Onward, Christian solders,
marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
going on before!
Christ, the royal Master,
leads again the foe;
Forward into battle,
see his banner go!
A History of Medieval Europe, RHC Davis
A brief note regarding Charlemagne; but first, while doing a little digging for this post, I found the following:
When Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met in August 1941 on the battleship HMS Prince of Wales to agree the Atlantic Charter, a church service was held for which Prime Minister Churchill chose the hymns. He chose "Onward, Christian Soldiers" and afterwards made a radio broadcast explaining this choice:
We sang "Onward, Christian Soldiers" indeed, and I felt that this was no vain presumption, but that we had the right to feel that we serving a cause for the sake of which a trumpet has sounded from on high. When I looked upon that densely packed congregation of fighting men of the same language, of the same faith, of the same fundamental laws, of the same ideals ... it swept across me that here was the only hope, but also the sure hope, of saving the world from measureless degradation.
Stalin would make a perfect partner in this unholy “saving the world from measureless degradation” trinity, answering the “trumpet” sounding from an “on high” hell. But I digress.
Charlemagne (and the Carolingian Empire) is generally regarded as offering a dramatic improvement over the Merovingian kings that came before. I feel otherwise: the Merovingian kings, known as “do-nothing kings” (let that moniker sink in for a moment), were fine by me.
Charlemagne united a large portion of Europe – much of today’s France, Germany and northern Italy were united under his rule. He fought battles to unite this large portion of Europe, as you would expect. Charlemagne and the Franks felt that they were on a mission to convert the recalcitrant to Christianity.
The fallacy of fighting for Christ was overtly demonstrated in Spain. It is true that Charlemagne fought in Spain against Muslims, yet…
It is also true that the greatest defeat in this theatre of war, the annihilation of Charlemagne’s rearguard in 778, was inflicted on the Franks not, as later legends pretended, by the Muslims, but by the Christian Basques. But in spite of these facts, it is abundantly clear that the Franks were convinced that they were fighting on behalf of Christendom.
The backlash was not only to be found in Spain:
Accordingly, from 785, the Franks began a ‘thorough’ policy; the Saxons were not only to be conquered but also converted, if necessary by force. In the first Saxon capitulary it was declared a capital offence to resist or evade baptism…. The heathen Saxon was put outside the law.
Convert or be put to death. Very Christ-like.
The policy was met with armed resistance. The Saxons revolted, and Charlemagne suppressed each revolt. In some areas, the Saxons were deported to various parts of the kingdom – with the vacated land subsequently given to Charlemagne’s faithful men.
On Christmas Day in the year 800 he was crowned Emperor of Rome by the Pope – the first to hold the title in some 300 years. The circumstances surrounding this event are still debated – was this the idea of Charlemagne or the Pope? They each had something of significance to gain by this event. Whatever the backstory, it represented a significant uniting of church (and the Church) and state.
Both before and after this coronation, Charlemagne almost continuously fought wars:
In almost every one of the forty-two years of his reign Charlemagne summoned his ‘host’ to campaigns beyond the borders of Francia. If, by any chance, a year went by without a placitum generale, the chroniclers carefully recorded the fact, for it was a year to remember.
Such was his Christianity.
As a postscript: Louis the Pious, his son, attempted to do away with the personal law that was the hallmark of medieval society. He wanted a single, universal code. Thankfully – for the sake of returning to the decentralization of the period – Louis found this wish virtually impossible to achieve. Ultimately, Charlemagne’s empire did not last but a few short years after his death.