Stories from German History - Florence Aston



When King Pippin died, on the 24th of September 768, he left his realm to his two sons, Karloman and Karl, but an accident deprived Karloman of life only three years later, leaving as sole ruler the young Karl, whom the French call Charlemagne and the Germans Karl the Great.

A man of restless activity and wonderful power of organization, he changed during the forty-three years of his reign not only the condition of France but of all Europe. He desired to unite the various German tribes into one nation under his sway, converting those that were still heathen to the Christian faith; so that instead of Franks and Swabian, Burgundians and Saxons, and the many sundered states, there might be one great Christian Empire. This was his life's work, and his mighty deeds, not only as warrior in the field but as wise ruler and furtherer of Christianity, education and civilization, have justified his title to the name of 'the Great'

His first task on ascending the throne was the subjugation of the Saxons, who dwelt between Rhine and Elbe, and, according to ancient German custom, had often banded themselves together, led by their Duke in person, and made raids on the neighbouring Frankish territory.

The Saxons were a bold and fearless race, with a passion for freedom, devoted to the worship of the old heathen gods, and determined to submit to no Frank, neither to bow to his deity.

In the month of May 772, Charlemagne held a council of his warriors at Worms, at which it was unanimously decided to carry war into the realm of the unfortunate Saxons.

Religion was made the pretext for this act, since the Franks had already sent to preach to the Saxons a missionary whose ministrations had been rejected with scorn. Priests had been tortured and slain, and even the monks of Fulda had been driven from their cloisters, bearing the sacred bones of Bonifacius with them.

Kindness and persuasion having failed, Charlemagne felt himself justified, such was the spirit of the age, in converting the heathen at the point of the sword. This motive also served to make the war popular among his people, since they considered their cause that of God and His Holy Church.

Thus Charlemagne crossed the Rhine and embarked upon a war of thirty years' duration, for the Saxons clung with a greater fervour than ever to their independence and their faith in the ancient gods, meeting by night in gloomy forests and swearing on their altars bitter enmity to the Franks and fealty to each other.

Again and again he drove them before him, again and again they rallied and resisted once more. He took their chief fortress of Eresburg, and destroyed Irminsul, a mysterious pillar or tree, which they held in high reverence and awe as the wondrous tree of the gods which upholds the middle earth. Year after year passed, and still the brave tribesmen would not submit. Time after time their leaders would appear, pray for peace, take the oath of fealty to Karl and receive the sacrament of baptism, but just when he felt sure of success, they would rise again and drive him back. Once he felt so sure of them that in the year 777 he held a great parliament at Paderborn, in Saxon territory, at which most of the invited Saxons appeared, and so submissive was their demeanour and so large the number of baptisms into the Christian faith, that he invited them to join his army and help him to suppress a rising of the Wends. Led by their duke, Widukind, they set forth, but at a given signal turned upon the Franks, almost annihilating Karl's army, and drove from the land the newly appointed ash officials and all priests of the Church.

After this revolt Karl held a fearful assize of vengeance at Verden on the River Aller, where he condemned 4500 Saxons to death, but he failed to capture their leaders. News of this bloody assize spread far and wide through all the Saxon land, bowing each Saxon head in anguish and despair; but, stung to desperation, Widukind once more appeared, rallied the remainder of his forces and flung himself upon the Franks.

Two sanguinary battles bade fair to annihilate his tribesmen altogether, and in the year 808 he appeared with his warriors before Karl at Attigny in France, praying for peace, and submitted to the rite of baptism into the Christian Church.

The story ran that he visited Wolmirstadt in the guise of a beggar, and, led by curiosity, entered the church. There he saw the wondrous figure of a child in white raiment rise from the consecrated wafer of the Holy Sacrament, and in terror he rushed from the sanctuary, confessing the real presence of Christ the Lord.

The submission of the Saxons completed Karl's consolidation of the German tribes into one realm, and their conversion to Christianity assisted greatly in fostering a spirit of unity, although its spread was by no means rapid, and Karl was obliged to visit the frequent lapses into paganism with sentences of death.

