Home Page

Stefan's Florilegium


This document is also available in: text or RTF formats.

Charlemag-MPS-art - 4/16/10


"Charlemagne: A Military and Political Study" by Don Henry Fox.


NOTE: See also the files: Charlemagne-art, Charlemagne-lnks, Charlemagne-msg, Charles-Chees-art, Inven-Charle-man, Gaul-art, R-EP-Costume-art.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org




A Military and Political Study

by Don Henry Fox



            The document which follows is a political and military study of the achievements of Charlemagne. It focuses on his achievements in general, politically, and militarily in order to realise the total breadth of his achievements and how they influenced later ages. Being that it is not a personal discovery, it will not evaluate in any manner whether he was a "good man" merely whether he was an effective military and political leader.


Much of the presentation of the military campaigns is a general overview of the campaigns rather than a specific analysis. The political aspects are treated more along the lines of his use of politics in order to control his empire and also deal with others. This document is designed to be more informative than argumentative, though there are aspects of an argument within it.




            There are theorists of history who believe that it things came about due to the great works of "great men" and to a point there is some truth in this. However, in order to understand how great an individual is examples must be presented of how the individual affected not only those around him but the course of history. With regards to this there have been many examples of "great men" in the medieval and Renaissance period who have had a great effect not only on those immediately around them but the course of history. These men become household names and are known either in fact, fiction or legend by anyone who would study that period of history. One of those men was a man known as Charlemagne or Charles the Great.


            Much has been written on Charlemagne. Some of it is fact, some of it is legend and some of it is fiction. This investigation of Charlemagne will focus on the factual evidence of what he did and what he achieved. In order to attempt to cover all of his achievements would require a great deal of time and a great deal of space, as such it will be his military and political achievements that will be the focus of this investigation. These particular aspects will touch on other aspects where Charlemagne achieved greatly, but in order to retain focus it will be these two which will be the focus of the investigation.

            In order to understand his achievements and how he was able to do this it is first important to examine a little of Charlemagne the man. The personal attributes and upbringing of a person will affect the way in which he deals with people and situations, even if only in subtle ways. These details will give some information about how his personality affected his political and military expertise.


Following this there will be an examination of his achievements. First of all this will be a more general study followed by a more topical study on various aspects of these achievements. It is in this section that details will come emerge to form an impression of Charlemagne as a politician and his achievements in this area. To follow this will be an examination of the other focal aspect of this investigation, his military exploits. These will be examined in as close to a chronological order as possible, though it will be noted that some of these campaigns do cross over.


Finally will be an examination of the results of Charlemagne's achievements overall and how this affected history in order to find out just how great a man he was and the effect he had on following centuries. This will all be rounded up in the conclusion which will bring all of the pieces together in order to study them and see how all of the pieces fit together.


Charlemagne the Man


"According to his friend and biographer, Einhard, Charles was of imposing stature, to which his bright eyes and long, flowing hair added more dignity. His neck was rather short, and his belly prominent, but the symmetry of his other members concealed these defects. His clear voice was not so sonorous as his gigantic frame would suggest. Except on his visits to Rome he wore the national dress of his Frankish people, linen shirt and drawers, a tunic held by a silken cord, and leggings; his thighs were wound round with thongs of leather; his feet were covered with laced shoes." (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            The description above gives us the impression of a large man who was well built. These attributes alone would make him stand out in the crowd. It can be seen from the other descriptions accompanying this that he would have been a person who was easily identifiable. As can be seen he dressed in his native costume except when visiting Rome, this would be appealing to those in Rome that he was cultured and deserved to be respected. In some ways this could be considered to be a political decision on his part, where he wanted to appear to be a part of the group he was visiting.


            There is further physical description which furthers the idea of a large man who was proud and knew how to show himself in the best light. "His gait was firm, his whole carriage manly, and his voice clear," (Halsall, 1999), in this particular time it was important for him to appear to be as manly as possible and also to demonstrate how proud he was in order to gain acceptance and respect from his people. This is further emphasised, "his appearance was always stately and dignified, whether he was standing or sitting;" (Halsall, 1999). Unlike the Roman Emperor Claudius who was bent of back but demanded respect due to his intellect, Charlemagne's stately presence would demand respect before he even spoke, this would be important for a proud people such as the Franks.


            Examining a person's experience in their formative years can tell us a lot about how they will act in later life. In the case of Charlemagne, he was crowned at an early age meaning that he had to grow up fast in order to lead his people. The experiences gained while young, especially in Charlemagne's case laid the foundations for his later life.


"Charles, anointed to the kingly office while yet a mere child, learned the rudiments of war while still many years short of manhood, accompanying his father in several campaigns. This early experience is worth noting chiefly because it developed in the boy those military virtues which, joined with his extraordinary physical strength and intense nationalism, made him a popular hero of the Franks long before he became their rightful ruler." (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            The results of these experiences have already been detailed above. His participation in wars, and his physical characteristics made him someone who was easy to admire. His overall appearance along with his experience would have to be joined with other attributes in order to complete the entire picture in order to for him to be of kingly status. Performance in sports and exercises customary of the culture would enhance this image of him as a healthy individual with physical prowess.


"In accordance with the national custom, he took frequent exercise on horseback and in the chase, accomplishments in which scarcely any people in the world can equal the Franks. He enjoyed the exhalations from natural warm springs, and often practised swimming, in which he was such an adept that none could surpass him;" (Halsall, 1999)


            What have been described so far are physical descriptions of Charlemagne along with some of the experiences he had. These are just the start of what Charlemagne was. Physical attributes would have just made him an efficient thug rather than a skilled political and military leader. This means that there are also intellectual pursuits which are important in order to complete the picture, intellectual pursuits he was not short on, "The King spent much time and labour with him studying rhetoric, dialectics, and especially astronomy;" (Halsall, 1999). This gives a person a deep foundation in the arts and sciences of the day, important to real knowledge of situations and the ability to apply this knowledge to his advantage, but these were not his only areas of study, agricultural development and trade were also discussed and investigated by him (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999).


            Being able to communicate is an important skill and Charlemagne realised this. In order to be better educated and understand more meant that he had to learn language. First of all this is of one's own native language, but in order to understand what is happening in trade outside his native lands meant studying other languages in order that he could understand what was happening.


"He was not satisfied with command of his native language merely, but gave attention to the study of foreign ones, and in particular was such a master of Latin that he could speak it as well as his native tongue;" (Halsall, 1999)


            Latin at the time was not only the language of the ecclesiastic orders but also the language of Rome the centre of the Christian Empire. It was also the language of the educated, and in order to further his studies knowledge of Latin would be necessary. The education did not stop here; he devoted much time to resurrecting his own language, learning Greek and also learning German and improving these languages where he thought it required (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999).


            So far the picture that has been built is of a man of imposing stature, who is very physical. He has skills in war and is fit and healthy. Along with this he is educated and takes an interest in things intellectual. These elements alone bring together a picture of a man who most men in the Renaissance period would have been proud to emulate, but there is also the social attribute that must be considered. How well he dealt with people is important especially in the position that he held. He would have to be able to deal with people evenly and with good humour in order not to be loathed not only by his own people but those he came into contact with as a matter of his duties as king.


"the picture, which his contemporaries have left us, of the delight he found in being with his children, joining in their sports, particularly in his own favourite recreation of swimming, and finding his relaxation in the society of his sons and daughters;" (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            This paints a picture of a good father and a kind man, willing to spend time with children and enjoy their games. This also alludes to his relations with all people. He is seen to be a man who was accessible and joyful, two elements which have been considered to be two of his most important attributes (James, 1982:160). This means that he was a joy to be around and was pleasant to deal with. These are attributes would have made him easily loved by his own people and respected by others. Charlemagne was a man of his time and also a man involved in his time, in many instances he followed along with what happened around him, though he kept a keen eye out for what was happening.


