In this story you shall first hear of the hatred Desiderius, King of Lombardy, nourished in his heart for Charlemagne, King of all the Franks, and the reason thereof; then it shall be told how Desiderius plotted against Charlemagne to compass his ruin by bringing division and strife into his realm; lastly shall be discovered to you something of the great power and might of that glorious Emperor, King Charlemagne, together with the story of his victory over Desiderius.
Had Desiderius known, as we know now, the great genius of King Charlemagne; had he known that the great Frank was to fight battle after battle, gain victory after victory, win country after country, until, at last, Italy, Saxony, Brittany, Bavaria, Spain, Greece, Hungary, besides other smaller powers, hailed him as conqueror, fighting his battles, obeying his laws,—had Desiderius known all this, had he rightly understood the power that was in the man, would he have dared to meddle with Charlemagne, or, having dared, would he have dreamed of success, think you? I trow not.
Nevertheless the dark Lombard had a subtle brain—his crafty schemes were not ill-laid, his enmity might have caused trouble to any lesser man than Charlemagne. Charlemagne, you must know, had a brother whose name was Carloman. In the beginning Carloman reigned over one-half of Gaul, Charlemagne over the other. The kingdom of Gaul had been equally divided between them when their father, the brave King Pepin the Little, died. And in so sharing the realm they followed the custom of Gaul at that time.
Now these two brothers never agreed well together; although, mark you, this Carloman was to blame for more than half their quarrels. He was no match for his greater brother either in generosity or wit. However, peace was kept in some sort between them chiefly by the help of the wise Queen Bertrada, their mother. This often troubled and uneasy peace they kept until Carloman died, leaving a widow to weep for him with two, and maybe three, little children.
Thus the whole great kingdom of Gaul came to Charlemagne, and rightfully so. The people were not at all minded to choose a little child for their king even though he were a son of Carloman. In those troublous times they needed a man to rule them, a warrior to lead them, and with one consent they chose Charlemagne; and who shall say their choice was not just and good.
Carloman's widow, Giberga, thought differently, however. She coveted the throne for her little son. In the way of all mothers she longed to give him a great inheritance; so knowing of the hatred Desiderius bore for Charlemagne, she fled to the Lombardy court with her children, pleading for shelter and safety. Let it be understood, however, that Giberga had no need to flee from her brother-in-law. Both she and her children were safe in his hands. He had no least thought of harming them.
You will believe me when I tell you that Desiderius welcomed the distressed widow with much joy. He consoled her with many promises of aid. "You shall dwell in peace and safety here," he assured her, "until that time when I can help you win back your son's kingdom again. Charlemagne has already done injustice enough to make me ever eager to help those whom he has injured."
Now this Desiderius said because of the hate he bore Charlemagne, and indeed he had some cause for offence. Charlemagne had slighted him more than once in a way which the fiery Lombard was least likely to forgive; besides there had been ill-feeling between Lombardy and Gaul for some little time. Desiderius had waited long for a chance to pay back some of the ancient grudges he held against Charlemagne. Charlemagne, on the other hand, thought very little about them, and feared Desiderius not at all.
But now it seemed to the King of the Lombards as if his opportunity had come at last. Giberga's appeal for shelter and help had made him think of a new plan for revenge, and he set to work on it as quickly as might be.
She fled to teh Lombardy court with her children, pleading for shelter and safety.
If you think he instantly declared himself the champion of Carloman's son by making war upon Charlemagne straight away, you cannot have understood the wily nature of the man.
Desiderius aimed his first blow at Hadrian, the Pope of Rome, Charlemagne's great friend.
He sent messengers to Hadrian bidding him anoint Carloman's son king of his father's realm, at the same time threatening to make instant war upon the Church should the Pope refuse.
Mark you here the cunning of this! If Hadrian out of fear should anoint the little Prince with holy oil, Desiderius hoped to win many brave knights to give up their allegiance to Charlemagne and fight for the son of Carloman. For to be anointed by holy oil and declared by the Pope of Rome to be the true heir of Carloman's kingdom would count for a great deal with these knights who had once served Carloman himself.
On the other hand, should Hadrian refuse, Desiderius would have that excuse for making war upon Rome, and this he was longing to do. It would annoy Charlemagne, besides pay off some old grudges that he held against Hadrian.
So then Desiderius felt that whether Hadrian's answer was a "yea" or a "nay" he had the best of it. Hadrian, as you must guess, refused point blank. He who had already anointed and blessed the great Charlemagne, who had named him the friend and defender of the Church, was not going to bring trouble and division into Gaul, no matter what the Lombard threatened.
Upon this Desiderius marched forth with a great army, captured many of the cities belonging to the Church, and laid siege to Rome itself.
