"By the King of the heavens I think nothing of your nobility and your beauty. Others can admire you. Know this without any doubt; unless you rapidly make up for your idleness by eager effort, you will never receive any benefit from me."
(Hey guys, it was nice to take a mini summer vacation and have a couple weeks off for the first time in, oh, twelve years, but now I’m back in action and ready to kick ass. I got some really good feedback on the YouTube video, and the consensus is that it needs to be shorter, and a little tighter. The good news with that is that now I’m just going to use the BotW text as the script for the story, which means I can post these article as YouTube videos as well as text articles, so feel free to check out whichever one you like because from here on out. The only real change is going to be that these will come Monday instead of Friday because I need the weekend to produce these. Also, I’ve opened up a Patreon page here if you are interested. Google Ad revenue isn’t nearly what it used to be anymore, so backing me on there will be a huge help, and I’m also offering some cool stuff that I hope you’ll like. I’ve got a couple backers on there right now even though I never really advertised it, so thanks to Steve, Shelby, Lucius, Travis, and Christopher. Ok! That’s enough of that bullshit. Here’s the video. The article is below.)
Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Great, King of the Franks, Defender of the Faith, and Slaughterer of the Saxons is kind of like what you would get it you crossed King Arthur with the God-Emperor of Mankind of Warhammer 40k mythos, slapped him into a suit of badass 9th century Teutonic heavy armor and put him at the head of an endless sea of screaming axe-wielding German cavalry stampeding their way through the lawless uncivilized wilderness of Dark Ages Europe. In nearly four decades of rampant badassitude and unrelenting nut-punches of Christian justice, this human buzz saw of Teutonic vengeance ruefully obliterated the ballsacks of Vikings, Moors, Huns, most of Italy, parts of Eastern Europe, and enough rebellious nobles that he could have wallpapered his castle with the flayed foreskins of anyone stupid enough to fuck with him. He saved the lives of two different Popes on two separate occasions, was the first dude to call his knights paladins (thus inspiring generations of self-righteous dickhead D&D characters), he was one of the only men to ever unite Western Europe under one rule, and he was so over-the-top hardcore that at the age of 80 years old Christopher Lee did not one but two heavy metal albums based on his life… which should tell you something because Christopher Lee is fucking awesome, and everything he did was epic with the sole exception of that one shitty Police Academy movie where they go to the Soviet Union.
Hell, even despite his imposing physical presence and crushing battlefield genius, nearly 1200 years after his death Charlemagne’s legendary wisdom was still helping Indiana Jones’ dad bring down a Focke Wulf with a fucking umbrella. Also, I am not sure how to even annotate this but this Franco-German badass was so fucking important to European and world history that nowadays we don’t even just call him Charles the Great, we call him a weird bastardization of his cool-sounding Latin nickname Carolus Magnus. I can’t think of any other non-Roman person we do that with, and I can only assume we do this because Latin sounds really awesome and speaking it always makes you sound like you’re either threatening someone or casting a wizard spell.
Charles was born in 742, the eldest son of Pippin the Short and a woman named Bertha Greatfoot, which was probably a pretty awesome looking family portrait. Pippin the Short was one in a long line of angry little Medieval dudes named Pippin, and he held a position in the Frankish Kingdom known as Mayor of the Palace. Pippin’s dad was Charles Martel, “the Hammer of Christendom”, a dude you’re probably familiar with if you read the first Badass book. Basically, the short version of the story is that the Kings of Frankland were all a bunch of worthless slackers who sat around getting drunk on gilded wine all day, so it usually came down to the lead governmental advisor, the Mayor of the Palace, to actually, you know, run the fucking country. Pippin the Short accomplished this mostly by fighting a ton of wars, and as the heir to the title, Charles was traveling with the Frankish army by the time he was six years old. Growing up fighting wars against the Lombards, Neustrians, Saxons, and other enemies, Charlemagne grew tall and ripped, drilled with the soldiers on the practice fields, camped outdoors, marched day and night on campaign, and dedicated his life to studying swordfighting, archery, horsemanship, and military tactics. It’s said that even when this dude was in his 70s he would still always wear a gold-hilted sword at his hip every time he went anywhere.