"Charlemagne was carried along by events more than is commonly recognized. It is true, however, that his powerful personality and his infallible judgement of the possibilities inherent in a situation always guarded him against the temptations from which his successors had more trouble protecting themselves." (Halphen, 1977:349)


            Thus we can see by the evidence presented that Charlemagne was a man who was bound to do great things. Not just because he was the man at the time, but also because he had the personal attributes to allow him to benefit from the times in which he was placed. It is important to realize that each one of the attributes which have been described can be attributed in some part to his successes in life and the reasons why he is one of the "great men of history".


General Achievements


"Suffice it to add here that while the imperial consecration made him in theory, what he was already in fact, the principal ruler of the West, and impropriated, as it were, in the Carolingian line the majesty of ancient Rome, it also lifted Charles at once to the dignity of supreme temporal protector of Western Christendom and in particular of its head, the Roman Church."  (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            Charlemagne achieved for himself and his people that is clear. The above gives a long line of achievements in itself, but this could be seen purely as a personal achievement until we look deeper into it. In order to achieve the above, certain conditions would have to come about, and certain achievements would have to precede this in order for it to come about. The first step in this process was to unite his own people under a single empire, a challenge in itself.


            Charlemagne was left a kingdom by Pepin but this was in no means unified, "The first task of all [for Charlemagne] was that of maintaining and if possible reinforcing the cohesion of the kingdom left to him by Pepin." (Halphen, 1977:41). This would be a big task ahead of Charlemagne and it was not only that the area that the kingdom covered was so big, but because it was divided. He had to unify all of the people in the kingdom under a common rule and ensure that this spread to the other Christian kingdoms which surrounded it, not an easy task.


"the division of Pepin's dominions was in itself an impediment to the growth of a strong Frankish realm such as Charles needed for the unification of the Christian Continent." (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            The divisions in the kingdom were due to the individual rule of those individuals who ruled them. These divisions would have to be removed and the whole kingdom unified if he was to have a chance at furthering the empire that he was creating. This would mean he had to reinforce what was present and then expand in order to achieve his goal, which he eventually did.


"Considering only the positive results, Charlemagne's achievement in terms of the territorial completion of the Frankish kingdom and the protection of his frontiers seems to have been substantial." (Halphen, 1977:69)


            With his own kingdom unified under a single administration, something that will be discussed shortly, Charlemagne set his eyes upon a larger task. Due to his connections to Rome he set about the restoration of the Western Roman Empire which had fallen into disarray primarily after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476, but furthered by the separation of the various divisions amongst it. The effect of this restoration would be felt long after Charlemagne had passed.


"The Roman Empire (Imperium Romanum), since 476 practically extinguished in the West, save for a brief interval in the sixth century, was restored by this papal act, which became the historical basis of the future relations between the popes and the successors of Charlemagne (throughout the Middle Ages no Western Emperor was considered legitimate unless he had been crowned and anointed at Rome by the successor of St. Peter)."  (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            This is the reason why he thought it necessary to restore the Western Roman Empire to its former glory. It can be seen that he was somewhat subservient to the will of the Popes, first by his adoption of Roman dress while in Rome and also by his consideration of the necessity of being crowned by the pope in order to legitimise his rule. In order to achieve this it was not just the Italian peninsula which would have to be affected by this change but also larger parts of Europe.


"But the idea of a Europe welded together out of various races under the spiritual influence of one Catholic Faith and one Vicar of Christ had been exhibited in the concrete."  (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            Not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination and this took a great deal of time and effort on the part of Charlemagne and really was only achieved when he was crowned in Rome in 800.


"During the pontifical Mass celebrated by the pope, as the king knelt in prayer before the high altar beneath which lay the bodies of Sts. Peter and Paul, the Pope approached him, placed upon his head the imperial crown, did him formal reverence after the ancient manner, saluted him as Emperor and Augustus and anointed him, while the Romans present burst out with the acclamation, thrice repeated: "To Carolus Augustus crowned by God, mighty and pacific emperor, be life and victory" (Carolo, piisimo Augusto a Deo coronato, magno et pacificio Imperatori, vita et victoria)." (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            It can be seen by the above that he was crowned by the Pope in one of the considered holiest buildings in Rome, over one of the holiest spots. The declaration of him as Emperor and Augustus, and the acclimation of the Roman people further reinforce Charlemagne as a significant element in this period of history. This papal act also legitimised his rule not just over the Franks, as ordained by God, but also over the rest of Christian Europe. The question of how he managed to get to this point must be answered and this will appear in his other achievements, especially in the areas of politics and military affairs.


Political Affairs and Achievements


            To be a king is to be involved in the politics of the realm. In the case of Charlemagne he was a very intelligent man as has been pointed out, and he was a skilled politician. An investigation of Charlemagne's political affairs and achievements will reveal the way that he administered his own realm and also his relationship with other kingdoms.


"the Frankish lieges, whether from love of Charles or for the fear which his name already inspired, gladly accepted him for their king. . . . In the mean while complications had arisen in Charles' foreign policy which made his newly established supremacy at home doubly opportune." (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            It can be seen from the above that he had control over his own kingdom and those nobles who inhabited it by his reputation, and also due to the way that he ruled his kingdom. This power allowed him to both control his own kingdom and also allowed him to expand his empire. This demonstrates some of the power that he had over his own kingdom. This also meant a level of control over the individuals who administered the kingdom. "He appointed and kept close control of those officials, military commanders, who had control over a number of counties." (James, 1982:162).


            This level of control over the kingdom allows a might tighter reign over the kingdom. There were further initiatives that Charlemagne put in place in order to control the kingdom over which he ruled including putting those who were most loyal to him in positions of power. "The most independently minded of the regna which constituted Charlemagne's kingdom were given his sons as their kings:" (James, 1982:161). Loyalty through blood ties ensures a level of respect and control which would be otherwise impossible. By placing his own sons in charge of those areas which were most independently minded, Charlemagne was able to gain a level of control over those areas which would have otherwise caused him a great deal of trouble. He used a similar method for those kingdoms outside his own local ones as well.


"completed the reunification of Gaul and began the conquest of the rest of western Europe. By the time of his death in 814 he had established an empire which not only included Gaul but also north-east Spain, much of Italy and the whole of Germany, right across to the plains of Hungary." (James, 1982:2)


            The re-unification of the Frankish kingdom has already been stated as one of Charlemagne's achievements. The fact that he was able to increase his kingdom through various methods, but mostly military conquest, demonstrates not only the power that he had over his own kingdom but the influence he had over a much larger area. This great area of control gives evidence of a very large kingdom that would require an established administration in order to be controlled properly. It is most interesting that before his conquests had been completed he was already considered to be the most significant ruler in Western Europe.


"At the end of the eighth century, before all the conquests that he had undertaken had been successfully concluded, Charlemagne emerged as master of the West." (Halphen, 1977:85)


Administration of the Empire


            With regards to his empire it is important to have a rather in-depth investigation of how he was able to maintain control over such a vast area and how he was able to administer such a large area of influence. Such a large area would require a proper administration in order to control it and this required a basis for control. The first question that arises is how such a large area would be financed, and this method of finance is important as it determines the nature of the empire. "in the case of Charlemagne, we must add the booty taken in time of war. The ordinary financial basis of the royal power was purely rural." (Pirenne, 1969:23). The combination of booty from war and a rural basis gives a solid foundation for national affairs and also a large allowance for international affairs with regards to military activities. In order to administer this there would have to be a strict administrative system assembled and put into place in order to control it.


