1902 Encyclopedia > Charlemagne

(also known as: Charles the Great)
King of the Franks (from 768) and Emperor (from 800)

CHARLEMAGNE, or CHARLES THE GREAT, was born in 742, succeeded his father Pepin as king of the Franks in 768, was crowned emperor of the Romans in 800, and died in 814 after an eventful and beneficent reign of forty-six years. His father had divided the Frankish kingdom between him and his younger brother Carloman, but the latter dying in 771, Charlemagne was proclaimed sole ruler. The monarchy he thus inherited was a very extensive one; for, in addition to the Frankish territory, stretching from the Loire to the east of the Rhine, there were Burgundy and Allemania, which had been incorporated by his ancestor, while almost all round the direct empire of the Franks stretched a group of vassal nations. Aquitaine, Brittany, Frisia, Thuringia, and Bavaria were in more or less close subjection to them. They were, moreover, the protectors of the popes against the Greeks and Lombards, and the champions of Christianity against the Saracens on the south-west and the heathen Saxons of the north-east. In fact, before the accession of Charlemagne the Franks had attained to a real supremacy over most of the Germanic nations, and were the bulwark of the Christianity of the West. This many-sided and lofty position imposed a corresponding complexity of duty on the new king, which he fulfilled with an energy and success almost unexampled in the history of the world, maintaining and extending on all hands the influence of Christian culture, and taking the first steps towards converting the military monarchy of the Franks into an organized policy. His first task was to suppress a rising in Aquitaine. In 772 commenced the great mission of his life, the conquest and conversion of the Saxons, a work which could be effected only after thirty-two years of the fiercest and most passionate warfare. With the doubtful exception of the Frisians, the Saxons were the last remnant of the old Germanic resistance to the military supremacy of the Franks, and the last Germanic champions of the religion of Odin against the onward progress of Christianity. Charlemagne never had much difficulty in vanquishing the badly-organized Saxon forces, and in compelling a temporary or partial submission; but with a loose confederation like the Saxons, which had no definite organization and no properly recognized representative, it was difficult to make a fixed and universally accepted arrangement. Hence the incessant renewal of an apparently decided conflict, and the outcry of the Franks against the treachery of their enemies. The encroachments of the Saxons on his eastern frontier was the occasion of his first expedition, which was directed into the ancient forest of Teutoburg, famous as the scene of the old Germanic resistance to the Romans. Here he stormed the fortress of Ehresburg, overthrew the Irminsul, a mysterious column-shaped idol much revered among the Saxons, destroyed the sanctuary of Odin, and compelled the Westphalian Saxons to submit. Events in Italy now summoned Charlemagne to the other side of the Alps, in order to chastise the Lombards who were invading the possessions of the Pope. The Frankish king was victorious, dethroned Desiderius the Lombard king, and placed the Lombard crown on his own head (774). Meanwhile, the Saxons had profited by his absence to expel the Frankish garrisons, and even to renew their old ravages. Charlemagne immediately set out against them, and in two campaigns enforced the submission of the entire Saxon confederation. In a great Champ-de-Mai at Paderborn the Frankish king, surrounded by his chiefs and by ambassadors from distant nations, received the homage of the Saxon warriors, many thousands of whom submitted to be baptized (777). The Saxons apparently subdued, Charles crossed the Pyrenees, and received the submission of the country as far as the Ebro. On his return, however, the rear-guard was assailed and cut off by the mountaineers in the pass of Roncesvalles; Roland their leader was slain, and the overthrow of the Franks, transformed and wrought up in every possible way, became one of the great themes of song and romance (778). His march home from Spain had been unseasonably hastened by a general revolt of the Saxons, this time assisted by the Danes. Charles was again easily victorious, but no sooner had he left the country than the Saxons, mad with revenge, and animated by the fiercest national and religious hate, resumed the struggle. Even the massacre of Verden (782), in which 4500 Saxon prisoners were slain in cold blood, served only to intensity the spirit of resistance; but their rude courage was no match for the large and well-disciplined armies of the Frankish king. They were again completely defeated; even Wittikind, the hero of the whole war, was compelled to confess the superiority of the God of Charlemagne, and at Attigny received the rite of baptism (785). His example was generally followed; and the Frankish organization, political and ecclesiastical, was systematically introduced. Germany had become Christian; it was now the Northmen, among whom thousands of Saxons had found refuge, that took up the task of supporting a gradually declining cause. But though this may be looked upon as the deciding act in the drama of old Germanic resistance, there were still many bloody and almost general revolts of the Saxons. To punish these Charles adopted even a more effective than the planting of Frankish garrisons; thousands of Saxon families were deported into other provinces of the empire, and more loyal subjects introduced to fill the vacant space. It was not till 804 that the last speaks of resistance were quenched

