Season Three, Episode Five: Little Brother
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Little brothers can be annoying, but never so much as when one finds themselves in competition with them.
For Charles, who was eight years older than his younger brother, Carloman, and who had much more experience, both militarily and politically, and who had travelled extensively in Francia and beyond, it had become a chore to simply be in the same location as the younger man. Carloman’s attitude was annoyingly imperious; he acted as if he knew everything and had no need of advice. He would interrupt his advisors if they ever said anything he didn’t like or agree with, and this same attitude found its way to his older brother as well. If Charles said something Carloman didn’t agree with, even something small or banal, he knew it was only a matter of moments before he would hear about it. Charles would find himself in these situations wanting to reach out and strangle his kid brother; he wanted to knock the smarmy look off of his face and shut his mouth so as to avoid having to hear yet another uninformed and ridiculous monologue. But of course, Charles couldn’t do this, no matter how much he wanted to.
This was because laying his hands on Carloman wouldn’t just be an attack against his little brother; laying hands on Carloman would be to strike a King.
When their father Pépin I had died, he chose to have his kingdom governed by both of his sons rather than just the oldest. To this effect, he had split his territory in two administratively and given each brother his share. Charles received the northern portion with Austrasia and Neustria; Carloman received the south, with Burgundy, Provence, and Swabia. Both of the young men received shares of Aquitaine, the area their father had only just brought under control slightly before his death. Overall, Francia remained a single Kingdom, just one with two kings.
Well, people with a knowledge of Frankish history know that any more than one Frankish king at a time is a near sure fire way to start a civil war. One of the most important jobs for a Frankish ruler was to grow and expand his territory, and if the king next door happened to be your brother, well, that was not really a reason not to invade their lands and take their stuff. Hostilities between siblings had the potential to be a major loss for those living under the rule of either one of them, and it was also a time for insurgents looking to claim their own land and power in the confusion of the age to make their move. By 769, Charles and Carloman had been co-rulers for just over a year, and while they hadn’t entered into war against one another quite yet, nothing about their relationship had been trending in a positive direction, and sharks who had been beaten into submission in the age of Pépin were now beginning to circle to the smell of fresh blood in the water.
One of these sharks was named Hunald - technically, Hunald II. This young man had been licking his wounds in the hills and river valleys of Aquitaine ever since his father, Waifarium, the Duke of Aquitaine who had led the last decade’s revolt against the Carolingians, had been finally killed by Pépin in 768. The death of Waifarium meant the title of Duke was now vacant; however, it had been in Hunald’s family for years, going back to the time when Hunald I had stood on line next to Odo and Charles Martel to protect Francia against the invasion of the Muslim armies from the south, and Hunald II was not going to let his birthright pass him by without a fight. The bickering between the two new kings meant that little attention was being paid to Aquitaine, and this made it easier for the would-be Duke to raise men, money and arms to reclaim what was rightfully his. Hunald began to move about, demanding loyalty from those who had served his father and grandfather in the past. He burned down the houses of those who defied him, and slowly but surely he began to build a name for himself. Whether they agreed with his claim or simply wanted to avoid incurring his wrath, men joined Hunald’s army, and he began to threaten larger cities and towns in the region. With cities such as Bordeaux and Angoulême now under threat, the brother kings took notice.
Charles had been inching a small force south from his Austrasian stronghold for a while; the idea of Aquitaine rising up in the midst of the royal succession was no great shock. By April 769 he was in Rouen; here he received word of Hunald’s growing numbers and his vicious plots. It’s time to pull this stubborn weed, he thought to himself as he planned his campaign. Still, pulling weeds is easier work with four hands instead of two, and Charles and Carloman nominally ruled Aquitaine together. It was only right that Charles’s younger brother be given the chance to join in the fight, both for the glory of winning a battle and also for the chance to provide some manpower to Charles’s modest force. He sent an emissary to Carloman asking the young man to meet him in Moncontour; it was his hope that, beyond receiving men to help in the fight, that perhaps a shared task and a shared victory would go a long way to pave over some of the cracks which had formed in the brother’s relationship. It was with this thought in mind that Charles set off to meet with Carloman.