"For administrative purposes the State was divided into counties and hundreds, for the government of which counts and hundred-men were responsible." (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            In the sense of counties in this case, it is not the modern sense of a county but the control of an area by a noble in these cases a count, hence a county. The determination of control over a specific number of individuals enabled Charlemagne to control the area by a simple method. Instructions would be given to the counts and this would be followed up and passed down to the hundred. This control system gives a rigid system that would seem to cause division at a county level due to the separation of the counties and the strict level of control, this, however was not the case.


"The diversity, however, did not prevent the Empire from actually forming a unit. . . . everywhere, even where national dukes had been temporarily maintained, officials trained in Frankish methods and appointed by the Carolingians saw to the business of government." (Halphen, 1977:103)


            By the placement of officials trained in the administration the empire was allowed to form into a single unit due to a similar method of administration and control. This enabled first his kingdom and then the empire to adopt a more common thought amongst them rather than thinking of individual groups they thought of themselves as a whole. This is one of the primary was that it can be seen that Charlemagne was able to both unify the Franks and also expand and remain in control of his vast empire. This level of administration was even seen at the level of individual towns under the Carolingian system.


"The town underwent a distinct revival during the reign of Charlemagne. It became again, with the reinstitution of counts and the reform of the Church, a centre of political and religious life," (James, 1982:63)


            This centralized form of government is centralized around the towns rather than the middle of the kingdom. The method allowed for a unifying aspect with regard to the towns and the kingdom overall. This would have to be reliant, however on an over-reaching administrative body in order to administer the different counties and towns within the counties. This was formed in the form of a parliament.


Church in the Political System


"Side by side with the counts in the great national parliament (Reichstag, Diet) which normally met in the spring, sat the bishops, . . . this parliament or diet was essentially bicameral (civil and ecclesiastical)" (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            The first influence of the church can be seen in the town with its control over both political and religious life. This is further emphasised in the formation of the parliament in which bishops also sat. The fact that the civil and the ecclesiastical sat together also demonstrates the level to which the church would affect administrative affairs and the influence concerns of the church would have upon the decisions made in the parliament. This influence of the church could be seen all the way from the lowest to the highest levels of government.


"It was only under Charlemagne and his immediate successors that the Church achieved brief recognition by kings – though by no means by all their subjects – that kings had the Christian duty to govern strictly and ensure the spiritual and moral welfare of their subjects," (James, 1982:124)


This demonstrates a high level of incorporation of the Church into the state. The fact that the kings were expected to look after the spiritual and moral welfare of their subjects demonstrates a high level of influence by the Church on the state. This recognition is significant as it underlines the influence of the Church on the political affairs of the state. The influence of the Church on the state also led to other aspects which are important to consider, such as the power of the Church to accept the kings of the Carolingian Empire. "The Carolingian was crowned only by the intervention of the Church, and the king, by virtue of his consecration, entered into the Church." (Pirenne, 1969:24). By this act moral rule was imposed upon the state meaning that the rulers had more to think about with regard to the effect that their decisions had upon their people morally as well as politically. This particular aspect of the influence of the Church was seen after the death of Charlemagne, but was also present during his reign, especially in the use of oaths.


"From the political point of view, the unity that was sought was ensured by the strongest of all bonds: the oath of allegiance which individually attached to the emperor all the male inhabitants of the Empire from their twelfth year onward. . . . Such a pledge, in a society imbued with religious belief, was held to be indissoluable. . . . The pledge excluded every restriction and every loophole." (Halphen, 1977:117)


            Such a rigid institution and so closely linked to the Church is important from a political point of view and also a social one. From the political point of view it bound people to Charlemagne solidly and in a way that could not be broken without severe retribution. The fact that it was taken by all male inhabitants from their twelfth birthday concreted this idea of loyalty into the citizens of the Empire at a very early age, on a social level this would have created a strong feeling of loyalty to the emperor and to the state. This also linked each man to the state and also the Church, "to do God's word, to honour imperial property and the Church, to perform military service, to obey imperial commands, to do justice, and so on." as well as loyalty to Charles, not to bring enemies into the kingdom for hostile reasons, nor to consent or be silent about anyone's infidelity towards him (James, 1982:166). This placed a personal responsibility on each man to be loyal.


            These oaths of allegiance were instituted by Charlemagne when he was king of the Franks, in 800 when he became Emperor, it was important that such oaths were reinforced and renewed in order that the same conditions would exist when he was Emperor, "a new oath of fidelity to the sovereign as emperor was required of everyone, because the oaths sworn before had been to him only in the quality of king." (Halphen, 1977:96). This was an oath that bound the individual to Charlemagne, to the Empire and to the Church. In this way Charlemagne was not only able to secure the loyalty of the individual but also ensured their devotion to the Empire and also the Church in one fell swoop.




"A more direct approach was to secure the loyalty of each count to his monarch by personal bonds, by means of the oath of fealty and the institution of vassalage." (James, 1982:163)


            The oath first was a means made in order to control the Empire and guarantee the loyalty of his subjects. From a political point of view it should be noted that the oath and vassalage cannot be separated. They are linked in a way that is interconnected in many ways. The institution of vassalage was a way of controlling the Empire and the oath guaranteed that the vassals would do as Charlemagne instructed and keep the Empire together.


            Vassalage was a political agreement, but it was also an agreement which was social, economic and military at the same time. Vassalage was not some random general agreement, it was a personal bond between the king and those who governed the kingdom and it was only dissolved on the death of one or the other (James, 1982:165). The personality of this arrangement was not vague it was very specific and the fact that this was made with the king personally gave it a personal as well as a political nature. The personal nature was a clever move by Charlemagne in order to bind these men to him rather than some ambiguous idea of the state. This also reinforced the idea that it was personal in a way that would promote loyalty.


            Vassalage is a contract between free men, a political contract vowing service and obedience in exchange for protection. This agreement had only very few exceptions that would allow the release of the bond between the two individuals (Halphen, 1977:137). This was a personal bond as well as a political one and it is both of these elements that must be emphasized in its use. The process of becoming a vassal was long and involved in order that loyalty was pledged by the individual in all the right places and to all the correct people.


"It seems very likely that becoming the vassus, first of the mayor of the palace and then of the king or emperor, involved taking an oath, probably with some further ceremony of subjection and commitment such as kneeling and touching hands in some way." (Reynolds, 1994:85)


            The fact that the oath was made to the mayor of the palace and then to the king or emperor made the link between the individuals increasingly solid, this is a personal commitment to the king. This personal nature of the ceremony is emphasized by the touching of hands. The fact that the individual knelt before the king also stated his position that he was subject to the king. This is important. The first example of such an arrangement follows below.


"The first surviving charter is dated 795. It says that the Spaniard, John, who had fought well against the infidels in Spain before settling at Fontjoncouse (Aude), had commended himself to Charlemagne when he came to ask for a formal grant of the land that he and his men had cleared and cultivated." (Reynolds, 1994:108)


            It can be seen that the vassalage is also based on land, and control and administration of that land. Earlier forms of vassalage exist but this is the only one with a charter surviving detailing the meaning of vassalage to the Charlemagne. What can also be seen in this example is that it was a reward for service performed to the kingdom, though in some instances it was more of a political use of control.


"On his way back from Spain in 778 Charlemagne appointed not only Frankish counts and abbots in all of Aquitaine but also Frankish vassi, 'as they are called' (necon alios plurimos quos vassos vulgo vocant, ex gente Francorum)." (Reynolds, 1994:85)


            The use of missi as representatives of the Crown was used by Charlemagne in order to remain in control of his vassals and in order to inspect what was happening with them. This is an important point and is directly linked to the idea of vassalage as established by Charlemagne. This was an administrative position with a high level of power granted by the king.


