The King of the Franks knew, as the year 755 opened, that he would have to bring force of arms to bear in order to fulfill a promise. Pope Stephen II had come to King Pepin in 753, begging for help against the threat posed by the Lombard King Aistulf, who had grabbed cities and territories in northern Italy that belonged to the papacy and the Byzantine empire. Pepin’s immediate territorial goals, however, focused on the restoration of lands once under the sway of his father, and the kings before him, not Italy. But five years earlier the papacy had done Pepin one huge favor, and supported his claim to the kingship of the Franks. In the face of that debt, he felt he had to act.
He did this in the face of strong opposition from his nobles, some of whom actually threatened to desert him.1.Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, Two Lives of Charlemagne, c.6, p.60. Franco-Lombard friendship extended back several generations, and Pepin himself had been made a ceremonial son of the great Lombard king Liutprand. But one does not refuse a plea from the man who helped make you king, and by whatever means Pepin overcame doubts and opposition. In the spring of 755 he marched for the Alps, along with Pope Stephen, who had been his guest for the last fifteen-odd months.2.There is a tale of Pepin facing down those supporters who did not wish to proceed under such a short ruler, by having a lion attack a bull, and then killing them both with one stroke of his sword. Notker the Stammerer, Charlemagne, Two Lives of Charlemagne, c.15, p.160.
Pepin established a base at Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, on the west side of the Alps. Pavia, the Lombard capital, and the valley of the Po lay directly east, across the mountains. Pepin wasn’t able to get his entire force across the rugged terrain, but a smaller force made it over the pass at Mont Cenis and down to the Susa valley.3.The old pilgrim road over the pass was called the Iter Francorum (the “Frankish Route”) even before Pepin made use of it for his expedition. When Aistulf heard of this, he advanced on the Franks with his whole army.
The Franks realized that neither their number nor their efforts would deliver them, so they called upon God and besought the help of the blessed apostle Peter. Then began the battle, and on both sides the fighting was fierce. But when King Aistulf saw what losses his army was suffering he turned and fled. In this battle he lost nearly the whole of the force he had collected, together with the dukes and counts and all the great men of the Lombard people. He himself only just escaped over the mountains, to reach Pavia with a handful of men. Thus, with God’s help, the noble King Pippin had the victory; and he advanced with his whole army and the numerous columns of the Franks to Pavia, where he pitched camp. Far and wide in all directions he ravaged and burnt the lands of Italy until he had devastated all that region, pulled down all the Lombard strongholds and captured and taken in charge a great treasure of gold and silver as well as a mass of equipment and all their tents.4.Fredegar, Continuations, ch.37, pp.105-106.
Aistulf’s forces, while more than equal to the task of subduing cities defended by old walls and wan local levies, were no match for the seasoned and professional army Pepin’s father Charles Martel had built. Aistulf put out peace feelers through some of Pepin’s magnates, knowing that not everyone on the winning side was thrilled to be there, and found those willing to act as intermediaries in peace talks.
Pepin, in keeping with his desire to spend as little time as possible on this troublesome Italian sideshow, extracted many oaths, 30,000 solidi, and forty hostages from Aistulf, but “was moved to grant him his life and crown.” In return Aistulf promised to return the cities he had captured and showered everyone with “rich presents.” All of this was codified in the “First Peace of Pavia.” Pepin then sent Stephen back to Rome with many presents of his own and a noble escort.5.Noble, Republic of St. Peter, pp.88-94. He turned for home.
Back in Paris Carloman, who had come north in 753 to try and dissuade his brother from entering Italy, never saw Monte Cassino again. Not only did his mission fail, but Pepin forbade him to leave, and he remained in Francia through 754 as Pepin’s negotiations with Aistulf came to naught. Soon he fell sick, and remained at Vienne under the care of his mother Bertrada, while Pepin invaded in 755. He died that summer. Pepin had the good grace to return his body to Monte Cassino for burial.6.Royal Annals, year 755, p.40.
Pepin was home before the first snows fell, his duty done. Clearly his debt was paid, and he could turn to the many issues pressing on his kingdom, right? Not so fast.
Aistulf, who must have known of the Franks’ distaste for an Italian campaign, didn’t fulfill any of his promises, and showed up at the gates of Rome as December turned to January of 756. He offered to let the Roman people live if they turned over their bishop. Stephen declined, and sent many entreaties to France. Pepin was outraged, and immediately launched a fresh assault on Lombardy. The lessons learned crossing the Alps the year before were fresh in the Franks’ minds, and this time the entire army made it through to the valley of the Susa. Aistulf, who had again gathered his entire force, saw them blown to the winds as Pepin’s army streamed out of the mountains. The sources are a little fuzzy on the details, but apparently there wasn’t much fighting, while there was a lot of destruction.7.Chapter 38 of the Continuations of Fredegar mentions the whole region “utterly devastated” but Pepin’s army “intact and untouched by war.”
Again Pepin besieged Pavia, the Lombard capital, and again Aistulf came begging for relief. Pepin used the previous year’s treaty as the basis for the latest negotiations. Aistulf gave more oaths, hostages, and tribute. But this time Pepin left a small force in place under Abbot Fulrad to ensure that the terms were carried out. The abbot visited each city in turn, obtaining the keys to the gates and handing them to the papal delegations. This time promises and oaths would be fulfilled.
Aistulf was killed in a hunting accident a couple of years later. A little border war came to an end. Pepin never returned to Italy, but his son would, and leave as king. That is for another time.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, Two Lives of Charlemagne, c.6, p.60.|
|2.||↑||There is a tale of Pepin facing down those supporters who did not wish to proceed under such a short ruler, by having a lion attack a bull, and then killing them both with one stroke of his sword. Notker the Stammerer, Charlemagne, Two Lives of Charlemagne, c.15, p.160.|
|3.||↑||The old pilgrim road over the pass was called the Iter Francorum (the “Frankish Route”) even before Pepin made use of it for his expedition.|
|4.||↑||Fredegar, Continuations, ch.37, pp.105-106.|
|5.||↑||Noble, Republic of St. Peter, pp.88-94.|
|6.||↑||Royal Annals, year 755, p.40.|
|7.||↑||Chapter 38 of the Continuations of Fredegar mentions the whole region “utterly devastated” but Pepin’s army “intact and untouched by war.”|