History of Germany - H. E. Marshall

Lewis I and Charles the Fat

Lewis was succeeded by his three sons Karlmann, Lewis, and Charles, and the kingdom was once more divided. Karlmann, however, did not live many years. He soon became very ill, and when Lewis heard that he could not get better he hurried as fast as he could into his brother's part of the kingdom and claimed it for his own.

Karlmann, the poor sick King, was powerless, but he commanded Lewis to come to him as he lay helpless in bed. Lewis came, but Karlmann could no longer speak. Only with his trembling hand he signed to him to have pity on his wife and his son. With beseeching eyes he prayed for mercy to them.

But Lewis's greed for land made him utterly hard-hearted. He cared little for the claims of his brother's wife or child, and he knew that they were not strong enough to fight him. He promised them, however, a little land and money, so that they need not become homeless wanderers. The rest of the kingdom he took as his own, and the dying King could only submit. Soon after he was thus deposed Karlmann died. There were thus only two kings left in Germany. But after adding to his kingdom with such hard-hearted greed, Lewis had enough to do to keep it safe. For there were rebel lords within the kingdom, and from without there threatened the old danger of the Northmen. They had harried the shores of England, they had wasted the fairest fields of France with fire and sword. Now they turned again to Germany.

But Lewis was resolved to drive these freebooters forth from his kingdom. So he gathered his army and marched against them. The Northmen had been plundering far and wide, and were on their way back to their ships with immense booty when the Germans fell upon them. A terrible fight followed, in which the Northmen were beaten. Five thousand of them lay dead, and the rest fled. But they carried with them in their flight Lewis's beloved son, sorely wounded. This son was young and brave and greatly beloved. When Lewis knew that he was wounded and a prisoner, he bade his soldiers cease from the pursuit of the foe, for he wanted at all costs to save his son. He sent messengers at once to treat for his ransom, not knowing that the Prince was already dead.

The Northmen were careful to hide the truth from Lewis. They were slow, too, to come to terms. Night came on fast, and Lewis was obliged at length to go back to his camp and, full of anxiety and sorrow, wait for morning.

But during the night the Normans fled to their ships, leaving behind them the dead body of the young Prince. When next morning the King found his dear son lying cold and pale upon the battle-field his grief was great. His anger too was great, for not only had he lost his son, but in the hope of saving him he has lost the chance of utterly destroying the robber horde.

But even after this great battle the Northmen Terror grew ever greater and greater. Again and again the sea robbers sailed up the rivers which opened to the North Sea. They plundered and destroyed at will, and town after town went up in flames. Added to this the harvest failed. A bitter winter followed on, and this hard winter seemed never-ending. Springtime came, but it brought no milder breezes, no early flowers. The earth remained frost-bound and barren, and the cattle, finding no fodder, died of cold and hunger. In this time of misery many of the great nobles, too, revolted against their King, and the whole land was filled with desolation.

But of all the troubles and sorrows which darkened the land, the Northmen Terror was the greatest. Again and again Lewis defeated the Northmen. But still they flocked down upon Germany in greater numbers than ever before. France, up to this time, had been their best-beloved hunting-ground. But King Louis of France had won such a brilliant victory over them that they now fled from that land seeking new battle-fields. They turned to Germany. And at length the sword which had kept them so long in check was still. For King Lewis lay sick to death. So, like ravening wolves, the Northmen stormed over the land. At Aachen they burned Charles the Great's famous palace, they stabled their horses in the great Cathedral, they burned the towns of Cologne and Bonne with their stately churches. Towns, palaces, convents alike were given to the flames, men and women to the sword. Behind them they left a track of blood and ashes.

While the horror of war came ever nearer and nearer to his palace doors Lewis lay helpless. He ordered his army forth. But without their King as leader they could do little to stem the flood of disaster. A comet now appeared in the sky, and to those ignorant folk of long ago it seemed an omen of evil, a warning of some terrible mischance. Shudderingly they gazed at the terrible apparition in the nightly sky.

While thus the black cloud of ruin hung over his kingdom, Lewis died on January 20, 882. And when the heathen folk heard that he was dead they burst forth into unmeasured joy; "they thought no more of war, but only of plunder," says a chronicler of the times.