Charles knew from the moment his brother entered the room to develop their joint war plan that an alliance with Carloman was going to be nearly impossible. The younger King, now only 18-years-old and lacking any practical battlefield experience, walked about with a swagger and refused to speak with Charles before the meeting began. Once at the table, Carloman began to spout military campaign ideas that everyone at the table was familiar with; they were the campaign plans of Hannibal, Caesar, and Charles Martel, battles everyone at the table had to have at some point studied, or at least heard of, and they were now being passed off as new inventions. Worse than plagiarism though, they were completely ill-suited to the campaign currently under consideration. They’re ridiculous, Charles thought. He sounds ridiculous.
As Carloman prepared to launch into yet another example of military greatness from times past, Charles finally could take it no longer.
“We’re wasting time,” he said, rising from his chair and to his full height - nearly a head taller than his brother.
“I was speaking,” Carloman proclaimed, clearly unused to the notion of being interrupted.
“We know you were speaking. And speaking and speaking and speaking.”
Several at the table laughed at Charles’s retort. He was saying what they had been thinking, and hearing it out loud was both relieving and amusing. Charles continued.
“The fact is, King Carloman, is that the battle plans you have put forth thus far are in no way germane to this campaign. You outlined Hannibal’s feint at Cannae; it was a brilliant move, no doubt, but we are not facing a well-armed legion. You mentioned Caesar; again, we are not fighting Vercengetorix, so unless you plan to build a double wall around the whole of Aquitaine, this again has no relevance. Finally, you brought up our grandfather. His fight against the Saracens at Tours was a thing of beauty, no doubt, a rout that sent them back over the mountains. But again, we are not about to engage horse archers and well-trained Islamic generals. In all that you have spoken, you have yet to outline who our actual enemy is.”
Carloman’s face turned bright red as his brother’s spoke, and continued to deepen in color as the response went on. Rather than answer the query placed before him just now of who the enemy was in this situation, Carloman petulantly took his seat. Charles shook his head at the display, then spoke once more.
“Our enemy, gentlemen, as we look at them, is not actually our enemy. They are the people of Aquitaine, stirred to action at the instigation of Waifarium’s undeserving whelp of a son. He believes he can use the death of our father to test our mettle and retake the territory that he believes is his by birthright. Well, I don’t know about you,” he looked around the room filled with men he had fought alongside for a decade now, “but when we were here just a year ago these people turned to my father’s side and killed Waifarium themselves rather than continue to be led in a fruitless battle. When Waifarium died, his duchy most certainly did not go from his traitorous hands to his sons. No! Hunald has no claim, and Aquitaine has no will to fight. With that in mind, gentlemen, and with all due respect to the other ideas put forward thus far, I recommend this: We take our forces and ride into Aquitaine. We remind the people of our size and our might. We remind them that simply because my father has passed to God, does not mean that the God-chosen rulers of this land have any less strength or will than those who came before us. They will see us, and they will remember. They will see us and they will turn on Hunald. They will see us, and they will lay down their weapons and return to their fields. We need not fight and kill them, for they are our own subjects. And if we do need to face a group in battle, let us not overestimate that we’re going to be facing legions or hordes.”
Charles finished and sat down. Assent went up around the table; the plan was overwhelming in both its logic and its simplicity. Everyone banged the table save one man, and when the din quieted, Carloman stood to speak.
“If it is the will of those here to ride into battle, preening and hoping to display your great strength, then you shall do so by yourself. My army and my men will have no part in such a stupid plan; mark my words, you are all riding to your death, and when you do, we will not be coming to save you. Mark this day as the day you chose to ignore me and follow him.” He pointed at his brother. “Remember the day that you could have made a real plan for yourselves, but instead you chose this.”
With that, Carloman spat on the ground and turned on his heel. He motioned for his nobles to follow him; sheepishly, obediently, they stood from the table.
“Godspeed,” one of the nobles now shuffling to the door whispered to the table. “I have no doubt of your success, nor your need of us. We’ll await news of your victory.”
Charles watched the last of his brother’s party leave over tented fingers. When the last was gone, he looked about at those who remained.
