Charles I, King of the Franks, King of the Lombards & Emperor Charlemagne of Rome.
I was born 1,204 years and 2 days after the death of my 34th great-grandfather. He was born at Herstal, Liège, Austrasia (now present day Belgium) to Pippin III, ‘the Short’ (714–768) and Bertrada II “Broadfoot” of Laon (720–783).
In Latin his name was Karolus or Carolus, whence Charles. The French form Charlemagne comes from his nickname, Carolus Magnus (Charles the Great). In reconstructed Frankish, his native tongue, his birthname would likely would have been Kar(e)l.
The Frankish Empire or simply Francia was a large territory occupied by Germanic people who had converted to the Catholicism of Rome. The capital was Aachen (present day Germany). They spoke Frankish, other Germanic languages and Gallo-Romanic languages. Charlemagne was recorded as speaking Frankish (dialect of Old high German), Latic and a little Greek. He could read but not write.
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.
— Einhard Charlemagne’s biographer.
Charlemagne was the most powerful man in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire and he helped shape Europe and has been called the ‘Father of Europe’ (Pater Europae). He had a vision of a united Europe, now where have we heard that before?
He established the silver standard that would be the major standard of European mints for the next five centuries. He also established a unified system of measurement that its remnants can still be seen today. Trade and commerce flourished during his reign, with long-distance trade reviving in some regions, notably Frisia, present day Netherlands.
Research on his tibia bone shows Charlemagne would have stood about 6 feet (1.84m) tall, towering over 98 percent of the population of his day.
Following the death of his son, Louis the Pious in 840, the Western and Eastern Kingdoms eventually developed into the nations of France and Germany respectively.
Horses were used extensively by the Frankish military, because horses provided a quick, long-distance method of transporting troops, which was critical to building and maintaining the large empire.
Charlemagne served as a source of inspiration for such leaders as Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) and Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), who had visions of ruling a unified Europe.
Birth of brother Carloman I ‘the Short’ (751–771) on 28 Jun 751. Charlemagne was 4 years old.
Residence: Jupille-sur-Meuse, near Liège, Belgium. Aged 7 it is noted that Charlemagne lived at his father’s villa at Jupille.
Birth of son Pepin ‘the Hunchback’ (767–811) – mother Himiltrude. Charlemagne was 20 years old.
Death of Father Pippin III ‘the Short’ (714–768) on 24 Sep 768 when Charlemagne was 21.
King of the Franks. Coronation 9 Oct 768 at Nyon, Oise, France (reign 9 Oct 768 – 28 Jan 814).
Concubine or Friedelehe arrangement (a quasi-marriage, not accepted by the church and easily dissolvable) with Himiltrude (742–780), they never married and he cast her aside after two years so that he could marry Desiderata. Little is known about Himiltrude but it is said she was a ‘noble woman’ and she is buried at Nivelles in present day Belgium.
Birth of daughter Amaudra (c.768-?) – mother Himiltrude.
Marriage (770-771) to Desiderata of the Lombards (750–776). Her father was Desiderius, King of the Lombards (?-786) and mother Ansa (?-?).
Annulment of marriage with Desiderata.
With brother Carloman’s (751–771) sudden death on 4 Dec 771 in Samoussy, Aisne, northern France in unexplained circumstances, left Charlemagne as the undisputed ruler of the Frankish Kingdom.
Saxon Wars (771-804)
A series of 18 major battles finally concluded with Saxony (Germany) incorporated into the Frankish Empire, and the pagan Saxons forced to accept Christianity.
Marriage (771-783) to Hildegarde of the Vinzgau (758–783), who was 13 at the time, on 30 Apr 771 at Aix-la-Chapelle, Aachen, Rhineland, Germany. Her father was Gerold of Vinzgau, Count in Kraichgau and Anglachgau (725–799) and mother Emma of Alemannia (726–783).
Birth of son Charles the Younger (772–811) at Aachen, Rhineland, Germany – mother Hildegarde.
The Franks captured Eresburg in Saxony then took captives, plundered gold and silver, and most importantly, destroyed the Irminsul, one of the most holiest places of the pagan Saxons.
