Medieval Warfare in the reign of Charlemagne

charlemagneThe reign of Charlemagne (born 742, King from 768, Emperor from 800, died 814), was one of expansion for the Carolingian Empire. It would be a rare for a year to go by where Charlemagne did not have his armies engaged in warfare, either against Saxons, Northmen, Moors or other enemies. A great deal of sources remain which shed light on the campaigns and military affairs during this period. Several different sources are offered here:

The years 775 to 776 from the Annals of the Kingdom of the Franks

These annals constitute what is unquestionably the most important single source for the political and military history of the reign of Charlemagne. They are known as the Annales regni Francorum, and in English they are sometimes referred to as the Royal Frankish Annals. The work itself covers the years 741 to 829, and is a compilation of at least three different authors. The section below is the annals for the years 775 and 776, in which the young king and his armies were fighting in Saxony as well as in other places.

775 AD

Then the pious and illustrious lord king Charles held the assembly at the villa called Düren, from where he undertook a campaign into Saxony. He captured the castrum of Syburg, rebuilt Eresburg and reached the river Weser at the place called Braunsberg, where the Saxons, who intended to defend the bank of the river, were arraying themselves for battle. By the help of the Lord and the exertions of the Franks the Saxons were put to flight; the Franks seized both banks and many Saxons were killed there. Then the lord king Charles divided his army and himself advanced with the men whom he had chosen to the river Oker. All the Saxon Eastphalians [Austreleudi] came there with Hessi, gave hostages as he was pleased to demand and swore oaths of fidelity to the above-said lord king Charles. Similarly, when the most gentle king returned from there the Angrarians came with Bruno and their other optimates to the district called Bucki [Bückegau] and there gave hostages, like the easterners [Austrasii].

On his return from there the aforementioned king joined up on the river Veser with the other part of his army, which was holding the bank as ordered. The Saxons had fought a battle with them at the place called Lidbach [Lübbecke] where, by the will of God, victory had fallen to the Franks, who had killed a great number of those Saxons. When the lord king Charles heard of this he fell upon the Saxons a second time with the army. He inflicted no less slaughter on them and won much booty from the Westphalians, who gave hostages like the other Saxons. Then the lord king Charles returned home with God’s help to Francia; he had taken hostages, acquired abundant booty and three times brought about carnage among the Saxons.

When he then heard that Rodgaud the Lombard was betraying his faith, breaking all oaths and seeking to rouse Italy to rebellion, the lord king Charles undertook a campaign to those parts with a number of Franks. And he celebrated the Lord’s birthday at the villa called Scladdistat [Sélestat]. And the count of the years changed to

776 AD

Then the lord king Charles entered Italy and proceeded to Friuli. Rodgaud was killed and the lord king Charles celebrated Easter in the city of Treviso. He distributed all the captured cities – Cividale, Treviso and the others which had rebelled – among Franks and returned to Francia, once again successful and victorious.

Then came a messenger reporting that the Saxons were in rebellion; they had abandoned all their hostages, broken their oaths and induced the Franks at the castrum of Eresburg, by means of destructive siege-engines [mala ingenia] and fraudulent assurances, to evacuate this. With Eresburg thus deserted by the Franks, the Saxons destroyed its walls and works. Moving on from there, they planned to deal similarly with Syburg; but with the Lord’s help the Franks resisted them manfully and they accomplished nothing. For since they were unable to deceive the defenders in this castrum by assurances as they had done those in the other castellum, they began to array their troops for battle and to prepare the siege-machinery so that they could capture the fortress by main force; but by God’s will the catapults which they had set up did more harm to them than to those within the fortress. And when they saw that they were getting nowhere they also prepared hurdles for an attack by storm upon the castellum. But God’s might, as is right, overcame theirs, and one day, when they had made ready for the assault upon the Christians inside the castrum, God’s glory appeared manifest above the building which housed the church there. This was witnessed by a large number of people, both inside and outside, many of whom are still alive today; and they say that they saw the likeness of two shields, red in colour and flaming and moving to and fro over the church. And when the pagans outside saw this sign they were thrown into immediate disorder. Struck by great terror, they began to flee to their camp; and as the whole multitude of them became seized by the panic and caught up in the flight, so some killed others and were themselves in turn killed. For those whose fear caused them to look back impaled themselves upon the spears borne on the shoulders of those fleeing in front of them, while others suffered from various blows which they struck each other and were condemned by divine vengeance. How greatly God wrought His might upon them for the deliverance of the Christians defeats description; but the greater their terror grew, the more the Christians were strengthened and praised almighty God, Who vouchsafed to make manifest His power over His servants. And when the Saxons fled from that place and the castrum had been saved, the Franks pursued and killed them as far as the river Lippe; and the Franks returned victorious.