The Romans were terror-struck. The fighting blood in them was still asleep, and they knew their beloved city was in no fit state to withstand assault. They rushed to Hadrian begging him to surrender at once and do the Lombard's will.
"Talk no such coward's stuff to me," cried the old Pope stoutly. "Go, build up new gates and strong forts and prepare yourselves for battle. God will not forsake us when our cause is good. The Lombard's ways are evil; he cannot succeed."
"We cannot hold out for long," cried one.
"We can hold out just so long as we have faith in God and King Charlemagne," answered the undaunted Hadrian. "He will never desert us, nor let us perish for his sake." "King Charlemagne cannot know of our peril," cried another old councillor. "And if he knew, how could he help? He is in the far, far north conquering the fierce Saxons."
There was a silence. At last Pope Hadrian cried, "We will send word to him of our plight, and meanwhile we will prepare to withstand the siege."
"He who takes the word will have to brave the dangers of the sea," said the old councillor, "and God knows what they are. Desiderius has guarded every pass through the mountains into Gaul."
At this all looked grave again, for in those days, when the ships were badly built aid sailors scarce, a voyage by sea was no small undertaking.
One brave man, however, was found willing to thus hazard his life. He was a monk, and his name was Peter. He crossed to Marseilles, and after a long and adventurous journey through Gaul he came upon Charlemagne at last in the far north. The King and all his court were resting from the labours of war, for it was winter-time—the time of peace.
Peter, I trow, never forgot his first sight of the hero-king seated at meat amidst the throng of wise and learned men whom he kept ever near him, for Charlemagne was not only a great warrior but a great scholar, a maker of laws, and a lover of learning. Peter knew him at once for the King, albeit he was clad more simply than many of his nobles. Surely it was an easy matter to distinguish him from the others. Was he not taller and stronger than them all? Was it not said that he was so hardy that he could hunt the wild boar single-handed and alone; so strong that he could fell a horse and its rider at one blow of his fist, or straighten four horse-shoes joined together, or lift with his right hand a man in full war-dress?
If these things were known of him, how then should Peter have failed to know him? Besides, Charlemagne looked the great King that he was. His forehead was majestic, his nose like an eagle's beak. He had eyes like a lion, and were he angry no man dare look him in the face, so fiercely did those great eyes shine. Peter beheld them flash and burn fiercely for a second when the King looked up from the reading of Hadrian's letter, and he took great comfort from their anger, knowing then that the Pope had not trusted his friend in vain.
But for a while it seemed as if King Charlemagne cared not over much about the matter; it seemed as if he were more anxious to conquer the Saxons than to make new war on Lombardy.
He sent, however, comfortable words of cheer and encouragement to Hadrian, together with promises of speedy help. Also he despatched messengers to Desiderius bidding him come to terms of peace. His first envoy was received with courtesy and respect by the Lombards, the second with scorn and contumely, and when the third arrived offering Desiderius gold if he would surrender the cities he had captured belonging to the Church, the dark king laughed aloud in triumph.
"The great Charlemagne is in no hurry to face me and my army," he boasted. "Doubtless he knows that every easy mountain path into Italy is guarded by my soldiers, while as for the two that are open he dared not bring his army through either of them. He would perish by the way, and he knows it. "Twould be an impossible task."
"Nothing is impossible for Charlemagne," said Ogier the Dane, who knew Charlemagne, having served under him, then after offending him beyond pardon had fled to the court of Lombardy. "Nothing is impossible for Charlemagne," Ogier repeated warningly.
But Desiderius laughed and returned a scornful message to the Franks.
Charlemagne by this time had moved southward and was holding a Champ-de-Mai. This was a gathering together of the people by the King to decide whether there should be peace or war.
Upon receiving the word of Desiderius, war was instantly declared; every Frank who could fight hurried to join the great army, bringing with him his weapons, horses, and what food he could carry. There was need for haste. Hadrian, in spite of his brave resistance, could not hold out much longer. Desiderius, triumphing already, awaited another message from Charlemagne.
It came. It was brought by a frightened peasant from the hill-country riding in desperate haste. Desiderius heard with some dismay that Charlemagne had led a great army across the terrible, the impossible mountain pass, marching along ways where no man with an army behind him had marched since the time of Hannibal the Carthaginian.
Presently more tidings came. Charlemagne's uncle, the Duke Bernard, had led another great army over the other dangerous and unguarded pass. These two armies would, of course, join each other so soon as they were safely out of the hills. Desiderius in all haste marched his army northwards, hoping to catch the enemy at a disadvantage while they were yet passing through the narrow defiles of the hills.
