Snippets of French history: Charlemagne AD 742 – 814.
The exact date of birth of Charlemagne is not known, but historians think it was probably 742, though it may have been as late as 748. He was probably born in Aachen, now part of Germany but at the time part of Frankish-ruled Francia.
Over and above other Frankish kings, Charlemagne is remembered in history mostly because he was a staunch defender of the Catholic church (and religion remained of paramount importance in its various forms till the 20th Century; indeed he was responsible for the Massacre of Verden where peasants were forced in to Christianity on pain of death) and he was arguably the instigator of a cultural “renaissance” in the Dark Ages. Furthermore, although on the one hand he was a religious man, a good father and grandfather (as far as history is able to tell us), he was also a warrior who conquered the lands around him and became the first Emperor of western Europe since the fall of the Roman empire almost 400 years earlier.
Dating from (I don’t know, I should look it up) around the 11th Century, this picture shows Pope Adrian 1 at the gates of Rome, asking Charlemagne (mounted) for help. As a reward, the Pope made Charlemagne King of Italy and here you can see him popping his new crown on to his head while the Pope and his boys look on. Pictures of this era often showed more than one event within the same scene – past, present and future could be represented in the one picture, with one person appearing several times. Here the Pope asks for help, and then Charlemagne, months later, receives his crown.
Charlemagne spurred my own imagination as a child when, in a French school on the island of Nouvelle Caledonie, I read “la Chanson de Roland”. Why the nuns thought a twelve year-old would (or even could) read such an epic poem, I have no idea, but they did, and I did and it has remained with me all these years.
In this picture Roland blows his horn to call for help as he and his men die defending the faith. In reality Roland had nothing to do with Charlemagne, except that he was a military leader of the time, who died at the Battle of Roncevalles in a mountain pass en route for Iberia (now Spain). Legend grew around him and by the 11th Century, ie 300 years later, he had been turned in to a hero, nephew of Charlemagne. He is romanticised by having a sword named Durandel and a horse called Viellantif (the latter meaning something along the lines of “watchful”). The story was just the job when one is twelve years old.
Charlemagne had at least nine children and, most oddly for the era, did not allow his daughters to marry because (one assumes) he did not want any legitimate heirs on the female side of the family. He allowed his daughters, however, to have lovers, and even honoured and rewarded the lovers where appropriate. The daughters all had children, of course, and Charlemagne seems to have been devoted to all his grandchildren, illigitimate or otherwise.
Charlemagne died, and was buried in Aachen. It is recorded that he died of pleurisy and depression, but he was around 72 years old, an old man by the standards of the day. He had ruled for 47 years.
Unhappily all but one of Charlemagne’s sons pre-deceased him, and he was succeeded by his only surviving son, Louis the Pious. In due course, Louis the Pious left the by now very extensive Francia to his two surviving sons and that, in time, created the two separate countries of France and Germany.
Catherine Broughton is a novelist and also owns and runs a holiday complex in France. Visit www.holidaychateaufrance.com