Before his death Pepin had divided his kingdom between his two sons, but in three years Carloman died. Charles, soon to be called Charlemagne or Charles the Great, ruled alone as King of the Franks.
As his father had done, so Charlemagne also marched into Italy with his brave warriors and punished the Lombards, who had again dared to besiege the city of Rome.
At home, too, the king had little peace, for again and again the Saxons invaded his land. The great king conquered them, and for a time they would live quietly and be obedient to their conqueror. But as soon as he went away to fight in distant lands they rebelled, and for thirty years Charlemagne waged war against them.
When Charlemagne had conquered one of these tribes, he would offer to pardon them if they would give up their false gods and be baptized. If they refused to be baptized, their heads were cut off.
As you can imagine, many Saxon tribes were willing to be baptized rather than to suffer death. After their baptism, Charlemagne would send missionaries to the people, and thus little by little the teaching of the White Christ became better known.
Around the name of this great King Charles, as around the name of our own King Arthur, have gathered many legends or marvellous tales. These tales may not all be true, for legends are woven out of fancy as well as fact. But sometimes legends help us to understand a man or woman, a country or an age, better than we should if fancy had been idle and left facts untouched.
And so, although part of the story of the battle of Roncesvalles, in which Roland, Charlemagne^s nephew, fought so bravely, is not told to us in history but only in legend, yet it is none the less worthy to be read.
The great battle of which I wish to tell you took place in the valley of Roncesvalles.
Spain, as you have already heard, had been conquered by the Saracens, those fierce followers of the Prophet Mahomet. But they began to quarrel and fight among themselves, and at last their King, Marsil, begged Charlemagne to come and help him against his own rebellious people, who were trying to wrest from him the beautiful city of Saragossa.
Charlemagne did not need to be asked twice. To him it was enough that those he was asked to fight were infidels, followers of Mahomet and not of Christ. He would destroy these fierce Saracens, or baptize them as he had baptized the pagan Saxons at home.
So, to the joy of the King of Saragossa, Charlemagne set out for Spain at the head of his brave Frankish warriors.
To reach Saragossa the king had to lead his army through the valley of Roncesvalles. The valley was really a narrow pass through which the army could march only in a long thin line. Should an enemy steal down the mountains and fall upon the soldiers as they struggled along the narrow pass, nothing could save them. But no foe was in ambush, and the great army passed in safety out of the valley of Roncesvalles.
But when Charlemagne had laid siege to Saragossa his difficulties began, for at once the Saracens stopped fighting among themselves, to fight together against the foe who had besieged their city. Marsil, too, proved false, for he slew the ambassadors of the French king, although he had sent them the olive branch of peace. He had indeed no need of Charlemagne now that the Saracens had ceased to fight against him, and would gladly have seen Charlemagne and his army return to their own land.
Meanwhile in the French camp provisions ran short and sickness broke out among the soldiers. Tidings also came from France telling of new invasions by the Saxons. So when Marsil sent to beseech Charlemagne to raise the siege and make peace with him, the king was more pleased than the Saracens knew.
Now in history we hear little of Charlemagne's return to France. But in a poem called "The Song of Roland,"which was loved by the Franks and often sung by them as they marched to battle, the sad tale has been told. And if the story of the treachery of King Marsil and all that befell Roland and his friend Oliver in the valley of Roncesvalles is partly legend, it is, as I have told you, not the less worthy to be heard.
King Marsil had promised that if Charlemagne would go back to his fair realm of France, he would become his vassal and be baptized in the name of the Holy Christ.
Charlemagne did not know if he could trust the heathen lord, so he called together a council of war, and told his barons and knights King Marsil's words. "Yet whether he spoke the truth or falsehood I know not," said Charlemagne.
Then up sprang Roland, Charlemagne's own nephew, and the bravest knight of France, crying, "Trust not this traitor Marsil. He sent thee the olive branch of peace, yet he slew thine ambassador. Let us fight, nor heed the false words of the traitor king."
As Roland ceased speaking, Ganelon, his stepfather, rose, and an angry scowl was upon his face, for he hated Roland, although others loved him well.
"Heed not the brave words of my stepson Roland," he said. "Accept King Marsil's promises, lest we tarry here and are slain."
Still Charlemagne sat silent, waiting, lest other knights had aught to say.
Then the wisest man in the king's council arose. "The words of Ganelon are full of wisdom," he said. "Let us make peace with King Marsil and return to our own land."
"As thou sayest so shall it be," answered Charlemagne, and he commanded Ganelon to go tell Marsil that Charlemagne would accept his homage and look for him to come to the fair realm of France to be baptized in the name of Christ.
Ganelon was ill-pleased to be sent to the King of Saragossa, lest he should prove false and slay him even as he had already slain other ambassadors. And because he was angry, he vowed to bring shame upon Charlemagne and Roland, whom he hated.
Thus before Ganelon had spoken long with King Marsil he had won for himself rich gifts, but he had betrayed Charlemagne and offered up Roland to death, as you shall hear.
When the ambassador returned to the French camp, he told Charlemagne that he might well trust King Marsil to do all that he had promised.
