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2. Charlemagne |
In a bold act of faith Charlemagne envisions a Christ-ruled empire

Charlemagne is drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 42, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

All his life he studied Augustine’s City of God, but his Christian empire had to tame the Saxons who respected only the sword, and perished by it

Charlemagne - In a bold act of faith Charlemagne envisions a Christ-ruled empire

Charlemagne - In a bold act of faith Charlemagne envisions a Christ-ruled empire
A regal Charlemagne by German artist Albrecht Dürer, held by the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, in Nuremberg, Germany.

At prayer in his chapel at Aachen, the man known to history as Charles the Great, or Charlemagne, was not an impressive sight. The conqueror of much of western Europe ordinarily wore tunics and leggings of mainly linen and wool, rather than the dazzling silk robes affected by Byzantine royalty in the East. Court etiquette and architecture were similarly unpretentious in western Europe’s first northern-based empire. The sole adornment of the Frankish sovereign’s marble throne, for example, was a wooden plank embedded in its seat, symbolic of his dynasty’s tribal origin in the Germanic forests. On that austere chair, however, thirty emperors would be crowned. None so much as dared to alter its simplicity, so imperishable was the legacy of the man from whose realm would spring both Germany and France, each of them hailing Charlemagne as founding father.

By eighth-century standards, the emperor was a big man. Antiquarians, passionately pursuing precision, would open his tomb a millennium later and measure the skeleton at six feet, three and a half inches.1 He was large in other ways as well, large in battle, large in lust. He rarely met his match as a general, while his unbridled sexual enthusiasm would complicate royal genealogies for centuries to come. His fifty-three military campaigns permanently reshaped Europe, creating an empire that reached from Rome to the North Sea, and from the Spanish Pyrenees to the Hungarian plain.

Of even greater influence in the long term, however, was this man’s respect for scholarship. Intellectual effort became the signature of his reign–an exceptional, even astonishing, trait in a Germanic warrior. Often he awoke in the night, so it was said, to practice writing on the tablets he kept under his pillow. But to him, scholarship must be focused. The duty of a Christian king was to shape the kind of kingdom, the kind of laws Jesus Christ was calling for, however difficult that may be to achieve. He therefore studied Augustine’s City of God much of his long life, absorbing the fifth-century theologian’s enunciations on what a Christian society should believe and how it should act. But whether he read it himself, or had it read to him, remains debatable.2

Charlemagne’s role in history proved pivotal. During his lifetime, the ancient classical world expired and the medieval age emerged, a new culture whose roots would be Christian, not pagan. Moreover, military power within Europe would shift northward, never to return south. Charlemagne’s men-at-arms would form the earliest archetype for the chivalrous knight, arguably the most influential model of manhood ever created, and certainly the most romantic. And the Christ-centered society launched by this emperor would ultimately give birth to rationalism, the dominant philosophy of the post-Christian era we live in today.3

Northern Europe at the time appeared a most unlikely place for a cultural blossoming. In the ancient world, while urban communities rose to glory from China to Mexico, the Germanic and Celtic tribes had gloried in their forests, composing superb sagas to illuminate their lives, but they were barely literate. Their agricultural technology amounted to little more than scratching at the soil with sticks and herding. The Germans in particular proved as immune to urban life as the desert-bred nomads of Arabia. Neither Germans nor Arabs ever really yielded to Rome, militarily or culturally, and it was their ragged brigades who eventually seized most of the empire.

Rome was not wrecked in a day. Working with the few records that survived the city’s fall in the fifth century, the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne (1862—1935) pieced together what became of its economy (his sweeping, still-controversial thesis is outlined in Mohammed and Charlemagne). Pirenne postulated that business continued around the Mediterranean, keeping cities alive for another two hundred years. The invading German barbarians were not against trade; most of the revenues for their new semi-civilized dynasties came from taxing it. However, the effect of the Arab invasion in the seventh and eighth centuries was apparently much more severe. They almost totally extinguished the Mediterranean trade (see chapter 9), and constant Muslim raids along the northern coastline forced entire Christian populations to flee inland. Meanwhile new waves of invaders from the east isolated western Europe from Byzantium. Charlemagne and the Franks had no option but to forge their own northern society, and his most effective tool was the Christian church.

