The Fall Of Charlemagne’s Uncle, Grifo


Grifo was one of four known sons fathered by Charles Martel, the powerful mayor of the palace who held more influence and might than the Merovingian monarchs he supposedly served. When Charles Martel died in 741, his lands and influence were split between his sons. One of the sons, a certain Bernard, was, for the most part, excluded from succession as he had joined the church. That left three other sons, Pippin (III) the Short, Carloman and Grifo, to jostle for their inheritance.

It is unknown how much land, if any, was formally allotted to Grifo, Charles Martel’s youngest son. Nevertheless, the author of the continuation of the Chronicle of Fredegar reported that Charles Martel had a special affection for Grifo. Possibly inspired by this relationship, and backed by his mother Swanahilde, Grifo raised an army in an attempt to become the sole ruler of the Franks, or at least to seize more land and influence for himself.

Grifo, however, was no match for Pippin and Carloman, especially when the two brothers worked together. They mustered their own armies and coordinated a siege against Grifo’s headquarters at Laon. Before 741 ended, Pippin and Carloman successfully crushed their brother’s army and took Grifo into custody. Carloman took responsibility for keeping an eye on his brother—he sent Grifo to Neufchâteau, in the Ardennes Mountains, where he remained under arrest for years. Swanahild, Grifo’s supportive mother, was also seized and locked away in a convent at Chelles.

Grifo was finally released around the year 747, when Carloman retired from political life and became a monk. Upon his release, Grifo quickly showed that he had not lost any of his ambition during his years of captivity. According to the Royal Frankish Annals, Grifo immediately traveled to Saxony, a constant hotbed of resistance to the Franks. When Pippin the Short learned that his brother was raising another army, he mobilized his own force and confronted Grifo in 747. The two brothers had a standoff at the River Oker, but they made peace before any blood was reportedly spilled.

Even after being thwarted for a second time by his brother, Grifo still was not willing to give up on his ambitions. In 748, with the forces he had gathered in Saxony and support from a count named Suidger, Grifo invaded the region of Bavaria, where he usurped power from his nephew, Duke Tassilo III, and captured his own sister, Hiltrude, the duke’s mother.

This was too much for Pippin to condone—before the end of 748, he marched his army into Bavaria, removed Grifo from power and restored Tassilo to his position as duke. Interestingly, Pippin the Short still was willing to show a little generosity to his brother. Although he removed Grifo from Bavaria, Pippin reportedly softened the blow by granting his brother a fiefdom of twelve counties in Neustria.

Grifo, however, could not be contained to Neustria. Still in 748, he fled to Duke Waifar of Aquitaine, a man who would later prove to be one of Pippin’s greatest rivals. After that, little is known about Grifo’s actions. His name finally made a reappearance in the records around 753, at which time the wayward prince met with a violent end in Gascony, or while allegedly trying to travel to Lombardy.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Painting of 9th century Franks, by Albert Kretschmer c. 1882, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


  • Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Scholz and Barbara Rogers. Ann Arbor Paperbacks / University of Michigan Press, 1972.
  • Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhard and Notker the Stammer, translated by David Ganz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.

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