Brothers, kings – and enemies

In December of 771 a Frankish king died, Carloman, second son of King Pepin. He was not yet twenty-one. His brother Charles, who would become known to us a Charlemagne, probably did not grieve. The two brothers had been in conflict and contention for years, and tensions had been so high that they had almost come to war just a year or two earlier. Their mother Bertrada, widow of the late king, at some point decided that her older son was the greater man, and threw her considerable diplomatic talents behind Charles. While no one has ever suggested foul play in the death of Carloman, his demise was a great convenience for Charles and his mother. Let’s see if we can untangle this twisted family tale.

At some point in the mid-740’s Pepin and his consort Bertrada had a son, whom they named Charles, after his grandfather Charles Martel. The date of this birth is a subject of some dispute, but we’ll settle on the year 747 for the purposes of this post. While to modern eyes this uncertain state of marriage between the parents would automatically render Charles illegitimate, Germanic concepts of marriage were more fluid in early medieval times. Charles was just as legitimate as Pepin and the nobles of the land wanted him to be. At any rate Pepin and Bertrada tied the knot in a formal public ceremony a few years after his birth. Then in 751 they had a second son, Carloman, named after his uncle, Pepin’s brother. Perhaps the choice of name was unfortunate, for the elder Carloman had led a troubled life, and died in somewhat mysterious circumstances.

From the start Charles was seen a favored son. “The prince seems to have been involved in politics from an early age. In 753, he enjoyed the signal honor of conducting Pope Stephen II to Ponthion, and later accompanied his father on his Aquitainian campaigns.”1.Riche, Carolingians, p.85. The pope, however, treated both children equally, and anointed Charles and Carloman along with their father in 754.2.There was a sister, Gisela, born in 757, but obviously she was never considered as a future ruler of the realm.)

The sources are silent on the adolescence of the princes, until Pepin died in 768, after the long and brutal war for Aquitaine.3.You can check my 2000 part essay that I put together earlier this year. On Pepin’s death the magnates of the Frankish realm gathered to acclaim his two sons as successor kings. Having two kings (or even three) to succeed the dead ruler might seem like a recipe for trouble, but it was in keeping with Frankish traditions. Pepin, his sons, and the nobles, agreed to a completely new division of the kingdom. In the past the two great regions of Austrasia and Neustria were allocated. This time was quite different.

“[I]t appears that Charles got a great arc of lands running from central Germany, along the North Sea coast, and southward along the Channel and Atlantic coasts to Gascony. Carloman got a core of lands running from the Paris basin to Provence.”4.Noble, Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, p.26, n.17. Was it this division, that Riche calls “this bizarre partition”,5.Riche, Carolingians, p.85. that lay at the heart of the fraternal dispute? “The logic behind these new entities that disregarded the existence of past kingdoms was to emphasize the effective unity of the Frankish people. There were two kings, but only kingdom.”6.Barbero, Charlemagne, pp.22 – 23. But had Pepin, near death, aimed too high?

Relations between them very soon became tense, possibly because the geopolitical conditions created by the division forced them to direct their policies in opposite directions. Charles had the opportunity of unrestricted expansion into pagan Germany, whereas Carloman was confronted with the most dangerous border, the Pyrenean one with Arab Spain and the most sensitive border, the one with the Lombard kingdom of Italy.7.Barbero, Charlemagne, p.23.

One of the points that the scholars never make, but that I think is important, is just how young some of these rulers were. Charles was twenty-one when his father died, and Carloman just seventeen. Seventeen! No wonder conflict broke out. A teenage boy is given a smaller, more difficult land to govern, which is virtually encircled by the vast swath of land given to his older, more charismatic brother. Of course he is angry. His anger was probably stoked by his advisers and counselors. “This harmony persisted, but only with the greatest difficulty, because many of Carloman’s supporters were trying to drive the heirs apart and some were actually scheming to commit them to war.”8.Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, in Noble, Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, bk. 3, p. 26.

One of the many problems with deciphering the actions of these eighth century kings is that just about all of the sources were written after the fact, by supporters of Charlemagne. No one has any doubt that a chronicler in the court of Carloman would have written a vastly different narrative. But we don’t have such a source, so we soldier on.

The first item of business with which we know that the two kings had to cooperate was the sudden rise of a fresh Aquitanian usurper. Militarily this was not of great consequence, for the province was a ruin, and Charles and Carloman had an army fresh with conquest to put down the micro-rebellion. But first they had to agree on a plan. They met, but most definitely did not agree to anything. “But since he could not gain the help of his brother, who was prevented from giving it by the evil counsel of his proceres, but had only a conference with him, at the place called Duasdives [Moncontour], he proceeded to the Aquitanian city of Angouleme – his brother returning to his own kingdom…”9.King, Translated Sources, Revised Frankish Annals, year 669, p. 109.

Clearly the relationship of the co-rulers was off to a rocky start. So the next year their mother Bertrada stepped into the fray in an attempt to craft some kind of solution. Bertrada was no shrinking violet, and, while no source says so, the general thinking is that she recognized Charles as the stronger of the two brothers. She decided to forge alliances that would, in effect, encircle Carloman, and inevitably make Charles the greater of the two. An examination of the sources in combination reveal her methods.

