The Merovingians: 5th - 8th century AD

The Franks provide the dynasty which can be seen as the first royal house of France. From them, in origin one of the Germanic tribes, the word France derives. The dynasty itself is called Merovingian, from Merovech - a leader of the tribe in the mid-5th century of whom nothing is known but his name.

The fortunes of the Franks begin with his grandson, Clovis. When Clovis inherits the crown, in about 481, he is only fifteen. The tribe's capital is then at Tournai, in what is now southern Belgium.

The reign of Clovis is a turning point in European history on two counts: his establishment of the first great barbarian kingdom north of the Alps; and his adoption of Roman Catholic Christianity, when the other barbarian rulers in Gaul are at this time all Arians (see the Spread of Arianism).

Clovis extends his power from the Somme down to the Loire by using an unscrupulous blend of warfare, intrigue and murder to assert his authority over other Frankish tribes in the region. He then sucessfuly demands tribute from the Burgundians in the southeast and, more significantly, drives the Visigoths from the southwest. By 507 the whole of France, except a narrow strip along the Mediterranean, is his acknowledged realm.

In achieving this territorial success, Clovis has been much helped by his acceptance of the Roman version of Christianity. Many Christians in Gaul, loyal to Rome, accept him as a liberator from the Arian Visigoths.

His conversion follows a classic Christian pattern, involving a victory in battle (as with Constantine) and an already pious wife (as with Ethelbert of Kent). Clovis marries a Burgundian princess, Clotilda, who unlike the rest of her people is a Catholic. Her efforts to convert her powerful pagan husband bear fruit once he believes that Jesus has helped him defeat a rival Germanic tribe, the Alamanni, who have recently moved west across the Rhine into Alsace.

Clovis's victory over the Alamanni, taking place at some time between 495 and 506, is followed by a scene of mass baptism. A faith good enough for the king must be good for the army too. At Reims the bishop baptizes Clovis and some 3000 of his soldiers.

Clovis makes his capital in Paris, where he commissions the writing of the ancient pre-Christian code of law of the Salian Franks. His Frankish kingdom will lapse for a while into chaos; Paris will not immediately retain its central status; and only parts of the Salic Law will later be followed. But the kingdom of Clovis is unmistakably a new departure of great significance for northern Europe and for France.

Austrasia Neustria and Burgundy: 6th - 7th century AD

After the death of Clovis, in 511, his territories are divided between his four sons. In the long term this form of equal inheritance will weaken the Merovingian realm, but for the moment expansion continues. The rich and important territory of Burgundy, formerly a tribute payer, is annexed as part of the Frankish kingdom in 534.

Gradually three separate kingdoms emerge within the wider Frankish realm. The original tribal territories, approximating to modern Belgium and northeast France, becomes known as Austrasia. The lands acquired by Clovis in central France are called Neustria (neu meaning 'new'). And Burgundy retains its own identity.

For more than two centuries after the death of Clovis these kingdoms are at least nominally ruled by his descendants, in varying combinations (Neustria and Burgundy often go together). Occasionally rulers are strong enough to unite the whole realm under central control - Clotaire II and his son Dagobert I are the most notable examples, from 613 to 639.

After the death of Dagobert the Frankish kings gradually lose power to their own lieutenants, in a pattern similar to what is happening at this same time in Japan (the process leading there to rule by Shoguns). The Frankish equivalent of the shogun is the mayor of the palace.

Mayors of the palace: 7th - 8th century AD

In the Roman empire large households were run by an official known as major domus ('mayor of the house'), from whom we derive our major-domo. The Frankish kings adapt this system, calling their chief administrative officer major palatii, the mayor of the palace.

Administrators of this kind always tend to enlarge their own fief. The mayors of the palace gradually add to their domestic duties the roles of tutor to royal princes, adviser to the king on matters of policy and eventually even commander of the royal army. From the mid-7th century the usual conflict between Austrasia, Neustria and Burgundy evolves into a power struggle and outright warfare between the mayors of the respective palaces.

In 687, for the first time, one mayor controls all three kingdoms. He is Pepin II, who fights his way to this pre-eminence after becoming mayor of the palace in Austrasia in 679. His rule can be seen, with hindsight, as the start of a new royal dynasty. But the turmoil following his death in 714 makes this seem, at the time, improbable.

Pepin's only male descendants at his death are legitimate grandsons and an illegitimate son, Charles. Civil war results, by 727, in victory for Charles. His military prowess brings him the title Charles Martel ('the Hammer'). And from his Christian name (Carolus in Latin) his descendants become known to history as the Carolingians.

Charles Martel: AD 727-741

After asserting his rule over the traditional territories of the Frankish realm, Charles wages long campaigns against the pagan Germanic tribes who constantly raid his northern and eastern borders - Frisians, Saxons and Bavarians. (He also lends strong support to the missionary activities of St boniface, hoping that conversion to Christianity will tame the heathens). Barbarians on these frontiers have been a constant threat for centuries to settled Gaul. But in recent decades there has also been a new and powerful group of intruders pressing in from the south - the Arabs in spain.

