Last surviving document of Emperor Charlemagne 9 May 813

March 7, 2024

Emperor Charlemagne – Charles the Great- 800-814

Charlemagne (2 April 742/747/748 – 28 January 814), also known as Charles the Great (Latin: Carolus or Karolus Magnus) or Charles I (Frankish: *Karl), was King of the Franks. He united a large part of Europe during the early Middle Ages and laid the foundations for modern France, Germany and the Low Countries. He took the Frankish throne in 768 and became King of Italy in 774. From 800, he became the first Holy Roman Emperor—the first recognised emperor in Western Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier. Charlemagne already ruled his kingdom without the help of the Pope, but recognition from the pontiff granted him divine legitimacy in the eyes of his contemporaries. The expanded Frankish state which Charlemagne founded was called the Carolingian Empire.

LowOrderPrimate on X: "Last surviving document of Emperor Charlemagne 9 May  813 https://t.co/Ue6o7deWDQ" / X

Charlemagne was the oldest son of Pepin the Short and Bertrada of Laon. He became king in 768 following the death of his father, initially as co-ruler with his brother Carloman I. Carloman’s sudden death in 771 under unexplained circumstances left Charlemagne as the undisputed ruler of the Frankish Kingdom. Charlemagne continued his father’s policy towards the papacy and became its protector, removing the Lombards from power in northern Italy, and leading an incursion into Muslim Spain. He also campaigned against the Saxons to his east, Christianising them upon penalty of death, leading to events such as the Massacre of Verden. Charlemagne reached the height of his power in 800 when he was crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day at Old St. Peter’s Basilica.

Charlemagne has been called the “Father of Europe” (Pater Europae), as he united most of Western Europe for the first time since the Roman Empire. His rule spurred the Carolingian Renaissance, a period of energetic cultural and intellectual activity within the Western Church. All Holy Roman Emperors up to the last Emperor Francis II, as well as both the French and German monarchies, considered their kingdoms to be descendants of Charlemagne’s empire.

However, the Eastern Orthodox Church views Charlemagne more controversially, labelling as heterodox his support of the filioque and recognition by the Bishop of Rome as legitimate Roman Emperor rather than Irene of Athens of the Eastern Roman Empire. These were but two of the machinations that led to the eventual split of Rome and Constantinople in the Great Schism of 1054. Charlemagne died in 814, having ruled as emperor for just over thirteen years. He was laid to rest in his imperial capital of Aachen in what is today Germany. His son Louis the Pious succeeded him.

Political background

Charlemagne - Emperor, Franks, Holy Roman Empire | Britannica

By the 6th century, the western Germanic Franks had been Christianised, and Francia, ruled by the Merovingians, was the most powerful of the kingdoms that succeeded the Western Roman Empire. Following the Battle of Tertry, however, the Merovingians declined into a state of powerlessness, for which they have been dubbed the rois fainéants (“do-nothing kings”). Almost all government powers of any consequence were exercised by their chief officer, the mayor of the palace.

In 687, Pepin of Herstal, mayor of the palace of Austrasia, ended the strife between various kings and their mayors with his victory at Tertry and became the sole governor of the entire Frankish kingdom. Pepin himself was the grandson of two of the most important figures of the Austrasian Kingdom: Saint Arnulf of Metz and Pepin of Landen. Pepin of Herstal was eventually succeeded by his illegitimate son Charles, later known as Charles Martel (Charles the Hammer).

Charlemagne - Emperor, Franks, Holy Roman Empire | Britannica

After 737, Charles governed the Franks without a king on the throne but declined to call himself king. Charles was succeeded in 741 by his sons Carloman and Pepin the Short, the father of Charlemagne. In 743, the brothers placed Childeric III on the throne to curb separatism in the periphery of the realm, and he was the last Merovingian king. Carloman resigned office in 746 to enter the church by preference as a monk, and Pepin brought the question of the kingship before Pope Zachary, asking whether it was logical for a king to have no royal power. The pope handed down his decision in 749, decreeing that it was better for Pepin to be called king, as he had the powers of high office as Mayor, so as not to confuse the hierarchy. He therefore ordered him to become true king.

In 750, Pepin was elected by an assembly of the Franks, anointed by the archbishop, and then raised to the office of king. The Pope branded Childeric III as “the false king” and ordered him into a monastery. Thus was the Merovingian dynasty replaced by the Carolingian dynasty, named after Pepin’s father Charles Martel. In 753, Pope Stephen II fled from Italy to Francia, appealing to Pepin for assistance for the rights of St. Peter. He was supported in this appeal by Carloman, Charles’ brother. In return, the pope could provide only legitimacy, which he did by again anointing and confirming Pepin, this time adding his young sons Carolus (Charlemagne) and Carloman to the royal patrimony, now heirs to the great realm that already covered most of western Europe. In 754, Pepin accepted the Pope’s invitation to visit Italy on behalf of St. Peter’s rights, dealing successfully with the Lombards.

