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The Story of Old France by  H. A. Guerber
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CHARLEMAGNE'S WARS

I
N dying Pepin divided his kingdom between his two sons, who would probably have quarreled very sorely had not their mother kept peace between them three years, until 771, when only one of them wwas left. Although the dead prince had left children, the nobles thought it would be best to have one ruler only, so they elected Charles to be sole king.

He is only of the few really great men of the world, and as he ruled over a large part of western Europe, he is claimed by both the French and the Germans as their greatest king. Although a German by birth and language, Charles—who was later surnamed the Great (in Latin Magnus—is best known by his French name of Charlemagne (shär'le-mān), by which we may call him now, to avoid confusing him with his famous grandfather, Charles the Hammer.

During his reign,—which lasted forty-three years,—Charlemagne waged war on all sides, taking part in fifty-three campaigns, more than thirty of which were directed against the Saxons and other German tribes. These bar- [69] barians, although severely punished by Pepin for harming the missionaries, had kept on torturing and killing those who were trying to convert them, and had burned down their schools and churches. To punish them for these and other misdeeds Charlemagne often crossed the Rhine with an army, and even built a wooden bridge across this river so as to get over it more easily. So much blood was shed in these wars that it is often said that Saxon blood dyed the soil, which really had a peculiar reddish hue because of the minerals in it.

In the course of these wars, Charlemagne tore down the favorite Saxon idol (Irminsul), forced many warriors [70] to receive baptism, carried off many families to live in different parts of France, and worked so hard that he finally became master of all Germany, which rapidly became civilized.

In 773 the Pope asked Charlemagne to come into Italy to punish the Lombards, who were again making trouble. Charlemagne, therefore, collected a large army and, dividing it into two columns, sent one over the St. Bernard Mountain, while he himself led the other over Mont Cenis (mon sē-nee').

In this way he attacked the Lombards from two sides at once, and soon became master of all except tow of their cities, which made an obstinate resistance, but had to yield at last. Having conquered the Lombards,—who had ruled northern Italy for about two hundred years,—Charlemagne put on the iron crown their king had worn, and declared that he would henceforth rule Lombardy as well as France.

As Charlemagne was such a mighty warrior, and knew how to march great armies from one end of the country to the other with unusual speed, he was called to Spain, in 778, to fight the Saracens, his grandfather's old enemies. Several later campaigns were directed there also, and when they ended, Charlemagne was master of northern Spain, from the Pyrenees to the Ebro.

During one of these campaigns, Charlemagne lost his nephew Roland, and as this young man is the hero of many songs and tales, you will like, in the rest of this chapter, to hear what is said about him, although very little of it is really true. The stories say that Roland was leading the rear guard of the army on the homeward march, [71] and that he had solemnly promised his uncle to call for help by blowing his horn, should the enemy dare to attack him. As the soldiers were winding their way along one of the narrow passes of the mountains, where the rocks rose straight up for hundreds of feet, some Saracens, hidden on the heights, rolled down great masses of earth and rocks and huge tree trunks to crush the men below.

In vain Roland bared his sword and tried to scale the heights; he could not reach the foe! The dead lay thick around him when he suddenly remembered his promise and loudly blew his horn. Then, resuming his efforts, he fought the hosts which now poured down on all sides, until all his companions were slain. Feeling that his end, too, was near, Roland blew a second blast on his horn ("Oliphant")—a blast so loud and so long that he actually burst the veins in his temples! Then, wishing to save his good horse from falling into the hands of the enemy, who might illtreat him, Roland bade the faithful beast good-by and killed him with his own hand.

To prevent the foe from seizing his sword ("Durendal"), which he knew would soon drop from his lifeless hand, Roland tried to break it by striking with all his might at the rocks near by. But the strong blade cut right through the stone, and Roland had to break it, at last, by bending it sharply over his knee. Then, falling back exhausted, the hero had barely time to whisper a prayer before he passed away, calling to the Archangel St. Michael to receive his parting spirit and bear it safely to heaven.

Meantime, his uncle, twenty miles away, fancied he heard the sound of Roland's horn; but a traitor, who knew what was happening, declared that it was merely the [73] call of a hunter. Still, when Roland blew that last loud blast, Charlemagne came hurrying back, only to find his nephew and all his men dead, and many of them buried beneath masses of fallen stones! Charlemagne wept bitterly over the death of his beloved Roland, and duly avenged him by punishing the Saracens.

Roland was long considered the best and bravest knight of his time, and for more than two hundred years French soldiers loved to hear and sing "The Song of Roland." In the mountains, people still show a great cleft in the rocks, which they say was made by Roland's sword, and there is a queer echo which is supposed to be the lingering sound of the last blast of this hero's wonderful horn.


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