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A Short History of Europe
From Charlemagne to the Treaty of Lisbon
By Gordon Kerr
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2010 Gordon Kerr
All rights reserved.
The End of Darkness
Charlemagne: Father of Europe
On Christmas Day 800, as Charlemagne (747–814), King of the Franks, knelt in prayer in St Peter's Basilica in Rome, Pope Leo III (Pope 795–816) placed a crown on his head, hailing him as Imperator Romanorum ('Emperor of the Romans'). Charlemagne would later claim that the coronation was unexpected, although he was almost certainly being disingenuous in doing so. Unexpected or not, this coronation marked a defining moment in the history of Europe.
In one sense, Leo was simply rewarding the 53-year-old Frankish monarch for coming to his aid. A few years previously, the Pope, unpopular with the Roman nobility, had been set upon by rivals during a papal procession and had come close to having his eyes and tongue cut out. Following his narrow escape, he turned to Charlemagne for help. Charlemagne had obliged, travelling to Rome and restoring Leo to the papal throne.
It is likely, however, that Leo had other things on his mind when he placed the bejewelled crown on the king's blond locks. For a start, he was ensuring that he and his successors would enjoy the continued protection of the Franks. However, he was also filling the imperial vacancy created by events in Byzantium from where, since the fall of the Roman Empire, the Roman Emperor had traditionally come. The ongoing 'Iconoclasm Crisis' and the instability of Empress Irene (ruled as Empress Consort, regent and Empress 775–802) had led Leo to sever his links with the Byzantines and to consider the position of emperor vacant.
Thus, the Franks were now established as the great power of Europe, but how had they achieved this position of supremacy?
The rise of Frankish power can be traced back to 751 when the Lombards, in pursuit of their ambitions to rule the whole of Italy, conquered Ravenna, the Italian seat of the Byzantine Exarch, or governor. The Pope at the time, Stephen II (Pope from 752 to 757), asked the Franks, then the only Catholic people outside Italy, for help. Pepin the Short (ruled 751–68), Charlemagne's father, obliged the papacy, just as his son later would, and drove the Lombards from Ravenna. Pepin already held high office in Frankish circles – Mayor of the Palace or majordomo and Duke of the Franks – but his reward from a grateful Pope would elevate him still further. Stephen announced his recognition of Pepin as King of the Franks, at the expense of the weak Childeric III (ruled 743–51), the last king of the previous ruling dynasty, the Merovingians. The Carolingian dynasty – named after its greatest member, Charlemagne – had begun and the King of the Franks would henceforth be chosen by God, in the shape of his representative on earth, the Pope.
On Pepin's death in 768, his kingdom was split between his two sons, Charlemagne and Carloman (ruled 751–71) as was customary under the rule of partible inheritance employed by the Franks. When Carloman died in 771 – of a severe nosebleed, according to some sources – Charlemagne was left as sole monarch and he began the creation of the greatest Frankish state of the Middle Ages, uniting the two halves of the kingdom of his forebears. These were Neustria (generally speaking, most of modern-day France) and Austrasia (eastern France, western Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands). Charlemagne was not satisfied with these territories, however, and, during his reign, he fought some 53 campaigns in order to extend his vast realm. South of the Alps, he conquered the kingdom of the Lombards; he added Saxony in 774; Bavaria in 788; Carinthia in 799; the March of Brittany in 786 and, in 797, the Marca Hispanica, a buffer zone at the edge of his southern province of Septimania, designed to keep the Umayyad Moors of the Iberian Peninsula at bay.
He travelled incessantly and his government was itinerant. Nonetheless, he established an effective system of governance for all the disparate nations of his empire. The top echelon was occupied by a network of some 300 comitates or Counties, each of which was headed by an imperial lieutenant or Count. These officials were often supervised by local bishops and royal legates, known as Missi Dominici, who toured the realm to ensure that the royal will was being followed. Charlemagne was careful, at the same time, to ensure that local customs were respected and, in reality, local leaders retained much of their power. The important people of the realm – officials, bishops and the rich – swore oaths of loyalty at annual assemblies which took place at Aachen. A new elite, international class emerged, basking in royal favour and often united in marriage.
Charlemagne also encouraged a cultural revival, employing the greatest scholars of the day to facilitate it. The English monk, scholar, poet and teacher, Alcuin of York (735–804), was invited to the court and became its most prominent teacher. Many of the most notable minds of the Carolingian era were taught there by him. Even Charlemagne took courses at his celebrated Palace Academy. Others such as the grammarian Peter of Pisa (744–99) and the theologian Agobard of Lyons (769–840) also contributed to the intellectual renaissance fostered by the Emperor, revising the text of the Bible and publishing grammars, histories and ballads. In architecture, too, there was innovation and change. Carolingian architecture threw off the pervasive Byzantine influence, initiating the style that, with its round arches and groin vaults, would later become known as Romanesque.
