The king’s daughter and the emperor’s son

Charlemagne’s relationship with his daughters has raised eyebrows for twelve centuries. In Einhard’s famous phrasing, “[H]e kept them close beside him at home until his death, saying that he could not stand to be parted from their company.”1.Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, ch.19, in Charlemagne’s Courtier, ed. Paul Dutton, p.29. Einhard has other highly interesting things to say about Charlemagne’s daughters and their relationship with their father, and we will explore that in another post. But at least once he considered letting a daughter go, when the mighty Byzantine Empire proposed joining families. That would be enough to make the most protective father think twice about keeping his daughter at home.

Charles was a man who enjoyed life’s pleasures, and a woman’s comfort not the least of them. His wives and concubines produced eighteen children (or more), a fact which caused some concern with at least one poet.2.McKitterick notes that Wetti of Richenau includes Charlemagne in his vision of hell, with a beast chewing on his genitals. Charlemagne: Formation of a European Identity, p.91. His first daughter with his second wife Hildegard was named Rotrude, who was born in 775. Being a daughter of a king, her usual duty and fate would have been to serve as a bridge between great families. Her chance came from an unexpected quarter in 781, when her father was in Rome.

In Byzantium the previous September the emperor Leo IV had died, leaving his wife Irene and a nine-year old son in his stead. That son, Constantine VI, would come into his own power in 790, but until then he was under the regency of his mother. One of Irene’s first orders of business at Leo’s death was to find a suitable bride for her son. The rising power of the Franks and their king Charles caught her eye.

In this year Irene sent Konstaes the sakellarios and Mamalos the primikerios to Charles the king of the Franks to betroth his daughter (who was called Erythro)3.That name and Rotrud both mean ‘red’. to her son the Emperor Constantine. After they came to an agreement and exchanged oaths with each other, the eunuch scribe Elissaios was left behind to teach Erythro the Greeks’ letters and customs and to educate her in the customs of the Roman Empire.4.Chronicle of Theophanes, annus mundi 6274 (Sept 1, 781 – Aug 31, 782), p.141.

This account is buttressed by the Moselle Annals, which note that in 781, “the king’s daughter, Rotrud, was there [Rome] betrothed to the emperor Constantine.”5.King, Translated Sources, Moselle Annals, 781, p.134. Remember that in 781 Rotrude was six, and Constantine ten. Also remember that Rotrude’s mother Hildegard was thirteen or fourteen when she married Charles.

At some point Charles sent a delegation to discuss the marriage. A somewhat obscure source (at least to me) called the “Deeds of the holy fathers of the abbey of St Wandrille” tells of:

Witbold, who was a chaplain to the most glorious king Charles at this time. He had been promised the rule of the aforesaid monastery when his uncle should die; but since he had been sent by the lord king Charles with another legate, named John, on a mission to Constantine, emperor of the Greeks, and Irene and was delaying his return for eighteen months, the monastery was granted to the aforesaid Gervod. The embassy was concerned with Rotrud, daughter of the great Charles, whom the said emperor was seeking in marriage…6.King, Translated Sources, Deeds…, XII, 1., p.334.

While this delegation does not have a date, it is possible that Charlemagne had sent Witbold and John to officially break things off. Perhaps as Rotrud got close to marriageable age (like her mother), he decided he could not stand to be parted from her company. The Revised Royal Annals note that while Charles campaigned in Benevento in 786, when she was eleven, “he held discussions with legates from the emperor Constantine who had been sent to him to endeavour to obtain his daughter. He gave them leave to depart and then returned to Rome…”7.King, Translated Sources, Revised Annals, 786, p.120.

By 788 Irene had had enough. “The Empress Irene broke off her reconciliation with the Franks. She dispatched Theophanes the protospatharios to bring back a maiden, by name Maria of Amnia, from the Armeniac theme.8.A theme was a Byzantine administrative district. Irene married her to her son the Emperor Constantine.” She also ordered the Byzantine forces in Sicily to attack the Beneventan ally of Charles. Hell hath no fury…

Touchingly, there is evidence that the young suitor was quite smitten with the king’s daughter. Constantine did not want to marry his mother’s replacement bride. “[H]e was quite distressed and unwilling because he was being parted from the daughter of the Frankish king Charles, to whom he had already been engaged.”9.Chronicle of Theophanes, annus mundi 6281 (Sept 1, 788 – Aug 31, 789), p.147. Sadly we cannot say whether or not the pair ever set eyes on each other. It would certainly make for a better story if they had.

By the end of her short life (she died in 810, probably of the plague, at the age of 35) Rotrud was an educated and cultured woman. She and her sisters ended up in the abbey of Chelles, where her aunt Giselle, Charlemagne’s sister, was abbess. There they were tutored by the great English monk and scholar Alcuin, who dedicated his commentary on St John to Rotrud and her sister Gisela.10.McKitterick, The Carolingian Renaissance, in Charlemagne: Empire and Society, ed. by Joanna Story, p.158, 162.

Rotrud, despite her father’s heavy-handed interference in her personal relationships, managed to find love of a sorts, and eventually bore at least one child, a son named Louis. “Other grandchildren possibly reared at court were the illegitimate sons of Charlemagne’s daughters Rotrude and Bertha, who had taken Count Rorigo and courtier Angilbert (lay abbot of St Riquier) respectively as lovers.”11.McKitterick, Charlemagne, p.91.

Maybe the story has a happy ending after all.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, ch.19, in Charlemagne’s Courtier, ed. Paul Dutton, p.29.
2. McKitterick notes that Wetti of Richenau includes Charlemagne in his vision of hell, with a beast chewing on his genitals. Charlemagne: Formation of a European Identity, p.91.
3. That name and Rotrud both mean ‘red’.
4. Chronicle of Theophanes, annus mundi 6274 (Sept 1, 781 – Aug 31, 782), p.141.
5. King, Translated Sources, Moselle Annals, 781, p.134.
6. King, Translated Sources, Deeds…, XII, 1., p.334.
7. King, Translated Sources, Revised Annals, 786, p.120.
8. A theme was a Byzantine administrative district.
9. Chronicle of Theophanes, annus mundi 6281 (Sept 1, 788 – Aug 31, 789), p.147.
10. McKitterick, The Carolingian Renaissance, in Charlemagne: Empire and Society, ed. by Joanna Story, p.158, 162.
11. McKitterick, Charlemagne, p.91.

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