The Great Men

His Life and Times

The Danbury Press:
A division of Grolier Enterprises, Inc.

Robert B. Clarke........Publisher
Robert G. Bartner.......Marketing
Gilbert Evans...........Creative Director
The Stonehouse Press....Production Supervision
Arnoldo Mondadori Editore:
Enzo Orlandi.......Editor-in-Chief
G. Buzzi...........Author
N. Madera..........Author
L. DiPietro........Author
C. Chiericati......Author
Bruno Acqualagna...Lay-Out
1972 Arnoldo Mondadori Editore
Printed in Italy by Mondadori Vernoa


The kingdom ruled over by Charlemagne’s father, Pepin the Short, extended from the North Sea to the Pyrenees and from Brittany to the Danube River. After the deaths of his father and his brother, Carloman, Charlemagne became sole ruler of a territory which included most of western and central Europe.

In this vast area lived a variety of peoples. The original Franks occupied the northwest part of the kingdom, with the Visigoths, Burgundians and German tribes as their neighbors.
The Visigoths, originally from near the Black Sea, had migrated to Italy in the fifth century and later settled in what is today southern France and Spain. In Charlemagne’s day, their descendants occupied the area north of the Pyrenees along the Atlantic coast. The Burgundians had in the fifth century settled in the central region bordering on the Rhone River. They had their own laws and even their own king, although they were in reality subject to Frankish political power. The German population, which had many times proved rebellious under Charlemagne’s ancestors, inhabited the eastern part of the kingdom along the Danube Valley as far as present-day Hungary.
Beyond the borders of the Frankish kingdom, three main powers shared what had once been the Roman empire. In Italy a complex situation existed. A Germanic people called the Lombards occupied most of the northern part of the peninsula, from the Alps to the Ionian Sea. The southern part of the peninsula remained in the hands of the dying Byzantine empire, whose capital was Constantinople. In between lay an area which included the exarchate of Ravenna, the Pentapolis, the duchy of Perugia and the duchy of Rome, in which the interests of the Lombards, the Byzantines and the papacy in Rome overlapped.
Outside Italy, Byzantium still controlled an empire which included what is today Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey and the islands of the Aegean Sea. To the north its borders were constantly menaced by the Slavs while to the east the Moslems, the great rising power of the seventh century, threatened further encroachments. The Moslems were in control of northern Africa and the Iberian peninsula. More serious for the economy of western Europe, they had closed off the western Mediterranean to Frankish trade.
Religious divisions roughly corresponded to the political outline of seventh century Europe. In Italy and the Frankish kingdom, Christianity directed from Rome prevailed. In the Greek-speaking Byzantine empire, the Christian population followed the authority of the patriarch of Constantinople. The rest of the Mediterranean world was Islamic.
In the ninth century, churches and abbeys were resting places for travelers through-out the Carolingian empire. Pictured: exterior and interior views of the chapel at Germigny-des-Pres, which was built in 806 by Theodolf, a member of Charlemagne’s Palatine Academy.

Once he inherited the throne, Charlemagne began to increase the dominion of his already large realm. He pushed the Moslems back from the Pyrenees and occupied the Spanish cities of Pamplona and Barcelona. Most of the Italian peninsula, with the exception of Venice, Istria and certain regions in the extreme south, became a Frankish possession. In the east the vast Avar territory was absorbed into the empire and the Saxons inhabiting the northern reaches of the Elbe were also defeated. In the west Brittany maintained its independence, although Charlemagne’s descendants considered it part of their possessions.

The political control which Charlemagne exerted over his conquered territories was sufficient to revive the concept of a western Roman empire, over which the Frankish king was crowned emperor in 800.


The first king to succeed in bringing the peoples of Gaul under one rule was Clovis (c.466-511), a descendant of the legendary Merovech, founder of the Merovingian dynasty. In 561, when Clovis’ youngest son, Chlotar I, died, Gaul was divided among his four sons. The kingdoms (Austrasia, Neustria, Burgundy and Aquitaine) constantly warred against each other and squandered their resources, until by the seventh century the Merovingian monarchy was ineffectual.

Power in Gaul gradually fell into the hands of Pepin II, head of a landowning family of the Austrasia region, who ruled as mayor of the palace in the Merovingian court. Pepin’s son, Charles Martel, solidified the Carolingian family’s hold when his army routed the invading Arab cavalry at Poitiers in 732. The Moslems never succeeded in gaining a foothold in Gaul after that, although they controlled the Mediterranean Sea and remained a constant threat.
At this time in northern Italy, the Lombards, eager to expand their territory into central Italy, threatened the papal holdings. For a time the church succeeded in holding them off, but the pope feared eventual defeat unless he received outside assistance. The required support came from the Carolingian court. Charles Martel’s son, Pepin III (known as Pepin the Short) entered into an agreement with the pope, promising military protection in exchange for holy sanction for the Carolingian rule. The last Merovingian king, Childeric III, had been deposed by Pepin in a bloodless coup, and Pepin was anxious that his usurpation of the crown become legitimate in the eyes of the church.
Thus Pepin became “king by the grace of God,” and he duly protected Rome against the Lombards, mounting a campaign against them and donating the lands he won to the church. Pepin’s son, Charles (Charlemagne), when he assumed the throne, would continue this close relationship between his court and Rome and would impose the Christian faith upon all the subjects of his expanded Frankish empire.
Charlemagne’s successor, his son Louis I, lacked his father’s strength, and although he, in his turn, wore the imperial crown, he could not hold the kingdom together. Upon his death, civil war broke out among his sons, and peace was restored only by splitting the empire into three separate kingdoms (the precursors of modern France, Italy and Germany). This division (the Treaty of Verdun, 843) set the seal on the dissolution of Charlemagne’s expanded kingdom. The disparate peoples which he had struggled so hard to unify were quick to reassert their independence, and Europe became a continent not of one kingdom, but of many.