Meantime Lewis's brother, King Charles, did nothing. He led an idle, aimless life, seeking only his own pleasure, and he is known as Karl III der Dicke, or the Fat. Besides being King of Italy he had also received the title of Emperor. In anointing him Emperor the Pope had hoped that Charles would help him against his enemies. But he had found himself deceived. The Emperor's chief policy was to sit still and do nothing.

And as he sat still it seemed fortune poured out treasures upon him. He had already been made Emperor without effort on his part. Now that his brother Lewis was dead he became ruler over all his kingdom, again without any effort on his part. For Lewis left no son to succeed him.

Charles was in Italy when the news of his brother's death was brought to him. But he made no haste to claim his inheritance, or defend it from the Northmen.

From all sides messengers came to him praying him to hasten to his kingdom, to save his people from destruction and from the scorn of the spoiler.

At last Charles the Fat set out from Italy, and after many delays reached Worms, where he was joyfully received as King by his new subjects.

Here many of the princes of the realm were gathered together to decide by what means the growing insolence of the Northmen might be checked. It was decided that a general attack should be made upon them, and soldiers were gathered from every part of the Empire. They came even from Italy. Never since the time of Charlemagne had Italian soldiers fought beside the Germans.

At length an enormous army was gathered, an army huge enough to strike terror to the hearts of any enemy, an army certain of victory, if only they had had a brave and clever leader.

But the first attack made upon the enemy failed. They had been warned, and already in the German camp there was talk of treachery.

After this the Emperor and his great army marched to Elsloo on the Maas, there to besiege the Northmen in their headquarters. A few days after the siege had begun there was a tremendous storm. It was brilliant summer weather, but one afternoon the sun was suddenly darkened by great clouds, until day became as black as night. Thunder growled and crashed, and sudden lightning lit up the darkness. Then hail came crashing down with such force that the noise of it was like falling houses. Such a storm no man living could remember. Some of the hailstones were so large that they could not be spanned by thumb and finger. They fell with such force that they shattered trees in the forest. Cattle in the fields were killed, and a great part of the wall of the town of Elsloo was broken down.

The breach was so wide that a whole troop in marching order might have ridden through it. The fortress lay at the mercy of the besiegers. One sharp assault was all that was needed, and the fortress was theirs. The soldiers clamoured to attack, for now they saw a speedy and glorious ending to the war. They saw before them a glorious vengeance on their foes.

But suddenly all their eagerness and joy were turned to wrath and shame. For a truce was ordered, and it became known throughout the camp that the Emperor was treating with the enemy. And they, the enemy, already hard put to it, already half-conquered, were making conditions!

A cry of wrath ran through the camp at the news, but the Germans were helpless. For hostages of peace had been already given, besides which Charles threatened with death or the loss of his eyesight any man who should lift his hand against the foe.

The insolence and knavery of the sea robbers now knew no bounds. As their custom was, they hung a shield upon the walls of their fortress in sign of truce, and threw open their gates. This they did to entice the Germans in. They came in numbers, either to spy out the fortification or to trade with the Northmen. Then suddenly, when many of the foe were within their gates, the Northmen shut them and pulled down the shield. Then with fierce war-cries they fell upon the unsuspecting strangers, slaying them at ease. And the slaughter only ceased when every man was slain or taken prisoner.

Yet in spite of this shameful treachery Charles completed his treaty with the Northmen in his safe camp, five or six miles away from the scene of battle. Godfrid, the King of the Northmen, gave a worthless promise that neither he nor his men would ever again invade Germany during the Emperor's lifetime. He was baptized, Charles himself standing as godfather, and giving him a christening gift of part of Friesland. Charles then married this speedily-made Christian to his niece Gisla. Thus in a day the heathen ravager, who had been a terror to the Empire, became a Christian and a prince of the realm.

Besides this, the Northmen were given an enormous sum in gold and silver upon their promise to go away and not return. To get this sum Charles was obliged to rob the churches and convents. So now these very treasures which had been fought for and defended so bravely, and which had cost so many lives to keep, were freely given over to the robbers by the spiritless Emperor.

At length, laden with spoil, dragging many prisoners in their train, the Northmen turned to their ships and sailed homeward.