And after the lord king Charles had arrived at Worms and heard about all these matters he summoned the assembly to that city. And when he held the general assembly there a decision was swiftly reached, with God’s help; and moving with extreme speed he surprised the Saxons and penetrated their barricades and lines of defence. The penetrated their barricades and lines of defence. The Saxons were all thoroughly terrified and came from every quarter to the place where the Lippe rises; they all surrendered their country, by means of a pledge, into the hands of the Franks, promised to become Christians and subjected themselves to the dominion of the lord king Charles and the Franks. And then the lord king Charles and the Franks rebuilt the castrum of Eresburg once again, and another castrum on the Lippe; and there the Saxons came, with their wives and children, a multitude without number, and were baptised and gave hostages, as many as the aforesaid lord king demanded of them. And after the above-said castella had been completed and the Franks had stationed scarae to live in them and guard then, the lord king Charles returned to Francia.

The years 782 to 784 from the Revised Annals of the Kingdom of the Franks

Probably produced during the early years of the reign of Louis the Pious (814-40), their are some major changes in both style and contents compared to the Annals of the Kingdom of the Franks, most prominently for the years 741 to 801. The revisions include references to disasters and setbacks that Charlemagne and his forces endured, which are not mentioned in the earlier accounts. These include a description of a defeat of Charlemagne’s forces to that of the Saxons led by Widukind in 784, which is described below:

782 AD

At the beginning of the summer, when fodder was at last plentiful enough to enable an army to march, he decided to enter Saxony and to hold the general assembly there, just as he was accustomed to hold it every year in Francia. He crossed the Rhine at Cologne and came with the whole army of the Franks to the source of the Lippe, where he set up camp. He stayed there some tine and dealt with various matters; among other things, he gave audience and leave to depart to legates from Sigfred, king of the Danes, and to those sent to him, supposedly in the cause of peace, by the khagan and the jugur, princes of the Huns.

After the assembly had been concluded and he had recrossed the Rhine into Gaul, Widukind, who had taken refuge with the Northmen, returned to his homeland and stirred up the passions of the Saxons with vain hopes so that they rebelled. Meanwhile, the king had received news that the Sorbs, Slavs who inhabit the lands lying between the Elbe and the Saale, had invaded the territories of their Thuringian and Saxon neighbours to plunder them and had ravaged some places, robbing and burning. He immediately summoned three of his officers to his presence, Adalgis, the chamberlain, Gailo, the count of the stables, and Worad, the count of the palace, and ordered then to act with all possible dispatch, taking eastern Franks and Saxons with them, to repress the temerity of the contumacious Slavs. After they bad crossed into Saxony to carry out their orders, these men heard that the Saxons, thanks to Widukind’s scheming, were ready to make war on the Franks; and they abandoned the route by which they had been intending to advance against the Slavs and marched at speed, with the east Frankish troops, towards the place where they had beard the Saxons had gathered.

They were joined in Saxony by count Theoderic, a relative of the king, with as many troops as he had been able swiftly to gather together in Ripuaria on hearing of the Saxons’ rebellion. His advice to the hastening legates was that scouts should first ascertain, with all possible speed, where the Saxons were and what they were up to, and that then, if the nature of the terrain allowed, he and they should make a joint attack upon then. His advice was thought admirable, and they advanced with him as far as the Suntel mountains, as they are called; the Saxons’ camp lay on the northern side of these. After Theoderic had set up camp there, they crossed the Weser, as agreed with him, so that they could get around the mountain more easily, and established their own camp on the bank of the river.

It was their fear, however, when they discussed matters among themselves, that if they had Theoderic with them in the battle the renown of the victory would be transferred to his name, and they therefore resolved to engage the Saxons without him. Each individual seized his weapons and charged with as much speed as he could muster, just as fast as his horse would carry him, upon the place where the Saxons were drawn up in battle-array in front of their camp; they acted as if their task was to pursue a fleeing foe and seize booty rather than to take on an enemy standing marshalled to face them. Since the approach had gone badly, badly also went the battle; for when this was joined they were surrounded by the Saxons and killed almost to a man. Those who were able to make their escape even so fled not to their own camp, from which they had set out, but to Theoderic’s, across the mountain. The loss to the Franks was greater than numbers alone, however, for two of the legates, Adalgis and Cailo, four counts and as many as twenty other men of distinction and nobility were killed, as well as others who were in their followings and chose to die at their sides rather than survive them.

