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The birthplace of Charlemagne is unknown, but from various data we may infer that he was born somewhere about the year 742, nearly seven years before his father, Pepin the Short, assumed the title of king. His mother was Bertha, daughter of Charibert, Count of Leon.
Charlemagne at Witikind's baptism.
The Lombard king, Desiderius, had made use of his absence to plunder the papal see, to which Adrian had now succeeded. With some difficulty the Pope contrived to give his friend notice of his danger, when Charlemagne assembled a vast army, one division of which he himself led into Italy over the Alps by Mount Cenis, while the other was conducted to the same ground by his uncle, Duke Bernard, over the Mons Jovis, or Mount Joux, which from this event received the name it has borne ever since, of the Great Saint Bernard. Although surprised by an invasion from a quarter so unexpected, Desiderius marched out to meet his enemy, but his flank being turned, he fled hastily to Pavia, without having struck a blow; Charlemagne pursued the fugitives, but finding the city too strong to be taken by storm, he blockaded it with one portion of his army, while with the other he proceeded against Verona, having reduced which, he returned to the siege of Pavia. Month after month passed, till at length Easter approached, when, leaving the city blockaded as before, he determined to visit Rome in his capacity of patrician or governor. His march through the Italian towns was one of uninterrupted triumph; everywhere he was met with acclamations, and at Rome he was received by the Pope, as well as the people, with the liveliest expressions of gratitude for having freed them from the tyranny of the Lombards. The friendship then cemented between Adrian and his young deliverer lasted through the remainder of their lives without any serious interruption.
Having thus asserted his rights of Patrician or Exarch, Charlemagne was liberal in his donations to the Church, and soon afterward returned to the siege of Pavia, which it now became important for him to bring to a speedy conclusion, the Saxons having again taken advantage of his absence to ravage his frontiers. About the middle of the year, the city surrendered, and he was crowned with the iron crown of Lombardy. He then marched against the Saxons, defeating them whenever they ventured to make a stand, till they found their best resource was in submission.
It was not long before a fresh revolt amongst the Lombards recalled him to their country. Once more he was victorious and once more he was summoned from his career of conquest to meet the Saxons. As usual, they were beaten out of the field, and so completely, that many of them, seeming to have lost all faith in their gods, from repeated defeats, presented themselves with their wives and children to receive baptism.
Amid all these fatigues and battles, which might appear sufficient to have occupied the attention of any one man, Charlemagne retained in his own hands the general government of the state. The local administration was distributed among twelve provincial officers, with the title of Dukes, each of them having the command of a county. Subordinate to these officers were the Counts, who, in fact, were the judges of the land, and had full authority to decide and punish within their jurisdiction. To secure the faithful performance of their duties by these Dukes and Counts, certain officers, under the name of Missi Dominici, were sent in visitations from time to time to inquire into their conduct. In great ecclesiastical questions, or those affecting the more powerful vassals of the crown, either the king himself, or the count of his palace, sat as judge.
Spain next demanded his attention. That country had been subdued by the Arabs, but the descendants of the first conquerors quarrelled among themselves, and Ibn al Arabi, a powerful chief, sought aid of Charlemagne, who marched thither, and being, as usual, victorious, secured to himself a barrier against the Saracens and Gascons. This was seen with ill-will by Lupo, Duke of Gascony, who when the Frankish king was leaving Spain to meet fresh dangers on the Rhine, treacherously laid an ambush for his destruction in the gorges of the Pyrenees. The monarch himself was allowed to pass with the first division of his army, the second was assailed and destroyed in the valley of Roncesvalles, and the conquerors secreting themselves in their mountain fastnesses, presented no object for the vengeance of the indignant monarch. Besides, the barbarians were again ravaging his frontiers, under the command of Witikind, with a fierceness that went far beyond even the worst of their earlier incursions. Their cruelty, however, was retaliated by their almost total annihilation while attempting to retreat across the Adern, and in the ensuing season Charlemagne reduced them, as it seemed, to a state of total submission. But no sooner had he set out for Italy, whither he was called by many pressing affairs, than Witikind, the great leader of the Westphalians, started forth from his retreat in Denmark and stimulated all Saxony to a renewed contest. The time was well chosen. Witikind, who appears to have been as superior to the generals of Charlemagne as he was inferior to the king himself, gave the Franks a complete overthrow.
When these tidings were brought to Charlemagne, he returned in all haste to the northern frontiers. The scene was at once reversed. Cowed by his name alone, they had recourse, as usual, to submission, guaranteed by oaths which they never meant to keep, and by hostages who did not hesitate to incur the fatal penalty attached to the certain faithlessness of their countrymen. But this time the king would listen to no terms short of ample vengeance. He demanded that four thousand of the most hostile and turbulent should be delivered up to him, all of whom he had executed in one day, in order to do by intimidation what he had failed to do by kindness. His severity, however, failed in producing the desired effect. It was not long before the Saxons again flew to arms, when they sustained so signal a defeat that very few of all their host escaped from the bloody field. Yet still the spirit of the barbarians, supported by an indomitable passion for war and plunder, continued as little quelled as ever. Witikind and Albion, their most popular chiefs, still maintained the contest, even when suffering nothing but disasters, until at length, their conqueror, subduing them more by policy than by arms, won them over to the Christian faith, which was then embraced by all Saxony. This, for the time, produced a better feeling, though the truce was not of long duration.
