Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, was a son of Pepin the Short, and succeeded to the throne, on the death of his father, in the year 768. The Frankish kingdom at that time comprised a large territory. It extended from the River Loire, in France, to the Rhine, in Germany, and from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean.
The young king was very anxious to spread the True Faith among the heathen nations whose territory adjoined his own dominions. Saint Boniface, for whom his father Pepin had evidenced a great admiration, appeared peculiarly fitted for the difficult and dangerous work, and Charlemagne sent the venerable bishop with a number of companions to preach the faith to the fierce and cruel Saxons. These heathens persisted in their error with great obstinacy, and absolutely refused to give up their idols, especially one for which they had a particular veneration. It was called the Irmensul, and had been raised by the Germans to their god, Teutas. This statue was armed and held a pair of scales in the left hand, and in the right, a banner. On its buckler was the figure of a lion, and about its feet, a flowery meadow. It was the figure or representation of Saxony, whose flowery meadows were inhabited by a people with lion hearts, having for their only rule of justice the sword.
Charlemagne led his army into Saxony, and overthrew and shattered the Irmensul, believing that, if the idol were destroyed, the people would embrace Christianity more readily. Saint Boniface persisted in his labors, and, at length, had the satisfaction of bringing the Saxons, as well as other German tribes, to the True Faith.
Witikind, the Saxon chief, was an inveterate enemy of Christianity, and of the Franks as well. The story of his conversion is very interesting. One Easter-day the royal guards brought to Charlemagne, a beggar, who had stood all day at the palace-gate soliciting alms. A Frankish nobleman, who had accompanied Charlemagne on his expedition into Saxony, had stopped to give the pretended beggar a piece of money, and, in so doing, had remarked a peculiar deformity of the man’s right hand, which he had often noticed in the fights with the Saxons. The beggar was Witikind, the Saxon chief.
“For what reason do you wear this disguise?” asked Charlemagne. Witikind answered that, wishing to examine the ceremonies of the Christian’s church, he desired a disguise that would more easily further his purpose. He then told Charlemagne that on Good-Friday he had observed every face clouded with sadness. On Saturday, all were thoughtful and recollected, but on Sunday, when Charlemagne and his nobles approached the table in the midst of the temple (the altar) he noticed their faces so lighted up with joy, that he was at a loss to understand the reason, until he saw the priest place upon the tongue of each one an infant bathed in heavenly brightness. “Prostrate,” he continued, “I adored your God, who shall henceforth be my God also.”
“Happy are you,” cried Charlemagne, “Who, in witnessing a miracle, have enjoyed a favor granted neither to me, nor to my priests.”
Witikind was instructed in the faith and baptized, his zeal causing many of his people to follow his example. Charlemagne lost no time in notifying the pope of this happy event, begging him to order, in all the churches of Rome, prayers of solemn thanksgiving to Almighty God for Witikind’s conversion.
When Witikind died, Charlemagne divided Saxony into five bishoprics, giving to the bishops much power in the government of the people, who were far more docile under the mild rule of these ecclesiastical superiors, than they would have been, if they had been governed by the fierce and quarrelsome Frankish nobles. The sees of Koln, Trier and Metz were formed at that time.
While the king of the Franks was occupied with the cares and responsibilities of the government, and with the conversion of his Saxon neighbors, great events were taking place in far away Italy.
Those ancient enemies of the Holy See, the Lombards, led by their cruel king, Desiderius, were again threatening Home, and Pope Adrian I, in great alarm, sent a message to Charlemagne, describing the atrocities committed against the Homans by the impious ruler of the Lombards. Several Homan nobles had been captured, and their eyes put out at the command of Desiderius, who had even the temerity to attempt the life of the pontiff, himself. Under pretence of holding a conference with the pope, Desiderius met him in the church of Saint Peter, and during the interview departed suddenly, and closed and secured all the doors, thus making a prisoner of the pope, whom he intended to starve to death. The plan miscarried, owing to the fidelity and courage of – some citizens of Home, who liberated Adrian from his perilous position.
Charlemagne, justly incensed against the treacherous Lombards, lost no time in leading an armed force against them. Crossing the Alps, he besieged Pavia and Verona, which finally surrendered. Desiderius was deposed, his son fled to Constantinople, and the Lombard power was forever crushed by the brave Charlemagne, who took the title – King of the Lombards. Charlemagne crowned himself with the iron crown of Lombardy – so-called because it had a piece of iron, supposed to be a nail of the true cross imbedded in the golden circlet forming the crown.