When the king received news of what had happened, he judged that there must be not a moment’s delay; swiftly collecting together an army, be entered Saxony and questioned the primores of the Saxons, all of whom be had summoned to attend him, as to who was responsible for the rebellion which had taken place. And since they all declared that Widukind was the author of this wickedness but were unable to deliver him up in view of the fact that he had taken himself off to the Northmen once the deed had been done, no fewer than 4500 of the others, those who had fallen in with his promptings and committed such a gross outrage, were handed over and at the place on the river Aller called Verden, at the king’s command, all beheaded in a single day. Thus was punishment executed; and the king then retired to winter-quarters at Thionville, where he celebrated both the Lord’s birthday and Easter in the customary fashion.

783 AD

In mild and smiling spring, when his preparations for a Saxon expedition were complete – for he had been informed of general rebellion on their part – but before he left the aforesaid villa, his wife, Queen Hildegard, died, on 30 April. After paying her body the honours which were its due in the customary fashion, he led an army into Saxony as he had arranged to do. And when he learned that the Saxons were preparing themselves for combat at the place called Detmold, he made towards them with all the speed he could muster, engaged them in battle and defeated them with such slaughter that out of their immense host very few are said to have escaped. After returning from the battlefield with the army to Paderborn, where he established camp, he was awaiting the part of the army which was still due to arrive from Francia when he heard that the Saxons were assembling on the river Hase, in the territory of the Westphalians, in order to offer him battle there should he appear. Enraged by this news, he combined the force of Franks which had just joined him with the one which he had previously had with him and lost no time in setting out for the place where the Saxons had assembled. He engaged them and fought with the same success as before. Countless hosts of them were slain, spoils seized, great numbers of captives carried off. From the Hase the victor directed his campaign eastwards, laying waste everything in his path as he ranged first to the Weser, then to the Elbe.

He then returned to Francia and took as his wife a Frankish woman named Fastrada, the daughter of count Radolf; she bore him two daughters. In this same year there died on 12 July the king’s mother, of noble memory, Bertrada. He himself settled down for the winter at the villa of Herstal, where he celebrated the Lord’s birthday and holy Easter.

784 AD

As soon as suitable weather arrived, the king, his mind set on finishing off what remained of the Saxon war, crossed the Rhine with an army at the place called Lippebam. After devastating the districts of the Westphalians, he reached the Weser and established himself in a camp set up by the river at the place called Huculbi [Petershagen]. Since he then realised that he was unable, because of the very severe flooding which unexpectedly occurred at this time in consequence of continual rain, to move across into the northern regions of Saxony as he had resolved, he directed his march to Thuringia, while ordering his son Charles to remain in the Westphalians’ territory with part of the army. Marching through Thuringia, he came to the plains of Saxony adjoining the rivers Elbe and Saale; he laid waste the fields of the eastern Saxons, burned their villae and then returned from Schôningen – such was the name of the place – to Francia.

His son Charles, however, while on the march in the district of Draigni [Dreingau], near the river Lippe, was met by an army of Saxons and engaged them in a cavalry battle. Happy and successful was the outcome of his struggle, for a great number of then were killed and the rest scattered in flight; and he returned victorious to his father at Worms. The king for his part again gathered an army and set off for Saxony. He celebrated the Lord’s birthday in camp on the river Emmer, in the Weissgau, near the Saxon castrum called Skidroburg [Schieder], and then advanced, ravaging, to the place named Rehme, where the Weser and the Werre flow together. And when the harshness of the winter as well as flooding prevented his further progress, he retired to the castrum of Eresburg for the winter.

The years 808 to 810 from the Annals of the Kingdom of the Franks

These annals constitute what is unquestionably the most important single source for the political and military history of the reign of Charlemagne. They are known as the Annales regni Francorum, and in English they are sometimes referred to as the Royal Frankish Annals. The work itself covers the years 741 to 829, and is a compilation of at least three different authors. The section below details an invasion by the Danish king, Godfred, and other events in the years 808 to 810.

808 AD

The winter at this time was extremely mild and unhealthy. And at the beginning of spring the emperor proceeded to Nijmegen, where he spent the period of the Lenten fast and celebrated holy Easter before returning to Aachen again.

And since it was reported that Godfred, king of the Danes, had crossed into the territory of the Abodrites with an army, he sent his son Charles to the Elbe with a strong force of Franks and Saxons and orders to resist the insane king should he attempt an attack upon the frontiers of Saxony. But after Godfred had maintained camp on the coast for some time and also attacked and captured by force of arms a number of the Slavs’ castella, he returned home. His force had suffered heavy casualties, for although he had driven out Thrasco, dux of the Abodrites, who despaired of the people’s loyalty, had captured another dux. Godelaib, by treachery and hanged him from a gallows, and had made two thirds of the Abodrites his tributaries, he had yet lost the best and most fearless of his soldiers and with them his brother’s son, Reginold, who was killed together with a great many of the primores of the Danes at the siege of a certain fortress [oppidum]. Moreover, the emperor’s son Charles threw a bridge across the Elbe and with all the speed he could muster moved the army he commanded across it against the Linones and Smeldingi, who had also defected to king Godfred. He laid waste their fields far and wide and then recrossed the river, returning to Saxony with his army unscathed.

