Gaining the Iron Crown - How Charlemagne ended the Kingdom of the Lombards

5 June 774, the Frankish siege of the Lombard capital of Pavia ended and Charlemagne was crowned King of the Lombards, extending the Frankish rule over Northern Italy.

“But now Charles undertook the war against King Haistulf, and most swiftly brought it to an end. For, though his reasons for undertaking the war were similar to, and, indeed, the same as those of his father, he plainly fought it out with a very different energy, and brought it to a different end.“ (Einhard, “Life of Charlemage”)

Alfred Rethel’s (1816 – 1859) Romantic impression of Charlemagne entering Pavia after the fall of the city.

When the Lombards established their kingdom in Northern Italy in the second half of the 6th century, they were the last of the Germanic tribes to set up shop in the ruins of the Western Roman Europe. 200 years later they had become a real threat to the emerging Papacy and its then nominal overlord, the Byzantine Empire. When Constantinople failed to contain the Lombard threat, losing their most important foothold in Italy, the Exarchate of Ravenna, to the Lombard King Aistulf in 751, Pope Stephen II turned North for help. In an agreement with Pepin the Short, the mighty Frankish Mayor of the Palaces, Pepin agreed to declare war on the Lombards. The deal was that Pepin’s taking the crown of the Frankish Empire from the Merovingians to be sanctioned by the Pope and, after defeating Aistulf, to give most of the territory of the old Byzantine Exarchate to the Church in return – the Donation of Pepin, the foundation of the Papal States.

Wodan and Frigg look down from Valhalla and...

... find the tied hair of  Lombard womenfolk look like long beards (according to Emil Doepler, around 1905)

When king Pepin died in 768, the Frankish kingdom was according to the old custom of the Merovingian kings divided between his sons Charles (the later Charlemagne) and Carloman. Carloman died three years later, Charles made a grasp for power to unite the Frankish empire under his sole rule, Carloman’s widow fled to Desiderius’ court with her two infant sons she saw cheated of their birth right. Since Desiderius, at the same time, stretched out his hands to seize power in the new Papal Domains, Charlemagne declared war. In the Summer of 773 a Frankish army crossed the Alps into Northern Italy, Desiderius tried to stop them at the bottleneck of Chiusa di San Michele, allegedly a Lombard musician offered to lead Charlemagne over a secret path behind the back of the Lombard host if the Frankish king would grant him all the lands where his horn would be heard, Charlemagne agreed and the scoundrel promptly climbed on a mountain top, blew his horn and became lord of the Susa valley in the Piedmont. But the musician kept faith and all of a sudden, Desiderius was trapped between a host coming through the Great St Bernard Pass and one via the Dora Susa.

The Iron Crown of the Lombards, now in the Cathedral of Monza

The Lombard army dissolved and fled to the heavily fortified cities of Verona, held by Carloman’s widow Gerberga and Desiderius’s son Adelchis and to Ticinium, present-day Pavia and the Franks laid siege to both places. Gerberga surrendered later that year and while she and Carloman’s sons disappeared into history afterwards, Adelchis fled to Constantinople. At Easter 774, Charlemagne went to Rome and renewed his father’s alliance with Pope Hadrian, backing his legitimacy as ruler over Northern Italy in exchange for the protectorate of the Carolingian Kings and maybe for an absolution in regards to the fate of his sister-in-law and his two nephews and returned to Pavia. After nine months of siege, the city was bled dry and surrendered on June 4th – Charlemagne entered Pavia on the following day and was crowned Rex Francorum et Langobardorum, king of the Franks and the Lombards. Desiderius was banned to one of the dumping grounds for unwanted royalty, the Abbey of Corbie in Belgium for the rest of his life and the claim of the Holy Roman Emperors for supremacy in Northern Italy began on this day, shaping the history of Central Europe at least until the late Middle Ages.

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