Under the Carolingians, the Frankish kingdom spread to encompass an area including most of Western Europe; the division of the kingdom formed the basis for modern France and Germany. The religious, political, and artistic developments originating from a centrally positioned Francia made a defining imprint on the whole of Europe.

Rise to power – Early life – Date of birth

The most likely date of Charlemagne’s birth is reconstructed from several sources. The date of 742 — calculated from Einhard’s date of death of January 814 at age 72 – predates the marriage of his parents in 744. The year given in the Annales Petaviani, 747, would be more likely, except that it contradicts Einhard and a few other sources in making Charlemagne seventy years old at his death. The month and day of April 2 is established by a calendar from Lorsch Abbey.

In 747, Easter fell on April 2, a coincidence that likely would have been remarked upon by chroniclers but was not. If Easter was being used as the beginning of the calendar year, then 2 April 747 could have been, by modern reckoning, 2 April 748 (not on Easter). The date favoured by the preponderance of evidence is 2 April 742, based on Charlemagne’s being a septuagenarian at the time of his death. This date would appear to support the idea that Charlemagne was born illegitimate, which is not, however, mentioned by Einhard.

Charlemagne - Emperor, Franks, Holy Roman Empire | Britannica

Place of birth

Charlemagne’s exact birthplace is unknown, although historians have suggested Aachen in modern-day Germany, and Liège (Herstal) in present-day Belgium as possible locations. Aachen and Liège are close to the region from where both the Merovingian and Carolingian families originated. Other cities have been suggested, including Düren, Gauting, Mürlenbach, Quierzy and Prüm. No definitive evidence as to which is the right candidate exists.

Charlemagne was the eldest child of Pepin the Short (714 – 24 September 768, reigned from 751) and his wife Bertrada of Laon (720 – 12 July 783), daughter of Caribert of Laon and Bertrada of Cologne. Records name only Carloman, Gisela, and three short-lived children named Pepin, Chrothais and Adelais as his younger siblings.

It would be folly, I think, to write a word concerning Charles’ birth and infancy, or even his boyhood, for nothing has ever been written on the subject, and there is no one alive now who can give information on it. Accordingly, I determined to pass that by as unknown, and to proceed at once to treat of his character, his deeds, and such other facts of his life as are worth telling and setting forth, and shall first give an account of his deeds at home and abroad, then of his character and pursuits, and lastly of his administration and death, omitting nothing worth knowing or necessary to know.

The most powerful officers of the Frankish people, the Mayor of the Palace (Maior Domus) and one or more kings (rex, reges), were appointed by the election of the people; that is, no regular elections were held, but they were held as required to elect officers ad quos summa imperii pertinebat, “to whom the highest matters of state pertained”. Evidently interim decisions could be made by the Pope, which ultimately needed to be ratified using an assembly of the people, which met once a year.

Before he was elected king in 750, Pepin the Short was initially a mayor, a high office he held “as though hereditary” (velut hereditario fungebatur). Einhard explains that “the honour” was usually “given by the people” to the distinguished, but Pepin the Great and his brother Carloman the Wise received it as though hereditary, as had their father, Charles Martel. There was, however, a certain ambiguity about quasi-inheritance. The office was treated as joint property: one Mayorship held by two brothers jointly. Each, however, had his own geographic jurisdiction. When Carloman decided to resign, becoming ultimately a Benedictine at Monte Cassino, the question of the disposition of his quasi-share was settled by the pope. He converted the Mayorship into a Kingship and awarded the joint property to Pepin, who now had the full right to pass it on by inheritance.

This decision was not accepted by all members of the family. Carloman had consented to the temporary tenancy of his own share, which he intended to pass on to his own son, Drogo, when the inheritance should be settled at someone’s death. By the Pope’s decision, in which Pepin had a hand, Drogo was to be disqualified as an heir in favour of his cousin Charles. He took up arms in opposition to the decision and was joined by Grifo, a half-brother of Pepin and Carloman, who had been given a share by Charles Martel, but was stripped of it and held under loose arrest by his half-brothers after an attempt to seize their shares by military action. By 753 all was over. Grifo perished in combat in the Battle of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne while Drogo was hunted down and taken into custody.

On the death of Pepin, 24 September 768, the kingship passed jointly to his sons, “with divine assent” (divino nutu). According to the Life, Pepin died in Paris. The Franks “in general assembly” (generali conventu) gave them both the rank of king (reges) but “partitioned the whole body of the kingdom equally” (totum regni corpus ex aequo partirentur). The annals[19] tell a slightly different version, with the king dying at St-Denis, near Paris. The two “lords” (domni) were “elevated to kingship” (elevati sunt in regnum), Charles on 9 October in Noyon, Carloman on an unspecified date in Soissons. If born in 742, Charles was 26 years old, but he had been campaigning at his father’s right hand for several years, which may help to account for his military skill. Carloman was 17.

