Charlemagne - George Upton

Charlemagne And Desiderius

Charlemagne was born at Aix-la-Chapelle in 742 and was twenty-six years of age when he became sovereign. His brother Carloman died in the third year of his reign, which left Charlemagne ruler of the whole kingdom. It may be stated in advance that he enjoyed but one year of peace during his forty-six years of power.

"Hammer and anvil" was the paramount method of action in the political world of those days. There was never any possibility of living at peace with one's neighbor. It was either oppress him or be oppressed by him. There was no middle course.

Let us now follow the campaign of Charlemagne against Desiderius, King of the Lombards. To make its significance and progress as clear as possible we must first of all consider the relations of Charlemagne and his brother Carloman, who, as already stated, died in the third year of his reign.

The consent of the grandees of the Frankish kingdom was necessary to the validation of Pepin's division of the kingdom between the two sons. The restriction, however, was made by Pepin that while Charlemagne and Carloman were invested with their new dignities, the Frankish kingdom should remain a united kingdom, its administration only being divided between, them. Pepin's wishes were respected, and measures were taken to maintain the unity of the kingdom. But the two brothers had hardly assumed, the task of sovereignty when an event occurred which put to the test their good faith and their readiness to carry out the obligations laid down by Pepin.

Wolf, chief of the southwestern Frankish dukedom, raised the banner of revolt, believing that he could now accomplish what his predecessor, Waisar, had striven in vain to do while Pepin was living. Charlemagne promptly prepared to suppress the uprising, and called upon his brother Carloman to assist him. Carloman declined, and Charlemagne was forced to act alone; but he quickly succeeded in quelling the revolt. It is not strange that he and his Franks were angry at the conduct of his brother, and that there were many, not only in his own, but in his brother's part of the kingdom, who regretted that Charlemagne had not been made sole ruler. Carloman's action was not only regarded as faithless toward his brother, but even stigmatized as treachery against the united kingdom, the evil consequences of which could be averted only by Charlemagne's strong arm. The latter's leading warriors, indeed, had been in favor of taking the field against Wolf without paying any attention to his brother. It was due to Charlemagne's mother, the royal widow Bertha, that the world of that day was spared the tragedy of a fraternal and civil war.

This distinguished lady, who was so greatly beloved by the people that she was celebrated in later tradition as "The Swan Maiden," was tenderly loved by Charlemagne. ( She determined to overcome his resentment against his brother and reconcile them. She succeeded in doing this, but had hardly done so when Carloman died. The grandees and church dignitaries thereupon assembled and named Charlemagne ruler of the whole Frankish kingdom. They recognized the danger confronting a divided kingdom and hastened to avert it.

Gilberga, Carloman's widow, if she had been wise would have placed herself under the protection of Charlemagne and her mother-in-law, the widow Bertha. Instead of this, she was induced by Charlemagne's enemies to leave the country, with the intention at a favorable time of asserting the rights of her two sons. This she soon did at the court of the Lombardian King, Desiderius, who entertained strong animosity against the Franks. Pepin had forced King Haistulf, Desiderius's predecessor, when he was threatening Rome and had seized Ravenna, to give up not only the Roman, but other possessions to the Papacy. This was not forgotten by Desiderius; and when, after Haistulf's death by a fall from his horse, he succeeded him, he regarded himself as heir to the Papal throne and the avenger of Haistulf; and he lost no opportunity of intermeddling in Roman affairs.

After the death of Paul the First, in Rome, a layman, named Constantine, came to the Papal chair. Christoph and Sergius, chiefs of the opposing faction, thereupon betook themselves to Desiderius and appealed for his assistance, which he was willing to give, as he had his own advantage in view. Constantine was promptly deposed, seized as a prisoner, and blinded. Desiderius then determined to place a Lombardian in the Papal chair, and instructed the two Lombardian priests, Waldibert and Philip, to organize a party in Rome which should select Philip as Pope. Too late, Christoph and Sergius regretted that they had invoked the help of Desiderius. In the meantime, however, they accomplished the removal of the two Lombard priests by an uprising. The new Pope Philip and his assistant fled to a church. The right of asylum, however, was not recognized by their enemies. Philip was consigned to the dungeon of a monastery, and Waldibert was torn from the image of the Virgin, to which he was clinging, and blinded.

Christoph and Sergius succeeded in electing a Roman as Pope, who took the name of Stephen the Third; but as he did not manage affairs to please them, they determined to depose him by force. Realizing the danger which threatened him, Stephen appealed to Desiderius, who again showed himself ready for any service which should inure to his own advantage. The most friendly assurances were extended, and Stephen, in letters to Charlemagne and his mother, could hardly find words to sound the praises of Desiderius, who was doing so much for Rome. Christoph and Sergius, who had mustered a considerable force, were attacked by Desiderius and defeated, and both were made prisoners and blinded.

