This illustration, from a 14th-century manuscript of The Chroniques de France ou de St Denis, depicts the death of Charlemagne (r. 768-814) and the subsequent spread of the news that the famous king and emperor was dead. Charlemagne had known that he was dying and therefore made moves to ensure a smooth transition. Einhard (c. 770-840), Charlemagne’s friend and biographer, wrote:
“At the very end of his life when he was worn down by ill-health and old age, he summoned his son Louis, King of Aquitaine, the only one of his sons by Hildegard to survive, and gathered together all the chief men of the whole kingdom of the Franks in a solemn assembly. He appointed Louis, with their unanimous consent, to rule with himself over the whole kingdom and made him heir to the imperial name” (Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, chapter 30).
Although Charlemagne’s court acknowledged that their liege’s death might occur in the foreseeable future, they were still caught off guard when the day that they feared actually arrived. Charlemagne fell ill and quickly died at Aachen in November, 814. It was sudden enough that Charlemagne’s son and heir, Louis “the Pious”, was not present for the final moments and had to be informed by messengers. These events were noted in the Royal Frankish Annals, which stated, “While spending the winter at Aachen, the Lord Emperor Charles departed this life on January 28, in about his seventy-first year, in the forty-seventh year of his reign…A large number of messengers informed Louis of this event at the royal villa of Doué in Aquitaine, where he was then spending the winter” (Royal Frankish Annals, entry for 814). The illustration above re-creates this scene. Charlemagne is shown on his deathbed at the left side of the artwork, and orange-robed messengers spread the news to bishops and kings. One of the kings being informed, obviously, is Louis the Pious. The identity of the other king, however, is more vague. He might be King Bernard of Italy (r. 813-818)—a nephew of Louis the Pious who would try (and fail) to rebel against the emperor in 817.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- 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.