Old Time Tales - Lawton Evans

Stories of Charlemagne

Charlemagne was one of the really great men of the world. He reigned forty-three years, took part in fifty-three campaigns, and finally became ruler over nearly all of what we now know as Europe. He became master of France, Germany, and a large part of Italy, and extended his domains from the Pyrenees to the Oder River. His life was so full of warfare and romance that he is by far the most picturesque character of mediaeval times.

Many of his campaigns were against the Saxons, a warlike and half savage race who gave him much trouble to subdue. In one of these campaigns he tore down their favorite idol called the Irminsul, which was a great wooden image that stood high up on one of their mountains overlooking their valleys and villages, and before which they were accustomed to bow and to which they would make sacrifices. Charlemagne hacked the idol to pieces and threw it down, to the great consternation of the barbarians, who thought immediate destruction would follow his unholy act.

Charlemagne was accustomed to wage war against his enemies and at the point of the sword force them to become Christians. He required of all the Saxons that they be baptized in the rivers near by the battlefields where they were conquered. In this way thousands of the Saxons were forced into the rivers, where they were baptized and made to profess the Christian faith. But this did the Saxons little good, for they knew nothing whatever of the new faith to which they were pledged.

In order to induce the Saxons to be peaceably baptized and become Christians, Charlemagne hit upon the device of giving every convert a clean white shirt. So many appealed for shirts that the supply gave out and he had to resort to a coarser kind of yellow shirt, which was not so pleasing to the gaudy barbarians.

One giant chieftain came up to be baptized and was offered a yellow shirt. He replied disdainfully, "I have been baptized already twenty times and received twenty white shirts. I refuse to be baptized any more and will have nothing to do with a religion that is so stingy with its clothes."

In spite of the fact that Charlemagne conquered the Saxons it was like fighting a forest fire. When they were conquered in one place insurrections would break out elsewhere and so Charlemagne was kept moving for nearly thirty years before he finally subdued that country. At one time he was so exasperated with their leaders for breaking their promise of obedience and their vows of baptism that in his resentment he gathered forty-five hundred of them on the banks of a river and had them all beheaded. This was very unChristianlike treatment, but those were barbarous times and Charlemagne was a stern soldier.

In addition to being a great warrior Charlemagne was fond of study and books. He invited learned men to come to his court and had them teach his subjects. He had schools in his own palace, one for his soldiers and people and the other for the children, and he himself is said to have studied with some degree of diligence. He was very fond of music and was said to have introduced the first organ into France. The story is told that an old woman actually died of joy the first time she heard the organ played, thinking the music was from a heavenly choir. The emperor was fond of singing and made the priests use the church chants. It is said that he composed a hymn himself which is still in use.

One of the most learned men of the times, named Alcuin, came to his court as a teacher. Not only the children of the rich but also the children of the poor were required to attend school. Noticing that the children of the poor progressed more rapidly than the children of the rich, he spoke angrily to the lazy sons of his rich dependents and said to them, "You think because you are rich and are the sons of the great men of my kingdom that your birth and wealth will protect you in my favor. I will let you know that you stand in need of learning more than those who are poor and dependent. You think only of your pleasures and of your dress and play, but I attach no importance to your wealth and to your station, and if you idle your time when you are young you will be worthless when you are old."

So anxious was the emperor himself to get information and to become a learned man that he had some one to read aloud to him while he ate. He lived very simply, eating nothing but plain, wholesome food and drinking nothing but water. His dress was simple, and while his courtiers were adorned in silks and satins, he himself used only plain, strong materials that could stand the rain and sunshine.

Though he was master of half of Europe he took great interest in the small matters of his kingdom. As he went through the country he would examine the accounts of his farmers and made them keep strict watch over their expenditures. He built roads, established markets and made the people use measures and weights. It is said that Charlemagne's foot became the standard of length of the country, his foot being twelve inches long and the inch being the width of his thumb. In this way we still use the word "foot," each foot being divided into twelve inches, each inch being the width of the emperor's thumb and twelve of them being the length of the emperor's foot.

Charlemagne was at one time engaged in a bitter quarrel with the king of Denmark. In those days for kings to quarrel was for their countries to go to war, and so it was not long before the armies of Charlemagne and those of the king of Denmark came together in deadly conflict.

Now there was none who could stand against Charlemagne. In spite of the fact that the Danish king was a brave leader and his followers were fierce fighters, the victory perched upon the banners of France. On the field of battle the Dane confessed himself defeated. He said to Charlemagne, "Behold, my lord, I confess myself beaten in fair battle; demand what tribute you will that I should pay."

Charlemagne had all the wealth that he wanted and nearly all the land that he could rule over. After demanding tribute, he took the king's son, Holger, as a hostage.

Holger was a youth of wonderful strength and daring. When he was born, six fairies had come to his cradle and each of them had brought him a gift. One of them brought strength, one brought courage, one brought him beauty of person and so on. The last one foretold that eh would never die, but would dwell forever in Avelon.