“That noble is correct, gentlemen. We don’t need Carloman or his army to implement this plan. I speak to you as one who will ride shoulder-to-shoulder with you, not as an aggrieved brother hoping to prove the other wrong. But have no doubts; I do want to prove him wrong. I offered him and his forces the opportunity to revel in glory with us, and he has chosen instead to let us all have our glory on our own. So be it. Let’s leave here now, gentlemen, and prepare our forces. Tomorrow we ride south, and we remind Aquitaine why they capitulated to us in the first place. We’ll pick out this flea, this Hunald, and be done with having to scratch his itch. Tomorrow we ride, and we will bring Aquitaine under our control once and for all.”
This is Thugs and Miracles.
Season 3, Episode 5: Little Brother
Alright, welcome back! As always, I’m Benjamin Bernier, and this week we’re going to take a look at what exactly happened between Charles and his brother Carloman. The two are referred to in all of the histories as having had a troubled relationship, and this is another one of those situations where, if you poke around on the Internet a little, you can find people asking the counterfactual question of, “What if Charlemagne had died rather than Carloman?” Because, belated spoiler alert, Carloman is going to die shortly, in 771. And it’s interesting to think of what might have happened if he had lived. It’s also interesting to consider how he died, because it was rather convenient for Charles that his pesky little brother up and kicked the bucket for no well-documented reason at the age of 20. Now, people died young all the time back at this time, and quick illnesses with tragic endings were really not all that uncommon. And that could have been the case... it was just very convenient for Charles. But before we go any further, I should probably let everyone know that I’m biased when it comes to Carloman; as the youngest brother in a family of boys, I can sympathize with him and kind of root for him. I’ll do my best to be impartial, but when it comes to Carloman’s death, let just say that I’m keeping my eye on you Charlemagne... Also, while honesty is in the air, I’d like to say mea culpa for a small error I made last episode. I had said that Charles had inherited Austrasia and Neustria, and that Carloman had inherited Burgundy and Aquitaine. It would have been more accurate if I had said that Carloman had inherited Burgundy, Provence, and Swabia - as I did in today’s opener - and both brothers split the inheritance of Aquitaine. It’s a small difference, but we’re trying to be accurate and it has a bearing on the rest of this episode, so again: mea culpa.
Anyway, back to Aquitaine. Why was it so important, and why was it such a constant and regular thorn in the Carolingian’s side in these first few years of their reign? Well, to begin, Aquitaine had been semi-independent since the death of King Charibert II in 632. In case you’re just joining us now and you haven’t had a chance to listen to Season Two yet, Charibert II was the brother of Dagobert I and the son of Chlothar II. Chlothar II was a strong Merovingian king and Dagobert was among the last truly significant Merovingians. Charibert II, on the other hand, was basically looking for a place to call his own after his dad died and he was only able to take Aquitaine. It was far enough from Dagobert’s area of control that Dagobert didn’t put up a fight for the territory, and Charibert died three years later anyway (which, as I’m looking at it, is kind of a coincidence that these younger brothers keep dying three years after they’re inconvenient. Anyway...). Long story short, Aquitaine was part of Francia, but it wasn’t the really important part, at least not then, when compared with Paris, Metz, and the northeast. Almost a century went by and things were fine, but then along came the Umayyad Caliphate and things went hard for the region for a while. Fortunately for the Franks, Charles Martel pushed the invaders back in 732 along with the help of Duke Odo of, you guessed it, Aquitaine. At The Hammer’s death in 741 he excluded Aquitaine from the splitting of the kingdom as a reward for Odo’s service. Pépin and his brother though, Carloman the Elder, clearly thought this was an oversight, however, because they went on campaign in the region just a year later in 742. And they received significant pushback for this: Duke Hunald I is noted by the Annales Mettenses as having burned Chartres in 743, after which he retired to a monastery and handed his title to Waifarium. This transition of power did nothing to slow things down, nor did Pépin’s usurpation of the Merovingians and ascent to the throne in 751; according to Rosamond McKitterick:
“The most concerted opposition to the extension of Carolingian rule came from Aquitaine and occupied Pepin for the remainder of his reign. There was only one year between 759 and 768 in which Pepin did not conduct a campaign in this region. Duke Waifar was not the only intransigent opponent of Pepin in Aquitaine... however, this opposition was almost entirely secular... The sources state that he Pépin was an unwilling aggressor, goaded into action by Duke Waifar’s refusal to restore to the churches and monasteries in Pepin’s kingdom the lands in Aquitaine which belonged to them, or to respect the immunity Pepin had bestowed upon these same establishments.”
