The Franks and the Holy Roman Empire Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

During the last days of the Roman Empire, the Western European landscape was divided among various Germanic tribes, remaining bastions of Roman administrative rule, and surviving Roman military settlements, or laeti.

Political Considerations

During the last days of the Roman Empire, the Western European landscape was divided among various Germanic tribes, remaining bastions of Roman administrative rule, and surviving Roman military settlements, or laeti. The Franks alone were divided into at least four subgroups that competed for control with various Gallo-Roman magnates whose cities and surrounding territories comprised lands sufficient for them to be called sub reguli, or “sub-kings,” in the sources. It is little wonder that any military commander with enough drive and power to stitch together an identifiable fabric from this crazy quilt of disarray would be hailed as more than just another king. Such a man was Clovis Clovis IClovis I[Clovis 01] I (c. 466-511), a king of the Sicambrian Franks who created something approaching a unified Gaul Gaul at the point of his lance. Although this first Francia would be a heterogeneous kingdom, it would suffer from two major flaws that were principally Frankish in origin: the practice of partible Partible inheritance inheritance among royal sons, which divided lands and encouraged disunion and often outright civil war, and the eventual usurpation of royal power by the chief executive officer of the king, the major domo, or “mayor of the palace.” The former flaw acted as a check on Frankish expansion and the latter eventually led to a change of dynasty from the ruling house of the Merovingians Merovingians to that of the House of Charles, or Carolingians.Holy Roman EmpireFranksHoly Roman EmpireFranks

Although Clovis was named consul by the eastern emperor AnastasiusAnastasius (Eastern Roman emperor)Anastasius (c. 430-518) after gaining control of most of Gaul, this title was imperiled upon his death in 511. Clovis’s four sons each received an equal portion of his holdings and spent the next fifty years battling for his inheritance. No sooner had it all fallen into the hands of the surviving son, Chlotar Chlotar IChlotar I[Chlotar 01]I (c. 497-561), than he died, redividing the kingdom once again among his own four sons, who showed even less inclination toward cooperation than had the preceding generation. Gaul was torn by incessant civil war for yet another fifty years. With the execution of the matriarch queen BrunhildeBrunhilde (Frankish queen)Brunhilde in 613, Chlotar Chlotar IIChlotar II[Chlotar 02]II (r. 613-629) introduced a brief period of effective Merovingian rule.

At this point, an office originally intended to relieve the kings of burdensome daily administrative duties began to encroach on royal prerogatives. The position of major domo had been created to oversee supplies and the smooth running of the royal estates. During the turbulent civil wars, the office came to be occupied by key magnates of the realm who could bring military power to the side of their king. By the mid-600’s, the Merovingian kings had begun to place more military authority in the hands of the mayors. By 687 the mayor Pépin of Pépin of HerstalPépin of Herstal (Frankish king)[Pepin of Herstal]Herstal (r. 687-714) had defeated his rivals and solidified his rule over all Franks. Pépin’s illegitimate son, Charles (688-741), later known as Charles Charles MartelCharles MartelMartel, or the Hammer, furthered the power of the position by seizing control in a palace coup in 714. The stage was now set for a contest between the king and the mayor for mastery of Francia. However, there was no contest. The later Merovingian kings, long characterized by French historians as rois faineants, or “fainting kings,” were unable, or unwilling, to contend seriously for power. By 752 Charles Martel’s son, Pépin III (714-768), known as Pépin the Pépin the ShortPépin the Short (Frankish king)[Pepin the Short] Short, had sent the last Merovingian to a monastery and assumed the throne as the first Carolingian Carolingian Empire;kings king with the blessing of the Pope.

