Saturday, 9 July 2016

The Franks – part 4: The life and deeds of Charlemagne

Originally published in Slingshot, issue 279, November 2011 - the magazine of the Society of Ancients 

Personality and Politics

Charlemagne, or Karl the Great, was one of many male descendants called Karl or Carloman in the Carolingian dynasty - hence the name.  The name Karl derives from the old Germanic karlaz, meaning “free man”, a word related to Kerl (= man) in German and to “churl” in English.  Karl was latinised as Karolus in official documents, and would become Charles in French.  The magnus or le magne was added one year after his coronation as emperor in 800 AD.  Based on the Germanic names of Charlemagne’s numerous children (Pippin, Carloman, Chlodwig, Chlothar, Adalheid, Hruodrud, Bertha, Gisela, Hildegard etc.), it is assumed that he spoke a dialect of the Ripuarian Franks, a version of the central Old High German commonly spoken east of Aachen at the time.

Though a studious autodidact, Charlemagne never managed to learn to write properly.  His well-known signature, or rather monogram (see illustration), was a clever way of getting round this problem.  In many cases, he only added the two small strokes that completed the “A” in the centre of the cross representing Karolus; other monograms he managed to tinker himself.  Spot the differences:
Nevertheless, he was far from the illiterate yokel that some popular sources try to suggest he was. Educated in the so-called seven arts (rhetoric, dialectic, mathematics, astronomy, geometry, grammar and music) by a number of the finest scholars of his age, such as Alcuin (Ealhwine) of York, Paul the Deacon and Paulinus of Aquileia, he was a literate and well-educated ruler, who was fluent in Latin and who also understood Greek.

Appearance and dress
We have a good idea of what Ch
arlemagne looked like based on his biography, the Vita Caroli, written by one of his court-officials by the name of Einhard. His description of Charlemagne’s appearance is corroborated by a small bronze statue of the emperor on horseback, currently in the Louvre in Paris, as well as by the many pictures of his head depicted on various contemporary coins.

Einhard, a man of many talents, became adviser and a close friend of the king.  Born in the Maingau (southeast of modern Frankfurt), he wrote Charlemagne’s biography around fifteen to twenty years after the emperor’s death.  It describes the emperor’s daily life, “omitting nothing which is relevant and yet remaining as succinct as possible” (Thorpe, p.15).  Yet, as Thorpe points out, Einhard hides a number of embarrassing issues, such as the disappearance of his most important political rivals, his late brother’s family.  Also, he is not always accurate with his facts and reticent about events that might harm the memory “of the greatest and most distinguished of men”.  I have inserted Einhard’s description of the emperor as an older man; additions in brackets are mine:

 “The emperor was strong and well built.  He was tall in stature, but not excessively so, for his height was just seven times the length of his own foot [by “not excessively so” Einhard probably means that Charles’ well-proportioned.  Recent measurements of his remains showed that Charlemagne must have measured almost 1.90 m., so a big and imposing chap for his time].  The top of his head was round and his [blue] eyes were piercing and unusually large.  [He had a strong chin and thick lips].  His nose was slightly longer than normal [it was large], he had a fine head of white hair [which had been blond when he was younger and was cropped short, as was typical for the Franks in these days] and his expression was gay and good-humoured.  As a result, whether he was seated or standing, he always appeared masterful and dignified.  His neck was short and rather thick, and his stomach a trifle too heavy, but the proportions of the rest of his body prevented one from noticing these blemishes.  His step was firm and he was manly in all his movements.  He spoke distinctly, but his voice was thin for a man of his physique.  His health was good, except that he suffered from frequent attacks of fever during the last four years of his life, and towards the end, he was lame in one foot [he had gouty arthritis, probably due to eating too much roasted meat]. (….)  He spent much of his time on horseback and out hunting, which came naturally to him, for it would be difficult to find another race on earth who could equal the Franks in this activity.  (….)  He wore the national dress of the Franks.  Next to his skin, he had a linen shirt and linen drawers, and then a long hose and a tunic edged with silk.  He wore shoes on his feet and bands of cloth wound round his legs.  In winter, he protected his chest and shoulders with a jerkin made of otter skins or ermine. He wrapped himself in a blue cloak and always had a sword strapped to his side, with a hilt and belt of gold and silver. (….) He hated the clothes of other countries, no matter how becoming they might be, and he would never consent to wear them.”

