John Sloan

May 1994

Summary of his reign:

Charles the Great (Charlemagne), king of the Franks and emperor, was born April 2, 742 or 743 AD, the eldest son of Pepin III by Berta Bertrada, daughter of Charibert of Laon. At that date the Franks were governed by the sons of Charles Martel, Pepin and Carloman, who ruled as mayors of the palace under a Merovingian King. By the abdication of Carloman in 747 Pepin became sole ruler. In 751 Pepin deposed the last Merovingian, Childeric III, and took the crown with approval of Pope Zacharias. In 754 Pope Stephen II visited Pepin at Paris and anointed him as king, along with his two sons, Charles and Carloman. Pepin divided the kingdom on his deathbed in 768. Charles received Austrasia, Neustria, and western Aquitaine. This arrangement displeased Carloman. In 769 Charles suppressed an Aquitanian uprising led by Duke Hunold. In 770 Charles married the daughter of Desiderius, King of the Lombards. In 771 he repudiated the Lombard princess and married Hildegarde, a Swabian lady, who became the mother of his three legitimate sons, Charles, Pepin, and Lewis. Desiderius resented the slight upon his daughter and took revenge. In 771, when King Carloman died and Charles according to Frankish law appropriated the vacant kingdom to the exclusion of his brother's infant sons, their mother, Queen Gerberga, fled with them to Desiderius' court.

Desiderius announced his intention of supporting their claims and vainly urged the pope to crown them. In 772 the new pope, Hadrian, endangered the safety of the papal states by refusing this demand. Since Charles was preoccupied with his first Saxon campaign, Desiderius was able to plunder and conquer at will in central Italy. But in the autumn of 772 Charles gave ear to Hadrian's appeal for help and demanded satisfaction from the Lombards for himself and for the pope. Since Desiderius was defiant, the Frankish host was summoned to meet at Geneva in May 773. From Geneva the main army led by Charles himself marched over the Mt. Cenis Pass to encounter the Lombard army, under Desiderius, holding a fortified position. Meanwhile a second Frankish army, which crossed the Great St. Bernard pass, threatened the Lombard communications. When they saw their danger, the Lombards fell back in haste to Pavia and Verona. Verona surrendered to the Franks in the winter of 773-774. Here Charles captured his nephews. Pavia was then captured after a long blockade in the summer of 774. Desiderius ended his days as a monk at Corvbie on the Somme river.

After taking Pavia, Charles took the title of king of the Lombards. Frankish garrisons and Frankish officials were set at Pavia and other cities. Charles visited Rome during 774. He was acclaimed Patrician of the Romans .

From 774 to 799 Charles was at war with the Saxons east of the Rhine and north of Hesse and Thuringia. They were tributaries of the Franks since 758. The first Saxon war may have started as Charles' effort to covert them. The main act was the destruction of the sacred pillar, Irminsul, with its temple. The Saxons retaliated by raiding Hesse while Charles was in Italy. In 775 he opened a war of conquest, which was only completed after 14 campaigns. The Frankish army was much superior to the Saxons, but the terrain favored the Saxons. The Franks could only form the army during the summer and could not find garrisons for areas they conquered. The Saxons would submit during the campaign and then revolt after the Franks withdrew.

In 785 the Saxon chief, Widukind, submitted and was baptized. Then the fight moved north to the marshes on the left bank of the lower Elbe and in Schleswig. In 799 and 804 Charles conducted mass deportations and transplanting of populations to other areas. He created bishoprics in the area and forced the Saxon counts to conduct court according to his Frankish legal system.

Charles annexed Bavarian after the last Bavarian duke, Tassilo, was sent to a monastery in 788 for conspiring with the Avars. Bavarian became a strong center of the East Frankish kingdom with Regensburg the capital. From Bavarian Charles came into battle with the Avars who lived on the steppes (later Hungary) since 568. In 791 Charles attacked the Avar western areas between the Enns and Raab rivers. The Avar fortified camp was sacked in 795 and then totally destroyed in 796. After this the Avars sent some chiefs to Aachen to make peace and accept baptism. In 805 the Avar khan, finding himself pressed by the Slavs, became a Christian and went under the emperor's protection.