Carolingian Empire

This move inaugurated an efflorescence of Frankish power under Pépin and his legendary son, Charles (742-814), known as CharlemagneCharlemagneCharlemagne, or, literally, Charles the Great. During this period the Franks reassembled a large portion of the old Roman Empire–Gaul, Italy, and extreme northern Spain–and conquered most of Germany as well. In 800 Pope Leo Leo IIILeo III (pope)[Leo 03 pope]III crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor, reviving the concept of a Roman Empire and solidifying the division between the Roman Empire in the west and the Byzantine Empire in the east. By the time of Charlemagne’s grandsons, and the Treaty of Verdun Treaty of 843Verdun in 843, however, the issue of partible inheritance had once again divided the Frankish Empire and diluted its power. This fact, coupled with the increasing pressure of Viking invasions, brought an end to any dreams of unity as the newly emerging concept of Feudalism;Europefeudalism further subdivided the West.

Military Achievement

The Frankish legacy is one of military conquest. Clovis’s accession to the Frankish throne in 482 came at a time in which there was no one overarching military presence in northern Gaul. Therefore, with a fairly small contingent of troops, Clovis was able, in 486, to conquer the Kingdom of Soissons, Kingdom ofSoissons, a sub-Roman territorial remnant under the command of the patrician SyagriusSyagrius (Roman governor of Gaul)Syagrius (c. 430-486), the last Roman governor in Gaul. By 491 Clovis had absorbed Paris and campaigned victoriously against ThuringiansThuringian settlements in eastern Gaul. The incursion of the Alemanni into Frankish lands in 496 provided Clovis with opportunities for leadership over all the northern Franks. He used this leverage to good effect with a decisive victory that same year over the AlemanniAlemanni at Tolbiac, southwest of Cologne. Although Clovis’s subsequent conversion to Christianity somewhat eroded his Frankish coalition, he was still able to intervene in Burgundy, come to terms with the Alan laeti in Armorica, in present-day Brittany, and finally secure his Rhineland borders. In 507 he moved on the biggest prize: the Visigoths;conquered by FranksVisigothic kingdom of southern Gaul under Alaric II (r. 484-507). In the late spring and early summer of 507, Clovis’s forces crushed the Visigoths at Vouillé, killing Alaric Alaric IIAlaric II (Visigothic king)[Alaric 02]II and opening the way for the conquest of the south. Clovis took most of the key cities in the south and the Visigothic royal treasury but could not take the province of Septimania. He finished his career of expansion from 508 to 511 by incorporating holdout Frankish subgroups in the north, notably at Cambrai and Cologne.

The sons of Clovis were mostly concerned with one another’s patrimony, but they did cooperate long enough to effect the conquest of Burgundy, conquest of (534)Burgundy in 534, at the prompting of the queen mother, ClotildeClotildeClotilde, herself a Burgundian princess. After the old queen died in 544, the remaining brothers gave themselves over to internecine strife. Matters only worsened with the succession of the four sons of Chlotar in 561. Only an occasional raiding campaign into Lombard, Italy, broke the monotony of civil war.

After unity was restored under Chlotar Chlotar IIChlotar II[Chlotar 02]II in 613, two major developments occupied the Frankish military: the extension of control into Austrasia, the territories east of the Rhine, and the growth of the positions of the major Major domosdomos, or mayors of the palace. By the 660’s, the mayors of Neustria (central France) and Austrasia were openly influencing the choice of Frankish kings. In 687 Pépin of Herstal, the Austrasian mayor, was able to defeat his Neustrian rival and proclaim one king with one mayor for all of Francia. As he passed this on to his son, Charles Martel, the Franks found themselves governed by the mayor much more than the king. This was the situation when the SaracensSaracens, under leader ՙAbd al-RaḥmānՙAbd al-Raḥmān[Abd al Rahman]ՙAbd al-Raḥmān (died 732), encountered the Franks near Poitiers on October 25, 732. Charles Martel, the mayor, formed his men into a defensive infantry position, and the Muslim forces, mostly foot soldiers with some cavalry, broke on the Frankish shield wall.

In the ensuing years, as the Carolingians made their rule officially royal, Pépin the Short conquered central Italy for the Pope, the so-called Donation of Donation of PépinPépin of 756. Charlemagne subdued northern Italy in 774 and ultimately Saxony, at the end of a bitter decades-long campaign. Frankish military power had won a realm extending from the Spanish MarchSpanish March to the Elbe River and from the plains of Hungary well into central Italy.

