Charlemagne - George Upton

Last Days and Death

It is not remarkable that the fame of such a sovereign spread far and near throughout the world. Representatives of all nations were found at his court. The heathen Avar with braided frontlets, the haughty Count of Lombardy in silk and peacock feather, the turbaned Arab, the fierce Saxon, the lithe Anglo-Saxon, the Bavarian, and the Frank mingled with white-robed priest, dark-cowled monk, and gowned Jew. Princes of Asia and Africa contended for the favor of the great Western Emperor, among them Harun-al-Rashid ("Aaron the Just"), Mohammedan caliph of Asia. Charlemagne had sent an embassy to this powerful prince, who ruled at the marvellous city of Bagdad, asking him to extend his protection to Western Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem. Harun graciously acceded to this request. He sent Charlemagne the banner of Jerusalem and the keys to the Holy Sepulchre as a symbol of his sovereignty over that city. These gifts were followed by others, costly gold-embroidered silken stuffs, frankincense, balsam, and spices, also monkeys and an elephant. The chronicles state that in return Charlemagne sent him Spanish horses and mules and Frisian robes, white, gray, sapphire, and variegated, besides hounds of the largest and best kind for chasing and catching lions and tigers. Charlemagne had a hospital built in Jerusalem where needy pilgrims could be cared for. Ibrahim, the African prince who ruled over Mauritius, sent him a Libyan lion, a Numidian bear, Iberian steel, and purple from Tyre. Another gift by Harun was a brass water-clock, which was so constructed that a hand revolved during the twelve hours; and as each was completed, brass balls falling upon a metal basin gave out a clear tone announcing the hour.

Charlemagne was at this time over sixty years of age. His white hair and beard added to his majestic appearance. His fourth wife had recently died, and he now, upon suggestions from Rome, considered a union with the Empress Irene of Greece. The real nefariousness of this woman was not revealed until later; and at this time the Emperor knew no reason why he should not marry her. But it is to be remembered that in every action Charlemagne conducted himself not as a private person, but as the ruler of a great empire. The only question which arose in his mind was whether such a union would accrue to the advantage of the Christian world and his own people. He decided that it would, and entered upon the preliminaries of a settlement. Then came news of the dethronement of Irene and her banishment to Lesbos an event which was subsequently justified and which proved to be very fortunate for him.

An agreement was made with the Saxons in the year 803 at Selz on the Saale, which secured peace for the future. In consideration of the restoration of their old rights and customs they promised to refrain from any resistance to the spread and maintenance of Christianity in Saxony, and to accept the incorporation of their country as part of the Frankish Empire.

In 808 the aged hero again took the field. He led an expedition against Gottfried, King of Denmark, who in years past had been so busy inciting Saxon revolt. But the Emperor's purpose was not to obtain satisfaction for old offences, but to stamp out new hostilities. The Obotrites, allies of the Franks, had been suddenly attacked by Gottfried; Danish vessels had harried the German coast; and the Danes had made several landings and pillaged and murdered. Driven back by Carl, the Emperor's oldest son, Gottfried reached a spot several miles beyond the Schley, where a wall had been constructed across the country, still known as the "Danewerk." During this expedition the Emperor was thrown from his horse, which caused his lance to fly from his hand, and his sword to drop from his belt. Many regarded this as an unfortunate omen; but Gottfried and Charlemagne did not meet on the field. Gottfried was slain by some of his own people, and Hemming, his brother and successor, hastened to send a peace embassy to Charlemagne. A treaty was negotiated by which Denmark renounced all claim upon the territory for which it had striven, south of the Eider, which was recognized as the northern boundary of the Frankish Empire.

When Charlemagne returned to Aix-la-Chapelle he was taken ill for the first time in his life. He regarded his ailment, however, as nothing worse than a slight feverish attack, and resumed his official duties in a few days. For the first time his people began to realize that he was mortal, and to ask themselves what might happen to the Empire if he were taken away.

Of Charlemagne's three sons, the two eldest, Carl and Pepin, had proved themselves heroes in the field. Of these two, Carl, who most closely resembled his father in face and figure, was his favorite. To his great disappointment, however, he was forced to admit to himself that Ludwig, the youngest, should the emergency occur, would be unfitted to be his successor, and unqualified to assure the perpetuity of the Empire. And what was this great Empire? It was bounded on the north by the Eider and the Baltic, on the south by the Tiber and the Mediterranean, on the east by the Elbe and the Raab, and on the west by the Ebro and the Atlantic, recalling the extent and power of the old Roman Empire under Caesar and Augustus.

Charlemagne long and anxiously considered, the situation before he decided to call an assembly of the dignitaries of State and Church and submit his plans for the division of the sovereignty. These plans provided for the assignment of the young Carl to the principal part of the Frankish Empire, the predominating German nations; Pepin to the Italian, and Ludwig to those possessions which at a subsequent period became the principal part of France.