In the year 788, Bavaria was incorporated with the Frankish empire. Its duke, Thassilo, had more than once incurred the displeasure of Charles by too pronounced measures towards the recovery of his independence, and has even alienated his subjects by schemes of alliance with the heathen Avars and the heretic Greeks. Consequently Charles had no difficulty in dethroning him. This was followed in 791 by a vast and well-organized expedition against the Avars, a savage robber nation of Mongols inhabiting the modern Hungary. The Franks were again victorious everywhere; but other work of a more pressing kind prevented Charles from completing their reduction, which was afterwards effected chiefly by his lieutenants. Their immense circular encampments, or rings, from which they had issued to carry havoc into all the surrounding countries, were forced, and their treasures became the spoil of the Christian armies (798). They submitted; and German colonists were introduced into many of those regions. In this way Pannonia was added to the empire of Charles. Other campaigns carried on at various times of Charlemagne or his lieutenants, on the Elbe and even in Bohemia, against the Danes, the Wends, and the Czechs, still further increased the prestige of the Frankish armies, and enlarged the empire of their great monarch against Slavish and Scandinavian heathendom, while his troops maintained the Spanish march against his south-western enemies, Moslem and Christian, and the duke of Beneventum in Southern Italy was obliged to become his vassal. Thus from the Eider to Sicily, and from the Ebro to the Theiss, the will of Charles was supreme; while over the Slavonic tribes, as far as the Oder or even the Vistula, his influence was felt in no feeble way. The genius and energy of one man had succeeded in arresting the progress of political disintegration, and, in the interest of culture and constructive order, in welding into one great monarchy all the races of continental Germany. It was no wonder that men who associated the ideas of imperial order and constructive civilization with the name of Rome should have recognized in the monarchy of Charles the restoration of the power of the Caesars. When, therefore, at Rome, on Christmas eve of the year 800, he was crowned emperor of the Romans, it seemed the natural consummation of his whole career. And when in 801 an embassy arrived with curious presents from Harun-al-Rashid, the great caliph who held in the East the same place as Charles in the West, men recognized it as a becoming testimony to the world-wide reputation of the Frankish emperor.

Charles was for more than an ordinary conqueror. He displayed not less energy in the internal organization and administration of his kingdom than in foreign affairs. The whole empire was divided into districts, presided over by counts, who were responsible for their good government; while in the exposed frontiers or marches, other counts (Markgrafen) were stationed with forces capable of defending them. In order to superintend these provincial authorities, to give effect to the royal will, to preserve the due subordination of the outlaying portions of the empire to the central power, and in this way to complete and secure the organization of the empire, the missi dominici, experienced men both of the laity and clergy, were despatched in all directions. Two great assemblies were held every year,—the Champ-de-Mai, which was a kind of national muster, essentially military, and another in autumn, of the high officials, of a deliberative and advisory nature. In the capitularies (edicts issued as the necessities of the empire required), in his endeavours to promote education, in his organization of the church and the definitive, institution of tithes, in the unsuccessful attempt to join the Danube and the Rhine by a canal, he gave proof of the nobles desire to conserve and propagate the culture of former times. Learned men—Eginhard, Paul Warnefried, and, above all, Alcuin—were his intimate friends and teaches; Guizot calls Alcuin his intellectual prime minister.

Charlemagne died on 28th January 814, at Aix-la-Chapelle, and was buried there. The empire created and organized by his genius gradually fell to pieces after his death. His endeavour to resuscitate an old civilization, to engraft the Christian Roman culture on the vigorous stem of the Teutonic races, and to unite all the Germanic tribes in one empire, before the long action of historic influences had stamped upon them a distinct national character—this was to a great extent a failure, because one life-time was too short for its accomplishment. His greatness lies in the nobility of his aim, in the energy and wisdom with which he carried it out during his life, and also in the enduring traces of valuable work which remained notwithstanding the genera wreck of his empire; for, though the central organization was swept away, the provincial authorities remained, to be transformed into the new feudal organization of Western Europe, whilst the idea of the revival of the Christian Roman Empire was to be taken up by other sections of the Germanic race. Though the circumstances of his time prevented him from being the founder of a new epoch in history, like Caesar or Alexander, yet in the greatness of his character, in his marvelous many-sided activity, and in the magic influence of his name on subsequent generations, he was equal to either.

The works of Charlemagne are—1. His Capitularies, first collected by Ansegise, about St Wandrille, the best edition of which is that of Etienne, Paris, 1677, 2 vols. Folio; 2. Letters, contained in the collection of D. Bouquest; 3. A. Grammar of which fragments are to be found in the Polygraphia of Trithemius; 4. His Testamemt, contained in Bouchel’s Bibliothèque du Dreit Français, tom. iii., printed at Paris, 1667, folio; 5. Some Latin poems, e.g., the Epitaph of Pope Adrian and the Song of Roland; 6. The Caroline Books. The great contemporary authority for the life of Charlemagne is the Vita Caroli Magni, by Eginhard, who also writes Annales. There is a good Life, in English, by G. P. R. James. Sketches of Charlemagne in histories of a more general kind are innumerable; probably the best recent one is to be found in Martin’s Histoire de France.

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