Pepin the Short: The First Carolingian King
Pepin established the Carolingian dynasty and laid the foundation of a strong Frankish state.
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In every historical era, there are individuals who leave a significant impact. This impact can be felt by both their contemporaries and future generations. When discussing the Middle Ages, it’s easy to conclude that Pepin the Short was one such individual.
Although many of us primarily know Pepin the Short as the father of Charlemagne, we should not overlook his own significance as a ruler. Without Pepin, there would be no Charlemagne. Had he not established the Carolingian dynasty, the course of Western European history might have been entirely different.
Typically, very little—or almost nothing—is known about the childhoods of medieval rulers. An exception might occur if someone ascends to the throne at an unusually young age. Contemporary records often focused more on documenting departures from this world rather than arrivals into it. That’s why we know so little about Pepin’s early years, but in this article, we will attempt to explore why Pepin became the first “king by the grace of God.”
Following the death of King Clovis in 511, a tumultuous and taxing period in Frankish political history unfolded, leading to the downfall of the Merovingian dynasty. This era also gave rise to the rule of the Carolingian kings.
After Charles Martel, the “mayor of the palace” and de facto ruler of the Frankish kingdom, died in 741, his power was divided among his sons. Carloman inherited Austrasia, along with Alemannia and Thuringia, while Pepin—nicknamed “The Short” due to his supposed short stature—took control of Neustria, Burgundy, and Provence. A wave of uprisings against the brothers ensued almost immediately. Grifon, Charles’ son from his second marriage, led a rebellion, and tribal principalities in Alemannia, Bavaria, and Aquitaine also revolted. Though Carloman and Pepin managed to quash these uprisings, they deemed it necessary to solidify their authority by appointing a king from the Merovingian dynasty, which was nominally still in power.
The brothers installed Childeric III from the Merovingian family onto the royal throne in 743. This period marked a de facto joint rule by the two sibling “mayors of the palace,” or majordomos, and was also characterized by the intensive Christianization of the Germans, which they both supported. This era came to an end in 747 when Carloman withdrew to a monastery in Montecassino, Italy, effectively renouncing any legal role in governance. All authority then consolidated with Pepin, who fortified his rule with the backing of Pope Zacharias. Envoys from Pepin approached Pope Zacharias with a pivotal question: to whom should the royal title belong—to the one who wields supreme power or to the one who holds it in name only?
The Pope responded that authority should rest with the one who actually exercises power—Pepin. Between 749 and 750, a period of relative tranquility, Pepin succeeded in consolidating his authority. His vassals were widespread and bound by oaths of allegiance.
In 751, Pepin convened a council of nobles in Soissons, where he was recognized and proclaimed king of the Franks. Childeric III, the last descendant of Clovis—whom Pepin helped install years earlier, was dispatched to a monastery, where he later died. Pepin’s move to dethrone Childeric III was backed by a substantial number of Frankish nobles. Later authors who wrote about this event, such as Einhard, viewed this course of action as the only logical step, given that the Merovingian ruler had proven to be weak and ineffective.
Seizing this as an opportunity to secure a powerful ally, the papal envoy Boniface, Archbishop of Mainz, crowned Pepin as the Frankish king. This is how the new Frankish dynasty—the Carolingians—gained “heavenly recognition.” This pivotal event marked the dynastic shift that the Carolingians had been striving for over decades.
Pepin expressed his gratitude to the church generously, bestowing gifts upon numerous monasteries. However, the Pope had another request—assistance against the Lombards. In 753, Pope Stephen II directed Pepin to confront Lombard King Aistulf, who was threatening Rome and would soon pose a challenge to the Frankish state. To personally seal the deal, Pope Stephen II departed Rome for Francia with a Frankish escort in mid-October 753, aiming to persuade Pepin to intervene militarily against the Lombards. This journey marked the first trip of a Pope to Western Europe, setting a precedent of great significance. The urgency behind Pope Stephen II’s trip is perhaps best evidenced by the challenging weather conditions he braved to make the long journey. Setting out in October meant crossing the Alps at a time when strong winds and snow make the route particularly treacherous. Ultimately, the journey proved to be well worth the effort for the Pope.