"The one Frankish administrative institution to which Charles gave an entirely new character was the missi dominici, representatives (civil and ecclesiastical) of the royal authority, who from being royal messengers assumed under him functions much like those of papal legates," (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            The administrative function of these missi was to inspect the various vassals and ensure their loyalty to the Empire. Needless to say these individuals would have to be those which were trusted by the king, especially as they carried the word of the king with them and were his representatives. None of the vassals were exempted from inspection by these individuals and it was through these men that he was able to maintain control over such a far-flung empire.


"Given the vast extent of Charlemagne's empire and the large number of vassi who seem to have been scattered over it, it is at least arguable that some or most of them may have been appointed by counts or royal missi and made their ritual commitment to them as representatives of the king or emperor." (Reynolds, 1994:87)


            The idea of hereditary rule in this system is one that must be examined in a little detail in order to see the benefits that were gained through its institution. Hereditary rule is something which is seen as a common element in all feudal systems, but it was important that such rule was accepted by the king and administered by him in order to remain in control. In the case of Charlemagne, due to his oaths of loyalty it would seem that such a level of control was not necessary.


"Any king worth his salt would want to ensure that the lands attached to important offices were held strictly ex officio and would not be inherited without special permission, but even Charlemagne seems to have been ready to allow ordinary benefices to pass from father to son more or less automatically." (Reynolds, 1994:173)


            It is the oath which enabled him to do this. The fact that every male upon their twelfth year swore allegiance to the king through the use of the oath meant that such hereditary rulers already were loyal to the king. This enabled such hereditary rule to pass from one vassal to their sons and so forth. In those cases where such an oath would have been absent otherwise much control could be seen to be lost, but due to the oath control was maintained. This hereditary rule and inheritance is an element which has remained in the political system in monarchical systems to this day.


Relations with Other Kingdoms


            With regard to politics it is useful not only to examine what happened within an Empire, but also how the leaders and other nations were dealt with by that particular ruler. In the case of Charlemagne, he was intelligent enough that he realized that his relation with other kingdoms was almost as important as his relations with his own people. This needed to be performed carefully. "He added to the glory of his reign by gaining the good will of several kings and nations;" (Halsall, 1999). Good relations with other kingdoms enhance the kingdom. Good relations allow for better trade and enhancement of the Empire. One of the best examples of this was his relations with the Byzantine Empire.


"above all, he had to either conciliate or neutralize the jealousy of the Byzantine Empire which still had the prestige of old tradition. At Rome Charles had been hailed in due form as "Augustus" by the Roman people, but he could not help realizing that many centuries before, the right of conferring this title had virtually passed from Old to New Rome [Constantinople]." (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            Being that the Western Roman Empire fell many years previous to Charlemagne's appointment, all legitimacy passed to the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople. This would seem to be a small problem for Charlemagne for the legitimacy of his appointment as Holy Roman Emperor. This would require some careful negotiation with the Byzantine Empire in order that his rule was recognised as legitimate by them. Due to his efforts in order to resurrect Christianity in Europe, and the consolidation of such, recognition from the Byzantines was forthcoming.


"by Constantinople as at least Basileus of the West. This reign, which involved to a greater degree than that of any other historical personage the organic development, and still more, the consolidation of Christian Europe,"  (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            This established a good relationship between Charlemagne's empire in the West and that of the Byzantine Empire in the east. This is important as it shows a level of reunification of the older empire of the Romans and gives some prestige not only to the rule of Charlemagne but also that of the Byzantines. Such was the relationship between the two empires that embassies were sent from Constantinople on several occurrences.


"The Emperors of Constantinople, Nicephorus [I 802-811], Michael [I, 811-813], and Leo [V, 813-820], made advances to Charles, and sought friendship and alliance with him by several embassies;" (Halsall, 1999)


            Charlemagne's international relationship with Constantinople can be seen as one of mutual benefit and friendship. This, it would seem, would be the model for his international relationships during his reign. He was careful not to impinge too much on the sovereignty of those people which he would rule over. An example of this can be seen in his relationship with the people of Bavaria.


"Once this retirement [of Tassilo] was a fact, Charlemagne took possession of the duchy of Bavaria. . . . Charlemagne took care not to injure the Bavarians' self-respect and to make the transition as painless as possible." (Halphen, 1977:46)


            It should be noted that Tassilo's retirement was more forced than voluntary due to Charlemagne's campaign in Bavaria. More of this campaign will be discussed in his military campaigns later on. The fact that while he did impose his rule upon the Bavarians he ensured that the transition from one rule to another was as easy as possible and that he ensured that he did not impinge too much on the Bavarians in the process. Thus he wished to place Bavaria under his influence as part of the Empire but not to overrule their own self-respect and nationalistic feelings.


"Charlemagne's policy does not seem to have aimed at incorporating the various peoples that occupied it [Slavonic country] into his Empire; he wished only to hold them at a distance, and if possible to place them under his influence." (Halphen, 1977:53)


            While some areas, such as Bavaria, were fully integrated into the Empire other areas which he conquered were not so much included in the Empire so much as kept under his influence, as can be seen by the evidence presented above. In general this would result in a reasonably good feeling toward Charlemagne on an international level. This idea of inclusion into the Empire, but without seemingly draconic measures in order to ensure his rule can also be seen in other parts successfully conquered in military campaigns.


"After the final conquest of Aquitaine in 796 Charlemagne allowed the Gascons to have their own native dukes, and from the mid-ninth century they seem to have had virtual autonomy, under the nominal sovereignty of the Frankish kings." (James, 1982:20)


            As it can be seen rather than a solidly built Empire based on conquest and imposed rule by the Franks, Charlemagne's empire was a collection of semi-independent nations which were included in the Empire. Through his use of the vassus and missi he was able to keep control over the various nations under his influence without imposing much control, in most instances. This being said there were times where he used more forceful elements in his control.


"Charlemagne intervened in their [Obodrites] country as though he were their ruler; he arranged the choosing of their next duke; the negotiations with the Danes to re-establish peace were conducted by his representatives, . . . apparently without the Obodrites themselves having any say in the matter." (Halphen, 1977:55)


            Unlike his relationship as demonstrated in Bavaria, this demonstrates a very different relationship where control was firmly imposed upon the people. This should be noted and realized that this method was not the exception at all but went hand in hand with his other methods of control. Forceful and more military measures were imposed upon those places and people where he had the most problems subduing them. A perfect example of this is Saxony and the more military approach taken to it.


"the punitive regime set up in 785, one based on co-operation was substituted. Saxony was placed under Frankish administration and in principle assimilated to the other territories of the Frankish kingdom;" (Halphen, 1977:50)


            Charlemagne's Saxon campaign was one of the longest and the most hard-fought in his military campaigns, as will be noted later on. In many instances this was not a single but multiple campaigns. It will be noted from the above that a co-operative administration was the initial form used in Saxony, but this did not work, and as such harsher methods were imposed upon the Saxons. Thus it can be seen that the Saxons went from a co-operative regime to a punitive one where the rule of the victor was absolute.


"never had there been a more brutal method of compelling, at any cost, a country [Saxony] that had been free only a moment ago, to submit to the law of the victor." (Halphen, 1977:49)


            This more brutal method of control through the imposition of administration, and in many instance more akin to martial law, was imposed upon the Saxons in order to keep control of them. The methods of repressive control over the Saxons can be seen in many empires both before and after Charlemagne and used against the most troublesome of outlying parts of an empire. He had to break the will of these people and impose his rule upon them and he found methods of doing this.


