The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 4

Author: François P. G. Guizot  | Date: A.D. 772-814

Career of Charlemagne

A.D. 772-814


In Charles, the son of Ppin the Short, later known as Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, the Carlovingians saw the culminating glory of their line, while in French history the splendor of his name outshines that of all other rulers. It seemed an act of fate that his brother and joint heir to the Frankish kingdom should die and leave the monarchy wholly in his hands, for his genius was to prove equal to its field of action.

The kingdom which Charlemagne inherited was great in extent, lying mainly between the Loire and the Rhine, including Alemannia and Burgundy, while his sphere of influence—to use the modern phrase—covered many provinces and districts over which his rule was wholly or in part acknowledged—Aquitaine, Bavaria, Brittany, Frisia, Thuringia, and others.

To enlarge still further the bounds of his kingdom was the task to which the young monarch at once addressed himself, and upon which he entered with all the advantages of family prestige, a commanding and engaging personality, proven courage and skill in war, as well as talent and accomplishments in civil affairs.

The central purpose of Charlemagne, to the service of which all his policies and his conduct were directed, was the maintenance of the Christian religion as embodied in the Western Church, whose great champion he became, and in that character occupies his lofty place in the history of Europe and of the world. At this period the two great powers in the Christian world were the Roman pontiff and the Frankish king; and when, on Christmas Day, A.D. 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor of the Romans, and in the Holy Roman Empire restored the Western Empire, extinct since 476, he welded church and state in what long proved to be indissoluble bonds, somewhat—it must be added—to the chagrin of the Byzantine emperors of the Eastern Roman Empire at Constantinople. This was an event the significance of which only later times could learn to estimate. The Holy Roman Empire henceforth held a leading part in the world’s affairs, the influence of which is still active in the survivals of its power among nations.

Charlemagne served the Church and fulfilled his own purposes through the military subjugation of all whom he could overcome among the barbarians and heathens of his time. And the powers which he gained as conqueror he exercised with equal ability and steadfastness of purpose in his capacity as foremost secular ruler in the world. By the union of the Teutonic with the Roman interests, and of northern vigor with the culture of the South, it is considered by the historians of our own day that Charlemagne proved himself the beginner of a new era—in fact, as Bryce declares, of modern history itself.

Gibbon has said that of all the heroes to whom the title of "the Great" has been given, Charlemagne alone has retained it as a permanent addition to his name.

The most judicious minds are sometimes led blindly by tradition and habit, rather than enlightened by reflection and experience. Ppin the Short committed at his death the same mistake that his father, Charles Martel, had committed: he divided his dominions between his two sons, Charles and Carloman, thus destroying again that unity of the Gallo-Frankish monarchy which his father and he had been at so much pains to establish. But, just as had already happened in 746 through the abdication of Ppin’s brother, events discharged the duty of repairing the mistake of men. After the death of Ppin, and notwithstanding that of Duke Waifre, insurrection broke out once more in Aquitaine; and the old duke, Hunald, issued from his monastery in the island of Rh to try and recover power and independence. Charles and Carloman marched against him; but, on the march, Carloman, who was jealous and thoughtless, fell out with his brother, and suddenly quitted the expedition, taking away his troops. Charles was obliged to continue it alone, which he did with complete success. At the end of this first campaign, Ppin’s widow, the queen-mother Bertha, reconciled her two Sons; but an unexpected incident, the death of Carloman two years afterward in 77’, reestablished unity more surely than the reconciliation had reestablished harmony. For, although Carloman left sons, the grandees of his dominions, whether laic or ecclesiastical, assembled at Corbny, between Laon and Rheims, and proclaimed in his stead his brother Charles, who thus became sole king of the Gallo-Franco-Germanic monarchy. And as ambition and manners had become less tinged with ferocity than they had been under the Merovingians, the sons of Carloman were not killed or shorn or even shut up in a monastery: they retired with their mother, Gerberge, to the court of Didier, King of the Lombards. "King Charles," Says Eginhard, "took their departure patiently, regarding it as of no importance." Thus commenced the reign of Charlemagne.

The original and dominant characteristic of the hero of this reign, that which won for him, and keeps for him, after more than ten centuries, the name of great, is the striking variety of his ambition, his faculties, and his deeds. Charlemagne aspired to and attained to every sort of greatness—military greatness, political greatness, and intellectual greatness; he was an able warrior, an energetic legislator, a hero of poetry. And he united, he displayed all these merits in a time of general and monotonous barbarism when, save in the church, the minds of men were dull and barren. Those men, few in number, who made themselves a name at that epoch, rallied round Charlemagne and were developed under his patronage. To know him well and appreciate him justly, he must be examined under those various grand aspects, abroad and at home, in his wars and in his government.

From 769 to 813, in Germany and Western and Northern Europe, Charlemagne conducted thirty-one campaigns against the Saxons, Frisians, Bavarians, Avars, Slavons, and Danes; in Italy, five against the Lombards; in Spain, Corsica, and Sardinia, twelve against the Arabs; two against the Greeks; and three in Gaul itself, against the Aquitanians and the Britons; in all, fifty-three expeditions; among which those he undertook against the Saxons, the Lombards, and the Arabs were long and difficult wars. It were undesirable to recount them in detail, for the relation would be monotonous and useless; but it is obligatory to make fully known their causes, their characteristic incidents, and their results.

Under the last Merovingian kings, the Saxons were, on the right bank of the Rhine, in frequent collision with the Franks, especially with the Austrasian Franks, whose territory they were continually threatening and often invading. Ppin the Short had more than once hurled them back far from the very uncertain frontiers of Germanic Austrasia; and, on becoming king, he dealt his blows still farther, and entered, in his turn, Saxony itself. "In spite of the Saxon’s stout resistance," says Eginhard, "he pierced through the points they had fortified to bar entrance into their country, and, after having fought here and there battles wherein fell many Saxons, he forced them to promise that they would submit to his rule; and that every year, to do him honor, they would send to the general assembly of Franks a present of three hundred horses. When these conventions were once settled, he insisted, to insure their performance, upon placing them under the guarantee of rites peculiar to the Saxons; then he returned with his army to Gaul."

Charlemagne did not confine himself to resuming his father’s work; he before long changed its character and its scope. In 772, being left sole master of France after the death of his brother Carloman, he convoked at Worms the general assembly of the Franks, "and took," says Eginhard, "the resolution of going and carrying war into Saxony. He invaded it without delay, laid it waste with fire and sword, made himself master of the fort of Ehresburg, and threw down the idol that the Saxons called Irminsul." And in what place was this first victory of Charlemagne won? Near the sources of the Lippe, just where, more than seven centuries before, the German Arminius (Herman) had destroyed the legions of Varus, and whither Germanicus had come to avenge the disaster of Varus. This ground belonged to Saxon territory; and this idol, called Irminsul, which was thrown down by Charlemagne, was probably a monument raised in honor of Arminius (Hermann-Seule, or Herman’s pillar), whose name it called to mind. The patriotic and hereditary pride of the Saxons was passionately roused by this blow; and, the following year, "thinking to find in the absence of the King the most favorable opportunity," says Eginhard, they entered the lands of the Franks, laid them waste in their turn, and, paying back outrage for outrage, set fire to the church not long since built at Fritzlar, by Boniface, martyr. From that time the question changed its aspect; it was no longer the repression of Saxon invasions of France, but the conquest of Saxony by the Franks that was to be dealt with; it was between the Christianity of the Franks and the national paganism of the Saxons that the struggle was to take place.

For thirty years such was its character. Charlemagne regarded the conquest of Saxony as indispensable for putting a stop to the incursions of the Saxons, and the conversion of the saxons to Christianity as indispensable for assuring the conquest of Saxony. The Saxons were defending at one and the same time the independence of their country and the gods of their fathers. Here was wherewithal to stir up and foment, on both sides, the profoundest passions; and they burst forth, on both sides, with equal fury. Whithersoever Charlemagne penetrated he built strong castles and churches; and, at his departure, left garrisons and missionaries. When he was gone the Saxons returned, attacked the forts, and massacred the garrisons and the missionaries. At the commencement of the struggle, a priest of Anglo-Saxon Origin, whom St. Willibrod, bishop of Utrecht, had but lately consecrated—St. Liebwin, in fact—undertook to go and preach the Christian religion in the very heart of Saxony, on the banks of the Weser, amid the general assembly of the Saxons. "What do ye?" said he, cross m hand; "the idols ye worship live not, neither do they perceive: they are the work of men’s hands; they can do naught either for themselves or for others. Wherefore the one God, good and just, having compassion on your errors, hath sent me unto you. If ye put not away your iniquity, I foretell unto you a trouble that ye do not expect, and that the King of Heaven hath ordained aforetime: there shall come a prince, strong and wise and indefatigable, not from afar, but from nigh at hand, to fall upon you like a torrent, in order to soften your hard hearts and bow down your proud heads. At one rush he shall invade the country; he shall lay it waste with fire and sword, and carry away your wives and children into captivity." A thrill of rage ran through the assembly; and already many of those present had begun to cut, in the neighboring woods, stakes sharpened to a point to pierce the priest, when one of the chieftains, named Buto, cried aloud: "Listen, ye who are the most wise. There have often come unto us ambassadors from neighboring peoples, Northmen, Slavons, or Frisians; we have received them in peace, and when their messages had been heard, they have been sent away with a present. Here is an ambassador from a great God, and ye would slay him!" Whether it were from sentiment or from prudence, the multitude was calmed, or, at any rate, restrained; and for this time the priest retired safe and sound.

