Monday, 30 May 2016

Emperor of the West – Charlemagne V

Charles and Pepin the Hunchback
Conspiracies Abound

In 786 a conspiracy was uncovered, centred in the north-east of Francia. These lands had borne the brunt of the majority of the campaigning against the Saxons. One Count Hardrad and his neighbours planned to kidnap Charles to extract more rewards for their services to the crown. The plot was betrayed and three of the conspirators were executed while the remainders had their eyes put out and were shut up in monasteries.

In 792 another conspiracy came to light involving Charles’ illegitimate and firstborn son Pepin the Hunchback and a number of the Frankish nobility. Pepin felt that he’d been denied his birth right as Charles’ eldest son. When the call came to attack the Avars Pepin claimed to be sick and stayed home. He planned to raise large numbers of supporters while Charles was away and proclaim himself king.

There were a significant number of Frankish nobles concerned about the autocracy Charles had created. A young monk overheard the plotters and reported the conspiracy to Charles. The supporters were rounded up and charged with violating their oath of allegiance to Charles and his family. The rebels claimed they’d never been asked to swear the oath;

Relic from Prum Abbey, given to Pepin's grandfather
When Charles, after the beginning of the war against the Huns, was wintering in Bavaria, this Pippin pretended illness, and formed a conspiracy against his father with some of the leaders of the Franks, who had seduced him by a vain promise of the kingdom. When the design had been detected and the conspirators punished Pippin was tonsured and sent to the monastery of Prumia, there to practise the religious life.’[i]

Following the quelling of the rebellion Charles summonsed an assembly at Regensburg and the nobles present adjudged Pepin and his adherents guilty and discussed the political consequences of rebelling against the throne. Most of the conspirators were beheaded while Pepin was sent to the monastery of Prüm.

Family Affairs

Coin depicting Offa
Around 789, Charles proposed that his son Charles the Younger marry Ælfflæd, the daughter of King Offa of Mercia. Offa insisted that the marriage could only go ahead if Charles’ daughter Bertrada married Offa's son Ecgfrith. Charles took offence, broke off contact, and closed his ports to English traders. Eventually normal relations were re-established and the ports were reopened.

Fastrada died on 10 August 794 in Frankfurt, Germany, during the synod of Frankfurt.  She was buried in St. Alban's Abbey, Mainz, long before the building was finished. Einhard had no great opinion of Fastrada[ii]; talking of the two conspiracies against Charles he recorded;

‘The cruelty of Queen Fastrada is believed to be the cause and origin of these conspiracies. Both were caused by the belief that, upon the persuasion of his cruel wife, he had swerved widely from his natural kindness and customary leniency’[iii]

Einhard attempts to throw all the blame for any claims of cruelty onto Fastrada. His claims that Charles was unnaturally kind to all and sundry are not true; he did give way to his temper at times, kind kings do not usually reign long in turbulent times.

Charles, from the very beginning, had decided he would do whatever was necessary to keep himself on the throne of Francia, stamping his will on his subjects. He is unlikely to have been influenced by Fastrada, who was only 21 at the time of the first conspiracy. Einhard’s embellishing of Charles’ reputation was part in justification of his new master’s right to rule after his father.

Charles was an unusually tall man for the age; Einhard informs us that he was seven times the length of his feet high[iv]. It is likely that he towered over most of the other men at court, useful for dominating those around him.

Not long after Fastrada’s death Charles married Luitgard, his last wife who died childless six years later in 800. The same year Charles picked a concubine named Regina who had two sons, Drogo[v] born in 801 and Hugh[vi] in 802. Charles’ final concubine was Ethelind who gave him two sons, Richbod[vii] in 805 and Theodoric in 807 who died the same year as his birth.

Death of a Pontiff

On 25th December 795 Pope Hadrian died; Charles sorrowed at the death;

‘When the death of Hadrian, the Roman Pontiff, whom he reckoned as the chief of his friends, was announced to him, he wept for him as though he had lost a brother or a very dear son.[viii]

Hadrian and Charles had worked together for twenty three years[ix]; the pair established a relationship built on mutual respect and affection. Hadrian was appreciative of Charles’ support in protecting the papal estates. In Francia Charles had involved himself in church affairs, writing to bishops about clerical morals, discussing points of doctrine with theologians and deciding who to appoint to the dioceses he carved out in his kingdom. Charles refused to augment papal authority and refused to be used as a stick to beat Hadrian’s enemies.

Pope Leo III was elected on the 26th December that Hadrian was buried and was consecrated on the following day[x]. Leo wrote to Charles informing him that he had been unanimously elected pope. With the letter Leo enclosed the keys of the confession of St. Peter, and the standard of the city, and requested an envoy. His letter was an assurance that Charles was viewed as the protector of the Holy See.