He was born to power ten years after his grandfather, Charles Martel, stopped the Muslim invasion of the future France at the Battle of Tours in 732, and founded what became known as the Carolingian dynasty. (Carol, Carl and Charles are different English versions of the same name.) He was a devout man and doubtless pondered Christ’s injunction, “Love thine enemies” (Matt. 5:44). But for Charlemagne, loving did not imply that injustice or aggression should be tolerated by a good ruler. For example, his grandfather had whipped the Franks’ Muslim enemies at Tours, enabling his successors to drive the Arab armies back across the Pyrenees into Spain.

There were other Christian questions to consider. His mother had not wed his father, Pepin the Short, until Charlemagne was about seven. So was he illegitimate? And did it matter? His grandfather Martel was similarly illegitimate–hardly surprising, given that the mating habits of Frankish monarchs until the ninth century were scarcely distinguishable from Islamic polygamy. No one at the time seemed scandalized, Christian or not. What mattered to the nobility was Pepin’s success in consolidating power for his son’s later triumphs.

Something else did vex the Franks, one and all. It was the matter of who should be king. Martel, Pepin and their forebears for generations had been called “Mayors of the Palace,” prime ministers to the line of Merovingian monarchs. For years, the Merovingian kings had reigned while the mayors ruled. But when one mayor did try to claim the crown, he wound up jailed, tortured and executed. Pepin sought to put an end to this charade by appealing to the Church at Rome where the quasi-mystical authority of the once-mighty Roman Empire had devolved upon its Christian bishop, the pope, successor to Peter himself. Would Pope Zacharias therefore decide who was king of the Franks? Pepin had requested in or around 750.

The pontiff had good reason to cooperate. The papacy by then ruled its own lands in central Italy, and Zacharias desperately needed military help against the Germanic Lombards who were trying to seize them.4 So Pope Zacharias wrote a judgment commanding the Franks to crown and obey Pepin and his heirs. The ruling was accepted, and the last Merovingian king was tonsured as a monk, thereby rendering him ineligible to reign. Archbishop Boniface, the pioneering Apostle to the Germans (see page 64), crowned Pepin and anointed him with holy oil, following the ancient Hebrew coronation custom, never before performed in Europe.

The next pope, Stephen II, crossed the Alps in winter (a hazardous journey) to plead in person for armed help in Italy, and Pepin sent his handsome young son as escort to this august visitor. For Prince Charles, that day–January 6, 754–must have been memorable. This tired old man with his splendid clothing and alien tongue held the keys to paradise itself. Near the royal villa, Pepin himself appeared. Dismounting, he prostrated himself before the pope, then walked beside the prelate’s horse like a groom.

Later that day, however, the pope equaled if not surpassed his host in humility. He came to the royal chapel dressed in sackcloth, his head heavily sprinkled with ashes. Falling at the feet of the Frankish ruler, the old man tearfully bewailed the depredations of that veritable spawn of hell, the Lombards. With his own hands, Stephen later re-crowned Pepin and his wife Bertrada, as well as Charles and his younger brother Carloman. He also invested the three men as patricians of Rome, thereby elevating them to the nobility of that “eternal” city. Although Pepin promised in exchange to subdue the Lombards, he knew that to mount an invasion of Italy, he would have to convince his own nobles that the papal case was just.

In a further curious development, Pepin’s brother appeared. Also named Carloman, he had earlier abdicated the throne of Austrasia to become a monk, but now unexpectedly left his Italian monastery to urge his brother to stay out of Italy.5 In the ensuing debate, Pope Stephen prevailed. During 755, Pepin and Charlemagne led an army against Pavia, capital of the Lombard king Aistulf, which soon surrendered. On Aistulf’s promise to leave the papal territory alone, Pepin withdrew. The Lombards thereupon resumed the attack, ostensibly butchering nuns and desecrating churches. The pope denounced Aistulf as impius, crudelissimus, malignus, atrocissimus and more. When Pepin refused further intervention in Italy, Stephen took to threatening his family. The king, he wrote, would forfeit heaven should he fail to protect Rome, and so would his sons Charles and Carloman (five years old at the time). So the Frankish army returned to Italy, and this time the outcome was more decisive. Aistulf fell from his horse while hunting and died.

To the victorious Franks there now came a top-ranking delegation from Byzantium whose suave emissaries besought Pepin to return to the Byzantine Empire the city of Ravenna and the other Byzantine holdings in Italy lost to the Lombards. Pepin politely demurred and instead handed the clanking ceremonial keys of twenty-three Italian cities to the pope. It was a decisive act. Never again need the papacy be subject in any sense to Constantinople. But now another question presented itself. Would the pope be subject to a Western emperor instead? Certainly Charlemagne and his imperial successors would come to that point of view, but future popes would vigorously disagree. Pepin did not press the issue, but neither did he eliminate the Lombard kingdom.