Just as the pious zeal of the missionaries was of service to Charlemagne, so did the power of Charlemagne support and sometimes preserve the missionaries. The mob, even in the midst of its passions, is not throughout or at all times inaccessible to fear. The Saxons were not one and the same nation, constantly united in one and the same assembly, and governed by a single chieftain. Three populations of the same race, distinguished by names borrowed from their geographical situation, just as had happened among the Franks in the case of the Austrasians and Neustrians, to wit, Eastphalian or Eastern Saxons, Westphalian or Western, and Angrians, formed the Saxon confederation. And to them was often added a fourth people of the same origin, closer to the Danes, and called North-Albingians, inhabitants of the northern district of the Elbe. These four principal Saxon populations were subdivided into a large number of tribes, who had their own particular chieftains, and who often decided, each for itself, their conduct and their fate. Charlemagne, knowing how to profit by this want of cohesion and unity among his foes, attacked now one and now another of the large Saxon peoplets or the small Saxon tribes, and dealt separately with each of them, according as he found them inclined to submission or resistance. After having, in four or five successive expeditions, gained victories and sustained checks, he thought himself sufficiently advanced in his conquest to put his relations with the Saxons to a grand trial. In 777, he resolved, says Eginhard, "to go and hold, at the place called Paderborn (close to Saxony) the general assembly of this people. On his arrival he found there assembled the senate and people of this perfidious nation, who, conformably to his orders, had repaired thither, seeking to deceive him by a false show of submission and devotion. . . They earned their pardon, but on this condition, however, that, if hereafter they broke their engagements, they would be deprived of country and liberty. A great number among them had themselves baptized on this occasion; but it was with far from sincere intentions that they had testified a desire to become Christians."

There had been absent from this great meeting a Saxon chieftain, called Wittikind, son of Wernekind, King of the Saxons at the north of the Elbe. He had espoused the sister of Siegfried, King of the Danes; and he was the friend of Ratbod, King of the Frisians. A true chieftain at heart as well as by descent, he was made to be the hero of the Saxons just as, seven centuries before, the Cheruscan Herman (Arminius) had been the hero of the Germans. Instead of repairing to Paderborn, Wittikind had left Saxony, and taken refuge with his brother-in-law, the King of the Danes. Thence he encouraged his Saxon compatriots, some to persevere in their resistance, others to repent them of their show of submission. War began again; and Wittikind hastened back to take part in it. In 778 the Saxons advanced as far as the Rhine; but, "not having been able to cross this river," says Eginhard, "they set themselves to lay waste with fire and sword all the towns and all the villages from the city of Duitz (opposite Cologne) as far as the confluence of the Moselle. The churches as well as the houses were laid in ruins from top to bottom. The enemy, in his frenzy, spared neither age nor sex, wishing to show thereby that he had invaded the territory of the Franks, not for plunder, but for revenge!" For three years the struggle continued, more confined in area, but more and more obstinate. Many of the Saxon tribes submitted; many Saxons were baptized; and Siegfried, King of the Danes, sent to Charlemagne a deputation, as if to treat for peace. Wittikind had left Denmark; but he had gone across to her neighbors, the Northmen; and, thence reentering Saxony, he kindled there an insurrection as fierce as it was unexpected. In 782 two of Charlemagne’s lieutenants were beaten on the banks of the Weser, and killed in the battle, "together with four counts and twenty leaders, the noblest in the army; indeed, the Franks were nearly all exterminated. At news of this disaster," says Eginhard, "Charlemagne, without losing a moment, reassembled an army and set out for Saxony. He summoned into his presence all the chieftains of the Saxons, and demanded of them who had been the promoters of the revolt. Afl agreed in denouncing Wittikind as the author of this treason. But as they could not deliver him up, because immediately after his sudden attack he had taken refuge with the Northmen, those who, at his instigation, had been accomplices in the crime, were placed, to the number of four thousand five hundred, in the hands of the King; and, by his order, all had their heads cut off the same day, at a place called Werden, on the river Aller. After this deed of vengeance the King retired to Thionville to pass the winter there."

But the vengeance did not put an end to the war. For three years Charlemagne had to redouble his efforts to accomplish in Saxony, at the cost of Frankish as well as Saxon blood, his work of conquest and conversion: "Saxony," he often repeated, "must be Christianized or wiped out." At last, in 785, after several victories which seemed decisive, he went and settled down in his strong castle of Ehresburg, "whither he made his wife and children come, being resolved to remain there all the bad season," says Eginhard, and applying himself without cessation to scouring the country of the Saxons and wearing them out by his strong and indomitable determination. But determination did not blind him to prudence and policy. "Having learned that Wittikind and Abbio, another great Saxon chieftain, were abiding in the part of Saxony situated on the other side of the Elbe, he sent to them Saxon envoys to prevail upon them to renounce their perfidy, and come, without hesitation, and trust themselves to him. They, conscious of what they had attempted, dared not at first trust to the King’s word; but having obtained from him the promise they desired of impunity, and, besides, the hostages they demanded as guarantee of their safety, and who were brought to them, on the King’s behalf, by Amalwin, one of the officers of his court, they came with the said lord and presented themselves before the King in his palace of Attigny [Attigny-sur-Aisne, whither Charlemagne had now returned], and there received baptism."

Charlemagne did more than amnesty Wittikind; he named him Duke of Saxony, but without attaching to the title any right of sovereignty. Wittikind, on his side, did more than come to Attigny and get baptized there; he gave up the struggle, remained faithful to his new engagements, and led, they say, so Christian a life that some chroniclers have placed him on the list of saints. He was killed in 807, in a battle against Gerold, Duke of Suabia, and his tomb is still to be seen at Ratisbon. Several families of Germany hold him for their ancestor; and some French genealogists have, without solid ground, discovered in him the grandfather of Robert the Strong, great- grandfather of Hugh Capet. However that may be, after making peace with Wittikind, Charlemagne had still, for several years, many insurrections to repress and much rigor to exercise in Saxony, including the removal of certain Saxon peoplets out of their country, and the establishment of foreign colonists in the territories thus become vacant; but the great war was at an end, and Charlemagne might consider Saxony incorporated in his dominions.

He had still, in Germany and all around, many enemies to fight and many campaigns to reopen. Even among the Germanic populations, which were regarded as reduced under the sway of the King of the Franks, some, the Frisians and Saxons, as well as others, were continually agitating for the recovery of their independence. Farther off, toward the north, east, and south, people differing in origin and language—Avars, Huns, Slavons, Bulgarians, Danes, and Northmen—were still pressing or beginning to press upon the frontiers of the Frankish dominion, for the purpose of either penetrating within or settling at the threshold as powerful and formidable neighbors. Charlemagne had plenty to do, with the view at one time of checking their incursions, and at another of destroying or hurling back to a distance their settlements; and he brought his usual vigor and perseverance to bear on this second struggle. But by the conquest of Saxony he had attained his direct national object: the great flood of population from east to west came, and broke against the Gallo-Franco-Germanic dominion as against an insurmountable rampart.