The language in either case suggests that there were not two inheritances, which would have created distinct kings ruling over distinct kingdoms, but a single joint inheritance and a joint kingship tenanted by two equal kings, Charles and his brother Carloman. As before, distinct jurisdictions were awarded. Charles received Pepin’s original share as Mayor: the outer parts of the kingdom bordering on the sea, namely Neustria, western Aquitaine, and the northern parts of Austrasia; while Carloman was awarded his uncle’s former share, the inner parts: southern Austrasia, Septimania, eastern Aquitaine, Burgundy, Provence, and Swabia, lands bordering Italy. The question of whether these jurisdictions were joint shares reverting to the other brother if one brother died or were inherited property passed on to the descendants of the brother who died was never definitely settled by the Frankish people. It came up repeatedly over the succeeding decades until the grandsons of Charlemagne created distinct sovereign kingdoms.

Aquitanian Rebellion

An inheritance in the countries formerly under Roman law (ius or iustitia) represented not only a transmission of the properties and privileges but also the encumbrances and obligations attached to the inheritance. Pepin at his death had been in process of building an empire, a difficult task. According to Russell:

“In those times, to build a kingdom from an aggregation of small states was itself no great difficulty … But to keep the state intact after it had been formed was a colossal task … Each of the minor states … had its little sovereign … who … gave himself chiefly to … plotting, pillaging and fighting.”

Formation of a new Aquitania

Aquitania under Rome had been in southern Gaul, Romanised and speaking a Romance language. Similarly Hispania had been populated by peoples who spoke various languages, including Celtic, but the area was now populated entirely by Romance language speakers. Between Aquitania and Hispania were the Euskaldunak, Latinised to Vascones, or Basques, living in Basque country, Vasconia, which extended, according to the distributions of place names attributable to the Basques, most densely in the western Pyrenees but also as far south as the upper Ebro River in Spain and as far north as the Garonne River in France. The French name, Gascony, derives from Vasconia. The Romans were never able to entirely subject Vasconia. The parts they did, in which they placed the region’s first cities, were sources of legions in the Roman army valued for their fighting abilities. The border with Aquitania was Toulouse.

At about 660 the Duchy of Vasconia united with the Duchy of Aquitania to form a single kingdom under Felix of Aquitaine, governing from Toulouse. This was a joint kingship with a 28-year-old Basque king, Lupus I. The kingdom was sovereign and independent. On the one hand Vasconia gave up predation to become a player on the field of European politics. On the other, whatever arrangements Felix had made with the weak Merovingians were null and void. At Felix’s death in 670 the joint property of the kingship reverted entirely to Lupus. As the Basques had no law of joint inheritance, but practised primogeniture, Lupus in effect founded a hereditary dynasty of Basque kings of an expanded Aquitania.

Acquisition of Aquitania by the Carolingians

The Latin chronicles on the end of Visigothic Hispania leave much to be desired, such as identification of characters, filling in the gaps, and reconciliation of numerous contradictions. The Muslim sources, however, present a more coherent view, such as in the Ta’rikh iftitah al-Andalus (“History of the Conquest of al-Andalus”) by Ibn al-Q??iyya (a name meaning “the son of the Gothic woman”, referring to the granddaughter of the last king of all Visigothic Spain, who married a Moor). Ibn al-Q??iyya, who had another, much longer name, must have been relying to some degree on family oral tradition.

According to Ibn al-Q??iyya, the last Visigothic king of a united Hispania died before his three sons, Almund, Romulo, and Ardabast, reached majority. Their mother was regent at Toledo, but Roderic, army chief of staff, staged a rebellion, capturing Cordova. Of all the possible outcomes, he chose to impose a joint rule over distinct jurisdictions on the true heirs. Evidence of a division of some sort can be found in the distribution of coins imprinted with the name of each king and in the king lists. Wittiza is succeeded by Roderic, who reigned for seven and a half years, followed by a certain Achila (Aquila), who reigned three and a half years. If the reigns of both terminated with the incursion of the Saracens, then Roderic appears to have reigned a few years before the majority of Achila. The latter’s kingdom is securely placed to the northeast, while Roderic seems to have taken the rest, notably Portugal.