Throughout this period the Franks evolved from a fragmented Germanic tribe to become the single strongest military force in Europe. By incorporating into their fighting forces the strengths of the various peoples they conquered, the Franks became so powerful that the Pope, when threatened in the 750’s with LombardsLombard invasion and Byzantine control, intentionally sought an alliance with them. By the end of Charlemagne’s reign in 814, the Franks were supreme on the continent. Only the old malaise of a divided empire and the new threat of recurrent Vikings;and Franks[Franks]Viking raids, which challenged even the most formidable military of the era, brought an end to Frankish power. After 918 the local military agreements collectively known as feudalism would fragment both the land and the military might of Francia, as it did most of Europe.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

The Armor;FrankishUniforms;Frankishdisparate nature of Frankish armies worked against any uniformity in their appearance. The concept of “personality of the Personality of the lawlaw,” wherein each man was judged by his ethnic background, had military applications as well. Whether Frank, Saxon, Sarmatian, Alan, Gallo-Roman, or from some group less well known, the individual soldier would be expected to wear into combat that which conformed to his own tastes, abilities, and national dress. Any uniformity in dress or equipment would have derived from a soldier’s military function, such as cavalry, infantry, or siege operator. Even after Charlemagne’s rule took on the characteristics of a centralized empire, the use of territorial levies precluded uniforms. Because there was no government issue of battle dress or equipment, there could be no uniformity assured.

Despite these variations, the typical Infantry;Frankishinfantryman in a Frankish army most likely carried a Spears;Frankishspear and a Shields;Frankishshield. The spear could be of two types; the Hasta (spear)hasta, or Lancea (spear) lancea, was a thrusting spear for close engagement, whereas the Angon (spear) angon was a shorter, barbed throwing spear with an iron housing extending down from the head to encase almost the entire length of the weapon. The typical length of the Lances lance was about 8 feet, although longer ones are known. The angon, generally no longer than 6 feet, also could be used for thrusting, but its long, narrow shaft made it more suited for throwing. The theory behind the angon was that once it impacted the enemy’s shield, its weight could not be cast off due to its barbed head, thereby pulling down the shield. Battle descriptions also tell of Frankish warriors stepping on the trailing angon shafts in order to deprive their opponents of their shields. Should the angon penetrate the opponent’s body, its barbed spearhead ensured maximum damage when removed. The angon’s long metal casing prevented the easy hacking away of the shaft and created quite a problem for the victim.

Frankish shields appear to have been round, or occasionally elliptical, and of 32 to 36 inches in diameter. A metal stud in the center permitted the soldier to strike his opponent with a punching motion, giving the shield offensive as well as defensive possibilities. The shield was usually made of wood, rimmed with iron or, in lesser instances, wicker covered by hides.

Swords seem to have been fairly rare in the Frankish world, as they were throughout early medieval Europe. Those that did exist were of two types: the long Swords;longLong swordssword and the Scramasax (sword)scramasax. The long sword was a double-edged weapon of 30 to 36 inches in length. Because its center of gravity was somewhat closer to the tip of the blade, it was better suited for cutting rather than thrusting motions, which may explain why the long sword made the transition from foot to mounted combat. The short sword, or scramasax, a single-edged weapon, ranged in length from 8 inches to a more formidable 16 inches. Its obvious use was for close combat, and its lethal impact could be enhanced by the judicious use of Poison;scramasax poison in its blood-gutter groove.

A favorite weapon of the Frankish infantryman, particularly in the early years of the period, was theFrancisca (ax)francisca. This small Axes;francisca ax, with a 16-inch haft attached to its 7-inch single-edged head, weighed only about 2.5 pounds, making it suitable for both striking and throwing. When thrown, the francisca could have an effective range of up to 39 feet on three in-air rotations; sources mention the Franks engaging their opponents in this way. In hand-to-hand combat, the francisca also worked much like a heavy tomahawk or hatchet.