A feature not mentioned by Einhard at all – probably because it is too common to mention – is that Charles sported the typical Frankish moustache and no beard.  Although later representations traditionally depict the emperor with a beard and long hair, such features would have been considered improper by the Franks of the late eighth and early ninth centuries. Beards and long hair were only worn by Jews and foreigners.  Hence, after his conquest of Benevento, Charlemagne forced the local Langobards to shave their chins and remove their typical long beards in the Frankish manner, as a mark of submission.
Einhard's Vita Caroli

It is obvious from Einhard’s description that the emperor did not attach value to luxurious clothing. Einhard mentions that Charlemagne often looked more like a common soldier than like a king.  His aversion of overdressed magnates went so far that once, when Charles was on a hunting trip with a number of smoothly dressed nobles donned in expensive silk apparel, he intentionally made them ride through thicket and dense undergrowth, so that their expensive outfit was ripped to pieces.

 had a robust condition and was a healthy eater and a moderate drinker.  His main meal normally consisted of four courses and roast meat was his favourite dish.  In summer, he liked having fruit after his meal.  A light sleeper at night, he often woke up to rise long before daybreak to work or to invite friends. During the day, he normally built in a siesta of two to three hours, for which he undressed completely, as he did at night.  During meals and in general, he loved to listen to passages from the De Civitate Dei by Augustine of Hippo and liked entertainment.

As the King of the Franks, Charlemagne regarded himself as the “sword of God”, even as the representative of God on earth.  In this role, he saw it as his special duty and mission to propagate the Christian faith on earth.  This self-image was also the reason why he often acted on his own authority regarding theological issues, and even stood up to the pope from time to time.  As a religious man and a typical product of his time, Charlemagne was superstitious and always wore a lucky charm. This was a locket with some strands of hair of the Holy Mother or a splinter of the Holy Cross.

Wives and children
In the Early Middle Ages, the concept of marriage in Western Europe was different from the one we know today.  For the average man it was not unusual to have a common law spouse and not to be married at all, even though the Church was formally opposed to people living out of wedlock.  For the landed classes, however, marriage was an important issue, as only legal children could inherit possessions. 
Hildigard von Vintzgau

Starting with the Merovingian king Chlothar I (a son of Clovis who reigned from 511 to 561 AD), many rulers of the Frankish Kingdom were polygamous.  Similarly, Charlemagne had a great number of wives and concubines during his lifetime.  His first wife Himiltrude was never officially married to him.  She bore him a handicapped son, Pippin the Hunchback, who, as an illegitimate son was excluded from his father’s inheritance and later, maybe as a result, revolted against his father.  However, it is likely that dissatisfied magnates who were out to topple the almighty king, used him as a puppet to serve their own ends.  Pippin was confined to a monastery, the usual punishment in those days for problematic relations and political opponents.

While Charlemagne was still liaised to Himiltrude, his mother Bertrada allegedly arranged a political marriage with the daughter of the Langobard king Desiderius, meant to become Charles’ first official wife.  Himiltrude was side-lined, and sent to a monastery, where she died some years later.  However, for whatever reason, the marriage with the Langobard princess probably never took place.  Maybe the pope did not support this union.  The latter had a quarrel with the Langobards concerning a number of formerly Byzantine territories in Italy that the papacy had laid claim to.  It is even unclear what the Langobard princess’ real name was.  Most sources call her Desiderata, but this may well be a fantasy name. Other sources call her 

Gerperga, Ermengarde or Bertrade.  Whatever happened, Charles may have not wanted to be liaised with the Langobard king in the first place, since the annexation of the latter’s kingdom was part of his basic master plan.  Having turned Desiderata down, Charles officially married Hildigard von Vintzgau, a 15-year old Swabian girl of noble descent.  With her he had nine children within a period of eleven years.  Small wonder, that poor Hildigard died at the young age of 26. 
While being married to Hildigard, Charles had two concubines, maybe because his wife was permanently pregnant.  Gersuinda, with whom he had a daughter, and Madalgard, who also bore him a daughter called Ruodhaid.  After Hildigard’s early death in 783 AD, Charles married Fastrada, who was his junior by eighteen years and either from Frankish or Saxon origin.  Fastrada was said to be a demonic beauty, but she was of very weak health.  With her, he had two daughters.  On the side, he also had a daughter with a concubine called Amaltrude.  When Fastrada died aged 29 in 794 AD, Charles had already taken Luitgard as a secondary wife, since Fastrada had become very ill by the end of her short life.

Luitgard, who was of Alamannic stock, bore him no children and died only six years later in 800 AD. After Luitgard’s death, Charlemagne did not remarry and had two more concubines, Regina and Ethelind.  With Regina he had two children: Drogo, who would become bishop of Metz and Hugh, the later arch-chancellor of the empire. Ethelind bore him two children, one of whom was Richbod, the later abbot of St. Riquier Abbey. 

Campaigns and Decisive Battles

During his 46-year rule, Charlemagne conducted a very aggressive expansionist policy and organised over 30 military campaigns, many of which he headed personally.  Unfortunately, not much is known about the individual battles that were fought, other than their eventual outcome.  Apparently, the Carolingian army was generally better equipped and more efficiently organised than those of its various adversaries, as in practically all recorded battles the Franks emerged victorious.