"At last, after conquering and subduing all [Saxons] who had offered resistance, he took ten thousand of those that lived on the banks of the Elbe, and settled them, with their wives and children, in many different bodies here and there in Gaul and Germany [804]." (Halsall, 1999)


            The idea of forced colonisation is one that was used by the Roman Empire before Charlemagne and has also been used by other rulers since. This is designed to break the will of the people by separating them from their power-base and to disperse them over a wider area. This more repressive method of control has been used against those elements in an empire which cause the most problems for the ruler.


"He retained the younger son [of the duke of the Bretons] only as hostage, and sent the elder back to his father, and returned to Rome, leaving commissioners with Aragis to exact the oath of allegiance, and administer it to the Beneventans." (Halsall, 1999)


            Taking hostages is a well-known and well used method of controlling potentially rebellious nobles. It should be noted that such a method was also used by the shoguns in Japan and for the same reason. This is one of the more repressive methods of remaining in control over a particular troublesome nation within an empire.


It should be noted that the methods used especially those demonstrated in the later parts of this discussion above were reserved for those nations which gave Charlemagne the most problems. In general, however, as will be noted by the earlier examples he attempted to remain in good relations with the nations within the Empire in order to have better relations and thus control by influence over them rather than by the use of military power. This is an important note that should be made. Thus through his various methods Charlemagne was able to remain in control and expand his Empire while remaining in good relations with most other kingdoms.


Military Campaigns


            Charlemagne's military campaigns can be seen as one of his biggest achievements, and one of the aspects for which he is most recognised, especially by military historians. These campaigns need to be looked at from both a military point of view, but also how they relate to his political achievements, as has been noted previously. First of all it is important to look at some of the detail which is associated with the military campaigns rather than looking at them directly.


"Such are the wars, most skillfully planned and successfully fought, which this most powerful king waged during the forty-seven years of his reign. He so largely increased the Frank kingdom, which was already great and strong when he received it at his father's hands, that more than double its former territory was added to it." (Halsall, 1999)


            Needless to say Charlemagne ran his campaigns with a great deal of skill. This is one of the things that a successful military campaign whether in the time of Charlemagne or in the modern era is reliant upon. The fact that he was able to double his territory through conquest, and then administer and control such a vast area alludes to his skill as a military and political commander. This was of course reliant on his ability to put men in the field and he was able to do this through his administration of military service.


"Of all the duties imposed on subjects of the Empire, which they were obliged to perform scrupulously, the military ones were the most onerous. For the Franks, war was a national institution." (Halphen, 1977:118)


            All able-bodied males in the Empire were expected to serve in the military in some capacity. This means that he was able to increase and maintain a sizeable military force for his campaigns. The fact that war became a military institution reflects also his relationship with the reconstruction of the Roman Empire as a similar approach was used during that time. While the main purpose of much of the campaigns was to increase his own empire, there was another reason behind his use of military campaigns and this definitively had religious overtones to it.


"fifty-three distinct campaigns of Charlemagne; of these it is possible to point to only twelve or fourteen which were not undertaken principally or entirely in execution of his mission as the soldier and protector of the Church. In his eighteen campaigns against the Saxons Charles was more or less actuated by the desire to extinguish what he and his people regarded as a form of devil-worship," (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            In many ways these campaigns can be seen as crusades in much the same way as those that would follow a couple of hundred years afterward. The principal reason for the expansion was to increase the impact of the Church and also to increase the Christian Empire of the West. This supplied a great deal of motivation to Charlemagne not only as king of the Franks but also later in his position as Holy Roman Emperor, and thus a soldier and protector of the Church. This needs to be taken into account in these campaigns that he set his mind to.


            The campaigns themselves will be looked at in a chronological order, though it will be noted that the Saxon Campaign was actually a protracted engagement which was fought at several different times before its conclusion. This will mean that while this campaign will be dealt with as a singular campaign it was actually many separate ones rolled into an overall campaign. Some of these campaigns will have a deal of information about their conduct and others will be mentioned as significant while not much detail will be given, the first of such is the Aquitanian War of 769.


Aquitanian War (769)


"The campaign once opened, he conducted it with the greatest vigor, notwithstanding his brother withheld the assistance that he had promised, and did not desist or shrink from his self-imposed task until, by his patience and firmness, he had completely gained his ends." (Halsall, 1999)


            This was the first campaign that Charlemagne set his mind to. In some ways it can be attributed to his re-unification and expansion projects. He was promised help from his brother, which did not come as such the campaign was executed by Charlemagne alone to great success. This campaign was actually one started by his father which was left to Charlemagne to complete (Halsall, 1999). Being that this is the first campaign it reflects the way in which he conducted them and also demonstrates how his later campaigns would be fought.


            The great vigour that is expressed gives the idea of a massive force brought to bear with the idea of total conquest. This is the approach that Charlemagne brought to all of his campaigns. All of them were fought with the maximum amount of force possible, and none reflects this as much as his campaigns against the Saxons.


Saxon Campaigns (772 - 785)


"Charlemagne's first interventions in Saxony were still of the traditional type: as simple military demonstrations they had no other purpose than to make Frankish power respected and to inflict reprisals. Only the pressure of circumstances forced the king to modify his tactics and to work out a plan of progressive penetration, in order to avoid a perpetual renewal of attacks and retaliations." (Halphen, 1977:47)


            The original method of military demonstration meant short expeditions into the territories, but the following kind meant a more extended campaign of military conquest. This also meant a more brutal form of campaign which meant to inspire fear in the enemy and break their will to fight. This was further enforced by Charlemagne's dislike of the practices of the Saxons and their unchristian ways.


"Charles could brook neither their predatory habits nor their heathenish intolerance; it was impossible, moreover, to make permanent peace with them while they followed the old Teutonic life of free village communities. He made his first expedition into their country in July, 772, took Eresburg by storm, and burned Irminsul [the sacred tree]." (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


This expedition attacked the Saxons on a very personal level and was meant to break their will to fight and attack their seen to be heathen ways. The burning of Irminsul was an attack at a religiously significant site meant to send a message to the Saxons that their ways would not be tolerated. This set the tone of the entire campaign; it was a campaign of total conquest on the part of Charlemagne rather than simple campaign of reprisal. This would be a long drawn-out campaign.


"the Franks became so embittered that they at last resolved to make reprisals no longer, but to come to open war with the Saxons [772]. Accordingly war was begun against them, and was waged for thirty-three successive years with great fury; more, however, to the disadvantage of the Saxons than of the Franks." (Halsall, 1999)


            The above, demonstrates just exactly what the Saxon campaign was all about. It was about total conquest and submission of the Saxons to Frankish rule. This would mean a long bitter campaign where combat would be fierce on both sides. The sort of campaign that is being described is one of total conquest and submission to the victor of the loser of the campaign. The length of the campaign has been stated and it should be noted that this was not a solid campaign but one that was broken by other conquests on Charlemagne's part, as will be noted by the dates of other campaigns that will be discussed.


"Returning to the north, Charles sent a preliminary column of cavalry into the enemy's country while he held a council of the realm at Kiersy (Quercy) in September, 774, at which it was decided that the Saxons (Westfali, Ostfali, and Angrarii) must be presented with the alternative of baptism or death. The northeastern campaigns of the next seven years had for their object a conquest so decisive as to make the execution of this policy feasible." (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            This council would have included military, administrative and religious leaders. The fact that the religious leaders were there presents the impact that the Church had not only on the administration of the Empire but also its military campaigns. The choice of baptism or death presents not only a military solution but also a religious attack upon the Saxons. In order for this policy decided to be able to be put into effect the conquest would have to be complete and so ruthless that there would be no alternative for the conquered people.