The Franks also fought in Spain. Charles harassed the Arabs there. In 778 Charles himself commanded the expedition against Saragossa. It failed. As he retreated through the Pyrenees, his rear guard was destroyed, not by the Arabs, but by the Christian Basques of Pamphlona, whose walls he had destroyed. This rear guard was commanded by Roland, the warden of the Breton March, who died at Roncesvaux in 778. In 801 Charles' son, Lewis, captured Barcelona with the help of Count William of Toulouse. In 807 Pamphlona accepted Charles protection. This created the two bastions to defend a Spanish mark to hold the passes in the Pyrenees.

Charles visited Italy three times between 774 and 779. He crushed the Lombard rebellion in 775. In 780 and 787 Charles crossed the Alps to control Benevento.

In 787 he accepted the suggestion of the Byzantine Empress, Irene, to give his eldest daughter, Rotrude, to Irene's son Constantine VI. Charles canceled the agreement in 787, after Irene and her son induced the Seventh Council of Nicaea to restore image worship in the Greek Church.

In 799 a Roman faction accused Pope Leo of various crimes and he was assaulted in the city streets. In July 799 he was taken to Paderborn. He was returned to Rome with a commission of archbishops, bishops, and counts, who held a judicial enquiry and reported that nothing was proven against him. In November 800 Charles appeared at Rome and spent 3 weeks reviewing the situation. On Dec. 23, 799 Leo cleared himself. Then on Christmas day, as Charles attended mass at St. Peter's, Leo crowned him emperor.

This was the most important event in Europe during the early middle ages, since it was not only the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire, but also of the centuries-long struggle between pope and emperor.

In 801 Charles offered to marry Irene, but she was deposed shortly after his envoys arrived. There followed a war with the Byzantines over Istria and Dalmatia, especially a naval war in the Adriatic conducted by Charlemagne's son, King Pepin. When Pepin died in 810, Charles hurriedly offered peace. The Byzantine emperor agreed in 811, and in 812 Byzantine envoys came to Aachen and called Charles Basileus, in effect recognizing him as an equal emperor. In 813 Charles crowned his son, Lewis, as emperor at Aachen.

At the end of his reign Charles had the Greeks and the Danes as his main enemies. In 809 he built a fort at Itzehoe to protect the right bank of the Elbe from Danish pirates. Charles had a fleet at Boulogne to protect the northern coasts. He had a fleet controlling the Mediterranean from Narbonne to the Tiber to guard against Arab pirates.

Charles encouraged learning and studied Latin Grammar. Many of the oldest manuscripts remaining from the classical writers are dated from Charles' time.

He died on Jan. 28, 814 of pleurisy and was buried in the chapel at Aachen.

Weapons and warfare

Frankish warriors traditionally used single handed axes and spears and fought from behind a shield wall. By the time of Charles they rode on horses and may have fought from horseback as well. They were in transition from foot to true cavalry of the medieval knight. They developed a long, well-made Frankish sword, which was renowned throughout Europe. In addition they had the scramasax or short sword and spear. The cavalry spear had a cross piece to prevent it from lodging too deep in its victim to be retrieved. The foot troops also carried bow and arrows. They were mostly unarmored but the cavalry had leather jackets with metal pieces sewn on.


The Frankish army was not a regular or even a standing army, but a seasonal-called force. All Frankish free men were required to serve in campaign, if summoned, without pay and to have their own weapons. Any pay was due to the dividing of booty from victory.

