Charlemagne’s Tears

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Charlemagnes Tears


“Braver are many in word than in deed.” 

– The Saga of Grettir the Strong

Legend has it that in the late eighth century Charlemagne
once caught sight of some Viking ships from his breakfast table while he was
visiting the French coast. His hosts assumed that they were merchants, but the
emperor knew better and warned that they were “full of fierce foes”. The Franks
rushed to the shore with swords drawn, but the Vikings fled so quickly that it
seemed as if they had simply vanished. The disappointed courtiers returned to
the palace where they were greeted with an astonishing sight. The great
Charlemagne, Roman emperor and restorer of world order, was weeping. No one
dared to interrupt him, but after a time spent gazing out to sea he explained

“Do you know why I
weep so bitterly, my true servants? I have no fear of those worthless rascals
doing any harm to me; but I am sad at heart to think that even during my
lifetime they have dared to touch this shore; and I am torn by a great sorrow
because I foresee what evil things they will do to my descendants and their

Although this account is obviously apocryphal, Charlemagne
hardly needed any prophetic gifts to foresee the danger the Vikings posed to
his kingdom. He had, in fact, been preparing his defenses against them for
years, and ironically, was at least indirectly responsible for drawing the
raider’s attention in the first place. 

Frankish contact with Scandinavia predated him by a century
or more. Viking furs, amber, eiderdown, and whetstones were highly prized in
Frankish markets, and Danish merchants were common in the great imperial
trading centers of Dorestad on the Rhine and Quentovic near Boulogne. With
Charlemagne, however, the dynamic changed. Before him, the Franks had
maintained a powerful and stable kingdom in what is today western Germany and
eastern France. When Charlemagne accepted the Frankish crown in 768, he
immediately began expanding his frontiers in all directions. By 800 he had
seized part of the Pyrenees, Bavaria, and most of northern Italy, hammering
together a larger state than any seen since the time of the Caesars. On
Christmas Day that year, in a carefully orchestrated move, Pope Leo III placed
a crown on Charlemagne’s head and named him the new Western Roman Emperor – an
office that had been vacant for more than three centuries. 

Roman style coins were minted, imperial palaces were built,
and Charlemagne even considered marrying the Byzantine empress and making the
northern Mediterranean a Roman lake once again. A new Pax Francia seemed to be
dawning under the auspices of the all-powerful Charlemagne. Little seemed to be
beyond his reach or ambition. The scholar Alcuin, who had written of the first
Viking raid on Lindisfarne, hinted that the Frankish emperor even had the
ability to bring back the boys / monks who had been kidnapped by the

The addition of an imperial title may have burnished the
emperor’s credentials, but it also alarmed everyone on his borders. The
Frankish tendency towards expansion mixed with Charlemagne’s clear ability was
a dangerous combination. “If a Frank is your friend“, went a popular eighth
century proverb “he’s certainly not your neighbor.”

If they didn’t think so before, by 804 the Danes would have
agreed with this proverb. That year Charlemagne finally crushed the Saxons of
northwestern Germany, concluding a war that had lasted for three decades.
Franks and Danes were now neighbors, and the Scandinavians had reasons to
believe that they were next on the menu. 

The immediate cause for alarm was Charlemagne’s plans to
build a fleet, something his powerful land empire had previously lacked. His
stated goal was to deny Danish pirates access to the Elbe, the river protecting
the empire’s northeastern flank. He had already tried to address this issue by
building two fortified bridges to make it easier to move troops across at will.
The other great rivers of the empire received similar treatment. A moveable
bridge of pontoons connected by anchors and ropes guarded the Danube, the great
eastern river that allowed access to the heart of imperial territory, and a
canal was started between the Rhine and Danube to allow troops to move quickly
to a threatened border.

When the emperor announced the addition of a North Sea
fleet, most inhabitants of the Danish peninsula correctly suspected that
Charlemagne’s real target was the Danish port of Hedeby, located just over the
border on the Schlei Fjord. The town had become the great entrepôt for Viking
goods, and a rival for even the largest Frankish markets. The Danes had set up
toll booths and a mint – the first in Scandinavia – and were doing a brisk
business that had begun to cut into the older, more established imperial
trading centers. 