"Charles gathered his hosts at Düren, in June, 779, and stormed Wittekind's entrenched camp at Bocholt, after which campaign he seems to have considered Saxony a fairly subdued country." (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            Wittekind was at the time considered to be a main "rebel" leader of the Saxons at that particular time. The taking of his stronghold at Bocholt could be seen as the final act in the campaign. This was not, however the case. The war would last for another several years with rebellions on the part of the Saxons put down by the Franks even after the official capitulary of the Saxons in 781.


"At any rate, the "Saxon Capitulary" . . . of 781 obliged all Saxons not only to accept baptism (and this on the pain of death) but also to pay tithes, as the Franks did for the support of the Church; moreover it confiscated a large amount of property for the benefit of the missions." (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            This expectation of tithes and confiscations set the tone of the rule over the Saxons by the Franks, which led to further conflict between the two nations. To this point actions performed by Charlemagne could be considered to be on the basis of a psychological campaign against the Saxons in order to break their will. The actions performed in this particular campaign reflect the ruthless nature of Charlemagne in his dealings with the Saxons during this protracted campaign.


"Of the so-called "Massacre of Verdun" (783) it is fair to say that the 4500 Saxons who perished were not prisoners of war; legally, they were ringleaders in a rebellion," (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            The fact that the ones who were killed in this act were considered rebels make this more of a police action in order to subdue rebels than a military campaign where certain things were expected and due the conquered people. This also reflects the level of ill-feeling by the Saxons against the Franks that so many were willing to die against their adversaries. It also reflects the nature of this campaign of Charlemagne's against the Saxons. The campaign finally came to an end in 785.


"after another defeat of the Saxons at Detmold, and again at Osnabrück, on the "Hill of Slaughter", that Wittekind acknowledged the God of Charles the stronger than Odin. In 785 Wittekind received baptism at Attigny, and Charles stood godfather." (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            This was the final action of the campaign and saw the end of the Saxon resistance to Frankish rule. The campaign against the Saxons is seen as the longest one and the most bitter of all of the campaigns of Charlemagne. News of this campaign no doubt served as a warning to other nations who thought to stand against the Franks in their time of power. The costs of this campaign were great on both sides.


"No war ever undertaken by the Frank nation was carried on with such persistence and bitterness, or cost so much labor,... A great many of the Frank as well as of the Saxon nobility, men occupying the highest posts of honor, perished in this war," (Halsall, 1999)


            The loss of such men of power can only really be recognised on a political level as they would have to be replaced. The simple human cost of the campaign is something that must be reckoned with also considering these men of power would have led men and more than likely a greater number of them would have also perished in the conflicts during the campaign. Considering the breadth of this campaign it could be considered that maybe other conflicts and campaigns were not dealt with as effectively as this one, the opposite is actually the case, as will be seen.


"So many and grievous were the wars that were declared against the Franks in the meantime, and skillfully conducted by the King, that one may reasonably question whether his fortitude or his good fortune is to be more admired. The Saxon war began two years before the Italian war; but although it went on without interruption, business elsewhere was not neglected, nor was there any shrinking from other equally arduous contests." (Halsall, 1999)


Lombard Campaign (773)


"From his father Charles had inherited the title "Patricius Romanus" which carried with it a special obligation to protect the temporal rights of the Holy See. The nearest and most menacing neighbour of St. Peter's Patrimony was Desidarius (Didier), King of the Lombards, . . . But Charles had to defend his own borders against the heathen as well as to protect Rome against the Lombard." (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            As can be seen by the above the campaign against the Lombards neatly falls into the idea of the crusading nature of many of Charlemagne's campaigns. This particular campaign was fought in order to both defend his own Empire and also protect Rome. This reveals a high influence of the Church on Charlemagne's campaigns considering he was considered a soldier and protector of the Church. It should be noted that this campaign occurred in amongst his campaigns against the Saxons. There was a peaceful solution offered in this conflict but it was rejected.


"Charles, resting at Thionville after his Saxon campaign, was urgently reminded of the rough work that awaited his hand south of the Alps. . . . Before taking up arms for the Holy See, therefore, he sent commissioners into Italy to make enquiries and when Desiderius pretended that the seizure of the papal cities was in effect only the legal foreclosure of a mortgage, Charles promptly offered to redeem them by a money payment. But Desiderius refused the money, . . . the only course left was war." (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            The result of going to war against the Lombards meant that it would be fought hard in order to complete the campaign swiftly in order that he was able to get back to his campaign against the Saxons. Thus while there was a period of negotiation before the military campaign started once it started, Charlemagne used the full force of the Franks against the Lombards in order to achieve a decisive result in the campaign. Of course getting his army in place after passing through the Alps would be difficult and took a great deal of planning.


"In the spring of 773 Charles summoned the whole military strength of the Franks for a great invasion of Lombardy. He was slow to strike, but he meant to strike hard.... the army, in order to make the descent more swiftly, crossed the Alps by two passes: Mont Cenis and the Great St. Bernard." (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            The campaign against Desiderius was fought with great intelligence. Rather than mounting a simple frontal attack against the Lombards who put themselves in a defensive position, Charlemagne put his forces in a position where he could break the defences and turn the tide of battle quickly in his favour. This forced the Lombards to withdraw to other parts of Italy forcing the campaign to be an extended one, though one that would eventually result in a Frankish victory.


"The invaders found Desiderius waiting for them, entrenched at Susa; they turned his flank and put the Lombard army to utter rout. Leaving all the cities of the plains to their fate, Desiderius rallied part of his forces in Pavia, his walled capital, while his son Adalghis, with the rest, occupied Verona. Charles, having been joined by Duke Bernhard, took the forsaken cities on his way and then completely invested Pavia (September, 773), . . . Soon after Christmas Charles withdrew from the siege a portion of the army which he employed in the capture of Verona." (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            The campaign against the Lombards was an extended one but Charlemagne had to be sure that he had completely defeated his enemy before turning to other conquests. The only way to be sure of this was to secure the positions that he had taken and place them under Frankish control and keep them that way. This would mean that he would keep them under his influence to prevent any further uprising.


"After winning over Hildebrand and Reginald by diplomacy, Charles descended into Lombardy by the Brenner Pass (spring of 776), defeated Rotgaud, and leaving garrisons and governors, or counts (comites), as they were termed, in the reconquered cities of the Duchy of Friuli, hastened back to Saxony." (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            The campaign was made to be a decisive one as he had to enforce his control on the Lombards. This meant that he had to utterly defeat his foe and drive him from the area. This was in order to prevent any sort of rebellion or re-occurrence of the previous hostilities against Rome. In order to remain in control of the area Charlemagne decided to place his son in control of the area. Thus through a tie of blood the area would remain in Frankish control.


"Charles did not cease, after declaring war, until he had exhausted King Desiderius by a long siege [773], and forced him to surrender at discretion; driven his son Adalgis, the last hope of the Lombards, not only -from his kingdom, but from all Italy [774]; restored to the Romans all that they had lost; subdued Hruodgaus, Duke of Friuli [776], who was plotting revolution; reduced all Italy to his power, and set his son Pepin as king over it. [781]" (Halsall, 1999)


            This campaign was one of conquest, but it was also one of restoration of the power of Rome over the area. The mandate for Charlemagne's conquest of the Lombards came from Rome and due to his responsibility to protect Rome against its enemies, thus it needs to be seen that this campaign had a two-fold purpose rather than the singular purpose of some of his other campaigns. The result of the campaign was the subjugation of Italy to Frankish control and the restoration of the power of Rome.


"Suffice it to say that this war ended with the subjection of Italy, the banishment of King Desiderius for life, the expulsion of his son Adalgis from Italy, and the restoration of the conquests of the Lombard kings to Hadrian, the head of the Roman Church." (Halsall, 1999)


            The method of control over the area by the Franks was achieved not only through the imposition of a Frankish ruler but also through vassalage as well. The vassals were placed in control over areas which were given to Charlemagne by the Church, thus a very close relationship between the two parties is even further established. Of course these lands belonged to the Lombard nobles who opposed Rome and the Franks in this campaign.


