Medieval Wall

May 01 2010

Categories: Historical Figures

Charlemagne: Political life and warfare – second part


Charlemagne is best known for his war campaigns, most famous of which are those against the Saxons and the Avars. Apart from that, this article will also tell of the structure of the Frankish kingdom, as well as Charlemagne's government in general.

Carolingian assumption of the throne from Merovingians

In order to understand Charlemagne’s rise to power, we need to acquaint with forming of the Frankish kingdom. The royal dynasty ruling it in the beginning were the Merovingians (486-751).1 Its first member we know of was Childeric, whilst Clovis (482-511)2 is considered the founder of Frankish sovereign. The country had the status of a royal property, so the kings divided it amongst their sons before they die. Despite of that, the kingdom was considered a compact unit. Division often lead to wars between brothers, which resulted in strengthening of nobility. To avoid this, king Clotaire II appointed a mayor to rule each resulting part of the kingdom.3 During the Merovingian dynasty, a mayor was a court procurator and primary associate of the king. Due to the weakening of the Merovingian dynasty, mayors’ power rises, and following the death of king Theuderic IV (737), mayor Charles Martel continues to rule independently instead of nominating a new king (yet keeping his mayoralty).4 Before he died in 741, he divided the kingdom among his sons Carloman and Pepin, in a royal manner. However, due to some internal turmoils in the country5, they were forced to enthrone a Merovingian king, Childeric III. Soon after, Carloman retreats to a monastery, while Pepin takes over the rulership of the entire kingdom as a mayor. Despite being a mayor, he longed to assumption of the royal title, which he eventually achieves. „In the year 750, Pepin sent his emissary to the Pope with a notice „in regard to the kings of the Franks who no longer possess the royal power: is this state of things proper?“. Pope’s reply was that „such a state of things is not proper: the de facto power is more important than the de jure power“. As a result, Childeric III was dethroned and banished to a monastery, and the bishops anointed Pepin.6 This is the first time in history that Pope had gotten involved in royal election, what was later a common thing. Therefore Pepin became the first king of the Carolingian dynasty. Following his death in 768, a general council has been summoned; the council decided that the kingdom should have been divided between his two sons, Charles and Carloman. After the death of Carloman two years later, Charles became the sole king.7


Charles, much like his predecessors, had three roles as a ruler: he controlled the army, defended the church, and was the supreme judge. He had no absolute power as a ruler. He introduced some judicial reforms, but those could only have been established with approval of his nobility. The decisions he made were called capitularies, which were actually instructions to his officials. Under the ruler’s direct control, even from the time of the Merovingians, were his court’s officials, those were:
  • CHAMBERMAN → the head procurator of the court and the royal treasury
  • SENESCHAL or MAYOR → he handled the king’s food and occasionally supervised the estates where it was produced
  • CUP-BEARER → in charge of the ruler’s wine cellar and vineyards
  • MARSHALL or CONSTABLE → looked after the ruler’s stables, and was commander-in-chief of the military
  • CHAPLAIN → the high priest; he took account of all sacraments of the king and his family and of the officials that wrote king’s letters and other public documents. Not until much later did the scriptorium get a head of its own called the CHANCELLOR.8

The counts in the provinces were posted by the king, as representatives of central authority. They had judicial, military, financial and other executive authorities. Groups of several counts were governed by dukes. All of them were Frankish aristocrats, who were given an estate, and thus a share of its profits.

The taxes were paid by the defeated nations, and the domestic population payed it through contributions, i.e. gifts. Judiciary and military were maintained through free labor, the same as public work, accomodation and supply of the royal officials, as well as people and merchandise transportation.9

Relation to the Church

Charlemagne had a very open dominion over the church, capitulairs that he established related to the civilians and to the church evenly. He presided the councils, and the bishops followed his instructions in their actions. The bishop and abbot elections were also under his control. After all, both were making profit out of his property allocation, because they had immunity from all representatives of secular power, so they became large landowners, peering with counts by reputation.10

Military service

All adult healthy denizens could have been called up to serve the military. Still, there were a few changes through time. The law required that every person had to have a weapon of some sort, in accordance with its receivings, and since warfare was expensive (absence from spring to fall), Charlemagne ordered that only those who had enough land were to be allowed to go to war. The properties were divided to manses – that were large enough to feed a family, and the counts had to make sure that only one soldier per property should go to war. All these rules present the beginning of the feudal structure. Small land owners would have put their efforts and finance one of themselves going to war.11

The imperial crowning

Crowning of CharlemagneWhen Charlemagne became the Frankish ruler, he had the title of a king, only later did he become an emperor. One of the key events in Charlemagne’s reign was getting the emperor title on Christmas in 800. „At Mass, on christmas day, presided by Leo in St. Peter’s Church, after addressing the gathered crowd, he turned to Charles who was praying at the altar, put a crown on his head, and said: „Charles, most serene Augustus crowned by God, the great, peaceful emperor ruling the Roman empire, life and victory!“. Einhard says that the pope had suddenly, without expectation, put the crown on Charles’ head and that Charles at first had such an aversion that he declared that he would not have set foot in the Church the day that they [the imperial titles] were conferred, although it was a great feast-day, if he could have foreseen the design of the Pope.“12 The crowning, however, had been expected in the West for far too long to consider this statement of Charlemagne’s biographer serious (there had not been an emperor in the West from 476). The only potential problem about this crowning by the pope was the reaction of the Byzantine Empire which had the right of ruling over all of the Christian Empire. Nevertheless, no one seemed to care about this overly, because there was still time for permission from Byzantium. Finally, following the Treaty of Aachen, Charles concludes an agreement with the Byzantine Empire, to which he gives Venetian area and coastal Dalmatia, in return for avowal of his imperial title.13