The man responsible for Hedeby’s growth was a Viking warlord
named Godfred. Frankish chronicles called him a ‘king’, but he was less a ruler
of Denmark than a ruler in Denmark. Many Danes may have recognized his
authority, but there were rival figures with their own halls even in the
Jutland peninsula that makes up the bulk of modern Denmark.

Godfred – in what would become true Viking fashion –
increased the population of Hedeby by importing captured merchants from
Frankish towns he raided. To defend it against Charlemagne he began
constructing the Danevirke, a massive earthen wall topped by a wooden stockade
that would eventually extend across the neck of the peninsula from the North
Sea to the Baltic. 

Safe behind these ramparts, Godfred began to harass his
powerful neighbor. He sacked several Frankish towns and forced one of
Charlemagne’s allies to switch their allegiance. In response, a small Frankish
army marched north and the Danevirke was put to its first test. Godfred’s
soldiers held their ground, and Charlemagne, who was occupied with revolts
elsewhere, decided to buy peace. 

The two sides agreed that the river Eider would form a
permanent border, and an apparently chastened Godfred sent hostages to the
imperial capital of Aachen as a sign of good faith. This, however, turned out
to be a ruse. When Charlemagne left with his army for the campaigning season
early the next year, Godfred led two hundred longboats on a plundering raid of
the Frisia – what is today the Netherland’s coast. His price for leaving was a
hundred pounds of silver, collected from the beleaguered merchants and peasants,
and whatever portable wealth his Vikings could stuff into their ships. As a
final note of defiance, he announced that he was claiming the northern stretch
of the Frisian coast for himself. 

Despite the huge number of ships involved, the raid itself
was relatively minor, and Charlemagne was too experienced to believe that any
of his borders were permanent. The treaty would have been violated eventually;
what really stung Charlemagne was the appropriation of a part of his

It wasn’t immediately apparent how he should respond. The
few ships he had were woefully inadequate for an attack, so naval operations
were out of the question, and a land invasion carried its own risks.
Charlemagne had just finished a bruising thirty-year war with the Saxons and,
now in his late sixties, had no desire to get bogged down in another
slow-burning war. 

The first order of business, in any case, was to contain Godfred. The coast had to be protected, and since the Franks lacked a true fleet, the Vikings themselves would have to provide one. Independent groups of Danes had been raiding the Frankish coast for more than a decade, and the larger ones were more than happy to take Charlemagne’s gold in exchange for the promise of protection. While they protected him from the sea, Charlemagne gathered his army to storm the Danevirke

The expedition never left. That summer, as the final
preparations were being made, Godfred was cut down by one of his own men. In
the chaos that followed, the identity of the killer was obscured. Some later
claimed that it was his disgruntled son, angry that Godfred had recently
married another woman, and others that the assassin was the king’s housecarl,
but either way, the threat vanished. Charlemagne was apparently annoyed to be
cheated of his revenge. His biographer Einhard claimed that the emperor
remarked, “woe is me that I was not thought worthy to see my Christian hands
dabbling in the blood of those dog-headed fiends.” As it turned out,
Charlemagne never got the chance to wash his hands in northern gore. He expired
four years later and was succeeded by his son Louis. 

Without a strong hand at the helm, Charlemagne’s empire
began to fall apart. At first the decay was barely noticeable. His son Louis
seemed to be a younger, more cultured version of Charlemagne. The court took to
calling him ‘Louis the Debonaire’, both for his refined court and his continued
patronage of the arts. Even on the battlefield, he appeared to live up to his
famous predecessor. During his father’s reign he had been entrusted with the
security of the southwest frontier, and had been vigorous in its defense. He
imposed Frankish authority over Pamplona and the Basques of the southern
Pyrenees, and sacked Muslim-controlled Barcelona. All threats to his authority
were ruthlessly suppressed, especially if they came from his own family. At his
coronation he forced all his unmarried sisters into convents to avoid potential
threats from brothers-in-law. 