Hildegarde, the wife of Charlemagne, had now been dead some short time, when he married Fastrada, the daughter of a Frankish noble. It is said that from this union there arose a spirit of discontent among some of the leading men of his nation, who in consequence rebelled against him; but, finding themselves too weak to contend with him, dispersed, and endeavored to find safety in concealment. They did not, however, escape their merited punishment. Being sooner or later taken, some had their eyes put out, others were degraded from their rank, none were condemned to death, but all to exile. Even these severe examples did not prevent the rise of many petty revolts, the different parts of which the Frankish kingdom was composed not being as yet sufficiently amalgamated; but they were suppressed by the united wisdom and vigor of the monarch.
The short interval of peace now allowed him, Charlemagne employed in endeavoring to educate and civilize his people. He made a tour through his dominions, spreading local and general improvement, reforming laws, advancing knowledge, and building churches and monasteries, Christianity being one of the chief means to which he trusted for the attainment of his grand objects. In this he was no less successful than he had before been in war. With the exception of the Eastern Empire, France was now the most cultivated nation in Europe, even Rome herself sending thither for skilful workmen, while commerce, roads, and mechanics must have been much advanced, as we may infer from the facility with which marble columns and immense stone crosses were often carried through the whole extent of France upon carriages of native construction. Luxury, too, with its attendant arts, had made considerable strides. Vases of gold and silver richly carved, silver tables brightly wrought, bracelets, rings, and table-cloths of fine linen, might be seen in the houses of the nobles. The people must have been dexterous in working iron, for their superiority in this respect is evinced by the severe laws forbidding the exportation of arms.
The calm, thus wisely employed, did not last long. Charlemagne was soon aroused from his peaceful occupations to put down a revolt of Tassilo, Duke of Bavaria, as well as a meditated attack upon Italy by Adalgisus, the son of the deposed Lombard king, Desiderius, who was assisted underhand by the Greek empress, Irene, and had besides formed a secret alliance with the Duke of Beneventum. Tassilo, being seized, was condemned to death by the great council. He appealed to the clemency of the king, who, ever averse to shed blood, mitigated the sentence into a lifelong seclusion from the world in a cloister. Adalgisus was met by the Duke of Beneventum, not to assist him, as he had expected, but to oppose him, for the duke had in good time discovered that loyalty was more likely to prosper than treason. He therefore joined the army of France under Grimwold, and in the battle which succeeded the Greek forces were entirely routed, and Adalgisus disappears from the busy scene.
The empire of Charlemagne was next to be assailed by the Huns, not the same people whose fathers had fought under Attila, though probably descended from the same stock. Upon the death of that ferocious conqueror, the tribes whom his talents had kept united, again sundered. Shortly afterward a warlike nation, calling themselves Avars, approached the northern parts of Europe, having been driven from their native country by the Turks. They spread rapidly, acquiring territory and power, until they were invited by Tassilo to aid him in his meditated treachery. They lost more than one battle against the Franks, but neither their own defeat, nor the total overthrow of their ally, made any change in their purposes. They persisted; fought a hard battle, and were so utterly routed, that they drew back and remained quiet for a while, in order to collect their strength before venturing upon a fresh contest with their tremendous adversary, who, on his part, was no less desirous of a respite for the same object. Little rest, however, was allowed him. No sooner had he beaten back these Huns, than he had to contend with a new enemy, the Weletabes, a Slavonian tribe inhabiting the northern part of Germany, near Brandenburg and Pomerania, from the Elbe to the Baltic. In themselves they might not have excited much alarm, but, if they met with only a temporary success, their example might have been fatal, by rousing the Saxons, who still with reluctance submitted to the yoke imposed upon them. The king, therefore, without loss of time, met and defeated the Weletabes; when he received them into grace, and ever afterward found them faithful.
Having freed himself from this peril, Charlemagne next found that he must turn his arms against the Huns of Hungary, which appears to have been defended by them after a singular fashion. The whole country was surrounded by nine circles of double palisading, formed of trunks of trees twenty feet in height. The interstices of the palisade were twenty feet wide, filled with stone and lime compacted, the top being covered with earth, and planted with shrubs. At the distance of twenty Teutonic, or forty Italian miles, was a second fortified line of the same kind; and thus the circles were repeated, the circumference always narrowing till you came to the innermost, or ring, in which the Avars kept all their wealth, the accumulation of centuries of rapine. Such, at least, is the account, however improbable, handed down to us by an historian of the day.