This was not, however, Charlemagne’s only great enterprise at this epoch, nor the only great struggle he had to maintain. While he was incessantly fighting in Germany, the work of policy commenced by his father Ppin in Italy called for his care and his exertions. The new King of the Lombards, Didier, and the new Pope, Adrian I, had entered upon a new war; and Didier was besieging Rome, which was energetically defended by the Pope and its inhabitants. In 773, Adrian invoked the aid of the King of the Franks, whom his envoys succeeded, not without difficulty, in finding at Thionville. Charlemagne could not abandon the grand position left him by his father as protector of the papacy and as patrician of Rome. The possessions, moreover, wrested by Didier from the Pope were exactly those which Ppin had won by conquest from King Astolphus, and had presented to the Papacy. Charlemagne was besides, on his own account, on bad terms with the King of the Lombards, whose daughter, Desire, he had married, and afterward repudiated and sent home to her father, in order to marry Hildegarde, a Suabian by nation. Didier, in dudgeon, had given an asylum to Carloman’s widow and sons, on whose intrigues Charlemagne kept a watchful eye. Being prudent and careful of appearances, even when he was preparing to strike a heavy blow, Charlemagne tried, by means of special envoys, to obtain from the King of the Lombards what the Pope demanded. On Didier’s refusal he at once set to work, convoked the general meeting of the Franks, at Geneva, in the autumn of 773, gained them over, not without encountering some objections, to the projected Italian expedition, and forthwith commenced the campaign with two armies. One was to cross the Valais and descend upon Lombardy by Mount St. Bernard; Charlemagne in person led the other, by Mount Cenis. The Lombards, at the outlet of the passes of the Alps, offered a vigorous resistance; but when the second army had penetrated into Italy by Mount St. Bernard, Didier, threatened in his rear, retired precipitately, and, driven from position to position, was obliged to go and shut himself up in Pavia, the strongest place in his kingdom, whither Charlemagne, having received on the march the submission of the principal counts and nearly all the towns of Lombardy, came promptly to besiege him.

To place textually before the reader a fragment of an old chronicle will serve better than any modern description to show the impression of admiration and fear produced upon his contemporaries by Charlemagne, his person and his power. At the close of this ninth century a monk of the abbey of St. Gall, in Switzerland, had collected, direct from the mouth of one of Charlemagne’s warriors, Adalbert, numerous stories of his campaigns and his life. These stories are full of fabulous legends, puerile anecdotes, distorted reminiscences and chronological errors, and they are written sometimes with a credulity and exaggeration of language which raise a smile; but they reveal the state of men’s minds and fancies within the circle of Charlemagne’s influence and at the sight of him. This monk gives a naive account of Charlemagne’s arrival before Pavia, and of the King of the Lombard’s disquietude at his approach. Didier had with him at that time one of Charlemagne’s most famous comrades, Ogier the Dane, who fills a prominent place in the romances and epopias, relating to chivalry, of that age. Ogier had quarrelled with his great chief and taken refuge with the King of the Lombards. It is probable that his Danish origin and his relations with the King of the Danes, Gottfried, for a long time an enemy of the Franks, had something to do with his misunderstanding with Charlemagne. However that may have been, "when Didier and Ogger (for so the monk calls him) heard that the dread monarch was coming, they ascended a tower of vast height whence they could watch his arrival from afar off and from every quarter. They saw, first of all, engines of war such as must have been necessary for the armies of Darius or Julius Caesar. ’Is not Charles,’ asked Didier of Ogger, ’with his great army?’ But the other answered, ’No.’ The Lombard, seeing afterward an immense body of soldiery gathered from all quarters of the vast empire, said to Ogger, ’Certes, Charles advanceth in triumph in the midst of this throng.’ ’No, not yet; he will not appear so soon,’ was the answer. ’What should we do, then,’ rejoined Didier, who began to be perturbed, ’should he come accompanied by a larger band of warriors?’ ’You will see what he is when he comes,’ replied Ogger, ’but as to what will become of us, I know nothing.’ As they were thus parleying appeared the body of guards that knew no repose; and at this sight the Lombard, overcome with dread, cried, ’This time ’tis surely Charles.’ ’No,’ answered Ogger, ’not yet.’ In their wake came the bishops, the abbots, the ordinaries of the chapels royal, and the counts; and then Didier, no longer able to bear the light of day or to face death, cried out with groans, ’Let us descend and hide ourselves in the bowels of the earth, far from the face and the fury of so terrible a foe.’ Trembling the while, Ogger, who knew by experience what were the power and might of Charles, and who had learned the lesson by long consuetude in better days, then said, ’When ye shall behold the crops shaking for fear in the fields, and the gloomy Po and the Ticino overflowing the walls of the city with their waves blackened with steel (iron), then may ye think that Charles is coming.’ He had not ended these words when there began to be seen in the west, as it were a black cloud, raised by the northwest wind or by Boreas, which turned the brightest day into awful shadows. But as the Emperor drew nearer and nearer, the gleam of arms caused to shine on the people shut up within the city a day more gloomy than any kind of night. And then appeared Charles himself, that man of steel, with his head encased in a helmet of steel, his hands garnished with gauntlets of steel, his heart of steel and his shoulders of marble protected by a cuirass of steel, and his left hand armed with a lance of steel which he held aloft in the air, for as to his right hand he kept that continually on the hilt of his invincible sword. The outside of his thighs, which the rest, for their greater ease in mounting a-horseback, were wont to leave unshackled even by straps, he wore encircled by plates of steel. What shall I say concerning his boots? All the army were wont to have them invariably of steel; on his buckler there was naught to be seen but steel; his horse was of the color and the strength of steel. All those who went before the monarch, all those who marched at his side, all those who followed after, even the whole mass of the army had armor of the like sort, so far as the means of each permitted. The fields and the highways were covered with steel: the points of steel reflected the rays of the sun; and this steel, so hard, was borne by a people with hearts still harder. The flash of steel spread terror throughout the streets of the city. ’What steel! alack, what steel!’ Such were the bewildered cries the citizens raised. The firmness of manhood and of youth gave way at sight of the steel; and the steel paralyzed the wisdom of graybeards. That which I, poor taleteller, mumbling and toothless, have attempted to depict in a long description, Ogger perceived at one rapid glance, and said to Didier, ’Here is what ye have so anxiously sought’: and while uttering these words he fell down almost lifeless."

The monk of St. Gall does King Didier and his people wrong. They showed more firmness and valor than he ascribes to them; they resisted Charlemagne obstinately, and repulsed his first assaults so well that he changed the siege into an investment, and settled down before Pavia, as if making up his mind for a long operation. His camp became a town; he sent for Queen Hildegarde and her court; and he had a chapel built where he celebrated the festival of Christmas. But on the arrival of spring, close upon the festival of Easter, 774, wearied with the duration of the investment, he left to his lieutenants the duty of keeping it up, and, attended by a numerous and brilliant following, set off for Rome, whither the Pope was urgently pressing him to come.

On Holy Saturday, April i, 774, Charlemagne found, at three miles from Rome, the magistrates and the banner of the city, sent forward by the Pope to meet him; at one mile all the municipal bodies and the pupils of the schools carrying palm branches and singing hymns; and at the gate of the city, the cross, which was never taken out save for exarchs and patricians. At sight of the cross Charlemagne dismounted, entered Rome on foot, ascended the steps of the ancient basilica of St. Peter, repeating at each step a sign of respectful piety, and was received at the top by the Pope himself. All around him and in the streets a chant was sung, "Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord!" At his entry and during his sojourn at Rome, Charlemagne gave the most striking proofs of Christian faith and respect for the head of the Church. According to the custom of pilgrims he visited all the basilicas, and in that of Sta. Maria Maggiore he performed his solemn devotions. Then, passing to temporal matters, he caused to be brought and read over, in his private conferences with the Pope, the deed of territorial gift made by his father Ppin to Stephen II, and with his own lips dictated the confirmation of it, adding thereto a new gift of certain territories which he was in course of wresting by conquest from the Lombards. Pope Adrian, on his side, rendered to him, with a mixture of affection and dignity, all the honors and all the services which could at one and the same time satisfy and exalt the King and the priest, the protector and the protected. He presented to Charlemagne a book containing a collection of the canons written by the pontiffs from the origin of the Church, and he put at the beginning of the book, which was dedicated to Charlemagne, an address in forty-five irregular verses, written with his own hand, which formed an anagram: "Pope Adrian to his most excellent son, Charlemagne, king" (Domino excellentissimo filio Carolo Magno regi, Hadrianus papa). At the same time he encouraged him to push his victory to the utmost and make himself king of the Lombards, advising him, however, not to incorporate his conquest with the Frankish dominions, as it would wound the pride of the conquered people to be thus absorbed by the conquerors, and to take merely the title of "King of the Franks and Lombards." Charlemagne appreciated and accepted this wise advice; for he could preserve proper limits in his ambition and in the hour of victory. Three years afterward he even did more than Pope Adrian had advised. In 777 Queen Hildegarde bore him a son, Ppin, whom in 781 Charlemagne had baptized and anointed King of Italy at Rome by the Pope, thus separating not only the two titles, but also the two kingdoms, and restoring to the Lombards a national existence, feeling quite sure that so long as he lived the unity of his different dominions would not be imperilled. Having thus regulated at Rome his own affairs and those of the Church, he returned to his camp, took Pavia, received the submission of all the Lombard dukes and counts, save one only, Aregisius, Duke of Beneventum, and entered France again, taking with him, as prisoner, King Didier, whom he banished to a monastery, first at Liege and then at Corbie, where the dethroned Lombard, say the chroniclers, ended his days in saintly fashion.