Louis Pious and his son Lothair


Louis the German and Charles the Bald 

(Miniatures from the Liber Aureus, Treves)




Charlemagne, the second Carolingian king, brought a new light to the dark stage of Europe. He inherited a kingdom of illiterate farmers and forged it into an empire militarily strong and culturally advanced.

Although responsible for a renaissance of learning, Charlemagne was not a scholar (he did not learn to read until late in life). In fact, the main achievements of his reign – the alliance with the church, the conquest of pagan neighbors, the reform of government machinery and the improvement of scholarship – were all begun in some form by his father. Despite his lack of originality, Charlemagne had the strength and foresight to carry through what his father had begun. Within the borders of the empire there developed a climate favorable to education and the arts which had much to do with the enthusiasm of the ruler himself.
Charlemagne, as the spiritual servant and temporal protector of the pope in Rome, regarded the adoption of Christianity by the pagans as a mission. He forced every one of his subjects to convert or be deported, and to those who rebelled he was merciless. Contemporary historians have seen a strain of inhumanity in this brand of militant Christianity. Yet by these methods Europe emerged more united than before, and while after Charlemagne’s death the empire would split into smaller kingdoms, their rulers would recognize common bonds which were a legacy of the Carolingian king.
Charlemagne was by any standard a great ruler, and his reforms had a direct influence on the cultural and political emergence of western Europe.

"The Battle of Poitiers,"
an anonymous painting in the Versailles Museum. 
The leader of this battle was Charles Martel,
a Frankish general and one of the best military strategists of his epoch.
The first famous Carolingian general was Charles Martel, the son of Pepin of Heristal, who as mayor of the palace governed the decadent Merovingian kingdom. Charles grew up in the luxury of the court, even though he was the product of an illegitimate union. When Pepin died, however, Charles’s step-mother, Plectrude, had him imprisoned. He escaped, assembled his own army and began a series of military campaigns which were to make him the most powerful man in France.
After fighting with mixed success against the Frisians, who occupied present-day Holland, Charles won a decisive victory over the Neustrians. The Neustrians, with whom the Merovingian kings had been allied, had recently humiliated Charles’s own region of Austrasia, which was to become the center of the empire under the Carolingians. Charles attacked the Neustrian forces as they were marching home in victory and defeated them.
The greatest challenge to the military skill of Charles Martel came from the Moslem invaders who had occupied the Iberian peninsula in 711. Aware of the weakness of the Frankish armies, the Moslems marched north of the Pyrenees in an open bid to seize control of Europe.
The duke of Aquitaine asked Charles for help. Charles mobilized the Frankish forces and, crossing the Loire River, confronted the Arab force near Poitiers. The Moslems’ strong point was a swift and well trained cavalry, while the men under Charles were grouped in infantry battalions. Both sides hesitated, taking seven days to weigh each other’s strength. Eventually the invaders, running short of supplies, were forced to attack. The Frankish infantry held, and as night fell the Moslems were returning towards Spain.
After the Frankish victory, the Moslems never again crossed the Pyrenees, and Charles Martel assumed supreme power in the kingdom.

Dagobert's throne, a priceless example of Merovingian art,
preserved in the Cabinet de Medailles, Paris

armed Frankish troops from a fifteenth century miniature 
(the National Library, Paris)


The coronation of Pepin the Short as king of the Franks
Pepin was crowned by the ope and became official defender of the papacy against the Lombards

Charles Martel ruled the kingdom of the Franks for twenty-five years, but he never attempted to resolve the basic “legal” right to the crown. (The powerless Merovingian monarch, and not Charles, was sanctioned by Rome.) He might have seen an opportunity to resolve the question when Rome showed a keen interest in securing protection against threatening Lombard rulers, but Charles repeatedly ignored the requests.
His sons, however, displayed a different attitude. The pious Carloman convened the Council of Estinnes and secured the restoration of church lands which his father had confiscated. Carloman had more liking for meditation than politics, and after six years of rule he retired to a monastery. His successor was his brother Pepin (known as Pepin the Short).
Pepin continued Carloman’s policy to ward the church. He deposed Childeric III, the last of the Merovingian kings, and received the crown and ecclesiastical recognition. In seeking the approval of the church for his action, Pepin inaugurated a new concept, the “rule by the grace of God,” which was to have a pervasive effect on later European history. After further diplomacy, Pepin managed to obtain the sanction of the pope.
The year after Rome had sanctioned Pepin’s rule (752), the pope travelled to the Frankish court to request military help in repulsing the Lombards. In the Carolingian palace at Ponthion a complex arrangement was made. Basically, the pope made Pepin a Patricius Romanorum, a patrician of Rome, in exchange for a pledge of military assistance. In addition, Pepin promised to donate to the church all lands he seized in the area. This promise came to be known as the “Donation of Pepin” and led to the eventual creation of the Papal States.