The Saracens crossed the mountains to claim Ardo’s Septimania, only to encounter the Basque dynasty of Aquitania, always the allies of the Goths. Odo the Great of Aquitania was at first victorious at the Battle of Toulouse in 721. Saracen troops gradually massed in Septimania and in 732 an army under Emir Abd al-Rahman abd Allah al-Ghafiqi advanced into Vasconia, and Odo was defeated at the Battle of the River Garonne. They took Bordeaux and were advancing towards Tours when Odo, powerless to stop them, appealed to his arch-enemy, Charles Martel, mayor of the Franks. In one of the first of the lightning marches for which the Carolingian kings became famous, Charles and his army appeared in the path of the Saracens between Tours and Poitiers, and in the Battle of Tours decisively defeated and killed al-Ghafiqi. The Moors would come back twice more, only to suffer defeat at Charles’ hands twice more – at the River Berre near Narbonne in 737 and a second time in the Dauphine in 740. Odo’s price for salvation from the Saracens was incorporation into Frankish kingdom, a decision that was repugnant to him and also to his heirs.

Loss and recovery of Aquitania

After the death of his father, Hunald allied himself with free Lombardy. However, Odo had ambiguously left the kingdom jointly to his two sons, Hunald and Hatto. The latter, loyal to Francia, now went to war with his brother over full possession. Victorious, Hunald blinded and imprisoned his brother, only to be so stricken by conscience that he resigned and entered the church as a monk to do penance according to Carolingian sources. His son Waifer took an early inheritance, becoming duke of Aquitania, and ratified the alliance with Lombardy. Waifer decided to honour it, repeating his father’s decision, which he justified by arguing that any agreements with Charles Martel became invalid on Martel’s death. Since Aquitania was now Pepin’s inheritance because of the earlier assistance given by Charles Martel, according to some the latter and his son, the young Charles, hunted down Waifer, who could only conduct a guerrilla war, and executed him.

Among the contingents of the Frankish army were Bavarians under Tassilo III, Duke of Bavaria, an Agilofing, the hereditary Bavarian ducal family. Grifo had installed himself as Duke of Bavaria, but Pepin replaced him with a member of the ducal family yet a child, Tassilo, whose protector he had become after the death of his father. The loyalty of the Agilolfings was perpetually in question, but Pepin exacted numerous oaths of loyalty from Tassilo. However, the latter had married Liutperga, a daughter of Desiderius, king of Lombardy. At a critical point in the campaign, Tassilo with all his Bavarians left the field. Out of reach of Pepin, he repudiated all loyalty to Francia. Pepin had no chance to respond as he grew ill and within a few weeks after the execution of Waifer died himself.

The first event of the brothers’ reign was the uprising of the Aquitainians and Gascons, in 769, in that territory split between the two kings. One year before, Pepin had finally defeated Waifer, Duke of Aquitaine, after waging a destructive, ten-year war against Aquitaine. Now, one Hunald (seemingly other than Hunald the duke) led the Aquitainians as far north as Angoulême. Charles met Carloman, but Carloman refused to participate and returned to Burgundy. Charles went to war, leading an army to Bordeaux, where he set up a fort at Fronsac. Hunald was forced to flee to the court of Duke Lupus II of Gascony. Lupus, fearing Charles, turned Hunald over in exchange for peace, and he was put in a monastery. Gascon lords also surrendered, and Aquitaine and Gascony were finally fully subdued by the Franks.

Perforce Union

The brothers maintained lukewarm relations with the assistance of their mother Bertrada, but in 770 Charles signed a treaty with Duke Tassilo III of Bavaria and married a Lombard Princess (commonly known today as Desiderata), the daughter of King Desiderius, to surround Carloman with his own allies. Though Pope Stephen III first opposed the marriage with the Lombard princess, he would soon have little to fear from a Frankish-Lombard alliance.

Less than a year after his marriage, Charlemagne repudiated Desiderata and quickly married a 13-year-old Swabian named Hildegard. The repudiated Desiderata returned to her father’s court at Pavia. Her father’s wrath was now aroused, and he would have gladly allied with Carloman to defeat Charles. Before any open hostilities could be declared, however, Carloman died on 5 December 771, seemingly of natural causes. Carloman’s widow Gerberga fled to Desiderius’ court in Lombardy with her sons for protection.

Italian campaigns – Conquest of the Lombard kingdom

At his succession in 772, Pope Adrian I demanded the return of certain cities in the former exarchate of Ravenna in accordance with a promise at the succession of Desiderius. Instead, Desiderius took over certain papal cities and invaded the Pentapolis, heading for Rome. Adrian sent ambassadors to Charlemagne in autumn requesting he enforce the policies of his father, Pepin. Desiderius sent his own ambassadors denying the pope’s charges. The ambassadors both met at Thionville, and Charlemagne upheld the pope’s side. Charlemagne demanded what the pope had requested, and Desiderius promptly swore never to comply. Charlemagne and his uncle Bernard crossed the Alps in 773 and chased the Lombards back to Pavia, which they then besieged. Charlemagne temporarily left the siege to deal with Adelchis, son of Desiderius, who was raising an army at Verona. The young prince was chased to the Adriatic littoral, and he fled to Constantinople to plead for assistance from Constantine V, who was waging war with Bulgaria.