The Saxon Wars (771 – 804 AD)
Immediately aft
er his brother Carloman’s death on 4 December 771 AD, Charlemagne started long and intensive series of bloody wars with the Saxons. Almost 40 battles were fought in a period of more than 30 years, after which Saxonia was finally conquered and pacified in 804 AD.

The Saxons were not a single homogeneous tribe, but a conglomerate of different “swarms”, which operated independently of each other and who did not recognise a central leader, much to the surprise of the Franks and their early mediaeval historians.  Saxons were culturally different from the Franks, in that they were not used to taking an oath of allegiance on their leader (dux).  Saxons were driven by personal honour, not so much by allegiance to their leader.  This typical Germanic feature had also impeded the unity of the Langobard kingdom, since the Langobards were originally of Germanic (even Saxon) origin.  This feature, which the Franks had discarded over time, made it very difficult to negotiate peace treaties, as Saxon individuals who did not consider a treaty an honourable agreement, carried on waging war, often successfully applying guerrilla tactics, in groups of 30-50 men.

The largest, more or less coherent, groups of Saxons were the Nordliudi (“people of the north”), the Osterliudi/Austreleudi (“people of the east”) also known as the Eastphalians, the Westphalians and the Angari/Angrivari or Engern in German. These were subdivided in smaller tribes, such as the Chauci, Semnones, Bructeri, Ampsivarii, Thuringi, Cherusci, the Elbsaxons (Wihmuodi and Nordalbingi) and the Langobards (those “longbeards” who had not wandered south in the second
century AD and settled Italy 400 years later).

With Saxonia essentially being a completely pagan area, Charlemagne’s first campaign in July 772 AD was carefully staged as a crusade.  Hence, it was no coincidence that, first of all, Charlemagne sought to destroy the important Saxon religious symbol and pagan sanctuary called the Irminsul, a large wooden pillar or tree trunk, which was worshipped as a god.  Then the Frankish army proceeded to conquer the Eresburg (modern-day Marsberg), a Saxon stronghold on the river Diemel.  Further north, on the river Weser, a truce was negotiated and twelve Saxon hostages taken by the Franks.  In 773/4 AD, under the leadership of the well-known Widukind, the Saxons destroyed Fritzlar and reconquered the Eresburg.  In August 775 AD, Charlemagne personally returned to Saxony, where he had a confrontation with a group of Saxons, which ended in the capture of the Saxon fort of Sigiburg (modern-day Syburg, near Dortmund).  From here, he marched on to the Eresburg, where a battle was fought with the Westphalians.  The Saxons were defeated and many were killed during the flight.  Here and at the Sigiburg Frankish forces were left in charge to control the surrounding regions.
Possible reconstruction of the Irminsul

The Angrivari, who were trying to prevent the Franks from crossing the river Weser, were defeated and many Saxons died.  Charlemagne proceeded with part of his army to Brunsberg near modern-day Höxter, and from there on to the river Oker, where he took on the Eastphalians.  These handed hostages and were forced to swear allegiance to the Frankish king.  As Saxons did not swear allegiance to their leaders, this would ultimately appear to be a futile gesture.

From here Charlemagne turned west via Hildesheim to Hlitbeki (modern-day Lübbecke, 45 km east of Osnabrück) to support another Frankish army fighting the Saxons in that area.  In 776 AD, a rebellion, under the leadership of Widukind, destroyed the fortress of Eresburg.  In the territory of the Westphalians, who were completely subjected now, as were the Angrivari and Eastphalians inhabiting the area near modern-day Uffeln, Charlemagne built the Karlsburg, probably in Paderborn, and called a Reichstag (diet) here to fully integrate Saxony onto the Frankish kingdom. Many Saxons were baptised in 777 AD.
In June 779 AD the Saxons were anew brought to heel near Buhholz (most probably modern-day Bocholt), but Widukind escaped to Denmark (Nordmannia), the home of his wife.  At the next Reichstag in Lippe, Saxonia was divided into missionary districts and Charlemagne himself is said to have assisted in several mass baptisms in 780 AD.  Future killings of priests, destruction of churches, pagan practices, burning of dead bodies and avoidance of baptism all became punishable with death.