They have advanced rapidly northwards through Spain in the few years since their arrival in 711. They are soon beyond the Pyrenees.

Narbonne is taken in 720. An extended raid in 725 brings the Arabs briefly into Burgundy. There is then a lull until 732, when a Muslim army takes Bordeaux, destroys a church near Poitiers and rides on towards Tours. Here the Arabs are confronted by an army of Franks led by Charles Martel.

It is not known precisely where the battle (known either as Poitiers or Tours) takes place, but it is won by the Franks. It marks the end, in the west, of the apparently inexorable advance of the Arabs. A few years later they withdraw to Spain and never again threaten Gaul. It is a significant turning point. Even so, an uprising by the Berbers of mercenaries in Spain in 741 causes the eventual Arab retreat from Gaul, rather than this one defeat on the battlefield.

The turning back of the Muslims is what assures Charles Martel his place in popular history. But his family's supplanting of the Merovingian rulers is an achievement of equal significance.

Charles himself maintains the fiction of Merovingian power. At first his son Pepin III (also known as Pepin the Short) does the same. He appoints a new puppet king, Childeric III, in 743. But in 751 he decides to replace him on the throne himself. Before doing so he secures the approval of the pope. Such direct involvement in the dynastic politics of Europe is a significant departure for the Papacy.

Charles the Great: AD 768-814

The only empire which has ever united France and Germany (apart from a few years under Napoleon) is the one established in the 8th century by Charlemagne, the grandson of Charles martel and son of Pepin III.

On the death of his father in 768, Charles - whose name Charlemagne is a version of the Latin Carolus Magnus (Charles the Great) - inherits the western part of the Frankish empire, a coastal strip from southwest France up through the Netherlands into northern Germany. Three years later his brother Carloman dies. Charlemagne annexes Carloman's inheritance - central France and southwest Germany. By the time of his own death, in 814, he rules much of the rest of Germany together with northern Italy.

King of the Lombards: AD 774

Charlemagne's campaign in northern Italy, in the first years of his reign, is carried out in alliance with the pope. From his boyhood his family has maintained a strong link with Rome. Charlemagne is twelve when he is annointed by the pope (Stephen II), together with his father and brother, at St Denis in 754 - an event which prompts his father to undertake two Italian campaigns against the Lombards.

Now in 772 another pope, Adrian I, asks for a repeat of the same favour. Charlemagne, like his father, invades the Lombards twice, in 773 and 774. The result is a major extension of his empire and a new title for himself - king of the Lombards.

Conversion of the Saxons: AD 772-804

North of the Alps Charlemagne extends his territory eastwards to include Bavaria, but his main efforts within Germany are directed against the Saxons.

The Saxons, restless Germanic tribesmen, have long plagued the settled Frankish territories by raiding from their forest sanctuaries. Charlemagne the emperor is harmed by their depredations; Charlemagne the Christian is outraged by their pagan practices. From 772 he wages ferocious war against them, beginning with the destruction of one of their great shrines and its sacred central feature - the Irminsul or 'pillar of the world', a massive wooden column believed to support the universe.

It takes Charlemagne thirty years to subdue the Saxons; not until 804 are they finally transformed into settled Christians within his empire. It has been a brutal process. Charlemagne's method is military conquest followed by forced conversion and the planting of missionary outposts, usually in the form of bishoprics. In his book of rules, the official punishment for refusing to be baptized is death.

The chronicles record that on one day some 4500 reluctant Saxons are executed for not worshipping the right god.

A brief crusade: AD 778

One of Charlemagne's few unsuccessful campaigns is his first attempt to liberate northern Spain from the Muslims. His intervention is invited by Muslim opponents of the Caliph in cordoba. And his imagination is no doubt fired by his grandfather's famous success near Tours in 732.

Charlemagne marches south in 778, besieges and takes the town of Pamplona, is frustrated in his attempt to take Saragossa and then - with nothing achieved - retreats northwards. An incident of some kind takes place at a pass (traditionally identified as the pass of Roncesvalles), where either Basques or Gascons attack the rearguard of his army. Paradoxically, in the heroic fantasy of the chanson de roland, this minor failure becomes the most famous moment in the whole Charlemagne legend.

Holy Roman Emperor: AD 800

In 799, for the third time in half a century, a pope is in need of help from the Frankish king. After being physically attacked by his enemies in the streets of Rome (their stated intention is to blind him and cut out his tongue, to make him incapable of office), Leo III makes his way through the Alps to visit Charlemagne at Paderborn.

It is not known what is agreed, but Charlemagne travels to Rome in 800 to support the pope. In a ceremony in St Peter's, on Christmas Day, Leo is due to anoint Charlemagne's son as his heir. But unexpectedly (it is maintained), as Charlemagne rises from prayer, the pope places a crown on his head and acclaims him emperor.