With Godfred on the aforesaid expedition were the Slavs who are called Wiltzites; they had joined his forces voluntarily out of the ancient enmity which existed between them and the Abodrites. When he went back to his kingdom they returned to their homes also, with the booty which they had been able to seize from the Abodrites.

Before Godfred returned home, however, he destroyed the trading-place on the seacoast which was called Reric in the Danes’ tongue and conferred great benefit on his kingdom through the payment of tolls. He transported the merchants from there, had his fleet set sail and arrived with his entire army at the port called Sliesthorp [Schleswig]. Staying there for some time, he decided to protect the frontier-area of his kingdem facing Saxony with a rampart in such a way that a protective bulwark, broken by a single gateway through which wagons and horsemen could be let out and admitted, would form a border from the gulf on the eastern seaboard which they call Ostersalt [the Baltic] along the entire length of the northern bank of the river Eider as far as the western ocean. Once he had apportioned the work among the dures of his troops, he returned home.

Meanwhile, the king of the Northumbrians, from the island of Britain, Eardwulf by name, came to the emperor while he was still at Nijmegen; he had been driven from his kingdom and native land. After explaining the matter which had brought him, he set out for Rome; and on his return from there he was conducted back into his kingdom by legates of the Roman pontiff and the lord emperor. Leo III presided over the Roman church at this time; and the legate whom he sent to Britain was the deacon Ealdwulf, who came from Britain and was a Saxon by race. With him, sent by the emperor, travelled two abbots, Rotfrid the notary and Nanthar of St Omer.

After having his legates build two castella on the river Elbe and posting garrisons in these against the incursions of the Slavs, the emperor wintered at Aachen, where he celebrated both the Lord’s birthday and holy Easter. And the count of the years changed to

809 AD

A fleet dispatched from Constantinople sailed first to Dalmatia and then to Venetia. And while it was wintering there, a section of it attacked the island of Comacchio; defeated and forced to flee when it joined battle with the garrison stationed there, it retreated to Venetia. But when the dux who commanded the fleet, a man called Paul, endeavoured to negotiate with the lord Pippin, king of Italy, about establishing peace between Franks and Greeks – acting as if he had been charged to do this – all his initiatives were impeded by Willeri and Beatus, the dukes of Venetia, who even concocted plots against him. Recognising their treachery, he departed.

In the western regions the lord king Louis entered Spain with an army and besieged the city of Tortosa, which lies on the bank of the river Ebro. After devoting some time to its reduction, he realised that it could not be captured so swiftly, lifted the siege and returned to Aquitaine with his army unscathed.

After Eardwulf, king of the Northumbrians, had been conducted back into his kingdom and the papal and imperial legates had begun their return journey, one of them, the deacon Ealdwulf, was captured by pirates and taken by them to Britain. The others made the crossing safely. Ealdwulf returned to Rome after he was ransomed by one of king Cenwulf’s homines.

In Tuscany the maritime city of Fopulonia was pillaged by Greeks called Orobiotae. Also, Moors from Spain landed in Corsica and plundered a certain city on the Holy Saturday of Easter itself, leaving nothing in it but the bishop and a few old and infirm people.

Meanwhile Godfred, king of the Danes, sent word by some merchants that he had heard that the emperor was angry with him because he had led an army against the Abodrites the year before and avenged the injuries done him. He added that he wished to clear himself of what was alleged against him; the first breach of the treaty had originated with them. He asked, further, that a meeting of his counts and the emperor’s should take place beyond the Elbe, near the frontier of his kingdom, where what had been done on both sides could be brought up between the parties and matters which it would be appropriate to put right could be detailed. The emperor did not reject this request and the conference with the primores of the Danes was held across the Elbe in the place called Badenfliot [probably Beidenfleth]. Many matters were brought up and detailed on both sides, but when they separated the business was left entirely unsettled. However, Thrasco, dux of the Abodrites, after he had given his son as a hostage to Godfred as the king required, gathered a force of his countrymen together and, with help from the Saxons, attacked his neighbours, the Wiltzites; he laid their territory waste with fire and sword and returned home with immense booty. Then, with further aid from the Saxons, more than before, he captured the greatest civitas of the Smeldingi. By these successes he forced all those who had defected from him to become his allies again.