"There does not seem to have been any general expropriation at the time of Charlemagne's conquest, but some Lombard nobles forfeited their lands as a result of resistance or subsequent rebellion. More importantly, Charlemagne extended to Italy his policy of settling his vassi on lands borrowed from churches for the purpose." (Reynolds, 1994:189)


            The campaign against the Lombards was only one of several that would draw Charlemagne's attention away from his Saxon conquest, but he would return to this once these ones had been completed. These conquests were usually in the form of either defending Rome against invaders or against some other threat against the Church. Another perfect example of this is his Spanish campaign.


Spanish Invasion (778)


"in the spring of 778, Charles, with a host of crusaders, speaking many tongues, and which numbered among its constituents even a quota of Lombards, moved towards the Pyrenees. His trusted lieutenant, Duke Bernhard, with one division, entered Spain by the coast. Charles himself marched through the mountain passes straight to Pampelona." (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            This was a campaign against the Moslems in most parts but it was also designed to subdue the people of Spain under Frankish control. The campaign itself was masterful as can be seen by the movement of two distinct units from different directions against the opponent. This was more of a punitive attack against the Moslems in order to promote Christian rule. The masterful nature of the campaign is reflected in the results of this venture.


"All the towns and castles that he attacked surrendered and up to the time of his homeward march he sustained no loss whatever; but on his return through the Pyrenees he had cause to rue the treachery of the Gascons." (Halsall, 1999)


            Charlemagne's return trip is the part which is most remembered in this particular campaign, more so even than the military conquest. The process through the Pyrenees resulted in a rear-guard action by some of the rear forces of Charlemagne which is most remembered in history. The military conquest and its method was significant on a military scale due to the method in which it was performed. In many ways the return is most remembered due to the epic that was written about it, an establishment in some ways of knightly virtues by the members of the rear guard.


"Apart from the moral effect of this campaign upon the Moslem rulers of Spain, its result was insignificant, though the famous ambuscade in which perished Roland, the great Paladin, at the Pass of Roncesvalles, furnished to the medieval world the material for its most glorious and influential epic, the "Chanson de Roland"."  (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


Submission of the Bretons and Beneventans (786)


            The action against the Bretons was a campaign to establish his rule in his own kingdom and to solve a niggling problem that had persisted during his rule. This was achieved through force of arms due to the resistance that the Bretons and Beneventans had to Charlemagne's rule. A military force was sent to subdue these troublesome people.


"Charles also subdued the Bretons [786], who live on the sea coast, in the extreme western part of Gaul. When they refused to obey him, he sent an army against them, and compelled them to give hostages, and to promise to do his bidding." (Halsall, 1999)


            The taking of hostages has already been mentioned under Charlemagne's political affairs above. This was done in order to compel these people to submit to his rule and ensure their complicity in this agreement. The promise was reinforced by the taking of these hostages as a moral negotiating tool as well as the expectation that he would gain control over the area. A similar approach and action was fought in the Bavarian campaign against Tassilo.


Bavarian Campaign (787)


"Tassilo, Duke of Bavaria, had been a more or less rebellious vassal ever since the beginning of his reign, and Charles now made use of the pope's influence, exercised through the powerful bishops of Freising, Salzburg, and Regensburg (Ratisbon), to bring him to terms." (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            The collection of these powerful bishops by the pope's command presents the good feeling that the pope had toward Charlemagne at that point in time. Of course the question that has to be asked at this point in time was whether it was due to Charlemagne's mutual feeling of respect or whether it was the need of the pope in order to keep Charlemagne on good terms. Needless to say these terms were presented to Tassilo, but this did not prevent the precipitation to war.


"finding that Tassilo had been secretly associated with the conspiracy of the Lombards, he [Charlemagne] invaded Bavaria from three sides with three armies drawn from at least five nationalities." (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            The increase in the size of the empire along with the oaths of allegiance and requirement for military service enabled Charlemagne to amass such a large force against his opponent at this point in time. Charlemagne's ill-feeling toward Tassilo due to his rebellious nature and his conspiracy with the Lombards was not improved by further evidence of his conspiracy against him. What is most interesting about this is that this additional reason also gave Charlemagne a basis for some of his future campaigns.


"Charles' high spirit could not brook Tassilo's insubordination [allegiance with Huns against Charles], for it seemed to him to pass all bounds; accordingly he straightway summoned his troops from all sides for a campaign against Bavaria and appeared in person with a great army on the river Lech, which forms the boundary between the Bavarians and the Alemanni." (Halsall, 1999)


            This campaign was decisive against Tassilo as the results have already been discussed under the political affairs of Charlemagne previously. Needless to say militarily it was a swift campaign which left no quarter to the enemy. This was a military campaign designed to remove Tassilo and reinforce the Empire as such this was a decisive campaign fought with the full might available to Charlemagne and the result was the subjugation of Bavaria to his will.


            One of the most interesting aspects of Charlemagne's military expeditions is that once a nation was conquered and brought into the Empire, the peoples were expected to serve Charlemagne. This was not only a political service but also a military one. Charlemagne's campaign against the Saxons has already been discussed, but after the successful conclusion of elements of this, Saxons were brought into his army to serve him in other campaigns.


Slavic War (789)


"The Saxons served in this campaign as auxiliaries among the tribes that followed the King's standard at his summons, but their obedience lacked sincerity and devotion. War was declared because the Slavs kept harassing the Abodriti, old allies of the Franks, by continual raids, in spite of all commands to the contrary." (Halsall, 1999)


            Needless to say with the continuing campaign against the Saxons at this time it is no surprise really that they did not serve with particularly much distinction. The Slavic war was swift and decisive as many of Charlemagne's campaigns were. In this particular one not only was it a war of conquest on his part but also a war in order to support long-term allies of the Franks. This is in much the same vein as the campaign against the Lombards in protection of the Church in Rome. The Slavic War was a single campaign and it was fought so that there would be no recurrence of any incident in the nation.


"in a single campaign [789], which he conducted in person, he so crushed and subdued them that they did not think it advisable thereafter to refuse obedience to his commands." (Halsall, 1999)


War with the Huns (791)


"The war against the Avars, or Huns, followed [791], and, except the Saxon war, was the greatest that he waged; he took it up with more spirit than any of his other wars, and made far greater preparations for it." (Halsall, 1999)


            Great preparations were needed for this campaign in order to ensure its success. It was not only the distance from the centre of Frankish territory that would cause problems, but also generating the manpower in order to achieve Charlemagne's ends. Of course this part of the preparations was lessened due to the expected military service instituted in the Empire. In comparison to the Saxon campaign, the war against the Huns was much shorter. "Although they most vigorously prosecuted the war, it only came to a conclusion after a seven years' struggle." (Halsall, 1999). This was a brutal campaign of conquest and took a toll both on the Huns and Franks alike. Of course, the resulting conquest and benefits gained from the campaign out-weighed the costs.


"The entire body of the Hun nobility perished in this contest, and all its glory with it. All the money and treasure that had been years amassing was seized, and no war in which the Franks have ever engaged within the memory of man brought them such riches and such booty." (Halsall, 1999)


            The decimation of the ranks of the Hun nobility would have ensured that the conquest was complete and that there would not have to be a repeat campaign. Militarily this was a success, and financially it was also due to the treasures taken during the campaign. This far exceeded the costs of the campaign. The amount of booty taken during this campaign can only be guessed at, as the Huns had amassed a great deal during their dominance of their territory.


