The Hero of Two Nations
T HE England for which Arthur had fought—for which he had died—was now in the hands of his old foes the Saxons; but as the years rolled on it was evident that a nation over the seas was rising to a dangerous greatness. This was the power of another tribe known as the Franks, and the man who led the Franks to victory, who made of them a great nation and so created our modern Europe, was Charles the Great, or Charlemagne, as the poets call him.
As quite a little boy this Charlemagne had accompanied his father, Pepin, from his home in North Germany to Italy to fight there, and for his services Pepin the Short was made king of the Franks. An ardent Christian himself, he spent his life spreading Christianity through his kingdom and checking the wandering heathen tribes. When Charlemagne succeeded him, this too was the object of his life. It seems a strange thing in these days to teach the gospel of peace with the edge of the sword, but Charlemagne thought it the right thing. He soon became a hero in the eyes of his people. He was tall and strong, with the eyes of a lion, a will of iron strength, and an energy that was dauntless.
"The best man on earth and the bravest was Charlemagne," said the Saxons, though they had every cause to hate the rival Franks; for had they not sprung from a common parent, the Germans?
Not only had he the Saxons in the north to fight, but he must needs go south and conquer the Lombards, who were again overrunning Italy, and against whom he had fought with his father when quite a little boy. Once more he was victorious: for his success he was crowned in Rome as King of the Lombards, and so added a large part of North Italy to his already large kingdom.
He was now a marked man, and Spain cried out to him to come and help her against her foes, the Arabs or Moors, who had swept over the land from the East. In the course of the next few years he had conquered all the land down to the sea, and his banners were riddled through. He was returning over the Pyrenees when a sad thing happened. The tragic death of his young nephew Roland has been a favourite subject with poets and singers, until it has become difficult to know what is fact and what is fiction. Here is the story.
The main army under Charlemagne had reached the borders of Spain, leaving Roland in command of the rear-guard, some way behind. Roland led his men up a long rocky pass, and they had climbed a mountain ridge, when, looking down, they saw the valley below bristling with spears, while the murmur of this mighty pagan host rose to them on the mountain top as the murmur of the sea.
"What shall we do?" asked his trusted friend and companion.
"This will we do," answered Roland calmly. "When we have rested we will go forward, for sweet it is to do our duty for our king."
"But," said his friend, "we are but a handful, and these are more in number than the sands of the sea. Be wise. Take your horn, good comrade, and sound it; perchance Charlemagne may hear, and come back with his host to succour us."
"God forbid I should sound my horn and bring the king back, and lose my good name and bring disgrace upon us all," answered Roland proudly.
There was not a man but loved Roland unto death, and cheerfully they obeyed him. So the little band of men charged down the mountainside into the valley of death, ever following their leader and the snow-white banner carried by the guard. For hours they fought that great pagan host, till at last hardly a handful of Franks were left.
"Blow thy horn, blow thy horn," urged his friends. And Roland put the horn to his mouth and blew a great blast. Far away up the valley went the sound, and it reached the ears of Charlemagne.
"Listen, what is that?" he cried; "surely our men do fight
"It is only the sighing of the wind," said the traitor who was with him.
Weary with battle, Roland took his horn again and winded it with all his strength. So long and mighty was the blast that the veins stood out upon his forehead in great cords.
"Hark, it is Roland's horn," cried Charlemagne again, and again they persuaded him that Roland was but hunting in the woods.
Then in sore pain and heaviness Roland lifted the horn feebly to his lips and blew for the last time. Charlemagne now started up; the salt tears gathered in his eyes and dropped upon his snowy beard.
"Oh Roland, my brave captain, too long have I delayed," he sobbed; and with all his host he set out at full speed for Roland.
Meanwhile Roland fought on—fought till every man of the rear-guard lay dead and he himself was sore wounded. When he found that he was dying, he lay down and set his face towards Spain and towards his enemies, that men should see he died a conqueror. By him he put his sword and his horn. "They will see that the guard has done its duty," he said to himself contentedly. Then, raising his weary hands to Heaven, he died.
The low red sun was setting in the west when Charlemagne and his host rode up, and there was not a man in all that host that did not weep for pity at the sight before them now.
But Charlemagne had fallen on his face on Roland's dead body, with an exceeding bitter cry, for the knight was passing dear to him.
Right gladly would he have given Spain and all the fruits of that war to have had Roland back again. But Charlemagne had work to do in his own great realm. He dreamt of uniting all the conquered countries—all the heathen tribes that had so long been at war with each other—into one great empire, in which the power and learning of ancient Rome should be united to a Christian religion.
Was this dream realised when, in the year 800, he was made Emperor of Rome? It was Christmas Day, and Charlemagne was kneeling with his two sons in the church of St Peter, when suddenly a crown of gold was placed on his head, while voices thundered forth the old formula: "To Charles the Augustus, crowned of God, the great and pacific Emperor, long life and victory." Thus the Roman Empire of the West, which had fallen more than three hundred years before, was now restored by Charlemagne the Frank.