a view of the abbey at Lorsch, Germany,
a classic example of eighth century architecture

three genealogical tables from the Chronicles of the World by Ekkerhard of Urach
(first half of the twelfth century, Latin manuscript, Staatsbibliotheca, Berlin).
left above, we see Charlemagne's remote ancestors,
on the right, a castle's towers, arcs and windows with Caroligians looking out 
(the fourth figure from the bottom in the middle strip is Charlemagne)
below, the Emperor Corrado's family tree.


The pact between Pope Stephen and Pepin, in which the Franks were obliged to defend papal interests, was not to Carloman’s liking, and he left his monastery for the court. Pepin arrested him and imprisoned him at Vienne, where he died shortly afterwards. Other nobles opposed the arrangement, and in order to win backing for his decision, the king called a general assembly of the Franks at Quierzy-sur-Oise. The Neustrians, in particular, stood against any alliance with Rome.
The men of the Frankish court, however, had not expected the sophisticated arguments of Pope Stephen himself, who had arrived to lend his support to Pepin, and, in the end, the pact won the approval of the assembly.
It was not long after this assembly that Stephen called upon Pepin to live up to his word and send an army against the Lombard king, Aistulf. At first, Pepin tried to bribe Aistulf for the lands he had promised the pope. Aistulf refused, and Pepin led his men across the Alps into Italy.
Aistulf’s cavalry met the Franks on the banks of the Dora. Pepin repeated the strategy his father used at Poitiers, and his infantry repulsed repeated charges of the Lombards and pushed them back to the city of Pavia, where they laid siege.
Aistulf surrendered, and Pepin returned north. As soon as winter had closed the Alpine passes; however, Aistulf raised a fresh army and marched directly against Rome. Rome held until the spring, when Pepin again fought Aistulf and this time defeated them. The church received its promised territory, and a new political entity called the Papal States took control of most of the countryside between Ravenna and Rome.

Pepin tried to ensure a peaceful transfer of power after his death by dividing the kingdom beforehand between his two sons, Carloman and Charles.  The restless region of Aquitaine he left to the two princes jointly, in the hope that a common interest would unite them in subjugating future revolts there.

At first Pepin’s plan seemed to work.  For six months after his death, Charles and Carloman each ruled their own territories in peace.  However, when the inevitable trouble did break out in Aquitaine, Carloman left the problem entirely in Charles’s hands.  The twenty-six year old Charles defeated the rebels, but the concept of a two-fold rule had been irreparably damaged.  Only the intervention of Bertha, the Queen Mother, prevented open conflict between the two brothers.

In Italy, Desiderius, the new king of the Lombards, sensing division in the Carolingian court, put new pressures on the Papal States.  Bertha thought an alliance with Desiderius would remove the threat of constant conflict between the two kingdoms, and she travelled to the Lombard court to arrange a marriage between Charles and Desiderius’ daughter, Desiderata.  The match arranged, Charles dutifully repudiated his first wife and married the Lombard princess.

Within a year, however, Charles disowned his new wife and returned her to her father.  Desiderius inevitably sought to redress this insult to his name through force of arms.  He was to prove no match, however, for the young Frankish king.

Desiderius did not attack the Franks on their own territory.  Undoubtedly aware that he lacked the power to march directly against the superior Frankish forces, he instead tried to split the Carolingian court, befriending Carloman and turning him against his brother.  When Carloman died in 771, leaving Charlemagne the sole ruler over the Regnum Francorum, Desiderius renewed his pressure on the papacy.  In Rome, a new pope, Adrian I, was not slow to call upon Charlemagne for aid.

The new king, however, was not eager to mount a campaign in Italy.  There were other problems more crucial to Frankish welfare which required his immediate attention.  First of all, his borders were ringed with pagan enemies eager to test the mettle of the new Frankish sovereign.  To the south were the Arabs, always threatening incursions into Aquitaine.  To the northeast, the various Saxon tribes looked eagerly at the rich land of the Franks, and in central Europe the Avars, a ferocious tribe from Asia, still yearned to expand their European empire.  Finally, the Byzantine empire, while not posing immediate military danger, nevertheless required consideration by Charlemagne as an important power with significant holdings on the Italian peninsula.