Although some sources claim that the Franks were without bows and Bows and arrows;Frankisharrows, evidence in Frankish graves indicates otherwise. Double-curved bows and arrowheads of more than 2.5 inches in length are suggested by the archaeology of the age. Frankish prelate and bishop Gregory of Gregory of ToursGregory of ToursTours (539-594), describing a particularly arrogant Frankish count, noted the count’s habit of entering church with his quiver slung over his shoulder.

Body armor included the Helmets;Frankishhelmet, or Galea (helmet)galea, usually a variation on the simple iron cap, often without a nasal piece. The better-attired warriors would also have a Brunia (leather tunic) brunia, or leather tunic covered in either ring-mail or mail of iron plates that overlapped like scales. Even as late as Charlemagne’s day, the high cost of these pieces of equipment made them rare; the brunia itself could cost the equivalent of six cows in the early 800’s. Consequently the vision of Frankish armies with little or no body armor has taken hold. The heterogeneous nature of the Frankish forces meant that some of their early armies contained elements of Roman laeti, who were frequently outfitted in mail. By the time of Charlemagne, the heavy cavalry, or Caballarii (cavalry) caballarii, were protected by the brunia, whereas the Lantweri lantweri, or general levy, would be less heavily armed.

Military Organization

Charlemagne, crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800, united the Frankish kingdoms and solidified the division between the Roman Empire in the West and the Byzantine Empire in the East.

(Library of Congress)

Despite the general impression of early medieval warfare as undertaken by ignorant armies, the military organization of this period in Francia was quite complex. When Clovis began his career of conquest he assembled warbands of Frankish sub-kings, the armed retainers of Gallo-Roman magnates, descendants of Roman garrisons, armed colonists, or laeti, from late Imperial days, and barbarian allies. Each of these components could be expected to contribute their distinctive abilities. For example, the Alan laeti of ArmoricaArmorica were noted for their cavalry, the Gallo-Romans[Gallo Romans]Gallo-Romans for their siegecraft, and the erstwhile Roman garrison personnel for their archery and missile weapons expertise. The end result would be an army capable of a combined-arms approach to war, as well as one that conceivably could be available nearly year-round. The army of the first great Merovingian king, Clovis I, bore a much greater resemblance to a late Roman force than to a barbarian, tribal army.

The major addition to this system, introduced in Francia during the time of Clovis’s warring grandsons (c. 560-590), was the introduction of Levieslevies. Based on a double heritage of Frankish and Roman custom, each king could call out his populace in time of war. The Franks had held that all able-bodied men owed military service and had developed a procedure for bringing this into effect. It was called the Campus Martiuscampus Martius, which could mean either “field of Mars” or “Marchfield.” It is assumed this was originally an early spring Musters muster of all available fighting men, but the sources indicate that it eventually became a muster of combatants at any time of the year. Warriors were to bring their own equipment and supplies, because pillaging was restricted until the army reached enemy territory.

Division of Charlemagne’s Empire

The Roman tradition was one of each landowning group supplying a man from their land to serve in the army. This was called Praebitio tironum (Roman recruitment method)praebitio tironum, and it meant that the Roman populace was accustomed to regularly furnishing troops to the government. Once again these soldiers were financed and thus equipped and provisioned by those satisfying the praebitio. The sixth century grandsons of Clovis simply accessed an old notion when they began calling up levies of troops for their incessant civil wars.

There were, however, distinctions among the levies, of which there appear to have been two types. Local levies, only affecting the territorium of certain cities, did not include the poor or those whose absence from farming or commerce would cause disruption to the flow of society. The city would make the determination as to who would be called up and who would be excused. General levies, on the other hand, were just that: a general call to arms of every able-bodied man. Even general levies were restricted to the areas under direct threat. The general levies, owing to the low level of military fitness among the troops, were not particularly helpful. As the Frankish presence expanded throughout Gaul and into Germany and Italy, so did the concept of local and general levies.