Charlemagne was filled with foreboding, he knew not why. Yet he ordered the trumpets to sound and the great army to prepare to start on its homeward journey.
But all unknown to the Franks, silent and still, there stole after them, through the forests and along the mountain tops, the hosts of King Marsil. For thus had it been planned by the traitor Ganelon.
As they drew near to the valley of Roncesvalles, Charlemagne ordered his army to halt. His distrust of King Marsil was not allayed. "Were the enemy to prove false," he said to his lords, "it would go ill with us as we march through this pass. Who will guard the entrance to the valley while we march onward? "
"Entrust the rearguard to Roland," said Ganelon quickly, "for who is so brave a knight as he." But in his heart Ganelon laughed, for well he knew that the hosts of Marsil would fall upon Roland and his knights, and slay them before Charlemagne was aware.
The king looked with displeasure at Ganelon. Yet it was foolish to dream that one of his own knights would betray the army. So, as Roland also pleaded that the post of danger might be given to him, Charlemagne yielded at last, saying, "Half of the army shall I leave with thee to guard the pass."
"Nay," said Roland, "twenty thousand men only will I have." And Ganelon, as he heard his stepson's words, was well pleased.
Then the great army passed on, leaving Roland to guard the entrance to the valley of Roncesvalles. With him were his friend Oliver, the bold Archbishop Turpin, the twelve chosen peers of France, and twenty thousand of Charlemagne's bravest knights.
Among the army there were many who would fain have stayed with Roland. But sadder than any of his soldiers was the great king himself. Fear was in his heart, tears in his eyes, for ever his heart whispered to him that Roland was betrayed. Yet, saying farewell to his dauntless rearguard, Charlemagne marched on at the head of his army.
Roland and his knights were now left alone, and the great host of the Saracens was drawing near. Soon Roland could hear the tramp of armed men.
Then Oliver, his friend, climbed out of the valley on to the top of a hill, and lo! he saw a great host approaching, and he knew that Roland was betrayed, and by the false traitor Ganelon.
Down again to the valley ran Oliver and told Roland what he had seen.
"Wind a loud blast upon thy horn," cried Oliver. "Our king will hear and hasten back to our aid." For ever round his neck the knight wore an ivory horn. It had a note of magic, and if Roland blew it in time of need the sound was carried on and ever on. Neither lofty mountains nor dense forests could dull the sweet clear tone of Roland's magic horn.
"Blow thy horn," cried Oliver, but alas, this Roland would not do.
And now with mocking words the heathen host rushed upon the hero and his twenty thousand knights.
"Ye are sold, sold and betrayed by your king," they shouted.
Roland heard the base lie, and furiously he rode against the foe, striking fierce blows with his good sword Durindal.
Listen to the "Song of Roland" as it tells how Roland looked that day:
"Oh in his harness he looks grand;
On, on he goes with lance on high,
Its tip is pointed to the sky;
It bears a snow-white pennon, and
Its golden fringes sweep his hand."
Oliver and the brave Archbishop Turpin fought as they had never fought before, as did also the knights, until King Marsil's host lay slain upon the ground.
Four hundred thousand strong had been the heathen hosts, and but one was left to tell King Marsil the dread tidings that his army had perished.
When Marsil heard that Roland was still alive and that all his hosts were slain, his rage was terrible.
Without a moment's delay he assembled another great army, and himself marched at its head toward the valley of Roncesvalles.
As he drew near to the battlefield, he divided his army. Sending one division to fight the Franks, he kept the other back on the hillside to watch how the battle went.
Then, when Roland saw another force approaching, he rallied his knights to a fresh attack, and so valiantly did they fight, that erelong the heathen host fled, calling upon Marsil for help.
There were now but three hundred of Charlemagne's peerless warriors on the battlefield. The others were dead or wounded. But the handful of gallant knights never flinched as King Marsil himself advanced upon them with his men. And ever in the forefront of the battle rode Roland, and by his side was Oliver.
At length, when but sixty Franks were left, Archbishop Turpin besought Roland to sound his horn, that Charlemagne might hear and come back to avenge the death of so many of his peerless knights.
Then Roland, thinking it now no shame to wind his horn, did as the good archbishop wished. And far away a note, clear but faint, fell upon the ear of Charlemagne.
"It is the ivory horn I hear," he cried. "Roland hath need of us."
But Ganelon was by the king's side, and he laughed, saying, "It is but the wind that my lord hears, as it whistles among the trees."
So Charlemagne, for all that he was ill at ease, rode on.
Once again Roland placed the horn to his lips, but he was faint from many wounds, and the note he blew was sad and low. Yet on and on it journeyed, until far away the great king heard the mournful sound.
"Once more roland blew his ivory horn."
"Roland hath need of us," he cried, as the sound crept into his heart. "There hath surely been a battle." Yet, for Ganelon still mocked at the king's fears, Charlemagne moved on toward France, but now he rode more slowly.
Once more Roland blew his ivory horn, but he was weak from loss of blood, and it was a sad sweet note that reached the king.
Charlemagne's knights heard the note also, and cried, "It is Roland who calls us, for his need is great. He has been betrayed/ and they looked darkly at the traitor Ganelon.
