AUSTRASIA AUSTRASIE (Fr); AUSTRASIEN (Ger).
The eastern realm or kingdom in the Kingdom of the Franks.
When Clovis died in 511, his Frankish Kingdom was partitioned amongst his four sons. The eldest son, Theuderic, held the eastern lands (roughly speaking the southern Netherlands, eastern Belgium, the Rhineland, western Hesse, Lorraine and part of Champagne) and had his capital at Reims, very much in the west of his territory. He also held the Auvergne, in the east of Aquitaine, which he had conquered for the Frankish Kingdom in the last years of his father’s reign.
A considerable proportion of the eastern lands had belonged to the Kingdom of the Riparian Franks, to whose throne Clovis had been elected late in his reign; Theuderic, as the mature son, was better fitted to ensure that the union continued. The eastern lands were the most important region of the Kingdom strategically, bordering as they did on those of the Thuringians in the east and the Alemannians to the south, both of whom were to be brought within the Frankish kingdom in the 6th century.
Franks were expanding eastwards in Hesse and in the valley of the Main, so that in this respect too the eastern Kingdom was dynamic. To the southwest of the eastern lands and to the east of Theuderic’s land in the Auvergne lay the other German Kingdom within Gaul, the Burgundian, which fell to the Merovingians shortly after Theuderic’s death.
Theuderic’s son and grandson followed him in succession in his Kingdom. The latter died in 555, and three years later, with the death of one of Theuderic’s half-brothers, Clovis’s Kingdom was reunited under his last surviving son, Chlothar I. When he died in 561, his four sons partitioned the Kingdom anew, the third son, Sigebert I, receiving the eastern lands and the Auvergne, with part of Provence, as his share. He received parts of Aquitaine when his eldest brother died in 567, lands that were lost again in 575 when Sigebert was succeeded by his still young son Childebert II, who in the last years of his reign added Burgundy to his realm.
By the end of the century Austrasia, the eastern realm, had become the name for the Kingdom held by the descendants of Sigebert I. They died out with his great-grandson, who only reigned for a year (612-3). The Frankish Kingdom was reunited under Chlothar II, the King of the western lands, Neustria. Neustria was firmly in the old Gallo-Roman area, more stable, more civilised, more static than its eastern neighbour. The differences between the two had increased as a result of having separate rulers for most of the preceding hundred years.
Chlothar II had appointed a Mayor of the Palace in Austrasia in 613 to take responsibility for its government under him and in 623 he went further and made his ten-year old son, Dagobert I, King of a more limited Austrasia. The old Kingdom had lost its western lands in Champagne, including Reims, its original capital, the Auvergne and Provence. Metz became Dagobert’s capital. When Chlothar II died in 629 Dagobert transferred himself to Paris and the Kingdom of Neustria – the more decadent realm, in Austrasian opinion. Like his father he came to the conclusion that it was expedient to give Austrasia its own King – his young son, Sigebert III, in 632.
While Dagobert reigned in Austrasia a noble called Pepin of Landen served as Mayor of the Palace from 626. He was removed from office and went with Dagobert to Neustria, returning after the King’s death in 639 to Austrasia and office for a short while before his own death. His son became Mayor of the Palace while his daughter married the son of another major figure in Austrasia, Arnulf, Bishop of Metz. The son of this marriage, Pepin of Herstal, also served as Mayor of the Palace and in 687 won a victory over the Neustrian Mayor, beginning thereby the process by which his family came to dominate the entire Kingdom of the Franks.
That family (known as the Pepinids or the Arnulfings from the two grandfathers of Pepin of Herstal but eventually as the Carolingians from his son, Charles Martel) restored the authority of the Kingdom over the Thuringians, Alemannians and Bavarians, and were the real rulers of the Kingdom for a long time before Charles Martel’s son, Pepin the Short, took the Kingdom for himself in 751.
With an Austrasian family ruling the whole Kingdom, the separate identity of Austrasia became less important than when it was striving to keep itself apart from the Neustria which the Merovingian line to which Dagobert belonged preferred. So there was a tendency for Austrasia to resume its literal meaning of the eastern lands, which by the 9th century lay mostly to the east of the old Austrasian Kingdom in the lands beyond the Rhine, and to call the heart of the Frankish lands, including most of the original Austrasia, the east of Neustria, and the region around Orleans, Francia media, the middle Frankish land.
In 843 the old Austrasian Kingdom lost its unity. The reduced Austrasia that Dagobert had ruled found itself partitioned between the brothers, the Emperor Lothar and Louis the German. The western lands that had been withheld from Dagobert were included in the realm of their half-brother, Charles the Bald. Eventually the Austrasia of the 7th and 8th century was to come under one ruler, when the western half, in Lothar’s share in 843, submitted to King Henry the Fowler in 925. By then the name of Austrasia was more or less forgotten.
In 996 the German word for eastern realm was revived, not for anywhere within the old Kingdom of Austrasia but for the eastern borderland of the Duchy of Bavaria, and it still survives as the name for that region, now enlarged and one of the states of Europe. But though their origin is the same, we distinguish between the long dead Austrasia and the still living Austria. So do the French (Austrasie and Autriche) and the Germans (Austrasien and Österreich).