Birth of Son ‘Pepin I’ Carloman (773–810) on 2 Apr 773 at Aachen, Rhineland, Germany – mother Hildegarde.
Concubine arrangement with Gersuinda (c.760–?), they never married.
Conquest of Lombardy. After sending his wife Desiderata back to Pavia (Italy), later, Charlemagne, together with his uncle Bernard (c.720-787) crossed the Alps in 773 and chased the Lombards back to Pavia, which they then besieged.
The Siege of Pavia (773-774)
The seige was fought near Ticinum (present day Pavia) in northern Italy. Desiderius invaded papal territory leaving his army just a day’s march from Rome. The Pope sent his messengers to Charlemagne who was at his royal estate at Thionville (present day France) close to the Luxembourg border and some 800km from Marseilles. The messengers landed at Marseilles and travelled to Charlemagne’s estate where they delivered their message:
“They [the Lombards] would attack us [the pope] by land and water, conquer the city of Rome and lead ourselves into captivity. . . . Therefore we implore you by the living God and the Prince of the Apostles to hasten to our aid immediately, lest we be destroyed”.
There was already bad blood between the Franks and Lombards and sensing Desiderius’ aggression Charlemagne felt his own realm was under threat. He gathered up an army of unknown number in early summer to cross the alps. He split the army in two. One half was commanded by his uncle, Bernard, who led it through the Great St Bernard Pass and Charlemagne went through the Dora Susa near Mont Cenis. By September Pavia was under siege which they were not equipped for and in the 10th month of the siege food shortage was hurting the city and Desiderius surrended sometime in June. Charlemagne led a smaller force to besiege Verona which was guarded by Adelchis, the son of Desiderius but he fled in fear to Constantinople.
Birth of daughter Adaltrude (773–774) – mother Hidegarde. Who was born whilst her parents were on campaign in Italy (seige of Pavia Sep 773-Jun 774). She was sent back to Francia, but died before reaching Lyons.
Kings of the Lombards. Coronation on 10 Jul 774 at Pavia, (reign 10 Jul 774 – 28 Jan 814).
Death of daughter Adalhaid (773–774) on 7 Aug 774 at Metz, Moselle, Lorraine, France.
Concubine arrangement with Madelgard (?–?), they never married.
Birth of daughter Rotrude (774–810) in August – mother Hildegarde.
Birth of daughter Ruodhaid (775–810), – mother Madelgard. Abbess of Faremoutiers. Ruodhaid founded the monastery of Gy-les-Nonains in the region Center-Loire Valley, France and died in France on 24 Mar 852 aged 77.
Lombardy Rebellion. Charlemagne put down a rebellion in Lombardy by Duke Hrodgaud of Friuli and Duke Hildeprand of Spolet after rushing back from Saxony.
Birth of sons Lothair (778–779) and Louis I “The Pious” d’Aquitane (778-840) on 16 Apr 778 at Villa Cassinogilum, Chasseneuil-du-Poitou, France – mother Hildegarde. Louis I died on 20 Jun 840 at Ingelheim am Rhein, Mainz, Rhineland, Germany. He is buried at Abbey of Saint-Arnould, Metz, Moselle, Lorraine, France.
Spanish Campaign (the Roncesvalles Campaign). Charlemagne marched his 3,000 strong army south in 778, besieged and takes the town of Pamplona, while Zaragoza, Huesca, Barcelona and Girona swore allegiance to him. He is frustrated in his attempt to take Saragossa and then – with nothing achieved – retreats northwards.
The Battle of Roncevaux Pass (French and English spelling, Roncesvalles in Spanish, Orreaga in Basque) on 15 August saw a large force of Basques ambush a part of Charlemagne’s army (rear-guard and baggage train) in Roncevaux Pass, a high mountain pass in the Pyrenees. The rear-guard stood their ground but were wiped out but they held out long enough for the rest of the army to continue in safety. Charlemagne’s nephew, Roland, military governor of the Breton March, who fought and died in the battle later had a song (poem) written about him, The Song of Roland, which is considered one of the first true national poems of the modern world. Later, William the Conqueror’s used the poem as a motivator for Norman forces prior to the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Frankish-Moorish Wars (779-812)
The Franks and Moors fought throughout the Mediterrannean Sea and The Franks seized the islands of Corsica and Sardinia and in 799 the Balearic Islands plus parts of northern Spain. In 795, the Spanish regions of Gerona, Cardona, Ausona, and Urgel were united into the new Spanish March, which remained under Frankish authority until 1258.
