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