Charlemagne recognized that dealing with the pagans effectively would require a large, well disciplined army and a self-sufficient government administration to cope with civil problems when he was away at war.  Charlemagne’s father, Pepin, had begun the task of creating a skeleton civil service (Pepin’s administrators were all ecclesiastics, since churchmen were the only ones with any education), but much remained to be done.  One of Charlemagne’s first reforms as king was to create a band of special officers, called counts of the palace, or Counts Palatine, to assist him in war and peace.  In time, these counts assumed significant power of their own, and after the Carolingian period certain of their descendants even became rulers of independent kingdoms.

Despite his other problems, Charlemagne could not ignore the provocations of the Lombards.  At first, hoping to avoid a costly military campaign, he offered Desiderius a substantial financial settlement to leave Rome in peace.  But the Lombards rejected this offer.

There was now no alternative.  Charlemagne massed an army at Geneva.  He put one column under the command of his uncle, Bernard, and instructed him to cross the Alps at the Saint Bernard Pass, which would lead him to Ivrea through the Dora Valley.  The king himself led his men towards Turin by a different route and attacked the Lombard army near Susa.

At first Desiderius thought he had outmatched the Carolingian forces, since the strong fortifications which he had erected at Susa stopped Charlemagne’s men.  But the Lombard had not counted on the arrival of Bernard, who infiltrated the enemy lines and caught them by complete surprise.  There was nothing Desiderius could do but retreat to the city of Pavia and hope to survive the siege which the Franks would inevitably impose.

During that winter, while he remained in Pavia, powerless, Desiderius held hope that the harsh weather would defeat the Frankish troops, and they would be forced to disband.  He was also waiting for assistance from his son, Adalgiso, who had been massing an army at Verona.

Both these expectations, however, proved fruitless.  The Franks survived the winter intact, and once Adalgiso’s troop had mustered, the Franks defeated them easily, forcing the Lombard prince to flee to Constantinople.

The year was 774.  Spring came, and Pavia still held.  Finally, during the summer, famine brought the city to its knees, and Desiderius surrendered.  On July 10, in Pavia, Charlemagne was crowned rex Francorum et Longobardorum (king of the Franks and the Lombards).  Evidently he decided not to make Lombardy an integral part of his kingdom, but instead seized for himself and his heirs the dynastic rights to the Lombard throne.  This arrangement permitted him to maintain power over his new territory without having to drain his corps of capable administrators to govern it.


During Easter of 774, while Charlemagne was waiting for Pavia to fall, he paid a visit to Pope Adrian in Rome.  The alliance between the papacy and the Carolingian court was renewed.  Charlemagne extended the pledge to protect the Papal States, but in turn the pope agreed that any further lands won from the Lombards would go directly to Charlemagne.

It is likely that the young king of the Franks was deeply impressed by his visit to Rome.  His own kingdom contained none of the majesty to be seen there, both in the ruins of Roman civilization and in the Easter ceremony performed by the pope in Saint Peter’s Basilica.

In fact, Roman culture, kept alive in modified form by the church, was to become a model for his social reforms.  His administration was based on the existing structure within the church, and behind his extensive educational innovations, Charlemagne hoped that Latin would become the lingua franca that would unite the diverse ethnic groups in his empire into a single, Franco-Roman culture.

This task was to prove too difficult to be achieved within the king’s lifetime, but there is no doubt that by encouraging the copying of Latin texts and establishing the Palatine Academy at Aachen, he helped preserve the Greco-Roman basis of European culture.

After his victory over Desiderius, Charlemagne did not stay long in Italy.  Word had reached him that the Saxons were in revolt, and he hurried northwards to prepare an expedition which would face one of the most difficult campaigns of his reign.

From the first days of his reign, Charlemagne was harassed by the Saxons, a tribal people who practiced a primitive form of earth worship.  In 722, before his Italian campaign, he had made his first march against them, taking Paderborn and the fort of Eresburg.

At Paderborn, Charlemagne committed an act which was to color all of his pagan wars.  In the name of Christianity, he desecrated a Saxon shrine, cutting down a sacred tree.  Unlike the Romans in pre-Christian times, or the Moslems of his own day, Charlemagne was not content to allow alien religions to exist within the realm of his conquests.  He inaugurated a brand of militant Christianity which was to have profound repercussions in Europe and the Near East during the later Middle Ages.

While Charlemagne was in Italy fighting against the Lombards, the Saxons rose again.  In 775, he repeated his earlier chastisement, destroying a stronghold at Silburg, dispersing the Angrarians, and crossing the Weser into Ostphalia, where he burned and sacked everything in sight.  The leaders of Ostphalia and Angraria surrendered, accepted baptism and paid homage to Charlemagne.  The king took Saxon youths as hostages and sent them to receive Christian educations in Austrasian monasteries.

In 777 a large assembly of Franks and Saxons met at Paderborn to demonstrate the conversion of the defeated Saxons.  A large number of Frankish noblemen and churchmen attended.  The Saxons received baptism and accepted Christian instruction in exchange for the right to retain control of their ancestral lands.  At the same time, they swore absolute fidelity to their new sovereign.