Charlemagne expresses displeasure but accepts the honour. The displeasure is probably diplomatic, for the legal emperor is undoubtedly the one in Constantinople. Nevertheless this public alliance between the pope and the ruler of a confederation of Germanic tribes now reflects the reality of political power in the west. And it launches the concept of the new Holy Roman Empire which will play an important role throughout the Middle Ages.

The Holy Roman Empire only becomes formally established in the next century. But it is implicit in the title adopted by Charlemagne in 800: 'Charles, most serene Augustus, crowned by God, great and pacific emperor, governing the Roman empire.'

Aachen or Aix-la-Chapelle: AD 805

Five years after the coronation in Rome, Leo III is again with Charlemagne at a religious ceremony. But this time it is in Germany. He is consecrating Charlemagne's spectacular new church in Aachen, begun just nine years previously in 796.

The French name of Aachen, Aix-la-Chapelle, specifically features this famous building - a small but richly decorated octagonal chapel which Charlemagne has consciously modelled on another famous imperial church, Justinian's San vitale in Ravenna.

Much is significant about the choice of Aachen as Charlemagne's seat of power. It is in the north of his empire, at the opposite extreme from Rome. The pope's journey north in 805 makes it plain that Rome cannot assume precedence in this new Christian partnership; and when Charlemagne decides to crown his only surviving son, Louis, as co-emperor in 813, the ceremony takes place in the imperial chapel at Aachen without the pope.

The site of Aachen is also ideal in terms of Charlemagne's united Frankish empire. It lies exactly between the west and east Frankish kingdoms, a fact reflected in its modern position at the intersection between the borders of Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

A centre of Christian learning: AD 780-814

While extending his territories, Charlemagne needs to improve the administration of the empire. Christian clerics (the only literate group in the barbarian north) are enlisted as his civil servants at Aachen, where the emperor also establishes a programme of education and cultural revival.

Alcuin, a distinguished teacher from York, is invited in 780 to found a school in the palace at Aachen (Charlemagne and his family sometimes join the lessons); and the copying of manuscripts is carried out in a beautiful Script which later becomes the basis of Roman type. Though still primitive by the standards of classical culture, the renewal of intellectual and artistic life under Charlemagne has justly been described as the Carolingian Renaissance.

The Carolingian inheritance: AD 814

Charlemagne intends, in the tradition of the Franks, to divide his territory equally between his sons. But the two eldest die, in 810 and 811, leaving only Louis - who succeeds as sole emperor in 814. His subsequent name, Louis the Pious, reveals a character different from his father's; he is more interested in asserting authority through the medium of church and monastery than on the battlefield.

Charlemagne's great empire remains precariously intact for this one reign after his death. Its fragmentation begins when Louis dies, in 840. But the name of Charlemagne in legend and literature remains vigorously alive .

The region united by Charlemagne includes, in modern terms, northeast Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, much of Germany, Switzerland, Austria and north Italy. In 840, on the death of Charlemagne's son Louis the Pious, war breaks out between his three sons over their shares of this inheritance.

A division between the brothers is finally agreed, in 843, in a treaty signed at Verdun. The dividing lines drawn on this occasion prove of lasting and dark significance in the history of Europe.

Three slices of Francia: AD 843

Two facts of European geography (the Atlantic coast and the Rhine) dictate a vertical division of the Frankish empire, known in Latin as Francia. The three available sections are the west, the middle and the east - Francia Occidentalis, Francia Media and Francia Orientalis.

It is clear that Francia Occidentalis will include much of modern France, and that Francia Orientalis will approximate to the German-speaking areas east of the Rhine. Francia Media, an ambiguous region between them, is the richest strip of territory. Allotted to Charlemagne's eldest son, Lothair I, it stretches from the Netherlands and Belgium down both sides of the Rhine to Switzerland and Italy.

This central Frankish kingdom is in subsequent centuries, including our own, one of the great fault lines of Europe. The northern section becomes known as Lotharingia (the territory of Lothair) and thus, in French, Lorraine; between it and Switzerland is Alsace.

As power grows or decreases to the west or the east, in the great regions emerging slowly as France and Germany, these Rhineland provinces frequently change hands. So, for many centuries, do the Low Countries, Burgundy and northern Italy.

This central Frankish kingdom is in subsequent centuries, including our own, one of the great fault lines of Europe. The northern section becomes known as Lotharingia (the territory of Lothair) and thus, in French, Lorraine; between it and Switzerland is Alsace. As power grows or decreases to the west or the east, in the great regions emerging slowly as France and Germany, these Rhineland provinces frequently change hands or allegiance.

So, for many centuries, do the Low Countries, Burgundy and northern Italy.

Members of the Carolingian dynasty maintain tenuous power on both sides of the Rhine through the 9th century. But they lose control of Germany in 911 and of France in 987.

From 919 the ruling dynasty in Germany is Saxon in origin. But Hugh Capet, who becomes king of western Francia in 987, is a Frank. His descendants rule from Paris for nearly four centuries. In the name of their emerging nation, France, they perpetuate the achievement of the Franks.