The key word to describe historical fiction is “fiction,” and authors often must take some liberties with historic details for purposes of the plot. If you would like to know more about the history of this period, check out some nonfiction resources.
Entire books can—and have—been written about Charlemagne. If you want a book based upon information in primary sources, read Charlemagne by Roger Collins. What follows on this page is a brief and oversimplified description of what happened in the early years of Charles’s reign, when The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar are set.
Kim also posts commentary about history on her blog.
“I am indebted to the writers of the print and online resources I used as well as the fellow authors who provided me with feedback during the writing process,” Kim says. “Any mistakes are entirely my own.”
The Personal and the Political
Charles’s father and uncle, Pepin and Carloman, took Francia from the Merovingians in a coup. Carloman retired to a monastery, and Pepin seized the kingdom for himself, cutting out Carloman’s son. When Pepin died in 768, the kingdom was divided between Charles and his brother, Carloman. (Yes, the Franks recycled names.) Charles was 20, and Carloman was 17. Both were married to Frankish women Pepin had picked out for them.
The brothers did not get along. Charles put down a rebellion in Aquitaine in 769, with no assistance from Carloman. The queen mother, Bertrada, intervened and worked to ensure peace between her sons along with their cousin, the duke of Bavaria, and Lombard King Desiderius, one of whose daughter was the Bavarian duchess.
This was a time when marriages were a means of diplomacy, and in 770, Bertrada was arranging a marriage between Charles and a Lombard princess. In the summer of that year, the pope wrote an impassioned letter to both brothers urging them not to marry her. In 770/71, Charles divorced his first wife, the mother of his eldest son Pepin (also called Pepin the Hunchback), and married the Lombard princess.
Shortly after Carloman died (December 4, 771), his widow fled to Italy with their two young sons. Meanwhile, Charles divorced the Lombard and married Hildegard, whose father ruled over land that used to be in Carloman’s kingdom. Like his father, Charles seized land from his nephews.
Although Pepin had invaded Saxony a couple of times, 772 is the first year that Charles went to war there, destroying the Irminsul and taking away the treasure that was there. There is contradictory information on what and where the Irminsul was–or if it was one or many universal pillars. Some sources say it was a stone pillar, others say wooden pillar, and still others say it was a tree. All sources agree that Charles destroyed it.
At the same time in Italy, Desiderius was trying to get the pope to anoint Carloman’s sons and was threatening Rome. The pope asked Charles to fulfill his father’s oath as patrician of Rome and come to his aid. Charles crossed the Alps in the fall of 773 and won after a year-long siege.
Charles’s reign was filled with a lot more wars with the Lombards and other peoples. The war against the Saxons was the most bitter, lasting more than 30 years off and on, with brutality on both sides. The Saxons were accused of sparing no one. The Franks beheaded of 4,500 Saxons in 782 at Verdun when the Saxons refused to give up Widukind. In 804, 10,000 Saxons were deported along the Elbe to areas of Gaul and Germany.
Widukind, lord of the Westphalian Saxons, first appears in the Royal Frankish Annals in 777, and he is last mentioned in 785, when he accepted baptism with Charles as his godfather. Perhaps Charles and Widukind made a deal. If Widukind accepted baptism, paid tribute, and quit burning churches, he could return to his land. Widukind may have founded a few abbeys, a typical penance for a nobleman.
In 777, Charles mistakenly thought the Saxons were “pacified” (beaten into submission) when he held his assembly at Paderborn, where a delegation of three emirs asked for Charles’s help against the ruler of Cordova. In the campaign against Iberia the next year, Charles assembled what was then the largest Frankish army, and it was not successful. The Basques (also called the Gascons) ambushed the rear guard and baggage train at Roncevaux, and the Franks were slain “to a man,” according to Charles’ biographer, Einhard. Hruodland (also called Roland) is listed among the dead in the biography.
Charles’s personal life continued to be complicated. He was married a total of five times, and a string of mistresses followed after his fifth wife’s death. He had two sons names Pepin, and his eldest son rebelled against him. He also ousted his cousin, Bavarian Duke Tassilo.
Charles maintained strong political ties to the popes, and on Christmas Day in 800, he was crowned emperor. He died in 814.