The Saxons did not find it easy, however, to accept a new king a new religion, and they soon found a leader to express their discontent.  His name was Wittekind.  A high-born warrior from Westphalia, which had bowed to Charlemagne only after the king attacked it mercilessly, Wittekind devised a strategy for catching the Franks off their guard.  He knew that Charlemagne had obligations in widely scattered parts of his kingdom, and whenever the Frankish king was occupied in a region far from Saxony, Wittekind massed his men and attacked Frankish settlements.

In 779 Charlemagne led a punitive expedition up to the banks of the Weser, and the next year, he resumed attack against the Ostphalians.  In 782 the Saxons, apparently defeated, convened an assembly at Lippe to surrender.  Charlemagne accepted their fealty, and, convinced that his Saxon troubles were over, he assigned one of his men to supervise his forces in the area and left.  In the king’s absence, the Frankish army pushed eastwards against the Slavic tribes and gave the watchful Wittekind the opportunity he had been waiting for.  He led the Saxons in revolt and massacred the surprised Franks at Mount Suntel.

Charlemagne, enraged at this, defeated the Saxons at Verdun and massacred forty-five hundred prisoners, finally ending the Saxon revolts.


Of all of Charlemagne’s military campaigns, the one which most caught the imagination of bards and minstrels was his expedition against the Moors in Spain.  Charlemagne inherited an enmity towards the Spanish Moslems from the Merovingian rulers.  His grandfather had defeated them at Poitiers in 732, but the Spanish frontier continued to remain insecure.

At the general assembly at Paderborn in 777, a contingent of Arab leaders, hostile to the ruling emir of Cordova, urged Charlemagne to mount an attack against Spain, promising to recognize him as their ruler if he were successful.  Charlemagne negotiated with them in the presence of the subjugated Saxon leaders in order to impress them with his worldliness and ended by promising to conquer Spain.

However, Charlemagne’s Spanish campaign was to achieve only a partial success.  After gathering an army in Aquitaine in the spring of 778, he divided his forces into two expeditionary units.  One headed for Barcelona and the other, led by Charlemagne himself, crossed the Pyrenees and attacked Pamplona.  Charlemagne’s forces win control of the city.

Meanwhile, the Moslem rebels under Soliman ben Alarabi wrested the city of Saragossa from the emir of Cordova, and it appeared as if a combined force of Frankish and Moslem troops might defeat the government of the emir.

Charlemagne proceeded to Saragossa, meeting on the way with his Barcelona contingent.  The march to Saragossa was uneventful, then, seemingly out of nowhere, squadrons of Arab cavalry appeared riding towards him in battle dress.  The Franks had no time to organize them easily, and Charlemagne’s defeat was as bitter as it must have appeared inexplicable.

What had happened was that Soliman had been overconfident, and a man loyal to the emir had taken over his army.  Thus the Moslem force which Charlemagne considered an ally had turned to attack him and had dealt him an unexpected defeat.


The defeat of the Christian forces at Roncesvalles and the death in battle of Roland became the subject of the most famous epic of the Middle Ages.  The Chanson de Roland (Song of Roland) first appeared in the eleventh century, and its four thousand verses represent the essence of the tradition of the medieval romantic poems called the chansons de geste.

The poem tells how Roland refused to sound his oliphant, or horn, to tell Charlemagne of the attack against the rear guard of the Franks, for fear that in coming to their assistance, the emperor might endanger his own life.  Instead, the knight fought on with greater valor, killing many of the enemy before he was overpowered.

In keeping with its heroic theme, the poem elevates what was actually little more than a skirmish into a major battle, and it does not hesitate to modify history.  Thus the slaughter is attributed to the Arab horde, and not to an isolated Basque tribe.  Charlemagne, though only thirty-five at the time of the real battle, is two hundred years old in the poem.  Many of the heroes whose deeds are praised seem never to have existed, for in Einhard’s biography of Charlemagne, only Roland and a handful of the king’s knights are mentioned.

Thus the events belong more to fable than history, but the chivalric ideal embodied in the poem had real roots in Carolingian culture.  Roland became the quintessential Christian knight, whose steadfast loyalty to his king, combined with his faith in Christ, represented the ultimate fealty of a Christian subject to his sovreign and his God.

The legend conquered Europe, and in the course of the Middle Ages found expression in all the major languages of the continent.  Many versions appeared, and it was not long before regular pilgrimages were made to the sarcophagus said to contain the remains of the martyred knight who had died protecting his lord from the scourge of the infidels.

During Easter of 781, while Charlemagne was in Rome he learned of the rebellion of Tassilo, the duke of Bavaria.  Tassilo had once been conquered by the Franks under Pepin the Short.  Now he was making a fresh bid for independence with the eager support of his wife, Liutberg, who was the daughter of Charlemagne’s bitter enemy, King Desiderius of the Lombards.

With the backing of the pope, Charlemagne called upon Tassilo, who was also his own cousin, to respect his pact with the Franks.  Seeming to acquiesce, Tassilo attended a general assembly at Worms and renewed his fealty to the Carolingian monarch.  His submission was a pretense, and, as soon as the Franks appeared to be pressed in Saxony, he rebelled.