The next pope, Paul I, proved more adept at wooing the Frankish royal house. After Pepin’s queen, Bertrada, gave birth to a daughter, Gisela, Paul had the baby’s baptismal garment placed in the burial chapel of Saint Petronilla whom tradition, if not history, remembers as a daughter of Saint Peter, and had himself proclaimed godfather. Thereafter, Charlemagne considered himself brother not only to Gisela, but to Petronilla, and kings of France called themselves brothers to the fisherman’s daughter, adopting her resting place as their royal chapel in Rome.

Pepin died in 768. In accord with the generous if politically perilous custom of the Franks, the kingdom was divided between Charlemagne and Carloman, the younger prince receiving the biggest territories, including Paris. Given the simmering sibling jealousies, civil war appeared imminent. In addition, a rebellion broke out in Muslim-imperiled Aquitaine, a region in southern France divided between the two brothers. Carloman refused to help quell the uprising. However, fortune favored Charlemagne, now in his later twenties. (Whether through the grace of God or blind luck, it always would.) First, he suppressed the Aquitaine revolt unaided. Second, Carloman died of natural causes at age twenty. His death united the kingdom.

The Franks had no fixed capital then. Charlemagne used Roman villas at convenient points as royal palaces, ruling his rural people as a physical presence, and making decisions while his court toured his realm. With the king were his family and the comitatus, a traditional committee of seasoned men, some military, some civilian. The latter, who had to be literate, almost invariably came from the church. The modern words “clerk,” “cleric” and “clergyman” all derive from the same Latin term, clericus.

On the move, Charlemagne and his simple government must have made a sobering sight. The court included young warriors, eager to earn praise and reward from their king. Banners floating, the cavalcade of grave priests and beautiful women would always be thoroughly protected by mounted men in armor. In the lead rode Charlemagne and his sons. His wife and daughters, possibly with a glint of gold or jewels on their cloaks and garbed beneath in the reds and greens beloved of the Franks, followed at the rear with a specially-selected bodyguard.

That bodyguard consisted of heavily armed cavalry, and therein lay an irony. Alone among the Germanic peoples, the Franks in particular had eschewed horses. Martel’s decisive victory at Tours, where the Frankish infantry had stood “like a wall of ice,” was an infantry triumph over the light Muslim cavalry. But it was Martel himself who initiated the change to horses. Indeed, the church had condemned him after the battle for distributing its properties to his armed followers. But he needed the revenues to finance a new and mounted Frankish army, because a military innovation, as significant as the machinegun eleven centuries later, had changed warfare. This was the stirrup, which enabled a mounted warrior, his feet firmly planted in these U-shaped devices, to drive a lance through an adversary at full gallop without being swept off his horse. Heavy body armor added weight to his thrust, while protecting him against an infantryman’s spear. Stirrups had been advanced before. So why was it the footslogging Franks who first adopted them? That, writes the historian Russell Chamberlin in Charlemagne: Emperor of the Western World, “is impossible to say.”

Charlemagne carefully fostered the change. By the end of his reign, any man who owned four mansi of land was expected to muster as a fully equipped cavalryman. (One mansus was the amount of land needed to support a household; the actual acreage varied with the property.) Those with insufficient land came as foot soldiers or supported those who had enough. Any landholder who failed to register as either fighter or contributor stood to lose half his land. Every soldier had to bring food, weapons and tools. Alert officials vigilantly tracked compliance.6 But the system opened a gulf between the landed and the landless, the noble and the peasant, the one utterly distinct from the other, but for one factor, the Christian conviction that each person has a soul beloved of God and possesses the same potential for full citizenship in heaven.

Charlemagne strove, at least initially, to palliate this social rupture. He allowed poorer peasants to band together, equipping just one of their number as a mounted fighter. But this proved impractical, and practicality must rule. For Charlemagne had enemies on every side–the Lombards to the south who again rose defiant, and the Saxons to the north, belligerent, relentless, dishonest, and still sacrificing human beings to their gods. Beyond Saxony lived the Vikings, seaborne marauders launching their two-hundred-year pillage and slaughter of northern Christianity. Among the Germans, the dukedom of Bavaria had been inherited by Tassilo, Charlemagne’s fifteen-year-old nephew, who had deserted his uncle during the Aquitaine campaign, a treason of the first magnitude. To the east, the swift cavalry of the Hun-like Avars, roaming unchecked from Constantinople to the Baltic, might at any instant unleash new horrors on his frontier. Most ominous of all, Islam lay beyond the Pyrenees and Mediterranean, convinced of its divine mission to destroy and supplant Christianity. Its rising civilization in Spain far outclassed the Franks in commerce and learning. In such trying times, what mattered was what worked.