Holger entered the service of Charlemagne and became a very valiant knight. So long as his father kept the treaty of peace, Holger followed the emperor in his wars and was very much at liberty. But it so happened that the king of Denmark broke the treaty that he had made, which angered Charlemagne so much that he at once confined Holger in prison. In this prison he was attended by the governor's daughter, a beautiful maid, whose name was Bellisande.

She saw the handsome knight walking about the prison-yard and was attracted to him. Holger himself was no less allured by her youth and beauty and it was not long before he fell in love with her, and they were secretly married.

Charlemagne himself was about to engage in another war, for he was always at war with somebody. He wanted the help of all his knights and thought of Holger whom he shut up in prison. "Send to the governor of St. Omar and order him to send Holger at once to me; I need the help of his strong arm," demanded the emperor. Accordingly Holger took leave of his young wife and appeared in the camp of the king.

For more than a year the war continued and Holger returned to France with his king. He heard that his father, the king of Denmark, had died. He also heard that he was the father of a little son and that Bellisande was waiting for him at the home of her father in St. Omar. He went to the camp of Charlemagne and told the king, saying to him, "My father, the king of Denmark, is dead, and I should reign in his stead. I pray you, my lord, that I should go and take my crown, and with me I should take my wife and my infant son."

Charlemagne heard the story of the knight's marriage and cheerfully allowed him to return to his own country and there assume the reins of government. When he reached Denmark, he ruled so wisely that he was adored by all his subjects. He was such a good king that even to this day the common people declare that he is not dead, but that he is in Avalon, the home of heroes, or else asleep in the vaults of Elsinore, and that some day he will awake to save his country in the time of its need.

After many years spent in Denmark, Holger returned to France, bringing with him his son, now grown to be a strong young man. This young man had a dispute with Prince Charlot, the son of Charlemagne, over a game of chess. The dispute became very bitter and the young Dane began to use abusive words. Prince Charlot seized a heavy chess board, brought it down upon the head of his antagonist, with the result that Holger's son, of whom he was very proud, was killed with the blow.

Holger himself was very indignant. Approaching the king, he said, "Prince Charlot has murdered my son and I demand that he be delivered into my hands for punishment. I shall mete out to him the same blow he dealt my son, and demand him at your hands."

Charlemagne turned to Holger coldly and said, "A young man's quarrel, in which I bear no part. Why should both be dead, when I need men?" Holger turned upon the king in wrath and grossly insulted him, telling him, that a king who did not punish a murderer was not better than one himself. Seizing his armor and mounting his horse, he fled the court before he could be arrested. He took refuge with Didier, king of Lombardy, with whom Charlemagne was then at war.

Charlemagne and his army marched into Lombardy. Holger and Didier stood upon an old tower anxiously watching the approach of the enemy. Didier had never seen Charlemagne and greatly dreaded his coming. He turned to Holger, who knew the face and form of the king, and anxiously inquired of his appearance. From the lofty tower the watchers saw a vanguard of the army and Didier turned to Holger, and asked, "Is Charlemagne among them?" and Holger answered, "No."

Then came the clergy in full panoply, riding upon splendid horses and making a great display. This impressed Didier so much that he turned to Holger, and again asked, "Is Charlemagne among that host?"

Still Holger answered, "No."

Then the watchers saw a great host of knights with shining armor and long steel lances glancing in the sunshine. Their horses were richly caparisoned and covered with steel. Didier turned to Holger, and said, "Surely Charlemagne is among that host?" And Holger answered, "No."

At last the king really appeared in his steel armor, riding a magnificent horse, and holding aloft his invincible sword "Joyeuse." He was escorted by the main body of his army, who were terrible fighting men.

So bright was the armor of the king and so fierce was the flashing of his sword that the very sight of Charlemagne struck terror into the hearts of the watchers and even Holger was overcome with fear. Turning to the king of Lombardy, Holger said, "Behold, this is the man you look for and whom I have insulted!" So overcome was Holger himself that he fell fainting at the feet of his host.

The Lombard king was soon overpowered by Charlemagne, but Holger himself escaped from the castle in which he was besieged. Thinking he had escaped pursuit, he lay down near a fountain and went to sleep, where he was discovered by a body of knights, and was captured.

Upon being led before Charlemagne, he said to Holger, "Holger, I forgive your insult to my kingly estate and I would have you become again my knight; therefore I beg you lay aside your demand that I shall turn over to you Prince Charlot, whom you know is my only son and whom I could not yield even to the king of Denmark, that he should be slain."

Holger, whose wrath and courage had again returned, looked the king in the face and said, "I shall be satisfied with nothing else, a prince for a prince, a king's son for a king's son. My son is dead and yours should follow him."

That night an angel appeared before Holger and said to him in a vision, "You do wrong to insist that Charlemagne yield you his son. These be warlike times and your son is now in Avalon awaiting you, where you both shall not be dead, but shall live forever."

With that Holger rose and went to the king's tent, and kneeling by his bed begged of him forgiveness, and swore fidelity to him forever afterwards.