A great man versus the Dark Age. Continuing our series on France’s Wars. Did you ever notice that in almost every great war in history, France has been involved in some way? These stories emphasize the French role in these wars.
Summary: Charlemagne’s campaigns united the Frank’s empire and extended it south of the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain, northern Italy, and into Germany. In total, these operations inaugurated a new period in the Dark Ages. Of particular note, the campaigns in Germany brought central Europe from the territory of the barbarians into that of civilization.
Background: After Charles Martel’s time, the Mayors of the Palace went from the status of Prime Ministers to that of kings. His descendent, Charlemagne, inherited the throne (after displacing his brother) and united the empire. Operations on the southern frontiers in Italy and Spain were constantly hampered by the traditional and, in his time, annual invasions from across the Rhine from Germany. After years of wars, Charlemagne decided to end these raids/invasions once and for all.
United under the Franks but troubled by the autonomous region of Brittany to the northwest, and threatened by raids and invasions from neighbors all around. For example:
2) Other Countries:
Spain under the Moslem Saracens, since Tours still a threat,
The Lombards in northern Italy, not a direct threat to France but determined to acquire Rome,
The Bavarians east of the Rhine River, nominally subject to France but troubling the frontier because of pressure from their eastern borders by,
The Avars, occupying Austria and Hungary and troubling not just the Bavarians to their west but the rest of the Slav peoples in Eastern Europe,
The Saxons in northern Germany, who in earlier eras and against less formidable opposition would have began another mass invasion and occupation of France as in the barbarian invasions of yore,
3) The Leaders:
Charlemagne, one of the longest reigning monarchs in Europe’s history 768 to 814 and one of the most consequential. Over six feet tall, his commanding presence, his great energy, and his governing skills held his realm to a height of knowledge and commerce that enabled sustained military operations over a wide area that contemporaries could not match,
Widikund, the Saxon leader who’s uprising in 778 convinced Charlemagne that only the most brutal measures would solve the age-old barbarian problem.
Details: After a Saxon raid on Hesse, the Franks retaliated in 772. Charlemagne advanced to the Saxons’ most sacred shrine, an enormous tree in a grove and burned it down. He established a fort and dispatched Christian missionaries. The Saxons massacred the missionaries and their converts and renewed the war.
This set the pattern for year after year. When he took the army to Italy in 773 and when he took the Lombard crown in 774, the Saxons attacked. Charlemagne built lines of fortifications in order to keep the Saxons out but the Saxons kept attacking and destroying them.
In 778, when Charlemagne and the Franks’ army campaigned in Spain, the Saxons, under Widikund attacked and plundered and burned everything east of the Rhine. Charlemagne had had enough. Year after year his army advanced, devastating the Saxons’ country. Widikund surrendered in 785 but the Saxons rebelled again in 793. Charlemagne adopted the harshest measures to pacify the Saxons.
Aftermath: By the time he was done, he had advanced the Frankish Empire to border of Denmark. While the barbarian threat against Europe continued in the centuries that followed, we can look upon this period as the time when the initiative had passed from the barbarian to the civilized. Over the long term, European civilization would spread east to Russia, north to Scandinavia, and south to the Balkans.