The Wars of Charlemagne, c. 770 - 814
Davis Introduction: Most of Charlemagne's reign was consumed with wars in which he
was usually victorious. He never had to confront a first-class enemy in battle, and his
martial father and grandfather had transmitted to him the well-trained Frankish army. He
cannot, therefore, be called a distinguished general. His wars, however, were of high
importance for history; especially the conquest of the Saxons and the Lombards implied the
bringing of much of Germany and Italy into the circle of "The Holy Roman
Empire," and of medieval civilization.
After bringing a war in Aquitania to an end, he was persuaded, by the prayers and
promptings of Hadrian, Bishop of Rome, to undertake a war against the Lombards. Already
before him his father [Pepin] had assumed this task, at the asking of Pope Stephen, under
great difficulties, for certain Frankish chiefs of his very council, had opposed the
proposal so vehemently as to threaten to desert their King and go home. Notwithstanding,
the war against Astolf, King of the Lombards, had been undertaken, and promptly brought to
an issue. Now [773 A.D.] although Charles had similar, or rather precisely the same
grounds for declaring war that his father had, the war differed from the former both in
its hardships and its results.
Pepin, to be sure, after a brief siege of King Astolf in Pavia, had compelled him to
give hostages, to restore to the people of Rome the cities and castles he had seized, and
to swear that he would not try to take them again. Charles, however, did not turn
back---once war was declared---until he had exhausted King Desidarius by a prolonged
siege; then forced him to surrender unconditionally. He also drove his son Adalgis, the
last hope of the Lombards, not only from his kingdom, but from all Italy. He likewise
restored to the Romans all they had lost; crushed Henodgans, Duke of Friuli, who was
scheming revolt; reduced all Italy to his sway, and set his son Pepin over it.
The war ended with the subjection of Italy, the banishment of King Desidarius for life,
the expulsion of his son Adalgis from Italy and the restoration to Hadrian, Primate of the
Roman Church, of all the conquests by the Lombard kings.
As to the Saxon war, no war ever undertaken by the Franks was waged with such
persistence and bitterness, or cost so much labor, because the Saxons, like almost all
Germans, were a ferocious folk, given over to devil-worship, hostile to our Faith, and
they did not consider it dishonorable to transgress and violate all law---be it human or
divine. Then, too, special circumstances caused a breach of the peace daily. Accordingly,
war was begun against the Saxons and was waged furiously for thirty-three consecutive
years [772-804 A.D.] on the whole to the disadvantage of the Saxons. Much earlier surely
it would have terminated but for the perfidy of the Saxons. It is hard to tell how often
they were conquered, humbly submitted to the King and promised to do what was commanded,
gave the required hostages and received the royal officers. Sometimes they were so abased
that they promised to renounce "devil-worship" and adopt Christianity.
Nevertheless, they were as prone to repudiate these terms as to accept them. It was
actually impossible to tell which came easier for them to do. Hardly a year passed from
the beginning of the war without such changes on their part.
The King, however, pressed them with unvarying purpose despite great difficulties and
either took the field against them himself, or sent his counts against them with a host to
wreak vengeance and exact due satisfaction. The war that had lasted so many years at last
terminated when the Saxons gave way to the terms proffered by the King; namely, the
renunciation of their native religious cults and devil-worship, the acceptance of the
Christian sacraments, and union with the Franks into one people.
The Saxon war began two years before the Italian war, but although it went on
continuously, business elsewhere was not neglected, nor did the King hesitate to enter on
other equally severe contests. Excelling, as he did, all the princes of his time in wisdom
and magnanimity, he did not suffer difficulty to turn him back, nor danger to daunt him,
from any task to be assumed or carried to a conclusion.
From: William Stearns Davis, ed., Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts
from the Sources, 2 Vols., (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-1913), pp. 373-375.
Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text may have been modernized
by Prof. Arkenberg.
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© Paul Halsall, August 1998