The Franks had at least one further strength. Their economy, chiefly agricultural, was rising. Harvests improved through the early medieval era through the development of the new iron-edged plough, better draught animals and sowing patterns. But these farms must be protected against the nearest threat, the Saxons. Their incessant raids must be stopped. Charlemagne declared war in 772, the first of eighteen campaigns he would conduct against the Saxons over thirty-two years.

The Saxons had no urban life. When their small fields were exhausted, they would abandon them for others. Their scattered bands were governed by chiefs who convened to make national decisions through a primitive parliament. Their warriors combined courage and cunning. Rather than directly confronting organized armies, they melted into the forests in the old German way, then emerged unexpectedly in massive ambushes of Frankish troops.

Charlemagne began confidently. His army marched through Saxony almost unopposed, and seized the fortified point where stood the Irminsul, a sacred tree or wooden pillar precious to the Saxons. He hewed it down, and served notice that conquered pagans must become Christians. The alternative–a continuation of incessant warfare, human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism–was not acceptable. Having made their show of force, the invaders returned home.

None too soon, for he now found his kingdom in a war set off by a botched attempt to make a lasting treaty with the bellicose Lombards. His mother, who, though pious, held the Germanic Lombards in higher regard than the smooth-spoken Latins of Rome, had negotiated a marriage between her son and Desiderata, daughter of the new Lombard king Desiderius. Charlemagne agreed, though it meant putting aside Himiltrude, a respectable Frankish woman, long his unwedded spouse and mother of a hunchbacked eldest son named Pepin. So Himiltrude disappeared from court, Charlemagne married Desiderata, and Rome fervidly denounced the whole idea of a Frankish—Lombard alliance. Then fate, or perhaps God, intervened. The Lombard girl turned out to have a physical deformity, probably could not bear children, and perhaps could not please the insatiable Charlemagne in bed. So Charlemagne’s bride was sent home, her father exploded in wrath, and his army once again marched against the papal lands.

Charlemagne, not eager to fight, offered Desiderius fourteen thousand solidi to return to the papacy those cities he had captured, but the Lombards insisted on war. The Franks forced their way through a well-fortified Alpine pass and again besieged Pavia. Then occurred an event that shaped Charlemagne’s view of the world and the course of subsequent European history. During the siege, he made a pilgrimage to Rome.

It was Easter, 774. As a medieval Christian, Charlemagne was not visiting Rome, nor the pope, but Peter himself, the apostle, whose presence was believed to pervade the city. Rome was not a beautiful place in the eighth century, but a big one, bigger than Charlemagne had ever seen. He slept outside the walls, humbly asking the nobly born Adrian I, now pope for two years, for permission to worship as a plain pilgrim. Entering the city, he would have beheld the huge and ancient basilica of Saint Peter, its mismatched chunks of marble scavenged from pagan temples rising majestically. He ascended the wide flight of stairs up to the basilica, sinking to his knees to kiss each step. Adrian, waiting at the top before a massive door plated with gold, took the king by the hand, and led him to the tomb enshrined as the resting place of the apostle himself. The two leaders would remain friends through the twenty-three years of Adrian’s rule (among the five longest papacies on record).7 On hearing of Adrian’s death years later, Charlemagne wept.

Notker the Stammerer, a monk of Saint Gall and a chronicler of Charlemagne’s reign, describes his return to his troops after the pilgrimage: “…There came from the west a black cloud which turned the bright day to horrid gloom. Then could be seen the iron Charles, helmeted with an iron helmet, his hands clad in iron gauntlets, his iron breast and shoulders protected with an iron breastplate; an iron spear was raised high in his left hand.… All who followed after him imitated him as closely as possible. The fields and open places were filled with iron.… A people harder than iron paid universal honor to the hardness of iron.… The resolution of young and old fell before the iron.” Pavia soon fell, too. Desiderius was tonsured as a monk, and after two centuries of independence, Lombardy’s crown passed to a Frank.8

Soon after, the king married Hildegarde. Of aristocratic Frankish lineage, and only about fourteen years old at her wedding, she bore him three sons and four daughters before dying in her mid-twenties. During that time, however, Hildegarde also wove a deeply loving domestic life around her husband. Both she and his mother exercised over him “a strong influence for good,” observes the Catholic Encyclopedia. And although reputedly given to affairs with beauties of all classes, he responded warmly to the affection of his family.