Emperor of the Romans

Leo III meets with Charles
In Byzantium in the summer of 797 the Empress Irene deposed her son Constantine VI, in retaliation for his having banished her in 790. Her supporters captured and blinded him[xi]; Irene then made herself Empress Regnant. This action by a mere female was to have wide-ranging repercussions.

On 25th April 799 Pope Leo was ambushed by a group of Roman nobles[xii] who attempted to put Leo’s eyes out and cut out his tongue[xiii]. He managed to escape and fled to Charles who was holding court at Paderborn, preparing for another war against the Saxons. Leo returned to Rome in November and was accused by his enemies of simony, perjury and adultery among other crimes.

In November 800 Charles travelled to Rome where he met with both parties to the quarrel. Alcuin had been talking for some time of Charles’ imperium and had recently written to Charles reminding him that Empress Irene’s actions had upset the world order; females were incapable of ruling and so Irene was not able to be Leo’s judge. In Alcuin’s eyes that role should fall upon the male and very capable Charles.

Leo crowns Charles as Emperor
On 23rd December at the high altar Leo swore that he was not guilty of the crimes charged against him. That he was not instantly struck down by a thunderbolt (or similar) from God was clear proof of his innocence. On 25th December, two days after taking the oath in an allegedly surprise move, Leo crowned Charles Emperor of the Romans[xiv].

‘He therefore came to Rome to restore the condition of the church, which was terribly disturbed, and spent the whole of the winter there. It was then that he received the title of Emperor and Augustus, which he so disliked at first that he affirmed that he would not have entered the church on that day—though it was the chief festival of the church—if he could have foreseen the design of the Pope.’[xv]

There has been much debate about the significance of this coronation and as to whether Charles was quite as surprised as Einhard claimed. There had been plenty of time in Paderborn for Charles and Leo to discuss the possibility and may have been a quid pro quo for Charles acceptance of Leo’s oath that he was innocent of the charges made against him.

Piggy in the Middle

Empress Irene
Charles elevation to the imperium greatly offended the rulers of Byzantium who refused to accept the division of the old Roman Empire into east and west. They took Charles’ actions in Italy as encroachment on lands that divided the two empires.

Charles had no intention of attacking Byzantium; he may have hoped for submission from Irene whose rule was not popular among her nobles and officials. Rumours of a marriage between the Empress and the barbarian swirled around Constantinople and led in part to a palace coup headed by Irene’s chancellor Nicephorus in 802[xvi].

For the rest of Charles’ reign a state of cold war existed between the two empires; Nicephorus and his successors were suspicious of Charles’ motives;

‘The Emperors of Constantinople, Nicephorus, Michael, and Leo, too, made overtures of friendship and alliance with him, and sent many ambassadors. At first Charles was regarded with much suspicion by them, because he had taken the imperial title, and thus seemed to aim at taking from them their empire.’[xvii]

In 803 Nicephorus sent a peace delegation to Charles; the two empires had exchanged ambassadors the previous year. But the Byzantines encouraged the city of Benevento to throw off its Frankish overlordship. King Pepin launched campaigns in 801 and 810 but neither was successful. In 802 the Duke of Benevento captured Winigis, one of Charles’ most trusted lieutenants, at the siege of Lucera.


Celts and Saxons – Peter Berrisford Ellis, Constable and Company Ltd 1995

The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Middle Ages – Robert Fossier (ed), Cambridge University Press 1989

The Holy Roman Empire – Friedrich Heer, Phoenix 1999

The Oxford History of Medieval Europe – George Holmes, Oxford University Press 2001

The Year 1000 – Robert Lacey & Danny Danziger, Abacus 2007

Absolute Monarchs – John Julius Norwich, Random House 2011

Emperor of the West – Hywel Williams, Quercus 2010

Charlemagne – The Great Adventure – Derek Wilson, Hutchinson 2005

[ii] He was writing during the reign of Charles’ son and successor who can have been only too willing to allow his stepmother to take the blame for the problems Charles faced during the period
[iv] His skeleton was measured in 1861; Charles was 6’ 5”
[v] Later Bishop of Metz and then Abbot of Luxeuil
[vi] Later Abbot of St Quentin and Archchancellor of the Carolingian Empire
[vii] Later Abbot of St Riquier
[ix] One of the longest reigning pontiffs
[x] It is possible that this haste was due to a desire on the part of the church to forestall any interference by the Franks with their freedom of election
[xi] It is believed that he died shortly thereafter
[xii] Led by Hadrian’s nephew; Hadrian’s family, one of the Roman noble families, had apparently expected that one of their number would receive the papal tiara
[xiii] Which would oblige Leo to renounce the papacy
[xiv] Or Holy Roman Emperor
[xvi] Irene went into exile on Lesbos and died in 803.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Emperor of the West – Charlemagne IV

The tomb of Bertrada of Laon
Charles’ Family 

On 30th April 783 Hildegard died[i] at Thionville in the same year that her daughter Hildegarde died. Bertrada of Laon died in the summer and Charles buried his mother next to his father in the basilica of St Denis.

