Front Matter Gauls Defeat Romans Vercingetorix Saints of France Attila, Scourge of God Story of Clovis Sons of Clovis Mayors of the Palace Charles the Hammer Pepin the Short Charlemagne in Lombardy Defeat at Roncesvalles Emperor of the West Louis the Pious War of Three Brothers Louis the Stammerer Paris defies the Sea Kings Rollo the Viking Hugh Capet Becomes King Bishop Betrays the Duke Robert the Pious The Peace of God Harold Visits Duke William William Sails to England The Battle of Hastings Peter the Hermit First War of the Cross Louis the Fat and Laon King Fights his Vassal Second War of the Cross French Queen of England How Normandy Was Lost Albigenses War Battle of Bouvines Story of Hugh de La Marche Reign of St. Louis St. Louis's last Crusade Peter the Barber Knights vs. Weavers Pope vs. Philip the Fair Sons of Philip the Fair Philip VI vs. Flanders Battle and Plague King vs. Charles the Bad The Jacquerie Stephen Marcel Betrays Paris Charles V and du Guesclin Du Guesclin Fights for France The Madness of Charles VI The Battle of Agincourt The Maid of Orleans End of Hundred Years' War King vs. Charles the Bold Troubles of Duchess Mary Charles the Affable Knight Without Reproach Battle of the Spurs Francis I, Gentleman King King Taken Prisoner Duke of Guise Defends Metz Calais Returns to France The Riot of Amboise Huguenot and Catholic St. Bartholomew Massacre War of the Three Henries The Protestant King Edict of Nantes Reign of Favorites Taking of La Rochelle Power of the Cardinal-King Reign of Louis XIV The Man in the Iron Mask The Height of Power Edict of Nantes Revoked War of Spanish Succession

History of France - H. E. Marshall

The Emperor of the West
Charlemagne [768-814]

A Chieftain called Wittikind was now the leader of the Saxons. When other Saxons had yielded to Charlemagne, he had refused. Rather than accept the rule of a strange King and bow the knee to a strange God, he had fled and had taken refuge with the King of the Danes. Now he returned, and with words of fire he stirred the people to rebellion. Although he was a heathen he was wise and noble, and he loved his country and his freedom.

His words were so eloquent that the common people and the young nobles crowded to him. Many of them who had been baptized forsook the strange new faith, and turned again to their old gods.

Burning towns and churches, slaying men, women, and children, the Saxons advanced over the country. In a great battle the generals whom Charlemagne had sent against Wittikind were defeated with terrible slaughter. When Charlemagne heard of it he was filled with wrath. Thirsting for vengeance he gathered another army, and marched with all speed against the rebels. But the Saxons, hearing that the mighty warrior himself was coming against them, lost courage and gradually. Wittikind's army melted away. Finding himself thus left alone he once more took refuge with the Danes.

Then Charlemagne commanded the leaders of the Saxons to appear before him. Trembling they came. Very sternly he demanded to know the reason of their rebellion and who was their leader. "It was Wittikind," they replied.

Wittikind was beyond reach of Charlemagne's vengeance, but threatening to waste the country with fire and sword if he were not obeyed, he commanded that the chief of those who had helped in the rebellion should be given up to him. So four-thousand, five-hundred men were gathered together. Charlemagne condemned them to death, and in one day all their heads were cut off.

Charlemagne hoped by this fearful vengeance utterly to crush these people, and put an end forever to the rebellion; and for a little time, indeed, the country seemed quiet. But it was only the calm before the storm. Every Saxon heart was filled with rage, and every man who could carry a sword swore to avenge the blood of his comrades. Wittikind was recalled, and when spring came the fires of rebellion burst forth fiercer than ever. Churches were burned, altars were overthrown, priests killed, and the Saxons returned once more to their heathen gods.

Battle after battle was fought, time after time the Saxons were defeated, but never had they shown themselves so brave or so obstinate. Beaten, they still would not yield. The fight was stern and long. Each winter put an end to it, and Charlemagne returned to France. Each spring it was renewed.

Then one year Charlemagne made up his mind to spend the winter in Germany and utterly crush the rebellion. So all winter his soldiers marched forth, now here, now there, destroying and plundering. The Saxons had no rest or peace, and when spring came they were utterly worn out. They could fight no more, and the whole country yielded except the most northern part, where, beyond the Elbe, Wittikind, with a few faithful followers, still held out.

To Wittikind Charlemagne now sent messengers Wittikind promising him mercy if he would yield and be baptized. And the brave Saxon leader, weary of the long, hopeless struggle, gave in at last. His gods had not fought for him, he said. The God of Charlemagne was stronger, so he promised to serve Him.

The joy of Charlemagne was great. He received the beaten warrior with every mark of respect, loaded him with costly gifts, and stood as godfather to him when he was baptized. After this we hear no more of Wittikind, the Saxon. It is believed that he lived the rest of his life quietly, ruling his own estates, and that he died peacefully in some monastery.

With the baptism of Wittikind the resistance of the Saxons came to an end, and for seven years there was peace. This peace was looked upon with joy by the whole Christian world. Charlemagne sent a message to the Pope who rejoiced at the news, and ordered three days of prayer to mark the happy event. He also, it is interesting to know, sent a message to Offa, the King of Mercia, that is, one of the Kings of England, whom he called "the most powerful Prince of the Western Christians."