But his public life was neither warm nor affectionate. In every year of his reign, he would be at war, leading campaigns himself or through his sons as they matured. While he was engaged with Lombardy, there came a dangerous development among the Saxons. Coalesced around a single leader, Wittekind, they resumed their raids into Frankish territory. Charlemagne’s troops, now equipped with amphibious carts whose hide coverings could be converted into pontoons, made the perilous crossing of the Rhine, and captured the two main Saxon forts. Wittekind fled to Denmark. So complete seemed the Saxon subjugation that when Charles held the Frankish annual assembly within Saxony itself in 777, Saxon delegates obediently showed up. Baptisms ensued in the thousands–total immersion in a convenient river for all but the aristocrats, who were accorded the privilege of a tub. How much these illiterate, largely uninstructed candidates understood about the sacrament is doubtful, but they certainly grasped that their old gods were being abjured.

This apparent triumph would soon prove murderously incomplete, like another deceptively good development at that assembly. A Umayyad Muslim leader, escaping the bloody Abbasid revolution at Damascus, had fled westward and invaded Muslim Spain. The exotic figure of the Abbasid ruler at Barcelona on the Mediterranean appeared before the assembly seeking a Frankish ally in holding the Umayyad intruder off. Charlemagne eagerly seized the chance to organize Christendom’s first major counterattack on Islam, and warriors by the tens of thousands answered his call. The Christians moved easily through the Pyrenees. Some cities, including Barcelona itself, surrendered. But the Muslim garrison at Saragossa held out, and Charlemagne ordered a withdrawal from Spain.

There was worse to come. On August 15, 778, Basque Christians, siding with the Muslims against the Franks, ambushed Charlemagne’s forces moving unwarily through the valley called Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees. They allowed the main army to pass, then hurled huge boulders down on the rearguard, scattering their ranks and disabling hundreds. Heat-exhausted and uncertain of their bearings, the heavily armored Frankish cavalry could not contend with the fleet-footed mountaineers, who descended like a cloud of wasps. “The Gascons [Basques] slew their opponents to the last man,” laments one mournful account. “Then they seized upon the baggage, and under cover of night, they fled with the utmost rapidity.”

The fiasco at Roncesvalles mutated into the most influential saga of all chivalry, the eleventh-century Song of Roland. This paean, written anonymously, exemplifies later medieval attitudes to Charlemagne and the chivalrous code of warfare, which in the popular imagination harkened back to his knights, or paladins. In this fictional version, the Basque mountaineers at Roncesvalles become well-equipped Muslims whose treacherous king accepts baptism, surrenders Spain, accepts Charlemagne as his feudal lord, then hatches a conspiracy with a Frankish traitor. The impetuous Roland, greatest of Charlemagne’s knights, refuses to summon aid by blowing his great horn, and with the twelve finest knights in the Christian host makes a hopeless stand against overwhelming odds. Translator Glynn Burgess, in his 1990 version published by Penguin, New York, portrays Roland, with most of his men dead, finally sounding a mighty blast on his “olifant” (a horn fashioned from an elephant tusk). Charlemagne hears it too late, and Roland is cut down. But dimly aware of the Muslim warrior grabbing his gold-inlaid weapons, he with a final effort smashes the man’s skull with his horn:

So Roland felt his sword was taken forth,

Opened his eyes, and this word to him spoke

“Thou’rt never one of ours, full well I know.”

Took the olifant, that he would not let go,

Struck him on th’ helm, that jeweled was with gold,

And broke its steel, his skull and all his bones,

Out of his head both the two eyes he drove;

Dead at his feet he has the pagan thrown.

Dying himself, Roland does not neglect his personal honor:

Turning his head towards the pagan race,

Now this he did, in truth, that Charles might say

(As he desired) and all the Franks his race;–

‘Ah, gentle count; conquering he was slain!’