In his youth Karl had married a Frankish lady named Himiltrude, but, acting on the advice of his mother, he sought an alliance with the King of Lombardy in the north of Italy, divorced his young wife and married Desiderata, daughter of the Lombard king, Didier. This step was contrary to the advice of the Pope and the dictates of his own conscience, and sorely he was punished for his wickedness and folly. He was so unhappy with Desiderata that after a year he put her away and married a certain lady, Hildegard. This insult to his daughter made the King of Lombardy his implacable enemy. So Karl raised an army and entered Italy by way of the Pass over Mount Cenis.

Legends say that this pass was pointed out to him by a wandering minstrel, whom Karl rewarded for his services by granting him all the land over which a blast of his horn could be heard.

The strongest fortress in Lombardy was Pavia, where Didier took refuge, and from a high tower surveyed the advancing army.

"Is this Karl?" he asked, as an enormous mass of soldiers appeared. "Noble, not yet," answered his companion, a Frank who had taken refuge with him from the anger of Karl.

Round the hill swept an immense band with engines of war such as Julius Caesar himself might have used. "Here is Karl certainly," said Didier, with conviction. "Not yet," answered the Frank. A still larger band of guards tramped past.

"There is Karl himself." But again the answer came: "Not yet."

And then appeared a long procession of bishops, abbots and priests. "Let us go down," stammered Didier, "and hide ourselves under the earth before the countenance of so fearful a king."

Said the Frank: "When you see steel spring like corn from the earth, then expect that Karl will come."

A dark cloud rose in the west. Nearer and nearer it came, and as it advanced it grew brighter and brighter, for, mounted on a steel-clad horse, and arrayed in glittering steel from head to foot, with his mighty sword 'Joyeuse' in his hand, rode the great king, a band of chosen warriors surrounding him whose spears flashed like a field of steel corn.

"See," said the Frank. "There is the one for whom you have asked," and as he spoke Didier fell almost lifeless at his feet.

But in spite of his fears Didier made a bold resistance, and Karl was detained so long before Pavia that he even sent home for his children and his wife Hildegard.

"Let us begin by doing something memorable," said he, and within a week there arose a basilica with walls, roof and painted ceiling, such as might have required a year to build. And in this chapel Karl, with his family, court and warriors, celebrated the Christmas festival of 778.

The next year Karl sent his generals to continue the siege, and himself set off on a pilgrimage to Rome to see the Holy Father. Three miles outside the city he was welcomed by the magistrates, citizens and students of the schools, who led him, with hymns and songs, to the gates of Rome, where he dismounted and walked on foot to the ancient church of Saint Peter, in which waited the Pope himself. Gifts were exchanged, the Holy Father handing to Karl a copy of the canons of the Church with the inscription

"Pope Adrian, to his most excellent son, Charlemagne, King."

Karl on his part confirmed his father's gift to the former Pope, adding new grants of his own.

He then returned to Pavia, and having received the submission of the city, took Didier prisoner and sent him as a monk into a cloister, and joined Lombardy to the kingdom of the Franks.


Charlemagne founded the city of Aix-la-Chapelle, which was his favourite winter residence. He was a zealous huntsman, and the forests of France and Germany abounded with wolves and wild boar, which it was his delight to pursue. Separated from his companions one day in the chase, Karl was making his way through the thickets when his horse suddenly stumbled, having set its forefoot in a hole. Karl dismounted, since the poor beast seemed frightened and uneasy, and soon perceived the cause of its alarm, for from the hole in the earth arose steam which, upon investigation, was discovered to come from health-giving medicinal springs.

Karl sounded his bugle for his friends, and to them showed his valuable discovery. A chapel was built near the spot, and a palace, where he often dwelt. Then many houses arose round the palace, and people came to bathe in the warm springs, thus founding the historic city of Aachen or Aix.

To this palace Karl would retire each winter after the summer campaign was over, and every Easter he held a council of war which all his chief warriors attended.