Lothair died in infancy on 6 Feb 779 in Aachen, Rhineland, Germany.
Birth of daughter Berthe (c.779–824) – mother Hildegarde. She died on 11 Mar 824 at Aachen, Rhineland, Germany aged about 44.
Lombard War. Charlemagne installed his son as the ruler in Lombardy.
Birth of daughter Gisela of Rome (781–808) in May 781 at Milan, Lombardy, Italy. She was baptised there. Her mother was Hildegarde.
Charlemagne appointed two of his sons as kings. Carloman, was made king of Italy on 15 Apr 781 and in the same ceremony was renamed ‘Pepin. Louis, became king of Aquitaine.
Verdun, Lower Saxony (present day Germany). At the Massacre of Verden, Charlemagne reportedly ordered the slaughter of some 4,500 Saxons. He eventually forced the Saxons to convert to Christianity and declared that anyone who didn’t get baptized or follow other Christian traditions be put to death.
Birth of daughter Hildegarde (783–783) in Apr 783 at the royal estate Thionville, Moselle, Lorraine, France – mother Hildegarde.
Death of wife, Hildegarde on 30 Apr 783 aged 29 at the royal estate Thionville, Moselle, Lorraine, France due to after effects of her last childbirth. She is buried at Abbey of Saint-Arnould, Metz, Moselle, Lorraine, France. Charlemagne insisted candles were burnt at her grave and daily prayers were said for her soul. In Charlemagne’s will of 806 he divided his domains between the three surviving sons of Hildegarde and because her son Louis ‘the Pious’ succeeded Charlemagne as Emperor, Hildegarde is often called ‘mother of Kings and Emperors’.
Here lies Hildegard,
once Charles happy wife,
by her charm,
but even more by the merits of her heart
the other women surpassed.
Her greatest fame, however, is the pleasure
of such a man, as Karl (Charles) is.
To have attracted
you was worthy Queen of alone.
To be so powerful empire
now complain all nations their death
and even defiant warrior
can the tears to not included.
Pain consumes the heart of her husband.
Only one consolation is left all,
that they will find their reward in heaven.
Death of daughter Hildegarde (783–783) in May 783 at the royal estate at Thionville, Lorraine, France. Paulus Diaconus wrote an epitaph to Hildegarde specifying that she lived for 40 days.
Death of mother Bertrada II “Broadfoot” of Laon (720–783) on 12 Jun 783 at Choisy-au-Bac, Oise, northern France.
Marriage (783-794) to Fastrada (765–794) in Oct 783 at Worms, Rhineland, Germany. She was 17. Her father was a Frankish count, Rudolph.
The 787 entry in the Royal Frankish Annals includes: “The same most gracious king reached his wife, the Lady Fastrada, in the city of Worms. There they rejoiced over each other and were happy together and praised God’s mercy.”
Birth of daughter Hiltrude (787– 830) in Alsace, France – mother Fastrada. She died aged 43 at Tours, France.
Charlemagne subdued the Bretons, (Brittany in the west of Gaul) and they promised to obey him from then on.
Charlemagne besieged the city of Salerno and incorporated southern Italy into his empire.
Bavarian War (787-788)
The ruler of Bavaria, Duke Tassilo, made an alliance with the Avars (better known as the Huns) to war with Charlemagne but when his forces entered Bavaria, the Duke quickly succombed and pledged loyalty to Charlemagne.
An offer by Offa of Mercia to arrange a marriage between Bertha and his son, Ecgfrith, led to Charlemagne breaking off diplomatic relations with Britain in 790, and banning British ships from his ports.