This lasted for three years, until 785, when Charlemagne launched a three-sided attack against him.  From Trentino he dispatched a column of Lombards commanded by his ten year old son, Pepin; from the Danube he unleashed a combined force of Austrasians, Saxons and Thuringians which advanced on Ratisbon; and from the west the king himself led a Frankish contingent along the Neckar Valley to Lech.  Tassilo was trapped, and in a public gathering he yielded his command to Charlemagne.

Charlemagne in exchange for an oath of fealty presented Tassilo a horse with a gold saddlecloth.  Evidently, he hoped that his magnanimity would command the permanent allegiance of the difficult duke, but no sooner had Charlemagne begun his return to his own court than Tassilo revolted again.  This time, however, his own men refused to follow him, and Tassilo was finished.  He was accused of renewed disloyalty and condemned to death.  Charlemagne commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, to be served at the monastery at Jumieges.

The Avars were a people of Turko-Mongolian origin related to the Huns who had been an important power in the European heartland since the sixth century.  Aware of the threat these fierce, swift horsemen posed to the security of his eastern borders, Charlemagne tried to negotiate a pact with the Avars which would keep them east of the Danube River.

The Avars would make no agreement, and they did not hesitate to make frequent attacks on Frankish abbeys and monasteries.  Charlemagne led a campaign against the raiders in 771, but he failed to reach the Avar citadel called the Ring, a legendary stronghold surrounded by nine walls and containing a fabulous treasure.

It was Prince Pepin who broke through the Avar defenses in 795, while the king was engaged in repelling Slavic tribes near the Baltic Sea.  With the assistance of an advisor named Eric, Pepin led the Lombard army north from Friuli.  In the region between the Sava and Drava rivers he dealt the enemy repeated defeats and also managed to make secret agreements with many Avar leaders which accelerated his progress towards the Ring.  He reached the nine walls, stole the treasure and removed it to Charlemagne’s court.

The king was immensely encouraged by his son’s victory and urged Pepin to march against the Avars again to complete their destruction.  In 796, Pepin’s Lombards defeated the final Avar strength on the banks of the Theiss River, and the nine walls of the Ring were totally destroyed.

The Viking tribes from Scandinavia began their violent period of European conquest in the last decade of the eighth century.

According to the Monk of St. Gall, Charlemagne was dining with his men in a coastal town in the southern part of the kingdom when the caught sight of Viking ships on a raiding party.  The king ordered them captured, but the swift Viking vessels easily outdistanced the Franks.  Apparently, Charlemagne wept over the incident.  “He was horrendously anguished,” wrote the monk, “by the thought of the harm those pirates could inflict on his subjects and successors.”
Charlemagne’s decree in Saxony that any subject who did not embrace the Christian faith
would be deported led thousands of Saxons to flee to Denmark rather than become subjects of the Franks.  This put a strain on relations between the Franks and the Danes.

Between the Elbe River and the Danish border lived a proud tribe called the Albingians, who refused to accept Charlemagne’s religious impositions.  The king attacked them form his encampment on the Weser, but his cavalry suffered from a lack of food on the campaign, and the Albingians won the first round.  Heady with victory the rebels then attacked a Slavic people to the east who were allies of the Franks.  The Albingians were defeated, and Charlemagne decreed deportation as a punishment.

This cruel measure angered Godfried, king of the Danes, who sent troops and a fleet of ships to Schleiswig.  The Danish and the Frankish armies confronted each other without attacking.  Charlemagne left his son Carloman in charge of the northern borders, and as soon as the emperor had departed, Godfried attacked.  He quickly retreated, however, when Charlemagne resolved that Godfried should be taught a lesson.

Charlemagne waited for the appearance of the Norse ships, but they never appeared.  Godfried had been assassinated, and a Frankish-Viking encounter was for the time being postponed.

Pope Adrian I, who had constantly lent Charlemagne his strong support, died on Christmas day, 795.  He was succeeded by Leo III. Leo was a popular figure from a plebeian family, and as such he was despised by the Roman aristocracy, who remained faithful to the high-born family of Adrian.  The result was an effort to depose him.

On April 25, 799, Leo was leading a procession towards the Church of San Silvestro when he was set upon by armed men.  More dead than alive, he was rescued by the duke of Spoleto, one of Charlemagne’s ministers, and taken to the monastery of Saint Erasmus.

While he was in confinement recovering from his wounds, Pope Leo expected Charlemagne to speak out at once in his defense.  The matter was not a simple one, however.  Charges had been brought against the new pope which would have to be investigated.  In addition, Charlemagne had kept his close ties with the family of the deceased Adrian.  Whichever faction he supported in the crisis would take control of the Papal States and affect his relations with Italy for a long time to come.

Charlemagne remained silent on the matter and invited the pope to visit him at Paderborn when he was well enough to travel.  By the time Leo arrived in Paderborn, however, Charlemagne seems to have made up his mind.  The pope was welcomed with highest honors.  When he returned to Rome, an inquest was held to examine the charges levied against him (they included simony, adultery and perjury), but the proceedings, carried out by bishops and counts close to Charlemagne, seemed to condemn the accusers rather than the accused.  The findings were returned to Charlemagne’s court, where the king himself was to read them and take action.