Upon meeting with Pepin in 754, the Pope earnestly begged him on his knees for assistance and received favorable commitments from him. Pepin chose to do what his father, Charles Martel, had declined to do not long before—assist the Pope. However, this campaign against the Lombards failed to garner the support of the Frankish aristocracy. To bolster Pepin’s authority further, the Pope re-crowned him and performed the anointing rite over him, the queen, and their sons. Also, he bestowed upon them the title of Roman patricians.
Under the threat of excommunication, Stephen II prohibited the Franks from selecting a king from any other dynasty. In this way, Pepin and his successors gained a level of support and formal legitimacy that no ruler in a so-called “barbarian state” had previously enjoyed. They were seen as God’s anointed, and any insurrection against them was considered a rebellion against the church.
In 755, Pepin launched an invasion into Italy and compelled Aistulf to promise to cede Ravenna to the Pope. However, after Pepin withdrew, Aistulf resumed hostilities against the Pope. This prompted Pepin to return and once again subdue the Lombards. This time, Pepin remained in Italy until the Pope’s authority over the former Exarchate of Ravenna was firmly established. In this way, Pepin’s power and influence expanded beyond the boundaries of the Frankish realm. Notably, Pepin chose not to enter Rome during either of his two campaigns.
Aistulf’s successor, Desiderius, effectively became Pepin’s vassal on the Lombard throne. Pepin restored to papal authority the territories that had been previously seized by the Lombards, along with some additional lands gained at the expense of the Byzantine Empire. It’s worth noting that the Byzantine Empire requested the return of these territories, but Pepin declined.
Subsequently, the Byzantine emperor negotiated with Pepin regarding the marriage of his son to the Frankish king’s daughter. Meanwhile, the Caliph of Baghdad sought Pepin’s alliance in combating the Arabs in Spain.
During Pepin’s reign, a church reform was enacted across the country. Multiple church councils took place, leading to the establishment of order within the previously disorganized Frankish church. All Frankish prelates pledged obedience to the Pope, priests were instructed to don uniform attire, and most significantly, the rules of Saint Benedict were adopted, outlining the standards for leading a virtuous Christian life.
Pepin’s brother and bishop, Remigius, imported priests from Rome to acquaint the Frankish clergy with the Roman style of church singing. The standardization of the liturgy played a crucial role in fortifying the unity of the kingdom, although the full impact of this would only be realized later, beyond Pepin’s lifetime.
This heightened the importance of both monasteries and the church. However, Pepin didn’t confine his extensive reforms and activities solely to religious matters. For instance, he restructured the court, abolishing the role of majordomos—likely to safeguard himself and his successors from potential rivals. The majordomo was supplanted by a chamberlain, tasked with guarding the treasury and monitoring income from fines, customs, and taxes. Additionally, in response to the monetary disarray plaguing the kingdom, Pepin undertook a monetary reform.
His proficiency in classical languages and grammar has led many to consider Pepin as the initiator of the Carolingian Renaissance, which would reach its zenith under the reign of his son and successor, Charlemagne.
Like his predecessors, Pepin pursued a policy focused on reconsolidating power in the border regions and fortifying the structure of the Frankish kingdom. He succeeded in expelling the Saracens from Narbonne in 759. After eight years of warfare, Pepin ultimately secured full control over Aquileia, thereby completing what Charles Martel had started.
He also initiated the long-term conquest of Saxony through highly successful military campaigns in 753 and 758. Additionally, Pepin quelled the uprising in Bavaria. He was instrumental in fortifying the Frankish Kingdom and laying a robust foundation for his successor, Charlemagne. Regrettably, Charlemagne’s renown has overshadowed many of the accomplishments and merits of his father.
Pepin the Short died in 768 at the age of 54. He was laid to rest in Saint-Denis, and shortly before his demise, he made the decision to divide the kingdom between his sons Charlemagne and Carloman. Notably, one of these sons would go on to become the “Holy Roman Emperor.”