The prompt success of this war in Italy, undertaken at the appeal of the head of the Church, this first sojourn of Charlemagne at Rome, the spectacles he had witnessed and the homage he had received, exercised over him, his plans and his deeds, a powerful influence. This rough Frankish warrior, chief of a people who were beginning to make a brilliant appearance upon the stage of the world, and issue himself of a new line, had a taste for what was grand, splendid, ancient, and consecrated by time and public respect; he understood and estimated at its full worth the moral force and importance of such allies. He departed from Rome in 774, more determined than ever to subdue Saxony, to the advantage of the Church as well as of his own power, and to promote, in the South as in the North, the triumph of the Frankish Christian dominion.

Three years afterward, in 777, he had convoked at Paderborn, in Westphalia, that general assembly of his different peoples at which Wittikind did not attend, and which was destined to bring upon the Saxons a more and more obstinate war. "The Saracen Ibn-al-Arabi," says Eginhard, "came to this town, to present himself before the King. He had arrived from Spain, together with other Saracens in his train, to surrender to the King of the Franks himself and all the towns which the King of the Saracens had confided to his keeping." For a long time past the Christians of the West had given the Mussulmans, Arab or other, the name of Saracens. Ibn-al-Arabi was governor of Saragossa, and one of the Spanish-Arab, chieftains in league against Abdel-Rhaman, the last offshoot of the Om-miad caliphs, who, with the assistance of the Berbers, had seized the government of Spain. Amid the troubles of his country and his nation, Ibn-al-Arabi summoned to his aid, against Abdel-Rhaman, the Franks and the Christians, just as, but lately, Maurontius, Duke of Arles, had summoned to Provence, against Charles Martel, the Arabs and the Mussulmans.

Charlemagne accepted the summons with alacrity. With the coming of spring in the following year, 778, and with the full assent of his chief warriors, he began his march toward the Pyrenees, crossed the Loire, and halted at Casseneuil, at the confluence of the Lot and the Garonne, to celebrate there the festival of Easter, and to make preparations for his expedition thence. As he had but lately done for his campaign in Italy against the Lombards, he divided his forces into two armies: one composed of Austrasians, Neustrians, Burgundians, and divers German contingents, and commanded by Charlemagne in person, was to enter Spain by the valley of Roncesvalles, in the western Pyrenees, and make for Pampeluna; the other, consisting of Provenals, Septimanians, Lombards, and other populations of the South, under the command of Duke Bernard, who had already distinguished himself in Italy, had orders to penetrate into Spain by the eastern Pyrenees, to receive on the march the submission of Gerona and Barcelona, and not to halt till they were before Saragossa, where the two armies were to form a junction, and which Ibn-al-Arabi had promised to give up to the King of the Franks. According to this plan, Charlemagne had to traverse the territories of Aquitaine and Vasconia, domains of Duke Lupus II, son of Duke Waifre, so long the foe of Ppin the Short, a Merovingian by descent, and, in all these qualities, little disposed to favor Charlemagne. However, the march was accomplished without difficulty. The King of the Franks treated his powerful vassal well; and Duke Lupus swore to him afresh, "or for the first time," says M. Fauriel, "submission and fidelity; but the event soon proved that it was not without umbrage or without all the feelings of a true son of Waifre that he saw the Franks and the son of Ppin so close to him."

The aggressive campaign was an easy and a brilliant one. Charles with his army entered Spain by the valley of Roncesvalles without encountering any obstacle. On his arrival before Pampeluna the Arab governor surrendered the place to him, and Charlemagne pushed forward vigorously to Saragossa. But there fortune changed. The presence of foreigners and Christians on the soil of Spain caused a suspension of interior quarrels among the Arabs, who rose in mass, at all points, to succor Saragossa. The besieged defended themselves with obstinacy; there was more scarcity of provisions among the besiegers than inside the place; sickness broke out among them; they were incessantly harassed from without; and rumors of a fresh rising among the Saxons reached Charlemagne. The Arabs demanded negotiation. To decide the King of the Franks upon an abandonment of the siege, they offered him "an immense quantity of gold," say the chroniclers, hostages, and promises of homage and fidelity. Appearances had been saved; Charlemagne could say, and even perhaps believe, that he had pushed his conquests as far as the Ebro; he decided on retreat, and all the army was set in motion to recross the Pyrenees. On arriving before Pampeluna Charlemagne had its walls completely razed to the ground, "in order that," as he said, "that city might not be able to revolt." The troops entered those same passes of Roncesvalles which they had traversed without obstacle a few weeks before; and the advance-guard and the main body of the army were already clear of them. The account of what happened shall be given in the words of Eginhard, the only contemporary historian whose account, free from all exaggeration, can be considered authentic. "The King," he says, "brought back his army without experiencing any loss, save that at the summit of the Pyrenees he suffered somewhat from the perfidy of the Vascons (Basques). While the army of the Franks, embarrassed in a narrow defile, was forced by the nature of the ground to advance in one long close line, the Basques, who were in ambush on the crest of the mountain—for the thickness of the forest with which these parts are covered is favorable to ambuscade—descend and fall suddenly on the baggage-train and on the troops of the rear-guard, whose duty it was to cover all in their front, and precipitate them to the bottom of the valley. There took place a fight in which the Franks were killed to a man. The Basques, after having plundered the baggage-train, profited by the night which had come on to disperse rapidly. They owed all their success in this engagement to the lightness of their equipment and to the nature of the spot where the action took place; the Franks, on the contrary, being heavily armed and in an unfavorable position, struggled against too many disadvantages. Eginhard, master of the household of the King; Anselm, count of the palace; and Roland, prefect of the marches of Brittany, fell in this engagement. There were no means, at the time, of taking revenge for this check; for, after their sudden attack, the enemy dispersed to such good purpose that there was no gaining any trace of the direction in which they should be sought for."

History says no more; but in the poetry of the people there is a longer and a more faithful memory than in the court of kings. The disaster of Roncesvalles and the heroism of the warriors who perished there, became in France the object of popular sympathy and the favorite topic for the exercise of the popular fancy. The Song of Roland, a real Homeric poem in its great beauty, and yet rude and simple as became its national character, bears witness, to the prolonged importance attained in Europe by this incident in the history of Charlemagne. Four centuries later the comrades of William the Conqueror, marching to battle at Hastings for the possession of England, struck up The Song of Roland, "to prepare themselves for victory or death," says M. Vitel in his vivid estimate and able translation of this poetical monument of the manners and first impulses toward chivalry of the Middle Ages. There is no determining how far history must be made to participate in these reminiscences of national feeling; but, assuredly, the figures of Roland and Oliver, and Archbishop Turpin, and the pious, unsophisticated, and tender character of their heroism are not pure fables invented by the fancy of a poet or the credulity of a monk. If the accuracy of historical narrative must not be looked for in them, their moral truth must be recognized in their portrayal of a people and an age.

The politic genius of Charlemagne comprehended more fully than would be imagined from his panegyrist’s brief and dry account all the gravity of the affair of Roncesvalles. Not only did he take immediate vengeance by hanging Duke Lupus of Aquitaine, whose treason had brought down this mishap, and by reducing his two sons, Adalric and Sancho, to a more feeble and precarious condition; but he resolved to treat Aquitaine as he had but lately treated Italy, that is to say, to make of it, according to the correct definition of M. Fauriel, "a special kingdom, an integral portion, indeed, of the Frankish empire, but with an especial destination, which was that of resisting the invasions of the Andalusian Arabs, and confining them as much as possible to the soil of the peninsula." This was, in some sort, giving back to the country its primary task as an independent duchy; and it was the most natural and most certain way of making the Aquitanians useful subjects, by giving play to their national vanity, to their pretensions of forming a separate people, and to their hopes of once more becoming, sooner or later, an independent nation. Queen Hildegarde, during her husband’s sojourn at Casseneuil, in 778, had borne him a son whom he called Louis, and who was afterward Louis the Debonair. Charlemagne, summoned a second time to Rome, in 781, by the quarrels of Pope Adrian I with the imperial court of Constantinople, brought with him his two sons, Ppin, aged only four years, and Louis, only three years, and had them anointed by the Pope—the former King of Italy, and the latter King of Aquitaine. On returning from Rome to Austrasia, Charlemagne sent Louis at once to take possession of his kingdom. From the banks of the Meuse to Orleans the little prince was carried in his cradle; but once on the Loire, this manner of traveling beseemed him no longer; his conductors would that his entry into his dominions should have a manly and warrior-like appearance; they clad him in arms proportioned to his height and age; they put him and held him on horseback; and it was in such guise that he entered Aquitaine. He came thither accompanied by the officers who were to form his council of guardians, men chosen by Charlemagne, with care, among the Frankish Leudes, distinguished not only for bravery and firmness, but also for adroitness, and such as they should be to be neither deceived nor scared by the cunning, fickle, and turbulent populations with whom they would have to deal. From this period to the death of Charlemagne, and by his sovereign influence, though all the while under his son’s name, the government of Aquitaine was a series of continued efforts to hurl back the Arabs of Spain beyond the Ebro, to extend to that river the dominion of the Franks, to divert to that end the forces as well as the feelings of the populations of Southern Gaul, and thus to pursue, in the South as in the North, against the Arabs as well as against the Saxons and Huns, the grand design of Charlemagne, which was the repression of foreign invasions and the triumph of Christian France over Asiatic paganism and Islamism.