Charlemagne issued no decree, but in the autumn of 800 left for Rome.  The final act in the exoneration of Pope Leo took place during the ensuing ceremony in Saint Peter’s Basilica.  Leo swore to his innocence before the highest pontifical authorities, an amalgam of Roman aristocrats and Frankish nobility, and Charlemagne formally absolved him of all charges.


During the same Christmas season in Rome (in fact, only a few days after Charlemagne had officiated over the exoneration of the pope) an event took place which was to have profound repercussions on the history of the Christian Church – Charlemagne was declared the Roman emperor.

Since the fall of Rome to the barbarians in 476, the title of emperor of Rome, then shared by an Eastern and a Western emperor, had gone into the hands of the rulers of the Eastern empire, even though Byzantine culture was more Greek than Roman.  What Pope Leo did was restore the dual nature of the imperial rule.  His gesture had long intrigued historians because of its variety of interpretations.

In the company of his counts, Charlemagne entered Saint Peter’s for the Christmas ceremony wearing a Roman tunic and no crown.  Leo welcomed him and led the king to the altar, where Charlemagne knelt to pray.  After some time the king rose, and as he turned to the congregation, the pope placed a gold crown on his head, proclaiming Charlemagne “Charles the Augustus, crowned by God, the Great and Peaceful Emperor of the Romans.”

At first glance, Charlemagne’s coronation as emperor of Rome was a goal he had long set his sights on.  Since 744, Italy had been in his effective control, and from that time he had expanded his kingdom to include much of the former Western empire.  To be acknowledged emperor must have seemed Charlemagne’s due.

The one documented explanation extant, the Annales Laureshamensis, confirms this view.  “Since the Byzantines poorly tolerated government by a woman (the Empress Irene), it seemed opportune for Pope Leo, with the backing of the church fathers assembled in Rome and all Christendom, to create Charles, the king of the Franks, emperor, since he held Rome, home of all the Caesars, as well as other parts of Italy, Germany and Gaul.”



Charlemagne may have called his empire Roman for the sake of tradition, but the essential factor was its Christianity.  His coronation by the pope in Saint Peter’s sealed the alliance between the Carolingians and the church (the “rule by the grace of God”), first formed by Pepin the Short.

Charlemagne’s military conquests brought most of western Europe under one rule.  His empire reached from the Elbe and Danube rivers to the Atlantic Ocean.  It included a part of northern Spain and most of the Italian peninsula.  The king was not satisfied, however, merely to exact tribute from the conquered territories and to tap their resources as other emperors had done.

The militant Christianity of the Frankish ruler impelled him to stamp out pagan practices wherever he encountered them, and consequently his victories usually preceded a thorough – and often harsh – religious and social reform.  He defiled the sacred shrines of the Saxons, for example, and did not hesitate to massacre thousands who refused to convert.  Elsewhere, he practiced widespread deportation of those who balked at paying homage to a new god.

Despite the violence which often accompanied these forced conversions, Charlemagne’s policy had the long-term effect of uniting Europe.  After his death, his weaker successors would not be able to hold his territory together, and the empire would split into smaller kingdoms.  The religious unity would remain, however.  It is a direct legacy of Charlemagne’s rule that Europe is a Christian continent.



There is no doubt that Charlemagne’s achievements would not have been possible without the Frankish army.  When Charlemagne assumed the throne, the Franks lacked a permanent force of any significance, and Pepin the Short had been forced to deal piecemeal with the need for arms as it arose.

Charlemagne changed all that.  First he established his “Palatine knights,” a band of warriors who served the king in exchange for royal honor and preferment.  The counts, as they were also called, were not chosen only from the upper ranks of Frankish aristocracy; a significant number not born into the nobility – and even some serfs – received the honor of this personal relationship with the monarch.  The result was a corps that was fiercely loyal and of unusual excellence.  Charlemagne drew on the counts not only for military campaigns, but for help in civil administration as well.

What tied the counts to the throne was basic self-interest – royal appointment transformed them into individuals of wealth and great power.  Charlemagne knew, however, how to command a double allegiance based on his religious mission.  As emperor, he was charged with defending and extending the Christian faith, and the counts, as his personal retainers, shared a sense of this duty to God, which lent their roles a certain mystique.  The counts were the pillars of the Carolingian court, but they were something more.  They were Christian knights and the pillars of Christ’s terrestrial empire.



The coronation of Charlemagne as emperor of the West made even more difficult what was already an estranged relationship between the Franks and Constantinople.  At one point an effort had been made to unite the two empires, and Charlemagne had betrothed his daughter, Rotrude, to the heir apparent, Constantinople IV.  However, the prince’s mother, Irene, had called off the engagement as a prelude to blinding and imprisoning her son and assuming the throne herself.

A military revolt in 802 succeeded in removing Irene from power.  The new ruler, Nicephorus, was not inclined to look more favorably on the Frankish kingdom than Irene had done.  He refused to accept Charlemagne’s coronation and spurned all emissaries from the Carolingian court.