Charlemagne revived the ancient term 'Europe' to distinguish his lands from those of Byzantium and of the pagans beyond his borders. However, it was not destined to last and, when he finally died on 28 January 814, the concept died with him. So too did his empire. As was customary, his son, Louis the Pious (ruled 813–40), had been crowned co-emperor in 813 to avoid a destructive succession dispute on Charlemagne's death. However, when Louis died in 840, the kingdom was shared between the late king's sons. The Treaty of Verdun in 843 allowed for this division.
The western lands of the empire, known as West Francia, were given to Charles the Bald (ruled 840–77); Lothair (ruled 840–55) became king of Middle Francia, comprising the Low Countries, Lorraine, Alsace, Burgundy, Provence and the kingdom of Italy; East Francia, now Germany and other regions to the east, was to be ruled by the appropriately named Louis the German (843–76).
The great nations of Europe began to take shape.
Invaders: Vikings, Magyars and Ottoman Turks
The empire left by Charlemagne had become fragmented and soon descended into petty fiefdoms and internecine warfare. By the last years of the ninth century, a new kingdom had emerged in upper Burgundy and Count Boso was effectively king of lower Burgundy. Italy had been ravaged for many years by invasion by Byzantines, Neustrians and Austrasians and any political authority that had once existed had long since been eroded. It was against such a background that a new terror arrived, a terror that would destroy people's faith in central authority still further. The Frankish kings, who were supposed to provide protection, seemed incapable of doing so against the new pagan threat from the north – the Vikings.
No one is entirely sure why the Norsemen set out on their initial voyages of conquest. It may have been due to over-crowding in their homeland but some suggest that they were merely an adventurous race in search of new opportunities. Whatever the reason, they raided and settled in Europe for some 200 years, creating new states and often establishing themselves through time amongst the ruling elite of the countries they invaded. Above all, they created prosperity for their native lands, establishing political power for northern Europe for the first time.
The Swedes, known as Varangians, headed east, plundering the lands of the Baltic, the Bay of Riga and the Gulf of Finland and establishing camps at Wolin on the Oder, on the Vistula and at Novgorod in modern-day northwest Russia. They even made it as far as Constantinople. The Danes and the Norwegians turned their attention to the south and west, causing panic in Ireland, Great Britain, Germany, Holland, France and as far as the Mediterranean and Greece.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – the late ninth-century manuscript that narrates the history of the Anglo-Saxons – gives 789 as the date of the first Viking raid on Britain. That summer, three Norwegian ships entered Portland Bay in Dorset. Four years later, Viking raiders attacked and plundered the monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, off the northeast coast of England, appropriating church treasures, killing many monks and carrying off as slaves those they did not kill. Two years later it was the turn of the holy Scottish isle of Iona. The Vikings would return again and again to these places. In 875 the monks of Lindisfarne finally decamped, taking the relics of Saint Cuthbert with them. They would remain an itinerant community for several decades.
The Danes were the principal invaders. In 841, they took advantage of the political uncertainty caused by the death of Louis the Pious, as the empire occupied itself with the fallout from the division of the empire between his three sons. Employing their customary strategy, they sailed up the river Seine to the city of Rouen which was ruthlessly attacked and plundered. Bordeaux was captured in 847, remaining hostage to the Vikings for many years. As became the custom, the West Frankish king, Charles the Bald, paid them off. Unfortunately for him, and the terrified people of his kingdom, the raids continued. Charles ordered every settlement to prepare itself with defences, fortifications and troops but it was to no avail and, when 40,000 Vikings laid siege to Paris itself, Charles was forced to pay them off with 700lbs of gold. The Vikings retired to Burgundy.
Paying them off seemed to be the only way to stop them, especially in Britain where the Viking invasions had a huge impact on everyday life as well as on the political life of the country. In 828, the house of Wessex had become pre-eminent when King Egbert (ruled 802–39) was recognised as Bretwalda – overlord of Britain. It was not long, however, before the Danes began to challenge Wessex superiority and Alfred the Great (ruled 871–99) spent his entire reign as King of Wessex fending off the Scandinavian threat. Eventually, after defeating the Danish warlord, Guthrum (died c. 890) at the Battle of Edington, Alfred signed a treaty with the Danes that established the borders of their respective territories. The land under Danish control and subject to Danish law – an area roughly to the north of a line drawn between London and Chester – became known as the Danelaw. Eric Bloodaxe (895–954), the last Danish king of the Northern Viking kingdom, was driven out of Northumbria in 954, but ultimate power in England would continue to be disputed by the Danes and the House of Wessex until 1066.
Events in France would prove fatal for the struggle for supremacy in England. In 911, the French king, Charles the Simple (ruled 893–922), signed a treaty with the Viking leader, Rollo (c. 870–932). When Rollo had invaded Normandy, Charles realised that there was little point in continuing the struggle. If he paid the Vikings off, they would only return. Consequently, he gave Rollo and his followers the lands in Normandy that they had conquered on condition they fight off any raids by their Viking brothers. Rollo became ruler and possibly Duke of Normandy. One hundred and fifty-five years later, his great-great-great grandson, William the Conqueror (ruled 1066–87) would become King of England after defeating King Harold II (ruled 1066) at the Battle of Hastings. The Normans would also extend their reach as far as southern Italy, conquered in the 1050s by Robert Guiscard (c. 1015–85) who was descended from the norsemen who had sailed up the Seine several hundred years earlier.