Frankish-Avar War (791-796)
Charlemagne together with his son Pepin waged war against the Avars and after a long and bloody war comlutaing in the subjugation of the Avars. Avars were from Pannonia located over the territory of the present-day western Hungary, eastern Austria, northern Croatia, north-western Serbia, northern Slovenia, western Slovakia and northern Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Second Beneventian War (792-?)
Grimold III, declared independence of Frankish rule and warfare continued on and off for years. Grimold never surrendered his independence.
In 792, he banished his eldest, though illegitimate, son, Pippin the Hunchback, because the young man had joined a rebellion against him, allegedly due to the cruelty of Queen Fastrada. He was judged by an assembly at Regensburg in Bavaria and imprisoned in the Abbey of St-Gallen in Switzerland. He was transferred to the Abbey of Prüm, Germany in 794.
Famine in the Frankish Empire in 792-4 caused catastrophic harvests, notably in France and Italy. The annalists report cases of cannibalism and collective hallucination.
Concubine arrangement with Amaltrud (c.775–?), they never married.
Birth of Daughter Alpaida(794–?) – mother Amaltrud.
Birth of daughter Theodrada (794–850), abbess of Argenteuil (814-828) in 8 Aug 794 at Wittenberg, Thringen, Germany – mother Fastrada.
Death of wife Fastrada (765–794)aged 30 on 10 Aug 794 at Frankfurt, Germany probably child birth complications.
Marriage to Luitgard (780–800). It was a childless marriage.
Charlemagne even had contact with the caliphal court in Baghdad. The caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid, presented Charlemagne with an Asian elephant named Abul-Abbas and a clock.
Charlemagne led a campaign against a Slavic group inhabiting what is now north-eastern Germany, they were known as the Wilzi. Charlemagne marched into their territory in 798 and crushed them.
Charlemagne conquered Corsica and Sardinia at an unknown date and in 799 the Balearic Islands.
Croation War (799-803)
The Croatian War continued on and off for years.
By 800, he had forged most of Western Europe into an efficiently run church-state.
Death of wife Luitgard (780–800) on 4 Jun 800 at Tours, France of unknown causes.
On 25 Dec 800 at Old St Peter’s Basilicia, Rome, Italy. Pope Leo III (750-816) crowned Charlemagne holy emperor of the Romans.
Concubine arrangement with Regina Reginopycrha (775–?), they never married.
Birth of son Drogo (801–855) on 17 Jun 801 at Aachen, Rhineland, Germany – mother Regina. He was Bishop of Metz and he became Vicar of the Pope in France in Jun 844. He died after falling into the River Oignon in which he was fishing at Bourgogne, France on 8 Dec 855.
Frankish-Byzantine War (801-810)
Charlemagne waged war on both land and sea for control of Venetia and the Dalmatian coast (modern-day northern Italy, Slovenia and Croatia). Peace was agreed upon in which Charlemagne gave up most of the Dalmatian coast (which he had conquered), in exchange for the Byzantine Emperor recognizing him as Emperor of the West.
Birth of son Hugh, (802–844) at Aachen, Rhineland, Germany – mother Regina. He was made imperial Archchancellor of the Empire in 834 and Abbot of Saint-Quentin (822-823) in Aisne, France, Lobbes (836) in Hainaut, Belgium and Saint-Bertin (836) in Saint-Omer, Frankish Kingdom (now Pas-de-Calais, France). He died in an ambush by Pepin II on 14 Jun 844 at Angoumois, present day Charente, France. Hugh was killed by a lance, and according to the anonymous verse lament composed about his death. Charles wept over his body.
Concubine arrangement with Ethelind (c.780–?), they never married.
Birth of son Richbod of Rome (805–844), Abbott of Saint-Riquier – mother Ethelind. Died aged 39 in France.
Bohemian War (805-806)
Frankish forces subdued the Slavic region of Bohemia (modern-day Czech Republic).
Charlemagne first made provision for the traditional division of the empire on his death. For Charles the Younger he designated Austrasia and Neustria, Saxony, Burgundy and Thuringia. To Pippin he gave Italy, Bavaria and Swabia. Louis received Aquitaine, the Spanish March and Provence.