In 782 AD Charles returned to Saxony, instituted a code of law and appointed counts, both Saxon and Frank.  The laws were draconian on religious issues and stifled all indigenous forms of Germanic paganism.  Some quotations from the Medieval Sourcebook:
  • If anyone shall have killed a bishop, priest, or deacon, let him likewise be punished capitally.*
  • If anyone shall have entered a church by violence and shall have carried off anything in it by force or theft, or shall have burned the church itself, let him be punished by death.
  • If anyone, out of contempt for Christianity, shall have despised the holy Lenten fast and shall have eaten flesh, let him be punished by death.
  • If anyone, in accordance with pagan rites, shall have caused the body of a dead man to be burned and shall have reduced his bones by ashes, let him be punished capitally.
  • If any of the race of the Saxons hereafter concealed among them shall have wished to hide himself unbaptized, and shall have scorned to come to baptism and shall have wished to remain a pagan, let him be punished by death.
  • If anyone shall have ravished the daughter of his lord, let him be punished capitally.
  • If anyone shall have shown himself unfaithful to the lord king, let him be punished with a capital sentence. 

*it should be noted, that the usual Saxon punishment for murder was the payment of a large fine, the substitution of the person killed (e.g. a servant or a slave) or taking over the care of the family inflicted by the murder. 

Moreover, the Saxons became obliged to pay church-tithes, which they regarded as slavery and hence a shameful act.  This stirred renewed conflicts.  Widukind returned from Denmark and led several assaults on the Church.  In September 782 AD the Saxons attacked the Frankish army on the river Süntel in the Osning Mountains, when the Franks were on their way to punish the Sorbs, who had invaded Thuringia located in the east of the empire. 
Modern Obermarsberg, the former location of the Saxon hillfort the Eresburg
Charlemagne reciprocated this action with the so-called massacre of Verden.  Here, according to the Annales regni francorum, 4,500 Saxon leaders were decapitated.  After this defeat, the Saxon leader Widukind fled to Denmark again and the massacre triggered three years of renewed bloody warfare.  During this period of wars, the Frisians were also finally subdued and a large part of their fleet was burned.  The next year, in 783 AD, Charlemagne engaged in a number of personal encounters with the Saxons in the Osning Mountains near Detmold and Osnabrück near the river Haase.  The Frankish king gave battle, crossed the river Weser and continued up to the Elbe.  He defeated the Saxon tribes that opposed him and ravaged their countryside.

In 784 AD Widukind returned from Denmark and defeated King Charles.  The latter retaliated, and in the spring of 785 AD Widukind surrendered.  Two important leaders of the Saxon revolt, Widukind and Abbio were taken to Attigny in modern-day northern France, where they were baptised. On this special occasion, Charlemagne kindly assisted as Widukind’s godfather.

Though Widukind and his supporters had finally surrendered, other Saxons did not consider themselves subjugated and proceeded to oppose Charlemagne’s expansionist policies.  In 792 AD the Westphalians rose again and were joined by the Eastphalians and Nordalbingi in 793 AD.  The insurrection was put down in 794 AD, and a mass deportation staged in 795 AD, followed by another revolt of the Engrians in 796 AD.  This was crushed with the help of Christian Saxons and Slavs. In response to this, vast Saxon deportations took place in 796, 797, 798 and 799 AD, in which a total of over 10,000 people must have been involved.  People were relocated over hundreds of kilometres. This is why quarters of modern German towns located in the old Frankish homelands, such as Frankfurt am Main, still carry the name Sachsenhausen.

Many Saxons were sold as slaves.  During the Saxon wars the largest slave market in the Frankish empire, Verdun in northern France, was especially flooded with Saxon women.  One year later, another 1,600 Saxon leaders were deported. The last insurrection and deportations took place in 804 AD, when the Elbsaxons (Wihmuodi) that inhabited the district of Wigmodia were transferred to other places.  When Saxonia was finally pacified, its population was decimated and leaderless,
and it had been robbed of vast regions in the east that had now been settled by the Slavs.

The Conquest of Italy
The alliance between the Franks and the papacy had unsettled the political situation in Italy.  After 756 AD, King Desiderius ruled over the northern plains, while the Langobard duchies of Spoleto and Benevento were more or less independent. Though Charlemagne’s father Pippin III had promised Pope Stephen II the Exarchate of Ravenna and the so-called Pentapolis (Rimini, Pesano, Faro, Senigallia, Ancona), territories which the Langobards had seized from the Byzantines in 751 AD, these regions were still in Langobard hands when Charlemagne succeeded his father.  Gerberga, the widow of his brother Carloman, had fled to King Desiderius shortly after her husband’s death in 771 AD. With Desiderius’ support, she sought to arrange for the royal anointing of Carloman’s two-year old son Pippin.

It was now clear to Charlemagne that this couple posed a serious threat to him.  Matters came to a head, when the pope refused to anoint Carloman’s son.  In retaliation, Desiderius took the cities of Faenza, Ferrara and Comacchio, which Pippin III had “donated” to the papacy in 756 AD, and besieged Rome in order to reinforce his arguments.  After unsuccessful negotiations, King Charles opted to attack Italy and to discard any possibility of a future Franco-Langobard alliance, which his mother Bertrada had so carefully been trying to establish a few years earlier.

