History of the Netherlands: The Merovingian Dynasty (481–751)

With the end of Pax Romana in the fifth century, an age of peace had come to an end. What followed was chaos, decline, and bloodshed, as tribes and warlords vied for land and power. It was the age of the great migrations as new peoples invaded the lands of western Europe and tried to push out the natives. The Angles and Saxons began invading the lands of the Frisians. The Frisians themselves used the power vacuum left by the Romans to expand their territory southwards into the riverlands.

The Great Migrations (1st to 5th century)

Since their first arrival in the 2nd century, the Franks had settled in the region south of the great rivers of the Lower Countries. They were a loose coaltion of various tribes, including the Bructeri, Tencteri, Sugambri, Chamavi, Chatti, and possibly some Batavians. Beginning in the second half of the 5th century, the Franks began moving south to central Gaul. They were ruled by petty warlords who endlessly fought one another for territory and loot, until the Merovingians unified the tribes in the 6th century.

The Baptism of Clovis by Remigius van Reims (16th century)

King Chlodovech (c. 466–511) — to us better known as Clovis I — was the first king of the Franks to unite all of the Frankish tribes under one ruler, changing the form of leadership from a group of royal chieftains, to rule by a single king and ensuring that the kingship was passed down to his heirs. Clovis I was the grandson of Merovech, the founder of the Merovingian dynasty, and he succeeded his father in at the age of fifteen in 481. Five years later he would conquer what was left of the Western Roman Empire and unite all of Gaul. Clovis would then spend most of his life fighting his rivals, and at the end of his reign he converted to Orthodox Christianity as a move to gain support among the growing Christian population of Gaul. The empire which Clovis founded would lay the foundations for the country that we now know as France.

The realm of the Franks (5th to 9th century)

As per Frankish tradition, the realm of Clovis was divided after his death in 511 among his four sons. It would take over a century before a new king, Dagobert I (c. 603–639), would successfully reunite the Franks again in 629. Dagobert I was however to be the last Merovingian king to wield any real royal power.

The failed baptism of King Radbod

Dagobert I is mostly known in the Lower Countries for being the first to try to convert the Frisians. The Frisians knew that adopting christianity would not just mean a change of faith, but also meant subservience to the Franks. From 650 to 689 the Franks and the Frisians would fight over control of the great rivers in the Lower Countries, until Pepin II would defeat the Frisian king Radbod at Dorestad. Radbod was forced to mary his daughter to a son of Pepin, and he had to tolerate missionary activities in his realm.

King Clovis III (left) and Master Pepin II (right)

Pepin II (c. 635–714) was not a king, nor was he a descendant of Clovis or Dagobert. He was a Majordomo or Master of the Palace. By the end of the 7th century the Frankish Realm had fallen into decay as the power of the Merovingian dynasty declined and local lords started to defy the royal throne. As power of the monarchy receded, it was the Master of the Palace who became the true ruler of the realm.

Pepin II managed to largely restore central authority in most parts of the realm, and his bastard and successor, Charles Martel (688–741), would go on to conquer all the Frisian lands. Charles Martel ended the façade of the Merovingian monarchy and he would divide his realm between his two sons, Carloman and Pepin III. When Pepin III was declared king in 751 and baptised by archbishop Boniface, he had Childeric III — the last of the Merovingians — locked up. Thus the Merovingian dynasty had come to an end.

The Netherlands in the Early Middle Ages

During the chaos of the 5th century, population numbers declined and living conditions detoriated. A rising sealevel was making life hard at the coasts, and the constant plundering by invaders had destroyed much of the infrastructure laid down by the Romans. Not until the 7th century would the population start to grow again as the development of wild land created new opportunities for agriculture and cattle farming.

Early Medieval society was largely rural as the Roman cities had become depopulated. The economy reverted back to a mainly agricultural one, and what remained of trade was largely focussed on local markets, as long-range travel became too dangerous due to bandits and lack of law enforcement. The roads built by the Romans decayed, and most trade was again done by water.

The early medieval trade routes of Dorestad

Dorestad became the the most important economic centre of the Lower Countires as it was part of the north-eastern shipping routes due to its proximity to the fork in the Rhine, which provided access to England, Northern France, the Northern Lower Countries, Northern Germany, and Scandinavia. The economic importance of Dorestad was the reason why the Franks and the Frisians fought for almost forty years over control of the riverlands.

Dorestad in the network of the northern European trade routes of the Early Middle Ages

The main tradware were agricultural products, pottery, clothing, leather, weapons, and tools. From the south came mostly copper and brass products, like cooking pots, buckels, and jewelry.

As in the rest of Western Europe, the Southern Lower Countries saw the introduction of feudalism in the Early Middle Ages. As the economy had again become a largely agriculture one, power was based on land ownership. The Frankish king was the most important land owner, and his wealth came from his royal dominions and his treasury. Below him was the free estate of the landowners, who were granted fiefs — borrowed land — by the king to rule over and acted as bannermen for the king. On the dominions of the king and the fiefs of the landowners worked serfs, who also owned their own land, and slaves, who were property of their lords.

The hierarchy of the feudal system

With the decline of central authority and rule of law due to the Roman retreat, personal relations became vital for security and prosperity in the Early Medieval world. The lords swore oaths of fealty to their king, and the serfs did the same to their lords. The Lords would receive fiefs from the king in exchange for becoming his vassal, which came with the promise of military service, support, and allegiance. A serf would promise his servitude to a lord in exchange for his protection. These oaths were for life and often hereditary, and were the glue that held the feudal system together. Hence, breaking an oath to one’s lord was about the worst crime one could commit and the penalties were severe.

A lord places his hands between the hands of the king and pledges his loyalty

The power of the Merovingians declined in the 7th century, as the kings were giving more and more of their dominions to vassals for support. Only on the royal dominions did the king have absolute power. Outside those he had to rely on the support of the local landowners. As the monarchy grew weaker, the commoners came to rely more on the support of their local lords for their protection. Combined with hereditary fiefs, this allowed local lords to build a powerbase which could often rival that of the king’s.

The Merovingian court at the Rhine c. 675 by Paul Becx (2013)

The king’s court was a mobile one and it continuously travelled through the realm from palace to palace. The most important form of taxation was essentially providing a palace with food during the royal court’s stay. As the king stayed in a palace he would act as judge for local cases. The Merovingian kings practised common law as any man was to be judged according to his people’s laws, regardless of where he or she was reciding in the realm. Naturally, different laws applied to the estates of the feudal system.

As Pepin III was crowned king, so began the Carolingian dynasty. It would build on many of the foundations which had been laid by the Merovingians.



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