Of course the Carolingian sources are going to say that Pépin was goaded into a conflict as an “unwilling aggressor”; they knew where their bread was buttered, and we’re not going to be talking about the continuation of this current Duke of Aquitaine’s line beyond his son. Pépin and his scribes can say what they please, but from the history I just laid out to you, we can see that Aquitaine had been a restive region for well over a century at the point we’ve arrived to by our opening story. And we can also understand why Hunald II, the son of Waifarium, would have come out of hiding in 769, right after Pépin died, to try and take his shot in the region.
With all of this said, Charles would have had a pretty good understanding of Aquitaine as he became King. As a 25-year-old who is noted as having led troops, it’s entirely reasonable to assume that he would have been working with his dad in the later years of Pepin’s reign to do the hard work of getting the people of Aquitaine in line. And if that were the case, Charles would have had recent, first-hand knowledge of the land, the people, and the current state of politics, all things that his brother, Carloman the Younger, would not have had. How this imbalance in knowledge affected the mood between them when the two came together to formulate how to respond to Hunald’s uprising is open to speculation - and admittedly, the opening story is our novelistic approach as to what may have happened and what may have been said - but no matter what, we know that Carloman and Charles never again return within the younger man’s lifetime to work together as co-kings. According to Richard Winston: “We do not know what the brothers said to each other at that meeting, but from the result we can deduce the anger, the insults, the recriminations. Carloman sulkily refused to cooperate; he turned around and went home, washing his hands of the whole Aquitanian affair.”
Alright, so it would seem bad for Charles and his forces that half of the troops they had been expecting to take into Aquitaine were now gone, but in reality... was it? For one, this wasn’t even the first time in recent history that a Carolingian ruler had to fight in Aquitaine without promised manpower; just a few years earlier the same thing happened when Duke Tasillo of Bavaria pulled his support to Pépin, and Pépin still went in and won. It may have taken him longer and changed some of his calculations, but the end result was the same. And remember, Charles was probably there when the Tasillo affair was taking place, so he had realistic, practical experience with how to deal with this exact kind of problem in the same exact region! Second off, It seems unlikely to us that Charles, who ultimately rode into Aquitaine using show-of-force tactics as opposed to the brutal slash-and-burn of an invading army, would have gone harder than necessary if his brother had joined him. Why destroy the territory, territory that is nominally under your control and from which you profit, if you don’t need to? It’s even possible that, with his experience, Charles may have realized that a sharper response was actually more likely to upset the people, essentially making insurgents where there were now only a few. Finally, because Charles’s knowledge of Aquitaine was so recent, it’s possible (although we have no idea how likely) that he goaded Carloman into behaving exactly the way he did precisely so he would turn and ride away. Charles would have been expected to cooperate with his co-ruler before leaving on a campaign into an area mutually controlled by both of them, but if he wanted to keep all of the glory and territory for himself, what better way to do it than by making it seem like he had asked for an alliance - but was spurned. Really, the only loser in this whole scene, besides Hunald, is Carloman. Here’s what Charles Oman tells us happened after the younger brother returned to Burgundy:
“Charles... was able to pursue, unaided but also unhindered, his campaign against the Aquitanians. It was completely successful: he forced his way in arms as far as Bordeaux, built a great fortified camp at Fronsac, which was destined to remain as the central stronghold of the Garonne for many generations, and so thoroughly beat Hunold that the old man fled for refuge to Lupus, duke of the Gascons. But Lupus, fearing the wrath of Charles, submitted to the conqueror, surrendered the fugitive, and asked and obtained peace. Charles went home in triumph, replaced Hunold in a cloister, and was henceforth undisputably king in Aquitaine. He divided the country into countships on the usual Frankish system, and placed these provinces in the hands not of natives, but of men from north of the Loire whose fidelity he could trust. For the future Aquitaine gave no trouble.”