As the empire developed with the increased use of cavalry, the poor foot soldiers could not provide their own weapons. Then only those with a minimum of land were required to provide weapons. Anyone who failed to show up for roll call at the muster was fined and punished.The usual muster was in the spring and the army remained on service for 3 to 6 months. If the campaign was severe, the troops might miss both the spring planting and the harvest, but the campaigns were usually suspended for the winter. Sometimes a siege could be continued throughout the year with use of fortified camps.

The soldiers each brought their own 3 months food supply, arms, armor, tools for entrenching, and other items. Charles had an extraordinary fine supply organization and excellent transport. Advance planning worked out the movements, and supplies were requisitioned for the proper places and times along the route of march. Cattle and baggage trains went with the forces. On the march the army did not forage or plunder unless in conquered territory such as Saxony, were it was done more for punishment purposes rather than for provisioning.


Charles had an extensive and detailed intelligence service complete with terrain analysis and estimates of the enemy population, methods of war, agriculture, and life styles. He generally divided his army into two major forces, one under his direct command and the other under a trusted noble. This confused the enemy and, when he united the force, he was able to overpower the opponent. The battle itself was usually just a mass of foot infantry in melee with support from horsemen. The army was not structured tactically, but administratively, into the groups brought by the various counts and other officials with their supporters. The cavalry just launched a mass charge with the infantry following. The foot troops did the entrenching and general engineering work. They would not have used their bows much with only 12 arrows available.


Campaigns can be divided geographically into north-east against Saxony and later Danes, east against the Avars, south- east against the Lombards and later the Byzantines, and south-west against the Arabs in Spain. Then there were the naval forces in the Mediterranean and North Seas to cover the coasts. In addition, Charles conquered Corsica, Sardinia, and the Baleric Islands in amphibious campaigns.

Summary of campaigns

769 - Campaign to reconquer Acquataine from Duke Hunold captured Bordeaux and built fortress at Fronsac

772 - Against Lombards

772 - First campaign against Saxons into middle Saxony Engrians. destroyed Irminsul

773 - Against Lombardy, marched to Geneva and over Mont Cenis pass while his uncle crossed Great St. Bernard Pass. Siege of Pavia and Verona.

774 - In Rome with Pope Hadrian

774 - Pavia surrendered

775 - Saxon revolt, Charles again into Saxony in Westphalia, captured camp at Sigiburg, then into Engria and crossed Weser.

776 - Against Lombards of Fruili and Spoleto, second expedition to Italy.

776 - While Franks were in 2nd invasion of Italy, Saxons rebelled in Westphalia and Engria. Saxons took Frankish camp at Eresburg. Charles rapidly returned with army and Saxons sued for peace.

777 - Council at Paderborn in Saxony at which Arab emirs came offering homage.

778 - Took army into Spain over western Pyrenees while another army went over eastern passes. Two armies met at Saragossa, but could not capture town. Stormed Pamphlona and were returning to Aquitaine in 778, when ambush in mountains killed Roland.

778-9 Saxons revolt again, Charles had to wait over winter.

779 - Charles again to Westphalia, destroyed Saxons, the remainder surrendered again.

780 - Council at Saxony divided country and started building missions and bishoprics.

780-82 - Saxony under control.

782 - Wittikind again led Saxon revolt. Charles beheaded 4500 Saxon prisoners at Verden.

783-85 - Continued war, Franks stayed all of 784 at Minden.

785 - War in Spain constant after this, Franks took Gerona led by Louis and William of Toulouse.

787 - Again into Italy to besiege Salerno and subdue Benevenuto.

785-92 - Frankish rule consolidated.

785-814 - Expansion against Slavs, Avars, and Saracens in south and west.

786 - Breton rebellion.

788 - Replaced Tassilo, Duke of Bavaria. 788 - Avars invaded Fruili and Bavaria. 789 - Crossed Elbe against Slavs.

790 - Charles led Austrasian and Saxon army down Danube while

Lombard army went into Pannonia to destroy Avars.

791-92 - Charles again in Saxony, campaign against Avars led by Pepin.

