Monday, 9 May 2016

Emperor of the West – Charlemagne II

A denarius minted by Carloman
Death of Carloman

Carloman did not take the reverses in Rome lying down, sending envoys in an attempt to persuade the pope to reverse his decision. He threatened to invade Italy to break up the ‘unholy’ alliance. To counter Carloman’s attempts Desiderius marched his Lombard army on Rome. Stephen welcomed Desiderius’ men and informed Carloman’s faction in Rome that they did not have his support. Carloman’s agents were put to death on the pope’s orders.

The three way alliance of the papacy, Charles and Desiderius was thrown into disarray with the death of Carloman on 4th December 771. Carloman died at Samoussy; his death was recorded as being of natural causes.

Charles immediately travelled to Laon where his brother’s body lay. He wanted his brother’s men to swear allegiance to him. By Frankish law Carloman’s sons should have inherited their father’s domains, but the Frankish lords cannot have wanted two young infants as their kings.

A number of Carloman’s liege men readily swore allegiance to Charles but others had to be bribed or wooed. There was little dissent at Charles’ takeover of his nephews’ lands, with the notable exception of Bertrada and Charles’ cousin Adalhard of Corbie[i].

Einhard records;

‘Upon the death of Carloman, his wife with her sons and some of the leading nobles fled to Italy, and, for no obvious reason[ii], passed over her husband’s brother, and placed herself and her children under the protection of Desiderius, King of the Lombards.’[iii]

Charles returned his wife to her father; Charles no longer needed the Lombard alliance. In Desiderata’s place Charles married Hildegard, daughter of Count Gerald of Vinzgau and granddaughter of the Duke of Alamannia. Hildegard was chosen to help win the allegiance of the nobles of Alamannia[iv].

Family Life

Charles at dinner (medieval manuscript)
Charles and Hildegarde’s first child Charles the Younger was born the following year. Like any woman of the time, Hildegard spent much of the twelve years of her marriage producing children, six of whom lived into adulthood. In 773 she gave birth to Carloman (later renamed Pepin) and in 774 a daughter Adalhaid, born while her parents were in Italy, she died the same year.

Hildegarde then had a break for three years after which she produced another four children in a row; Rotrude, Louis[v] and his twin Lothair who died two years later and Bertha in 779. Gisela was born in 781 and Hildegarde in 782.

By 773 Charles had a concubine named Gersuinda who bore him a daughter named Adaltrude in 774. The following year Charles added another concubine to his harem, Madelgard who bore a daughter in 775 named Ruodhaid[vi].

According to Einhard Charles did not neglect his children’s education’

‘In educating his children he determined to train them, both sons and daughters, in those liberal studies to which he himself paid great attention. Further, he made his sons, as soon as their age permitted it, learn to ride like true Franks, and practise the use of arms and hunting. He ordered his daughters to learn wool work and devote attention to the spindle and distaff, for the avoidance of idleness and lethargy, and to be trained to the adoption of high principles.’[vii]

War with the Saxons

Lippe River
To the north of Charles’ new enlarged kingdom lay the lands of the Saxons, long regarded as barbarians by the Romans. The continual border clashes resulting from the Saxons desire for the more hospitable lands southwards and population pressures meant that any peace treaties did not last long. The religious divide exacerbated the problems; north of Francia the inhabitants adhered to the old gods; oaths made on them did not impress the Christian negotiators and vice versa.

‘For the Saxons, like most of the races that inhabit Germany, are by nature fierce, devoted to the worship of demons and hostile to our religion, and they think it no dishonour to confound and transgress the laws of God and man.’[viii]

Charles' men destroy the Irminsul (19th century)
In 772, following a Saxon incursion over the Lippe[ix], Charles launched an invasion across his northern border, the curtain raiser to two decades of war. In the spring Charles held a conclave of all his nobles at Worms[x], and it was from here that the army;

‘Marched first into Saxony. Capturing the castle of Eresburg, he proceeded as far as the Irminsul[xi], destroyed this idol, and carried away the gold and silver which he found.’[xii]

In this campaign Charles was acting as the spear man for the Christian fight against the pagans in northern Europe. Churchmen had long been associated with the throwing down of foreign idols and converting pagans to the way, the truth and the light, now a political leader was doing the same. This joining of safeguarding his borders, possible expansion in the north and the church was to be a focus of Charles’ early reign.

