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Charles Martel

French Monarch (688-741)

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Charles Martel, b. about 688; d. at Quierzy on the Oise, October 21, 741. He was the natural son of Pepin of Herstal and a woman named Alpaide or Chalpalde. Pepin, who died in 714, had outlived his two legitimate sons, Drogon and Grimoald, and to Theodoald, a son of the latter and then only six years old, fell the burdensome inheritance of the Frankish monarchy. Charles, who was then twenty-six, was not excluded from the succession on account of his birth, Theodoald himself being the son of a concubine, but through the influence of Plectrude, Theodoald’s grandmother, who wished the power invested in her own descendants exclusively. To prevent any opposition from Charles she had him cast into prison and, having established herself at Cologne, assumed the guardianship of her grandson. But the different nations whom the strong hand of Pepin of Herstal had held in subjection, shook off the yoke of oppression as soon as they saw that it was with a woman they had to deal. Neustria gave the signal for revolt (715), Theodoald was beaten in the forest of Cuise and, led by Raginfrid, mayor of the palace, the enemy advanced as far as the Meuse. The Frisians flew to arms and, headed by their duke, Ratbod, destroyed the Christian mission and entered into a confederacy with the Neustrians. The Saxons came and devastated the country of the Hattuarians, and even in Austrasia there was a certain faction that chafed under the government of a woman and child. At this juncture Charles escaped from prison and placed himself at the head of the national party of Austrasia. At first he was unfortunate. He was defeated by Ratbod near Cologne in 716, and the Neustrians forced Plectrude to acknowledge as king Chilperic, the son of Childeric II, having taken this Merovingian prince from the seclusion of the cloister, where he lived under the name of Daniel. But Charles was quick to take revenge. He surprised and conquered the Neustrians at Ambleve near Malmedy (716), defeated them a second time at Vincy near Cambrai (March 21, 717), and pursued them as far as Paris. Then retracing his steps, he came to Cologne and compelled Plectrude to surrender her power and turn over to him the wealth of his father, Pepin. In order to give his recently acquired authority a semblance of legitimacy, he proclaimed the Merovingian Clotaire IV King of Austrasia, reserving for himself the title of Mayor of the Palace. It was about this time that Charles banished Rigobert, the Bishop of Reims, who had opposed him, appointing in his stead the warlike and unpriestly Milon, who was already Archbishop of Trier.

The ensuing years were full of strife. Eager to chastise the Saxons who had invaded Austrasia, Charles in the year 718 laid waste their country to the banks of the Weser. In 719 Ratbod died, and Charles seized Western Friesland without any great resistance on the part of the Frisians, who had taken possession of it on the death of Pepin. The Neustrians, always a menace, had joined forces with the people of Aquitaine, but Charles hacked their army to pieces at Soissons. After this defeat they realized the necessity of surrendering, and the death of King Clotaire IV, whom Charles had placed upon the throne but two years previously, facilitated the reconciliation of the two great fractions of the Frankish Empire. Charles acknowledged Chilperic as head of the entire monarchy, while, on their side, the Neustrians and Aquitanians endorsed the authority of Charles; but, when Chilperic died, the following year (720), Charles appointed as his successor the son of Dagobert III, appointed IV, who was still a minor, and who occupied the throne from 720 to 737. A second expedition against the Saxons in 720 and the definitive submission of Raginfrid, who had been left the County of Angers (724), reestablished the Frankish Monarchy as it had been under Pepin of Herstal, and closed the first series of Charles Martel’s struggles. The next six years were devoted almost exclusively to the confirming of the Frankish authority over the dependent Germanic tribes. In 725 and 728 Charles went into Bavaria, where the Agilolfing dukes had gradually rendered themselves independent, and reestablished Frankish suzerainty. He also brought thence the Princess Suanehilde, who seems to have become his mistress. In 730 he marched against Lantfrid, Duke of the Alemanna, whom he likewise brought into subjection, and thus Southern Germany once more became part of the Frankish Empire, as had Northern Germany during the first years of the reign. But at the extremity of the empire a dreadful storm was gathering. For several years the Mohammedans of Spain had been threatening Gaul. Banished thence in 721 by Duke Eudes, they had returned in 725 and penetrated as far as Burgundy, where they had destroyed Autun. Duke Eudes, unable to resist them, at length contented himself by negotiating with them, and to Othrnar, one of their chiefs, he gave the hand of his daughter. But this compromising affiance brought him into disfavor with Charles, who defeated him in 731, and the death of Othmar that same year again left Eudes at the mercy of Mohammedan enterprise. In 732 Abd-er-Rahman, Governor of Spain, crossed the Pyrenees at the head of an immense army, overcame Duke Eudes, and advanced by way of Bordeaux as far as the Loire, pillaging and burning as he went. In October, 732, Charles met Abd-er-Rahman outside of Tours and defeated and slew him in a battle which must ever remain one of the great events in the history of the world, as upon its issue depended whether Christian civilization should continue or Mohammedanism prevail throughout Europe. It was this battle, it is said, that gave Charles his name, Martel (Tudites) “The Hammer”, because of the merciless way in which he smote the enemy.

