Siege of Pavia

Siege of Pavia

Following the Battle of Tours in 732, Charles Martel became king of the Franks in all but name. His son, Pepin the Short (Pepin III), was the first of the Carolingian line (751–987) to assume the title “King of the Franks.” In 751 Pepin sent the last of the Merovingian rulers, Childeric III, off to a monastery.

Pepin was a highly effective ruler. Implacable in war and a wise and effective administrator, he prepared the foundation upon which his son Charles built. Recognizing the importance of the church, Pepin restored its property and brought religious relics to France. He also rescued the papacy from Lombard control. Pepin died in 768, bequeathing the throne jointly to his two sons, Carloman II and Charles.

Charles, born in 742, became the greatest of all medieval kings, recognized by both the French and Germans as Charles the Great (Charlemagne; Karl der Grosse). In 770, on the advice of his mother, Charles divorced his first wife and married Desiderata, daughter of Lombard king Desiderius. Desiderata returned to Lombardy a year later possibly because she was infertile, greatly straining the off-andon relations between the Franks and Lombards.

In 771 Charles became sole king on the death of his brother. Carloman’s wife then also departed for Lombardy. Pope Stephen III, who had criticized Charles’s marriage to Desiderata, drew closer to the Lombards and appointed a number of Lombard nobles to important posts in Rome. When Stephen died in 772, his successor Adrian I removed the Lombards from their positions, leading Desiderius to send troops into the northern papal territories. Adrian then appealed to Charles for assistance.

While he readied his army, Charles sent letters to both Adrian and Desiderata urging peaceful settlement. In the summer of 773, having received confirmation of Desiderius’s invasion of papal territory and refusal of a large monetary settlement to evacuate territories taken, Charles sent his army to northern Italy. The size of Charles’s army is unknown, but he divided it for the passage through the Alps. His uncle Bernard led part of the army through the St. Bernard Pass, while Charles led the remainder through the Dora Susa via Mount Cenis.

As they descended the Alps, Charles’s contingent found their way blocked by Lombard fortifications. An assault failed, but Charles found a way to attack the Lombards in the flank. The defenders then fled to Pavia, perhaps motivated by news that Bernard was moving in from the east.

In September 773 Charles’s combined force arrived before the walled city of Pavia. The Frankish siege of Pavia lasted for the next 10 months. Although Charles did not have siege engines, the defenders had not anticipated the need, and
their city was but poorly provisioned. Desiderius was among those trapped at Pavia, although his son Adelchis had fled to the stronger walled city of Verona, there to watch over Carloman’s wife and children. Charles must have had a fairly large force, as he had sufficient men to march on Verona, which succumbed without a fight. Adelchis fled to Constantinople. Charles secured Carloman’s wife  and children.

With famine taking hold and no other city attempting his relief, Desiderius surrendered Pavia in June 774. Having captured Pavia and other Lombard cities, Charles absorbed the Lombard kingdom into the rising Frankish Empire, naming himself king of both the Franks and the Lombards. He sent Desiderius off to France to enter a monastery. Charles’s victory made him supreme in northern Italy. He also reached accommodation with Adrian. While Charles recognized Adrian’s claim to much of Italy, he failed to oblige the pope by actually conquering it.

Adrian died in 795, and Leo III succeeded him. Leo proved unpopular and fled to Charles’s capital of Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle), where he demanded that Charles restore him to power. Charles sent Leo back to Rome with troops, following himself in December 800. On Christmas Day in Rome at St. Peter’s Basilica as Charles knelt in prayer, Leo produced a jeweled crown and placed it on Charles’s head, proclaiming him “Charles the Augustus, crowned by God the great and peacebringing Emperor of the Romans.” It might not have been to Charlemagne’s liking to receive the crown from the pope, opening a long debate as to the relative authority of the pope and Holy Roman emperor.

Charlemagne went on to expand Frankish power significantly. He already had won part of northeastern Spain, and in the 780s he pushed his authority to the east, invading the old German lands and converting them to Catholicism. Ultimately his territory extended to the Elbe and then south along the Danube to below Vienna. Once more the west was united. Charlemagne established his capital at Aachen near the mouth of the Rhine. Charlemagne died in 814 and was succeeded as emperor by his son, the ineffectual Emperor Louis I (r. 814–840), also known as Louis the Pious. On Louis’s death full-scale civil war involving his three sons broke out almost immediately, and the territory was divided among them in the Treaty of Verdun of 843. From these territories emerged modern France and Germany.


Durant, Will. The Age of Faith. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1940.

Riché, Pierre. The Carolingians. Translated by Michael I. Allen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

Winston, Richard. Charlemagne: From the Hammer to the Cross. Indianapolis: BobbsMerrill, 1954.