First, “Bertrada, the kings’ mother, after discussions at Seltz with her younger son, Carloman, in the cause of peace, went to Italy.”10.Revised Frankish Annals, year 770, King, Translated Sources. The original annals for 770 add the juicy detail that she went to Italy by way of Bavaria. Einhard notes that “at the urging of his mother, he married a daughter of Desiderius, the king of the Lombards.”11.Einhard, Life, ch.18. Duke Tassilo of Bavaria, whom Bertrada had recently visited, had also married a daughter of Desiderius.

At this point Carloman recognized the trap. His central nut of Europe was now circled by a web of Frankish-Bavarian-Lombard marital ties. He tried to build a bridge to the pope, but the papacy decided to throw in their lot with the Franks, and Carloman was left out in the cold. In contrast, Berbero believes that “it seems logical that in her peacemaking role Bertrada sought a three-way agreement so that neither of the rival brothers could use an alliance with the Lombards against the other.”12.Berbero, Charlemagne, p.26. I am unpersuaded.

Fate has a way of stirring the pot, and on December 4 of 771 Carloman died, of causes unrecorded. The effects were immediate. Carloman’s widow Gerberga (who must have also been only a teenager, and a mother as well) fled to Desiderius along with some of Carloman’s allies. Charles repudiated his Lombard wife and sent her back to Desderius. Mightily insulted, Desiderius turned to Pope and asked him to come and anoint Gerberga’s child, who then would have been recognized as a Frankish king, but nothing came of that. Charles, as ever the penultimate man of action, called Carloman’s men to him. He was quickly acclaimed king of all the Franks.

Neither brother had undertaken a significant military action (with the exception of Charles’ expedition to Aquitaine, mentioned above), probably because of mistrust between them. With Carloman out of the way his first act was to break his agreement with Desiderius and invade Lombardy!

Two Frankish forces were directed across the Alps, and Desiderius retired behind the walls of his capital while his son Adalgisus took refuge together  with Gerberga and her children at the even more formidable Verona. The ensuing siege of Pavia lasted for nineteen months, and at its end in 774, Charlemagne captured Desiderius and his treasure. He had already caught up with Gerberga and her children…13.Riche, Carolingians, p.97.

Nothing is heard of Gerberga or her child after the Lombard campaign. Charles probably sent her to a nunnery and sent her son to a monastery as soon as he was old enough. Carloman was treated reasonably well in the Carolingian sources after his death. In 781 the royal annals note that papal legates to Tassilo reminded him of his oaths to “king Pippin, his sons, and the Franks…”, so at least he wasn’t subject to some kind of Stalinesque purge of his existence.((It is not a recent practice. The Egyptian eighteenth dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep IV raised up the cult of Aten, but within a generation of his death his name and that of his successors had been scratched from the stones.

My own belief is that Carloman was simply born to the wrong brother. I don’t think anyone could have stood next to Charlemagne, and Carloman was simply an inconvenience that had to be dealt with. Sorry, Carloman.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Riche, Carolingians, p.85.
2. There was a sister, Gisela, born in 757, but obviously she was never considered as a future ruler of the realm.)

The sources are silent on the adolescence of the princes, until Pepin died in 768, after the long and brutal war for Aquitaine.((You can check my 2000 part essay that I put together earlier this year.

3. You can check my 2000 part essay that I put together earlier this year. On Pepin’s death the magnates of the Frankish realm gathered to acclaim his two sons as successor kings. Having two kings (or even three) to succeed the dead ruler might seem like a recipe for trouble, but it was in keeping with Frankish traditions. Pepin, his sons, and the nobles, agreed to a completely new division of the kingdom. In the past the two great regions of Austrasia and Neustria were allocated. This time was quite different.

“[I]t appears that Charles got a great arc of lands running from central Germany, along the North Sea coast, and southward along the Channel and Atlantic coasts to Gascony. Carloman got a core of lands running from the Paris basin to Provence.”((Noble, Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, p.26, n.17.

4. Noble, Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, p.26, n.17. Was it this division, that Riche calls “this bizarre partition”,((Riche, Carolingians, p.85.
5. Riche, Carolingians, p.85. that lay at the heart of the fraternal dispute? “The logic behind these new entities that disregarded the existence of past kingdoms was to emphasize the effective unity of the Frankish people. There were two kings, but only kingdom.”((Barbero, Charlemagne, pp.22 – 23.
6. Barbero, Charlemagne, pp.22 – 23. But had Pepin, near death, aimed too high?

Relations between them very soon became tense, possibly because the geopolitical conditions created by the division forced them to direct their policies in opposite directions. Charles had the opportunity of unrestricted expansion into pagan Germany, whereas Carloman was confronted with the most dangerous border, the Pyrenean one with Arab Spain and the most sensitive border, the one with the Lombard kingdom of Italy.((Barbero, Charlemagne, p.23.

