The name Pepin means “little Father,” in the ancient Frankish language, and the subject of my story was called Pepin the Short, on account of his low stature. He was possessed of such wonderful strength, that he once cut off a lion’s head, with a single stroke of his sword.
The monarchs of the Franks had belonged, before the accession of Pepin, to the Merovingian dynasty. The kings of this line were indolent and weak, and they gradually fell into the habit of entrusting all the affairs of the government, to an officer of the royal household, called the Mayor of the Palace. These Mayors of the Palace finally became so powerful, that they were actually the real rulers, the kings being only figure-heads. One of the most celebrated Mayors of the Palace was Charles Martell, or Charles of the Hammer, so called because he went into battle bearing a hammer which he used with telling effect on the heads of the enemy. Charles Martell was a great warrior, and as there was always more or less fighting going on in those unsettled times, he had many opportunities of distinguishing himself.
In the year 731, the Arabs, who had crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and invaded Spain, desired to gain more territory. They resolved to march northward and to make themselves masters of, at least, a portion of the Frankish kingdom. They advanced with little hindrance, and were promising themselves a great part of Europe, when Charles Martell met the invaders at Tours, in northern France. A terrible battle took place, in the course of which the Franks defeated the Arabs and compelled them to return to Spain. They never again attempted to conquer any territory outside of Spain, and Charles Martell saved, perhaps the whole of Europe, from falling into the power of those Mohammedan infidels. Naturally, this splendid victory placed great power in the hands of Charles Martell. The weak and cowardly Merovingian king ceased to be considered the head of the government, and, on the death of Charles Martell, his son Pepin was crowned king of the Franks. The last Merovingian king voluntarily resigned the throne, and the first king of the Carlovingian line began to reign over the Franks.
The Frankish kingdom comprised, at that time, all of the territory now known as France, and the western part of Germany. The people had been converted to Christianity, and were a sturdy, honest race, good fighters and hunters, knowing little of the luxuries, or even of the comforts of life. The men wore tunics made of the skins of animals which they had killed in the chase, or of a sort of coarse cloth woven by the women of the family. The learning and refinement of Italy had not penetrated the country of the Franks, where few men, except the monks, knew how to read. It is extremely doubtful whether Pepin himself could read or write. However, he was a very good man, and did all in his power to spread the Catholic Faith, among the heathen nations bordering on his dominions. The ancient Germans wor- shiped Woden and Thor. The days of the week, Wednesday and Thursday, are named for these heathen deities. The oak-tree was sacred to Thor, and there was a very large one at Giesmar, for which the people had a particular veneration. Even the recently converted Christians feared to tamper with this tree. Saint Boniface had been sent to convert the worshipers of Thor and Woden, and he told the people that if Thor were really a god, he would protect his tree. The saint then grasped an axe and boldly attacked the great oak. He chopped until it fell, and the people became converts to Christianity, convinced of their error in worshiping Thor and Woden. Saint Boniface was afterwards martyred by the heathen Frisians, and is honored by the Church as the apostle of Germany.
Not long after Pepin became king of the Pranks, he took upon himself the duty of protecting the pope against the Lombards, a powerful and warlike people of northern Italy, who wished to possess themselves of Rome. The Lombard king, Aistulf, was preparing to march with a large army against Rome, when the pope, Zacharius, determined to seek the aid of the brave Frankish king. Pepin readily promised his assistance, but before he succeeded in putting his promise into execution, Pope Zacharius died, and was succeeded by Stephen II. It will be necessary to go back a little in our history, to give you a clear understanding of the great service rendered by Pepin to the Catholic Church.
When the Roman emperor, Constantine, removed the seat of government from Rome to the new city of Constantinople, the latter city naturally began to take precedence of Rome in the affairs of the empire. The more ancient city, was, as it were, neglected, until, in the eighth century, its temporal government was placed in the hands of a sort of deputy of the emperor at Constantinople. This deputy was called an exarch. His residence was at Ravenna, a city near Rome, and the territory he governed was called the exarchate of Ravenna. This form of government was very unsatisfactory to the people of Rome, for they knew the weakness of the exarch, and how hopeless would be their position if they should be attacked by any of those tierce and restless people to the northward, a calamity which was likely to occur at any time, for Rome had always been a tempting prize to the invader.