Thus the great campaign in which every German tribe had taken part came to a shameful end. But the blame lay not with the soldiers, who were eager to fight for the freedom of their country, but with the cowardly Emperor. "Thereover was the army right sorrowful," says one who lived at that time. "They grieved that a prince had been set over them who was favourable to the foe and who robbed them of victory over their enemies. And right sadly they turned homeward."

But the shameful pact of Elsloo was quite useless The very next year hordes of Northmen, forgetting their promises, again appeared, harrying the coast sweeping up the rivers in their swan-necked boats plundering and destroying. Charles did nothing. Then under his weak rule the great nobles began to grow restless and unruly, and to fight amongst themselves. Charles let them fight.

Then, in 884, the young King of France died, leaving no son to follow him on the throne. So the nobles of France, although they knew Charles to be weak and cowardly, asked him to be their King. For, save for a child not yet five, he was the last descendant of the great Charlemagne.

Thus the great Empire was once more united under one sceptre. But with what a difference! The boundaries were indeed almost the same, but the sceptre was now in the hands of a ruler treacherous and idle, and neither a soldier nor a statesman.

Charles had won another kingdom as he had won the rest of his possessions, without effort on his part. He accepted the new kingdom, but he was not minded to do anything to make good his kingship, although the land was in sore need of help.

If the Northmen Terror was bad in Germany, it was still worse in France. "The Northmen never ceased," said a writer who lived at the time, "to drag these Christian folk into captivity and to murder them, to destroy the churches, to throw down the walls and burn the villages. On every road lay the dead bodies of priests and layman, of noble and peasant, of women, children, and babes. There was no way, no place, where the dead did not lie, and where wailing might not be heard."

And now, hearing of the death of the King, knowing the weakness of the Emperor, the Northmen returned to France in greater numbers than ever. You will read in French history how they sailed up the Seine and besieged Paris, how the people sent messengers to Charles beseeching him to come with all the might of Germany and Italy to save them; how he long delayed, but, coming at last, how he again made a shameful treaty with the foe, and marching away left Paris and France to its fate.

The siege of Paris ended gloriously for the French, disgracefully for the Emperor. The news of his folly and cowardice robbed him of the last semblance of respect from his people. In every corner of the realm mutterings of rebellion might be heard.

Then at length the anger of the people burst forth. Not, indeed, at first against the Emperor, but against his chief adviser and favourite Liutward. This Liutward was a man of low birth, but Charles had set him above all the nobles of the land, and heaped honours upon him. And Liutward's greed and insolence knew no bounds, until the people said he outdid Haman of whom we read in the book of Esther. For Haman, they said, with all his pride and insolence, was second to the King, but Liutward put himself higher than his Emperor, and was more honoured and feared than he.

The people blamed Liutward more than any one else for the disgrace of Elsloo; for was he not the Emperor's favourite and adviser, and could he not twist and turn him at will?

As the months went past the hate against this low-born favourite grew and grew. At length it burst forth. Liutward was accused of many wicked deeds. Neither he nor the Emperor knew how to deny them, and so in shame and disgrace Liutward was driven from the Court. And with a heart full of anger, and vowing awful vengeance, the fallen favourite went.

But now, without his friend and adviser, the Emperor felt absolutely helpless. He had long been ill. He was so stout that he could not move without help, and now his illness increased fourfold. He was sick both in mind and body, and without the guiding hand to which he had been used he felt utterly forlorn. His mind began to give way.

Then the nobles, seeing in his huge bulk nothing but a witless mass of flesh, resolved to thrust him from the throne and choose another ruler. So in 887 they held a great assembly and chose as their King Arnulf, the son of Karlmann, Charles's eldest brother, who, you remember, had died in 880. There was no fighting. At once every one flocked to the new King, and in three days Charles found himself utterly alone.

Without fighting a battle, without effort or trouble on his part, Charles the Fat had won a mighty Empire, until in power and riches he rivalled Charles the Great. Fortune had simply showered favours upon him, and now in a moment everything that fortune had heaped upon him was torn from him. One day he was Emperor, the next a beggar.

Humbly he sent to the new King begging for bread, and for the bare necessities of life. Arnulf granted his request, and the poor discrowned wretch crept into a monastery to die. And thus his miserable reign came to a miserable end.