Birth of son Theodoric of Rome (807–?) – mother Ethelind.
Death of daughter Gisela of Rome (781–808), aged 27 at Nièvre, Bourgogne, France.
Danish War (808-810)
Charlamagne settled accounts with the Danes, who had given aid and asylum to the Saxon leader Widukind in the Saxon Wars.
Death of daughter Rotrude (775–810) aged 45 on 6 Jun 810 at Comté du Maine, Neustria (present day France).
Death of son ‘Pepin’ Carloman (773–810) aged 37 on 8 Jul 810 at Milan, Lombard Kingdom (Italy). He is buried at Basilica of San Zeno, Verona, northern Italy.
Death of daughter Ruodhaid of Rome, Abbess of Faremoutiers. She died on 6 Jun 810 at Maine, Normandy, France aged 35.
Death of son Pepin ‘the Hunchback’ (767–811) died aged 44.
Death of son Charles ‘the Younger’ (772-811). At age 39 he had a stroke and died on 4 Dec 811 in Ingelheim, Hessen, Germany.
Charlemagne called Louis ‘the Pious’, king of Aquitaine, to his court and crowned his son as co-emperor named him as his successor at Aix-la-Chapelle, crowning him as joint Holy Roman Emperor on 11 September 813 and sending him back to Aquitaine. The only part of the Empire that Louis was not promised was Italy, which Charlemagne specifically bestowed upon Pippin’s illegitimate son Bernard (797-818).
During the autumn of 813 Charlemagne spent his time hunting before returning to Aachen on 1 November. In January, he fell ill with pleurisy. In deep depression (mostly because many of his plans were not yet realised), he took to his bed on 21 January and as Einhard tells it:
He died January twenty-eighth, the seventh day from the time that he took to his bed, at nine o’clock in the morning, after partaking of the Holy Communion, in the seventy-second year of his age and the forty-seventh of his reign.
Death on 28 Jan 814 at Aix-la-Chapelle royal palace, Aachen, Rhineland, Austrasia (present day Germany).
Burial at Cathedral of Aachen, Rhineland, Austrasia.
“ From the lands where the sun rises to western shores, People are crying and wailing…the Franks, the Romans, all Christians, are stung with mourning and great worry…the young and old, glorious nobles, all lament the loss of their Caesar…the world laments the death of Charles…O Christ, you who govern the heavenly host, grant a peaceful place to Charles in your kingdom. Alas for miserable me. ” – Anonymous monk of Bobbio Abbey, Bobbio, in the province of Piacenza, Emilia-Romagna, Italy.
Charlemagne had several residences across his kingdom, including private estates like Asnapium located near modern Villanueve d’Ascq in north eastern France. The estates were run in accordance with the Capitulare de villis*.
The Capitulare de villis played a role in preparing the king’s estates to aid him in the event of military conflict by supplying provisions and materials. Particular reference is made to carts and produce for the army.
A 9th century document detailing the inventory of an estate at Asnapium listed amounts of livestock, plants and vegetables and kitchenware including cauldrons, drinking cups, brass kettles and firewood. The manor contained seventeen houses built inside the courtyard for nobles and family members and was separated from its supporting villas. Every royal estate took pride in being self-sustaining with workshops, barns, granaries, dairies, breweries, ovens, fields, gardens, vineyards and orchards.
Another inventory shows the Asnapium estate had more than 60 horses. Other livestock included 100 cattle, nearly 300 hogs, nearly 500 sheep, more than 60 goats and poultry that included chickens, geese and peacocks. Supplies included barley, oats, spelt, wheat, peas, beans and rye. Some of this grain was stored; some planted.
*The Capitulare de villis is a text composed in c. 771–800 that guided the governance of the royal estates during the later years of the reign of Charlemagne. It lists, in no particular order, a series of rules and regulations on how to manage the lands, animals, justice, and overall administration of the king’s property and assets. The document was meant to lay out the instructions and criteria for managing Charlemagne’s estates and was thus, an important part of his reform of Carolingian government and administration.
The CV text might have been created in response to the famine of 792-4 but this is not proven.