Charlemagne and his uncle Bernard crossed the Alps in 773 AD, chasing the Langobards back to Pavia, which they besieged. During the siege, which lasted 19 months, Charlemagne left for Verona to deal with Desiderius’ son Adalchis.  The latter had been put in charge of Gerberga, who was hiding in the same city.  Adalchis was able to flee to Constantinople, where he would stay until his death, but Gerberga and her children were captured – and never heard of again.  Pavia surrendered in 774 AD and King Desiderius was confined to the abbey of Corbie in France. 

15th C portrait of King Desiderius, Italy

Charles had himself crowned “King of the Franks and the Langobards”. Returning to Francia in the same year, he left a Frankish garrison in Pavia and installed a number of Frankish counts in key positions.  In 776 AD the Duke Hrodgaud of Friuli rebelled, while Desiderius’ son Adalchis made his way back from Constantinople, conniving with Duke Arichis of Benevento, Duke Hildeprand of Spoleto and the Greeks of southern Italy, but the rebellion was struck down.

In 780 AD King Charles travelled to Italy again, accompanied by his queen Hildegard, his daughter Gisela and his sons Carloman and Louis (Chlodwig).  On Easter day Charles had his four-year old son Carloman baptized by the Pope in Rome. Carloman was christened Pippin after his grandfather – thereby side-lining his first-born son by his first common-law wife Himiltrude, Pippin the Hunchback – and anointed King of Italy.  His other son Louis was anointed King of Aquitaine.

Frankish counts and soldiers were established in local towns, and abbeys from across the Alps received Italian lands.  As “Patrician of the Romans” and successor to the Langobard kings, Charles sought to unify Italy under his own control.  Though the pope protested heavily against the encroachments and interference of Frankish administrators, there was little he could do against the invasion of his protector.

In 787 AD Charlemagne directed his attention towards the unruly duchy of Benevento.  He moved south to Monte Cassino, advanced to Capua and besieged Salerno.  Duke Arichis submitted to vassalage, but when Charles had returned to Francia, Arichis preferred to offer submission to the Byzantine empress Irene.  After Arichis’ death in the same year, Charles allowed the duke’s son Grimoald III to rule Benevento on several conditions: that he include the name of the Frankish king on his charters and coinage and that that the Langobards shave their chins in the Frankish manner as a mark of submission.  Thus, the duchy became a buffer state between Carolingian Italy and the Byzantine world.  Charles
furthermore annexed Istria.
The Spanish Campaigns (778 – 803 AD)
The Saracen chiefs of northeast Muslim Spain w
ere constantly revolting against the Umayyad authority in Córdoba and had turned to the Franks for help in 777 AD.  According to the Muslim historian Ibn-al-Athir, the Reichstag of Paderborn had received representatives of the Muslim rulers of Zaragoza, Barcelona, Girona and Huesca under the leadership of Suleiman or Ibn al-Arabi, whose masters had been cornered by Abd ar-Rachman, the Umayyad Emir of Córdoba.

Believing that the Saxons were now fully subdued, Charlemagne crossed the Pyrenees and penetrated as far as Zaragoza. Failing to take this town, however, Charles was forced to retreat.  On his way back to Francia, he subdued the Basques, took Pamplona and levelled its walls.  In retaliation, however, the Basques destroyed the Frankish rear guard in the Pyrenees near Roncesvalles during his retreat to Francia.  In this fight, the Frankish commander Count Hruodland (Roland) perished with his men.  This event and was 300 years later poetically remembered in La Chanson de Roland.
Roland blowing his horn at Ronceveaux Pass

The Frankish border was slowly extended until 795 AD, when Girona, Cardona, Ausona and Urgel were united into the new Spanish March, within the old Duchy of Septimania.  In 797 AD the governor of Barcelona Zeid rebelled against Córdoba. When the rebellion failed, Zeid handed the city to the Franks, but the Umayyad authority was able to recapture it in 799 AD. A year later, Charlemagne’s son Louis of Aquitaine (later The Pious), marched the entire army of his kingdom across the Pyrenees and besieged the town for two years until it capitulated in 801 AD.  The Franks continued to press forward against the Emir of Córdoba and took Tarragona in 809 AD and Tortosa in 811 AD.  The last conquest brought them to the mouth of the Ebro, prompting Emir al-Hakam to recognise their conquests in 812 AD.

The Submission of Bavaria (788 AD)
The Duchy of Bavaria roughly formed a square bounded by the rivers Danube, Enns and Lech.  It had been semi-independent of the Merovingian kingdom since the end of the sixth century, and had lived in relative peace with the neighbouring Bohemians, Moravians, Avars, Slovenians and Franks.  The Franks and the Bavarians had always been traditional allies, which had resulted in many marriages between the two nations.  Moreover, in return for the participation in successful military campaigns, Bavarian magnates had received valuable possessions in the Frankish heartland and in Burgundy.