7. Barbero, Charlemagne, p.23.

One of the points that the scholars never make, but that I think is important, is just how young some of these rulers were. Charles was twenty-one when his father died, and Carloman just seventeen. Seventeen! No wonder conflict broke out. A teenage boy is given a smaller, more difficult land to govern, which is virtually encircled by the vast swath of land given to his older, more charismatic brother. Of course he is angry. His anger was probably stoked by his advisers and counselors. “This harmony persisted, but only with the greatest difficulty, because many of Carloman’s supporters were trying to drive the heirs apart and some were actually scheming to commit them to war.”((Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, in Noble, Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, bk. 3, p. 26.

8. Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, in Noble, Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, bk. 3, p. 26.

One of the many problems with deciphering the actions of these eighth century kings is that just about all of the sources were written after the fact, by supporters of Charlemagne. No one has any doubt that a chronicler in the court of Carloman would have written a vastly different narrative. But we don’t have such a source, so we soldier on.

The first item of business with which we know that the two kings had to cooperate was the sudden rise of a fresh Aquitanian usurper. Militarily this was not of great consequence, for the province was a ruin, and Charles and Carloman had an army fresh with conquest to put down the micro-rebellion. But first they had to agree on a plan. They met, but most definitely did not agree to anything. “But since he could not gain the help of his brother, who was prevented from giving it by the evil counsel of his proceres, but had only a conference with him, at the place called Duasdives [Moncontour], he proceeded to the Aquitanian city of Angouleme – his brother returning to his own kingdom…”((King, Translated Sources, Revised Frankish Annals, year 669, p. 109.

9. King, Translated Sources, Revised Frankish Annals, year 669, p. 109.

Clearly the relationship of the co-rulers was off to a rocky start. So the next year their mother Bertrada stepped into the fray in an attempt to craft some kind of solution. Bertrada was no shrinking violet, and, while no source says so, the general thinking is that she recognized Charles as the stronger of the two brothers. She decided to forge alliances that would, in effect, encircle Carloman, and inevitably make Charles the greater of the two. An examination of the sources in combination reveal her methods.

First, “Bertrada, the kings’ mother, after discussions at Seltz with her younger son, Carloman, in the cause of peace, went to Italy.”((Revised Frankish Annals, year 770, King, Translated Sources.

10. Revised Frankish Annals, year 770, King, Translated Sources. The original annals for 770 add the juicy detail that she went to Italy by way of Bavaria. Einhard notes that “at the urging of his mother, he married a daughter of Desiderius, the king of the Lombards.”((Einhard, Life, ch.18.
11. Einhard, Life, ch.18. Duke Tassilo of Bavaria, whom Bertrada had recently visited, had also married a daughter of Desiderius.

At this point Carloman recognized the trap. His central nut of Europe was now circled by a web of Frankish-Bavarian-Lombard marital ties. He tried to build a bridge to the pope, but the papacy decided to throw in their lot with the Franks, and Carloman was left out in the cold. In contrast, Berbero believes that “it seems logical that in her peacemaking role Bertrada sought a three-way agreement so that neither of the rival brothers could use an alliance with the Lombards against the other.”((Berbero, Charlemagne, p.26.

12. Berbero, Charlemagne, p.26. I am unpersuaded.

Fate has a way of stirring the pot, and on December 4 of 771 Carloman died, of causes unrecorded. The effects were immediate. Carloman’s widow Gerberga (who must have also been only a teenager, and a mother as well) fled to Desiderius along with some of Carloman’s allies. Charles repudiated his Lombard wife and sent her back to Desderius. Mightily insulted, Desiderius turned to Pope and asked him to come and anoint Gerberga’s child, who then would have been recognized as a Frankish king, but nothing came of that. Charles, as ever the penultimate man of action, called Carloman’s men to him. He was quickly acclaimed king of all the Franks.

Neither brother had undertaken a significant military action (with the exception of Charles’ expedition to Aquitaine, mentioned above), probably because of mistrust between them. With Carloman out of the way his first act was to break his agreement with Desiderius and invade Lombardy!

Two Frankish forces were directed across the Alps, and Desiderius retired behind the walls of his capital while his son Adalgisus took refuge together  with Gerberga and her children at the even more formidable Verona. The ensuing siege of Pavia lasted for nineteen months, and at its end in 774, Charlemagne captured Desiderius and his treasure. He had already caught up with Gerberga and her children…((Riche, Carolingians, p.97.

13. Riche, Carolingians, p.97.

Nothing is heard of Gerberga or her child after the Lombard campaign. Charles probably sent her to a nunnery and sent her son to a monastery as soon as he was old enough. Carloman was treated reasonably well in the Carolingian sources after his death. In 781 the royal annals note that papal legates to Tassilo reminded him of his oaths to “king Pippin, his sons, and the Franks…”, so at least he wasn’t subject to some kind of Stalinesque purge of his existence.((It is not a recent practice. The Egyptian eighteenth dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep IV raised up the cult of Aten, but within a generation of his death his name and that of his successors had been scratched from the stones.