Episode 4: Charles in Charge

In the latter half of the 8th century, events and circumstances around Europe become vastly influenced by a man who ruled a huge empire from (right next to) the lowlands. This man is the reason why the name Charles - which if you think about it really hard is actually a pretty weird name - is anywhere near as populous as it is today. But this Charles was, apparently, greater than the rest, and so he gets to be called Charlemagne - Charles the Great.

Bust of Charlemagne in Aachen Cathedral    Source

Bust of Charlemagne in Aachen Cathedral Source

Topography of Europe

But before we get into the circumstances arising from this man’s impact, it is important to first have a look at some of the geographical complexities that came to be of consequence in Charlemagne’s establishment of an empire in Western Europe. So let’s look at topographic map of Western Europe, taking particular note of how, indeed, low the lowlands are.

Mountains have been and still are, used as effective borders. Few people eagerly set out to climb over a mountain. Looking at the Alps today, there are many countries that border each other in the mountains; countries such as France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy. Mountains aremuch easier to walk around as opposed to walk over. Coming back to the map, we see how the high points of western europe peeter out. As a result, there are large plains running from south to north in France, and another flat area running east-west across Germany. The arrows on our map indicate these. If you were to move a person, people, or large group across western Europe, these are the easiest passages. And where these two great flat areas meet? The lowlands.

The topography of Charlemagne’s empire. Note the location of the capital, Aachen, in relation to the lower areas.

The topography of Charlemagne’s empire. Note the location of the capital, Aachen, in relation to the lower areas.

Charlemagne’s Rise to Power

As mentioned in our last episode, Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne and he who managed to christianize the Frisians, had a son named Pepin. Pepin would finally cast of the facade of the ruling dynasty, which was the Merovingian dynasty that had emerged out of the Salian Franks. Pepin had the Merovingian king sent to a monastery, and became the king of the Franks himself - the first of what would become the Carolingian dynasty. Pepin, being a Frank, followed the custom of dividing his land and titles between his sons. When he died, his two sons Charles and Carloman had to share the entirety of empire with each other. Tension would grow between the two brothers when Carloman conveniently died in 771 CE, Charles became the sole ruler of his father’s kingdom. He became Charles in charge. He immediately set out to expand it and, after winning some 50 battles, Charles managed to claim almost the entire mainland of modern day Europe, earning himself the name, across of Europe, of Charles the Great, Karl der Große, Carlo Magno and Charlemagne. His empire stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the North Sea, and as far east as the Danube river. A territory inhabited by many different groups, loosely tied together under labels like ‘the Franks’, but separated by rivers, forests, coasts and mountains. Out of his loosely configured empire, he would create the feudal system, which would structure the European political force for centuries to come.

The Vassal System

Charlemagne created a vassal system which needed constant oversight. He was well known to go around in his empire checking the loyalty and administrative capabilities of his subjects. His empire was massive; in the west those big plains that stretched from the south-west to the north-east, across modern France and Germany, came together in the lowlands. He therefore made Aachen his capital, located in between these two plains. Aachen and the southern lowlands then also became the centre of the so-called Carolingian Renaissance, where art and intellectual life would begin to flourish in the 9th century. The culture would have spread across those plains, up and down the rivers. Further stoked by the establishment of Christianity as the realm’s religion, cathedrals, abbeys and convents were built and wealth began to be amassed by the Church.

Warring Grandchildren

Charlemagne died in 814CE, leading to his son Louis the Pious taking over the empire. Louis later divided it into three parts, as was Frankish custom. His four sons, Pepin, Lothar and Louis II and Charles, then continued what would become a favourite family tradition of trying to kill each other so as to become the sole ruler. The brothers ended up declaring war on each other and, varyingly, on their father, resulting in a 10 year civil war, during which one of them, Pepin died.

Viking Raids

While there were political situations on the continent, it is impossible to look at the Early Middle Ages in Western Europe without seeing effects of the Viking presence. Vikings came from the North. Raiding down the coast, Friesland and the areas that would become Holland, Zeeland and Flanders were all subject to attack. But viking also stayed and integrated over time. Many large, raiding groups took control of territories and regions. In the lowlands, with the best example being Rorik of Dorestad, who would become a part of the tangled web of politics that grew out of the devolution of Charlemagne’s empire.

Another, called Godfrey Sea-King, would later achieve something similar, whilst ruling in Friesland, by making a pithy marriage alliance with one of Charlemagne’s grandchildren.

This was an era where power was gained through violence, diplomatic wiles and wealth. Oh, wait, that’s pretty much every era. War, marriage and alliance systems all were made to serve the individual prospects of the parties involved. The thing is, however, that if you conducted a violent act, but did it with enough wile, you could avoid judicial ramifications and position yourself quite highly within the vassalage system of the Carolingian empire.

Baldwin Iron Arm, a dude with an awesome nomenclature, kidnapped the daughter of the King of West Francia, and was rewarded with being enfeoffed the region of Flanders, so becoming its first Count. Here marked the arrival of one of the most influential regions of the medieval lowlands, and one that will be with us until we chisel out the modern country of The Netherlands in about 700 years time. The counts of Flanders will hold such sway over the following centuries that world history, in general, will hinge on decisions that they, alone, will make.

Baldwin Iron Arm (Statue in Bruges) By Zeisterre - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,  Source

Baldwin Iron Arm (Statue in Bruges) By Zeisterre - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Source

Dissolution of Charlemagne’s Empire

For now, however, by the end of the 9th century Charlemagne’s empire was split in East Francia, West Francia, and the lands in between which would become Lotharingia. East Francia was essentially today’s Germany, West Francia today’s France, and Lotharingia containing in its northern half our humble, little lowlands.

From now on, the identity to emerge in the lowlands amongst individuals and groups will be impacted by the ebb and flow of power between the two larger states on its flanks - East and West Francia. France and Germany. In the next episode, we will explore how the regional rulers in the lowlands dealt with the political vagaries of their larger neighbours.