He was seldom defeated in war, for he was wary and wise and moved his forces about so quickly that larger armies than his own found it difficult to keep pace with him. He improved the methods of warfare which his father had taught him, and also the weapons of the soldiers. He invented helmets with visors that could be drawn down over the face in fight, introduced large, long shields which protected the whole body, instead of the little round bucklers of the early Gauls.

His men fought with sharp two-handed swords and heavy clubs with steel spikes, and they were mounted on strong, swift horses. Each man *as bound to provide himself with lance and shield or with a bow and twelve arrows. The richer warriors had to clothe themselves in complete armour; poorer men, who could not afford this, contributed each his share to provide one warrior with a full equipment. So accurate was Karl's knowledge of the country that he could dispatch an army by short cuts and byways, thus surprising his enemies before they dreamt of his approach.

Not only was Karl a great warrior, but his government was a marvel when we consider how many wild and diverse nations he controlled. They were ruled by counts, who met once a year at the great open parliament, discussed the welfare of the realm, bore back to their people the Great King's decrees, and brought their vassals with them in time of war.

Karl was also a zealous reformer of agriculture, experimenting on his own farms and keeping a sharp watch over his overseers and the profits made. At that time all the chief men were warriors and the management of the farms was left to slaves, who were bought and sold with the property. To alleviate the condition of these slaves Karl made laws protecting them from cruel masters. Indeed so kind-hearted was he that any man who was oppressed knew that he might claim justice from the Ring.

At one time Karl hung up a bell at his castle gate, proclaiming that anyone who needed his help might ring and make his claim, and many a man made use of this means.

The story runs that one day when the bell sounded, all that the porter found when he opened the gate was an emaciated old white horse, so starved that it was nibbling at the rope with its teeth. Karl caused inquiries to be made, whereupon one of his warriors arose and spoke:

"Let my lord allow me to speak for this dumb victim of oppression."

And the Great King gave leave.

"This horse," continued the knight, "belongs to one of your warriors. It has served its master well in many a hard fight and its swift feet have borne him to safety when he has been surrounded by cruel foes. But now that it is lame and blind, he will give it food no more, but turns it out to die of starvation on the road. Decide now, O King, the justice of this cause."

And the Great King arose to his feet in wrath.

"The poor beast shall not claim my help in vain," he thundered. "I command that its master provide it a stable and a pasture and care for it well as long as it shall live."

In the year 778 Karl commenced an expedition in Spain to drive back the Moors whom his illustrious grandfather, Charles Martel, had expelled from France. He crossed the Pyrenees and advanced as far as the River Ebro, but the Moors bribed him, with rich presents of gold and jewels, to spare their beautiful cities, so he turned back. On the retreat from Spain Charlemagne's army was attacked in the valley of Roncesvalles by a wild tribe of Basques, and several of the chiefs were killed, among whom was the famous knight Roland.

About the figure of Roland many legends have grown. Untrue or exaggerated as many of them certainly are, they yet illustrate the veneration which his fine courage commanded. So closely was he connected with the Great King that some of these stories call him a relation of Charlemagne, alleging that his mother, the Lady Bertha, was the King's own sister. It was supposed that Roland's father was swept away by a flood when his son was only a tiny child, and he was believed by all to be dead. The Lady Bertha was now reduced to want and misery, and, fearful of the wrath of her noble brother, who had always disapproved of her marriage, she took refuge in a cave near the city of Aix-la-Chapelle. Although only six years of age, the little Roland used to fight the boys of the city, taking from them bread and apples to feed his dearly loved mother.

One day when very much in want of food, he is supposed to have walked into the Great King's banqueting-hall, attracted by the sound of the minstrels, and boldly seized the royal cup and platter as they stood before the King.

