Uncertain birth of a king

Charlemagne’s death, funeral, tomb and will are described in great detail by Einhard. A couple of posts ago I talked about the bones in Charlemagne’s tomb, and how almost thirty years of study had finally come to the conclusion that the bones belonged, in fact, to the great man himself. The death of an emperor was an event of great import. Obviously the birth of the first son of a king, the grandson of a king-maker, was documented in as much detail, right?

Wrong. Even the date of Charlemagne’s birth was an unanswerable question in his own lifetime. “I believe it would be improper [for me] to write about Charles’s birth and infancy, or even his childhood, since nothing [about those periods of his life] was ever written down and there is no one still alive who claims to have knowledge of these things.”1.Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, ch.4, in Dutton, Charlemagne’s Courier, p.4.

The answer is out there, you just have to dig a little deeper. Einhard offers up the first clue, stating that in 814 Charlemagne “died in the seventy-second year of his life and in the forty-seventh year of his reign.”2.Ibid, ch.30, p.35. Fact check: Charles ascended the Neustrian throne in the fall of 768 (with his brother Carloman taking the eastern, Austrasian throne),3.Royal Frankish Annals, year 768, p.46. which means he actually ruled for about 45 and a half years. Well, that’s kind of close. If we give Einhard the benefit of the doubt and allow for a couple of years on either side of the truth, then Charlemagne was born between 740 and 744, with 742 being 72 years before he died.

Those same Royal Annals don’t mention the births of Charles and Pepin at all. They show up in the record for the first time in 754, when Pope Steven traveled to Francia to anoint their father Pepin as king, and his royal progeny as lords.4.Ibid, year 754, p.40. Not mentioning their births is not unheard of, as the arrival of Charlemagne’s children are not mentioned either, although their baptisms do merit a line or two.

If the sources can’t help us directly, how about our finest scholars? PD King, who authored an essential set of translations from Charlemagne’s reign, gives us only a “742?”5.King, Charlemagne, p.xi. in a family tree, probably based on Einhard. Lewis Thorpe, who also translated Einhard, also gives us “~742,”6.Thorpe, Two Lives, p.3. and also gives us nothing to rely on. Roger Collins wrote a biography of Charlemagne in 1998, and he says… 748.7.Collins, Charlemagne, p.32. What? Unfortunately he doesn’t go into any detail, only citing a German scholar named Matthias Becher and his article from 1989. Rosamond McKitterick says, “His birth date is not certain, though most now agree it was 747 or 748.”8.McKitterick, Charlemagne, p.72. She also defers to Herr Becher, but cites an article of his from 1992, as well as another German article from 1973.

While I can’t read the originals (not knowing German or Latin isn’t close to the least of my deficits), Paul Fouracre helpfully offers a summary of Becher’s argument: Pepin’s brother Carloman decided to abandon his eastern office sometime in 746, and travel to Rome, probably as a pilgrim. He did so relying on the assurances he obtained from Pepin that his son Drogo, then the only heir either brother had, would continue as Mayor of the Palace of Austrasia. At that point Pepin had been married for a few years but was still childless.9.There is a letter from Boniface to Pepin referencing the latter’s urgent question about unlawful marriages – perhaps he was looking to get out of a heir-less marriage. When Pepin and Bertrada finally produced Charles (Charlemagne) in 748, it alarmed Carloman enough that he wanted to return to the north, but Pope Zacharias made him a monk and ordered him to Monte Cassino instead. The Pope was earning favors from the new regime, favors which he would collect a few years later in his continuing battles with the Lombards. With Carloman out of the way, and his future interests secured, Pepin moved forward with his plans for kingship. By 753 Drogo had been tonsured and sent to a monastery, and by 755 Carloman was dead. The family rivalries, set off by Martel’s death in 741, were over.10.Fouracre, Charles Martel, pp.170-173.

Roger Collins, as noted above, accepts Becher’s argument, and throws in his own twist: Collins accepts that Charles wasn’t born until 747 or 748, but believes him illegitimate because Pepin and Bertrada didn’t marry until 749. Perhaps Carloman believed that an illegitimate son wasn’t enough of a threat to prevent his pilgrimage to Rome. The marriage and de facto legitimization triggered Carloman’s noises about moving back to the north, and Zacharias’s orders to Monte Cassino.

I still wonder why we can’t take Einhard at his word. The biographer was pretty close with the length of Charlemagne’s reign, and many other facts in the biography have been borne out. But if Becher is right, the “official” record would need to reflect that it wasn’t the great man’s absence that precipitated such family unpleasantness. Perhaps Einhard was misled, or allowed himself to be misled, by the family’s telling of history. Einhard’s excuse that no one wrote down the date when the son of the most powerful man in the land was born is absurd. He had to have known the truth, but, assuming Becher correct, as a good courtier, recorded the party line.

Perhaps he simply wanted his king to have reached the biblical “threescore years and ten” of Psalms.

And of course, through all this exploration there is a fair question, Who cares? He became king, and he did stuff after that. Let it go.

Fair enough. But when Charlemagne ascended the throne the young king was either twenty (according to Collins, McKitterick, and the Germans) or twenty-six (according to Thorpe, King, and Einhard). To my mind those are six crucial years in a young man’s development, even if he is a once-in-a-millennium ruler. He is going to behave differently at twenty than at twenty-six, and we should know his age to properly understand his actions. That’s why.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, ch.4, in Dutton, Charlemagne’s Courier, p.4.
2. Ibid, ch.30, p.35.
3. Royal Frankish Annals, year 768, p.46.
4. Ibid, year 754, p.40.
5. King, Charlemagne, p.xi.
6. Thorpe, Two Lives, p.3.
7. Collins, Charlemagne, p.32.
8. McKitterick, Charlemagne, p.72.
9. There is a letter from Boniface to Pepin referencing the latter’s urgent question about unlawful marriages – perhaps he was looking to get out of a heir-less marriage.
10. Fouracre, Charles Martel, pp.170-173.

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