The circle of those nearest the heart of the great Emperor gradually grew smaller. His mother, Bertha, had already been dead twenty years. This rare woman, who in her will provided ample chests of linen to poor weavers and spinners, enjoyed his love and filial care to the very last. The Academy still numbered many excellent scholars in its membership; but there was no one to fill the place of that wise teacher and close friend, Alcuin, who died about this time. In 810 the Emperor's eldest daughter, Rotrud, died. Hardly had he recovered from this blow when news came of the death of Pepin, after a brief illness.

Alas! of what avail are human plans? Too often they are like the dust scattered by the wind. The Emperor bore his grief manfully, and labored with his customary devotion in his affairs of State and at the academy. In these last days he began with extraordinary enthusiasm to write a German grammar. Unfortunately it was not finished, and the only fragments left of it are the names which he gave to the months and the winds.

The next year (811) was not finished before fresh tidings of sorrow came. Carl, the Emperor's favorite son, was snatched away by death in the very prime of his life, as his brother Pepin had been shortly before. Still the Emperor wasted no time in mourning. He attended to his duties as usual; but after this last blow his face never wore a smile again.

Charlemagne's Crypt


The only remaining son was the one who had shown himself the least capable. What solicitude for the future of his race and Empire must have overwhelmed the Emperor!

In the year 813 Charlemagne summoned the notables of the Empire to an assembly at Aix-la-Chapelle. He announced to them that he had arranged a definite settlement of the boundary question with Greece, Denmark, and the Moors, which gave great satisfaction to them. Thereupon he proclaimed his son Ludwig King of the Franks, and added that he also wished, with their consent, to invest him with the dignity of Roman Emperor. They gave their consent, but there were grief in the hearts and tears in the eyes of many of them.

Upon the day fixed for the coronation Charlemagne appeared in the Cathedral imperially arrayed, and met the notables assembled there. He led his son Ludwig to the altar, where a throne had been placed. After they had offered prayer they arose, and Charlemagne made a solemn address to his son in which he bade him always to be mindful of the duties of a sovereign, closing with these words:

"Compel malicious and dangerous disturbers by force to live in an orderly manner and pursue the right way. Be the consoler and defender of the cloisters and the poor. Select only wise, just, and firm counsellors. Never remove one except for proper reasons, and so conduct yourself that you may have no cause to blush before God or man."

When Ludwig had promised to follow these counsels the Emperor ordered him to take the crown from the altar and place it upon his head. This was done. The Emperor was a loyal adherent of the Church, but he did not care to have the ceremony performed by priestly hands, as he feared that it might open the way to future assumptions of a dangerous kind. Supported by his son, the venerable Emperor thereupon left for the palace.

Ludwig went temporarily to Aquitaine, which had been assigned to him. The separation between father and son was a painful one, for neither felt that they should see each other again.

The people were greatly troubled, particularly by a remarkable event which shortly occurred and so worked upon the popular fancy that they expected some dire calamity would follow. The colonnade connecting the palace and the minster was struck by lightning, the dome was injured, and the last words upon the altar, "Carolus princeps," were effaced. But Charlemagne gave no attention to it. It was of little consequence to him.

The year 814 opened. It was plain to all that the Emperor was growing weaker. On the twenty-seventh of January the last rites were administered by Bishop Heldebald in both forms, and early the next day Charlemagne passed away in the seventy-second year of his age and the forty-seventh of his reign, with the words "Into Thy hands I commit my spirit."

The real nature of this calamity is shown by the discussion which took place as to the suitable manner of the Emperor's interment. He who had so long watched over the welfare of the Empire, he who had so often sat upon his steed as the battle hero, upon his throne as lawgiver, judge, and counsellor, and as teacher among the scholars of the academy, should he now lie in a coffin? They could not conceive of it. It was repugnant to the sentiment of all those whose hearts were overcome by their great loss. After earnest discussion they decided upon a form of interment which should reflect the greatness of that loss. 'Seated upon a marble throne with gold adornments, in imperial garb glistening with golden bees, the crown upon his head, sword and pilgrim's scrip at his side, a Testament upon his knees, and a fragment of the Holy Cross at his breast, thus was the dead Emperor lowered to the crypt of the minster, which was filled with the costliest spices.

One hundred and eighty-six years later, in the year 1000, the German Emperor Otto the Third, who was a victim of melancholy, opened the crypt, hoping that the sight of the great dead would restore peace and rest to his soul. The glare of torches revealed the majestic figure of the Emperor, still sitting upright on his throne. Otto, however, did not find the rest for which he had hoped. Had he realized the spirit of the Emperor, had he studied him in his great works, perhaps it would have brought him relief and the fresh incentive to activity might have resulted in more faithful performance of his duties as sovereign.

A century and a half later the crypt was again opened by Barbarossa, who ordered that the precious remains of Charlemagne should be placed in a marble casket and buried in the Cathedral.

While reflecting with reverence upon this picture of the Emperor in the crypt, we should also consider the picture of the living Emperor, as revealed in this story of his earthly pilgrimage. If we do this in the right way, refusing to be influenced by those harpies who pursue all great and noble men in history that they may besmirch their memories, we shall be inspired by the example of his great deeds to make our own pilgrimage a blessing both to ourselves and others.