So much amazed and interested was. Karl at the tiny intruder's boldness that he questioned the boy, and eventually sent a deputation of knights to find his mother, who lived henceforth at the court of Aix,

Later on, legends relate, Roland's father appeared once more, having been rescued from death. He was reconciled with Charlemagne, and served among his knights. Roland eventually became one of the twelve Paladins, the chief of Charlemagne's warriors. With his sword Duranda he could cleave marble, and his horn Olivant had the power of raising to his aid in time of need all those friends of his who had already fallen in war.

Fallen on from the rear and wounded to death during the retreat from Spain, Roland took his horn, and with his last breath blew the blast that warned his beloved King of the danger threatening him in the rear.


Charlemagne had a secretary named Eginhard, who wrote, in Latin, a life of his illustrious master, from which we gather what we know of his public and private life. As a boy Eginhard had possessed such bright gaiety of temperament and keenness of perception that the Great King had taken him into his palace as a companion to his own sons in their studies. When he grew up, Eginhard repaid his lord's kindness by faithful and wise service. He is said to have fallen deeply in love with the Princess Emma, one of Karl's daughters, but had despaired of ever gaining her father's consent to so unequal a match. So they used to meet at night and talk together when all in the palace were asleep. One night when they parted and Eginhard was about to turn his steps toward home, they found that fresh snow had fallen while they talked, which would betray only too plainly the fact that a man had stood under the Princess's window. Emma, however, was quick and resourceful, and, taking her lover on her shoulders, she carried him over the castle courtyard, leaving only her woman's footprints behind.

But the Great King, who often waked at night, stood watching the stars at his window, yet when the two beheld him, he made no movement and spoke no word. Eginhard feared the worst, so when days passed and still Karl made no sign, he ventured into his presence and humbly begged for his dismissal.

"Come to the Council on the morrow," commanded the King shortly, and on the morrow Eginhard went trembling and fearful for his life. Karl related the story to his warriors assembled, whereupon some would have condemned the youth to death for his presumption in raising his eyes to a princess of the blood, but Karl shook his head and, turning to him, said: "Eginhard, you have served me well, and now ask for your dismissal. I, however, wish to reward you for your faithful service to me, and I will now do so by giving you my daughter Emma for wife."

So Eginhard was made happy, and devoted himself to the task of writing the life of Charlemagne, wherein he gave an excellent description of his personal appearance, which is quoted as follows:

"Charlemagne was large and robust in person, his stature was lofty, though it did not exceed just proportion, for his height was not more than seven times the length of his foot. The summit of his head was round, his eyes large and bright, his nose a little long, beautiful white hair, and a smiling and pleased expression.

"There reigned in his whole person, whether standing or seated, an air of grandeur and dignity; and though his neck was thick and short, and his body corpulent, yet he was in other respects so well proportioned that these defects were not noticed.

"His walk was firm, and his whole appearance manly, but his high voice did not quite harmonize with his appearance.

"His health was always good, except during the four years which preceded his death. He then had frequent attacks of fever, and was lame of one foot. In this time of suffering he treated himself more according to his own fancies than by the advice of the physicians, whom he had come to dislike because they would have had him abstain from the roast meats he was accustomed to, and would have restricted him to boiled meats.

"His dress was that of his nation, that is to say of the Franks. He wore a shirt and drawers of linen, woven by his daughters, over them a tunic bordered with silken fringe, stockings fastened with narrow bands, and shoes. In winter a coat of otter or martin fur covered his shoulders and breast. Over all he wore a long blue mantle."

It was the fashion among the warriors of Charlemagne's day to wear a short mantle, but this the Great King would never do, preferring the ancient fashion of his fathers, which, indeed, added to the majesty of his presence among the members of his court.

He was always girded with his great sword, Joyeuse, whose hilt was of silver and gold. At great festivals his dress was embroidered with gold and his shoes adorned with jewels. His mantle was fastened with a rich brooch, and on his head rested a glittering diadem.

But usually he avoided such pomp, loving better the simplicity of the ancient Franks, though many of his courtiers dressed with much magnificence.

Once when he thought that their pomp had developed into mere vanity and foolishness, Karl invited these gay gentlemen to ride with him, and galloped through rain, mud and brambles, until all the fine clothes were spoilt.