After the fall of Pavia, Charlemagne went to Rome, where a cordial reception awaited him. He walked beside the pope in a great procession, to the Vatican hill, where, mounting the stair-case, he reverently kissed each stair, in veneration of the holy men who had walked there before him.
Upon Charlemagne’s return to his dominions, he invaded Spain, which had fallen into the hands of the Moors, and marched with his army to Saragossa. There an indecisive battle took place, and before Charlemagne could continue hostileties, he was compelled, by the arrival of alarming news from the northern part of his dominions, to start at once for France. The army pursued its way unmolested, until the country of the Gascons was reached. Since their conquest by Pepin, the Gascons had been constantly trying to throw off the Frankish yoke and they considered that their opportunity had at length arrived. In the deep mountain pass of Roncesvalles, in the Pyrenees, they prepared an ambuscade for the Frankish troops. Charlemagne with the vanguard of the army, passed in safety, but the rear, led by a general named Roland, while passing through a narrow defile, between lofty precipices, were suddenly assailed by ponderous stones, trees and other objects hurled from above by the Gascons. The Frankish soldiers, taken completely by surprise and weighted with their heavy armor, could not escape. The path was soon blocked with the dead and dying, and not a man of all the company was saved, although they fought with ferocious energy until the last one fell. This sad event was kept alive from generation to generation in the song and story of the Provencal minstrels, and the brave Roland and his men became the popular heroes.
To the eastward of Charlemagne’s dominions, were a wild people of the Tartar race, the Avari, who were a constant menace to Charlemagne’s subjects living near them. The Frankish king conducted a war, lasting several years, against them, resulting finally in their total defeat. The Avari were converted to Christianity through the untiring efforts of Virgilius, Bishop of Salzburg. The efforts of this good prelate were constantly directed towards upholding the rights of the peasantry against the powerful nobles. The ceremonies attending the election of a duke of Carinthia, dated from that time, and were observed for centuries. The “furgenstein” or prince’s stone may still be seen near Clagen. A peasant, seated upon this stone, commanded that the newly-elected duke be brought before him. “Who is he that comes so proudly?” asked the peasant, to which the people answered, “Our country’s lord.” “Is he a righteous judge, a defender of widows and orphans, an upholder of Christianity?” was the next question put by the peasant judge. When the people answered in the affirmative, the peasant arose, and yielded his seat on the stone to the duke, first giving him a box on the ear.
Charlemagne held his court at Paderborn, when peace reigned throughout his kingdom. He had reached the pinnacle of his greatness, and showed himself no less great in peace than he had been in war. He was exceedingly anxious that the youth of the period should be given every opportunity of acquiring a good education – a privilege which had been denied to preceding generations. As there were few native Frankish teachers, Charlemagne offered great inducements to the scholars of Italy, and even of distant England, to come to his dominions and teach the young Franks. Alcuin, the noted British scholar and writer, was one of these teachers.
Upon one occasion, after his return from a journey, Charlemagne called together his young students, to inquire how they had progressed during his absence. He found that the young men of the lower classes had been very diligent, while their noble companions had not made nearly so much progress. This provoked the good king, who reprimanded the lazy students, telling them that they relied for advancement on their noble names and rich clothing. “I care nothing for these things,” he continued, “and, unless you change speedily, you will get nothing good from Charles.” To the studious scholars, he promised rich rewards and praised them for their industry.
Charlemagne tried to repair his own neglected education, and acquired a fair knowledge of Latin, Greek, astronomy and rhetoric, but could never learn to write, in spite of the fact that he labored diligently. He kept his tablets and pencil under his pillow, so that he could practise writing, before rising in the morning.
Many distinguished visitors flocked to Paderborn to pay court to the great monarch. The Turkish caliph, Haroun A1 Raschid, sent an emissary with rich presents – an elephant, a set of jeweled chess-men, and a curious clock, so contrived that twelve little figures of knights emerged from it, and paraded upon the striking of the hour.
