On the feast day of the beatified Pepin of Landen

21 February is the feast day of the beatified Pepin of Landen, or Pepin the Old, first of the mighty Mayors of the Palace of Frankish Austrasia and ancestor of Charlemagne.

“… the real power and authority in the kingdom lay in the hands of the chief officer of the court, the so-called Mayor of the Palace, and he was at the head of affairs.“ (Einhard “The Life of Charlemagne”)

Évariste Vital Luminais (1821 - 1896): "Merovingians hunt down a wild dog" (around 1880)

It was a bloody, fratricidal civil war that tore apart the Frankish domains for 50 years. Maybe owed to the peculiar Germanic custom of dividing a king’s domains among his sons after his death, since the major opponents in the conflict were the two Frankish kingdoms of Neustria, more or less present-day France, and Austrasia, i.e. everything east of the River Rhine that called the local Merovingian scion a king, or it might have been the profound traditional belligerence of Clovis’ heirs that kindled the conflict over two generations and several Neustrian and Austrasian kings, but two queens certainly became the figureheads of the endless wars, Fredegund and Brunichild. Brunichild was the daughter of the Visigothic King Athanagild and married King Sigebert of Austrasia in 566 while her sister Galswintha became the wife of King Chilperic of Neustria. Chilperic, though, was conjugated in a relationship called “Friedelehe”, a form of lawful concubinage, with the low-born Fredegund. When Galswintha demanded that the “Kebse” quit the place, Fredegund had her murdered. Brunichild then incited her husband to go on the warpath to take revenge and when the Austrasian warriors closed in on the Neustrian capital Soissons, Fredegund had Sigebert assassinated, the second in line of a long list of political murders that followed. Brunichild, in the meanwhile, exercised the regency for her sons, continued to fight Neustria, married Chilperic’s son from his first marriage, probably just to spite Fredegund who wanted to see her own offspring crowned and the war dragged on, even after Fredegund’s surprisingly natural death.

Évariste Vital Luminais: "A Merovingian Princess" (around 1880)

The Merovingian Franks were quite used to smashing each others’ skulls and it wasn’t Brunichild’s endless war-mongering that made her anathema, but her attempt to curb the influence of the Austrasian and Burgundian nobles and centralise power, while the Neustrians hated her anyway. She fell into the hands of Fredegund’s son Clothar II who, after becoming King of all Franks in 613, had her executed by mutual consent, according to the Frankish Annals: “Then the army of the Franks and Burgundians joined into one, all shouted together that death would be most fitting for the very wicked Brunhilda. Then King Clotaire ordered that she be lifted on to a camel and led through the entire army. Then she was tied to the feet of wild horses and torn apart limb from limb. Finally she died. Her final grave was the fire. Her bones were burnt.“ Clothar’s all-Frankish regency ended already during his lifetime, when he gave Austrasia to his son Dagobert, influenced by a mighty nobleman, who had his influence established during the years of opposition to Brunichild along with making an office indispensable that would be the end of the Merovingian dynasty a hundred years later, that of the Mayor of the Palace, and the man was Pepin of Landen, patriarch of the Pippinids who would become the Carolingians after Charlemagne.

A woodcut by the French academic painter Alphonse de Neuville (1835 – 1885)
from a series of illustrations for Guizot’s “History of France”
showing the execution of Queen Brunichild,
remarkably well preserved at the age of 63 when she died.

The Grand Viziers of Austrasia certainly owed their later position of power to Pepin of Landen’s skill and the determination he proved to have during the reign of various Merovingian kings in the course of the chequered history of the early 7th century. Probably there wouldn’t have been a Charles Martel, a Pepin the Short or Charlemagne without him or Brunichild’s grab for power. His beatification and that of almost his whole family, his wife, St Itta of Metz, painted by Burne-Jones in Pre-Raphaelite splendour in the 1860s, and three of his four children who were also canonised, seems a bit exaggerated, though. It was probably done in the wake of the canonisation of Charlemagne during the 12th century to give the rule of the Holy Roman Emperors a sacerdotal foundation. However, since Pepin the Old, the mayoral office in Austrasia became hereditary, while the Merovingian kings were reduced to figureheads with no real power, the infamous rois fainéants, the do-nothing kings – until Pepin’s great-great grandson Pepin the Short allied himself with the Papacy in Rome, had the last Merovingian, Childeric III, removed and was crowned as the first Carolingian King of the Franks in 754.

And more about Pepin the Old on:


and Queen Brunichild on: