ElAnt v3n3 - Royal Participation in Episcopal Elections in Merovingian Gaul

Volume 3, Number 3
December 1995


Gary Johnson,
Department of History,
University of Queensland,
St. Lucia,
Qld. 4027,
e-mail: s310362@student.uq.edu.au

As the Western Roman Empire "fell" in the course of the fifth century, several barbarian kingdoms took its place. Roman Gaul came to be ruled by the kings of the Franks, a Germanic tribal group. After the very successful reign of Clovis in the early sixth century, all the kings of the Franks belonged to Clovis' family, the Merovingians. In the sixth and seventh centuries, the kings of the Franks were regular participants in the election of bishops. At this time, the episcopate was one of the most powerful institutions in Gaul, dominating most urban communities, and possessing great religious, political, economic and social influence as a result of the wealth, prestige, and importance of the Christian church. Given the power of the bishops, it is not surprising that the kings sought to control appointments to the episcopate.

In doing so, the kings were interfering with the Church's own procedures for electing bishops. These procedures derived from the canons of the church, i.e. the decisions made by councils of bishops assembling to discuss and formulate church law and policy on numerous issues. In the canons of the church councils we can see an ecclesiastical view of the ideal method for electing bishops; however, the historical works of Gregory of Tours, himself a Gallic bishop of the late sixth century, reveal how, time and time again, the kings ignored the prescripts of canon law, and how episcopal candidates and even incumbent bishops aided and abetted the exercise of power by the kings. Despite some opposition to flagrant breaches of canon law, we can see in Gregory of Tours' Ten Books of History (also known as the History of the Franks ) and the canons of the Gallic church councils a general, albeit tacit, acceptance of the reality of royal authority over the church.

A perusal of the Ten Books of History turns up numerous examples of royal involvement in the election of bishops, some of which will be discussed in this paper. For example, Bertram, bishop of Bordeaux, attended a church council at Macon in 585. While returning to Bordeaux after the conclusion of the council, Bertram took ill and died. His successor was the count of Saintes, Gundegisel. Gregory of Tours' account of these events reads as follows (GT, Ten Books 8.22):

Bertram, on his return home from the council, was attacked by a fever. He summoned the deacon Waldo, who had also received in baptism the name of Bertram, transmitted to him the authority of his episcopal office, and entrusted him with the execution of the terms of his will and his charitable bequests. No sooner was Waldo departed from him, then he gave up the ghost. Waldo returned, and made haste to the king with gifts and the formal consent of the citizens. But it availed him nothing. For the king sent a diploma ordering the consecration of Gundegisel, count of Saintes, surnamed Dodo; which now took place. ( 1 )

The autocratic decision of king Guntram may surprise some, but not anyone familiar with sixth and seventh century Gaul. Casual references to bishops being appointed by the decision of the king suggest that royal involvement was a common occurrence. 'He had been ordained by the command of king Chlodomer' (GT, Ten Books 3.17); 'His cousin Nonnichius, with the king arranging it, succeeded him' (GT, Ten Books 6.15); 'Bishop Evantius of Vienna also died; Virus, a priest from the senatorial class, was placed next in his [episcopal] seat, by the choice of the king' (GT, Ten Books 8.39). Commanding, arranging, choosing: the king is an active decision-maker, exercising authority in the appointment of bishops. The nomination of a bishop may not always come from the king, but the power of the king to make the final decision is evident.

Royal power over the appointment of bishops was taken for granted by contemporaries, who were willing to ask favours of the kings. When Gallus wanted to become bishop of Clermont in 525, he used his personal contacts at the court to obtain the royal approval, despite the opposition of the clergy of Clermont (GT, Life of the Fathers 6.3). To ensure that his nephew Nicetius succeeded him as bishop of Lyons, Sacerdos petitioned king Childebert I in person. '"I ask," he said, "that Nicetius the priest, my nephew, come next as bishop of the church of Lyons.®" The king replied, "God's will be done."' (GT, Life of the Fathers 8.3). Bishops like Dalmatius of Rodez even asked the king to ensure that a good bishop was chosen for their see. Dalmatius made a testament, in which he asked king Childebert II to ensure that his successor was not a stranger to the see, or covetous, or married, but one who spent all his time praising God, and such an appointment was made by the king (GT, Ten Books 5.46). It is an indication of the strength of royal power that all three requests met with success.

All this is very interesting, because such exercise of power by kings contrasts with the canonical procedures set out by the church councils for the election of bishops. A bishop, the councils decreed, was to be elected by the clergy and people of the vacant see, and consecrated by the metropolitan with the other bishops of the ecclesiastical province present. ( 2 ) There is no room for the king in this plan. However, an addition was made to canon law at the Council of Orleans in 549 that gave the king a role in elections, but only to approve or reject a candidate: royal appointment was never accepted by the church councils.

Only two canons explicitly mention the role of the king in episcopal elections: canon 10 of the Council of Orleans (549) and canon 8 of the Council of Paris (561/2). At the Council of Orleans it was decided that a bishop was to be elected by the clergy and people, then approved by the king, and finally ordained by the metropolitan and the other bishops of the province. The innovation here is contained in the phrase 'with the approval [or consent] of the king' (cum voluntate regis). Now the kings have a canonical role to play in episcopal elections; this is, however, certainly no acceptance of the appointment of bishops by the kings.

In fact, the unilateral appointment of bishops by kings is directly prohibited by the 8th canon of the Council of Paris (561/2). It was declared that the candidate must be elected by the clergy and people, and that the royal command (principes imperio) did not carry any force without the support of the metropolitan and the bishops: 'He will be forced upon them neither by royal command nor for any condition against the desire (voluntatem) of the metropolitan or the bishops of the province.' A candidate proposed by a king had to meet with the approval of the bishops. This is not, as Sir Samuel Dill argued in Roman Society in Gaul in the Merovingian Age (p.490), a retraction of the principle of royal participation; rather, it is a demand that the king regard the bishops as the more important party in the appointment of new bishops. Perhaps the recent death of king Lothar I in 561, and the elevation of his inexperienced sons to the throne, prompted this ecclesiastical grab for more authority; we cannot be sure. What we can say is that this canon sought to prohibit royal interference, but did not deny kings the right granted by the Council of Orleans in 549 to participate in the election of bishops.

Only one other piece of legislation is concerned with the role kings play in episcopal elections: the Edict of Lothar II (614) 1. Lothar II became sole king of the Franks in 613. The following year, he summoned the secular and ecclesiastical magnates to Paris. While at Paris, the bishops met in council, and issued a set of canons. Eight days later, Lothar II published his Edict at Paris. In the Edict , Lothar re-iterated, altered, or ignored the various canons of the Council of Paris (614). What makes Lothar's ruling on the role of the king in episcopal elections interesting are the ways in which it differs from canon 2 of the Council of Paris, which repeats the canonical requirements of election by the clergy and people, followed by consecration by the metropolitan and the other bishops of the province. The canon warns against simony and patronage in elections, thus reflecting major clerical concerns of the time. ( 3 ) There is no mention of the royal power of approval. By comparison, the Edict of Lothar II , while it requires election by the clergy and people, and consecration by the metropolitan and other bishops, adds that the candidate must be approved by the king (per ordinationem principis ordinetur), and notes that candidates elected from the palace would always (certe) be ordained because there could be no argument about their worthiness. The issues of simony and patronage are left out of the Edict .

In J.M. Wallace-Hadrill's assessment, the Edict demonstrated that the kings held the real power in the election of bishops. He wrote in The Frankish Church (p.105):

Once again the bishops insisted on episcopal elections by clergy and people; but the king, in his edict, went a little further: the chosen candidate could only be consecrated if the king judged him worthy. If the candidate were already at court, a member of the royal entourage, he would be certain of approval 'by reason of his personal merits and his learning.' This sounds terrible.

Indeed, this does sound terrible, but only if we do not acknowledge that Lothar II was re-iterating a power granted to the kings by the church over sixty years earlier. Wallace-Hadrill did not recognise this point. In the Edict , Lothar II is not claiming any powers for the kings that they do not already have: the royal right of approval over bishops was an existing part of the canons of the Gallic church. The statement that candidates elected from the court would automatically (certe) be ordained if elected can be read to mean that such candidates would be forced through by the king; however, in the context of the paragraph it seems clear that Lothar is indicating one set of circumstances under which he would always approve of a candidate. ( 4 ) While the language used in the Edict of Lothar II is more forceful than that used at the Council of Orleans, ( 5 ) the principle remains the same: after election by the clergy and people, and before consecration by the metropolitan and other bishops, the candidate must obtain the king's approval.

These canons represent the ideals of the church, not the reality of sixth and seventh century Gaul. Despite the concession to secular power made at the Council of Orleans in 549, kings did not restrict themselves to the right of approval. Without a doubt, kings appointed bishops as if they alone had the deciding voice in the matter. In this light, it is surprising that the practice of royal appointment was not criticised by bishop Gregory of Tours. While Gregory could be scathing about particular episcopal appointments, such as the choice of Desiderius for the see of Eauze (GT, Ten Books 8.22), he never criticised the participation of the king in this process. Instead, Gregory criticised the character and qualities of those appointed, and the king's motive for the appointment. In the case of Desiderius, he was a bad candidate because he was not a cleric, but a layman; furthermore, 'the cursed thirst of gold' ( 6 ) influenced the king's decision. As Walter Goffart observed in The Narrators of Barbarian History (pp.161-162), it is the circumstances and personalities involved in each particular case that are important, not the strict letter of canon law. It is also worth noting that Gregory did not consistently criticise candidates whom he considered unworthy to be bishops: his account of the appointment of Badegisil to the see of Le Mans (GT Ten Books 6.9) is quite neutral about the man, even though Gregory later waxed lyrical about the faults of Badegisil, a man very savage to his people (vir valde saevus in populo) (GT, Ten Books 8.39).

In a similar manner, the letters of pope Gregory the Great (590- 604) to various bishops and monarchs of Merovingian Gaul criticised a number of canonical errors prevalent in Gaul at that time, namely simony, the appointment of laymen to the episcopate, and the influence of patronage and nepotism on elections. ( 7 ) There was, however, no criticism of the right of kings to appoint bishops. Assuming that pope Gregory knew what was happening in Gaul, how can we explain this absence of criticism? One can argue that Gregory the Great was being diplomatic, trying to deal with the clerical irregularities of Gaul piecemeal; according to such an argument, he would have proceeded to the difficult task of persuading the kings to renounce their right to appoint bishops after the other issues had been dealt with. While this explanation is plausible, it is also possible that Gregory the Great saw nothing wrong with royal appointment of bishops who were otherwise canonically acceptable, and that eliminating the vices of simony, lay bishop, and nepotism were all he desired from the Gallic church. Certainly, Gregory of Tours did not find fault with royal appointments, while he did criticise simony and lay bishops. ( 8 )

Despite these criticisms, kings were willing to appoint bishops who had not been clerics. In the case described above at the beginning of this paper, king Guntram rejected a clerical candidate favoured by the dying bishop and elected by the clergy and people of Bordeaux, and appointed a layman to the position instead, with a diploma that ordered his consecration. The king's decision was final; the royal candidate succeeded Bertram as bishop of Bordeaux. A similar scenario was played out in 581 at Le Mans, where the dying bishop Domnolus nominated abbot Theodulf as his successor. The king initially approved of the choice of Theodulf, but soon had a change of heart and selected Badegisil, mayor of the palace (domus regiae maior), to be the new bishop (GT, Ten Books 6.9). Presumably, Badegisil also received a royal diploma ordaining him as bishop and ordering his consecration.

Royal diplomata were not only issued when a vacant see needed to be filled. Duke Austrapius received a document from king Lothar I ordering that he be raised to the rank of bishop, and promising him the see of Poitiers after the death of Pientius, the incumbent. Until that time, Austrapius was bishop of Chantoceaux, a town in the diocese of Poitiers, which he ruled as bishop for the rest of his life (GT, Ten Books 4.18). Monderic, another layman, was requested by the clergy of Langres because the bishop, Tetricus, had been incapacitated by a stroke. He was consecrated bishop with royal approval, and was to act as archpriest in the town of Tonnerre until Tetricus died, when he would take over as bishop (GT, Ten Books 5.5). In both these cases, the bishop-elect was promised a see before it had been vacated. ( 9 ) It seems that the Merovingian kings could distribute bishoprics at will, appointing bishops for the future as well as the present.

Kings could also decide to ignore various parts of the canonical requirements for the consecration of a bishop. For instance, the archdeacon Avitus was elected bishop by the clergy and people of Clermont in 571. Avitus went to the king, who was at Metz, for approval. The king was so pleased with Avitus, we are told, that he ordered his immediate consecration. 'So it was done by his [the king's] favour, that he [Avitus] was consecrated at the city of Metz,' rather than at his see as canon law required (GT, Ten Books 4.35). In another case, Emerius had received a royal decree late in the reign of king Lothar (died 561) that allowed him to be consecrated as bishop of Saintes in the absence of his metropolitan, which was also a breach of the canons (GT, Ten Books 4.26). This breach of canon law prompted bishop Leontius of Bordeaux to issue, in the mid-560s, one of the few challenges to royal control over episcopal appointments.

Without royal support, nothing could be done to dismiss a bishop, as shown by the case of bishop Emerius of Saintes. Bishop Leontius of Bordeaux, Emerius' metropolitan, had a provincial council depose him for gaining his position uncanonically (non canonice eum fuisse huic honore donatum). The council nominated as Emerius' replacement Heraclius the priest, who went to the current king, Charibert, to ask him to recognise what the council had done. Rather than approve of the deposition of his father's nominee, Charibert furiously refused to accede to their decision, saying: 'Do you think that there is no son of king Lothar left who will preserve the deeds of his father, so that they can expel this bishop, whom he chose, without our decision?' Emerius was reinstated as bishop of Saintes, and the injury to the king was avenged (et sic principis est ulta iniuria).

Dalton's translation of this particular passage ( History of the Franks p.136) is misleading, because he identified the king whose injury was avenged as Lothar I, Charibert's father. Certainly, while the authority of king Lothar was challenged, it is more likely that Gregory felt that Charibert had been insulted and his power threatened. Eight chapters previously in the Ten Books of History , Charibert himself overthrew a decision made by his father, when he ignored the (previously mentioned) promise made to duke Austrapius and gave the see of Poitiers to abbot Pascentius (GT, Ten Books 4.18). With this in mind, it is obvious that Charibert did not hold Lothar's decrees as sacrosanct. Leontius and his council attempted to force the appointment of Heraclius as bishop, and struck at the power of the kings over the church by deposing a candidate consecrated uncanonically, but with the support of a king. These were serious injuries to Charibert's authority as king, and it was these injuries that were avenged, not the dishonour done to the deceased king Lothar.

Of course, there were some factors that could limit the exercise of royal power. Kings could voluntarily limit themselves, promising not to use the full potential of their control over episcopal appointments. Gregory of Tours was not pleased when one such promise not to appoint laymen, presumably made by king Guntram, was broken (GT, Ten Books 8.22). Guntram's earlier avowal that he did not accept money for episcopal appointments is another example of a voluntary limitation (GT, Ten Books 6.39). No-one had the power to force the kings to keep their word if they made such an agreement, but that such agreements were made shows that at least one king was willing to throw a sop to clerical opinion that simony and the appointment of laymen as bishops were undesirable.

In one case, that of Cato the priest, a royal nomination was refused by the recipient. Cato did not do this, however, for any principle of canon law, but because he wanted another see more than the one he was offered. Cato had been elected by the clergy of Clermont as their bishop in 551, but king Theudebald rejected Cato in favour of the archdeacon Cautinus, causing strife and conflict in that city (GT, Ten Books 4.5-4.7). Four years later, in 555, the new king, Lothar I, offered Cato the see of Tours, supposedly at the prompting of bishop Cautinus (GT, Ten Books 4.11). Cato seems to have misinterpreted this offer as a sign of personal support from Lothar, rather than a promotion "upwards and outwards" to remove the cause of civil strife in Clermont. Perhaps the complaint of the party of clergymen from Tours, 'For we have not sought after you by our own choice, but because of the king's command,' (GT, Ten Books 4.11) confirmed his misapprehension, because Cato refused the offer. Then, Cato went to the court of king Lothar and asked him to order that Cautinus be expelled from the see of Clermont and Cato elevated in his place (GT Ten Books 4.15). Lothar laughed at Cato (quod rege inridente), and ignored his request. Because of his arrogance, Cato never became a bishop; he died during a plague in 571, still a priest (GT, Ten Books 4.31).

A third limiting factor on the kings' ability to appoint bishops occurred when two kings opposed each other over who should control the see. For instance, king Chilperic I had given a diploma for the see of Dax to the count of the palace, Nicetius (GT, Ten Books 7.31). However, he was not able to take up his new position straightaway, because the pretender Gundovald, intending to demolish all that king's decrees (distruere nitens eius decreta), forced the consecration of the priest Faustianus. Nicetius did not take possession of his see until the Council of Macon (that same council that Bertram of Bordeaux attended before his death) removed Faustianus from Dax because he had been consecrated by the order of Gundovald (GT, Ten Books 8.20). ( 10 ) Chilperic was dead when Gundovald appointed Faustianus as bishop in 585; likewise, Gundovald was also dead when the Council of Ma∆con was held later that year. There was always the possibility that the decision of a king could be reversed after his death, especially if there was little support for the king's action. Leontius' attempt to depose Emerius (GT, Ten Books 4.26) was an unsuccessful attempt along these lines, because the initiative had not come from king Charibert. If Leontius had asked Charibert to depose Emerius, rather than present the deposition to Charibert as a fait accompli, he may have succeeded in his aim.

The councils of the church in sixth century Gaul suggest that the appointment of bishops was largely an in-house affair of the church. But the reality was very different: the Merovingian kings presented in the Ten Books of History dominated the church in Gaul. There was little opposition to their dictates; the councils of the church did not struggle to rectify the imbalance between what kings did and what kings were supposed to do; what resistance there was did not prosper without royal support. Everybody, including bishops, accepted that kings could play a dominant role in episcopal appointments. Such limitations to royal involvement as there were arose from the private inclinations of kings, or rivalry between them. The status of the legislation of the church in sixth century Gaul is therefore similar to the status of law in other parts of the ancient world: it is a very misleading guide as to what actually took place. In the words of J.M. Wallace-Hadrill, 'a well- bottomed king was master of his own church' ( Frankish Church p.162). There were, after all, few competitors for control over the process of electing bishops.


(1) This English translation is from O.M. Dalton, History of the Franks 346-347. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are my own.

(2) See Second Council of Arles (second half of the fifth century) 54; Ancient Statutues of the Church (c.475) 1; Council of Clermont (535) 2.

(3) Both bishop Gregory of Tours and pope Gregory the Great were concerned about these problems, as noted later in this paper.

(4) This is based on the repetition of the verb ordinetur, and that the issue of bishops elected from the palace comes at the end of the paragraph, after details about election, consecration, and royal approval. If the sentence came at the start of the paragraph, then the impression would be very different.

(5) In 549, after the election the candidate needed 'the approval of the king' (cum voluntate regis); in 614, after the election the candidate was 'ordained by the order of the king' (per ordinationem principis ordinetur). The king has become an active participant in the process.

(6) Dalton's picturesque translation from The History of the Franks p.346. The phrase 'auri sacra famis' is a quotation from Virgil's Aeneid 3.57. Gregory liked this phrase: he used it again in Ten Books of History 4.46.

(7) Gregory the Great, Letters 5.58, 5.59, 5.60, 8.4, 9.213, 9.215, 9.218, 9.222, 11.38, 11.40, 11.41, 11.42, 11.45, 11.49, 11.50, 11.51. Most of these letters deal with simony (5.58, 5.59, 5.60, 8.4, 9.213, 9.215, 9.218, 9.222, 11.38, 11.40, 11.41, 11.42, 11.47, 11.49, 11.50, 11.51, 13.7); a handful with lay bishops (5.58, 5.60, 8.4, 9.218); and only one with the issues of patronage and nepotism (9.218).

(8) See Gregory of Tours, Ten Books of History 8.22, mentioned above, and 6.39, where he praises king Guntram for publicly rejecting the sale of bishoprics.

(9) Although it must be acknowledged that, in the case of Monderic, he was first put forward as a candidate by the clergy of Langres, and was not a royal nominee.

(10) From Gregory's account, it seems that Faustianus continued to hold the rank of a bishop; and a Faustianus signed the proceedings of the Council of Macon (585) as a bishop without a see.


Most of the primary material can be found in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica series. Gregory of Tours' Ten Books of History fills M.G.H. S.R.M. tome 1 part 1, while Life of the Fathers is in M.G.H. S.R.M. tome 1 part 2. M.G.H. Leges tome 1 contains the Edict of Lothar II , and the Letters of pope Gregory the Great fill M.G.H. Epistolarum tomes 1 and 2.

The canons of the various church councils can be found in Concilia Galliae, A.314-A.506 and Concilia Galliae, A.511- A.695 , Corpus Christianorum ser. Lat. 148 and 148A, Turnhout, 1963, edited by C. Munier and C. De Clercq respectively.

Dalton's translation of the Ten Books of History into English is volume two of O.M. Dalton, The History of the Franks , Oxford, 1927.

Secondary references: S. Dill, Roman Society in Gaul in the Merovingian Age , London, 1926; J.M. Wallace-Hadrill, The Frankish Church , Oxford, 1983; and W. Goffart, The Narrators of Barbarian History (A.D. 550-800): Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Paul the Deacon , Princeton, 1988.

Gary Johsnon
e-mail: s310362@student.uq.edu.au

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Electronic Antiquity Vol. 3 Issue 3 - December 1995
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606