Charlemagne had the satisfaction of entertaining a no less honored guest than the venerable pontiff, Leo III, who had made his escape from Rome during an insurrection, in the course of which two attempts were made upon his life. Leo resolved to apply for aid to the great monarch who had ever been the friend and protector of the Holy See. He made his way to Paderborn where Charlemagne, his family, the army and court, all assembled to meet him. As soon as the pope appeared, the great multitude prostrated themselves three times before the Vicar of Christ. Three times the pontiff gave them his blessing. He then embraced Charlemagne, who led him to the church of Paderborn, where a service of thanksgiving was performed. This interview had a great effect upon the pope’s enemies in Rome, who feared the sword of Charlemagne, and, a few months later, Leo returned in triumph to his pontifical city. Charlemagne followed the pope to Rome, and, on Christmas day, 800, a great ceremony took place in the basilica of Saint Peter. This was the anointing of the Frankish monarch, whom the pontiff crowned King of the Roman Empire of the West. When the crown was placed upon the brow of the kneeling Charlemagne, the lofty arches of Saint Peter’s rang with the cry “Long life and victory to the most pious Carolus Augustus, the Caesar,” and from that time the emperors of Germany have borne the title of Kaiser or Caesar.
Charlemagne spent the last years of his life arranging for the education of his subjects, and for their advancement in the knowledge of the useful arts. The women were taught weaving, sewing and embroidering. Even the princesses of the royal family made their own clothing. Agriculture was taught by foreign gardeners, who were induced, by the promise of liberal rewards, to come to the Frankish kingdom. It is probable that the grape-vine was first planted in Germany during the reign of Charlemagne. We have seen how solicitous he was for the education of the young people of his realm. Even the hostages of war were sent to school. The arts of music and poetry were not neglected, and many Latin and Greek works were translated into the Frankish language.
It was during the beneficent reign of Charlemagne that the Germans began to relinquish their former rough mode of life, and to show a taste for the fine arts, as they were known at that time, as well as a love of civilization and refinement. The emperor’s own palace at Aix-la-Chapelle was considered so wonderfully magnificent, that it was compared to the papal palace, and received the name of ” Little Rome.” Another of the royal castles was at Ingelheim, on the Rhine. Some of the beautiful columns which formed a part of it may still be seen in the court of the old castle at Heidelberg.
Charlemagne was an advocate of simplicity in dress, especially for men, and one day, when his nobles appeared before him dressed in costly silks and satins, he mockingly led them out into a pouring rain, and kept them there until all their fine clothes were quite spoiled. The great Frankish king was seven feet tall, and possessed wonderful strength. He wielded his heavy iron lance as if it had been a feather, and excelled in feats of strength and agility. His prowess at the tournaments excited the wonder and admiration of all spectators.
In January, 814, the great emperor fell ill, and as his malady increased, he made his preparations for death. Taking his only surviving son Ludwig to the cathedral of Aachen, he bade the young man swear, before the high altar, to serve God, to watch over and love his subjects, to live a holy life and to protect the Church. Charlemagne then took his crow T n from the high altar, and solemnly placed it on the head of Ludwig, whom he proclaimed emperor of the Franks. The pious monarch viewed his approaching death with Christian fortitude. The viaticum was administered by Ilildebold, Archbishop of Cologne, after which the dying Charlemagne summoned all his remaining strength to pronounce the words, “Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” His death occurred in the seventieth year of his age, and the forty-seventh of his reign.
The body of Charlemagne was placed into the crypt beneath the dome of the basilica at Aix-la-Chapelle, not in a recumbent attitude, but seated erect in a marble chair, as if the great king were giving audience. He was interred, dressed in his royal robes, his sword at his side, and a copy of the Gospels on his knees. On the stone which closed the tomb were these words, “Beneath this tomb lies the body of Charles the Great, who gloriously extended the kingdom of the Franks, and ruled it fortunately for forty-seven years.
A great French writer has paid a glowing tribute in one of his works to Charlemagne, to whom he refers as “a great monarch, who made admirable laws, and put them into execution – a master in the art of doing the greatest deeds with ease, and the most difficult with readiness. If he knew how to punish, he knew still better how to pardon.”
The Church, whose champion Charlemagne had always been, honored him by placing his statue in the portico of Saint Peter’s at Koine, where it remains to this day, a memorial of the gratitude of the Holy See to the noble monarch of the Franks.