Although continually obliged to watch, and often still to fight, Charlemagne might well believe that he had nearly gained his end. He had everywhere greatly extended the frontiers of the Frankish dominions and subjugated the populations comprised in his conquests. He had proved that his new frontiers would be vigorously defended against new invasions or dangerous neighbors. He had pursued the Huns and the Slavons to the confines of the Empire of the East, and the Saracens to the islands of Corsica and Sardinia. The centre of the dominion was no longer in ancient Gaul; he had transferred it to a point not far from the Rhine, in the midst and within reach of the Germanic populations, at the town of Aix-la-Chapelle, which he had founded, and which was his favorite residence; but the principal parts of the Gallo-Frankish kingdom, Austrasia, Neustria, and Burgundy, were effectually welded in one single mass. What he had done with Southern Gaul has just been pointed out; how he had both separated it from his own kingdom, and still retained it under his control. Two expeditions into Armorica, without taking entirely from the Britons their independence, had taught them real deference, and the great warrior Roland, installed as count upon their frontier, warned them of the peril any rising would encounter. The moral influence of Charlemagne was on a par with his material power; he had everywhere protected the missionaries of Christianity; he had twice entered Rome, also in the character of protector, and he could count on the faithful support of the Pope at least as much as the Pope could count on him. He had received embassies and presents from the sovereigns of the East, Christian and Mussulman, from the emperors of Constantinople and the caliphs of Bagdad. Everywhere, in Europe, in Africa, and in Asia, he was feared and respected by kings and people. Such, at the close of the eighth century, were, so far as he was concerned, the results of his wars, of the superior capacity he had displayed, and of the successes he had won and kept.

In 799 he received, at Aix-la-Chapelle, news of serious disturbances which had broken out at Rome; that Pope Leo III had been attacked by conspirators, who, after pulling out, it was said, his eyes and his tongue, had shut him up in the monastery of St. Erasmus, whence he had with great difficulty escaped, and that he had taken refuge with Winigisius, Duke of Spoleto, announcing his intention of repairing thence to the Frankish King. Leo was already known to Charlemagne; at his accession to the pontificate, in 795, he had sent to him, as to the patrician and defender of Rome, the keys of the prison of St. Peter, and the banner of the city. Charlemagne showed a disposition to receive him with equal kindness and respect. The Pope arrived, in fact, at Paderborn, passed some days there, according to Eginhard, and returned to Rome on the 30th of November, 799, at ease regarding his future, but without knowledge on the part of anyone of what had been settled between the King of the Franks and him. Charlemagne remained all the winter at Aix-la-Chapelle, spent the first months of the year 800 on affairs connected with Western France, at Rouen, Tours, Orleans, and Paris, and, returning to Mayence in the month of August, then for the first time announced to the general assembly of Franks his design of making a journey to Italy. He repaired thither, in fact, and arrived on the 2d of November, 800, at the gates of Rome. The Pope "received him there as he was dismounting; then, the next day, standing on the steps of the basilica of St. Peter and amid general hallelujahs, he introduced the King into the sanctuary of the blessed apostle, glorifying and thanking the Lord for this happy event." Some days were spent in examining into the grievances which had been set down to the Pope’s account, and in receiving two monks arrived from Jerusalem to present to the King, with the patriarch’s blessing, the keys of the Holy Sepulchre and Calvary, as well as the sacred standard. Lastly, on the 25th of December, 800, "the day of the Nativity of our Lord," says Eginhard, "the King came into the basilica of the blessed St. Peter, apostle, to attend the celebration of mass. At the moment when, in his place before the altar, he was bowing down to pray, Pope Leo placed on his head a crown, and all the Roman people shouted, ’Long life and victory to Charles Augustus, crowned by God, the great and pacific Emperor of the Romans!’ After this proclamation the Pontiff prostrated himself before him and paid him adoration, according to the custom established in the days of the old emperors; and thenceforward Charles, giving up the title of patrician, bore that of emperor and augustus."

Egihhard adds, in his Life of Charlemagne: "The King at first testified great aversion for this dignity, for he declared that, notwithstanding the importance of the festival, he would not on that day have entered the church if he could have foreseen the intentions of the sovereign Pontiff. However, this event excited the jealousy of the Roman emperors (of Constantinople), who showed great vexation at it; but Charles met their bad graces with nothing but great patience, and thanks to this magnanimity which raised him so far above them, he managed, by sending to them frequent embassies and giving them in his letters the name of brother, to triumph over their conceit."

No one, probably, believed, in the ninth century, and no one, assuredly, will nowadays believe that Charlemagne was innocent beforehand of what took place on the 25th of December, 800, in the basilica of St. Peter. It is doubtful, also, if he were seriously concerned about the ill-temper of the emperors of the East. He had wit enough to understand the value which always remains attached to old traditions, and he might have taken some pains to secure their countenance to his title of emperor; but all his contemporaries believed, and he also undoubtedly believed, that he had on that day really won and set up again the Roman Empire.

What, then, was the government of this empire of which Charlemagne was proud to assume the old title? How did this German warrior govern that vast dominion which, thanks to his conquests, extended from the Elbe to the Ebro, from the North Sea to the Mediterranean; which comprised nearly all Germany, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the north of Italy and of Spain, and which, sooth to say, was still, when Charlemagne caused himself to be made emperor, scarce more than the hunting-ground and the battlefield of all the swarms of barbarians who tried to settle on the ruins of the Roman world they had invaded and broken to pieces? The government of Charlemagne in the midst of this chaos is the striking, complicated, and transitory fact which is now to be passed in review.

A word of warning must be first of all given touching this word government with which it is impossible to dispense. For a long time past the word has entailed ideas of national unity, general organization, and regular and efficient power. There has been no lack of revolutions which have changed dynasties and the principles and forms of the supreme power in the State; but they have always left existing, under different names, the practical machinery whereby the supreme power makes itself felt and exercises its various functions over the whole country. Open the Almanac, whether it be called the Imperial, the Royal, or the National, and you will find there always the working system of the government of France; all the powers and their agents, from the lowest to the highest, are there indicated and classed according to their prerogatives and relations. Nor have we there a mere empty nomenclature, a phantom of theory; things go on actually as they are described—the book is the reflex of the reality. It were easy to construct, for the empire of Charlemagne, a similar list of officers; there might be set down in it dukes, counts, vicars, centeniers, and sheriffs (scabini), and they might be distributed, in regular gradation, over the whole territory; but it would be one huge lie, for most frequently, in the majority of places, these magistrades were utterly powerless and themselves in complete disorder. The efforts of Charlemagne, either to establish them on a firm footing or to make them act with regularity, were continual but unavailing. In spite of the fixity of his purpose and the energy of his action the disorder around him was measureless and insurmountable. He might check it for a moment at one point; but the evil existed wherever his terrible will did not reach, and wherever it did the evil broke out again as soon as it had been withdrawn. How could it be otherwise? Charlemagne had not to grapple with one single nation or with one single system of institutions; he had to deal with different nations, without cohesion, and foreign one to another. The authority belonged, at one and the same time, to assemblies of free men, to landholders over the dwellers on their domains, and to the king over the leudes and their following. These three powers appeared and acted side by side in every locality as well as in the totality of the State. Their relations and their prerogatives were not governed by any generally recognized principle, and’ none of the three was invested with sufficient might to habitually prevail against the independence or resistance of its rivals. Force alone, varying according to circumstances and always uncertain, decided matters between them. Such was France at the accession of the second line. The coexistence of and the struggle between the three systems of institutions and the three powers just alluded to had as yet had no other result. Out of this chaos Charlemagne caused to issue a monarchy, strong through him alone and so long as he was by, but powerless and gone like a shadow when the man was lost to the institution.

Whoever is astonished either at this triumph of absolute monarchy through the personal movement of Charlemagne, or at the speedy fall of the fabric on the disappearance of the moving spirit, understands neither what can be done by a great man, when, without him, society sees itself given over to deadly peril, nor how unsubstantial and frail is absolute power when the great man is no longer by, or when society has no longer need of him.