The Great King was also a very abstemious man, hating nothing so much as drunkenness. At his evening meal, only four courses were served, the hunters themselves carrying round the roast meats on their spears, and while men ate, the histories of ancient kings were read aloud or good words from the early Fathers of the Church.


We are much indebted to Eginhard the Secretary for his account of Karl. In those days few men could read and write, but so zealous was the Great King for the advancement of the realm that he gathered learned men about him, such as Eginhard and the great Alcuin.

Alcuin or Ealhwine was an English monk, whose acquaintance Karl had first made at Rome. He was a prodigy of learning, and acted as tutor not only to the children of the imperial family, but to the Emperor himself.

Although a mature man, Charlemagne laboured hard at his studies. He learned Latin and Greek, astronomy and music, and took a great interest in theological discussion. He founded schools where he himself and his children and courtiers took lessons.

One thing the great Karl never accomplished, in spite of all his efforts, and that was to write a good hand. He practised the art zealously, even keeping a set of tablets always near him by day and under his pillow at night, so that any stray moment might be utilized for the purpose.

Naturally he met with many disappointments, for his warriors, accustomed as they were to the use of arms, were often found to despise the new learning as the portion of monks and weaklings and unworthy of their notice.

Karl, however, laboured on patiently, paying special honour to the learned bishops and monks, whom he endowed with rich lands, but at the same time kept a sharp watch that they did their duty, and left them no loophole for lapses into idleness. He loved to read with Alcuin the ancient Fathers of the Church, such as Jeronimus and Augustine, but be persuaded few to join him in his studies, for his Franks found more pleasure in war and the chase than in books.

"Alas!" he cried one day, "if I only had twelve followers as learned as Jeronimus and Augustine, what great things I might do!" Then answered the pious Alcuin: "The Lord of heaven and earth had only two such men, and you desire to have twelve!"

The King would hold rigorous inspections of his schools to assure himself that everyone was working hard. Once he entered a school, and after listening to the answers of the children, and examining their written exercises, he divided those who had learnt well from those who were lazy, bidding the clever children stand on his right hand and the dunces on the left. It was then clearly seen that the industrious were the poor, and the lazy children were the sons of nobles. At this Karl was very wroth, and, turning to his right hand first, addressed them in the following words:

"I am glad, dear children, that you work thus hard. You have chosen the good part and shall not lose your reward. But you"—and here he turned to the young aristocrats on his left—"you sons of noblemen, useless dolls, who think scorn of this good learning, I take Cod to witness that your noble birth and high-bred faces have no value in my eyes, and unless you make good your loss with speed, you need expect no favour from me."

The fame of Karl's government and learning spread abroad and he was much respected by foreign rulers as well as by the chiefs of his own land. Even the Moors of Asia, Africa and Spain sent ambassadors to pay him homage. The famous Caliph Haroun al Raschid sent his congratulations when Karl was crowned Emperor, together with the present of an elephant, which caused some dismay among the astonished Franks, who had never seen such an animal before. He also sent costly Eastern spices and rich works of art, among which was a wonderful clock worked by water, that marked the hours by little balls which fell ringing on to a metal plate, and knights on horseback who appeared through little doors.

In return Karl gave stately horses, hounds for hunting, and the fine linen and cloth for which the Frankish and Frisian women were famous.

Karl's piety too commended him to the Pope at Rome, for the cathedral at Aix was adorned with gold and jewels, with screens of brass from Rome and marbles from Ravenna. Night and morning the King worshipped there, and on great festivals would even rise at night to join the good monks at their prayers. Organs were brought from Italy, and masters of singing to instruct the choirs. He is said to have written several hymns, one of them being the Veni Creator Spiritus, which is sung at the ordination of our clergy. He enforced the payment of tithes in his realm, and he helped poor Christians, not only in his own kingdom, but in Syria, Egypt, Carthage and elsewhere. He sent rich gifts of gold, silver and gems to the great Church of Saint Peter at Rome, and aided Pope Leo III against his enemies who drove him from his capital. The Pope once sheltered for a whole year in the King's palace when conspirators lay in wait to seek his life. And the Holy Father was not ungrateful, for on Christmas Day in the year 800, he received Karl in his own Cathedral of Saint Peter, and there crowned him Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, which meant that he then became lord of France, Germany and Italy.

