49 – Charlemagne: Becoming a King
Hey kids, want to hear about Charlemagne? [Intro Music]
History is speckled with important individuals who dramatically alter the course of humanity. Scientists like Louis Pasteur and Marie Curie, philosophers like Descartes and Voltaire, artists like Renoir and Monet led the world on paths of their own imagining. Our show has finally reached Charlemagne, who ranks as one of the most important political figures in European history. Some historians have even called him “The Father of Europe,” since he created the greatest solely European empire in history up until that time, spanning one million square miles and covering the modern-day borders of northern Spain, France, the Benelux countries, Germany, Switzerland, the northern half of Italy, with additional territories stretching into Poland and Czechia, while he claimed tribute from states even farther east. Aside from his conquests, Charlemagne continued, expanded or created many precedents, innovations and traditions that defined Western and Central Europe for the next thousand years including: divine right monarchy, the Three Estates, the church as a part of state administration, the expansion of religious-based education and writing, and The Holy Roman Empire as a political entity. All these formed the foundation of Europe until the French Revolution abolished them within France, and then Napoleon obliterated feudal institutions and laws more broadly across Europe. Charlemagne was arguably the most impactful European political leader since Augustus and would remain so until Napoleon overturned his legacy and led Europe into the modern political era.
Since his death many Europeans have tried to claim the legacy of Charlemagne. As Matthew Innes and Simon MacLean note, in 1000 Otto III went to the palace at Aachen where he exhumed and reinterred Charlemagne’s body. In 1165 Frederick I “Barbarossa” moved Charlemagne’s remains to safeguard his legacy as a German predecessor rather than letting the French Capetians claim him. Barbarossa also had him recognized as a saint. Napoleon visited his tomb before his own coronation in 1804, and called his crown “The Crown of Charlemagne.” During World War II the German Wehrmacht named a unit after Charlemagne. Today the European Union has a prize for European Unity named after him.
Charlemagne’s influence across time is so pronounced that he’s even affecting this podcast. As this podcast enters its third year I’ve been reflecting on how much ground we’ve covered. In the first year we went from three million years ago to 284 CE, the end of the crisis of the Third Century. In the second year we went from 284 to 751, the year Pepin the Short founded the Carolingian dynasty. Naturally, I’ve had to spend more time covering nearer periods since we have more sources for those. But things are really going to slow down and get more detailed from now on due to the explosion of literacy during and after Charlemagne’s reign, a period known as the Carolingian Renaissance. Today, there are roughly 1,900 surviving books or book fragments from Western and Central Europe that predate the year 800. However, just between the years 800 to 900 there are 7,900 surviving books or book fragments from this same area. This stunning increase in literacy, combined with the transition from writing on papyrus to vellum, means that in Western Europe more surviving written text exists just from the 9th century than all preceding centuries combined.
Even though impactful individuals appear throughout history, their importance is usually overblown due to propaganda and chroniclers focusing on individuals as a means of simplifying history. Charlemagne had his faults, and during the last four years of his life he was chronically sick and struggled to maintain order. But even taking these into account, he may very well deserve the title of ‘Father of Europe’ for his incredible military, political, religious and cultural achievements. With all that said, let’s get into the incredible life of Charles, and yes, I am going to refer to him as Charles until after he dies, since Charlemagne wasn’t his real name. If you hadn’t guessed, Charles le Magne is French for “Charles the Great,” though Anglophones mispronounce the honorific as Charlemagne.
Charles was born sometime between 742 and 748, depending on the chronicler, in either Aachen or Liège. He was named after his grandfather, Charles Martel, who united Francia and smashed the Muslim invaders. He was the first son of Pepin, who made himself king in 751. Pepin had numerous children but only three survived to adulthoodd: Charles, his younger brother Carloman, and their sister Gisela. From a young age Pepin groomed Charles for succession. When Pope Stephen II left Rome for Francia, Charles escorted him to Paris. When the Pope anointed Pepin King of the Franks he also anointed Charles and Carloman as princes. When Charles came of age he joined his father on campaigns, probably serving in Septimania, Italy and Aquitaine. Thus, by the time his father died he was a skilled military commander.
