The important Byzantine enclave of Venice had pro and anti-Frankish factions. On 25th December 805 the Doge Obelerio degli Antenori did homage[i] to Charles at Aachen and came home with a Frankish bride Carola. This action enraged the anti-faction and precipitated a war with Byzantium.
In 809, a fleet landed in the Venetian lagoon and attacked a Frankish flotilla at Comacchio but was defeated. Obelerio’s attempts to elevate his family led to a popular uprising against them. King Pepin of Italy attempted to besiege Venice but Agnello Participazio coordinated Venetian efforts to defend the city.
The Byzantines kept the city supplied by sea. The Antenori family tried a volte-face to save face by taking up arms against Pepin. They were thrown out and Agnello Participazio was elected Doge once the Franks had been seen off. Pepin was paid off and departed, and died in July 810.
Charles intended for Pepin to control his interests in Italy, provide protection to the papacy and stand as a bulwark against any hopes the Byzantines might have of recovering the empire in the west. Now he had Pepin’s illegitimate son Bernard crowned king of the Lombards.
‘Pippin left one son, Bernard, and five daughters—Adalheid, Atula, Gundrada, Berthaid, and Theoderada. In his treatment of them Charles gave the strongest proof of his family affection, for upon the death of his son he appointed his grandson Bernard to succeed him, and had his granddaughters brought up with his own daughters.’[ii]
The death of Pepin upset Charles’ plans for the future; he’d divided his realms into three for his three eldest boys by Hildegard; Charles the Younger, Duke of Neustria[iii], Pepin (formerly Carloman) King of Italy and Louis, Duke of Aquitania[iv]. Charles the Younger died on 4th December 811, leaving only Louis of all Charles’ legitimate heirs.
Problems in the North
In Saxony, after a decade of peace, there was a series of uprisings from 795 to 802. Even after Widukind's submission in 785 and gradual Christianisation of Saxony the Nordalbingian tribes remained reluctant until they were finally defeated at the Battle of Bornhöved in 798 by the combined forces of the Franks and their Abodrite allies, led by Prince Drożko.
Charles was increasingly irritated with the Saxons and his methods of dealing with their revolts became increasingly draconian. He instituted a policy of divide and rule, rewarding faithful Saxon lords and sending them to fight their revolting kinsmen. Charles gave the cleansed lands to his Slavic allies, the Abodrites, after clearing out around 10,000 families of Saxon and settling them elsewhere in his empire.
Francia had problems with the Danes who regularly raided down Francia’s extended coastline. In 808 Charles the Younger pushed them back across the Eider River. The next year the emperor had Essesfeld Castle erected [v]and the entire region was incorporated into the Frankish Empire.
In order to counter the ongoing raids led by King Gudfred, the Franks probably established a Danish march stretching from the Eider River to the Danevirke fortifications in the north.
‘The last war of all that Charles undertook was against those Northmen, who are called Danes, who first came as pirates, and then ravaged the coasts of Gaul and Germany with a greater naval force. Their King, Godofrid, was puffed up with the vain confidence that he would make himself master of all Germany….For he was killed by one of his own followers, and so ended both his life and the war that he had begun.’[vi]
After King Gudfred was killed, his successor Hemming concluded the Treaty of Heiligen with Charlemagne in 811, agreeing that the Eider should mark the border between Denmark and Francia.
Legal and Clerical
The empire was designed to be ruled by royal counts, who were controlled by itinerant royal commissioners. Charles held annual empire-wide assemblies of bishops and counts meeting to approve Charles legislation and decrees. These councils were normally held in May, but additional councils on specific subjects could take place at any time. They often coincided with preparations for the summer offensive.
‘Collect information concerning any relevant matter….no only from his own people but from strangers and from both friends and enemies.’[viii]
In 785 at the Council of Paderborn the clergy debated the matter of the Christianization of the Saxons. Laws were promulgated against idolatry and the death penalty was ordered for self-appointed witch-hunters who had arranged the death of persons accused of witchcraft.
At his annual council in Frankfurt in 794 Charles had a wide ranging agenda, covering how to distinguish between the loyal and the faithless, measures on how to deal with a major famine[ix], confirmation of Duke Tassilo’s fall and debate on establishment of an orthodox code of belief for Latin Christendom.