Eginhard thus described the scene:

"The King came into the basilica of the blessed Saint Peter, apostle, to attend the celebration of mass. At the moment when in his place before the altar he was bowing down to pray, Pope Leo placed upon his head a crown, and all the Roman people shouted: 'Long life and victory to Charles Augustus, crowned by God, the great and pacific emperor of the Romans!'"

Thus was founded the mighty Empire of Charlemagne, but though he did so much, Karl was unable to consolidate it, and it was doomed to fall apart in the hands of his successors. But the greatness of his work is shown in the fact that he had given so much life and force to his large Empire before he died, that separate parts of it were enabled to maintain their own, and thus Germany, France and Italy each carved out a place and name for herself in the history of nations.

Charlemagne had three sons, Karl, Pippin and Ludwig. In the year 781 he had taken his two younger sons, aged four and three years of age, to Rome, where they were anointed by the Pope as King of Italy and King of Aquitaine respectively. On his return Karl sent the little Ludwig to take formal possession of his kingdom, and he entered Orleans clad in a tiny suit of armour and held upon a horse by his attendants. After his subjects had paid due homage to their baby sovereign he was taken back to his father's palace to be educated.

Toward the end of his life, Charlemagne suffered much loss. Within two years his sister, daughter and two elder sons died, leaving only Ludwig to succeed his illustrious father. In 818 Charlemagne felt that the end was drawing nigh, so he assembled all the chief men of his realm, in the cathedral at Aix, and there before them all Ludwig, or Louis as the French call him, took the great diadem from the altar and crowned himself Emperor of Rome.

"Blessed be the Lord," exclaimed Charlemagne, "who bath granted me to see my son sitting on my throne."

He then began to prepare for death, and, in the presence of priests and laymen, made his last will and testament. The poor were remembered with generosity, even the library which had been collected with so much pains was to be sold for their benefit. Of the three magnificent silver tables which Karl possessed, one with an engraving of the city of Constantinople on it was left to the Cathedral of Saint Peter at Rome, one with an engraving of the city of Rome was bestowed on the great cathedral at Ravenna, and his son Ludwig received the third, a masterpiece of workmanship, on which was engraved a map of the world and of the heavens with all its stars. Two-thirds of Karl's private property he left to the Church within his realm.



Throughout the autumn Karl continued his usual hunting expeditions, returning to Aix in November. In January he was prostrated with fever, but insisted on treating himself instead of trusting to the advice of physicians. Pleurisy set in, and on the seventh day of his illness, having received the Holy Communion, the Great King Karl passed away, on the 28th day of January 814, in the seventy-first year of his age, after a reign of forty-seven years.

He was buried with great pomp, his body being placed on a large marble throne in the cathedral at Aix. He was clad in the royal robes, the crown was upon his head, the sceptre in his hand, and the good sword, Joyeuse, girded to his side. A copy of the Gospels was laid upon his knees. Thus he was laid in the crypt under the great dome, and on the stone above were carved in Latin the following words:

"In this tomb reposes the body of Charles, great and orthodox emperor, who did gloriously extend the kingdom of the Franks, and did govern it happily for forty-seven years. He died at the age of seventy years, in the year of the Lord 814, on the fifth of the kalends of February."

Two hundred years afterward the crypt was reopened by the emperor, Otto III, who found the remains of the Great King Karl as we have described.

An enormous black stone now lies over the place with the inscription 'Carlo Magno'; over it hangs a huge candelabrum of gold given by the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa.

Charlemagne's empire ended with his death, but he had checked the advance of Mohammedan invaders, conquered and converted heathen tribes and opened a road for glorious liberty and civilization, for learning and the Christian Faith.