"By the capture of the famous "Ring" of the Avars, with its nine concentric circles, Charles came into possession of vast quantities of gold and silver, parts of the plunder which these barbarians had been accumulating for two centuries." (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            This was a decisive campaign on a military and political level and expanded the Empire a great deal. The financial benefits of the result of this campaign also would have ensured the ability of the Franks to continue to rule over the vast area that they had amassed over their years of conquest. With the East conquered successfully, Charlemagne looked north.


Danish War (808)


"The Bohemian [805-806] and Linonian [808] wars that next broke out [after the end of the Saxon campaign was completed] could not last long; both were quickly carried through under the leadership of the younger Charles. The last of these wars was the one declared against the Northmen called Danes." (Halsall, 1999)


            This is the final military campaign that will be discussed in this particular area and it shows signs of other conflicts which had previously resulted in success. Once again, the campaign to the north was decisively fought giving the opponents no time to breathe. In this way the Danish campaign was fought quickly and decisively by the Franks, though the result of the campaign was seen through by a less than military method. King Godfred was assassinated by one of his bodyguards, which resulted in the end of the war (Halsall, 1999). The reason for the assassination can only be guessed at, but it could be assumed that it occurred due to the fruitless nature of resisting the rule of Charlemagne.


            It should be noted that all of the campaigns mentioned and executed by Charlemagne were fought on a decisive basis. He sought to utterly defeat his enemy and except for some punitive expeditions they were all fought on the basis of conquest. There are religious overtones in many cases reflecting Charles' focus on expanding the Christian Empire that he built and also enhancing the influence of the Church in Rome. Having examined Charlemagne's political and military achievements, it is now important to examine the results of these achievements.


Results of Achievements


            The results of Charlemagne's military and political achievements would be felt for many years after his death. The Carolingian Empire would continue to influence many areas of politics for many years to come. On a personal note and as a note of personal achievement it should be noted that, "The name given by later generations to Charles, King of the Franks, first sovereign of the Christian Empire of the West" (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999). This is a very high honour and reflects the esteem in which Charlemagne was held even many years after his death. The effects of his achievements would be felt even further afield.


"Charles' nature was of a type that appears to best advantage in storm and stress. What was to be the Western Empire of the Middle Ages was already hewn out in the rough when Wittekind received baptism."  (MacPherson and Shahan, 1999)


            In effect the political and national situation in Western Europe was created through the military campaigns of Charlemagne and then reinforced by the political measures that he put into place in order to be able to control his vast empire. These political organisations would result in the creation of Western Europe as it was in the Middle Ages. One of the most recognised influences of Charlemagne to the later age was that of vassalage.


"The Merovingian king bought or paid men with gold; the Carolingian king had to give them fragments of his domain. This was a serious cause of weakness, which was offset by booty as long as the country was at war under Charlemagne," (Pirenne, 1969:24)


            This method of payment by the use of land would stay in place and create feudal system that is so familiar to any study of the medieval period. The fact that this method of control was pioneered by Charlemagne and then continued for centuries after his death presents the influence that this system had over the various territories in which it was used. This method of control and revenue would become a standard one for several centuries to come and would only be phased out in the very late medieval period.


"The kings of the new dynasty [Carolingians], like the kings of the Middle Ages long after them, had no regular resources apart from the revenues of their domains." (Pirenne, 1969:23)


            The advantage of this method of control over the simple use of gold is that it was a continuing resource that the lords could call upon on a regular basis. This meant that it would continue to benefit the kings and not be a simple exchange that would not continue. The regular income achieved in this method enabled the later rulers to increase the financial status of their kingdoms and also enrich them. It has been since recognized by historians that this system was established by Charlemagne.


"Since the Libri Feudorum used benefice as a synonym for feif, it was natural to connect the fiefs and vassals of late medieval literature with the benefices and vassals that the historians soon found in Charlemagne's capitularies." (Reynolds, 1994:322)


            It is most interesting to see that this most influential method of control and revenue was set up by Charlemagne in order to administer his empire, and then was carried on by future lords in order to control their kingdoms for centuries to come. So much was the influence of this political achievement of Charlemagne that such grants were followed and could be traced back to the establishment by Charlemagne. Various other elements present in the system could also.


"We also have evidence that at least some people had myths of the origin of their properties in grants by Frankish kings, though we need note that it was not only titles to fiefs that could be traced to a distant king Charles. Titles to alods could too," (Reynolds, 1994:294)


            But this system of administration was not confined to France. There is evidence, especially due to the influence of Charlemagne's conquests in Italy that a similar system can be attributed to that territory as well. It could equally be said that a similar system could be seen in all of the areas that fell under Frankish dominion during the reign of Charlemagne.


"after French historians had effectively postponed their [fiefs] appearance in France to the Carolingians, it must have been reasonable to attribute their introduction into Italy to Charlemagne." (Reynolds, 1994:181)


            So it can reasonably said that not only was Charlemagne a masterful military leader but he was also extremely politically astute. For a system to have lasted as long as it did even after the death of Charlemagne presents the superiority of this system and also its effectiveness in administrating large areas. But the influence of Charlemagne does not stop there. There is also a cultural element that must be taken into account.


"the culture which was to be that of the period extending from the early Middle Ages to the Renaissance of the 12th century – and this was a true renaissance – bore, and would continue to bear, the Carolingian imprint." (Pirenne, 1969:30)


            Four centuries after Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, and only a little less after his death, the cultural influence of his empire could still be felt in the cultural aspects of the period. In some ways the Carolingian Empire itself could be seen as a form of renaissance in that it resurrected the glory of the Roman Empire and brought a vast area under a single control and established firm methods of government. The fact that the cultural aspects established in this period would continue at least for this period of time is a marked achievement and should not be ignored. These results of his achievements truly do mark Charlemagne as one of the "great men" of his period if not history entirely.




            Charlemagne has been established as a very astute political leader and a very effective military leader. These were the focus of this particular investigation, but it should be noted that these particular elements affected much of the other aspects of his rule and also the rule of those who would follow him. This was not an attempt to either glorify or vilify Charlemagne merely to not his major achievements in these areas.


The investigation focused on his military and political achievements and many of these were brought to light. There have been large aspects which have been omitted from this study in order to focus on these aspects. The fact that only nine of his fifty-three military campaigns have been mentioned is not intended to belittle those which were not mentioned, merely just to focus on a variety of military campaigns and the methods in which he achieved his goals.


A great deal more can be said of his achievements in both of these areas, but the major effects of them have been presented along with how he achieved what he did. The political aspects are those which most appear in the history books and in some ways these are Charlemagne's greatest achievement, but the fact that he was able to create such a vast empire and then manage to control it is also of great significance. The influence of the Church in his achievements should be noted, but was not the focus of this study as much has already been said of his relationship with the Church.


This study was designed to present Charlemagne as a military and political leader, and the influence that his achievements in these particular areas. These achievements also most relate to the later periods of history and especially the medieval period. In fact it could be easily said that the results of Charlemagne's achievements were the formation of Western Europe as it would be for many centuries to come.




Halphen, Louis (1977) Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire, North-Holland Publishing Company, New York, USA


Halsall, P. (1999) Einhard: The Life of Charlemagne, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/einhard.html


James, Edward (1982) The Origins of France: From Clovis to the Capetians, 500-1000, MacMillan Press Ltd, London, UK


MacPherson, E. and Shahan J. (1999) Charlemagne, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03610c.htm


Pirenne, H. (1969) "Mohammed and Charlemagne" in The Pirenne Thesis: Analysis, Criticism, and Revision (Revised Edition), D. C. Heath and Company, Lexington, Massachusetts


Reynolds, S. (1994) Fiefs and Vassals, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK


Copyright 2009 by Henry Walker B.A. (Hons). <henry_the_fox at hotmail.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.  Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>


Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org