Ultimately, this close relationship between the two powers had led to Bavaria becoming a vassal state of the Frankish kingdom in 757 AD, with a leadership that had become more Frankish than Bavarian. Duke Tassilo III, for instance, who was Charlemagne’s senior by about six years, was a Frank by three quarters and a full cousin of the king.

Nevertheless, the local Bavarian population had never felt very comfortable with the strong Frankish influence and revolted every so often.  Charles’s father, King Pippin III, had to suppress a revolt under Tassilo’s father, duke Odilo and when Odilo died in 749, Pippin nominated the eight-year old Tassilo as his father’s successor, hoping that thus it would be easier for him to manipulate Bavaria’s politics. In 756 AD Tassilo led a contingent of Bavarian soldiers in Pippin’s war against the Langobards.  

In 763 AD, however, when Tassilo was 22 years old, he abandoned Pippin’s military campaign in Aquitania, apparently in discord and without approval of the Frankish king.  He would never take part in Frankish campaigns again ever since, and ultimately seek to escape from Frankish tutelage.   Being the heir of the glorious Agilofings, who had built up the duchy, Tassilo could count on the help of richly endowed monastic houses.  Married to a Langobard princess, and a cousin of the Frankish king, he was never a typical vassal, and no doubt used his time to set up a transalpine Bavarian-Langobard alliance to counter-balance Charles’ aggressive expansionist policies.  Nevertheless, when Charles invaded Italy in 773 AD and installed himself as King of the Langobards a year later, Tassilo thought it wiser not to intervene on behalf of his father-in-law. 

As Frankish annexations of Friuli, Istria and Langobard Italy amounted to an encirclement of Bavaria with predictable consequences, Tassilo sought support with the Avars to make a stance against the intrusive behaviour of the Franks.  This was exactly the excuse Charles needed to accuse Tassilo of disloyal behaviour. When the king demanded that Tassilo come to the Reichstag (diet) in Worms in 781 AD to renew the pledges that he had made to his father Pippin III in 757 AD, the duke agreed to come, provided he were given hostages “who would allow him not to fear for his safety”.  This mistrust was inauspicious for the future.

Chalice owned by Duke Tassilo of Bavaria ca. 780 AD

When Tassilo finally refused again to appear on the Reichstag in Worms in 787 AD, Charles had no other option but to punish this flagrant act of insubordination and he moved with his army to Augsburg in Bavaria.  Tassilo could not withstand the three armies that converged on him from Tirol, along the Lech and Danube rivers, and on 3 October 787 AD the duke renewed his fealty to the Frankish king at Lechfeld near Augsburg.  At the same time, his Langobard wife, Liutperga encouraged him to continue his intrigues and to enter into negotiations with the Avars.  The Bavarian “Realpolitiker” within the Bavarian nobility, however, notified Charlemagne of these developments, and Tassilo was summoned to make his appearance on the Reichstag in Ingelheim near Mainz in 788 AD.

Here Charlemagne accused Tassilo of insubordination and plotting against the Frankish king, even referring back to Tassilo’s herizliz (desertion from the Frankish army) during the campaign of King Pippin III against Aquitaine 25 years earlier (sic!).  In the presence of all his magnates, Charles charged his cousin guilty, which effectively meant the death sentence.  As an act of mercy, however, he converted the verdict to a lifelong confinement of the duke and his family in various monasteries and subsequently incorporated Tassilo’s territories in his kingdom.  The duke had to hand Charles his entire treasury, which was mainly used to replenish the royal coffers, and all of Tassilo’s magnates had to swear Charlemagne allegiance in the Bavarian capital of Regensburg.  Charles’ brother–in-law, Gerold, was to head up the military government of Bavaria with the title of praefectus, or governor.

However, Bavaria would still not be entirely submitted. Charles had to face another revolt in Regensburg in 792 AD, led by his eldest son Pippin the Hunchback, born from his liaison with Himiltrude.  The handicapped Pippin had many reasons to bear a grudge against his powerful father. When Charles married Hildigard, he had disinherited his first-born son and side-lined him for further political functions.  He had even transferred the name Pippin to his second son Carloman, born from the marriage with Hildigard.  The revolt was suppressed and the leaders were publicly decapitated, crucified, incarcerated or deported. Pippin was confined to the monastery of Prüm, where he died in 811 AD.

The Avar Campaigns (791 – 805 AD)

Having annexed Bavaria, the Franks were now in direct contact with the Avars, nomadic Asian horsemen, who spoke a Turkic language and who had been the most important political factor in Hungary and the Balkans ever since the death of Justinian I in 565 AD.  Their political structures and ways to wage war were very similar to those of the Huns and the later Mongolians. Though they had terrorized Italy and the Eastern Roman Empire for a long time, killing the male population and dragging the women away as slaves, they had come to terms with the surrounding nations over the years and by the time Charlemagne had submitted the Bavarians, their power had dwindled considerably.

