The great king of the Franks, Charlemagne (r.768-814), was remembered by his biographers not only as a masterful warrior, but also as a model king of virtue and Christian principle. Despite this reputation, Charlemagne had several traits that would be frowned on by modern evangelicals. In particular, Charlemagne’s relationships with women are interesting. Despite famously forbidding many of his daughters from marrying during his lifetime, Charlemagne, himself, married at least four times and we know of the names of at least five more concubines.
Charlemagne first married Desiderata in the year 770, the daughter of King Desiderius of the Lombards. Even though this was Charlemagne’s first marriage, it was not his first serious relationship. By this point, he had already had a son, named Pippin, with a concubine whose name will be mentioned later. The union between Charlemagne and Desiderata was seemingly masterminded by Charlemagne’s mother, Bertrada, but her son did not have any enthusiasm for the match; Charlemagne divorced his Lombard bride after a year of marriage. Einhard, the earliest biographer of the Frankish king, claimed he did not know the reason behind the divorce. Several decades after Einhard, another biographer named Notker the Stammerer drastically charged Desiderata with being a barren invalid. Whatever the reason, Charlemagne divorced her around 771, and in 773 he invaded the lands of his former father-in-law, King Desiderius of Lombardy.
Not long after divorcing Desiderata, Charlemagne married Hildegard, a woman from Swabia. She was the woman with whom he was married the longest. Together, they had three daughters and three sons, including Charlemagne’s eventual heir, Louis the Pious (r. 814-840). She died in 783.
Soon after the death of Hildegard, Charlemagne married Fastrada, a woman from the German lands of the Franks. She gave him two more daughters and was married to the king of the Franks for over ten years until she died in 794. After Fastrada’s death, Charlemagne married an Alemannian woman by the name of Liutgard. They had no children together, and after Liutgard’s death in the year 800, Charlemagne never remarried.
Charlemagne was known to have had several concubines before and after his marriages. Of the numerous concubines, Charlemagne’s earliest biographers gave the names of only four or five of these women. Despite knowing a few of their names, very little information is known about the concubines except, in some cases, their countries of origin and their children with the king.
Einhard wrote that Charlemagne had three or four concubines after the death of his last wife, Liutgard. Most manuscripts of Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne mention at least three names. These include a mistress from Saxony, named Gersuinda, as well as a certain Regina and Adalinda. Charlemagne had children with each of these three women. Other manuscripts mention the name of another concubine named Madelgard.
One of the more interesting concubines of Charlemagne predated Charlemagne’s marriages. Before Charlemagne married the daughter of the Lombard king in 770, Charlemagne was in a relationship with a concubine known as Himiltrude. Not much information is known about her, personally, but her son with Charlemagne is a very different matter. Their son was named Pippin, but because of the boy’s appearance, commentators began calling him Pippin the Hunchback. Pippin secured a place for himself in history when, in the year 792, he was involved in a plot against his father. His role in the conspiracy varied depending on the source—Einhard wrote that Pippin was a lesser member of the plot, while Notker portrayed him as the ringleader. Whatever his role in the conspiracy, the plot was discovered and Pippin was condemned to live the remainder of his life in a monastery.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (A picture from the 15th century depicting Emperor Charlemagne. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhard and Notker the Stammer, translated by David Ganz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.