As soon as he came to power, Charles has shown outstanding military skills. Alongside the eastern borders he set up a number of provinces with special military regime – or counties, which kept the peace in this area. During his campaign, he started and fought many wars, of which we will mention only a few. After the first one, the war in Aquitaine, which was started by his father, he goes to war with Langobards. The pope accused their king of violation of prearranged agreements. Charles defeated them in two campaigns, took over northern Italy, dethroned king Desiderius, and thus proclaimed himself king of Italy in 774. He appointed his son Pepin to the throne.14

Due to often marauding excursions into Frankish territory, Merovingians themselves fought wars with Saxons. Having finished the war with Langobards, Charles invaded Saxons, with whom the wars had lasted from 774 to 80415, with a few temporary shutdowns. About the Saxons, Einhard wrote: „No war ever undertaken by the Frank nation was carried on with such persistence and bitterness, or cost so much labor, because the Saxons, like almost all the tribes of Germany, were a fierce people, given to the worship of devils, and hostile to our religion, and did not consider it dishonorable to transgress and violate all law, human and divine.“ […] „It is hard to say how often they were conquered, and, humbly submitting to the King, promised to do what was enjoined upon them, without hesitation the required hostages, gave and received the officers sent them from the King. They were sometimes so much weakened and reduced that they promised to renounce the worship of devils, and to adopt Christianity, but they were no less ready to violate these terms than prompt to accept them, so that it is impossible to tell which came easier to them to do; scarcely a year passed from the beginning of the war without such changes on their part.“16 At the end, Charles depopulates them, and they mix with Franks and together start to form a single nation.

After short encounters with Bretons and Beneventines, which were solved quickly, Charles attacks Bavaria. Its duke, Tasilon, started ruling rather independently, what Charles disapproved of. Once Charles and his army arrived to the river Lecha, he sets an encampment on the banks, and sends for the duke to declare his intentions. It was then declared that this county will not be run by a duke anymore, but rather by several counts.

Map of Europe at 814After this, Charles led a war against the Slavs, who were defeated instantly. Later on, he engaged the most important of his campaigns (apart from the one with the Saxons), the war with Avars. Following the conquest of Bavaria, Avars became direct neighbors to the Franks on the eastern border. The war lasted from 791 to 796, and again from 799 to 803. Einhard states that there was no blood shed on the Frankish side in this war, and that it yielded a very favourable outcome.17 In one of his campaigns against the Avars, the Franks occupied their metropolis, the so-called Ring, in which Avars kept their loot from many campaigns.

The war with Normans (Danish) was the last of Charles’ campaigns. They were aware that Frankia didn’t have a strong navy, and since Normans were skilled pirates, they ravaged the shores of Gaul and Germania. Their raids were interrupted by the death of their king Godfrid, who was killed by his personal guards.18

One Charles’ campaign that failed was the campaign against Spain. On their way home, Charles’ army were ambushed by the Basque and thus defeated. They waited for them in a narrow gorge and attacked the rear troops. This was also the place where Roland, the procurator of the duchy of Brittany, was killed. One of the most famous literary works of the Middle Ages, „The Song of Roland“, was inspired by his death.19

Other articles from the “Charlemagne” series

  • Death of procurator of the duchy of Brittany Roland, is written in epic „The Song of Roland“, one of the most famous literary works of the Middle Ages
  • Einhard says that the pope had suddenly, without expectation, put the crown on Charles’ head and that Charles at first had such an aversion that he declared that he would not have set foot in the Church the day that they [the imperial titles] were conferred, although it was a great feast-day, if he could have foreseen the design of the Pope.
  • During this period, there are appearing the beginnings of feudalism, which will mark the Middle Ages
  • EINHARD, The Life of Charlemagne (Medieval Sourcebook: Einhard: The Life of Charlemagne → Mar 25 2010)
  • EINHARD, Život Karla Velikog, Zagreb, 1992.
  • MELITA TOMAŠEVIĆ (ur.), Povijest svijeta, Split, 2005.
  • Note: Articles about Charlemagne, are made on the basis of his biography written by his contemporary, Einhard. For a better understanding of the subject, we used a foreword by I. Goldstein. Articles relies on the text in the Croatian edition. Therefore to expand the topic, we recommend that work.
  • 1 EINHARD, Život Karla Velikog, Zagreb, 1992., 114.
  • 2 EINHARD (note no. 1), 114.
  • 3 MELITA TOMAŠEVIĆ (ur.), Povijest svijeta, Split 2005., 304.
  • 4 EINHARD (note no. 1), str. 115.
  • 5 Rebellion Alamans and Bavarians
  • 6 MELITA TOMAŠEVIĆ (note no. 3), 305.-306.
  • 7 EINHARD (note no. 1), 57.
  • 8 EINHARD (note no. 11), 12.
  • 9 Compare EINHARD (note no. 1), 13.
  • 10 Compare EINHARD (note no. 1), 13.
  • 11 Compare EINHARD (note no. 1), 13.
  • 12 EINHARD (note no. 1), 11.
  • 13 EINHARD (note no. 1), 11.
  • 14 EINHARD (note no. 1), 61.
  • 15 EINHARD (note no. 1), 122.
  • 16 EINHARD (note no. 1), 63.-65.
  • 17 EINHARD (note no. 1), 73.
  • 18 EINHARD (note no. 1), 74.-75.
  • 19 EINHARD (note no. 1), 124.


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