Yet honor is far from being uppermost on the dying man’s mind. Devout to his last heartbeat, this archetypical knight counts his own virtues as besmirched by guilt. He must rely solely on salvation through the risen Christ:

And with one hand upon his breast he beats:

“Mea Culpa! God, by Thy Virtues clean

Me from my sins, the mortal and the mean,

Which from the hour that I was born have been

Until this day, when life is ended here!”

Holds out his glove towards God, as he speaks

Angels descend from heaven on that scene.

By 782, at Charlemagne’s annual assembly deep within Saxony, near the present site of Hamburg, thousands of Saxons paid their respects. Even a delegation of Avars showed up, doubtless taking the measure of this Germanic ruler, yet nevertheless talking peace. But soon afterward came the unwelcome news that Wittekind was back, scorning the pusillanimous submission of the other chieftains. The Saxon peasantry, including some women fighters, had risen en masse at his call. The coarsely garbed Saxon infantry, rank upon rank across a hillside, had made a final stand against the mounted and armored Franks. But the confident Frankish commanders, seeking individual glory, had abandoned their attack plan, charged prematurely up the slope into a thicket of Saxon spears and axes–and were thereupon cut to pieces.

Over the Rhine with the full weight of his army came Charlemagne, uncharacteristically enraged. The Saxon farmers, as usual, evaporated into their forests, Wittekind with them. Charlemagne surveyed what they had been up to. In village after village, he found the mangled corpses of priests and nuns amid the charred ruins of churches. Enough, he decided, was enough. No more phony baptisms and false promises. He ordered the Saxon nobles to identify and arrest the individual rebels within their domains. They obeyed.

According to medieval chroniclers, forty-five hundred men were ordered beheaded. But what shook both his contemporaries and posterity was neither the numbers nor the severity, for it was age in which death was always familiar, in which contagious disease and famine routinely killed thousands, child mortality claimed one in four, and mothers risked death with every birth-giving. It was Charlemagne’s view of the deed. He showed no regret whatever, quite the reverse. He imposed Christian practices upon these former pagans. It must be baptism, tithing, Lenten fasting and every other rule, or it must be death. A guilty party could only escape execution if a priest determined that he had sincerely repented of his crime.9

Within two years, Wittekind surrendered and accepted baptism, Charlemagne himself standing as godfather. Over time, he softened his original code, and his son Louis would have the gospel story recast into an Old Saxon tale. Portrayed in the finest vernacular verse, Jesus becomes the Chieftain of mankind, born in the hill-fort Nazareth. Sheep and shepherds, lowly beings in Saxony, are transformed into the far nobler figures of horses and horse-guards. Christ fasts for forty days deep in the forest, and later reveals the secret runes of the Lord’s Prayer. Swayed by threats and seduction, wooed by hundreds of humble priests and monks, the Saxons eventually thrived as a pious people.

His wife, Hildegarde, and mother, Bertrada, both died in 783, in a summer of great heat and pestilence. The grieving Charlemagne, accustomed to relying on their prudence and devotion, apparently gave overly free rein to his fourth spouse, whom he married within months: Fastrada, daughter of a Frankish noble. The early chronicles depict her as a high-handed meddler. In this “new period of his life,” the Catholic Encyclopedia wryly observes, “signs begin to appear of his less amiable traits.” He never permitted any of his daughters or his sister Gisela to wed, a policy so unusual as to prompt scandalized speculation, but possibly Charlemagne simply wished to limit the number of his legitimate descendants to reduce future political friction. In any case, no evidence of misconduct ever came to light. Gisela, although consigned to a nunnery, continued to enjoy dances and other court functions. Only later in life did her genuinely devout nature prompt her to adopt a strict regimen of prayer and contemplation. One royal daughter apparently took a lover, a poet named Angilbert, and bore him two children out of wedlock. Charlemagne, far from objecting, made Angilbert an abbot in charge of constructing Europe’s largest monastery.

Meanwhile, he increasingly intertwined clerical and lay functions. Key churchmen staffed his government. He divided Frankish territory into about three hundred counties, each headed by an officer called a count, whose church counterparts were bishops. A cleric could find himself organizing supplies for war, or named one of the Missi Dominici (“Envoys of the Lord”) to review local administrations. “We have been sent here by our lord, the emperor Charles,” declared one, “for your eternal salvation, and we charge you to live virtuously according to the law of God, and justly according to the law of the world. We would have you know first of all that you must believe in one God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.” He added ominously: “Nothing is hidden from God. Life is short and the moment of death is unknown. Be ye therefore always ready.”