But he was too late, and the Lombard judged it more prudent to retire to Pavia, the capital of Lombardy.
In this he did wisely. Pavia was a strong city, well provisioned and almost invulnerable. Desiderius had little fear of its capture, yet for safety's sake he sent his son, and the widow Giberga with her children, to another of his strong cities. Then disdainful, sure of his power to withstand a long siege, Desiderius awaited his enemy.
Charlemagne did not tarry. When word came of his coming, Desiderius, together with Ogier the Dane, climbed a high tower so better to catch the first glimpse of his approach. Presently in the distance, yet coming ever nearer, they saw a great army of soldiers who bore with them many formidable machines of war.
"Is Charlemagne among these soldiers?" asked Desiderius.
To which Ogier, who remembered the army of old, answered—"No, the King is not there."
Next came horde after horde of wild foreign soldiers, brought from every part of Charlemagne's vast domain.
"Surely Charlemagne walks triumphant among this great host," said Desiderius.
"No," answered Ogier, "he comes not yet."
On this Desiderius began to look dismayed. "How will he come, if not amongst his soldiers?" he asked.
"You will not mistake him when he does come," replied Ogier; "and may God have mercy upon us."
Even while he spoke there appeared a huge regiment of guards. "Verily he must be among these," cried Desiderius, and his voice trembled, but so slightly that you could not notice it.
"No," answered Ogier, "he comes not yet."
Lo, now they beheld an almost endless procession of bishops and priests and clerks of the Chapel Royal, and after them marched the great nobles and counts. At sight of these Desiderius grew pale.
"Behold the terrible King!" cried he.
"Not yet," answered Ogier "When you see the grass in the meadows shake with fear, when you behold the rivers turn into iron and overflow and beat against the walls of the city with their iron waves, then you may believe that Charlemagne is here."
As he spoke, toward the region of the setting sun there appeared a sombre cloud which seemed verily to block out the light of the day with its terrible shadow. As it approached, a fearful sound was heard like the noise of thunder on a dark night. It was the clatter of armed men.
Desiderius, together with Ogier the Dane, climbed a high tower so better to catch teh first glimpse of his approach.
Then came Charlemagne riding upon his huge war-horse. He wore on his head an iron helmet; on his hands were iron gauntlets. His breastplate and cuirass were of strong iron and also his shield. He held an iron lance in his left hand, while always his right hand rested on his invincible sword. His horse had the strength and the colour of iron.
All the soldiers who went before the monarch, all those who marched at his sides, all those who followed him, were clothed in iron armour. To Desiderius it was as if iron covered the plains and the roads; the very rays of the sun seemed tipped with it.
The folk, watching from the walls of the threatened city, beheld the sight with terror. "Alas! alas!" they cried, "we are lost!"
The sound of their crying rose to torment the ears of their King. "Behold Charlemagne," said Ogier at last, and he too looked pale. Desiderius bowed his head. He was dismayed; nevertheless, he determined to hold out to the last.
The great army made its camp round about the city—making ready for a long stay. Charlemagne ordered them to build him a lovely chapel so he might worship there undisturbed. He meant to show both his strength and his mercy. He would neither attack nor slaughter, nor would he leave Pavia until the city was his.
For many months he waited there, holding the siege. Nevertheless he sent parts of his army to rescue the cities Desiderius had taken. He even journeyed to Rome with all his train of bishops to pay a state visit to Hadrian; and the Romans hailed him with great joy as their Emperor. Then the hero, after having given back to the Church all those cities which Desiderius had taken away from it, returned to his army still besieging Pavia.
And now was that city harder beset than ever. The citizens by this time were starving, and so strict a watch did Charlemagne keep that no living thing nor any morsel of food could pass the gates. Only the birds of the air were free to enter. Then the Pavians saw that they must perish with hunger if they resisted a day longer, so they surrendered. They gave up the keys of their city to Charlemagne; they gave up their King; then they waited, trusting in their conqueror's kindness of heart.
Charlemagne did not betray that trust. No citizen of Pavia was slaughtered or molested in any way. Desiderius was sent to a monastery where he could do no more harm, and where he seems to have been not unhappy, while Charlemagne wore on his head the iron crown of the Kings of Lombardy.
As was his wont, he ruled his new subjects well and wisely, so that they loved him and were loyal to him as to one of their own race.
Now this is only one of a thousand tales that might be told in praise of the great Charlemagne who made of his conquests one vast empire, over which he ruled gloriously for many long years. He, too, and much more splendidly than Clovis, had made of Gaul a united and glorious kingdom. Yet after his death it became divided, shorn of half its possessions, and at last came to be known as the kingdom of the Franks—that is to say, France.