‘Bertrada died after the death of Hildigard, having lived to see three grandsons and as many granddaughters in her son’s house. Charles had his mother buried with great honour in the same great church of St Denys in which his father lay.’[ii]

Charles married his third wife Fastrada in 784 and she had a daughter Theodrada[iii]; her second child was Hiltrude born in 787.

Despite close chaperonage Charles’ daughter Rotrude had an affair with Rorgon[iv], and in 800 had a son named Louis. There was talk that Bertrada might be married off to King Offa of Mercia. Instead she had a long and passionate affair with one of her father’s closest friends, Angilbert[v], a courtier, warrior, poet, scholar and religious leader. There is dispute over whether the couple were married, but they had two sons, one of them Nithard, born in 795, became a historian. Once Angilbert, when he was away on official business, wrote a poem he sent to Bertrada, referring to the couple’s children;

Charles with his son Louis
‘Tell the boys, poem of mine, to keep safe by God’s mercy within their walls from fire and thief and sickness.’[vi]

Charles did not approve marriages for any of his daughters[vii]; instead they were placed into positions of power within the church as Abbesses. Their illegitimate children were provided for in the same way.

In 781 Charles had his son Carloman (whom he had renamed Pepin) anointed "king of Italy" and crowned by Hadrian with the Iron Crown of Lombardy. Pepin’s younger brother Charles was anointed king of Aquitaine. Charles’ youngest son Louis, who was only 3-years old, was appointed sub-king of Italy and Aquitaine.

Educating Francia

Alcuin of Northumberland 
From the very beginning of his reign Charles had plans for role of education in Francia. The French politician and historian François Guizot[viii] said of Charles;

‘His predominating idea was the design of civilising his people.’[ix]

Charles had grown up in his father’s sophisticated court where he met many of the premier prelates of the day.

Charles and his advisers were concerned to rule Francia in accordance with God’s will. And for that the clergy needed educating. A series of Capitularies decreed the restoration of strict canon law in the church, conformity of rule in monasteries and correct Christian living throughout the kingdom.

In 782 Charles invited Alcuin of Northumbria[x] to join his court. Charles’ sister Gisela was an active supporter of Alcuin’s work. Alcuin was to play an important role in Charles’ cultural and religious ambitions. He ran the palace school for 14 years, where the sons of kings and princes and the nobility came to be instructed in the trivium and the quadrivium[xi]. To provide the school with texts Charles had agents scouring libraries for interesting manuscripts which were copied in his ever busy scriptoriums.

Charles was fascinated by astrology almost as much as he was by the bible and the heads of the early church. According to Einhard;

‘[Charles] paid the greatest attention to the liberal arts….For his lessons in grammar he listened to the instruction of Deacon Peter of Pisa, an old man; but for all other subjects Albinus, called Alcuin, also a deacon, was his teacher…. the most learned man of his time. Charles spent much time and labour in learning rhetoric and dialectic, and especially astronomy, from Alcuin.’

Peter of Pisa not only taught Charles grammar, he also taught him Latin, the language of the church. Charles efforts to improve his reading and writing came to naught, despite keeping notebooks under his pillow to enable him to work in snatched moments of free time.


The Tassilo Cup
Duke Tassilo of Bavaria, a cousin of Charles and son-in-law of Desiderius, asserted his independence of the Franks. Both Pepin the Short and Charles took the view that Bavaria was a vassal state. Tassilo occasionally provided troops for Charles’ armies, but occasionally declined to attend the annual gatherings of Frankish nobles. In 781 Hadrian told Tassilo to;

‘Remember his former oaths and not to go back on his long-standing pledge to the Lord King Pepin, the great Lord King Charles and the Franks.’[xii]

Hadrian’s poking his nose into this squabble probably resulted from Tassilo’s interference in church affairs in Bavaria, deeply resented by the bishops there. In a separate decision, that doomed Tassilo, Charles decided that he needed direct control over the eastern Alpine passes and the Danube valley[xiii].

Hadrian assisted Charles in putting pressure on Tassilo and when Tassilo sent envoys to Rome in 787, he pronounced an anathema on Tassilo. Charles ordered Tassilo to present himself at Worms and ratify an oath of loyalty, a journey Tassilo was reluctant to undertake.