Ok, so after saving the Pope from a Northern Italian tribe called the Lombards in 751, Pippin the Short got permission from the Church to tell the lame-ass Frankish Kings to fuck off. Pippin was crowned King of the Franks, and when he died in 768, he followed the traditions of his people and split up the realm between Charles and Charles’ younger brother Carloman. Together, the two men ruled as co-Kings of the Franks, ruling an area that comprised most of present-day France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, and Western Germany. This area is called Frankland, or sometimes the Frankreich, which is obviously named in honor of that time Buffalo Bills backup Quarterback Frank Reich came back from 32 points down to defeat the Houston Oilers in a 1993 AFC Playoff Game.
Ok, well obviously dividing your kingdom between your two sons is a brain-meltingly stupid idea that has never once worked in the entire course of human history, and the bros immediately began plotting to kill each other. Carloman supported a rebellion in Charles’ lands, so Charles had that guy arrested as an enemy of the faith and shipped off to the Pope for punishment (the Pope had him beaten to death with rocks). Then Charles married the Lombard princess, forged an alliance with his one-time enemies, and prepared for war. Carloman had the good sense to die of illness before Charles got his hands on him, and Charles immediately was like “fuck your heirs” and assumed command of all of the Franks. Oh, then a couple years later the Pope asked Charles to help defend Rome against the Lombards, so Charlemagne crossed the Alps in the middle of winter, besieged the Lombard castle, and took the Iron Crown of the Lombards from his own father-in-law’s head. But don’t worry, Charlemagne didn’t really believe in executing his Christian prisoners, so instead of whacking his dad-in-law he just forced that guy to become a monk instead. Which is probably way more boring.
Charlemagne’s biggest, bloodiest, and most horrifically-ultra-violent conflicts were against a Germanic tribe called the Saxons. Now, here’s the best way to think about the Frankish-Saxon Wars – the Franks are the big, armored, sword-wielding Teutonic knight-looking German warriors you picture when you think about the Holy Roman Empire or maybe like the Siegfried legend or something. The Saxons are the insane wild-eyed long-haired Techno Viking Germans you picture when you think about those dudes who hacked up the Romans in the Teutoberg Forest. The Saxons resented Frankish incursion to their lands, so they raided, pillaged, plundered, looted, burned down churches, killed priests, and sacrificed prisoners on altars to Odin and Thor and other cool blood-soaked Viking gods. Charlemagne thought these dudes were a bunch of devil-worshipping witches spawned from the Eye of Terror and tainting the land with their corruption, and the end result was a series of 18 military campaigns over the course of 30 years that resulted in a lot of people having parts of them lopped off by various edged weaponry. The Saxons roasted their prisoners in their armor. The Franks beheaded any of their prisoners who refused to be baptised Catholic.
Using sheer determination and military genius that would rival Caesar versus the Gauls, Charlemagne totally curbstomped his way through the Saxons, smashing them utterly. He chopped down the Irminsul, a holy site of Paganism that was supposed to be the base of the World Tree, smashed their shrines, killed anyone who didn’t convert, sent their leadership off to become monks, and then had his historians write stories about how the Archangel Michael himself came down to aid the cause of the Franks against their enemies. When he was done with that, he crossed the Pyrenees to fight the Muslims in Spain (this didn’t work out so hot for him), conquered the Bavarians and Bohemians, fought against the Croats, Slavs, and Hungarians, captured lands from Byzantine-supported tribes in Italy, battled the fucking Vikings, and even stormed the Avar Ring, the capital of a tribe of horse warriors descended from Attila the Hun. After he broke through the Avar’s near-impenetrable walls, he got his hands on such a humongous amount of looted gold, jewels, and silver that it almost immediately made his kingdom one of the richest in the world. Basically, if you didn’t think Catholicism was the shit, this guy was going to smite you righteously.
