For those who like to contemplate the alternative paths where history might have led under different circumstances, the almost-achieved marriage between Emperor Charlemagne of the Franks and Empress Irene of Constantinople is an intriguing concept. Charlemagne began his reign in 768, as a co-king alongside his brother, Carloman. In 771, however, Carloman died, leaving Charlemagne as sole ruler of the Franks. During his years on the throne, he sent his army in all directions, campaigning over the years in Italy, Saxony, Spain, Brittany, Dalmatia, and several Eastern European regions. Throughout his long reign, Charlemagne cultivated a strong relationship with the popes of Rome and was crowned as emperor in the Roman fashion by Pope Leo III in the year 800.
In Rome’s rival city, Constantinople, Empress Irene was making her own remarkable rise to power. Irene was said to have been a commoner from Athens who joined the nobility by marrying Emperor Leo IV in 769, after she was discovered in an imperial beauty contest. After her husband died of a fever in 780, Empress Irene served as regent ruler for her son, Emperor Constantine VI, who was around ten years old at the time. Irene kept power in her own hands until 790, when she was ousted by the military in favor of her son. Despite this, Constantine VI interestingly asked Irene to return as co-ruler in 792, a proposition which she, of course, accepted. Irene, however, was not content with sharing power. In 797, after Constantine VI had lost support among the populace, the clergy and the military, Irene successfully usurped sole power in Constantinople and had her son blinded. The blinding must have been particularly brutal or botched, for Constantine VI reportedly died of the wounds.
Empress Irene and Charlemagne began sending emissaries to each other’s courts as early as the year 787, when the two were considering a marriage between Constantine VI and one of Charlemagne’s daughters, either Rotrude or Hruodtrude. The match, however, fell through and, like a true break-up, both sides claimed their liege was the one that broke it off, with the Franks writing that Charlemagne refused and the Greeks swearing that it was Irene who changed her mind. Interestingly, the two officially became pen pals in 798, one year after Constantine VI was blinded. Charlemagne received a letter from Empress Irene expressing her wish to maintain peace between their empires. In response to her letter, Charlemagne sent an emissary to her court in Constantinople.
Liutgarda, Charlemagne’s fourth wife, died only months before her husband was crowned as a Roman emperor in the year 800. Within two years of that date, in 802, Irene and Charlemagne were again exchanging high-ranking emissaries to each other’s courts. According to the writing of Theophanes the Confessor (c. 782-818), Charlemagne and Irene were negotiating a marriage to each other that could have put most of the lands between the Pyrenees and Anatolia under a single political entity. This intriguing possibility, however, never came to fruition, as Empress Irene was forced into exile and died in 803. Her most trusted officials had conspired against her, possibly in resistance to the alleged marriage proposal of Charlemagne. When the Frankish emissaries returned from Constantinople in 803, they did not bring with them a marriage acceptance letter, but instead brought news of Irene’s removal from power, and an entreaty of peace from the new emperor of Constantinople, Nicephorus I, who was Irene’s former minister of finance.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Woodcut Illustration of Empress Irene and Charlemagne, printed by Johannes Zainer Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhard and Notker the Stammer, translated by David Ganz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008. at Ulm ca. 1474, uploaded by Kladcat, [Public Domain/CC 2.0] via Flickr and Creative Commons).
- Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Scholz and Barbara Rogers. Ann Arbor Paperbacks / University of Michigan Press, 1972.
- Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhard and Notker the Stammer, translated by David Ganz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.