It has just been shown how Charlemagne by his wars, which had for their object and result permanent and well-secured conquests, had stopped the fresh incursions of barbarians, that is, had stopped disorder coming from without. An attempt will now be made to show by what means he set about suppressing disorder from within and putting his own rule in the place of the anarchy that prevailed in the Roman world which lay in ruins, and in the barbaric world which was a prey to blind and ill-regulated force.

A distinction must be drawn between the local and central governments.

Far from the centre of the State, in what have since been called the provinces, the power of the Emperor was exercised by the medium of two classes of agents, one local and permanent, the other despatched from the centre and transitory.

In the first class we find:

1st. The dukes, counts, vicars of counts, centeniers, sheriffs (scabini), officers or magistrates residing on the spot, nominated by the Emperor himself or by his delegates, and charged with the duty of acting in his name for the levying of troops, rendering of justice, maintenance of order, and receipt of imposts.

2d. The beneficiaries or vassals of the Emperor, who held of him, sometimes as hereditaments, more often for life, and more often still without fixed rule or stipulation, lands; domains, throughout the extent of which they exercised, a little bit in their own name and a little bit in the name of the Emperor, a certain jurisdiction and nearly all the rights of sovereignty. There was nothing very fixed or clear in the position of the beneficiaries and in the nature of their power; they were at one and the same time delegates and independent owners and enjoyers of usufruct, and the former or the latter character prevailed among them according to circumstances. But, altogether, they were closely bound to Charlemagne, who, in a great number of cases, charged them with the execution of his orders in the lands they occupied.

Above these agents, local and resident, magistrates or beneficiaries, were the missi dominici, temporary commissioners, charged to inspect, in the Emperor’s name, the condition of the provinces; authorized to penetrate into the interior of the free lands as well as of the domains granted with the title of benefices; having the right to reform certain abuses, and bound to render an account of all to their master. The missi dominici were the principal instruments Charlemagne had, throughout the vast territory of his empire, of order and administration.

As to the central government, setting aside for a moment the personal action of Charlemagne and of his counsellors, the general assemblies, to judge by appearances and to believe nearly all the modern historians, occupied a prominent place in it. They were, in fact, during his reign, numerous and active; from the year 770 to the year 813 we may count thirty-five of these national assemblies, March-parades and May-parades, held at Worms, Valenciennes, Geneva, Paderborn, Aix-la-Chapelle, Thionville, and several other towns, the majority situated round about the two banks of the Rhine. The number and periodical nature of these great political reunions are undoubtedly a noticeable fact. What, then, went on in their midst? What character and weight must be attached to their intervention in the government of the State? It is important to sift this matter thoroughly.

There is extant, touching this subject, a very curious document. A contemporary and counsellor of Charlemagne, his cousin-german Adalbert, abbot of Corbie, had written a treatise entitled "Of the Ordering of the Palace" (de Ordine Palatii), and designed to give an insight into the government of Charlemagne, with especial reference to the national assemblies. This treatise was lost; but toward the close of the ninth century Hincmar, the celebrated archbishop of Rheims, reproduced it almost in its entirety, in the form of a letter of instructions, written at the request of certain grandees of the kingdom who had asked counsel of him with respect to the government of Carloman, one of the sons of Charles the Stutterer. We read therein:

"It was the custom at this time to hold two assemblies every year. . . . In both, that they might not seem to have been convoked without motive, there was submitted to the examination and deliberation of the grandees…and by virtue of orders from the King, the fragments of law called capitula, which the King himself had drawn up under the inspiration of God or the necessity for which had been made manifest to him in the intervals between the meetings."

Two striking facts are to be gathered from these words: the first, that the majority of the members composing these assemblies probably regarded as a burden the necessity for being present at them, since Charlemagne took care to explain their convocation by declaring to them the motive for it, and by always giving them something to do; the second, that the proposal of the capitularies, or, in modern phrase, the initiative, proceeded from the Emperor. The initiative is naturally exercised by him who wishes to regulate or reform, and, in his time, it was especially Charlemagne who conceived this design. There is no doubt, however, but that the members of the assembly might make on their side such proposals as appeared to them suitable; the constitutional distrusts and artifices of our time were assuredly unknown to Charlemagne, who saw in these assemblies a means of government rather than a barrier to his authority. To resume the text of Hincmar:

"After having received these communications, they deliberated on them two or three days or more, according to the importance of the business. Palace messengers, going and coming, took their questions and carried back the answers. No stranger came near the place of their meeting until the result of their deliberations had been able to be submitted to the scrutiny of the great prince, who then, with the wisdom he had received from God, adopted a resolution which all obeyed."

The definite resolution, therefore, depended upon Charlemagne alone; the assembly contributed only information and counsel.

Hincmar continues, and supplies details worthy of reproduction, for they give an insight into the imperial government and the action of Charlemagne himself amid those most ancient of the national assemblies:

"Things went on thus for one or two capitularies, or a greater number, until, with God’s help, all the necessities of the occasion were regulated.

"While these matters were thus proceeding out of the King’s presence, the prince himself, in the midst of the multitude, came to the general assembly, was occupied in receiving the presents, saluting the men of most note, conversing with those he saw seldom, showing toward the elder a tender interest, disporting himself with the youngsters, and doing the same thing, or something like it, with the ecclesiastics as well as the seculars. However, if those who were deliberating about the matter submitted to their examination showed a desire for it, the King repaired to them and remained with them as long as they wished; and then they reported to him, with perfect familiarity, what they thought about all matters, and what were the friendly discussions that had arisen among them. I must not forget to say that, if the weather were fine, everything took place in the open air; otherwise, in several distinct buildings, where those who had to deliberate on the King’s proposals were separated from the multitude of persons come to the assembly, and then the men of greater note were admitted. The places appointed for the meeting of the lords were divided into two parts, in such sort that the bishops, the abbots, and the clerics of high rank might meet without mixture with the laity. In the same way the counts and other chiefs of the State underwent separation, in the morning, until, whether the King was present or absent, all were gathered together; then the lords above specified, the clerics on their side, and the laics on theirs, repaired to the hall which had been assigned to them, and where seats had been with due honor prepared for them. When the lords laical and ecclesiastical were thus separated from the multitude, it remained in their power to sit separately or together, according to the nature of the business they had to deal with, ecclesiastical, secular, or mixed. In the same way, if they wished to send for anyone, either to demand refreshment or to put any question, and to dismiss him after getting what they wanted, it was at their option. Thus took place the examination of affairs proposed to them by the King for deliberation.

"The second business of the King was to ask of each what there was to report to him or enlighten him touching the part of the kingdom each had come from. Not only was this permitted to all, but they were strictly enjoined to make inquiries during the interval between the assemblies, about what happened within or without the kingdom; and they were bound to seek knowledge from foreigners as well as natives, enemies as well as friends, sometimes by employing emissaries, and without troubling themselves much about the manner in which they acquired their information. The King wished to know whether in any part, in any corner, of the kingdom, the people were restless, and what was the cause of their restlessness; or whether there had happened any disturbance to which it was necessary to draw the attention of the council-general, and other similar matters. He sought also to know whether any of the subjugated nations were inclined to revolt; whether any of those who had revolted seemed disposed toward submission; and whether those that were still independent were threatening the kingdom with any attack. On all these subjects, whenever there was any manifestation of disorder or danger, he demanded chiefly what were the motives or occasion of them."

There is need of no great reflection to recognize the true character of these assemblies: it is clearly imprinted upon the sketch drawn by Hincmar. The figure of Charlemagne alone fills the picture: he is the centre-piece of it and the soul of everything. ’Tis he who wills that the national assemblies should meet and deliberate; ’tis he who inquires into the state of the country; ’tis he who proposes and approves of, or rejects the laws; with him rest will and motive, initiative and decision. He has a mind sufficiently judicious, unshackled, and elevated to understand that the nation ought not to be left in darkness about its affairs and that he himself has need of communicating with it, of gathering information from it, and of learning its opinions. But we have here no exhibition of great political liberties, no people discussing its interests and its business, interfering effectually in the adoption of resolutions, and, in fact, taking in its government so active and decisive a part as to have a right to say that it is self-governing, or, in other words, a free people. It is Charlemagne and he alone who governs; it is absolute government marked by prudence, ability, and grandeur.