The siege lasted until the spring of 774, when Charlemagne visited the pope in Rome. There he confirmed his father’s grants of land, with some later chronicles claiming—falsely—that he also expanded them, granting Tuscany, Emilia, Venice, and Corsica. The pope granted him the title patrician. He then returned to Pavia, where the Lombards were on the verge of surrendering. In return for their lives, the Lombards surrendered and opened the gates in early summer. Desiderius was sent to the abbey of Corbie, and his son Adelchis died in Constantinople a patrician. Charles, unusually, had himself crowned with the Iron Crown and made the magnates of Lombardy do homage to him at Pavia. Only Duke Arechis II of Benevento refused to submit and proclaimed independence. Charlemagne was then master of Italy as king of the Lombards. He left Italy with a garrison in Pavia and a few Frankish counts in place the same year.

There was still instability, however, in Italy. In 776, Dukes Hrodgaud of Friuli and Hildeprand of Spoleto rebelled. Charlemagne rushed back from Saxony and defeated the duke of Friuli in battle; the duke was slain.[36] The duke of Spoleto signed a treaty. Their co-conspirator, Arechis, was not subdued, and Adelchis, their candidate in Byzantium, never left that city. Northern Italy was now faithfully his.

Southern Italy

In 787, Charlemagne directed his attention towards the Duchy of Benevento, where Arechis was reigning independently. Charlemagne besieged Salerno, and Arechis submitted to vassalage. However, with his death in 792, Benevento again proclaimed independence under his son Grimoald III. Grimoald was attacked by armies of Charles or his sons many times, but Charlemagne himself never returned to the Mezzogiorno, and Grimoald never was forced to surrender to Frankish suzerainty.

Charles and his children

Charlemagne (left) and his eldest son, Pepin the Hunchback. Tenth-century copy of a lost original from about 830.
During the first peace of any substantial length (780–782), Charles began to appoint his sons to positions of authority within the realm, in the tradition of the kings and leaders of the past. In 781, he made his two youngest sons kings, having them crowned by the Pope. The elder of these two, Carloman, was made king of Italy, taking the Iron Crown that his father had first worn in 774, and in the same ceremony was renamed “Pepin.” The younger of the two, Louis, became king of Aquitaine. Charlemagne ordered Pepin and Louis to be raised in the customs of their kingdoms, and he gave their regents some control of their sub-kingdoms, but real power was always in his hands, though he intended his sons to inherit their realms some day. Nor did he tolerate insubordination in his sons: in 792, he banished his eldest, though possibly illegitimate, son, Pippin the Hunchback, to the monastery of Prüm, because the young man had joined a rebellion against him.

Charles was determined to have his children educated, including his daughters, as his parents had instilled the importance of learning in him at an early age. His children were also taught skills in line with their aristocratic status, which included training in riding and weaponry for his sons, and embroidery, spinning, and weaving for his daughters.

The sons fought many wars on behalf of their father when they came of age. Charles was mostly preoccupied with the Bretons, whose border he shared and who insurrected on at least two occasions and were easily put down, but he was also sent against the Saxons on multiple occasions. In 805 and 806, he was sent into the Böhmerwald (modern Bohemia) to deal with the Slavs living there (Bohemian tribes, ancestors of the modern Czechs). He subjected them to Frankish authority and devastated the valley of the Elbe, forcing a tribute on them. Pippin had to hold the Avar and Beneventan borders but also fought the Slavs to his north. He was uniquely poised to fight the Byzantine Empire when finally that conflict arose after Charlemagne’s imperial coronation and a Venetian rebellion. Finally, Louis was in charge of the Spanish March and also went to southern Italy to fight the duke of Benevento on at least one occasion. He took Barcelona in a great siege in 797.

Charlemagne’s attitude towards his daughters has been the subject of much discussion. He kept them at home with him and refused to allow them to contract sacramental marriages (though he originally condoned an engagement between his eldest daughter Rotrude and Constantine VI of Byzantium, this engagement was annulled when Rotrude was 11).[40] Charlemagne’s stance in opposition to his daughters’ marriages may possibly have intended to prevent the creation of cadet branches of the family to challenge the main line, as had been the case with Tassilo of Bavaria – yet he tolerated their extramarital relationships, even rewarding their common-law husbands, and treasured the illegitimate grandchildren they produced for him. He also, apparently, refused to believe stories of their wild behaviour. After his death the surviving daughters were banished from the court by their brother, the pious Louis, to take up residence in the convents they had been bequeathed by their father. At least one of them, Bertha, had a recognised relationship, if not a marriage, with Angilbert, a member of Charlemagne’s court circle.