After all this the emperor returned from the Ardennes to Aachen and in November held a council on the question of the procession of the Holy Spirit, an issue first raised by a certain John, a monk of Jerusalem. In order to settle this matter Bernhar, bishop of Worms, and Adalhard, abbot of the monastery of Corbie, were sent to Rome, to pope Leo. There was also discussion at this council about the state of the churches and the conduct of those who are said to serve God within them, but here too nothing was settled, because of what was seen as the magnitude of those matters.

The emperor decided, however, in view of the many reports which had reached him about the bragging and arrogance of the king of the Danes, that he would build a civitas across the river Elbe and install a garrison of Franks in it. And after he had gathered men from throughout Gaul and Germany for this purpose and ordered them, furnished with arms and the other equipment which they needed for the task, to be taken to the appointed place through Frisia, Thrasco, dux of the Abodrites, was treacherously killed by Godfred’s homines at the trading-place of Reric. Neverthless, once the site for the civitas which was to be established had been confirmed, the emperor put count Egbert in charge of the execution of the project and com manded him to cross the Elbe and occupy the place. This lies on the bank of the river Stor and is called Esesfelth [Itzehoe]. Egbert and the Saxon counts took possession of the place about the middle of March and began its fortification.

Count Aureolus, who was established in the frontier-region of Spain and Gaul across the Pyrenees, over against Huesca and Saragossa, died. And Amrus, governor of Saragossa and Huesca, seized the area in which he had held authority, posted garrisons in his castella and sent a legation to the emperor, promising that he intended to surrender himself and all that he held to him.

An eclipse of the moon occurred on 26 December.

810 AD

When the emperor’s legates reached him, Amrus, the governor of Saragossa, asked for a conference between himself and the defenders of the Spanish frontier-region, promising that at this he would place himself and all that he held under the emperor’s dominion. Although the emperor agreed that this meeting should take place, a variety of matters arose to prevent its being held. Moors, with a very large fleet which had been brought together from the whole of Spain, landed first in Sardinia and then in Corsica; finding no garrison in the latter, they subjected almost the whole island. Meanwhile, king Pippin, goaded by the perfidy of the Venetian dukes, waged war, ordering Venetia to be attacked by land and sea. After Venetia had been subjected and the surrender of its dukes received, he dispatched the same fleet to devastate the coasts of Dalmatia. But when Paul, the governor of Cephalonia, approached with an eastern fleet to aid the Dalmatians, the royal fleet returned home.

Rotrud, the emperor’s eldest daughter, died on 6 June.

And while still at Aachen and pondering a campaign against king Godfred, the emperor was told that a fleet of 200 ships from Nordmannia had sailed to Frisia, that all the islands off the Frisian coast had been devastated, that the army was already on the mainland and had fought three battles with the Frisians, that the victorious Danes had imposed tribute on the vanquished, that the Frisians had already paid 100 pounds of silver under title of tribute, but that king Godfred was at home. Such was indeed the situation. So enraged by this news was the emperor that he sent men out into all the regions far and wide to gather an army and himself straightway set out from the palace, deciding first to join up with the fleet and then to cross the river Rhine at the place called Lippeham and await the troops who had not yet assembled. And while he stayed there for a time the elephant sent to him by Aaron, rex of the Saracens, suddenly died. When the troops had finally gathered, he marched as rapidly as possible to the river Aller, set up camp by its confluence with the river Weser and awaited the outcome of king Godfred’s threats. For that king, puffed up with the emptiest hopes of victory, was bragging that he meant to engage the emperor in pitched battle.

But while the emperor maintained his quarters at the place mentioned, various matters were reported to him: the fleet which had been devastating Frisia had returned home; king Godfred had been killed by someone from his retinue; the castellum lying on the river Elbe by the name of Hohbeck, which contained a garrison of east Saxons and the emperor’s legate, Odo, had been captured by the Wiltzites; his son Pippin, king of Italy, had departed this life on 8 July; and two legations had arrived from different parts of the world to make peace, one from Constantinople, the other from Cordova. After receiving these reports and arranging matters in Saxony to suit the circumstances of the time, he returned home. There was such a severe murrain among the cattle on this expedition that it almost happened that not a single beast was left for such a large army but all died, to the last head. And it was not only there but throughout all the provinces subject to the emperor that death raged most savagely against this type of animal.

Reaching Aachen in October, the emperor received in audience the legates mentioned and made peace with the emperor Nicephorus and with Abulaz, rex of Spain. He returned Venetia to Nicephorus and recovered count Haimric, who had earlier been captured by the Saracens and was sent back by Abulaz. In this year the sun and the moon were both eclipsed twice, the sun on 7 June and 30 November, the moon on 21 June and 15 December. The island of Corsica was again devastated by the Moors. Amrus was driven out of Saragossa by Abd al-Rahman, the son of Abulaz, and forced to enter Huesca. After the death of Godfred, king of the Danes, Hemming, his brother’s son, succeeded to the kingship and made peace with the emperor.