It was not only the threat from the north that made Europe an unsettling place to live at the end of the Dark Ages. From the east came the Magyars, the last of the nomadic tribes to invade central Europe. Overwhelmed by their neighbours, the Pechenegs, and their ally, the Tsar of the Bulgars, they migrated over the Carpathian Mountains to the west, settling finally in the Hungarian plains. As rapacious as the Vikings, they cut a swathe through the Carolingian Empire from 895 until 955, extracting huge ransoms and tribute monies. Later invasions brought the greatest nomadic empire of them all to Europe – the Mongols, also known as Tatars. In the thirteenth century, Genghis Khan (1162–1227) ruled a vast empire stretching from the Pacific to the Black Sea, the largest empire in history; from 1336 to 1405, the Mongol Emperor Tamerlane ruled from Delhi in India to the Aegean. Meanwhile, the Ottoman Turks had arrived in the eleventh century and would wield influence in Eastern Europe for the next 800 years.
Such instability only served to weaken central power and destroy confidence in the Frankish monarchies and the end result was feudalism. However, just as Charlemagne's great empire was created partly to protect against invasion, the incursions of the Vikings, the Magyars and all the others led to the creation of the Holy Roman Empire and the Tsardom of Moscow.
The Byzantine Empire
As the Frankish empire began to wane, so did another former great power begin an astonishing resurgence. It had been the Emperor Theodosius (ruled 379–95) – the last emperor to rule the Roman Empire in its entirety – who had made the fateful decision to split the empire in two on his death in 395, dividing it between his two sons, Honorius (ruled 395–423) in the West and Arcadius (ruled 395–408) in the East. As various invaders overran the Western half in the course of the next century, the Eastern Empire was left relatively unscathed.
In the sixth century, the Eastern Emperor, Justinian I (ruled 527–65), had overseen an expansion of his territories but, during the next two centuries, his descendants had lost much of these gains. In the eighth and ninth centuries, the empire had been riven by a debilitating iconoclasm dispute – the issue being whether or not it was right to worship icons. It was destabilising and sometimes violent and the empire reached its lowest ebb.
Towards the end of the ninth century, however, the Macedonian dynasty seized the throne. Basil I (ruled 867–86), a former peasant horse-breaker, who had risen to a position of prominence at the imperial court, came to power by murdering the previous emperor, Michael III (ruled 842–67), in September 867. Despite such an inglorious beginning to his reign, Basil launched a remarkable rebirth of Byzantine fortunes, a rebirth perpetuated by his successors, Leo VI the Wise (ruled 886–912), Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (ruled 913–59), Romanos II (ruled 959–63), Nicephoros II Phocas (ruled 963–69), John I Tzimisces (ruled 969–76) and Basil II (ruled 976–1025), known as the 'Bulgar Slayer'.
In the tenth century the Byzantines strove once again to expand their territory. The Arabs had traumatised the empire by taking Thessalonika in 904 and massacring its inhabitants. Sicily and Crete had also fallen to them at the start of the tenth century. From 961, however, Byzantium began to fight back. Under the generalship of the future emperor, Nicephoros, Crete was retaken and the Mediterranean was freed from the scourge of Arab pirates. Nicephoros conquered Cilicia – the Anatolian Peninsula – and advanced as far as Syria where he captured Aleppo. During this campaign, he earned the nickname, 'The Pale Death of the Saracens'. Even better, from his conquests he also earned a fortune for himself and for the empire.
Others continued these heroic deeds and, by the beginning of the eleventh century, a Byzantine army stood at the gates of Jerusalem. The empire also extended its authority into Armenia and into Caucasian Georgia to the north. It had not been easy as there were threats from all sides. Slavs and people called Avars, a powerful, multi-ethnic, Turkic tribal confederation, arrived from northern Russia, the Arabs were mustering on the eastern border and Lombards attacked Byzantine territories in Italy. Their greatest rivals, however, were their neighbours, the Bulgars. Their mutual religion, Christianity, had helped to maintain a shaky peace between the two but, when Simeon I (ruled 893–927) came to the Bulgarian throne, that peace was shattered and a period of hostilities began. Simeon created a vast empire, stretching between the Adriatic, the Aegean and the Black Sea, to rival that of the Byzantines and he styled himself Tsar. The wars he began continued until the Byzantines comprehensively defeated the Bulgars at the Battle of Kleidion in 1014. Basil's revenge on the defeated army was, indeed, terrible. He is said to have taken 15,000 of them prisoner and divided them into groups of 100. He then blinded every man in each of the groups, except for one soldier whom he left with one good eye so that he could lead his 99 blind colleagues back to Bulgaria. As he watched his sorry army arrive home, Tsar Samuil (ruled 997–1014) is reported to have been so shocked that he suffered a heart attack and died.
Excerpted from A Short History of Europe by Gordon Kerr. Copyright © 2010 Gordon Kerr. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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