Carolingian expansion to the south

The destructive war led by Pepin in Aquitaine, although brought to a satisfactory conclusion for the Franks, proved the Frankish power structure south of the Loire was feeble and unreliable. After the defeat and death of Waifer of Aquitaine in 768, while Aquitaine submitted again to the Carolingian dynasty, a new rebellion broke out in 769 led by Hunald II, maybe son of Waifer. He took refuge with the ally duke Lupus II of Gascony, but probably out of fear of Charlemagne’s reprisal, handed him over to the new King of the Franks besides pledging loyalty to him, which seemed to confirm the peace in the Basque area south of the Garonne.

However, wary of new Basque uprisings, Charlemagne seems to have tried to diminish duke Lupus’s power by appointing a certain Seguin as count of Bordeaux (778) and other counts of Frankish background in bordering areas (Toulouse, County of Fézensac), a decision that seriously undermined the authority of the duke of Gascony (Vasconia). The Basque duke in turn seems to have contributed decisively or schemed the Battle of Roncevaux Pass (referred to as “Basque treachery”). The defeat of Charlemagne’s army in Roncevaux (778) confirmed him in his determination to rule directly by establishing the Kingdom of Aquitaine (son Louis the Pious proclaimed first king) based on a power base of Frankish officials, distributing lands among colonisers and allocating lands to the Church, which he took as ally. A Christianisation programme was put on place across the high Pyrenees (778).

The new political arrangement for Vasconia did not sit well with local lords. As of 788 we hear of Adalric fighting and capturing Chorson, Carolingian count of Toulouse. He was eventually released, but Charlemagne, enraged at the compromise, decided to depose him and appointed his trustee William of Orange. William in turn fought the Basques and defeated them after banishing Adalric (790).

From 781 (Pallars, Ribagorça) to 806 (Pamplona under Frankish influence), taking the County of Toulouse for a power base, Charlemagne managed to assert Frankish authority over the Pyrenees by bringing to heel the south-western marches of Toulouse (790) and establishing vassal counties on the southern Pyrenees that were to make up the Marca Hispanica. As of 794, we hear for the first time of a Frankish vassal, the Basque lord Belasko (al-Galashki, ‘the Gaul’) in the lands of Álava, but Pamplona remained in Cordovan and local hands up to 806. Belasko and the counties in the Marca Hispánica provided the necessary springboard to attack the Andalusians (expedition led by William Count of Toulouse and Louis the Pious to capture Barcelona in 801), in a way that Charlemagne had succeeded in expanding the Carolingian rule all around the Pyrenees by 812, although events in the Duchy of Vasconia (rebellion in Pamplona, count overthrown in Aragon, duke Seguin of Bordeaux deposed, uprising of the Basque lords, etc.) were to prove it ephemeral on his death.

Roncesvalles campaign

According to the Muslim historian Ibn al-Athir, the Diet of Paderborn had received the representatives of the Muslim rulers of Zaragoza, Girona, Barcelona, and Huesca. Their masters had been cornered in the Iberian peninsula by Abd ar-Rahman I, the Umayyad emir of Cordova. These “Saracen” (Moorish and Muladi) rulers offered their homage to the great king of the Franks in return for military support. Seeing an opportunity to extend Christendom and his own power and believing the Saxons to be a fully conquered nation, Charlemagne agreed to go to Spain.

In 778, he led the Neustrian army across the Western Pyrenees, while the Austrasians, Lombards, and Burgundians passed over the Eastern Pyrenees. The armies met at Saragossa and Charlemagne received the homage of the Muslim rulers, Sulayman al-Arabi and Kasmin ibn Yusuf, but the city did not fall for him. Indeed, Charlemagne was facing the toughest battle of his career where the Muslims had the upper hand and forced him to retreat. He decided to go home, since he could not trust the Basques, whom he had subdued by conquering Pamplona. He turned to leave Iberia, but as he was passing through the Pass of Roncesvalles one of the most famous events of his long reign occurred. The Basques fell on his rearguard and baggage train, utterly destroying it. The Battle of Roncevaux Pass, though less a battle than a mere skirmish, left many famous dead, including the seneschal Eggihard, the count of the palace Anselm, and the warden of the Breton March, Roland, inspiring the subsequent creation of the Song of Roland (La Chanson de Roland).

Contact with the Saracens

The conquest of Italy brought Charlemagne in contact with the Saracens who, at the time, controlled the Mediterranean. Pippin, his son, was much occupied with Saracens in Italy. Charlemagne conquered Corsica and Sardinia at an unknown date and in 799 the Balearic Islands. The islands were often attacked by Saracen pirates, but the counts of Genoa and Tuscany (Boniface) kept them at bay with large fleets until the end of Charlemagne’s reign. Charlemagne even had contact with the caliphal court in Baghdad. In 797 (or possibly 801), the caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid, presented Charlemagne with an Asian elephant named Abul-Abbas and a clock.