The siege of Barcelona and warfare in Moorish Spain, from the Life of Louis the Pious

Although it is unknown who wrote this account of the life of Louis the Pious, son and heir of Charlemagne, the author is known to have consulted Louis about a comet in 837, so he has been given the moniker of ‘The Astronomer’. The section here deals with events for the years 801 and 802, when Louis was given command of an expedition to Barcelona.

Chapter 13 (801 AD)

During the following summer Sadun, the dux of Barcelona, was persuaded by someone whom he thought his friend to go to Narbonne, He was seized, taken to king Louis and then taken on to his father Charles. At this time king Louis had called together the people of his kingdom and was taking counsel at Toulouse as to what they thought ought to be done. For on the death of Burgundio his county, Fézensac, had been assigned to Liutard. The Gascons had taken this ill and erupted in such viciousness that they even killed a number of his homines, some with the sword, some by burning. Although they at first refused to come when summoned, in one fashion or another they did appear to plead their case, and they paid the due penalty for such temerity, so that some, by the law of talion, were consigned to the flames.

In the period following the conclusion of this matter it seemed to the king and his counsellors that a campaign should be mounted to capture Barcelona. The army was divided into three corps: the king kept one with him at Roussillon, where he remained; he ordered a second, under Rotstagnus, count of Gerona, to invest the city; and he sent the third to take up position on the far side of the city so that those besieging it should not have to face a surprise enemy attack. Meanwhile those besieged within the city sent an appeal for help to Cordova, and the rex of the Saracens in fact immediately dispatched an army to their aid. But when those he had sent reached Saragossa they were told about the army stationed in their path to intercept them; William commanded, Ademar bore the standard, and they had a powerful force with them. Hearing this they turned upon the Asturians and, taking them by surprise, inflicted a defeat upon them, though they themselves suffered a much heavier one. Once the Saracens had retreated, our men returned to their companions besieging the city and joined them in the investment. Surrounded, and with all entry and exit forbidden, the inhabitants suffered at such length that eventually they were compelled by the anguish of their hunger to take down even the oldest hides from their doors and make miserable food out of these. Others, however, preferring death to such a wretched existence, hurled themselves from the walls. Some, indeed, were kept alive by empty hope, believing that the Franks would be prevented from maintaining the siege of the city by the harshness of the winter. But shrewd men devised a plan which dashed this hope of theirs; for building-material was brought in from all quarters and a start made on the construction of huts, as if our men were going to remain there in winter-quarters. When the inhabitants of the city saw this, they abandoned hope. In an extreme of despair they handed over their prince, whose name was Hamur and whom they had set up in place of Sadun, a relative of his, and, once they had been granted the freedom to depart in safety, surrendered themselves and the city.

The surrender occurred in the following way. When our men saw that the city was exhausted by the long siege and thought that it must be taken or surrendered at any moment, they made the worthy and appropriate decision to summon the king, since the fall of so renowned a city, should it happen when he was present, would give the king a glorious name far and wide. This worthy suggestion met with the full approval of the king, who therefore came to join his army besieging the city and carried on with the investment, showing extreme tenacity, for six unremitting weeks. At length, laid low, the city yielded to the victor. The king sent in guards on the first day after it had been surrendered and thrown open to him but delayed his own entry until he had settled how he might dedicate to God’s name, by fitting thanksgiving to Him, the victory which he had hoped for and received. On the following day, accordingly, with the sacerdotes and clergy preceding him and his army, he entered the city-gate in solemn pomp, to the singing of hymns of praise, and proceeded to the church of the Holy and Most Victorious Cross to give thanks to God for the victory divinely bestowed upon him. Then, leaving count Bera and Gothic troops there as a garrison, he returned home for the winter. Hearing of the danger which seemed to threaten him from the Saracens, his father had sent his brother Charles to his assistance; but when Charles, marching swiftly to his brother’s aid, arrived at Lyons he was met by a messenger from his royal brother who reported the city’s fall and bade him trouble him-self no further. So Charles left Lyons and went back to his father.

Chapter 14 (802 AD)

But while king Louis was passing the winter in Aquitaine the king his father bade him come to Aachen for the feast of the purification of Mary, holy mother of God (Candlemas), that they might confer. Louis joined his father, stayed with him for as long as he wished and returned home in Lent. Then, in the summer following, he marched into Spain in such military strength as seemed appropriate. Passing through Barcelona, he advanced to Tarragona: the people he found there were taken prisoner; others were put to flight; and all the settlements, castella and townships as far as Tortosa were des-troyed by the army and consumed by the devouring flames. While this was going on he divided his forces at a place called Sta Coloma. The larger part he took with him against Tortosa, but he sent Isembard, Ademar, Bera and Burellus with the rest at maximum speed into the interior; their objective was to cross the river Ebro and to attack the enemy, who would be engrossed with him, Louis, from unexpected ambushes or, at least, to throw the enemy into panic by devastating the region. So while the king himself turned towards Tortosa, the men mentioned moved towards the higher reaches of the Ebro, travelling by night and frequenting the thickets of the forests by day, until they crossed the Cinca and the Ebro, both by swimming. Their journey took them six days, the crossing being on the seventh.

