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

1 comment:

  1. I note that you mention that Charles was fascinated by Astrology but that Einhard says that he studied Astronomy. I know that the two were much the same then, but Astronomy implies an interest in the heavenly bodies for their own sake, or to use for navigation, where astrology implies fortune telling and so on. This is an interesting dichotomy in his character if so, since the only time the readers of stars and portents were mentioned in a positive light were the Magi who came to Bethlehem to worship the King whose star had arisen. Other astrologers in apocrypha[which hadn't all been separated off at this date] and in the Bible, such as Simon the Wizard,[Acts? I think] were shown to be frauds. I'm not sure I'm drawing any conclusions here, just fishing in the dark around an interesting paradox.