Wars with the Moors

In Hispania, the struggle against the Moors continued unabated throughout the latter half of his reign. His son Louis was in charge of the Spanish border. In 785, his men captured Girona permanently and extended Frankish control into the Catalan littoral for the duration of Charlemagne’s reign (and much longer; it remained nominally Frankish until the Treaty of Corbeil in 1258). The Muslim chiefs in the northeast of Islamic Spain were constantly revolting against Cordovan authority, and they often turned to the Franks for help. The Frankish border was slowly extended until 795, when Girona, Cardona, Ausona, and Urgell were united into the new Spanish March, within the old duchy of Septimania.

In 797, Barcelona, the greatest city of the region, fell to the Franks when Zeid, its governor, rebelled against Cordova and, failing, handed it to them. The Umayyad authority recaptured it in 799. However, Louis of Aquitaine marched the entire army of his kingdom over the Pyrenees and besieged it for two years, wintering there from 800 to 801, when it capitulated. The Franks continued to press forward against the emir. They took Tarragona in 809 and Tortosa in 811. The last conquest brought them to the mouth of the Ebro and gave them raiding access to Valencia, prompting the Emir al-Hakam I to recognise their conquests in 813.

Eastern campaigns – Saxon Wars

Charlemagne was engaged in almost constant battle throughout his reign, often at the head of his elite scara bodyguard squadrons, with his legendary sword Joyeuse in hand. In the Saxon Wars, spanning thirty years and eighteen battles, he conquered Saxonia and proceeded to convert the conquered to Christianity.

The Germanic Saxons were divided into four subgroups in four regions. Nearest to Austrasia was Westphalia and furthest away was Eastphalia. In between these two kingdoms was that of Engria and north of these three, at the base of the Jutland peninsula, was Nordalbingia.

In his first campaign, in 773, Charlemagne forced the Engrians to submit and cut down an Irminsul pillar near Paderborn. The campaign was cut short by his first expedition to Italy. He returned in 775, marching through Westphalia and conquering the Saxon fort at Sigiburg. He then crossed Engria, where he defeated the Saxons again. Finally, in Eastphalia, he defeated a Saxon force, and its leader Hessi converted to Christianity. Charlemagne returned through Westphalia, leaving encampments at Sigiburg and Eresburg, which had been important Saxon bastions. With the exception of Nordalbingia, Saxony was under his control, but Saxon resistance had not ended.

Following his campaign in Italy to subjugate the dukes of Friuli and Spoleto, Charlemagne returned very rapidly to Saxony in 776, where a rebellion had destroyed his fortress at Eresburg. The Saxons were once again brought to heel, but their main leader, Widukind, managed to escape to Denmark, home of his wife. Charlemagne built a new camp at Karlstadt. In 777, he called a national diet at Paderborn to integrate Saxony fully into the Frankish kingdom. Many Saxons were baptised as Christians.

In the summer of 779, he again invaded Saxony and reconquered Eastphalia, Engria, and Westphalia. At a diet near Lippe, he divided the land into missionary districts and himself assisted in several mass baptisms (780). He then returned to Italy and, for the first time, there was no immediate Saxon revolt. Saxony was peaceful from 780 to 782.

He returned to Saxony in 782 and instituted a code of law and appointed counts, both Saxon and Frank. The laws were draconian on religious issues; for example, the Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae prescribed death to Saxon pagans who refused to convert to Christianity. This revived a renewal of the old conflict. That year, in autumn, Widukind returned and led a new revolt. In response, at Verden in Lower Saxony, Charlemagne is recorded as having ordered the execution of 4,500 Saxon prisoners, known as the Massacre of Verden (“Verdener Blutgericht”). The killings triggered three years of renewed bloody warfare (783–785). During this war the Frisians were also finally subdued and a large part of their fleet was burned. The war ended with Widukind accepting baptism.

Thereafter, the Saxons maintained the peace for seven years, but in 792 the Westphalians again rose against their conquerors. The Eastphalians and Nordalbingians joined them in 793, but the insurrection did not catch on and was put down by 794. An Engrian rebellion followed in 796, but the presence of Charlemagne, Christian Saxons and Slavs quickly crushed it. The last insurrection of the independent-minded people occurred in 804, more than thirty years after Charlemagne’s first campaign against them. This time, the most restive of them, the Nordalbingians, found themselves effectively disempowered from rebellion for the time being. According to Einhard:

The war that had lasted so many years was at length ended by their acceding to the terms offered by the King; which were renunciation of their national religious customs and the worship of devils, acceptance of the sacraments of the Christian faith and religion, and union with the Franks to form one people.
Submission of Bavaria

By 774, Charlemagne had invaded the Kingdom of Lombardy, and he later annexed the Lombardian territories and assumed its crown, placing the Papal States under Frankish protection. The Duchy of Spoleto south of Rome was also acquired in 774, while in the central western parts of Europe, the Duchy of Bavaria was absorbed and the Bavarian policy continued of establishing tributary marches, (borders protected in return for tribute or taxes) among the Slavic Serbs, and Czechs. The remaining power confronting the Franks in the east were the Avars, however Charlemagne went on acquiring other Slav areas, including Bohemia, Moravia, Austria and Croatia.

