Charlemagne was a king of the Franks, and he became the first Holy Roman Emperor. He is known for expanding the territory and power of his Kingdom of the Franks, and for subjugating the Germanic Saxons. His long reign, which began in 768 as co-ruler with his brother, and then from 771 to 814 AD as the sole ruler, makes Charlemagne one of the most historically important rulers of the Middle Ages. Reflecting the various languages within his empire, he was known alternately as: Carolus Magnus (Latin), Karl der Grosse (German), and Charlemagne (French). The designation means “Charles the Great" in all three languages.
Conquest of Lombardy (773-774)–The Franks under an earlier king, Pepin the Short, had battled the Lombards in defense of the Pope in the years 754 and 756, forcing the Lombards to give up land to both the Frankish kingdom and to the Pope’s rule. The lands claimed by the Pope became the basis for the Papal States. The Lombard King, Desiderius, wanted those lands back, angering the current Frankish ruler, Charlemagne, who was married to the daughter of King Desiderius. Charlemagne sent his wife back home to her father, and then invaded Lombardy, conquering the Lombard lands, and declaring himself the new King of Lombardy.
Saxon Wars (771-804)–A series of campaigns waged over nearly 30 years and 18 major battles. These wars concluded with Saxony incorporated into the Frankish Empire, and the pagan Saxons forced to accept Christianity. A significant percentage of the Saxon population perished in the Frankish conquest of Saxony.
Lombardy Rebellion (776)–Charlemagne put down a rebellion in Lombardy by Duke Hrodgaud of Friuli and Duke Hildeprand of Spolet. Charlemagne rushed back from Saxony and defeated and killed the Duke Hrodgaud of Friuli in battle. The Duke of Spoleto signed a peace treaty with Charlemagne. Their co-conspirator, Arechis, was not subdued Northern Italy was now under Frankish control.
Charlemagne’s First Spanish Campaign (also known as the Roncesvalles Campaign) (777-778)—Charlemagne agreed to aid the Muslim governor of Barcelona in his conflict against the Emir of Cordoba, worried that Cordoba posed a threat to the Frankish province of Aquitaine, led his army over the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. The Franks won a few minor battles and conquered the Basque (Christian) city of Pamplona, but could not take the city of Saragossa. Hard pressed by Muslim forces, the Franks withdrew in 778. This Charlemagne war is best known for the song (poem) written about Charlemagne’s nephew, Roland, who fought and died in a rear-guard battle with Muslim forces as the Franks withdrew from northern Spain. The Song of Roland, with its martial pride in the Frankish forces and Charlemagne’s cause, and, of course, Roland’s bravery, is considered one of the first true national poems of the modern world.
Frankish-Moorish Wars (779-812)–The Franks and Moors (Arabic Muslims who ruled North Africa and Spain), fought throughout the Mediterranean Sea (The Franks seized the islands of Corsica and Sardinia and in 799, the Balearic Islands) and in northern Spain. In 795, the Spanish regions of Gerona, Cardona, Ausona, and Urgel were united into the new Spanish March, which remained under Frankish authority until 1258.
Lombard War (780)–Charlemagne installed his son as the ruler in Lombardy and also strengthened the Papacy’s power.
Breton Rebellion (786)– In 786 Charlemagne subdued the Bretons, in a region in the extreme western part of Gaul along the western coast in an area known as Brittany. The Bretons refused to obey him, so he sent an army against them, which compelled the rebels to surrender hostages to Charlemagne, and to promise to obey him from then on.
Beneventian War (787)–Charlemagne incorporated southern Italy into his empire, besieging the city of Salerno and forcing its ruler, Arechis, to swear loyalty.
Bavarian War (787-788)- The ruler of Bavaria, Duke Tassilo, was married to a daughter of Charlemagne’s old enemy, King Desiderius of Lombardy. This woman, named Liutberga, convinced her husband to make an alliance with the Avars (better known to history as The Huns) to exact revenge against Charlemagne. When Frankish forces under Charlemagne entered Bavaria, Duke Tassilo quickly surrendered and pledged loyalty to Charlemagne.
Frankish-Avar War (791-796)–The Avars, or Huns, as they were often called by the Franks, controlled the central Danube and accumulated wealth by raiding and plundering their neighbors. Charlemagne and his son, Pepin, fought the Avars in a long and bloody war which resulted in the subjugation of the Avars.
Second Beneventian War (792-?)–Upon the death of Arechis of Beneventa, his son, Grimold III, declared independence of Frankish rule and warfare continued on and off for years. Grimold never was forced to surrender his independence.
Slavic War (798)–In 798, Charlemagne led a campaign against a Slavic group inhabiting what is now north-eastern Germany. This Slavic group were known at the time as the Wilzi, or Welatabians (also known in history as the Wends, or the Veleti). Regardless of what we call them, they had harassed the Abodriti, old allies of the Franks, through continual raids. When they refused Charlemagne’s orders to halt these raids, he marched into their territory in 798 and crushed them (this according to Einhard, Charlemagne’s biographer, who noted this in “Vita Karoli Magni” (Life of Charles the Great).
Pannonian Croatian War (799-803)–A Frankish commander, Eric, the Duke of Friuli, attempted to conquer Pannonian Croatia for the Franks. He failed miserably, being killed in the Siege of Trsat in 799. The Croatian War continued on and off for years.
Frankish-Byzantine War (801-810)–Charlemagne and the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus I waged war on both land and sea for control of Venetia and the Dalmatian coast (modern-day northern Italy, Slovenia and Croatia). The war progressed well for the Franks, plus, beginning in 809, Nicephorus was distracted by a new war with the Bulgars. Therefore, the Byzantines began negotiations with the Franks, and peace was agreed upon in which Charlemagne gave up most of the Dalmatian coast (which he had conquered), in exchange for the Byzantine Emperor recognizing him as Emperor of the West. The Istrian Peninsula remained a part of the Frankish Empire.
Danish War (808-810)–Charlemagne settled accounts with the Danes, who had given aid and asylum to the Saxon leader Widukind in the Saxon Wars.
Bohemian War (805-806)–Frankish forces subdued the Slavic region of Bohemia (modern-day Czech Republic)
Outside Links and Resources for Charlemagne and his Wars:
Kohn, George C. Dictionary of Wars. New York: Facts On File Publications. 1986.