Charles' villa at Engelheim
Charles reacted by sending three armies into Bavaria; he led the army that crossed the Danube near Regensburg. Another army under Pepin’s titular leadership crossed the Alps from Italy. Tassilo had no choice but to surrender his lands to Charles. He was allowed to yield up his dukedom, but within months was charged with plotting rebellion with the Avars in the lands bordering Bavaria.

Tassilo, his family, treasure and household were taken to Charles’ villa at Engelheim and there was tried and convicted after he confessed. Tassilo and his sons were forcibly tonsured and sent to separate monasteries, while his wife was exiled.

For his part Hadrian’s problems in Italy were lessened when, on 26th August 787, Arechis II, Duke of Benevento, died. His son Grimoald III, was a hostage of the Franks. In 788 Charles’ son Charles the Younger made Grimoald a client of the Frankish kingdom.

And Barbarians

Abrodites' territory
In 789 Charlemagne marched an Austrasian-Saxon army across the Elbe into Abodrite territory. The Slavs ultimately submitted, led by their leader Witzin. Charles accepted the surrender of the Wiltzes under Dragovit demanding hostages. Charlemagne insisted on the right to send missionaries into the area and that they not be molested. The army marched to the Baltic before turning around and marching to the Rhine. The army returned home with a large amount of booty that had been easily won. The tributary Slavs became loyal allies.

Following the campaigns in the north Charles turned his attention to the Avars, a tribe centred in the Lower Danube basin. By early 7th century they dominated the area[xiv]. Their dominancy was threatened by the Bulgars who forced the Avars westwards towards Bavaria[xv]. In 791 the Avars raided into Bavaria and when they were repulsed offered hostages and conversions.

Charles decided to personally see off the Avar attack. At the head of a large army, before crossing into enemy territory, Charles ordered three days of prayer and fasting to ensure divine aid. The opposition crumbled; allowing the Franks to strike deep into Avar territory. The Avars had been weakened by the Bulgars and internal strife.

Charles inspecting the work on his palace at Aachen
The Royal Frankish Annals record that;

‘[Duke Erik] dispatched his men under the command of the Slav Wonomir into Pannonia and had them plunder the ring[xvi] of the Avars…..the duke sent the treasure of the ancient kings[xvii]….to the Lord King Charles at the palace at Aachen.’[xviii]

Charles donated part of the haul to the pope and gave rewards to his counts and dukes. But much of his prize was devoted to building himself a new capital city at Aachen[xix]. The architect whose job it was to create Charles’ vision was Odo of Metz, responsible for the palace Charles built there.

The expeditions against the Avars secured Charles’ eastern borders, although he made no effort to include the Avar territory in his kingdom. The marches of the Danube provided a buffer zone between Francia and the Balkans with whose tangled affairs Charles had no desire to involve himself in.


Celts and Saxons – Peter Berrisford Ellis, Constable and Company Ltd 1995
The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Middle Ages – Robert Fossier (ed), Cambridge University Press 1989

The Holy Roman Empire – Friedrich Heer, Phoenix 1999
The Oxford History of Medieval Europe – George Holmes, Oxford University Press 2001

The Year 1000 – Robert Lacey & Danny Danziger, Abacus 2007

Absolute Monarchs – John Julius Norwich, Random House 2011

Emperor of the West – Hywel Williams, Quercus 2010

Charlemagne – The Great Adventure – Derek Wilson, Hutchinson 2005


[i] Possibly worn out by birthing nine children
[iii] Date of birth possibly 785; later Abbess of the convent at Argenteuil
[iv] Later the Count of Maine
[v] Made a saint
[vi] Charlemagne - Wilson
[vii] It has been postulated that Charles was concerned about setting up potential rivals
[ix] Charlemagne - Wilson
[x] A disciple of the Venerable Bede and later Abbot of St Martin at Tours
[xi] Together these made up the seven liberal arts
[xii] Charlemagne - Wilson
[xiii] A trade route down to the Black Sea
[xiv] In 626 they even threatened Constantinople and only their lack of sophisticated siege weapons halted their attack
[xv] In turn the Bulgars were being ousted by the Byzantines who were reasserting control over former possessions.
[xvi] In Hungary; the central stronghold of the Avars; believed to have been sited in the plain between the Danube and the Tisza. It was defended by ten circular concentric earthworks.
[xvii] So much treasure was held in the ring that Charles sent a second expedition under Pepin to retrieve the remainder
[xviii] Charlemagne - Wilson
[xix] Popular with the Romans for it’s hot springs