The Franks

The Franks were Germanic tribes who lived along the middle and lower Rhine River. As the Roman Empire lost control of Gaul, the Franks rose to power and founded dynasties and cultures that became the basis for modern Europe, particularly France and Germany.

The Franks

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Early History

In the 400s, Roman armies struggled to defend Gaul from Hun and Vandal invaders along the Rhine River. Some Franks served in the Roman army during this time. As the Roman Empire collapsed in western Europe, Frankish warriors claimed parts of it and established their own small kingdoms.

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King Clovis I

Clovis was born into the ruling family of a Frankish kingdom in what is now Belgium and northern France. At that time, Franks still practiced a pagan religion that included horse sacrifices. At age 15, Clovis succeeded his father, Childeric, to become king. Over time, he expanded southward and overthrew the last Roman governor of Gaul and also battled the Goths and Visigoths. His kingdom eventually spread from the North Sea to the Pyrenees Mountains and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Main River in present-day Germany.

Clovis brought various tribes under his rule. He converted to Catholic Christianity in 496 in the city of Reims. Some historians say his decision to convert came after he tried praying and then won battles against the Alemanni tribes and pushed them east of the Rhine River. He may also have agreed to convert when he married Clotilde, a princess of Burgundy and a devout Catholic. In any case, his conversion won support from popes in Rome for many generations of Frankish leaders.

Clovis eventually decided to rule his realm from Paris. When he died around 513, he left behind a kingdom that uniquely blended Roman and Germanic cultures and would go on to become France.

According to Frankish custom, a ruler should divide his inheritance among his sons. This became one of the weak points of Frankish Rule. Clovis’ four sons divvied up the kingdom. For some time, the kings lost influence, but the dynasty lived on. The Frankish name “Clovis” eventually changed to the French “Louis”––a name adopted through many generations of French royalty.

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Charles Martel, “The Hammer”

By the 700s, the kings descended from Clovis ruled in name only and granted other nobles the right to govern. Charles Martel was born into one of these noble ruling families and went on to unite much of France. He is best known for leading an army against Muslim invaders at the Battle of Tours in 732. In this battle, Charles earned his nickname Martel, meaning “The Hammer.” The decisive Frankish victory at Tours discouraged Muslim armies from making other major invasions into the North.

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Charlemagne (“Charles the Great”)

Grandson of Charles Martel, Charlemagne became sole ruler of the Frankish realm in 771. His armies fought bloody battles against the Saxons for thirty years. Meanwhile, Charlemagne conquered northern Italy, invaded Spain and annexed Bavaria. Those defeated had to convert to Christianity or face death.

Charlemagne did more than conquer. He also supported education and the arts including:

• manuals for teaching Latin
• a royal library
• a new writing system
• poetry and religious writings in court circles

A pope crowned Charlemagne “Emperor of the Romans” on Christmas Day in 800. This revived the ideal of the Roman Empire in Western Europe for a short time.

Charlemagne died in 814. Rather than passing the empire to one heir, Charlemagne followed Frankish customs and divided it among his three sons. Fighting over the next few generations weakened Frankish realms.

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Knightly Traditions

Frankish rulers relied on many foot soldiers to win their victories in war. They also used smaller numbers of knights on horseback. The first knights rode to battle on horseback, then dismounted to fight. With the introduction of stirrups, knights could fight from horseback. This gave Frankish armies a great advantage over others. For their service, knights were awarded land and the right to pass those lands onto their descendants. This created an elite warrior class of knights that endured through medieval times in Western Europe.

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The Treaty of Verdun

For some time, the Treaty of Verdun (843) ended the civil warring of Charlemagne’s descendants and laid rough boundaries for what would become France, Germany and Italy. But small, squabbling kingdoms of Western Europe became vulnerable to Viking invasions from the North and other invasions along eastern and southern borders.

Although the Frankish empire broke up into many small feudal states, Frankish influences lived on.

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