The promising new reign took an unexpected turn in 817, when
Louis suffered a near fatal accident. A wooden gallery connecting Aachen’s
cathedral to the imperial palace collapsed while he was crossing it after a
church service, leaving many courtiers maimed or dead. Badly shaken, the
injured Louis began plans for his succession, naming his eldest son Lothair as
senior emperor, and splitting the rest between two other sons and a

The emperor recovered, but news of the planned partition had
reached Italy where his nephew Bernard – currently ruling as king – discovered
that he was to be demoted to a vassal. He immediately revolted, but when Louis
suddenly appeared in Burgundy with an army, the unprepared Bernard surrendered
without a fight. He agreed to meet with his uncle to beg his pardon, and
hopefully retain Italy. Louis, however, was not in a particularly forgiving
mood. Bernard was hauled back to Aachen and put on trial for treason as an
example to any other family members who were considering revolt. He was found
guilty, stripped of his possessions and sentenced to death. 

As a sign of his clemency, Louis commuted the penalty to
blinding, and two days later the procedure was carried out. The soldiers tasked
with performing the blinding weren’t overly gentle. They used their heated iron
rods so forcefully that Bernard didn’t survive the ordeal, dying after two days
in agony. 

Louis was never quite the same after the death of his
nephew. Deeply religious to begin with, his guilt drove him to ever more lavish
public displays. Members of the clergy became prominent advisors, and so many
churches and monasteries were endowed that he acquired the sobriquet by which
his most known – Louis the Pious. When even this failed to alleviate the guilt,
the emperor took the extraordinary step of staging a public confession of his
sins before the pope and the assembled ecclesiastics and nobles of the empire.
As admirable as this conspicuous humility may have been, however, it had the
effect of badly undercutting his own authority. 

Contemporary society was dripping with blood. The vast frontiers
were surrounded by hostile peoples who could vanish into their forests or out
to sea before the imperial army appeared. A good emperor was forced to set off
on at least one large military campaign a year, and failure to do so would be
interpreted as weakness. 

Where the emperor failed to show the mailed fist, violence
flared up. Rebellions had to be met with brutal force. Captured enemies were
routinely blinded, maimed, tortured, or hung. At Verdun, Charlemagne had
beheaded forty-five hundred Saxon nobles as a punishment for revolt, and
relocated entire populations to pacify them. 

All of this was accepted as necessary behavior to impose
order. When Louis, therefore, humbly bowed before the Pope and recited a
laundry list of sins that included even minor offenses, it diminished the
emperor in the eyes of both his subjects and his enemies. This was not the way
an emperor was supposed to act. Charlemagne had wanted to bathe in the blood of
his enemies; his son seemed to want to join a monastery. 

On the northern frontier, the Vikings were well aware of
this situation. Charlemagne’s defenses, particularly the fortified bridges and
army, were still formidable enough to blunt a large attack, but there were
ominous signs that the situation would soon change. A Frankish bishop traveling
through Frisia found help from ‘certain northmen’ who knew the routes up the
rivers that flowed toward the sea. The Vikings were clearly aware of both
harbors and sea routes, and the empire lacked a fleet with which it could defend

The Franks, however, seemed oblivious to the danger. Life
was more prosperous than it had been in many generations, and they were
enjoying the benefits of imperial rule. The archbishop of Sens in northern
France, confident in the protection of the emperor, had gone so far as to
demolish the walls of his city to rebuild his church. The towns on the coast
were equally vulnerable. A lively wine trade had developed along the Seine
between Paris and the sea, and the coast of Frisia was dotted with ports.
Thanks to the Frank’s access to high quality silver – a commodity largely
absent in Scandinavia – coins had replaced bartering and imperial markets were
increasingly stockpiled with precious metals. 