When the mind dwells upon the state of Gallo-Frankish society in the eighth century, there is nothing astonishing in such a fact. Whether it be civilized or barbarian, that which every society needs, that which it seeks or demands first of all in its government, is a certain degree of good sense and strong will, of intelligence and innate influence, so far as the public interests are concerned; qualities, in fact, which suffice to keep social order maintained or make it realized, and to promote respect for individual rights and the progress of the general well-being. This is the essential aim of every community of men; and the institutions and guarantees of free government are the means of attaining it. It is clear that, in the eighth century, on the ruins of the Roman and beneath the blows of the barbaric world, the Gallo-Frankish nation, vast and without cohesion, brutish and ignorant, was incapable of bringing forth, so to speak, from its own womb, with the aid of its own wisdom and virtue, a government of the kind. A host of different forces, without enlightenment and without restraint, were everywhere and incessantly struggling for dominion, or, in other words, were ever troubling and endangering the social condition. Let there but arise, in the midst of this chaos of unruly forces and selfish passions, a great man, one of those elevated ,minds and strong characters that can understand the essential aim of society, and then urge it forward, and at the same time keep it well in hand on the roads that lead thereto, and such a man will soon seize and exercise the personal power almost of a despot, and people will not only make him welcome, but even celebrate his praises, for they do not quit the substance for the shadow, or sacrifice the end to the means. Such was the empire of Charlemagne. Among annalists and historians, some, treating him as a mere conqueror and despot, have ignored his merits and his glory; others, that they might admire him without scruple, have made of him a founder of free institutions, a constitutional monarch. Both are equally mistaken: Charlemagne was, indeed, a conqueror and a despot; but by his conquests and his personal power he, so long as he was by, that is, for six-and-forty years, saved Gallo-Frankish society from barbaric invasion without and anarchy within. That is the characteristic of his government and his title to glory.

What he was in his wars and his general relations with his nation has just been seen; he shall now be exhibited in all his administrative activity and his intellectual life, as a legislator and as a friend to the human mind. The same man will be recognized in every case; he will grow in greatness, without changing, as he appears under his various aspects.

There are often joined together, under the title of Capitularies (capitula-small chapters, articles) a mass of acts, very different in point of dates and Objects, which are attributed indiscriminately to Charlemagne. This is a mistake. The Capitularies are the laws or legislative measures of the Frankish kings, Merovingian as well as Carlovingian. Those of the Merovingians are few in number, and of slight importance, and among those of the Carlovingians, which amount to 152, 65 only are due to Charlemagne. When an attempt is made to classify these last according to their object, it is impossible not to be struck with their incoherent variety; and several of them are such as we should nowadays be surprised to meet with in a code or in a special law. Among Charlemagne’s 65 Capitularies, which contain 1,151 articles, may be counted 87 of moral, 293 of political, 130 of penal, 110 of civil, 85 of religious, 305 of canonical, 73 of domestic, and 12 of incidental legislation. And it must not be supposed that all these articles are really acts of legislation, laws properly so called; we find among them the texts of ancient national laws revised and promulgated afresh; extracts from and additions to these same ancient laws, Salic, Lombard, and Bavarian; extracts from acts of councils; instructions given by Charlemagne to his envoys in the provinces; questions that he proposed to put to the bishops or counts when they came to the national assembly; answers given by Charlemagne to questions addressed to him by the bishops, counts, or commissioners (missi dominici); judgments, decrees, royal pardons, and simple notes that Charlemagne seems to have had written down for himself alone, to remind him of what he proposed to do; in a word, nearly all the various acts which could possibly have to be framed by an earnest, far-sighted, and active government. Often, indeed, these Capitularies have no imperative or prohibitive character; they are simple counsels, purely moral precepts. We read therein, for example:

"Covetousness doth consist in desiring that which others possess, and in giving away naught of that which oneself possesseth; according to the apostle, it is the root of all evil."


"Hospitality must be practised."

The Capitularies which have been classed under the heads of political, penal, and canonical legislation are the most numerous, and are those which bear most decidedly an imperative of prohibitive stamp; among them a prominent place is held by measures of political economy, administration, and police; you will find therein an attempt to put a fixed price on provisions, a real trial of a maximum for cereals, and a prohibition of mendicity, with the following clause:

"If such mendicants be met with, and they labor not with their hands, let none take thought about giving unto them."

The interior police of the palace was regulated thereby, as well as that of the empire:

"We do will and decree that none of those who serve in our palace shall take leave to receive therein any man who seeketh refuge there and cometh to hide there, by reason of theft, homicide, adultery, or any other crime. That if any free man do break through our interdicts and hide such malefactor in our palace, he shall be bound to carry him on his shoulders to the public quarter, and be there tied to the same stake as the malefactor."

Certain Capitularies have been termed religious legislation, in contradistinction to canonical legislation, because they are really admonitions, religious exhortations, addressed not to ecclesiastics alone, but to the faithful, the Christian people in general, and notably characterized by good sense and, one might almost say, freedom of thought.

For example:

"Beware of venerating the names of martyrs falsely so called, and the memory of dubious saints."

"Let none suppose that prayer cannot be made to God save in three tongues [probably Latin, Greek, and Germanic, or perhaps the vulgar tongue; for the last was really beginning to take form], for God is adored in all tongues, and man is heard if he do but ask for the things that be right."

These details are put forward that a proper idea may be obtained of Charlemagne as a legislator, and of what are called his laws. We have here, it will be seen, no ordinary legislator and no ordinary laws: we see the work, with infinite variations and in disconnected form, of a prodigiously energetic and watchful master, who had to think and provide for everything, who had to be everywhere the moving and the regulating spirit. This universal and untiring energy is the grand characteristic of Charlemagne’s government, and was, perhaps, what made his superiority most incontestable and his power most efficient.

It is noticeable that the majority of Charlemagne’s Capitularies belong to that epoch of his reign when he was Emperor of the West, when he was invested with all the splendor of sovereign power. Of the 65 Capitularies classed under different heads, 13 only are previous to the 25th of December, 800, the date of his coronation as Emperor at Rome; 52 are comprised between the years 801 and 804.

The energy of Charlemagne as a warrior and a politician having thus been exhibited, it remains to say a few words about his intellectual energy. For that is by no means the least original or least grand feature of his character and his influence.

Modern times and civilized society have more than once seen despotic sovereigns filled with distrust toward scholars of exalted intellect, especially such as cultivated the moral and political sciences, and little inclined to admit them to their favor or to public office. There is no knowing whether, in our days, with our freedom of thought and of the press, Charlemagne would have been a stranger to this feeling of antipathy; but what is certain is that in his day, in the midst of a barbaric society, there was no inducement to it, and that, by nature, he was not disposed to it. His power was not in any respect questioned; distinguished intellects were very rare; Charlemagne had too much need of their services to fear their criticisms, and they, on their part, were more anxious to second his efforts than to show, toward him, anything like exaction or independence. He gave rein, therefore, without any embarrassment or misgiving, to his spontaneous inclination toward them, their studies, their labors, and their influence. He drew them into the management of affairs. In Gulzot’s History of Civilization in France there is a list of the names and works of twenty-three men of the eighth and ninth centuries who have escaped oblivion, and they are all found grouped about Charlemagne as his own habitual advisers, or assigned by him as advisers to his sons Ppin and Louis in Italy and Aquitaine, or sent by him to all points of his empire as his commissioners, or charged in his name with important negotiations. And those whom he did not employ at a distance formed, in his immediate neighborhood, a learned and industrious society, a school of the palace, according to some modern commentators, but an academy and not a school, according to others, devoted rather to conversation than to teaching.

It probably fulfilled both missions; it attended Charlemagne at his various residences, at one time working for him at questions he invited them to deal with, at another giving to the regular components of his court, to his children, and to himself lessons in the different sciences called liberal: grammar, rhetoric, logic, astronomy, geometry, and even theology, and the great religious problems it was beginning to discuss. Two men, Alcuin and Eginhard, have remained justly celebrated in the literary history of the age. Alcuin was the principal director of the school of the palace, and the favorite, the confidant, the learned adviser of Charlemagne. "If your zeal were imitated," said he one day to the Emperor, "perchance one might see arise in France a new Athens, far more glorious than the ancient—the Athens of Christ."

Eginhard, who was younger, received his scientific education in the school of the palace, and was head of the public works to Charlemagne, before becoming his biographer, and, at a later period, the intimate adviser of his son Louis the Debonair. Other scholars of the school of the palace, Angilbert, Leidrade, Adalhard, Agobard, Theodulph, were abbots of St. Riquier or Corbie, archbishops of Lyons, and bishops of Orleans. They had all assumed, in the school itself, names illustrious in pagan antiquity: Alcuin called himself Flaccus; Angilbert, Homer; Theodulph, Pindar. Charlemagne himself had been pleased to take, in their society, a great name of old, but he had borrowed from the history of the Hebrews—he called himself David; and Eginhard, animated, no doubt, by the same sentiments, was Bezaleel, that nephew of Moses to whom God had granted the gift of knowing how to work skilfully in wood and all the materials which served for the Construction of the ark and the tabernacle. Either in the lifetime of their royal patron or after his death all these scholars became great dignitaries of the Church, or ended their lives in monasteries of note; but, so long as they lived, they served Charlemagne or his sons not only with the devotion of faithful advisers, but also as followers proud of the master who had known how to do them honor by making use of them.

