17 June 2014

HEA or Not x 5: Charlemagne’s Marriages

One thing I did not make up in my historical novels is Charlemagne’s complicated family life and how his personal decisions had consequences for his kingdom in the eighth and ninth centuries. Charles was married five times, and politics influenced his choices.

Wife No. 1, Himiltrude: Some scholars believe the contemporary sources that say Himiltrude, mother of Charles’s eldest son Pepin, was a concubine. But I’m going to believe Pope Stephen, who cited the fact that Charles and his younger brother, Carloman, were already married on their father’s order as a reason not to wed a Lombard princess, the daughter of the pope’s enemy.

For one thing, Charles’s son was named after his paternal grandfather. Parents chose names with a purpose in mind, not out of sentiment or a whim. Besides, it would make no sense for King Pepin to order the younger son to be married and not the other. No one disputed that Gerberga was Carloman’s widow.

Charlemagne coin (Karl-i-money) A coin with
Charles’s image, minted around 812.
When King Pepin died in 768, Charles was 20 and likely was a teenager when he married Himiltrude. We don’t know much about her, other than that she was a Frank. Charles set her aside to marry the Lombard princess. Himiltrude might have wound up in the royal abbey of Nivelles after the divorce, and one academic paper has presented the tantalizing possibility that the scorned ex-wife might have played a role in her son’s attempt to overthrow his father years later.

Wife No. 2, the Lombard princess: Even her name is lost to us. Because of a misreading of a medieval book, she has been called Desiderata, but her name might have been Gerperga. She was a daughter of Lombard King Desiderius and Queen Ansa, and her marriage to Charles was part of a complicated plan to build an alliance and Queen Mother Bertrada’s efforts to keep peace between Charles and Carloman, who each inherited a kingdom when their father died. For the most part, the peace and the alliance held, but it fell apart when Carloman died of an illness and Charles seized his late brother’s lands. Charles set Gerperga aside to marry a girl from an important family in Carloman’s former kingdom.

Wife No. 3, Hildegard: The Swabian might have been 12 or 13, an age the Franks considered marriageable, when she became queen. She was marrying a robust young man in 20s rather than someone much older, but did she have any trepidation about how he had treated his first two wives? The Frankish sources are silent.

Hildegard image – 16th century
drawing of Hildegard
During their approximately 11-year marriage, Charles was a steadfast husband. Hildegard bore nine children, six of whom survived infancy. Two of her sons, Louis and Pepin (the latter originally named Carloman and yes, Charles had two sons named Pepin), became subkings of Aquitaine and Italy, and her eldest son, Charles (called Karl in my novels), stood to inherit the rest. We don’t know what caused her death in 783, but it happened shortly after the birth of her ninth child, a girl who lived only 40 days. In addition to commissioning an epitaph for his queen, Charles gave land to the Church and financed daily Masses on behalf of her soul. She is entombed at St. Arnulf in Metz, and candles were burned on the anniversary of her death.

Wife No. 4, Fastrada (the heroine of my work in progress): A few months after Hildegard’s death, Charles made another political marriage, this one to a noblewoman whose family was east of the Rhine. He needed that alliance as the war with Saxony to the east and north continued. Charles might have fathered a child between his marriages to Hildegard and Fastrada, but he was a steadfast husband to his fourth wife. Despite a possible 20-year age difference, they seemed fond of each other.

When authors of the Royal Frankish Annals usually did not trouble themselves with how a couple felt about their reunion after months apart, the 787 entry says that Charles and Fastrada “rejoiced over each other and were happy together and praised God’s mercy.”

In a letter from Charles to Fastrada, composed before he went to war with the Avars in 791, he greets her as “our beloved and most loving wife.” After filling her in on the litanies to ensure God’s favor and asking her to make sure the ritual is carried out at home, Charles says he is surprised he hasn’t heard from her lately. “As to which, it is our desire that you should notify us more frequently concerning your health and other matters.”

A crisis arose in their family and the kingdom in 792 when Charles’s eldest son, Pepin (also known as Pepin the Hunchback), was involved in a plot to overthrow his father. When caught, the conspirators blame the cruelty of Queen Fastrada. Written years after her and Charles’s deaths, neither author who cited her supposed cruelty specified what she did, which leads me to believe she was a scapegoat.

When she died in 794, Charles had her buried with the honors due a queen. At Mainz, she was interred in a crypt in front of the altar of the apostles. Charles commissioned an epitaph, gave land to St. Alban, and paid for Masses on behalf of her soul.

Charles and Pepin – 10th century
copy of a ninth century illustration
Wife No. 5, Liutgard: When Fastrada died, Charles’s heirs, the three sons he had with Hildegard, were young men, and each expected to inherit a kingdom. (His son with Himiltrude was imprisoned in a monastery.) With a family history of civil wars over who would get to rule, it’s possible Charles did not want any more claimants to the throne. He might have been ecstatic that Fastrada bore only two girls. He adored his daughters and relied on them.

Charles might have dated Liutgard for two years before marrying her, which makes me suspect he wanted a woman who couldn’t have kids. If that’s the case, he got his wish. Their six-year marriage did not produce any children. The poet Theodulf praised her for her beauty and grace: “Open-handed, gentle spirited, sweet in words, she is ready to help all and obstruct none. She labors hard and well at her study and learning, and retains the noble disciplines in her memory.” 

Liutgard died of an illness in Tours in 800 and is buried there. Charles was 52.

Perhaps intent on limiting his successors to three, Charles did not marry again, and in 806, divided his kingdom among Young Charles, Pepin, and Louis. At age 58 – old by medieval standards – Charles introduced stability into his kingdom.

However, Charles was not celibate. Between 800 and his death in 814, he fathered five more children by four concubines. I can see you all rolling your eyes - an aging man trying to prove he’s still got it. Well, yes, but the reason is not only male vanity. Even here, politics plays a role. Virility was proof of Charles’s physical perfection and his fitness to rule.


Einhard’s The Life of Charlemagne, translated by Evelyn Scherabon Firchow and Edwin H.

Carolingian Chronicles, which includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by
Bernard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers

Charlemagne: Translated Sources, P.D. King

“Making a Difference in Eighth-Century Politics: The Daughters of Desiderius,” Janet L. Nelson, After Rome's Fall: Narrators and Sources of Early Medieval History

Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance, edited by Peter Godman

Courts, Elites, and Gendered Power in the Early Middle Ages: Charlemagne and Others, Janet L. Nelson

Hildegard is Charles’s queen and a minor character in Kim Rendfeld’s two published novels, The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press) and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (August 28, 2014, Fireship Press). Kim is working on her third novel, which features Queen Fastrada. For more about Kim, visit kimrendfeld.com, her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, like her on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.