Karlesburg: Probably the Best Carolingian City Burned Down in Saxony

In the year 778, an army of Saxons rose up in rebellion against Charlemagne. In a demonstration of baffling ingratitude towards the Frankish king for having gone to the trouble of conquering them and destroying the sacred Irminsul, they took advantage of him being otherwise occupied by Basque ambushes in the Pyrenees to revolt. The Saxon rebels crossed the Rhine, sacking towns and burning to the ground a settlement that had been built by the Franks two years earlier in 776 on the River Lippe.

It is this short-lived new development that I’m interested in today. Opinions in the contemporary annals as to what the settlement was that the Saxons demolished differ. Some call it a castellum (fort).  The Royal Frankish Annals, which is the most extensive and closest to Charlemagne’s court, calls it a castrum (castle).  Other sources disagree and call it a city. The Annals of Moselle report that in 776 Charlemagne ‘built a city on the river Lippe, called Karlesburg’.  The Annals of Petau agree, stating that ‘the Franks built in the country of the Saxons a city called Urbs Karoli’.  The Annales Maximiniani refers to it as the ‘urbs Karoli et francorum (the city of Charles and the Franks)’.

The difference here is important. Losing a fort wasn’t exactly desirable, but to a certain extent it was an expected possible outcome. One doesn’t put up forts in safe country and the torching of the odd castellum was probably one of the costs of doing business, and a relatively small cost at that. A city, on the other hand, is a rather bigger investment. As well as implying a certain scale and commitment of resources larger than the average military installation, founding a city is a statement of confidence that the future shall be like the present. It suggests security and power. Having a city that you founded be burned down within two years of being set up is embarrassing. This is all the more so if you put your name on it (Karlesburg, Urbs Karoli) and linked it with the fortunes of your people (urbs Karoli et francorum).

An exciting urban regeneration project from the Utrecht Psalter, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS Bibl. Rhenotraiectinae I Nr 32.6r (source).

If Charlemagne had really decided to found a city in Saxony in 776, it would be an important statement about the permanence and stability of Carolingian rule in the region (think George W Bush declaring Mission Accomplished in 2003). Such a city would put Charlemagne within a long tradition of Roman and late antique urban foundations stretching back to Romulus, and including luminaries such as Constantine, Theodoric and Justinian. If such a city was then levelled to the ground within two years it would be deeply embarrassing (again, think George W Bush declaring Mission Accomplished in 2003).

On the whole, I’m inclined to suspect that this was really meant to be a city. The Royal Frankish Annals has form in reinterpreting and suppressing past events to make them seem less embarrassing for Charlemagne. Its description of the Frankish king’s campaign in the Iberian Peninsula, which took place in the same year as the Saxon revolt, is spectacularly misleading. What actually happened was that the Frankish army was stymied by the walls of Zaragoza, had to return to Francia having achieved nothing and its rear-guard was surprised and destroyed by Basques in the Pyrenees. In the Royal Frankish Annals, Charlemagne is described as marching into Spain, receiving the submission of all he met, before going home. Absent in that account are the words ‘ambush’, ‘Roland’ and ‘screw-up’.

The end of the campaign was not something that could easily hushed up. A later Reviser added a full account of the ambush, observing that it ‘shadowed the king’s view of his success in Spain’. Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard spoke of the frustration felt by the Franks that this defeat could not be avenged. The anonymous Astronomer who composed a biography of Louis the Pious said that the names of the fallen at Roncesvalles were still remembered and mourned in his day. This was a big deal that inspired strong emotional reactions across the Frankish world. That the Royal Frankish Annals were willing to omit it points to a general tendency its authors had to present Charlemagne in the best possible light.

The Royal Frankish Annals also provide another clue that the settlement founded on the Lippe in 776 was meant to be really important. The entry for 776 reports that the Saxons were summoned to the site ‘with wives and children, a countless number, and were baptized and gave as many hostages as the Lord King [Charlemagne] demanded’. A huge public gathering like this suggests that the settlement on the Lippe was intended to be a centre of power.

Charlemagne regained control of Saxony in the end, but if the Karlesburg was meant to be a city, it proved to be a dead end, to such an extent that it is now not clear exactly where it was. It may have been where Paderborn now stands. If so, that would be very interesting because Paderborn became one of the most important palaces in Charlemagne’s later reign. The settlement Charlemagne is most associated with, Aachen, is sometimes described as a city, but more often as a palace. One of the ideas I’m playing around with currently is that after 778 Charlemagne decided that founding cities was too much a hostage to fortune. The city of Charles became a palace, still imbued with power and significance, but less fundamentally important if it got sacked. The result was a series of palace-cities that had many of the characteristics of cities, but which were not consistently presented as them.

Even if this line of thought doesn’t go anywhere, I find Karlesburg fascinating as a hint of something that was potentially really important. The city in Saxony would have consumed considerable material resources and been invested with major political and cultural capital. Had it worked, would have radically changed the way modern historians think about Charlemagne. The Carolingian empire is still generally perceived of us a rural one (see this excellent magistraetmater post on the subject). Charlemagne might have been remembered as a city-founder. Instead the project was burned, Charlemagne rebranded, and we get the image of the Franks as country palace dwellers instead. (I have other thoughts on the importance of cities for the Carolingians for another time). Looked at from a distance, by any reasonable measure, Charlemagne’s reign was incredibly successful. Thinking about failed endeavours like Karlesburg reminds us not just how different it might have looked, but also the number of fiascos that had to be negotiated and tastefully buried as bad news.

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