Later in his life Charles determined on a reform of the Frankish legal system. He was well aware of the many defects in the two very different systems the Franks adhered to.
‘He therefore, determined to add what was lacking, to reconcile the differences, and to amend anything that was wrong or wrongly expressed. He completed nothing of all his designs beyond adding a few capitularies, and those unfinished.’[x]
Charles as man and monarch was a great supporter of the church. He reformed the church, strengthening its power, improving the skill and moral quality of the clergy, standardizing liturgical practices, and introduced improvements in the basic tenets of the faith and morals, and strongly encouraged rooting out paganism.
Charles’ authority extended over both church and state. He could discipline clerics, control ecclesiastical property and define orthodox doctrine. Despite the harsh legislation and sudden change, he developed support from the clergy who approved his desire to increase the piety and morals of his Christian subjects.
The Annointed Heir
|Charles' throne in Aachen cathedral|
One of the final acts of Charles life was to confirm Louis, his least favourite son[xi], as his heir. In 1813 Charles called the Frankish nobles at a council at Aachen. He crowned Louis as joint emperor and his grandson Bernard as King of Italy. The pope was not present at the ceremony[xii].
‘At the very end of his life, when already he was feeling the pressure of old age and sickness, he summoned his own son Lewis…then solemnly called together the Frankish nobles of his whole kingdom; and then, with the consent of all, made Lewis partner in the whole kingdom and heir to the imperial title. After that, putting the diadem on his head, he ordered them to salute him “Imperator” and Augustus.’[xiii]
Louis was one of only two of Charles’ children not brought up at his court. Louis and Pepin were both sent off to rule their respective newly assimilated lands when comparatively young in an attempt to encourage a sense of loyalty to the Carolingian dynasty. Louis, Pepin and Pepin’s son Bernard were the only royal children allowed to marry during Charles’ lifetime.
Charles had managed to ensure peaceful relations with all his neighbours, bar those in the south. In 812 Arab raiders had stormed Corsica and the Italian mainland looting at will. Count Irmingar caught up with the fleet at Menorca and successfully freed 500 prisoners and retook much of the booty. These raids were followed by others on Sardinia and the Roman and Nicean coasts.
Death of an Emperor
Even to the end of his life Charles used to hunt in the woods around the palace at Aachen. In 813 he was very much involved in church matters; the five councils that met all reported back to him. Charles believed that the state was not subject to the church. St Augustine believed the same and his book the City of God was Charles favourite book after the bible.
In January 814 Charles fell ill with a fever, complicated by pleurisy. Einhard informs us that Charles, as was his habit, abstained from eating and took little in the way of liquids. Seven days after taking to his bed Charles died on 28th January 814. He was buried the same day in Aachen cathedral.
Charles’s passing was a shock that reverberated across Europe. An anonymous monk from Bobbio[xiv] wailed;
‘From the lands where the sun rises to western shores, people are crying and wailing... the Franks, the Romans, all Christians, are stung with mourning and great worry….the world laments the death of Charles... O Christ, you who govern the heavenly host, grant a peaceful place to Charles in your kingdom. Alas for miserable me.’[xv]
Charles’ death was important enough to find its way into the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles which simply records;
‘King Charles passed away; he reigned for forty five years.’[xvi]
The lack of explanation shows the expectation that the reader will know who is referred to and how great was Charles’ standing, even in a foreign country.
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
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles – Anne Savage (translator), Colour Library Books 1995
Emperor of the West – Hywel Williams, Quercus 2010
Charlemagne – The Great Adventure – Derek Wilson, Hutchinson 2005
[i] Following internecine feuds between the factions the Antenori were losing support and it was suggested that the Franks would be able to shore their reign up
[iii] Since 790
[iv] Since 781
[vii] Senior adviser to Louis the Pious
[viii] Emperor of the West - Williams
[ix] Including price fixing and punishment of profiteers
[xii] Charles did not envision the imperial throne as being within the gift of the pope and saw the succession as hereditary
[xvi] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles - Savage