Having conspired with Tassilo of Bavaria against Charles in 788 AD, reprisals were merely a question of time.  After careful preparation, the Franks invaded the Avar territories in 791 AD in three columns, one left of the Rhine, one right of the Rhine and one moving up from Friuli, converging in the Wienerwald, the woodlands near Vienna, while Gerold, the new governor of Bavaria headed a flotilla on the Danube carrying provisions and additional troops.  Avar fortifications in the Wienerwald collapsed when faced with the massive Frankish drive.  However, when Charles reached the Danube-Raab confluence, an outbreak of pestilence among the horses halted the campaign.

Back in Regensburg, Charlemagne planned for another campaign, but had to return to Saxony to stem a revolt.  In 795 AD his son Pippin (formerly Carloman) forced his way as far as the Avar “capital” called the Ring, which was a fortified camp defended by nine concentric ramparts situated between the Danube and Tisa rivers in modern-day Hungary, and seized part of its treasures.  In 796 AD Charles returned and destroyed the Ring.  Its fabled treasures were captured and to cart them home, the Franks needed 15 wagons, each of them drawn by 4 oxen.  Missionaries from Salzburg immediately set about the task of Christianising the newly subdued territories, which resulted in a revolt in 799 AD, resulting in the death of Gerold, the governor of Bavaria. 
Avar soldiers

Additional expeditions were needed to quash the remnants of Avar resistance, but in 805 AD the khagan himself finally accepted baptism and pledged fealty to the Frankish ruler.  Charlemagne also annexed Carinthia, which stretched between the Enns River and the woodlands around Vienna. This region became the cradle of the later Eastern March or Ostmark in German, known today as Austria.

There were further minor skirmishes until 822 AD, when an Avar delegation had a meeting with Charlemagne’s son and successor Louis the Pious in Aachen.   After this event, the Avars were never heard of again.  Probably Bavarian and Slav colonists mingled with the Avar population beyond the river Raab, up to the shores of the Lake Balaton in modern Hungary.  A part of the Avars simply refused to submit and fled to the east, settling in the Slavic kingdom organised by Krum (803 - 814 AD), the khagan of the Turkic speaking Bulgars.

The Slav Expeditions (798 – 806 AD)

Since the seventh century AD, various northern groups had encroached on Saxony, Thuringia and Bavaria, while bands of South Slavs had carved out territories of their own in the Balkans.  During Charlemagne’s many campaigns against the Saxons, his armies had gradually also begun to join battle with the Slav peoples living further to the east.

The Obodrites lived beyond the Elbe among the lakes and waterways of Holstein and western Mecklenburg.  The Wilzi (Veleti/ Veledi in Latin, or Welatabi in their own language) lived to the south and east of the river Warnow.  Still farther south came the Linoni and Smeldingi and near the Thuringian border, the Sorbs (also known as Wends) who today are still an official minority in the Lausitz area.  This part of modern-day Germany was originally settled by the Lausitzi/Luzici and is now situated on the Polish border, with German towns such as Cottbus, Görlitz and Eisenhüttenstadt.  These peoples lived as clans and tribes and possibly formed confederations.  The West Slavs lived primarily as fishermen, herdsmen and farmers, but also traded along the great navigable rivers. 

Modern Sorbs in traditional dress
Their lands were dotted with strongholds that served as homes for their military leaders.  Charlemagne exploited the differences between the various Slavic peoples to his own advantage.  Threatened by the Wilzi, the Obodrites soon became allies of the Franks and helped Charlemagne in his struggle against the Nordalbingian Saxons.  At the time of the Saxon deportations, they received additional (formerly Saxon) lands west of the Elbe.

Charles organized several campaigns against the Wilzi and the Linoni.  In 789 AD he crossed the Elbe and with the help of Frisian, Obodrite, Saxon and Sorbian contingents, he advanced up to the Havel river between modern-day Berlin and the Baltic Sea.  This caused Dragovit, the chief of the Wiltzi, to pledge his submission and surrender hostages.  In 806 AD agitations by the Sorbs provoked a demand for hostages and an expedition that resulted in the death of the Sorbian leader Miliduch.  As a visible token of Frankish authority, the invading army erected and garrisoned two strongholds, one below Magdeburg on the river Elbe and another at Halle on the river Saale.  The Sorbian March would expand under Charlemagne’s successors and become the springboard for the eastern expansionism of the later German emperors (the Ottonians) in the 10th C.

