When Einhard sat down to write his biography of Charlemagne in the early decades of the ninth century, he decided to begin with the great emperor’s Frankish forebears. Einhard informs us that the preceding Merovingian royal line had ruled the Franks up until the time of Childeric, who’d been packed off to a monastery by Charlemagne’s father in 752. The Merovingians had, however, been kings in name only. They wore the long hair symbolic of royal office among the Franks, but all practical decisions were made by the mayors of the palace – Charlemagne’s own ancestors. When Childeric had to travel, he was carried around on a simple ox cart, like a peasant. Einhard’s message was clear: Charlemagne’s family had long been the true leaders of the Franks.
Many other sources from Charlemagne’s court confirm Einhard’s bleak picture of the late Merovingian monarchs. These were rois fainéants (do-nothing kings), or so the sources would have us believe. For far too long, historians have been willing to take these accounts at face value. Yet it’s clear that