By late Carolingian times, the Franks had virtually re-created the old Roman praebitio tironum. Charlemagne’s edict of 806 required men of a certain level of landholding to fight and those of lesser landholdings to pool their responsibility with others to share in the provision of a warrior. A man whose small landholding was not enough for him to serve personally, but who joined with others to furnish a warrior and supplies, was said to have done his military service. All this could be seen to offer great numerical potential for Frankish armies. Yet out of a possible thirty-five thousand horsemen and some hundred thousand foot soldiers available to Charlemagne, his usual victorious army numbered from fifteen to twenty thousand, at the most. Given the shrunken state of early medieval armies, however, this was more than enough to dominate.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

The issue of doctrine, strategy, and tactics to a large degree revolves around the question of how Rome;barbarian invasions“Roman” or how Barbarians;defined“barbarian” armies in Frankish Gaul were. Once again the heterogeneous nature of Frankish forces provides a clue to the mixed viewpoints of Frankish commanders and their armies. Much of the military action in the period from 482 to 918 appears reactive and circumstantial, and thus more “barbarian,” as if devised to conform to events rather than some far-sighted, state-driven strategic plan. Clovis, for example, is said to have invaded the Visigothic south because he felt angry that the Arian Visigoths should occupy an Orthodox land.

Despite this alleged barbarianism, there are certain strategic considerations that can be seen in the Frankish campaigns. Clovis seems to have intentionally sought territorial expansion and executed a systematic campaign of besieging cities after his decisive victory in the open field at Vouillé. His sons and grandsons, however, appear to have begun and finished campaigns with little more than a grand raiding objective in mind. It would not be until the era of Pépin the Short and Charlemagne that the Franks would reattain a strategic view of conquest and the reduction of rebellious peoples. With that as their objective, the Franks invested their energies in the capture of key cities, using a type of scorched-earth policy to deny the strongholds their subsistence.

The Franks seem to have been somewhat deficient in siege Siege warfare;Frankswarfare, at least until they incorporated into their empire those who had inherited knowledge of Roman siegecraft. Generally the Franks took fortified strongholds by deceit, which required abilities of a different sort. Although there is scant mention in source literature of them doing so, Franks do appear to have been able to construct many types of siege engines. They were, however, capable of CircumvallationWalls;Frankishcircumvallation–building walls to deny the besieged city any outside contact. Frankish supply trains consisted of large wagons and carts, called Basternae (supply wagons)basternae. So thorough could be the Frankish investment that the Avars Avars, having fortified their strongholds for a 791 Frankish cavalry attack, simply gave up when they saw Charlemagne’s approaching army with all its supplies in tow.

Frankish battle tactics included the basic barbarian charge, called Cuneus (wedge tactic)the “wedge,” which, in formation, was sometimes likened to the blunt snout of a wild boar, an animal generally revered by the Germans for its ferocity. As the charge was made, the Franks would let their franciscas and angons fly and would generally count on breaking the enemy’s resolve in one rush. With the incorporation of other peoples and tactics in their armies, the Franks also supplemented thier cavalry with AlansAlans, a warlike people from the steppes northeast of the Black Sea. With their practiced wheeling maneuvers, the Alani rendered the Frankish army a more diversified and dangerous fighting force. When faced with a stronger foe, the Franks would form a shield wall with their infantry and allow the enemy to beat itself into submission on it.

Toward the end of the Frankish period, as Cavalry;Frankishcavalry grew in prominence, the Carolingian armies were still dominated primarily by Infantry;Frankishinfantry. Even the advent of the stirrup did not give the horseman the leverage he would have two centuries later when the cantle enabled him to deliver a lance blow without being driven over the rump of his mount. Lances were used, as were the long swords, by the Carolingian cavalry in a downward thrusting manner.