So Charles got all of the glory of victory and was able to partition the territory as he saw fit and stock it with men who were loyal to him. This seems like a pretty good deal; if Carloman had been around he would have had to have split the treasure, so really, from Charles’s point-of-view, this has to look like a much better outcome. On top of that, he didn’t need to worry about splitting command or accounting for rogue elements not under his control. At the end of the day, while we’re not saying for certain that Charles drove Carloman away, the end result was so good for him, and his experience would have given him such a good idea of what to expect going in, that it doesn’t seem unreasonable - and in fact, to us, it seems pretty probable - that driving Carloman away was exactly what big brother had been hoping to do.
All of this now brings us full circle to what we were talking about in the last episode. If you’ll recall, arrangements were made by Bertrada, the Queen Mother, to bring about peace in Bavaria and engage Charles to a Lombard princess. These actions effectively surrounded Carloman, so what was he supposed to do to push back against Charles? As we saw last week, he didn’t have to do much. Charles sent Desiderata, the Lombard princess, back home to her father, earning the enmity of the Lombards (and if we may say, rightfully so). Charles then chose to marry a 12-year-old (maybe 13-year-old, but still...). With all of that, these actions had effectively negated all of the hard work - diplomatically - that Bertrada had done. Duke Tasillo was married to a different Lombard princess, and the Lombard king Desiderius was filled with righteous fatherly indignation. The Pope would have been happy about this turn of events, but the Pope had no military forces to pitch into the fight. He was, literally and figuratively, moral support. All Carloman had to do to form an alliance with which to face off against his brother was to go and meet with all of the people his brother had just pissed off and alienated.
Carloman is said to have made this alliance, and then to have gone on holiday to a villa in the north named Samoussy. It was here, on 4 December 771, that Carloman got the worst nosebleed in the history of nosebleeds, and died. And that’s it. At the age of 20, with a wife and two young sons to survive him, Carloman dropped dead in what is easily one of the most anticlimactic deaths we have yet recorded on this show.
Now the question naturally becomes: Just how natural was Carloman’s death by natural causes? I mean, can a nosebleed really kill someone? Or was it the sign of some other nefarious plot at work, a poisoning perhaps? Well, the short answer is... we don’t know. And I mean that in more than an I-am-probably-the-worst-person-to-ask-medical-questions-to type of way. A little research on the web says that yes, nosebleeds can kill people. In 2008, a man near North London died after a severe nosebleed led to him going into cardiac arrest. He was 44-years-old, so quite a bit older than our 20-year-old king, but if a nosebleed is severe enough we suppose it could cause even a young man’s heart to skip a beat. And then stop altogether. Another way that a nose bleed could potentially kill someone is through a torn internal carotid artery. And yet another possibility is a brain hemorrhage brought on by a serious head injury... or poisoning! So yes, it’s possible that Carloman was assassinated. The way he is said to have died is unusual, especially for a young man who seemed otherwise healthy (insofar as no sources claiming he was unhealthy prior to his death). And the claims by certain historians that Charlemagne is in the clear here because no contemporary source cried foul is a little silly in our opinion, considering that the contemporary sources were either on Charles’s side already before Carloman died, or would have realized almost immediately that their new boss, with Carloman dead, was not going to be happy with medieval scandal sheets being written about him. And to top it all off, Charlemagne was about to go on to reign for another 43 years, so anyone who may have been waiting to publish “the truth” but was just waiting for the King to die before they could do so, likely would have died before he was off the scene.
With all of that being said, however, there absolutely, most certainly is not enough evidence to go around making any sort of case that Carloman was killed by any specific person, to include his brother. Carloman’s was a weird, politically convenient death which, ironically, would serve to unify Francia and avoid a civil war fought between brothers. It would also allow Charles to begin to focus on building his empire. Without Aquitaine bothering him in the southwest and Carloman bothering him in general, Charles was finally able to start looking at where he might expand his borders. With Carloman gone, to paraphrase Scooby Doo, there were no more meddling kids standing in his way.