The only thing preventing a major attack was the confusion
of Louis’ Viking enemies. The Danish peninsula had been in turmoil since the
death of Godfred. A warrior named Harald Klak had seized power, but after a
short reign had been expelled by the slain Godfred’s son Horik. Harald Klak
appealed to Louis for help, slyly offering to convert to Christianity in
exchange for aid. The emperor accepted, and in a sumptuous ceremony at the
royal palace of Ingelheim, near Mainz, Harald and four hundred of his followers
were dipped in the baptismal font. Louis the Pious stood in as Harald’s

It was a triumphal moment for several reasons. Louis was
clearly not the soldier his father was, but here was an opportunity to
neutralize the Danes for the foreseeable future. If Harald could be installed
on the Danish throne, and then Christianize his subjects, it would pacify the
northern border. 

The first part of the plan worked seamlessly. Harald was
given land in Frisia and tasked with defending it against marauding Vikings,
while an expedition to restore his throne was gathered. With a Frankish army at
his back, he was able to force his rival, Horik, to recognize him as ruler. He
then invited Louis to send a missionary to aid in the conversion of the Danes.
The emperor chose a Saxon preacher named Ansgar, who immediately built a church
in Hedeby. At this point, however, Louis’ grand policy began to collapse. 

The Danes weren’t particularly interested in Christianity,
at least not as an exclusive religion. Nor it seems, were they interested in
Harald Klak. After a year, he was again driven into exile by his adversary
Horik, a stout pagan. To add insult to injury, Harald returned to his Frisian
lands and took up piracy, spending his remaining years plundering his
godfather’s property. 

With the expulsion of Harald Klak, a dam seemed to break in
the north, and raiders began to spill out over the Carolingian coast. Dorestad,
the largest trading center in northern Europe and a main center of
silver-minting, was sacked every year from 834 to 837. Horik sent an embassy to
Louis claiming that he had nothing to do with the attacks on Dorestad, but did
mention that he had apprehended and punished those responsible. The latter
claim, at least, was probably true. Successful raiders were potential rivals,
and Horik had no desire to repeat Harald Klak’s fate.

Individual Vikings out for plunder needed no invitations
from the king to attack. The Frankish empire was clearly tottering. Louis’
tin-eared rule – exacerbated by an ill-thought out plan to include a son from
his second marriage into the succession – resulted in a series of civil wars
and his deposition at the hands of his remaining sons. Although he was restored
to the throne the following year, his prestige never recovered. 

The damage it did to his empire was immense. Not only were
there lingering revolts – he spent the final years of his reign putting down
insurrections – but the distractions allowed the Vikings to arrive in greater
numbers. Multiple groups began to hit the coasts at the same time, burning
villages, seizing booty, and carrying away the inhabitants, leaving only the
old and sick behind. 

In 836 Horik himself led a major raid on Antwerp, and when
several of his warriors died in the assault, he had the nerve to demand
weregild – compensation for his loss of soldiers. Louis responded by gathering
a large army, and the Vikings melted away, but only as far as Frisia where they
continued to raid. In 840, the emperor finally ordered the construction of his
father’s North Sea fleet to challenge them, but died a few months later without
accomplishing anything. 

Instead of unifying against the common threat, Louis’ sons
spent the next three years fighting for supremacy as the empire disintegrated
around them. On occasion they even tried to use the Vikings to attack each
other. The eldest sibling, Lothar, welcomed old Harald Klak into his court and
rewarded him with land for raiding his brother’s territory. This turned out to
be an exceptionally bad idea, as it gave the Vikings familiarity with and
access to Frankish territory. Harald, and streams of like-minded Vikings,
happily plundered their way across the northern coasts of the empire. 

These attacks depended on speed, not overwhelming force. By
the mid ninth century the typical Viking “army” consisted of a few ships with
perhaps a hundred men. Some men would be left to guard the ships while the rest
fanned out to plunder. In these early days they weren’t interested in
prisoners, and would kill or burn anything that couldn’t be taken. 

The small numbers were a vulnerability, but this was made up
for by the speed of the attacks. Most Vikings were reluctant to travel far from
the coasts of the sea or river systems, and generally avoided pitched battles.
Their equipment was more often than not inferior to their Frankish opponents;
Vikings caught in open country were usually overwhelmed. This was partially
because they lacked the armor common in Europe at the time. Frankish chronicles
referred to them as ‘naked’, and they had to scavenge helmets and weapons from
the dead since several Frankish rulers sensibly forbade the sale of weapons to
the Vikings on pain of death. 