Medieval <index-term><primary>Medieval sources, descriptive vs. analytical in nature</primary></index-term>Sources

Although sources are not lacking for the period from 482 to 918, many are flawed as reliable sources of information. A common problem is brevity; for example, the Viking invasions are frequently dismissed with a terse “this year the heathen ravaged.” There is also a fundamental problem of worldview. The sources of the early medieval period more frequently recount facts than convey causation. They describe what happened, but not why. Despite an abundance of detail about an event, the lack of analysis often hinders a holistic understanding of the event. Information about weapons, tactics, and military matters must be gleaned from chance comments offhandedly dropped into narratives. It is revealed, for example, that as Count Leudast strode into church, he wore a mail shirt, had a bow and arrow, a javelin, and a cuirass, but his sword is mentioned only when, much later in the story, he is called to defend himself. When descriptions are offered, they can be maddeningly vague.

Nevertheless, the sources available for interpretation do include some gems of Western historiography. They begin with Gregory of Gregory of ToursGregory of ToursTours’ (539-594) Historia Francorum (c. 594; The History of the Franks, 1927), which covers the history of the Franks to 591. A work that provides an overlapping but slightly different view is the Liber Historiae Francorum (1973), translated by Bernard S. Bachrach from an earlier Latin text, as well as The Fourth Book of the Chronicle of Fredegar, chronicle of Fredegar (1960), translated by J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, both of which take the Frankish saga up to the time of the Carolingians. A Lombard viewpoint covering many of the same events is offered by Paul the Paul the DeaconPaul the Deacon Deacon’s (c. 720-c. 799) Historia Langobardorum (c. 786; History of the Lombards). Eastern views on Frankish warfare are available in small doses in the works of the Byzantine historians AgathiasAgathias (Byzantine historian) Agathias (c. 536-c. 582), whose work is contained in Averil Cameron’s Agathias (1970), and Procopius of ProcopiusProcopius (Byzantine historian) Caesarea’s (between 490 and 507 and after 562) Polemon (c. 551; History of the Wars, 1960).

A Byzantine view on the Carolingian military is found in the Tactica of the emperor Leo Leo VILeo VI (Byzantine emperor)[Leo 06 Byzantine] VI (866-912), once again not translated into English. The greatest of the Carolingian personalities, the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, is described in EinhardEinhard (historian) Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne, translated by Sidney Painter. Because Einhard served in Charlemagne’s court, he presumably had firsthand knowledge of his subject’s governance.

A vast and disparate field of supplemental study is that of the lives of the various saints from the period. Once again, it is the accidental rather than the intentional inclusion of material that repays the search.Holy Roman EmpireFranks

Books and Articles
  • Bachrach, Bernard S. Armies and Politics in the Early Medieval West. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1993.
  • _______. Merovingian Military Organization, 481-751. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972.
  • Bradbury, Jim. The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare. New York: Routledge, 2004.
  • Contamine, Philippe. War in the Middle Ages. Translated by Michael Jones. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1984.
  • Elton, Hugh. Warfare in Roman Europe, A.D. 350-425. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Nicolle, David. The Age of Charlemagne. Illustrated by Angus McBride. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 1984.
  • _______. Carolingian Cavalryman, A.D. 768-987. Illustrated by Wayne Reynolds. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2005.
  • _______. Poitiers, A.D. 732: Charles Martel Turns the Islamic Tide. Illustrated by Graham Turner. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2008.
  • Reuter, Timothy. “Carolingian and Ottonian Warfare.” In Medieval Warfare: A History, edited by Maurice Keen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Schoenfeld, Edward J. “Charlemagne.” In The Reader’s Companion to Military History, edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
  • _______. “Otto I (the Great).” In The Reader’s Companion to Military History, edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
  • Wood, Ian. The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450-751. New York: Longman, 1994.
Films and Other Media
  • Charlemagne. Television Miniseries. Acorn Media, 1994.
  • The Dark Ages. Documentary. History Channel, 2007.


The Anglo-Saxons

The Lombards

The Magyars

The Vikings

Armies of Christendom and the Age of Chivalry

Crusading Armies of the West

Categories: History