In 789, Charlemagne turned his attention to Bavaria. He claimed Tassilo was an unfit ruler, due to his oath-breaking. The charges were exaggerated, but Tassilo was deposed anyway and put in the monastery of Jumièges. In 794, he was made to renounce any claim to Bavaria for himself and his family (the Agilolfings) at the synod of Frankfurt. Bavaria was subdivided into Frankish counties, as had been done with Saxony.

Avar campaigns

In 788, the Avars, a pagan Asian horde that had settled down in what is today Hungary (Einhard called them Huns), invaded Friuli and Bavaria. Charlemagne was preoccupied with other matters until 790, when he marched down the Danube and ravaged Avar territory to the Gy?r. A Lombard army under Pippin then marched into the Drava valley and ravaged Pannonia. The campaigns would have continued if the Saxons had not revolted again in 792, breaking seven years of peace.

For the next two years, Charlemagne was occupied, along with the Slavs, against the Saxons. Pippin and Duke Eric of Friuli continued, however, to assault the Avars’ ring-shaped strongholds. The great Ring of the Avars, their capital fortress, was taken twice. The booty was sent to Charlemagne at his capital, Aachen, and redistributed to all his followers and even to foreign rulers, including King Offa of Mercia. Soon the Avar tuduns had lost the will to fight and travelled to Aachen to subject themselves to Charlemagne as vassals and Christians. Charlemagne accepted their surrender and sent one native chief, baptised Abraham, back to Avaria with the ancient title of khagan. Abraham kept his people in line, but in 800, the Bulgarians under Khan Krum also attacked the remains of Avar state.

In 803, Charlemagne sent a huge Bavarian army into Pannonia, defeating and bringing an end to the Avar confederation. In November of the same year, Charlemagne went to Regensburg where the Avar leaders acknowledged him as their own ruler. In 805, the Avar khagan, who had already been baptised, went to Aachen to ask permission to settle with his people south-eastward from Vienna. The Transdanubian territories became integral parts of the Frankish realm, which was abolished by the Magyars in 899-900.

Northeast Slav expeditions

In 789, in recognition of his new pagan neighbours, the Slavs, Charlemagne marched an Austrasian-Saxon army across the Elbe into Obotrite territory. The Slavs ultimately submitted, led by their leader Witzin. Charlemagne then accepted the surrender of the Wiltzes under Dragovit and demanded many hostages. Charlemagne also demanded the permission to send missionaries into this pagan region unmolested. The army marched to the Baltic before turning around and marching to the Rhine, winning much booty with no harassment. The tributary Slavs became loyal allies. In 795, when the Saxons broke the peace, the Abotrites and Wiltzes rose in arms with their new master against the Saxons. Witzin died in battle and Charlemagne avenged him by harrying the Eastphalians on the Elbe. Thrasuco, his successor, led his men to conquest over the Nordalbingians and handed their leaders over to Charlemagne, who greatly honoured him. The Abotrites remained loyal until Charles’ death and fought later against the Danes.

Southeast Slav expeditions

When Charlemagne incorporated much of Central Europe, he brought the Frankish state face to face with the Avars and Slavs in the southeast. The most southeast Frankish neighbours were Croats, who settled in Pannonian Croatia and Dalmatian Croatia. While fighting the Avars, the Franks had called for their support. During the 790s, when Charlemagne campaigned against the Avars, he won a major victory in 796. Pannonian Croat duke Vojnomir of Pannonian Croatia aided Charlemagne, and the Franks made themselves overlords over the Croats of northern Dalmatia, Slavonia, and Pannonia.

The Frankish commander Eric of Friuli wanted to extend his dominion by conquering the Littoral Croat Duchy. During that time, Dalmatian Croatia was ruled by duke Višeslav of Croatia. In the Battle of Trsat, the forces of Eric fled their positions and were totally routed by the forces of Višeslav. Eric himself was among those killed, and his death and defeat proved a great blow for the Carolingian Empire.

Charlemagne also directed his attention to the Slavs to the west of the Avar khaganate: the Carantanians and Carniolans. These people were subdued by the Lombards and Bavarii, were made tributaries, but were never fully incorporated into the Frankish state.