Charles’ people regarded Saxon practices of human sacrifice and the burning alive of criminals with loathing[xiii]. They felt that their culture was superior to the Saxons and that they were conducting a war blessed by God, their weapons being blessed by priests for God’s holy work. Following destruction of the Irminsul the Franks returned home. This was only the first shot in a bitter fight.

The Return of the Lombards

Charles meets Hadrian (medieval)
In early 772 Pope Stephen died and Hadrian was elected pontiff in his place. This change of pope led to a collapse of the alliance with the Lombards and once again Desiderius was well placed to threaten Rome. When he received the pope’s call for help in the Autumn of 773 Charles decided to attempt a crossing of the Alps before the winter snows made the passes impossible to travel.

The Frankish army’s successful passage through the Great St Bernard Pass meant that Desiderius had to fall back on Pavia which Charles then besieged. Desiderius assumed that winter would take its toll of Charles’ army and then Charles would retreat to Francia, his tail between his legs. Charles managed to maintain the unity of his army throughout the long winter months; it was the citizens of Pavia who suffered most from hunger and disease.

Einhard recorded that;

‘Charles….did not stop [fighting] until he had received the surrender of King Desiderius, whom he had worn down after a long siege; until he had forced his son Adalgis[xiv]….to fly not only from his kingdom but from Italy; until he had restored to the Romans all that had been taken from them’[xv]

The Iron Crown of Lombardy
Having expected that Charles would demand large amounts of loot and then march home Desiderius was shocked, when suing for peace at midsummer 774, to find himself a prisoner with his family while Charles placed the iron crown of Lombardy[xvi] on his own head.

During this Italian trip Charles took time out to visit Hadrian; he was rapturously received in Rome. Charles wanted to make clear to his subjects the closeness of his relationship with Hadrian as he needed the support of the church to enforce his control over his disparate peoples. Charles was determined not to be just the pope’s poster boy, but he intended to keep his own counsel and look out for his best interests. He would not put the needs of the church above those of Francia.

Hadrian on his part wanted Charles to curb the antics of Leone I, Archbishop of Ravenna, who refused to accept the pope’s authority. There were papal lands under the control of unauthorised persons and these included the Franks. Hadrian was concerned that he had exchanged the threat of Desiderius for Charles who for his part was not prepared to jump when Hadrian demanded it. He was unimpressed and determined to return home.


The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Middle Ages – Robert Fossier (ed), Cambridge University Press 1989
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] Adalhard later reconciled with his cousin and became a counsellor to Pepin of Italy when he reigned in Italy
[ii] Einhard was being more than disingenuous here
[iv] Hildegard’s brother Gerold was chosen to be Prefect of Bavaria when Bavaria was incorporated in Charles enlarged kingdom in 788
[v] Known as Louis the Pious
[vi] Later Abbess of Faremoutiers
[ix] A border fortified originally by the Romans
[x] A favoured residence of the Carolingian kings
[xi] An ancient tree trunk the Saxons believed was one of the pillars of the heavens
[xii] Charlemagne - Wilson
[xiii] There are some reports that the Saxons practised cannibalism; certainly the Franks believed this was so
[xiv] In joint kingship with his father
[xvi] The crown allegedly had a nail from the true cross worked into the golden circlet

1 comment:

  1. Wiki has let you down over the Irminsul; Irmin, like Ing, was one of the god-heroes who was sufficiently seriously worshipped that his name was considered a fortunate one to include in the name of a child eg Ermengarde Irmin-protected, and Ermentrude, Irmin's strength [cf also Ing names like Ingram, Ing's raven]. I postulate that Irminsul also includes elements of solar deity with the suffix -sul