Then Charlemagne hesitated no longer. He ordered his army to turn and march back to the valley of Roncesvalles. And because the soldiers loved Roland well, each one put spurs to his horse and rode in haste to his comrade's aid.
As for Ganelon, the king gave him into the charge of the kitchen knaves, who beat him and called him traitor and false knight.
For it was indeed Ganelon who had said to Marsil, "If you kill Roland, there will be no one left to be your enemy. For Charlemagne grows old, and there is no knight so bold as Roland." He had promised that Roland and no other should be left at Roncesvalles, and that but a few knights should stay with him. And for this treachery he had received rich gifts from King Marsil. Well might the kitchen knaves call Ganelon traitor and false knight.
On the battlefield at Roncesvalles there were now left alive only Roland, the brave priest Turpin, and a noble count. Oliver had perished with the other knights.
The heathen host was still more than a thousand strong, yet so bravely did the three warriors stand that they dared not attack them. Only from afar they hurled their javelins at the dauntless three, until, pierced by a dart, the count fell dead.
Roland too was sore wounded, but yet again he blew his ivory horn. Faint and dull the notes were wafted on the breeze, faint and dull they fell upon the ear of Charlemagne.
"Let my trumpets sound," cried the king, "that Roland may know we come. Sore wounded must he be, or not thus would he wind his horn."
Then loud sounded the trumpets of the Franks, and the heathen host heard the blast, and knowing that the great king was coming to avenge the death of his knights, they fled, hurling their spears at the two heroes who alone were left on the battlefield.
One of the spears struck the good archbishop, and he fell to the ground. Roland only was left alive.
But he too was nigh to death. With one last effort he placed his good sword Durindal and his ivory horn beneath his body, that there Charlemagne might find them when he came.
"Then not unmindful of His care,
Once more he sues to God for grace.
'O Thou true Father of us all . . .
From all the perils I deserve
For sinful life, my soul preserve.'
"Then to his God out stretcheth he
The glove from his right hand—and see!
St. Gabriel taketh it instantly.
God sends a cherub—angel bright,
And Michael, Saint of Peril hight—
And Gabriel comes; up, up they rise,
And bear the Count to Paradise."
God had Roland's soul safe in Paradise, but his body lay quiet and still on the battlefield, and there Charlemagne found it, with the sword and magic horn beneath.
Sorely did the great king grieve for Roland and his peerless knights, yet did he not tarry on the battlefield to weep. But at the head of his army he followed the heathen host, nor did he order the trumpets to sound the retreat until every one of the vast army was slain.
Ganelon, the traitor, suffered a terrible death, for by the order of Charlemagne and the judgment of the knights of France, he was torn to pieces by wild horses.
During his long reign Charlemagne had often helped the Pope against his enemies.
When Leo iii. became Pope, he was glad to have the great king as his friend, and in 799 a.d. , when the Romans rebelled against him, Leo fled to Charlemagne for help.
The king agreed to punish the Pope's enemies, and send him back in safety to Rome. Perhaps it was in gratitude that Leo iii. then agreed to crown Charlemagne Emperor of the West.
You remember that Romulus, the last emperor, had been deposed in 476 a.d. , and since then there had been no Emperor of the West.
But now, on Christmas Day, in the year 800 a.d. , Charlemagne, who had journeyed to Rome, went into the great church of St. Peter's. As he kneeled before the altar the Pope placed a crown upon his head, while all the people who had crowded into the church shouted, "Long life and victory to Charles, Emperor of the Romans!"
It was an empty title, for the Romans had now no power and no position in the world.
But the Pope having bestowed the title upon Charlemagne, he henceforth ruled over his great kingdom as emperor.
All Gaul from the Rhine to the Pyrenees was his; also, for the most part, Italy and all central and western Germany belonged to him, while many races, scattered over the world, owned their allegiance to the Emperor Charlemagne.
For fourteen years there was now peace in France, and during these years the emperor worked as hard as he had done in time of war.
You will be surprised to hear that though he was an old man now, he was so anxious to learn that he studied harder than any schoolboy. Astronomy, arithmetic, grammar, and music, these were some of the studies that were dear to the emperor. But he had never learned to write, and that was Charlemagne's great ambition. So he was often to be seen walking about with tablets in his hand, and at every odd moment he would practise making letters. But he never knew them well enough to do more than sign his name.
The emperor was anxious that the boys and girls in his land should learn the things which he had never been taught when he was young, so he built schools and sent scholars to teach in them. But there were lazy pupils then just as there are lazy pupils now, and when the emperor visited the schools, he would tell the lazy boys and girls how sorry they would be if they grew up, as he had done, without even knowing how to write. And then the boys and girls would do their lessons better, until they forgot the emperor's words, and began to grow lazy once more.
The great emperor was old now, and his long reign was nearly over. He was more than seventy years of age when he grew ill and died.
His people buried him near to his favourite hunting ground. Upon his knees they placed an open Bible, on which rested the little purse filled with alms which he had carried with him to Rome. Upon his head they left his crown, his good sword lying by his side, while at his feet rested his shield and the sceptre he had wielded so wisely and so well.