Charlemagne’s annus horribilis

In November of 1992 Queen Elizabeth II gave a speech in which she lamented the “annus horribilis” she had endured over the last eleven months. Recently a fire had devastated Windsor Castle, and prior to that her children and near relatives had been the subject of much tabloid gossip and exposure.

One person from whom she would have received no sympathy would be Charlemagne. Elizabeth had been forced to see pictures of Duchess Fergie’s toes being nuzzled by a bald American millionaire while her estranged husband Andrew was away performing his princely duties. Truly enough to make any monarch go weak. But twelve centuries before Elizabeth’s travails King Charlemagne had frantically wielded the strings of power over the span of just a few months while his kingdom almost broke apart. It is possible that he felt God Himself had abandoned him.

The year 778 broke with much promise. The previous year Charles had held the annual assembly at Paderborn, deep in Saxon territory, and he had baptized a multitude of the heathen. One of his Saxon opponents, Widukind, had fled completely out of Saxony to take refuge with the king of Denmark. Of more importance, however, was that to Paderborn had come a delegation of Muslims who wished the king to come to Spain and support their side in a civil war. Charles, for reasons religious, political, and military, agreed. In 778 he set out for Spain with an immense army. He left his pregnant wife Queen Hildegard in Aquitaine, at the villa of Chasseneuil.

Things did not go as planned. The entire expedition came to naught, lost in a swamp of Muslim politics. Sometime in mid-summer Charles gave the order to return to France. On August 15 his rear guard and baggage train were ambushed and annihilated by the Basques, an event that gave rise to the famous Song of Roland. This was bad, but at some point either soon before or after this setback the king received word that the Saxons, so compliant just a year ago, were again in revolt and rampaging through eastern Frankish territory.

Queen Hildegard had given birth to twins, but one had died almost immediately.1.This is the claim of the anonymous author of the Life of Louis the Pious, but it is possible that the child died a few years later. Her Aquitanian laying in had evidently done nothing to quell thoughts of independence by her hosts, as we shall see. It had been but ten years since the land had been conquered by Charles’ father Pepin III after a years-long campaign that laid even the conqueror low only months after the last victory. Charles himself had put down a nascent revolt a couple of years after that. In other parts of the kingdom famine loomed after a crop failure.

Let’s see, what have we got? Battlefield disasters, revolts in the east and west, famine, and personal tragedy. Anything else? Ah yes… One of the fortresses that had been burned by the Saxons was named after Charles himself. Annus horribilis indeed. Or as Roger Collins put it in a classic example of academic understatement, “All in all the events of 778 had been unfavourable.”2.Collins, Charlemagne, p.68.

F.L. Ganshof, one of the greatest Carolingian scholars, posited that 778 represented a full blown domestic crisis, one that threatened the very integrity of the realm.3.Unfortunately for me, the article in which he outlines this idea was written more than 70 years ago, in French, and has never been translated. More recently P.D. King has acknowledged that even if the facts on the ground didn’t necessarily translate into a crisis, “that there is a good case for believing Charles to have perceived it as such.”4.King, Translated Sources, p.49.

Charles was obviously a great commander and king. Faced with multiple threats on multiple fronts, what did he do?

First, he let the Basques go. He knew any attempt to find and fight the hill fighters in the near-trackless mountain valleys and crags would be a long and probably fruitless task. They showed no signs of manifesting any further activity. The Saxons, on the other hand, were a real and immediate threat. Charles ordered an attack on the Saxons, who had penetrated as far as Deutz (now part of Cologne), about a hundred miles west of the assembly at Paderborn just the previous year! Apparently the Saxon foray was particularly vicious, for the Annals (revised) note that “They destroyed in like fashion both the sacred and the profane. The wrath of the enemy made no distinction of age or sex, that it might be clearly seen that they had invaded the territories of the Franks not to plunder but to exact vengeance.”5.King, Translated Sources, p.114. The men Charles ordered into the counterattack were late to the fight, but by “forced marches, exerting themselves”, they pursued the Saxons to the river Eder and inflicted “a great slaughter upon them.”

The immediate military needs had been addressed, and winter was coming. Charles settled in at Herstal, one of his favorite villas, and pondered what could have gone so wrong. The fruits of he and his advisor’s work was the famous Capitulary of Herstal, issued in March of 779. Ganshof calls it one of the great reform capitularies. In it Charles issued instructions for the clergy, the law, and the general administration of the realm. Of the twenty-three chapters, the first eight are concerned with regularizing bishops, a clear reflection of the importance of a strong church to the governance of the kingdom. After that come orders on the collection of tolls, the punishment of perjury, dealing with brigands, and even the legality of the sale of chain mail coats outside the realm (it is illegal, if you could not guess).6.King, Translated Sources, pp.203-05.

Finally, while the timing is not clear, Charles put a string of his own “counts, abbots and very many others who are commonly called vassals” in charge of the major cities of Aquitaine. The Life of Louis lists no fewer than nine towns that received “men who were of the people of the Franks.”7.King, Translated Sources, p.168. No doubt these men were fully empowered to root out sedition and dissent.

Perhaps at this point Charles felt he could take a breath. He had written off the Pyrenean fiasco, chased the Saxons back into the forest, issued laws to clean up and organize the kingdom and the church, and imposed hand-picked men to oversee the bubbling province of Aquitaine. Crisis averted?

It certainly would appear so. Charles ruled for another thirty-five years. While he never went back to Spain, he had heard the last of Aquitanian independence. The Saxons remained unsubdued, with much hard fighting to come, but the end was not too far off. Was Charles back on the right side of God? Only the two of them know for sure.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. This is the claim of the anonymous author of the Life of Louis the Pious, but it is possible that the child died a few years later.
2. Collins, Charlemagne, p.68.
3. Unfortunately for me, the article in which he outlines this idea was written more than 70 years ago, in French, and has never been translated.
4. King, Translated Sources, p.49.
5. King, Translated Sources, p.114.
6. King, Translated Sources, pp.203-05.
7. King, Translated Sources, p.168.

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