But Charles was also well-educated. His father grew up among monks and served as an administrator in Martel’s realm, and Pepin passed on this love of knowledge and its uses to his son. Contrary to popular belief, Charles was not illiterate, but semi-literate. He could read, though he preferred others read to him. He almost never wrote, instead dictating to his subordinates. Only late in life did he try to learn to write and by then it was too late and his penmanship was considered atrocious.
Charles was an imposing military leader and a brilliant administrator by the time his father King Pepin died on 24 September 768. But as per Frankish custom, Pepin’s realm was divided between his sons. Charles received a wide arc that began at Aquitaine and stretched north before turning east into Austrasia, while Carloman received the heartland of Burgundy. As was the case with Frankish kings, the two hated each other and each wanted the others’ land. Charles was the elder and a proven general who dismissed his brother since he was only 17; barely a man and someone he considered unworthy of his vast holdings. In response, Carloman may have slandered Charles as illegitimate, since their father Pepin had an affair with their mother and possibly conceived Charles before their marriage.
The brothers’ relationship worsened after their father’s death when a revolt broke out in Aquitaine. In early 769 the two assembled their armies and met at Moncontour to discuss battle plans and how they would divide the duchy after putting down the revolt. Charles insisted that he control the lion’s share of the land, which angered Carloman who left. But Charles didn’t need his younger brother, as he already knew the secret to warfare. There’s a saying that, “Amateurs study tactics, armchair generals study strategy, but professionals study logistics.” By this point, Charles was a professional. He set up a highly-organized administrative state which furnished him with supplies and men so that he could continually raise and support large-scale armies. No matter how clever his opponents were, when Charles declared war he had already won as he stood at the head of overwhelming numbers of well-equipped, veteran soldiers. Charles pursued the rebellious leader Hunoald II until he fled into Gascony. Charles demanded the Duke of Gascony turn over Hunoald II, which he did, ending the rebellion.
After securing his own lands, Charles schemed to conquer the rest of Francia with the help of his mother Bertrada of Laon. Because what are mothers for if not conspiring to overthrow your little brother? Bertrada favored Charles and around 770 went to Italy to secure a marriage between her eldest son and the Lombard princess Desiderata. As was customary in the Middle Ages, when a nobleman heard his brother was getting married he reacted with outrage and dread. If the two married then Charles’ realms and alliances would encircle him; like a great ‘n’ across Western Europe from Aquitaine, north to the Channel, east through Neustria and Austrasia, then down into Bavaria and Italy.
Marrying a woman just so you can overthrow your sibling is pretty ruthless, but Charles was a cunning political figure and was willing to do whatever was necessary to acquire power, which is why he abandoned his first love for this political alliance. Charles had a relationship with an Alemanni noblewoman named Himiltrude, and around 769 she bore him a son, Pepin, later known as Pepin the Hunchback. Charles probably married her to secure the loyalty of the Alemanni but by 770 he was already secure in his realm. I say, “probably” married because she has been blotted out from the record books as Charles dismissed her so that he could pursue Desiderata. For that reason, Himiltrude is often referred to as a concubine, but that is almost certainly the justification Charles used to cast her aside and take up another marriage for political convenience.
This arrangement didn’t just piss off Charles’ brother as Pope Stephen III condemned the wedding announcement. The Popes looked to the Franks as their protectors against the Lombards and Stephen III naturally feared that if the two peoples allied they would swallow up Papal lands. When he heard about the wedding, Stephen III bemoaned the union of, “the most notable race of the Franks and that fetid brood of the Lombard’s that had brought leprosy into the land.” So, the marriage near-guaranteed a Frankish civil war and was condemned by His Holiness, Christ’s representative on Earth. It’s like a classic story of forbidden love, except with a lot more death and neither side actually loved each other.
Despite universal condemnation, Charles married Desiderata, but their bliss didn’t last. In 771 the Frankish king dismissed her and married the thirteen year-old Swabian noblewoman Hildegard. While boys became men at 15, the age they could fight and father children, girls became women around 12 or 13, when they could first bear children. While it may seem strange to us, at the time it was perfectly acceptable for this late twenties to thirty-year old man to marry the young woman, and Hildegard became pregnant with their first child within months.