In the 780s, the envoys figured centrally in one of Charlemagne’s most ambitious initiatives–the education of the clergy, many of whom did not even understand the Latin of their liturgies, and beyond them the laity. Priests and monasteries were ordered to establish schools where men might send their most talented sons, free of charge, to be instructed in the ways of God and literacy. Some bishops and abbots did establish schools, and the concept of educating

the best minds regardless of class origin would remain an enduring medieval aspiration.

Foremost among the scholars who launched what became known as the Carolingian Renaissance was Alcuin, an English monk and a foreigner in Frankish eyes, who had supervised the reconstruction of the great cathedral at York after a fire. As a young librarian for York, he had traveled Europe seeking rare manuscripts for the monks to copy, and at age forty-six in 781, was retained by Charlemagne to oversee the palace school where promising youths were trained to administer the growing empire. The monk of Saint Gall, writing in the late ninth century, said that even the king considered himself a disciple of Alcuin in a scholarly sense.10

With other English scholars, Alcuin worked to establish a clear and standard Latin, vital to future study in the West, separating it from the corrupted Frankish Latin that was already becoming French. As well, he promoted a beautiful but practical script, known as “Carolingian Miniscule,” to replace the ugly, largely illegible scrawl then in use. It was destined to form the basis of printed type. And the illumination of manuscripts would evolve into an art form.

Charlemagne’s court included a galaxy of other scholars, like Theodolf, a bishop of Gothic descent whose influence rivaled Alcuin’s; the scholarly Arno who became first archbishop of his native Salzburg; Einhard, a diminutive but inexhaustible Frank, who was both Charlemagne’s biographer and a practicing architect; and Paul the Deacon, a Lombard fluent in Greek, who indentured himself to Charlemagne if the king would pardon his rebellious brother. The king did, and composed a farewell poem to Paul when he eventually allowed this much loved companion to return to Lombardy. No longer would he hear Paul’s celebrated debates with the academic Peter of Pisa. These and other Carolingians would compose enough poetry to fill four massive volumes.

A gentle egalitarianism attended Charlemagne’s home life. At banquets, the ruler himself enjoyed serving his guests, some of whom, along with the king himself, were assigned nicknames to bridge the social gulfs. Charlemagne retained regal status as “David.” One daughter became “Dove,” while Einhard was “Bezaleel,” after the biblical artist who decorated the Tabernacle in the wilderness. But on the diplomatic front a very different concept was taking shape. In 799, Alcuin, by then the abbot of Saint Martin’s at Tours, proposed that Charlemagne be made emperor in the West. In a letter to one pope, doubtless inspired by his priestly courtiers, Charlemagne referred to himself as “Lord and Father, King and Priest, the Leader and Guide of all Christians.” He would protect the church across his vast realm while the successor of Peter prayed for it, a chaplain’s role.

But what preoccupied the king was neither the papacy nor his international status. It was the perpetual problem of sedition–like the revolt in 786 of Tassilo, duke of Bavaria, and the Lombard duke of Benevento, both backed by the Byzantines. The royal espionage service, alert as always, discovered the plot, and Charlemagne’s lightning response brought the Lombard duke swiftly to heel. The Byzantines too backed off, and three Frankish armies sliced into Bavaria. Tassilo, in a public ceremony, formally submitted himself to Charlemagne, one of the first formal acts of feudal homage in Europe. But Tassilo’s loyalty proved short-lived. He soon rebelled again, this time in alliance with the pagan Avars. Tassilo was subdued, arrested, convicted in open court and condemned to death. But Charlemagne, citing the love of God, sent him to a monastery instead, and Bavaria was thereafter ruled directly by the king.

The time had now come, he decided, to deal with the Avars, horsemen from the Asian steppes who had used their curved swords to slash their way into Europe. Breaking the Avars meant breaking their fabled, never-conquered Fortress of the Nine Rings, which they had built on the Hungarian plain. Each ring consisted of massive ramparts of heavy timbers and earth, skirted by an impenetrable hedge of thorn. Stashed in the center lay the loot and tribute they had accumulated in two hundred years of raid and pillage. It included the eighty thousand gold solidi per year they had extorted from Byzantium for over a century, the largest hoard of bullion that Europe would know until the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Peru in the sixteenth century.