The remainder of Charles Martel’s reign was an uninterrupted series of triumphant combats. In 733-734 he suppressed the rebellion instigated by the Frisian duke, Bobo, who was slain in battle, and definitively subdued Friesland, which finally adopted Christianity. In 735, after the death of Eudes, Charles entered Aquitaine, quelled the revolt of Hatto and Hunold, sons of the deceased duke, and left the duchy to Hunold, to be held in fief (736). He then banished the Mohammedans from Arles and Avignon, defeated their army on the River Berre near Narbonne, and in 739 checked an uprising in Provence, the rebels being under the leadership of Maurontus. So great was Charles’ power during the last years of his reign that he did not take the trouble to appoint a successor to King Thierry IV, who died in 737, but assumed full authority himself, governing without legal right. About a year before Charles died; Pope Gregory III, threatened by Luitprand, King of Lombardy, asked his help. Now Charles was Luitprand’s ally because the latter had promised to assist him in the late war against the Mohammedans of Provence, and, moreover, the Frankish king may have already suffered from the malady that was to carry him off—two reasons that are surely sufficient to account for the fact that the pope’s envoys departed without gaining the object of their errand. However, it would seem that, according to the terms of a public act published by Charlemagne, Charles had, at least in principle, agreed to defend the Roman Church, and death alone must have prevented him from fulfilling this agreement. The reign, which in the beginning was so full of bloody conflicts and later of such incessant strife, would have been an impossibility had not Charles procured means sufficient to attract and compensate his partisans. For this purpose he conceived the idea of giving them the usufruct of a great many ecclesiastical lands, and this spoliation is what is referred to as the secularization by Charles Martel. It was an expedient that could be excused without, however, being justified, and it was pardoned to a certain extent by the amnesty granted at the Council of Lestines, held under the sons of Charles Martel in 743. It must also be remembered that the Church remained the legal owner of the lands thus alienated. This spoliation and the conferring of the principal ecclesiastical dignities upon those who were either totally unworthy or else had naught but their military qualifications to recommend them—as, for instance, the assignment of the episcopal Sees of Reims and Trier to Milon—were not calculated to endear Charles Martel to the clergy of his time. Therefore, in the ninth century Hincmar of Reims related the story of the vision with which St. Eucher was said to have been favored and which showed Charles in hell, to which he had been condemned for robbing the Church of its property.

But notwithstanding the almost exclusively warlike character of his reign, Charles Martel was not indifferent to the superior interests of civilization and Christianity. Like Napoleon after the French Revolution, upon emerging from the years 715-719, Charles, who had not only tolerated but perpetrated many an act of violence against the Church, set about the reestablishment of social order and endeavored to restore the rights of the Catholic hierarchy. This explains the protection which in 723 he accorded St. Boniface (Winfrid), the great apostle of Germany, a protection all the more salutary as the saint himself explained to his old friend, Daniel of Winchester, that without it he could neither administer his church, defend his clergy, nor prevent idolatry. Hence Charles Martel shares, to a certain degree, the glory and merit of Boniface’s great work of civilization. He died after having divided the Frankish Empire, as a patrimony, between his two sons, Carloman and Pepin.


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