It was without effort and by natural sympathy that Charlemagne had inspired them with such sentiments; for he, too, really loved sciences, literature, and such studies as were then possible, and he cultivated them on his own account and for his own pleasure, as a sort of conquest. It has been doubted whether he could write, and an expression of Eginhard’s might authorize such a doubt; but, according to other evidence, and even according to the passage in Eginhard, one is inclined to believe merely that Charlemagne strove painfully, and without much success, to write a good hand. He had learned Latin, and he understood Greek. He caused to be commenced, and, perhaps, himself commenced the drawing up of the first Germanic grammar. He ordered that the old barbaric poems, in which the deeds and wars of the ancient kings were celebrated, should be collected for posterity. He gave Germanic names to the twelve months of the year. He distinguished the winds by twelve special terms, whereas before his time they had but four designations. He paid great attention to astronomy. Being troubled one day at no longer seeing in the firmament one of the known planets, he wrote to Alcuin: "What thinkest thou of this Mars, which, last year, being concealed in the sign of Cancer, was intercepted from the sight of men by the light of the sun? Is it the regular course of his revolution? Is it the influence of the sun? Is it a miracle? Could he have been two years about performing the course of a single one?"

In theological studies and discussions he exhibited a particular and grave interest. "It is to him," say Ampère and Haurau, "that we must refer the honor of the decision taken in 794 by the council of Frankfort in the great dispute about images; a temperate decision which is as far removed from the infatuation of the image-worshippers as from the frenzy of the image-breakers." And at the same time that he thus took part in the great ecclesiastical questions, Charlemagne paid zealous attention to the instruction of the clergy whose ignorance he deplored. "Ah," said he one day, "if only I had about me a dozen clerics learned in all the sciences, as Jerome and Augustin were!" With all his puissance it was not in his power to make Jeromes and Augustins; but he laid the foundation, in the cathedral churches and the great monasteries, of episcopal and cloistral schools for the education of ecclesiastics, and, carrying his solicitude still further, he recommended to the bishops and abbots that, in those schools, "they should take care to make no difference between the sons of serfs and of free men, so that they might come and sit on the same benches to study grammar, music, and arithmetic." Thus, in the eighth century, he foreshadowed the extension which, in the nineteenth, was to be accorded to primary instruction, to the advantage and honor not only of the clergy, but also of the whole people.

After so much of war and toil at a distance, Charlemagne was now at Aix-la-Chapelle, finding rest in this work of peaceful civilization. He was embellishing the capital which he had founded, and which was called the king’s court. He had built there a grand basilica, magnificently adorned. He was completing his own palace there. He fetched from Italy clerics skilled in church music, a pious joyance to which he was much devoted, and which he recommended to the bishops of his empire.. In the outskirts of Aix-la-Chapelle "he gave full scope," says Eginhard, "to his delight in riding and hunting. Baths of naturally tepid water gave him great pleasure. Being passionately fond of swimming, he became so dexterous that none could be compared with him. He invited not only his sons, but also his friends, the grandees of his court, and sometimes even the soldiers of his guard, to bathe with him, insomuch that there were often a hundred and more persons bathing at a time."

When age arrived, he made no alteration in his bodily habits; but, at the same time, instead of putting away from him the thought of death, he was much taken up with it, and prepared himself for it with stern severity. He drew up, modified, and completed his will several times over. Three years before his death he made out the distribution of his treasures, his money, his wardrobe, and all his furniture, in the presence of his friends and his officers, in order that their voice might insure, after his death, the execution of this partition, and he set down his intentions in this respect in a written summary, in which he massed all his riches in three grand lots. The first two were divided into twenty-one portions, which were to be distributed among the twenty-one metropolitan churches of his empire. After having put these first two lots under seal, he willed to preserve to himself his usual enjoyment of the third so long as he lived. But after his death, or voluntary renunciation of the things of this world, this same lot was to be subdivided into four portions. His intention was that the first should be added to the twenty-one portions which were to go to the metropolitan churches; the second set aside for his sons and daughters, and for the sons and daughters of his sons, and redivided among them in a just and proportionate manner; the third dedicated, according to the usage of Christians, to the necessities of the poor; and, lastly, the fourth distributed in the same way, under the name of alms, among the servants, of both sexes, of the palace for their lifetime. As for the books which he had amassed, a large number in his library, he decided that those who wished to have them might buy them at their proper value, and that the money which they produced should be distributed among the poor."

Having thus carefully regulated his own private affairs and bounty, he, two years later, in 813, took the measures necessary for the regulation, after his death, of public affairs. He had lost, in 811, his oldest son, Charles, who had been his constant companion in his wars, and, in 810, his second son, Ppin, whom he had made King of Italy; and he summoned to his side his third son, Louis, King of Aquitaine, who was destined to succeed him. He ordered the convocation of five local councils which were to assemble at Mayence, Rheims, Chalons, Tours, and Arles, for the purpose of bringing about, subject to the King’s ratification, the reforms necessary in the Church. Passing from the affairs of the Church to those of the State, he convoked at Aix-la-Chapelle a general assembly of bishops, abbots, counts, laic grandees, and of the entire people, and, holding council in his palace with the chief among them, "he invited them to make his son Louis king-emperor; whereto all assented, saying that it was very expedient, and pleasing, also, to the people. On Sunday in the next month, August, 813, Charlemagne repaired, crown on head, with his son Louis to the cathedral of Aix-la-Chapelle, laid upon the altar another crown, and, after praying, addressed to his son a solemn exhortation respecting all his duties as king toward God and the Church, toward his family and his people, asked him if he were fully resolved to fulfil them, and, at the answer that he was, bade him take the crown that lay upon the altar, and place it with his own hands upon his head, which Louis did amid the acclamations of all present, who cried, ’Long live the emperor Louis!’ Charlemagne then declared his son emperor jointly with him, and ended the solemnity with these words: ’Blessed be thou, O Lord God, who hast granted me grace to see with mine own eyes my son seated on my throne!’" And Louis set out again immediately for Aquitaine.

He was never to see his father again. Charlemagne, after his son’s departure, went out hunting, according to his custom, in the forest of Ardenne, and continued during the whole autumn his usual mode of life. "But in January, 814, he was taken ill," says Eginhard, "of a violent fever, which kept him to his bed. Recurring forthwith to the remedy he ordinarily employed against fever, he abstained from all nourishment, persuaded that this diet would suffice to drive away or at the least assuage the malady; but added to the fever came that pain in the side which the Greeks call pleurisy; nevertheless the Emperor persisted in his abstinence, supporting his body only by drinks taken at long intervals; and on the seventh day after that he had taken to his bed, having received the holy communion," he expired about 9 A.M., on Saturday, the 28th of January, 814, in his seventy-first year.

"After performance of ablutions and funeral duties, the corpse was carried away and buried, amid the profound mourning of all the people, in the church he had himself had built; and above his tomb there was put up a gilded arcade with his image and this superscription: ’In this tomb reposeth the body of Charles, great and orthodox Emperor, who did gloriously extend the kingdom of the Franks, and did govern it happily for forty-seven years. He died at the age of seventy years, in the year of the Lord 814, in the seventh year of the indiction, on the 5th of the Kalends of February.’"

If we sum up his designs and his achievements, we find an admirably sound idea and a vain dream, a great success and a great failure.

Charlemagne took in hand the work of placing upon a solid foundation the Frankish Christian dominion by stopping, in the North and South, the flood of barbarians and Arabs, paganism and Islamism. In that he succeeded; the inundations of Asiatic populations spent their force in vain against the Gallic frontier. Western and Christian Europe was placed, territorially, beyond reach of attacks from the foreigner and infidel. No sovereign, no human being, perhaps, ever rendered greater service to the civilization of the world.

Charlemagne formed another conception and made another attempt. Like more than one great barbaric warrior, he admired the Roman Empire that had fallen, its vastness all in one, and its powerful organization under the hand of a single master. He thought he could resuscitate it, durably, through the victory of a new people and a new faith, by the hand of Franks and Christians. With this view he labored to conquer, convert, and govern. He tried to be, at one and the same time, Caesar, Augustus, and Constantine. And for a moment he appeared to have succeeded; but the appearance passed away with himself. The unity of the empire and the absolute power of the emperor were buried in his grave. The Christian religion and human liberty set to work to prepare for Europe other governments and other destinies.


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Chicago: François P. G. Guizot, "Career of Charlemagne," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 4 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2022,

MLA: Guizot, François P. G. "Career of Charlemagne." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 4, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: Guizot, FP, 'Career of Charlemagne' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 4. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2022, from