The one exception to this general inferiority were Viking
swords. The original design was probably copied from an eighth century Frankish
source, a blacksmith named Ulfberht whose name soon became a brand. The Vikings
quickly learned to manufacture the blades themselves, and weapons bearing the
inscription Ulfberht have been found all over Scandinavia. They were typically
double edged, with a rounded point, made of multiple bars of iron twisted
together. This pattern welding created a relatively strong and lightweight
blade that could be reforged if broken. They were clearly among a warrior’s
most prized possessions and were passed down as heirlooms and given names like
“Odin’s Flame” and “Leg-Biter“. 

Aside from their swords, the Viking’s main advantages lay in
their sophisticated intelligence gathering and their terrifying adaptability.
They had advance warning of most Frankish military maneuvers, and could respond
quickly to take advantage of political changes. Most formidable of all, was
their malleability. ‘Brotherhoods’ of dozens or even hundreds could combine
into a larger army, and then re-dissolve into groups at will. This made it
almost impossible to inflict a serious defeat on them, or even predict where to
concentrate your defenses. 

The Vikings were usually also more pragmatic than their
opponents. They had no qualms about traveling through woods, used impromptu
buildings like stone churches as forts, and dug concealed pits to disable
pursuing cavalry. They attacked at night, and were willing – unlike the
Frankish nobility – to get their hands dirty by digging quick trenches and
earthworks. Most of all they could pick their prey and had exquisite timing.
Earlier barbarians had avoided churches; the Vikings targeted them, usually
during feast days when towns were full of wealthy potential hostages. 

The Christian communities didn’t stand a chance. The
monastery of Noirmoutier, on an island at the mouth of the Loire, was sacked
every year from 819 to 836. It became an annual tradition for the monks to
evacuate the island for the spring and summer, returning only after the raiding
season had ended. Finally, in 836 they had enough and carrying the relics of
their patron saint – and what was left of the treasury – they fled east in
search of a safe haven. For the next three decades they were driven from one
refuge to the next until they finally settled in Burgundy near the Swiss
border, about as far from the Vikings and the sea as one could get. 

A monk of Noirmoutier summed up the desperation in a plea
for his fellow Christians to stop their infighting and defend themselves: 

“The number of ships
grows larger and larger, the great host of Northmen continually increases… they
capture every city they pass through, and none can withstand them… There is
hardly a single place, hardly a monastery which is respected, all the
inhabitants take to flight and few and far between are those who dare to say:
‘Stay where you are, stay where you are, fight back, do battle for your
country, for your children, for your family!’ In their paralysis, in the midst
of their mutual rivalries, they buy back at the cost of tribute that which they
should have defended, weapons in hand, and allow the Christian kingdom to

The monk’s advice went unheeded. By the time the Frankish
civil war ended, Charlemagne’s empire had dissolved into three kingdoms, each
with their vulnerabilities brutally exposed. The western Frankish kingdom
became the basis of the kingdom of France, the eastern, Germany, and the third
– a thin strip of land between them called Lotharingia – was absorbed by its
neighbors. Viking raiding groups became larger and bolder. Instead of two or
three ships traveling together, they were now arriving in fleets of ten or
twelve. More ominously still, they began to change their tactics. In 845 they
returned to the island of Noirmoutier, but this time, instead of the usual
raid, they fortified the island and made it a winter quarters. The usual
practice was to raid in the warmer months, and return home before the first
snows fell. Now, however, they intended to stop wasting time in transit, and to
be more systematic in the collection of loot. 

Launching raids from their base, they could now penetrate
further up rivers, putting more towns and even cities in range. Rouen, Nantes,
and Hamburg were sacked, and Viking fleets plundered Burgundy. The next year
they hit Utrecht and Antwerp, and went up the Rhine as far as Nijmegen. These
raids all paled, however, before one that took place in 845 at the direction of
the Danish king. He had not forgotten the Frankish support for his rival Harald
Klak. Now Horik finally had his revenge.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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