They had all come off unscathed, and they devastated enemy territory far and wide, penetrating as far as the largest of the enemy villae, Villa-Rubea by name; they took an enormous quantity of booty there since their foes were taken by surprise, never having dreamed of anything like this. Afterwards, those who had managed to escape the slaughter spread the news far and wide, and a great multitude of Saracens and Moors collected. They took up position to intercept our men at the exit to a valley called Villa-Ibana. This valley is so formed that, although itself low-lying, it is closed in on both sides by steep, high mountains. Had God in His foresight not forbidden our men to enter they could have been killed by rocks or taken prisoner with almost no effort on the part of the enemy. As it was, while he blocked the road our men followed a different route, more open and flat; and the Moors, thinking that they were doing this for fear of then rather than simply for their own protection, pursued then. But our men, leaving the booty to their rear, faced the foe, fought fiercely and with Christ’s help forced them to flee. They killed those they caught, returned joyfully to the booty which they had left, and at length, twenty days after they had parted from him, rejoined the king. Their morale was high, and they had lost very few men. King Louis received them with joy and, with the enemy’s territory everywhere devastated, returned home.

Three capitularies detailing military affairs in the Carolingian Empire

Capitularies are decrees promulgated by a ruler, and are usually divided into articles. They sometimes applied to only a specific region or dealt with one subject, or could be wide-ranging works that were meant for the entire state. The first cartulary translated below is an order for alert for a forthcoming campaign, and is of high value for its information on the organizational practicalities of campaigning. The second document is a report on military recruitment problems, and it may have been written as a basis for discussion at a forthcoming assembly which was held that year in Boulogne. The resulting resolutions from the assembly at Boulonge can be found in the third capitulary.

Mobilization alert: Aachen, mid-April 806

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Charles, most serene Augustus, crowned by God, great, pacific emperor and by the mercy of God king of the Franks and the Lombards, to Fulrad, abbot.

Be it known to you that we have arranged to hold our general assem-bly this year in Saxony, in the eastern part, on the river Bode, at the place called Stassfurt. Wherefore we command you that you must come to the aforesaid place with all your bovines, well armed and equipped, on 17 June, which is seven days before the mass of St John the Baptist. And you are to come with your homines to the aforesaid place equipped in such a way that you can go from there with the army to whichever region we shall command – that is, with arms, im-plements and other military material, provisions and clothing. Each horseman is to carry shield and spear, long-sword and short-sword, bow, quivers and arrows, and your carts are to contain implements of various kinds – axes and stone-cutting tools, augers, adzes, trenching-tools, iron spades and the rest of the implements which an army needs. And provisions in the carts for three months follow-ing the assembly, weapons and clothing for half a year. And this we command in absolute terms, that you see to it that whichever part of our realm the direction of your march may cause you to pass through you proceed to the aforesaid place in good order and without unruliness, that is, that you. presume to take nothing other than grass, firewood and water. And the homines of each of you should travel with, their carts and horsemen; each is to be with them at all times until the aforesaid place is reached, that his homines may not be given opportunity for wrong-doing by their lord’s absence.

But as regards your gifts, which you ought to present to us at our assembly, send these to us in mid-May, to wherever we shall then be. If the direction of your march should perchance so shape itself as to enable you to present then to us in person during your journey, we greatly desire it. See to it that you show no negligence in these regards, as you wish to keep our favour.

Memorandum on military matters: Aachen (?), 811

Reasons why men are wont to neglect their military obligations.

2. That poor men complain that they are deprived of their property and make this complaint equally against the bishops, abbots and their advocates and against the counts and their hundredmen.

3. They also say that if a man refuses to give his allod to a bishop, abbot or count, or to a judex or hundredman, these seek opportunities whereby they can harm that poor man and make him go on every occasion to the army, until he is impoverished and hands over or sells his allod, like it or not, while others, who have handed theirs over, stay at home without any trouble.

6. The counts themselves say that some of the people in their counties do not obey them and refuse to fulfil the bannus of the lord emperor, saying that they have to answer to the missi of the lord emperor for the haribannus, not to the count …

7. There are also others who say that they are the homines of Pippin and Louis and then, when the other people of the county have to go to the army, declare that they are going on their lords’ service.