The Franks paused for three full days of prayer before they crossed the Danube into Avar territory, Charlemagne leading his army in person for what would prove the last time. At first all went well, with the enemy forced back to the Rings. Then plague decimated the Frankish cavalry, and a rebellion had to be suppressed at home.11 When the campaign resumed, the Avar resistance grew. Charlemagne poured men and material into the attack, constructing new landing craft to cross rivers, even starting a canal to link the Rhine and Danube. (Heavy rain and inadequate equipment foiled the project, but even the attempt was prophetic; it demonstrated that northern Europeans had already begun to entertain monumental visions.)

It took five years for the Franks to smash their way through the innermost ring, but the booty exceeded all expectations. Fifteen large wagons, each pulled by four oxen, hauled it to Aachen, the fabulous cavalcade crossing the Rhine on a new five-hundred-foot bridge, constructed near Mainz. It was distributed without stint to the men who had shared the risks of battle, to the pope and to key monasteries laying the foundations of the new Western civilization.12 The defeated Avars, previously the terror of half a continent, accepted baptism (how willingly they did so is unknown), then slowly disappeared into the surrounding population. But their place was soon taken over by their cousins from the steppes, the Bulgars and later the Magyars, whose bloody raids reached as far west as Tours in central France. Over time, the Magyars (eventually known as Hungarians) would themselves become a Christian bulwark.

The city of Aachen, a former Roman spa, (near the future Belgian border, forty miles southwest of Cologne), was becoming the favorite royal residence, appreciated for its hot sulfur springs and its central location in the Frankish heartland. Here Charlemagne established his seat of government, complete with a hillside palace, some of which was still functioning in the twenty-first century as a municipal building, qualifying it as Europe’s oldest structure in continuous use. A nearby chapel also survives intact, despite intensive bombardments by both sides in the Second World War.

To Charlemagne’s court in 799 came another refugee pope. Leo III had succeeded Pope Adrian and begun cleaning up corruption in the papal administration. Two of Adrian’s nephews had attacked him, intent on tearing out his eyes and tongue. Though wounded, Leo fled to Frankish territory, escorted by one of Charlemagne’s trusted Lombard generals. Spokesmen for his adversaries also arrived, accusing Leo of many crimes. To investigate, Charlemagne traveled to Rome and satisfied himself of Pope Leo’s innocence. Thus it came about that on Christmas Day, 800, Charlemagne donned classic Roman garb, and kneeling before Leo at St. Peter’s, was crowned emperor and augustus. Whether he wished to receive the honor, or was surprised by the pope, at least in some aspect the coronation has been much disputed, and the grand title was notably vague in terms of jurisdiction. Still, the act infuriated the Byzantines, whose emperors considered themselves successors to the Roman caesars, and Christendom’s supreme authority. They denounced the act, but they did not fight. The pope, for his part, was altogether satisfied. As he saw it, he had conferred upon the papacy the authority to consecrate the emperor.

In the meantime, peace and stability worked their usual magic. French historian Prosper Boissonnade (Life and Work in Medieval Europe) estimates that the population of the future France rose to eight million under Charlemagne. The number of villages in the Frankish heartland trebled, while people of Italy, writes Paul the Deacon, “multiplied like ears of corn.” Charlemagne required not only that every male over the age of twelve must swear loyalty to his sovereign, but must also promise to aid the poor and obey the other precepts of Jesus Christ. With age, the emperor recognized and angrily protested against corruption among his own officials, and he sometimes despaired entirely of human wickedness. All too clearly, he knew that the City of God is not of this world. But as a Christian ruler, he had to continue striving to govern with love, working both justice and charity, on his own journey to that heavenly city.

Charlemagne did not see his empire as permanent. On his death, he wanted to divide it among his three legitimate sons, in the old German way, exhorting them to rule in amity. However, his sons Pepin and Charles–both tough, competent men–died before their father, and so did the hunchbacked Pepin. Only Louis, pious and studious but not a commanding figure, remained. Charlemagne crowned him his heir in the chapel at Aachen in 813–notably ignoring any putative claim of church authorities for a hand in the process–but he did not abdicate. Still strong at seventy-one, he regularly indulged his passion for hunting. Yet the end was near. First the tall figure, with iron-gray hair falling to his shoulders, was felled by a fever accompanied by a sharp pain in his side. Ignoring his doctors, the emperor insisted upon fasting, which likely weakened him further. Einhard recorded that Charlemagne “received holy communion, and then he died, at nine o’clock in the morning on 28 January.” The year was 814.

This is the end of the Charlemagne category article drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 42, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City. To continue reading more about Charlemagne from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at