Like our own King Alfred, Charlemagne was not only a warrior but a law-giver. He took an interest in everything, however small, such as selling eggs and vegetables. Some of his laws seem to us very cruel, but in those rough days there was need of severe laws. A thief was punished the first time by the loss of an eye, the second time by the loss of his nose, and the third time by death.

The laws about religion were also severe. "If any man among the Saxons, being not yet baptized," says one, "shall hide himself and refuse to come to baptism, let him die the death." Another law shows us how ignorant the people still were. "No man may believe," it says, 'that he can pray to God in three languages only. For God is adored in all languages, and man is heard if he ask that which is right."

Besides making laws, Charlemagne founded schools and caused the people to be taught. For although the Romans had founded schools, these had all vanished in the wars and troublous times since the coming of the Franks. And in the time of Charlemagne there was hardly a school in the land. Charlemagne himself when he came to the throne could not even write his own name. One school was in the palace, and the King himself was one of the pupils. He learned both Latin and Greek, but he found it very difficult to learn to write. However, he tried hard and used to keep a pencil and tablets by his bed so that, if he woke in the night, he could spend his time trying to make his letters. But he was too old when he began to learn, and never succeeded in writing well.

Charlemagne gathered all the wisest men he could find to his court. There is a story told of how one day two Scotsmen came with some merchants to the shores of France. They were very learned men, and while the merchants sold their goods these learned men stood in The the market place and cried, "Who will buy knowledge? We are the merchants of knowledge. Who will buy knowledge?" But those who heard them took them for madmen. None wanted to buy knowledge. The Scotsmen, however, did not despair. All through France they journeyed. And in every market place they repeated their cry, "Who will buy knowledge? We are merchants of knowledge."

At length Charlemagne heard of those two men and commanded that they should be brought before him. "Is it true that you possess knowledge?" he asked them.

"Yes," they replied, "it is true, and we are ready to give it to any who seek it."

"What do you ask in return for it," asked the King.

"A house, and food, and clothes, and minds ready and willing to learn," they replied.

With great joy Charlemagne heard these words. He gladly promised the two men all they asked. One he kept in France, and one he sent to Italy, and both set up schools to which many scholars came.

Chief among the learned men whom Charlemagne gathered round him was Alcuin, an Englishman, the most learned man of his day. He was a great help to Charlemagne in his work of founding schools. These schools were not only for the sons of the nobles, but for the sons of all poor and honest men.

Charlemagne often used to inspect the schools himself and ask the children questions. One day he found that the young nobles had been idle and were unable to answer his questions. He was angry with them, and in a very severe voice, he threatened to give the appointments and posts about the court to the children of the poor, if the children of the nobles did not try to learn better.

After Charlemagne had subdued the Saxons, he still fought many battles with the surrounding peoples, but they were of less importance. The Northmen, indeed, began to be very troublesome. These wild sea robbers came in their ships to ravage the coasts of France even as far as the Mediterranean.

One day when Charlemagne was travelling through his kingdom, he arrived at a seaside place. There he found all the people watching some ships which were seen approaching. The people believed them to be merchants coming to trade. But Charlemagne's keen eyes saw that these were no peaceful merchants but Northern pirates.

So he turned to the people, saying, "These ships are not full of merchandise. They are full of cruel enemies."

At these words the Franks took to their ships and went out to meet the enemy. The Northmen, however, learning that the great King was there to fight against them, fled. So the danger passed. But Charlemagne stood a long time silently gazing out to sea, with tears in his eyes. No one dared to speak to him, or to ask the great warrior why he wept.

At length he turned to the people. ' Would you know why I weep?' he said. "It is not that I dread these miserable pirates; they cannot hurt me. But I weep to think of all the sorrow they will bring upon my people when I am no more with them."

Charlemagne had reached the height of his power. Once more he journeyed to Rome. Once more he was greeted with every mark of honor.

After the building of Constantinople, you remember, the great Roman Empire had been split in two, and there had been one Emperor in the East and one in the West. But after the barbarians invaded Rome there had been no Emperor of the West. Now there was to be a new Emperor.

On Christmas Day of 800, all the people crowded to the great church of St. Peter to hear mass. The Pope stood by the altar, the King clad in splendid robes knelt on the steps. Suddenly the Pope raised a glittering crown high in his hands. Then stooping he placed it upon the head of Charlemagne. There was a moment of breathless silence, then the great vault rang and rang again with the shouts of the people. "To Charles Augustus crowned by God great and peace-giving Emperor of the Romans, life and victory."

Three times the cry rang out, while the Pope prostrated himself before the new Emperor.

And thus began what was to be known for many ages to come as the Holy Roman Empire.

The empire over which Charlemagne ruled was very vast. It stretched from the North Sea to the Danube, and from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. From his father he had inherited only a small part of what is now France. The rest he had conquered by the might of his sword.

As Emperor, Charlemagne ruled for fourteen years. During these years he still fought battles, but he employed himself too in framing laws and attending to the work of his schools. But at length, in 814, worn out with much fighting and weighed down by years, he died at his favorite palace of Aachen, or Aix-la-Chapelle. He was buried there in great splendour, clothed in his imperial robes, with a golden crown upon his head, a golden sword by his side, in his hands a golden testament and scepter.