In Bavaria, Charlemagne was obliged to secure the frontier against the Czechs and the South Slavs. In 805 AD three Frankish armies, led by his son Charles, combined in the valley of the Eger River and then advanced upstream along the Elbe. The Czech leader, Lecho, was killed and his warriors retired into the hills.  A second expedition in 806 AD achieved little, though Einhard implies that Bohemia was
swiftly brought under Frankish control.

The Celt of Brittany
The Merovingian kings had never subdued the Celts of Brittany.  Fortified barriers (gwerc’hes, from Germanic werki, or works) blocked the waterways and obstructed Breton access to the Frankish Kingdom.  The Carolingians inherited this situation and established a military frontier zone, or March, to guard against Breton encroachments.  In 778 AD Count Roland, who died in the same year in the battle of Roncesvalles, was one of the officers charged with the defence of this territory.  After a long and ineffective campaign in 789 AD, Charles entrusted the government of the Breton March and the Atlantic coastal region to his son Charles the Younger. I n 799 AD Count Wido exploited the rivalries of the Bretonic clans chieftains to invade and ravage their lands.  A further expedition in 811 AD failed to achieve the desired results.  The Bretons remained independent and continued to look more to the Celtic lands of the British Isles, where they originally hailed from, than to the Frankish world.

Danish attacks
After the conquest of Nordalbingia in northern Germania, the Frankish frontier came into contact with the pagan Danes.  In 808 AD the king of the Danes Godefred extended and reinforced an immense earthen rampart (12 m wide, 2 m high and ca. 30 km. long, topped with palisades) called the Dannevirke or Danework across the isthmus of modern-day Schleswig.  This defence had already been in existence in the fourth to sixth centuries AD and had been renovated in 737 AD to serve as a barrier against invading Nordalbingian Saxons and Slav tribes.  A more heavily fortified and considerably higher version of this rampart was last employed during the Danish-Prussian war of 1864.  At the same time, the Danes started to raid the coasts of the Frankish empire, especially in Frisia and Flanders, creating havoc wherever they landed.

In response to these attacks, Charlemagne, who was in his early sixties now, marched northward in 810 AD to meet Godefred at Verden, but before the two forces could join battle, the Danish leader was murdered, either by a Frankish assassin or by his own men.  Godefred was succeeded by his nephew Hemming, who concluded a treaty with Charlemagne in 811 AD.  Based on the terms of the accord, the southern boundary of Denmark was established at the Eider river.

Sources and Further Reading
  • Annales regni francorum  unde ab a.741 usque ad a. 829 AD qui dicuntur annales laurissenses maiores et Einhardi, ed. F. Kurze, MGH SRG 6 (Hannover 1896)
  • Regesta Chronologico-Diplomatica Karolorum, Die Urkunden sämmtlicher Karolinger, Dr. Johann Friedrich Böhmer, Franz Varrentrapp, Frankfurt am Main, 1833
  • Braunfels, Wolfgang, Karl der Große, Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, Hamburg 1996
  • Deschner, Karl-Heinz, Kriminalgeschichte des Christentums, Band 4, Frühmittelalter, Rowohlt, 1994
  • Feffer, Laure-Charlotte, Pierre Forni & Patick Périn, De Clovis à Charlemagne, Les jours de l`Histoire, Casterman 1989
  • Hägermann, Dieter, Karl der Grosse, Biographie, List Taschenbuch, 2003 
  • Heather, Peter, Empires and Barbarians, Migration, Development and The Birth of Europe, Pan Books, London, 2009
  • The Internet  Medieval Sourcebook, a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history. No permission is granted for commercial use.  Paul Halsall Jan 1996, www.fordham-edu/halsall/source/carol-saxony.html
  • Le Jan, Régine, Les Mérovingiens, Que sais-je?, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 2006
  • McKitterick, Rosamund, Charlemagne, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2008
  • Nicolle, David, The Age of Charlemagne, Men-at-Arms Series Nr. 150, Osprey Publishing, 1984
  • Nicolle, David, Carolingian Cavalryman AD 768-987, Warrior Series Nr. 96, Osprey Publishing 2005
  • Nolte, Cordula, Frauen und Männer in der Gesellschaft des Mittelalters, Wissenschaftliche  Buchgesellschaft (WBG), Darmstadt 2011
  • Périn, Patrick & Pierre Forni, Au temps des royaumes barbares…, La Vie Privée des Hommes, Hachette, Paris, 1984
  • Riché, Pierre, Die Welt der Karolinger, Philipp Reclam jun. Stuttgart, 1999 (original title “La Vie quotidienne dans l’empire Carolingien”, Hachette, 1963)
  • Riché, Pierre, The Carolingians, a Family who forged Europe, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia PA,1993 (original title “Les Carolingiens, une famille qui fit l’Europe”, Hachette, 1983)
  • Thorpe, Lewis, Einhard and Notker the Stammerer, Two Lives of Charlemagne, Penguin Classics, 1969

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