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The History of Germany by  Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall


 

 

CHARLEMAGNE

[32] AMONG the many German tribes which had taken possession of the Roman Empire were the Franks who invaded Gaul.

At first their kingdom was small, but after a time there came to the throne a King whose name was Clodwig or Clovis. He was a great soldier and conqueror. He fought and conquered tribe after tribe, and king after king, until at length he ruled over a great kingdom, which included part of what is now Germany.

But as years went on the Merovingians, as the line of kings to which Clodwig belonged was called, grew weaker and weaker, and at length their place was taken by a new line called the Carolingian. The Carolingians rose from a family which had at first been servants of the King. They had been Mayors of the Palace. To begin with, the Mayors of the Palace merely looked after the King's household. But by degrees they became very powerful, they led the army in battle, and were the King's chief advisers. Then, as time went on, the kings became ever weaker and weaker, until they were called Do-Nothing Kings. They indeed did nothing, and the whole power lay in the hands of the Mayor.

For many years this state of affairs lasted. The King in name sat in his palace and did nothing, while the Mayor ruled. Then at length the long pretence [33] was put an end to. It was decided that the man who ruled should have the name of ruler. The last long-haired, blue-eyed, empty-headed Merovingian was sent into a monastery, and Pepin the Short, the first Carolingian King, was crowned.

Pepin was a great King, but his son Charles was far greater. Charles came to the throne in 768, and for a time shared it with his brother Carloman. But in 771 Carloman died. Then Charles ruled alone.

Charles became so great a King that he is known in history as Charles the Great or Charlemagne. When he came to the throne the Franks had not forgotten that they were Germans, and one of Charlemagne's great desires was to bring all German tribes under his rule. He wanted, too, to make his kingdom a great Christian kingdom. For the Franks who, when they first stormed over the Rhine into Gaul, had been heathen, were now Christian. But the Saxons and the Danes, in spite of Boniface and many other Christian priests who had come before and after him, were still heathen. They rose again and again in fury, slaying the priests and burning the new-built churches.

Hearing of these disturbances, Charlemagne marched into the land with sword in hand. His first attack was upon a strange idol called Irminsul or Irmin's Column. This is thought by some to have been merely a statue of the great Arminius, which the people had come to worship as an idol. The great hero, it is said, was shown in full armour. In one hand he held a standard, in the other a pair of scales, to show forth the uncertainty of battle. Upon his breastplate was painted a bear, upon his shield a lion resting upon a bed of flowers. The one was meant to teach the wild brave [34] Saxon that death upon the battle-field would bring him sweetest rest. The other was an emblem of deathless courage.

Whether this mysterious figure really represented Arminius or not, it had at least grown to be a national idol, and Charlemagne cast it down, broke it in pieces, burned the wooden temples which surrounded it, and carried off all the gold and silver treasure which he found there. Then, taking with him many hostages, Charlemagne marched away to make war against the Lombards in Italy. But if he hoped the Saxons were subdued he was mistaken, for again and again they rose against him.

Meanwhile Charlemagne fought the Lombards or Longbeards. They, too, were a German race, who had come from their northern home upon the shores of the Baltic, and had taken possession of the sunny lands of Italy.

Now two great Frankish armies poured over the Alps into Italy, and soon the town of Pavia was besieged. Then, while the siege was going on, Charlemagne marched to Rome, where the Pope welcomed him with great honour. The people of the city came out to greet him as their deliverer, casting green branches before him and singing, "Blessed is he who cometh in the name of the Lord."

Then, having celebrated the solemn feast of Easter at Rome, and sworn friendship with the Pope, Charlemagne returned to Pavia.

Now at length the city was taken, and all the north of Italy yielded to the conqueror. The King, his wife, and daughter were taken prisoner and sent to end their days in Frankist convents. Only Adelchis, the [35] King's son, would not yield; he held out to the last, and when at length no hope remained he fled in disguise.

Adelchis was very strong. In battle, instead of a sword, he used an iron staff, with which he felled his enemies to the ground. He could snap a hop-pole as easily as one might break a twig. And now it is told of him that as he wandered homeless and alone he came one day to the palace of Pavia, which had once been his father's, and where now Charlemagne held high state. There, as the custom was, he sat down to table as any might, none saying him nay. As the feast went on, Charlemagne was astonished to see him break up the bones of stags and oxen as if they were matchwood. He marvelled much who this stranger might be, who was so strong and had such a valiant air.

But ere the end of the feast Adelchis quietly slipped away. There were those, however, among the company who, even in disguise, well knew the Prince. So it was told to Charlemagne that the noble stranger was Adelchis, the son of the conquered King. When he heard that, Charlemagne was right sorry that he had allowed his enemy to escape.

Therefore, said a knight, "Sire, if you will give me the bracelet which is upon your arm, I swear to bring him back to you alive or dead."

So, as Charlemagne would most willingly have Adelchis a prisoner, he took the golden bracelet from his arm, and, giving it to the knight, bade him go and fetch back the Prince.

The knight sped away, and soon he came upon Adelchis as he sailed in a boat upon the river Ticino.

"Hold, sir knight," he cried. "Why did you leave [36] the feast so secretly? The King sends to you his golden bracelet as a gift."

When Adelchis heard the knight call, he turned his boat and came towards the bank. But as he came near he saw that the knight held out the bracelet to him on the end of a spear. Then said he to himself, "There is treachery here."

Quickly then he buckled on his armour, and, standing in his boat a little way from the bank, he called out, "What you offer me at the spear's point I will receive at the spear's point. Even if your master sends me this gift falsely, so that you may compass my death, I will not be outdone. I too will send him a gift."

Thereupon he took off his bracelet, and, putting it on the end of his spear, held it out to the knight. The knight took it, but by no means could he persuade Adelchis to come nearer or leave his boat and follow him to Charlemagne. So in great sorrow for the oath which he had sworn, that he would bring Adelchis back with him either dead or alive, the knight was fain to return alone.

And when the knight came to Charlemagne he gave him the bracelet, and told him how he had fared. Then Charlemagne slipped the bracelet over his hand, but it was so large that it passed all the way up his arm to his shoulder. Then was Charlemagne greatly astonished. "It is no wonder," he cried, "that a man with such huge arms should have the strength of a giant."

And so it is said Charlemagne feared Adelchis greatly, and would very willingly have compassed his death. But Adelchis fled away to Constantinople. There the Emperor received him kindly, and gave him the rank [37] of Patrician. There he lived quietly until he died at a good old age.

Meanwhile, with solemn ceremony, Charlemagne was crowned King of the Lombards. All the nobles of the land came to do him homage. He was girt with a sword of gold, a purple robe was placed upon his shoulders, and the iron crown of the Lombards was set upon his head. Henceforth he called himself King of the Franks and of the Lombards, and Patrician of Rome.

And now once more from his triumphs in Italy, Charlemagne was called back to fight the heathen Saxons. "It is hard to say," writes an historian who lived in those days, and who wrote the history of Charlemagne, "It is hard to say how often they were beaten, and humbly yielded to the king, promising him obedience. Sometimes they were so tamed as even to promise to give up their worship of idols, vowing that they wished to become Christians. But, ready as they were at times to promise all these things, they were always far more ready to break their promises."

At the very slightest chance of success they revolted, and of all Charlemagne's wars that against the Saxons was the fiercest and the longest.


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