Now, one problem that a lot of conquerors have is that at a certain point your empire is made up of so many different cultures that it’s hard to find common threads to keep your civilization together. Charlemagne dealt with this in one very simple way: By making sure all his people were Catholic, and that he was perceived as the Defender of the Faith. He got a great opportunity to do this in 800 AD, when some shit was going down in Rome that required his urgent attention.
Apparently, the old Pope Adrian died in 800 AD, and he was replaced by Pope Leo III. Well, for reasons I don’t fully comprehend, Pope Adrian’s family didn’t like Pope Leo III, so they attacked him in the fucking middle of the street, beat the shit out of him, and tried to cut out his eyes and tongue so that he couldn’t be Pope any more. Well, right as this was going down, an honor guard of battle-hardened Frankish paladins was just heading up to the Vatican to send Charlemagne’s regards, and they immediately jumped in to regulate some motherfuckers and save the Pope’s life. Pope Leo III showed his appreciation for this Deus Ex Charlemagne (and honored Charles’ many other religious accomplishments) by crowning him Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 800. Leo proclaimed that Charlemagne was the Protector of Catholicism and the true heir to the Roman Empire, which wasn’t really the case because the Byzantine Empire technically held that title, but the Byzantines were being led by a woman at the time (a future Badass of the Week named Empress Irene) so Medieval misogyny kind of helped out his claim a bit. The Empress Irene sent a formal letter of protest, and Charlemagne responded by saying maybe the two of them should get married to just solidify the Empire once and for all. She responded by saying nah, she was good.
As Emperor, Charlemagne perhaps-unexpectedly switched gears from “ultra murderfactory stab stab” to “wise old revered leader”. He set up his Empire as a center of learning, understanding, and scholarship. He made peace with the Muslims, Slaves, Danes, Basques, Croats, and Briton tribes, forged an alliance with Khan Krum the Horrible of Bulgaria, and made such a nice impression on the Caliph in Baghdad that the Caliph gave Charlemagne a pet elephant. Charlemagne built libraries, gathered every rare book he could find, and had scribes make copies and translations. He brought in poets, educators, philosophers, and religious scholars, wiped out bandits, established trade, created a standardized system of weights and measurements, and developed the writing system that our current alphabet is based on. He built structures like the Palatine Chapel in Aachen, an awesome building that looks like what you’d get if you asked the chief architect at Hogwards to design a lair for vampires, and to cement infrastructure, he divided out portions of his lands to Counts, Bishops, and other leaders… basically creating the Feudal System as we know it.
Despite all of his interest in learning (he spoke fluent Greek and Latin!), Charlemagne never learned to read or write. He kept a wax pad under his bed and would practice writing every night, but the poor dude just never quite got the hang of it. Of course, when you’re the fucking Emperor you can just hire people to read to you all day, and he loved badass Homeric epics as well as hardcore religious treatises such as St. Augustine’s City of God. He was married five times, had 18 kids, and lived to be in his 70s at a time when most people were dead by 40. Towards the end of his life, doctors started giving him a hard time and told him to stop eating so much roasted meat, but he told them to eat a dick and did whatever the hell he wanted because nobody was going to stop him from jamming so much beef jerky in his face that the Macho Man would have an aneurysm.
After ruling for 40 years, Charlemagne died in 814 at the age of 72. For all of his violence his most important contribution was his legacy. This illiterate German dude had taken a heterogeneous mish-mash of barbarian peoples and turned them into a cohesive, unified group of people, and if you look at the map of his empire, it looks a hell of a lot like a map of present-day Western Europe (hashtag Brexit). He was canonized by an Antipope in the 12th century, which is a cool detail even though it totally doesn’t count as real sainthood, and nowadays his epic gold-and-silver plated sarcophagus is on display on the chapel he built in Aachen.