792 - Saxon revolt with 2-year-long campaign.

792-804 - Four more Saxon uprisings.

795 and 798 -Against Saxons again.

797 - Captured Barcelona, Arabs took it back in 799 and Franks took it again in 801.

799 - Breton again, Louis in Italy and Charles the younger against Saxons again.

799 - Took Baleric Islands.

804-810 - Campaigns against Byzantines around Venice and Dalmatian coast also took Corsica and Sardinia.

804 - Northern Saxons revolted again, Charles deported them 805-6 - Charles younger against Czechs on upper Elbe.

808 - Began war with Danes and their pirate raids.

809 - Took Tarragona in Spain.

811 - Took fortress of Tortosa on Ebro River.

812 - Arabs sought peace.

814 - Death of Charles the Great.

Primary Sources:

Eginhardus (Einhard) Vita Kardi Imperatoris (1883) in G. H. Pertz, Scriptores Rerum Germanicarum (1839 etc); also Penguin

Classics edition with Notker the Stammerer as Two Lives of Charlemagne, Penguin Books, London, 1969.

ed. A. Boretius and V. Krause, Capitularia regnum Francorum, (1881), in Monumenta Germaniae historica Gesellschaft fur altere deutsche Geschichtkunde Hanover 2 vol. 1893-7

ed. G. H. Pertz and F. Kurze, Annales Regni Francorum, Hanover, 1895. in Octavo series of Pertz's Scriptores.

Secondary sources:

Bolgar, R. R. The Classical Heritage: and its Beneficiaries from the Carolingian Age to the End of the Renaissance, Harper Torchbooks, 1954.

Bryce, James, The Holy Roman Empire, MacMillan 1904, Schocken Books New York, 1961.

Bullough, D. The Age of Charlemagne, London and New York, 1965.

Contamine, Philippe, War in the Middle Ages , trans. by Michael Jones. 1984 Basil Blackwell, Oxford, England.

Davis, H. W. C. Charlemagne, Charles the Great, The Hero of Two Nations (1900) in Heros of the Nations series (ed by E. Abbot, 1890.

Delbruck, H., Geschichte des Kriegskunst in Rahmen der politischen Geschichte, III Mittelalter, 2nd ed Berlin 1923 vol 3, now translated by Walter Renfroe as Barbarian Invasions.

Fichtenau, Heinrich. The Carolingian Empire, trans. Peter Munz, Barnes & Noble, New York, 1963.

Ganshof, F. L. L'armee sous les Carolingiens

Heer, Friedrich, The Holy Roman Empire, Praeger, NY 1968.

Heer, Friedrich, Charlemagne and his World, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1975.

Hodgkin, T. Charles the Great (1897) in Foreign Statesmen (ed. by J. B. Bury, 1896,

Lopez, Robert, The Birth of Europe, M. Evans and Co. New York, 1966.

Lot, Ferdinand, Art militaire et les armees au Moyen Age, en Europe et dans le Proche Orient, Paris 2 vols 1946.

Lot, Ferdinand, The End of the Ancient World and the Beginnings of the Middle Ages, Harper Torchbooks, 1961.

Oman, C. The Art of War in the Middle Ages, AD 378-1485, Burt Franklin, New York, 2 vols, 1924

Verbruggen, J. F., De Krijgskunst in West -Europa in de Middeleeuwen (IXe tot begin XIVe eeuw) 1954 Brussels, English trans. The Art of Warfare in Western Europe during the Middle Ages (from the Eight Century to 1340), Amsterdam and New York, 1976.

Verbruggen, J. F., "L'art militaire dans l'Empire carolingien", Revue belge d'histoire militaire (1979).

Wallace-Hadrill, J. M. The Barbarian West: The Early Middle Ages A.D. 400-1000, Harper Torchbooks, 1962.
Wilson, Derek, Charlemagne, Doubleday, New York, 2006,
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