8. There are others again who do not go and say that their lords are staying at home and that their duty is to go with their lords to wherever the lord emperor shall have commanded. And there are others who for this reason commend themselves to those lords who they know will not be going to the army.

9. That above all the people in the counties are becoming more disobedient to the counts and having more frequent recourse to the missi than was previously the case

Capitulary of Boulogne: October 811

The articles which the lord emperor estabished at Boulogne, which is on the coast, in the forty-fourth year of his reign, in October, in the fifth indiction.

1. Any freeman who has been summoned to the army and has scorned to come is to pay the full haribannus, that is, sixty solids, or, if he does not have the wherewithal to pay this sum, to surrender himself as a pledge into servitude to the prince until in the course of time that bannus comes to be paid by him; and then he is to revert to his free status again. And if a man who has surrendered himself into servitude on account of the haribannus should die in that servitude, his heirs are to lose neither the inheritance which belongs to them nor their freedom; nor are they to be made liable for that haribannus.

2. That a count is not to presume to exact the haribannus in any circumstances, not for neglect of guard-duty or of service in a scare or garrison or of the obligation to billet troops or of any other bannus, but that our nissus is first to receive the haribannus on our behalf and then, by our order, to give him his third part of it. And the haribannus is not to be exacted in lands or mancipia but in gold and silver, cloth and arms, horses and livestock and such commodities as are of use.

3. Any homo holding our honores who has been summoned to the army and not come at the appointed time is to abstain from meat and wine for as many days as he will have been convicted of having arrived after the appointed time.

4. As regards the punishment of anyone returning from the army without the leave and permission of the prince – which action the Franks call herisliz – it is our will that the ancient ruling be observed, namely, sentence of death.

5. If someone from among those holding a benefice of the prince should fail his comrade-in-arms when he is going on campaign against public enemies and refuse to go or stay with him, he is to lose his honor and benefice.

6. That no one in the army is to invite his comrade-in-arms or any other man to drink. And whoever is found drunk in the army is to be segregated [‘excommunicetur’] in such a way that he may have only water to drink until such time as he recognises that he has done wrong.

7. As regards vassals of the emperor who are known to have benefices yet still serve within the household, it has been decided that any of these who remain at home with the lord emperor are not to keep their enfeoffed vassals with them but are to suffer them to go with the count in whose district they dwell.

8. As to what must be furnished in going on campaign, it has been decreed that what is established by ancient custom is to be required and observed, that is, men are to have provisions for three months from crossing the border and arms and clothing for half a year. But it has been decided that this is to be observed as follows: the Loire is to be accounted the starting-point for provisioning for those who travel from the Rhine to the Loire; those who go from the Loire to the Rhine are required to have three months’ provisions from the Rhine; those who live across the Rhine and march through Saxony are to know that the border is at the Elbe; and those who dwell across the Loire and have to advance into Spain are to recognise the mountains of the Pyrenees as their border.

9. Any free homo who is discovered not to have been in the army with his lord this year is to be compelled to pay the full haribannus. And if his lord or count left him at home, he is to pay that bannus for him; and as many haribanni are to be exacted from him as he left homines at home. And since we have allowed every lord to leave two homines at home this year, it is our will that they make these homines known to our missi, for they alone are excused the haribannus by us.

10. It has been decreed that no bishop or abbot or abbess or rector or custodian of a church whatsoever is to presume to give or to sell a coat of mail or a sword to any outsider without our permission; he may bestow these only on his own vassals. And should it happen that there are more coats of mail in a particular church or holy place than are needed for the homines of the said church’s rector, then let the said rector of the church inquire of the prince what ought to be done concerning them.

11. That whenever we wish to dispatch a fleet the lords are to go on the ships and to be equipped for this.

These translated texts are from Charlemagne: Translated Sources, by P.D. King (Kendal, 1987). We thank Professor King for his permission to include these items. First published in 1987, Charlemagne: Translated Sources is one of the best available collections of primary sources. The items available in this work include:

  • Annals of the Kingdom of the Franks (also known as the Royal Frankish Annals)
  • Revised Annals of the Kingdom of the Franks
  • Moselle Annals
  • Lorsch Annals
  • Moissac Chronicle
  • Life of Louis the Pious, by the Astronomer
  • Lives of Stephen III, Hadrian I and Leo III, from The Book of Popes
  • 30 Capitularies, dating between 769 – 813
  • The Caroline Code
  • Also a selection of letters and other minor chronicles

P. D. King also provides a description of the nature of these sources as well as a detailed history of the events of Charlemagne’s reign. Professor King sells this publication privately, and if you are interested in this work, please contact him by postal mail at:

P.D. King
Moresdale Hall
Cumbria, United Kingdom

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