By: John Caussons

Set in the early middle ages. Charlemagne, a five part series, filmed throughout the western and central Europe, brings brilliantly to life the era of the great king's reign. Director Clive Donner makes the most of beautiful sets, fine actors and good writing.

Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, was born on April 2, 742 in Aix-la-Chapelle. His father was Pepin the Short and his grandfather was Charles Martel, the "Hammer," who turned back the Muslims near Tours in 732. When Charlemagne was nine, Pepin dethroned the last Merovingian king of France and assumed the royal title. Three years later, in 754, Pepin invaded Italy to protect the pope against the Lombards. From 756 until 768 when Pepin died, he provided military aid for the pope, as well as guarding the area of the Aquitaine and the lands south of the Loire River. As the film opens, Pepin is dying and, Bertrada, Charlemagne's mother, attempts to prepare her son for his new role. Pepin initially planned for a dual kingship between his two sons, Charles and Carolman. In the movie, however, Bertrada is implicated in the murder of her elder son, Carolman. Although Charlemagne questions her repeatedly, she denies the crime vigorously. Clearly, however, she lives her life through Charlemagne. She even encourages him in his love affairs. "When you grow tired of one, go look for another. After all, you are the King of the Franks," she declares.

One of the most interesting aspects of the movie is the depiction of Bertrada's involvement in his first marriage. Not surprisingly, marriage alliances between states and nations are crucial in power politics. For reasons of state Queen Bertrada insists that Charles marry the thirteen-year-old daughter of the King of the Lombards. When Charles responds, "How am I supposed to know what she looks like?" The queen simply travels to the convent where the young girl is being educated and carries her back to Charles. As Charles carefully and slowly removes the hood that veils her face, he, as well as the whole kingdom, approves of the beautiful future consort.

As the second part begins, Charles's first wife dies giving birth to his son. (In reality, Charlemagne seems to have repudiated his first marriage within a year.) His subsequent wives and concubines would produce as least fifteen children. In the film, meantime, his brother Carolman's heirs have taken refuge at the court of Desiderius, his former father-in-law. Through marriage, Charlemagne had hoped to create an alliance between the Lombards and Franks. Now in one day, Charlemagne attends his wife's funeral and prepares to do battle with Bavaria. Fortunately for the Franks, in 772, Pope Adrian appealed to Charlemagne for help against Desiderius. Thus, the Frankish king agreed to invade Italy, depose his former father&endash;in-law, and have himself anointed as king. He then made an important journey to Rome and reaffirmed his father's promise to protect the papal lands. Buoyed by this Italian success, he now embarked on a campaign to conquer and Christianize the heathen Saxons to the North of France. The efforts met with some initial success but dragged on for thirty years.

In 778, Charlemagne moved south again and led his large army across the Pyrenees, attacking several cities and villages in Spain in an effort to curb Saracen advances. On the return to France, Charles was forced to string out hismassive army and huge baggage train in a long formation to make a successful crossing through the mountainous forests near the Pyrenees. Leading one of the sections of the long Frankish caravan was Roland, Charlemagne's trusted friend and legendary warrior. A Saracen ambush devastated the Frankish forces. At the same time, Gascons, who lived in the Pyrenees, also attacked the rear baggage train of Charlemagne at Roncevalles. The Gascons were lightly armed and held a tremendous advantage over the heavy infantry of Roland and Charlemagne. After eliminating the rear guard, the Saracens retreated and the Gascons absconded with stolen treasure, leaving Roland dead on the battlefield. The four thousand-line epic, Song of Roland, based upon these events, made Roland a national hero and became one of France's most important literary achievements. When the battle was over and Charlemagne realized that Roland was dead, he rode off alone, finding an abandoned church where a Benedictine monk appeared out of nowhere to offer comfort. His name was Alcuin of York, and he became a great influence during the rest of Charlemagne's life. Certainly Alcuin's scholarship and breadth of vision added luster to the king's court and may have influenced the account of Charlemagne's life by the king's biographer, Einhard.

The tragedy in the Pyrenees may have led to the next crisis that Charlemagne faced. There seems to have been an attempted usurpation aimed at replacing the king with his eldest son who may have been mentally retarded. Nevertheless, Charlemagne reacted violently to this political folly. Fortunately, Hildegarde, Charles' second wife, protected the heir during this turbulent period. On April 30, 783, Hildegarde died in childbirth, and Charlemagne's mother Bertrada died three months later.

He now began a three-year campaign to conquer Saxony. The Saxons were finally crushed and Charlemagne imposed strict laws to govern every area of their lives. Clearly by 787 Charlemagne was structuring his vast territories toward an empire and using his conquests to expand and reinforce the influence of the Christian Church.

By 800, Charles decided that the Papal situation in Rome needed his personal attention. In fact distrust and disloyalty were rife in Rome and both lay and ecclesiastical strife threatened to destroy the papacy of Leo III. Upon arriving, Charlemagne immediately called for a trial of the pope to settle issues. Near the tomb of St. Peter, Pope Leo took an oath of innocence of all charges against him. This act was seen as a bold move, and accepted as universal proof of innocence. On Christmas Day 800, Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. With much grandeur and celebration in Saint Peter's Basilica, Leo III presented Charles with a golden crown. For the only time in history, the pope bowed down before an earthly king, Charlemagne. Out of four journeys to Rome, undoubtedly this was the most triumphant; yet until his death in 814 at the age of nearly 70, he would continue to dazzle Europe with his military prowess and intellectual energy.

Charlemagne is important not only for the number of military victories won and the size of his empire, but for the special blend of tradition and innovation that he represented. He spent much of his life fighting, but he created a remarkable bond with the Papacy. He placed his immense power and prestige at the service of Christian doctrine and encouraged the monastic life. Scholarship, the copying of important books from antiquity, and the rule of law not only evoked the past imperial glories of Rome but promised a civilized future.

The five part production, starring Christian Brendel, is a joint French production of Lux Spa/ Pathe Television and others. For further reading the following are of interest: The Age of Charlemagne (1984) by David Nicolle and Martin Windrow; Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riché (trans. 1978), and The Frankish Kingdom under the Carolingians by Rosamund McKitterick (1983).