Charles II le Chauve (the Bald)
The break-up of the Mediterranean world, the exhaustion of the Byzantine Empire, and the Muslim conquest of the Vandal and Visigothic kingdoms led to the emergence of the Franks as the leading power in Western Europe. The Franks were a branch of the West German people. In the fourth century they had been settled as foederati within the Roman Empire and by the beginning of the fifth century they were in possession of the north-east part of modern Belgium (Salian Franks) and the middle Rhine (Ripuarian Franks). In contrast to the East Germans, who included the Vandals, Visigoths, and Ostrogoths and had undertaken vast migrations across the length and breadth of Europe, the Franks were not Christians.
The Franks leapt into prominence when their king, Clovis, was baptized to Christianity (c. 496-506), for the Church into which he was baptized was the Catholic Church. At that time, all the other peoples of Western Europe were Arians. This gave them common cause with the indigenous Romans of europe. It was with the full backing of the Gallo-Roman Church that Clovis defeated the heretical Burgundians and Visigoths, and made himself master of Gaul (507).
These first kings were called Merovingians. However, most of the period was taken up with fratricidal wars between competing aspirants to the throne and the Kingdom was continually being divided into areas called Neustria, Austrasia and Burgundy.
The constant warring between kings and nobles led to a lord and vassal system; i.e. a feudal system. This allowed future rulers to raise armies on a more national level than the purely local forces available previously. The key nobles were the “Mayors of the Palaces” of Neustria, Austrasia and Burgundy. Pepin II (died 714) was a member of a rich Austrasian family, descended from Arnulf, Bishop of Metz (died 640). He was able to defeat his rivals at the battle of Tertry in 687, to become Mayor of all three Palaces. His son, Charles Martel, defeated the Muslims at Poitiers in 732. During this period there were still ineffectual Merovingian kings on the throne, but in 750-1, Pepin III, son of Charles Martel deposed the last king, Childeric III and made himself king in his place.
Pepin III’s son, Charlemagne (768-814) was to unite Christian western Europe as the Holy Roman Empire. He fought wars in Spain against the Muslims, the first effective counter-offensive against Islam. Charlemagne was succeeded by his son, Louis the Pius (814-840), but on his death war broke out between his surviving sons. Charles the Bald and Louis the German ganged-up against Lothar I and their first success was the battle of Fontenoy (841). The Partition of Verdun (843) divided the Empire in three: Charles took what is roughly now France, Louis what is now roughly Germany and Lothar a large chunk between, stretching from Provence to the Low Countries.
The vassals of Louis the German, the centre of whose power was in Bavaria, came from the neighbouring parts of the Empire and were German, while those of Charles the Bald, whose kingdom was in the west, were French. This fact is attested by the famous oaths of Strasbourg, for they show what was the common language of Louis’s army and what of Charles’s. Louis and Charles were anxious to bind themselves to a treaty in the most solemn manner possible, and consequently they each took a solemn oath before the army of the other, in a language which it could understand. Louis, addressing Charles’s army, spoke in Old French (lingua romana); Charles, addressing Louis’ army, spoke in Old High German (lingua teudisca). The ceremony was performed on 14th February 842 and the actual words used have been preserved by the historian Nithard.
Charles was almost continuously at war with his brothers and their sons, with the Norsemen (or Normans, as they came to be known in France), and with rebellious subjects. When Charles's nephew Lothair, son of Lothair I and king of Lotharingia, died in 869, Charles seized his kingdom but was forced by the Treaty of Mersen (870) to divide it with Louis the German. In 875, at the death of his nephew Louis II, who had succeeded Lothair I as emperor, Charles secured the imperial crown.