Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Whose Side Does Boniface Choose after Charles Martel’s Death?

By Kim Rendfeld

We don’t know how or exactly when Boniface heard the news in the fall of 741, but it boded ill, enough for him to summon a trusted aide back to Bavaria, away from his missionary work. Charles Martel, the Frankish mayor of the palace and its true ruler, was gravely ill. A succession crisis loomed, as it had 27 years before, and it had implications beyond Francia’s frontier.

A Wessex-born archbishop (without a see) in his 60s, Boniface had not witnessed the earlier crisis caused by the 714 death Charles’s father, Pippin. But he likely had heard about it from his mentor, Willibrord, the Northumbrian-born bishop of Frisia. As Charles fought for control of Francia with a high-ranking Frank allied with the pagan ruler of Frisia and his father’s widow (not Charles’s mom), Willibrord faced a tough choice of whom to support. He made the right one with Charles.

Like Willibrord, Boniface was zealous about missionary work. And like his mentor, he sought support from powerful people, including the pope and Charles Martel, or Charles the Hammer.

Photo by Martin Bahmann,
GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0,
from Wikimedia Commons

A gifted general, Charles had been the uncontested ruler of Francia since 721, even though he never claimed the crown. When the Merovingian king died in 737, Charles continued to govern in the dead monarch’s name. He was powerful enough to call the shots but apparently didn’t want to risk it by calling himself king.

That power came with a lot of bloodshed. While Boniface tried to convert pagans in Hesse and Thuringia, Charles was defending his homeland or at war in several peoples in the frontier, including the Aquitainians, Alemans, and Bavarians. The aristocrats from those areas might have been beaten into submission, but it’s not too much of a stretch to think they resented outside rule and awaited an opportunity to break free.

When Charles’s health took a turn in 739, Boniface surely was not the only person to sense trouble. A look at Charles’s family provides clues. By his late first wife, Chrotrude, who must have come from a powerful family, he had two sons and a daughter, Karlomann, Pippin, and Chiltrude; another son, Grifo, with his influential current wife, the high-ranking Bavarian Swanahild; and three more sons with his concubine. This meant quite a few claimants to the inheritance.

Boniface was in Bavaria, appointing bishops and setting up dioceses with support from Duke Odilo, who had a complicated relationship with Charles. An Aleman from the Agiloling clan and kinsman of Swanahild, Odilo had the right bloodline to rule Bavaria, but he owed his dukedom to Charles, the very person who had deposed his family from power in Alemannia.

Photo by James Steakley, CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL,
from Wikimedia Commons

In 740, rivals drove Odilo from Bavaria, and he sought refuge in Charles’s court. When returned to power the next spring, he founded a monastery and had the law code revised. It is possible he and Boniface sent messages to each other about what was going on in the Frankish court. Boniface, in turn, would have kept the pope informed.

In October 741, Boniface recalled one of his disciples, Willibald, from Thuringia to the strategically located Eichstatt. He needed someone he could trust. He probably didn’t know it at the time, but Charles had died that month.

Did Boniface ally himself with Karlomann, Charles’s eldest son? In his early 30s, Karloman probably was the most groomed for power. He was married, probably the father of two sons, and likely had the support of his mother’s family. Or did Boniface side with the teenage Grifo, and by extension his mother, Swanahild, an Agilolfing who was so influential she had governed on her husband’s behalf?

Soon after Charles’s death, Boniface wrote to Grifo, asking for him to protect missionaries in Thuringia. It is possible he wrote similar letters to Karlomann and Pippin. However, Swanahild, and probably Charles too, had commended Grifo the Boniface’s prayers.

A few weeks later, Boniface might have learned relations between the Franks and Bavarians had gotten more complicated. Charles’s daughter, Chiltrude, had fled to Bavaria and wed Odilo without her brothers’ permission but with her stepmother’s encouragement. In an age when marriages formed or solidified alliances between families, this was a scandal. The couple’s son was born before the end of the year. Yes, Odilo and Chiltrude had been more than friends while he was in Charles’s court (and why I want to write a novel with Chiltrude as my heroine).

As news about Francia came to Boniface, he must have gotten more uneasy. Karlomann, Pippin, and Grifo disputed how Charles divided his lands. It is likely Karlomann got the eastern portion. Second son Pippin got the western and southern portion. And third son Grifo got some land in the middle. (The three sons by the concubine weren’t involved.)

A 15th century depiction of the brothers’ battle in 741
and Pippin coronation 10 years later, by Jean Fouquet,
public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Karlomann and Pippin each assumed the title of mayor of the palace for their lands, imprisoned Swanahild in the royal convent of Chelles, and fought with Grifo for control of Francia. In the meantime, Pope Gregory III died and was succeeded by Pope Zacharius.

Karlomann and Pippin battled Grifo at Laon and imprisoned him at Neufchâteau. Tensions remained in Aquitaine, Alemannia, and Bavaria. Boniface probably didn’t have firsthand knowledge of an alliance among the three, but he could infer that these noblemen were more than willing to test Charles’s sons.

Boniface faced a difficult decision: whom should he support? If he chose wrong, he could see all his work to save souls be ruined.

He decided to reconcile with Karlomann and distance himself from Odilo. Perhaps as a show of loyalty, he attended Karlomann’s first Church council in February 742. A few months later, Karlomann helped him found the monastery that became Fulda.

In 743, the mayors decided they really did need a living king in whose name to rule and brought Childeric out of a monastery to fill that role. Over the next few years, the brothers fought wars in Aquitaine, Alemannia, and Bavaria. Boniface might have brokered a peace between Karlomann and Odilo in 745. Later that year, he was appointed archbishop of Mainz. When Karlomann retired to a monastery in 747, Boniface decided to ally himself with Pippin, who would set Grifo free. This decision caused more trouble for Pippin.

After a few more wars, Pippin claimed the crown in 751 and send Childeric back to the monastery. After all, he reasoned, he was the one doing the job. Boniface was the churchman to anoint him at Soissons.

The Age of Charles Martel by Paul Fouracre
From Ducatus to Regnum: Ruling Bavaria Under the Merovingians and Early Carolingians by Carl I. Hammer
The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe, by Pierre Riché, translated by Michael Idomir Allen
"St. Boniface" by Francis Mershman The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907)


In Kim Rendfeld's Queen of the Darkest Hour, Queen Fastrada must stop a conspiracy before it destroys everyone and everything she loves. The book is available on Amazon, iBooks, Barnes & NobleKobo, and Smashwords.

Kim has written two other books set in 8th century Francia. In The Cross and the Dragon, a Frankish noblewoman must contend with a jilted suitor and the fear of losing her husband (available on Amazon). In The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, a Saxon peasant will fight for her children after losing everything else (available on Amazon). Kim's short story “Betrothed to the Red Dragon,” about Guinevere’s decision to marry Arthur, is set in early medieval Britain and available on Amazon.

Connect with Kim at on her website, her blog, Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at, on Facebook at, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld.

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