In the outset fortune favored Charlemagne as usual. He took the first three of the defensive circles sword in hand, and laid waste the country to the junction of the Raab with the Danube, while his son Pepin had met and routed their army in another quarter. But unhappily a pestilential disease broke out among the horses, who died by thousands, and he was obliged to retreat, unpursued, however, by the Avars, their surprise and terror not having yet subsided.
In the doubtful lull that followed, a conspiracy was raised against the life and throne of the monarch, in which his natural son, Pepin the Hunchback, was implicated. It was discovered in time, and all the conspirators were put to death, with the exception of Pepin, who was confined for life within a monastery.
Scarcely had the king escaped this danger, than he was alarmed by news that the Saxons had revolted, and uniting themselves with the Huns, had given a bloody defeat to his cousin, Theodoric. Close upon this came other tidings of equally evil import. In the late campaign against the Huns, Charlemagne had called to his aid his son Pepin, King of Italy, who, notwithstanding he was himself embroiled with Grimbald, Duke of Beneventum, did not hesitate to obey. To reward this prompt obedience, Charlemagne early in the winter had despatched another son, Louis, King of Aquitaine, to the help of his brother, when the Saracens took advantage of the latter's absence to attack his frontiers, and even penetrated to Narbonne before any forces were ready to oppose them. From this expedition they returned home laden with plunder, and satisfied with this success, remained for a while in quiet. Charles therefore had a brief respite to turn against the Saxons; and as he had hitherto found all his precautions unavailing to keep them within the bounds of good order, he broke up the nation, and transported an immense number of the most turbulent to a distance from their own country. Multitudes of men, women, and children were dispersed over France, and not a few were transported to Brabant and various parts of Flanders.
About this time, 793, the first collision took place between the Franks and the piratical Northmen.
It would be alien from our present purpose to follow Charlemagne step by step in his march of conquest and civilization. We need only say in general terms, that he drove back the Arabs, reduced the Huns, became the friend of Haroun al Raschid, his only rival in the paths of greatness, and effectually protected his long line of coast from the attempted incursion of the Northmen. It is said that upon one occasion he arrived at a certain port just as the pirates were preparing to land; but the moment they by some means learnt the presence of the monarch, they immediately fled in terror at his mere name. He remained gazing on the departing vessels, while the tears rolled down his cheeks. His nobles could not help showing surprise at such unusual emotion in the monarch, which being observed by him he exclaimed, "I weep not, my friends, because I myself fear these miserable savages; but I weep that they should dare to show themselves upon my coast while I am living, for I foresee the evils they will bring upon my people when I am dead."
It was always an object of first importance with Charlemagne to support the papal authority, as holding out the only means of spreading Christianity, which he justly considered the most effectual instrument he could employ to enlighten and civilize the world. An attempt had been made to mutilate the Pope, and thus disqualify him for his office, by Campulus and Paschal, two disappointed aspirants to the papacy; but he escaped from their hands and brought his complaints before Charlemagne. The conspirators then attempted to justify the deed, by accusing the Pope of atrocious crimes; and the king calling to his aid certain of the Roman prelates, proceeded to sit in judgment on him. The prelates, however, declared that by all the canonical rules they could not judge their superior; and Leo therefore was allowed, according to an old custom, to purge himself, by a solemn oath, of the crimes which had been laid to his charge.
Many motives of policy at this time induced the Pope to set up an emperor of the West in opposition to the Eastern Empire. It was Christmas-day, when, with the rest of the Catholic world, Charlemagne presented himself in the church of St. Peter. At the desire of the Romans he was dressed in the long robe of the patrician, and unsuspicious, it is said, of the honor intended him, knelt at the high altar; but, just as he was about to rise, Leo advanced, and suddenly placed upon his head the crown of the Western world, amidst the popular acclamations, "Long life and victory to Charles Augustus, crowned by God, great and pacific Emperor of the Romans!"
To end the long-existing feuds between the Western and Eastern Empires, Charlemagne now proposed to marry Irene, who, having deposed her son and put out his eyes, had usurped the throne of Constantinople. Irene herself was not unwilling to accept the offer; but she was overruled by a faction, and a treaty of peace was substituted for a treaty of marriage. But while the negotiations were going on, Irene herself was deposed by the great treasurer, Nicephorus, who even refused to grant her the smallest pittance, so that the degraded empress was obliged to support herself by the labors of the distaff. He was, however, glad to conclude a peace with Charlemagne.
Though troubled from time to time by disputes among the neighboring barbarians, the Frankish monarch might now be said to enjoy peace; and while still in the possession of robust health, he resolved to prepare for death, by allotting among his children such portions of territory as he wished them to possess when he should be removed from the scene. Both his sons and the people willingly consented to the proposed arrangements, which, indeed, bore the stamp of his usual wisdom and justice. But the advanced age which he attained, brought with it the usual evils of protracted life. He saw his friends and children swept away before him. His son Louis alone remained to inherit his vast dominions. With this single drawback the remainder of his time was as prosperous as his earlier career had been; till at length, being suddenly attacked with pleurisy, he expired, after a short illness, in the seventy-second year of his age and the forty-seventh of his reign, January 28, 814.
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