In 806, the Doge of Venice, the ruler of a principality formally under Byzantine dominion but long independent-minded, offered his territory to Charlemagne’s protection.  When Nicephorus continued to ignore Charlemagne, the king ordered his son Pepin to occupy Venice, as a show of strength.

These measures did no good, and it was not until Nicephorus’ successor, Michael, assumed power that a fraternal agreement between the two empires was finally drawn up and ratified in 812.  The same year, the emir of Cordova, the Moslem ruler in Spain, finally recognized Charlemagne after many years of enmity.



The Christian nature of the Carolingian court would explain the sympathy Charlemagne held for the monasteries, but there was more than just religious respect behind his support.  In the dark period which followed the collapse of Roman civilization in Gaul, lay education had all but ceased.  Even the majority of the upper classes were illiterate and totally untrained in intellectual pursuits.  The monks, however, had perpetuated classical cultural standards.  So to Charlemagne the monks of the realm were sages as well as men of the cloth.

The monastic movement received a much-needed reform in the sixth century from Saint Benedict, who based his famous monastery at Monte Cassino in Italy on a new set of rules.  In addition to prayer and devotion, Benedict stressed intellectual training and hand labor.  Furthermore, he imposed the rule of stability on his order, meaning that a person who chose to enter the monastery did so for life.  The rule of stability helped establish the monastic movement on a firm footing, and by the eighth century, Benedictine monasteries flourished throughout Charlemagne’s kingdom.

Charlemagne actively promoted the monasteries. He furnished existing institutions, such as those at Corbie, Laon, Saint Martin de Tours, and Fleury-sur-Loire, with additional income from donations of land and tithe payments, and he promoted the establishment of new ones as well.  In return, the monasteries provided Charlemagne with many of his finest ministers, who undertook the task of general education within the realm helped convert conquered tribes on the frontiers.  In fact, the Carolingian government owed an incalculable debt to Benedict, for without the men committed to his monastic order, Charlemagne’s court could not have functioned as successfully as it did.



The personal habits of the great king of the Franks have been recorded in great detail by his biographer, Einhard, who wrote the Vita Karoli (Life of Charles).  Charlemagne dressed in the Frankish tradition, which included tunic, britches and boots.  During the winter, he sometimes wore a fur cloak or cape, but he did not like the styles of other countries and was known only twice, while in Rome, to have donned the long tunic, cloak and sandals of the Roman emperors.  He always carried a sword, which was often decorated with a jeweled hilt.

He was an athletic man, who loved hunting and riding.  He was also very fond of swimming and, in his palace at Aachen, ordered the construction of a swimming pool.  For his great physical size, he had an unusually high-pitched voice.

His habits were regular.  He dressed in the morning surrounded by his counts, and if he was told of a problem or dispute, he would call the persons involved before him, question them and pass judgment on the spot.  In the mornings, he organized the daily work programs of his various ministers and outlined an agenda for the day.

His attraction to women shocked even the people of his own court (he had five wives, numerous mistresses, and fourteen children), but Charlemagne was apparently an abstemious drinker, who despised drunkenness.  He was, however, a voracious eater, in keeping with his large frame.  While eating he enjoyed listening to music, and he particularly liked being read to from his favorite book, Augustine’s City of God.  He did not learn to read until late in his life, and then he was said always to keep a book under his pillow when he slept.



As he grew older, Charlemagne decided to abandon the concept of a nomadic court which rotated from estate to estate throughout the kingdom in favor of a permanent palace at Aachen.  Aachen was the king’s birthplace, and he particularly enjoyed bathing in the spring-fed waters for which the town was famous.

The palace which Charlemagne constructed at Aachen and its accompanying chapel became the major architectural achievement of the Carolingian period.  Unlike other Frankish buildings, usually of wood, Charlemagne’s palace was a large stone edifice emulating the imperial scale of the Roman emperors.  Under the direction of the king’s master builder, Odo of Metz, the palace complex became a true royal seat.  The marble-lined main hall was one hundred fifty feet long, the swimming pool was large enough to hold a hundred bathers at once, and the main courtyard accommodated up to eight thousand people.

From an artistic standpoint, the most impressive part of Odo’s work was the chapel, begun in 792.  Thirteen years later it was consecrated by Pope Leo, and it once became a symbol of the majesty of Charlemagne’s Christian empire.

The chapel is an intriguing mixture of borrowed architectural styles, since the Franks did not have their own tradition of monumental construction.  The basic polygonal shape of the main chapel was Byzantine, while many other features, such as the arches, were Roman.  Two churches seem to have been a model for the Palatine Chapel, as it is called – the Lateran Basilica in Rome, and the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna.  In fact much of the decorative material was shipped directly from Ravenna, such as the statue of Theodoric, the sixth century king of the Ostragoths, which was placed in the main courtyard.

What was new in the structure were its symmetrical towers.  Whether Charlemagne approved of the idea of multiple towers for their use as watchtowers, bell towers, or merely stair towers, it is not clear, but the towers of the Palatine Chapel set a Carolingian stamp on what was basically an imitative work.  These towers would not be overlooked, furthermore, in the development of the Roman-esque style a century later.