W.A.R. RANKING: Okay, so we’re going to stop at this point, mainly because things start to get juicy again almost immediately and we’re going to save it for the next episode. What we will do right now is look at Carloman and his W.A.R. ranking so we can say where he places on the list compared with the 35 Frankish monarchs who have come before him. Rather than going through each category, however, let’s just admit it: Carloman wasn’t on the scene long enough to have done too much. And most of what he did do comes off sounding pretty petulant and giving a bad rep to all of us little brothers, so he’s just not going to score well. With that said, let’s start with his length of reign: Carloman reigned over half of Francia for three years. A king needs to make it to five years to get points on our chart, so Carloman starts with a zero - and it’s not going to get much better as we go on. The next category to look at is significant military victories and defeats; Carloman has none, but as we realized from the opener, part of the reason for this is because he turned down the opportunity to ride out with his brother for a near slam dunk military adventure. Plotting against the Pope and Charles later on wasn’t particularly helpful or career-enhancing, so just for general incompetence we’re deducting a point here. Our guess is that, had he lived, Carloman probably would have figured out ways to score even worse here.
Moving on to significant alliances. Again, Carloman spent his time plotting against his brother with whom he was supposed to be co-ruler, and the Pope, the guy who the Franks had just recently sworn to protect and whose anointing was the de facto evidence used by the Carolingians to prove their link to God. When Carloman was about to team with someone, it was going to be the Lombards - the same group that his dad had knocked down twice in the last 15 years. Seriously, at some level even Carloman’s mom was working against him, trying to pull off a diplomatic flanking movement in favor of Charles. It didn’t work, but that was more on Charles and his desire to marry a 12-year-old than anything Carloman did to stop the proceedings. Finally, when Carloman did get the Lombard alliance and then died, it gave Charles one more reason to start the campaign we’re going to get into in the next episode. Based on all of this, we’re giving Carloman a -3 in Alliances, and even this feels pretty generous for a guy whose mom worked against him.
The last category we have is Strength of Spouse, and here Carloman is going to get a 2. His Queen, Gerberga, did her duty and provided two heirs. When Carloman died, she made a beeline to the Lombards for protection, something that ultimately gave Charles another reason to enter into Italy (as if he really needed something else). We can’t really blame her for having done this, given that the Pope and Charles were cool again - so no reprieves were likely to be forthcoming from Rome - and sticking around to hand the heir and the spare directly to the guy who is most threatened by their existence whilst begging for mercy has historically ended really, really poorly, no matter the era. So to us, Gerberga earns Carloman two points, one for each child. The King was 20 when he died, so Gerberga clearly got right to business and did her duty by him. She just didn’t have time to do anything more.
We take all of these scores, we put them together along with the zeroes he got in the other categories every king is rated on, we add them up and divide by 10 and we find out that Carloman rates... a -0.2, just slightly below what any mediocre, run-of-the-mill king could be expected to score. And that places him at #29 of 36 total monarchs. Still, like so many of the kings in the bottom tier, you can’t kind of help but think that things probably would have been worse if they had had more time. Carloman wasn’t really ascendant, he showed no unusual flashes of brilliance that we’re aware of, and there’s almost no way he would have avoided a disastrous civil war with his brother if he had stuck around. That last bit may not have been entirely his fault, but it definitely was avoided with his death. Finally, Carloman’s disappearance from the scene would ultimately be a catalyst in Charles’s monarchy, allowing him to start on the path from being a good king to being a great one. Is this fair to Carloman? Absolutely not. But then again, how often have things truly been “fair” in the history we’ve examined up until this point? Some people get lucky and other people... are Carloman.
OUTRO: Alright, that is all for this episode. If you enjoyed it and want to read the transcript, or any of the transcripts for the now 50-plus episodes we’ve put out, we invite you to head on over to ThugsAndMiracles.com. There you’ll find those, our French Monarchy Tree, a sign-up area for our newsletter or Patreon - or both! - and lots of other good stuff. Head to the site and check it all out!
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Alright, again, my name is Benjamin Bernier. Pépin and Carloman are gone, so we’re ready to finally dive in deep and find out exactly what it was that made Charles so Great. We’ll be getting ready to talk all about it in ten days with the next episode of Thugs and Miracles.