While Charles was enjoying his third wife in as many years, Carloman readied for a possible war. He knew that Charles was a brilliant general and an ambitious man, and his marriage to the Lombard princess, however short-lived, showed that he was hoping to expand his influence to new territories. Desiderata was furious at Charles’ dismissal and Carloman certainly looked at her father as a possible ally against his brother. But fate took a turn and on 4 December 771 Carloman died at his villa at Samoussy at the age of 20. The chroniclers note he had a severe nosebleed; this combined with his sudden death and no other noted illness meant he probably had a brain aneurysm. Carloman was buried at the church in Reims, though his body was reinterred at Saint-Denis in the 13th century alongside most of the kings of France. Carloman’s widow Gerberga claimed her late husband’s lands for her underage son Pepin, while she would rule as regent. But her nobles invited Charles to take over Burgundy, which he eagerly did, forcing the grieving widow and her children to flee the Lombardy, leaving Charles in control of all of Francia.
While Charles was solidifying his position as King of the Franks, tensions were running high in Italy. The Lombard King Desiderius was furious at Charles for spurning his daughter, and Gerberga and her disinherited children attacked him as a usurper at court. Meanwhile, Desiderius was again conquering Papal lands. The new Pope Adrian I asked Byzantium for aid, but the Byzantines were occupied fighting the Bulgarians and so His Holiness naturally turned to the Franks. Charles sent emissaries to Desiderius offering cash in exchange for the towns he had conquered, but the Lombard King refused. In 773 Charles invaded Italy and besieged Pavia. By now Desiderius was used to a Frankish king besieging his capital. This was the third time this had happened and he expected Charles to run out of supplies and retreat in the winter. But Charles was brilliant at logistics and had regular supply lines that kept his men fed so they could keep fighting year-round.
Early medieval siege equipment being what it was, the Franks settled in and waited for the Lombards to starve. In the meantime Charles’ queen, now fifteen, gave birth to her second son, who was originally named Carloman but had his name changed to Pepin, as Charles disowned his first son Pepin the Hunchback. On Easter 774 Charles briefly left his men and visited Rome, where he celebrated Christ’s victory over death with the Pope. Charles was a deeply religious figure who regularly spoke with bishops and priests passing back and forth from the Eternal City. Moreover, the Franks acquired numerous holy relics from Italy for adoration. Charles desired that his people should be the most righteous on Earth and wanted uniform religious practice and acquired texts from Italian monasteries to use to regulate church activities in Francia. During his meeting with the Pope, the Frankish king confirmed his father Pepin’s donation of lands that formed the Papal States, and in exchange Adrian I named him Patrician.
When Charles finished with his pilgrimage he returned to Pavia. By June the Lombards surrendered. King Desiderius was taken hostage, tonsured and forced into the abbey at Corbie in northern Francia while his son Adelchis fled to Constantinople. Gerberga and Carloman’s sons disappear from the record and were also probably sent to monasteries and nunneries. Charles then assembled the Lombard nobility to discuss the new political arrangement in Italy. The Frankish conqueror had incredible vision; unlike most kings of his age he did not want to raid new land, or make them tributaries but rule them. His patronage of education led to higher literacy rates and greater administrative capabilities, meaning he could effectively incorporate new lands even those far from his capital in northern Francia. He placed loyalists in positions of power across the kingdom and patronized the church, but otherwise left the conquered people as they were. On 10 July 774 Charles took up the Iron Crown of Lombardy and became King of the Lombards.
Now Charles was ruler of two great kingdoms. Moreover, his capable administration meant that his dictates were followed across his realm, unlike so many other European kingdoms, which were composed of semi-autonomous tribes. Charles was on his way to reshaping Europe, but not everything would turn out as easy as these early successes. Next time we’ll learn about the war along the Pyrenees, The Battle of Roncevaux Pass and the legendary paladin Roland.
Bernard S. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare: Prelude to Empire, 2001.
Kelly DeVries and Robert D. Smith, Weapons and Warfare: An Illustrated History of their Impact, 2007.
Matthew Innes and Simon MacLean, The Carolingian World, 2011.
Joanna Story, Carolingian Connections: Anglo-Saxon England and Carolingian Francia, c. 750-850, 2003.