Stephen now was at the mercy of Desiderius, who used every means in his power to compel him to surrender voluntarily to him the possessions which Pepin had restored to the Church. This proved a fresh source of resentment on Charlemagne's part against Desiderius. He only waited for Stephen to appeal to him for help, and held himself in readiness to lend it; but his plans were frustrated by a new move which he could not resist. His mother, who had gone to Italy, interposed and wrote letters to him which led to anything rather than a warlike view of the situation. Although she had no doubt of the lion-hearted nature of her son, or of the valor of his army, she could not view the dangers arising from a conflict between the Franks and the Lombards without the gravest solicitude. She was sufficiently shrewd and experienced to appreciate the situation. She reflected that the Bavarian Duke Thassilo, her dead husband's nephew, without whose consent Charlemagne could not have attained to sovereignty, was as inimical to him as Desiderius was. Thassilo had proved disloyal to Pepin in refusing him the assistance he was in duty bound to furnish in the war against Waisar, Wolf's predecessor. Bertha knew that death alone prevented her husband from punishing his perfidy. As Thassilo and Desiderius were now on good terms she feared that if Charlemagne should attack the one, the other would come to his help. Besides this, the Saxons to the north of the Frankish kingdom were in arms again. She also feared in case of war that the West-Frankish dukedom would rise again. Lastly, she knew that Desiderius had promised the widow and sons of Carloman to provoke an uprising in their favor in the Frankish kingdom.

To avert these dangers Bertha planned to bring Desiderius, Thassilo, and Charlemagne into a tripartite relationship, and thus establish friendly conditions. She proposed that Charlemagne and Thassilo should marry daughters of Desiderius and that Adalgis, Desiderius's only son, should marry Gisela, Charlemagne's sister. The plan was accepted by all concerned except the fair Gisela, who chose to go to a convent and engage in its pious duties, rather than wear a crown. She is honored in the Catholic Church to-day under the name of Itisberg.

The daughter of Desiderius selected by Bertha as the spouse of her son was named Desiderata. She is described as a princess of beautiful face and stately mien. Bertha presented her to Charlemagne, who, in the meantime, had separated from his first wife, the daughter of a Frankish nobleman. At that time marital separations and remarriages were not uncommon among the upper classes, and some of the very highest class had several wives. Bertha had managed this business secretly, and the Pope did not hear of her plans until Desiderata had gone to the Frankish country. It is not strange that the news caused him the greatest anxiety, for he clearly foresaw that if Charlemagne became the son-in-law of Desiderius, he could no longer look to the Franks for the protection of the territory which Pepin had taken from the Lombards and given to the Church. He wrote an urgent letter to Charlemagne, imploring him to break off marriage with Desiderata, even going so far as to declare that the Lombards, notwithstanding they had been living with the Roman people, were still little better than carrion, and the descendants of lepers. He closed with these words:

"We have sent you this our appeal, from the grave of Saint Peter, and with our tears. Should you—which we cannot believe defy the authority of Peter, our master, the ban will be imposed upon you. You will be banished from God's Kingdom eternally to consort with the devil and the wicked in the everlasting fires of hell."

When Charlemagne received this letter the wedding festivities were already over. The warning had come too late. Whether of itself it would have thwarted the plans of Bertha is uncertain, but in any event it strengthened the prejudice of Charlemagne against Desiderata which he had had from the first. It was not long before she became so unbearable to him that he sent her back to her father. The conciliatory work of his mother, well intended as it had been, was ruined.

Desiderius, enraged to the extreme both against Charlemagne and the Pope, held the latter principally responsible for the affront put upon his daughter, and resolved to wreak vengeance at once. He demanded that the Pope should crown the son of Carloman as King of the Franks, intending after that to incite an uprising in that country in his favor. The time seemed auspicious, as Charlemagne was now at war with the Saxons. While the Pope was hesitating, and just as Desiderius was about to use force, Stephen died and was succeeded by Hadrian.

Hadrian could not be induced to crown the young prince, either by flattery or by threats. Desiderius thereupon began harrying the Papal territory and advanced to lay siege to Rome. As he occupied all land communications, Hadrian sent messengers to Marseilles and thence to Diedenbofen the seat of Charlemagne's court at that time. In his letter Hadrian informed the King of Desiderius's demand and his threatening movement, and implored him not to let him fall into Desiderius's hands. Immediately after the receipt of this letter Charlemagne received one from Desiderius, in which the latter, to gain time for carrying out his designs against Rome, assured him he had given up everything to the Pope which belonged to him.

Charlemagne, however, was not deceived. The favor which Desiderius had shown to the son of Carloman clearly revealed his hostility to himself. He decided upon war with the Lombards at once, and the campaign was begun in the autumn of the year 773.

