Bonifacius answered: "No. They were heathens and come not therefore to the kingdom of heaven." Whereupon Ratbod drew his foot from the water, declaring that he would go to his own fathers when he died, wherever they might be.

Disheartened and repulsed on every side, Bonifacius returned to Britain, but his zeal soon drove him afield again, and in 718 he went to Rome, and, with the Holy Father's authority, set forth once more to preach the gospel to the Germans. There he found warrior-bishops whose interests were centred in the courts of earthly kings and the bloody field of battle, ignorant priests who could neither read nor explain the faith which they professed, and hordes of heathen savages howling round the altar stones of their ferocious gods.

"I am in the position of a mastiff," he wrote in one of his letters, "which sees the thieves and murderers breaking into his master's house; but having none to help him, can do little more than groan and growl.

He saw at once that the support of both Pope and King must be secured before he could bring light and peace to a land of such darkness and blood.

"Without aid from the Prince of the Franks," he wrote, "I can neither rule the people, nor protect the priests and deacons, monks and nuns, whom I have brought hither with me from England; nor can I without his commands, and penalties to enforce obedience unto the same, hope to put an end to their heathenish practices and sacrifices to idols."

The Holy Father at Rome, Pope Gregory, recommended him to Charles Martel and, the royal aid once granted, Bonifacius threw himself passionately into the work of reform. He founded many monasteries, the most famous of which was the Cloister of Fulda, so that they might send out teachers to aid him in his work, and having reorganized the Chris Church among the Franks, he turned his attention to the conversion of the many heathen tribes harboured by the dark forests of the North. Fearless of danger, he would suddenly appear like a whirlwind in their midst, eyes aflame with anger, words of fierce denunciation on his lips, and with his own hands would hurl down the stones of the altars sacred to heathen gods, around which the seething multitude howled and gnashed upon him in their wrath. At other times he would hew down with hasty strokes the sacred tree under which dark and bloody rites were celebrated, while the superstitious savages stayed their hands and looked for thunderbolts to fall and flames to consume this enemy of all that they and their fathers had held most sacred. But when no god appeared in wrath to avenge this insult to his altar, they gazed in stupid wonder on the lonely monk, whose daring they could not but admire, and listened to the words of wisdom that he spoke.

So he lived and laboured in that land, aided by the support of Charles Martel and the Holy Father at Rome, and afterwards of Pippin the King, until, in his seventieth year, the old longing came over him once more to preach to the Frisians among whom he had failed in his youth. For two years he toiled among them, until in the year 755 he fell a martyr among the savage tribes, refusing, together with his fifty-two followers, to strike a blow in his own defence. All were murdered by avengers of the ancient gods, and the body of Bonifacius was carried back to the monastery of Fulda, and there laid to rest.

"Truly," says an ancient writer, Germany hath great cause to be thankful unto Bonifacius; for he it was who gave her instructors not only in religion, but in the sciences; persuaded her inhabitants to eat no more horse-flesh, laid the foundation of letters among them, and shunned not to shed his blood for their sakes."

Thus we have seen how Pippin the King and Bonifacius the Archbishop laboured for their own generation before they fell asleep, and were numbered among the dead.