Not long after the election of Stephen to the pontificate, Aistulf seized Ravenna and put the last exarch to flight. The Lombard king considered that he already had all of Italy in his grasp, and made preparations for the capture of Rome. Stephen sent an urgent message to the emperor at Constantinople, informing him of the imminent danger, and begging that an armed force be at once sent to the defense of Rome. But the indolent or indifferent emperor paid so little heed to the warning, that Stephen resolved to solicit aid from the powerful Frankish king. The good pope ordered a solemn procession to invoke the Divine Mercy. Barefoot, his head covered with ashes, and bearing on his shoulders a miraculous image of Our Lord, Stephen led the procession through the streets of Rome. On the following day, an embassy left the city secretly, carrying a message from Stephen to Pepin. The envoys made their way safely to the Frankish court, where they were received with every mark of respect. Pepin readily promised to give aid to the distressed people of Rome, and despatched Saint Chrodegang, Bishop of Metz and the Frankish duke, Autcharius to conduct Stephen to Gaul. When the ambassadors of Pepin reached Rome, they found the pope on the point of setting out to beg the clemency of Aistulf, but he journeyed, instead, to the court of Pepin, forgetful, in his desire to serve his people, of the difficulties and dangers to be encountered on the way, and of his own feeble health. In a letter to a friend, the good pope described the hardships of this expedition in the depths of winter, making mention of the snow, the raging torrents, and the “atrocious mountains.” At length, Stephen arrived at Pontyou in Champagne, where Pepin, his family and court had assembled, to meet the venerable visitor. When the pontiff was seen approaching, Pepin dismounted from his horse, and prostrated himself, his example being followed by the royal family and the nobles of the realm. After resting in his apartments, to which he had been conducted, in the royal palace, Stephen appeared before the king as a humble suppliant for aid against the Lombards. So deeply were Pepin and his nobles moved by the touching appeal of their venerable guest, that they immediately took an oath not to sheathe the sword until they had subdued the insolent Lombards.
The pope then took np his residence in the monastery of Saint Denis, where he fell seriously ill. After his restoration to health, he renewed the ceremony of Pepin’s coronation, and also anointed the king’s wife, Queen Bertrade, and their two sons, Charles or Charlemagne, and Carloman. Pepin then started, with his army for Italy, Stephen accompanying him. The Alpine passes were in the hands of Aistulf, and when the Frankish army endeavored to seize them, a battle ensued. The Franks made up in courage, what they lacked in numbers, and the Lombards were totally defeated. Aistulf fled, and took refuge in the walled city of Pavia. Pepin pursued the Lombards, and besieged their capital. Finally, a treaty between the Franks and Lombards was arranged through the good offices of Stephen. By this treaty, Aistulf gave his solemn promise to restore Ravenna and the other captured cities, delivering hostages to Pepin, who returned with them to his dominions.
Peace having been concluded, Stephen was at liberty to return to Rome, where he was received by the people with the most extravagant demonstrations of joy and gratitude. “Our father has come back to us,” they cried, “after God, he is our hope.” But the peace which was inaugurated with so much rejoicing, proved to be short-lived. The treacherous Aistulf forgot his promises, as soon as the dreaded Frankish king had returned to his own dominions. In January, 755, the Lombards laid siege to the city of Rome, investing it so closely that it was only with the greatest difficulty that Stephen could send a message, summoning Pepin once more to the rescue of the Holy See. In his letter to the Frankish king, the pontiff says, ” The impious Aistulf has again laid siege to Rome, to whose inhabitants he sent the following message, “Open the Salerian gate, give me up your pope, or I shall tear down your walls, and put you all to the sword! They have burned churches and dwellings,” continues the venerable writer, “violated monasteries, broken the sacred images and outraged the Holy Mysteries. Children have been murdered at the mother’s breast, and now, to the horrors of war are added the pangs of hunger. The Lombards taunt us with the cry “Let your Franks come on now, your brave deliverers, let them snatch you from our grasp, if they can! Hasten then, beloved Prince, to our rescue!”
Immediately after receiving this letter, Pepin crossed the Alps with his army, meeting Aistulf, who had hastened northward, at Pavia. There a second great victory was won over the Lombards, whose king Aistulf was killed by his horse falling on him. All the twenty-two cities which had been in possession of the Lombards, were surrendered to Pepin, who formally presented the keys to Stephen. The Frankish king considered it but just that the pontiff, having all the anxieties and cares of a temporal government, should possess the territory also, and, accordingly, the exarchate of Rome and Ravenna was given to the pope and the Papal States, a territory about the size of Maryland came thus into existence, in the year 756. From that remote period until the year 1870, when the Italian king, Victor Emmanuel, annexed the Papal States to his own dominions, the popes of the Catholic Church had been the temporal rulers of that territory.
After Pepin had accomplished his great work, the delivery of Rome from the Lombards, and the establishment of the temporal power of the popes, he returned to his kingdom, where he was soon engaged in a war with the Saxons, whose territory adjoined his dominions on the north-east. Pepin was victorious, and the Saxons were made vassals or tributaries of the Franks. Waisar, Duke of Aquitania, was the next enemy to be conquered, although this proved a much more difficult task than the subjugation of the Saxons. Waisar fought long and bravely, but was at length killed by his own subjects, and the Franks enjoyed a much-needed and unusual peace.
Shortly after these events, Pepin died, leaving his dominions to his illustrious son, Charlemagne, who had already distinguished himself in the last wars waged by his father.
The reign of Pepin forms an interesting and important epoch in history, especially, to Catholics, for during it the temporal power of the papacy was established. The conversion of a large part of heathen Germany was also brought about through the pious efforts of this great and wise ruler of the Franks.