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716: A Crucial Year For Charles Martel

716: A Crucial Year For Charles Martel

By Richard A. Gerberding

Beihefte der Francia: Herausgegeben vom Deutschen Historischen Institut Paris, Vol.37 (1994)

Stained glass window depicting Charles Martel at Strasbourg Cathedral. - Photo by Rh67/Wikipedia

Introduction: The early years of Charles Martel’s life are all but obscured from the historian’s view. We know that he was the son of Pippin II and because his father was powerful and famous, we are reasonably well informed about Charles’ paternal origins. The historian, however, has a far more clouded view of the maternal side of Martel’s family. The important contemporary Neustrian chronicle, the Liber Historiae Francorum, assures that he was Pippin’s son by a wife, that is to say not by a concubine, and the first Continuator of Fredegar, who wrote in 736 when Martel firmly controlled the political reins of all Francia, provides us with her name, Alpaida. Since we gain little more direct information about the maternal side of Charles Martel’s family from the reliable contemporary sources, we must proceed cautiously by inference and deduction in order to flesh out this meagre sketch. I have argued elsewhere that Martel’ s maternal family was that of Dodo, his uncle and Alpaida’s brother, a powerful domesticus from the area around Liège, and that it was the political strength provided by this family which equipped him for his important military victory over the Neustrians, a victory which came at Amblève in April of 716. In this present paper I should like turn to another question concerning the early political career of Charles Martel: How and when was he able to expand his power base beyond that which he had at Amblève to the point where he could gain what turned out to be the deciding victory over the Neustrians at Vinchy on 21 March, 717 and then go on to snatch control of the Pippinid family away from his more powerful stepmother, Plectrud?

In the family succession struggle which followed the Death of Pippin II in 714, Plectrud seemed destined to maintain her firm control. She was rich in her own right and came from a powerful family with great landed wealth on the middle Moselle. In her grandson, Theodoald, she had Pippin’s designated successor as mayor of the palace, she controlled the Pippinid family treasure, and she was recognized as Austrasia’s leader by the Neustrians and non-Frankish powers. Martel, on the other hand, seemed to have all the cards stacked against him. He had been recently imprisoned by Plectrud, he was not his father’s designated successor as mayor, and in at least one important case, that of Sustern, north of Maastricht, he had been excluded from inheriting and controlling Pippinid lands. How then was this decided underdog able to achieve victory not only over the far more powerful branch of Pippin’s family but eventually over the rest of the Austrasians and over the forces who ruled Neustria as well?

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