The Merovingian Dynasty was the first major royal dynasty of what would eventually become France. Descended from the Salian Franks, and supposedly possessing magical powers derived from long hair1, the Merovingians ruled an empire that included much of modern France and quite a bit of Germany too, from 448 to 751 AD.
Their greatest legacies were the law codes they issued which neighbouring kingdoms were inspired to issue; and they helped to found the Catholic Church, via the Western Christian Empire.
The Merovingians maintained an uninterrupted, unquestioned reign over Gaul and West Germany for three centuries; but, in spite of their achievements, history largely ignored the likes of Clovis I for the more enigmatic Arthur, or the more imperial Charlemagne, both of whom had better publicists.
The semi-legendary Meroveus II, otherwise known as Merovech or Merowig, was crowned King of the Franks (or at least of his tribe of Franks) in 448 at the age of 15, and it is from him that the Merovingian Dynasty derives its name. Which was quite an achievement for someone of questionable parentage2.
His father, Clodion VI, was the first to commit his tribe's laws to paper, laws which would later be known as the Salic Laws3.
While Meroveus II provided the name, bloodline and quite a bit of mythology, his son Childeric is credited with the actual founding of the dynasty. A sometime Roman ally, his grave, supposedly discovered in Tournai in 1653, yielded hundreds of Byzantine coins, and the accoutrements of Roman nobility, indicating some standing with Roman Empire. However, like his father, Childeric is a figure shrouded in mystery.
Clovis4, who succeeded his father Childeric I in 481, did much to establish Frankish power. Under his rule, the Merovingians carved out a kingdom that spanned from the Pyrenees to the Rhine. His conversion to Catholicism in 496 gave the embattled Church a powerful ally and its first kingly barbarian convert.
Clovis was a militant convert, though only nominally Christian. Despite the Church's objections, he still kept up his favourite hobbies of bigamy, assassinating rivals and conquering his in-laws. He once said of the Crucifixion, 'If I had been there with my Franks, I would have avenged His wrong', proving that he didn't fully grasp the new philosophy.
Clovis died in 511 and was buried in the church of St Genevieve on the Parisian south bank, a church he himself had built. The kingdom was divided among Clovis' sons, as was the style at the time.
Ascending the throne in 630, Dagobert was the last truly effective Merovingian king. He was responsible for reforming the Frankish economy, exchanging gold coin for silver, and for bringing civilized notions to his neighbours. The Ripuarian Franks, the Alemanni and the Bavarians all had their own law codes written up for them by Dagobert's scholars.
The last Merovingian king, Childeric was a puppet to the man who would eventually replace him and establish a new dynasty. Most of the actual administration of the Merovingian kingdom was carried out by a Mayor of the Palace, a kind of prime minister; and during the last 100 years of Merovingian rule, more and more power slipped into the hands of the mayors.
The kings of the Late Merovingian period are often referred to as les rois faineants or the feeble kings, partly due to their lack of authority, but mostly because the average age of ascendants was six5.
Childeric was deposed by his own mayor Pepin III, otherwise known as Pepin the Short, in 751. He was imprisoned and given a haircut to deprive him of any mystical powers he might have been hiding, deposit et detonsit. Pepin and his descendants, most notably Charlemagne, went on to establish the better known, but shorter-lived, Carolingian Dynasty. Childeric died four years later.