The Canal Blunder Of Charlemagne


In the year 793, the Saxons launched one of many rebellions against Charlemagne and the empire of the Franks. This rebellion, however, was particularly dire, as the Saxons began their revolt by slaughtering a Frankish army led by Count Theodoric. With that blow, the Saxons had the momentum and the Franks needed to crush the rebellion before the rebels could recruit more fighters amid the wave of Saxon enthusiasm. Nevertheless, Charlemagne set his eye on a more long-term goal—instead of marching straight for Saxony, he moved his troops to southern Germany, where the Danube and the Main Rivers run parallel, but do not touch. Charlemagne envisioned connecting the two huge rivers with a canal. If he succeeded, it would be a feat of infrastructure engineering that would have both economic and military benefits.

Charlemagne put his men to work on the canal in the Autumn of 793. His plan was to connect the Main and the Danube by linking two smaller offshoots of the rivers—the River Rednitz and the Altmühl. Yet, almost immediately, it became apparent to the whole army that the canal was going to be much more difficult to construct than their king had previously believed. The ground where the army was digging turned out to be too swampy and muddy for a viable canal to be built at that time. Stubbornly, Charlemagne continued to fight against Mother Nature in hopes of completing his canal, but he was forced to abandon the project by the end of the year. Over a millennia later, however, Germany would accomplish Charlemagne’s vision by completing a Rhine-Main-Danube canal in 1992.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Charlemagne Receives the Submission of Widukind, by Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), [Public Domain] via 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.

Leave a Reply