The Merovingian dynasty of Frankish kings ruled ancient Gaul from the fifth to eighth centuries. These Franks were often called the “long-haired kings” since they wore their hair long, unlike the clergy, the Romans, and warriors. Despite their warlike ways, they were also a religious people who provided us with many saints. But who were these long-haired kings?
In the mid-fifth century, early Frankish kings like Clovis rose against the Romans. The Merovingian dynasty was responsible for uniting the people of Gaul. Upon the death of Clovis, the kingdom became divided. The history of the Franks is replete with infighting and civil war. Upon the death of a king, all the other rulers would jockey for position. Eventually, this warfare became almost ritualized, complete with established rules.
These Frankish kings were responsible for distributing the wealth accumulated from war. Each King led his own band of warriors into battle. Kings also appointed counts to help with dispute resolution, administrative tasks, and even defense.
At this time, the Romans were well known for their universal laws which applied to every man in the kingdom. Unlike the Romans, the Merovingian dynasty was not universally applied to all citizens. The Lex Salica, or Salic Law, applied to the Salic clans; the Lex Ripuaria ruled the Ripuarian Franks. In fact, the few laws that have survived to this day deal mainly with the division of estates among remaining heirs. The Franks were mainly concerned with preserving traditions, not with creating new laws.
Merovingian culture and religion were intertwined, and it is true that the Franks have given us an unusual number of saints. Monks brought Christianity to the Franks. The structure of the Church made it very powerful, and the Merovingian kings were quick to use this to their advantage. Monasteries accepted large donations of land from the elite, who are happy to take advantage of the tax breaks while keeping the land in the family name. Un-marriageable offspring were sent to monasteries and convents, reducing the likelihood of fighting over an inheritance.
Many Merovingian served as bishops or abbots. Others provided funding to build monasteries and abbeys.many of these generous souls were related to the Merovingian kings by blood or marriage, and many of these saints were from the nobility. There were exceptions though. Gregory of Tours was a notable saint from this time, perhaps more notable for the fact that he was not related to anyone in the nobility.
Over the centuries, the infighting took its toll. By the middle of the eighth century, the Frankish kings were no longer an effective political presence. The day-to-day administration had been handed over to their majordomo, often called the Mayor of the Palace. The Mayors became powerful political and military leaders – and this caused the downfall of the Merovingians.
Pepin was descended from Mayors, and was responsible for deposing the last Frankish king in 751. The deposed Childeric III was not killed. Instead, his long hair was cut off, symbolically destroying his power. Subsequently, he was sent into a monastery to live out the rest of his days. The Merovingian dynasty was over.