Charlemagne mustered his forces at Geneva. Their equipment was essentially different from that formerly used by the Franks. They were armed with the longer Roman spear as well as the larger shield, the latter furnishing better protection for the body than the round Frankish shield. In place of the old leathern head-covering they wore the brazen helmet and visor. The body was also protected by a coat of mail. Many of the soldiers carried heavy clubs in place of the long swords. These formidable weapons were made of knotted oak, cased in iron, and sometimes made entirely of that metal.

Upon the advice of those Franks who were hostile to Charlemagne and had been entertained at the court of Desiderius, the Alpine passes leading into Lombardy were obstructed besides being strongly guarded. In this way Desiderius felt certain he could defy Charlemagne. Another event increased his feeling of security. Charlemagne, in consideration of the natural resentment of a father whose daughter had been humiliated, sought once more to establish friendly relations with him. He appealed to him to acquiesce in Pepin's assignment of territory to the Church and to abstain from any assault upon his sovereignty. Unfortunately for Desiderius, he looked upon this as a proof that Charlemagne recognized the impossibility of invading Italy. Thereupon he contemptuously rejected the offer and went so far with his insolence that the latter, realizing now that war was inevitable, exclaimed: "He does not fear the barking of the German dog so long as it does not come out of its kennel."

Charlemagne prepared for every emergency. Immediately upon the receipt of Desiderius's reply, he began a forward movement. He led the main part of his army over Mont Cenis by a route which Desiderius had supposed to be impassable; while his uncle Bernhard with another division crossed Mount Joll. The two divisions met at the southern base of the Alps. No resistance had been offered except at one spot, and that was easily overcome. Charlemagne pressed forward without delay, defeated the Lombard forces of Adalgis and the Frankish leader Ottocar, and advanced to the siege of Pavia, whither Ottocar had fled to join Desiderius. As the siege might be a long one, Charlemagne at the head of one division of his army advanced toward Rome, taking possession, on the way, of many Roman cities which had fallen into the hands of the Lombards.

There was as great rejoicing in Rome as there was consternation among the Lombards at Charlemagne's victorious progress. Preparations were made to welcome the rescuer. Ozanam says:

"On Easter Saturday Charlemagne appeared before the gates of Rome. The clergy bearing crosses, the senators and magistrates waving banners, and the children carrying palm branches and singing hymns, went out to meet him. He ascended to the Vatican where Pope Hadrian awaited him. On the following day he donned the tunic and laticlavium and sat in the court of justice. Military authority and civil jurisdiction were exercised alike by patricians."

Shortly after this Charlemagne set out for his uncle's camp before Pavia. The chronicles of St. Gall describe his arrival. Desiderius, who was shut in there, mounted a high tower with Ottocar, from which he espied Charlemagne's army approaching in the distance. At first they saw only the war machines.

"Is not Charlemagne there with this great expedition?" asked Desiderius.

Ottocar replied that he was not.

But when Desiderius saw the large force of warriors following, he said, "Surely Charlemagne is among that multitude."

"No, not yet," said Ottocar.

"But what shall we do," said Desiderius, who was growing very anxious, "if he should come with a still greater number of soldiers?"

While he was speaking, the bodyguards appeared, at sight of whom the panic-stricken Desiderius cried out, "There comes Charlemagne."

Ottocar again assured him he was not there.

Then came bishops, abbes, the clergy of the royal chapel, and the grandees. Desiderius exclaimed with a groan, "Let us hide ourselves in the bowels of the earth, far away from the sight of this terrible enemy!"

Hardly had he uttered these words when they saw something in the west like a black cloud driven by the northeast wind. The glimmer of weapons foretold a day for the doomed city as dark as night. Then Charlemagne himself appeared—that man of iron; iron-helmeted and gauntleted, his breast and shoulders in coat of iron mail, with lance uplifted in his right hand, his left grasping his sword-hilt.

Famine and pestilence forced the surrender of the city. Desiderius was deposed and his throne declared forfeited, and he was sent first to Luttich and thence to the monastery of Corvey, where he was compelled to spend his remaining days in the exercise of penance. His soil, Adalgis, escaped a like fate by flight. After the surrender the Archbishop of Milan crowned Charlemagne with the Iron Crown, so called because a nail from the Cross, said to have been brought by the Empress Helene from Jerusalem, was set among its jewels.

Immediately after the coronation, Paulus Diaconus, famous as a historian, tried to incite revolt. He was arrested, brought before the military court, and sentenced to a shameful death. Charlemagne, however, did not execute the penalty. He admired the man for his patriotism and gave him his freedom. He established a constitution and laws for the Lombards, and after settling the affairs of their kingdom, received news of the Saxon uprising.