Charlemagne is well known as the “Father of Europe” for uniting Western Europe during the eighth and ninth centuries and defending it against invaders. Less is known of his sons and grandsons who weakly continued the Carolingian empire that Charlemagne (pictured with his children and scholars) worked so hard to strengthen. However, even less is known about Charlemagne’s daughters, though their lives were certainly no less interesting.
Wives, Concubines, and Children
In Charlemagne’s seventy-odd years of life, he had four wives, six concubines and at least seventeen children. Charlemagne’s first marriage produced no children and was annulled within a year of its beginning. With his second wife, Hildegard, he had nine children (the fifth of whom, Louis the Pious, succeeded him as Emperor). His third wife, Fastrada, bore him two children, and his fourth marriage produced no children. Less is generally known about Charlemagne’s illegitimate children, but contemporary sources indicate that he greatly loved all his children. Many of his illegitimate children attained prominent positions particularly within the Church.
(Picture: painting of Charlemagne by Albrecht Durer).
None of Charlemagne’s daughters ever married. His biographer, Einhard, claimed that he loved his daughters so much he could not bear to part with them. However, it is quite likely he knew that the marriage of his daughters could possibly weaken his imperial claims. There were occasional negotiations for his daughters to marry, including to the Byzantine emperor (Constantine VI) and the King of Mercia (Offa), but these came to naught. Charlemagne’s daughters largely did as they pleased and thus became a source of intrigue.
Rotrude (775 – 6 June 810) was the fourth child of Hildegard and Charlemagne. She, along with her brothers and sisters, was educated at court by scholars recruited by her father. One such scholar was Alcuin, the English-born scholar, whose letters form a large part of what is known about her. As a child she was betrothed for several years to the Byzantine emperor Constantine VI (who was also a child), but this arrangement eventually fell apart. Rotrude had a relationship with Rorgon, Count of Maine, who served at Charlemagne’s court. Rotrude and Rorgon had at least one child together and possibly a second. Their relationship did not last long and marriage seems to never have been suggested. Later in her life, Rotrude became a nun in the abbey where her aunt Gisela (Charlemagne’s sister) served as abbess. Her son with Rorgon, Louis, rose to prominence in the Church as abbot of Saint-Denis where many of the Carolingian rulers are buried.
Bertrade (779 – 826) was the seventh of Hildegard and Charlemagne’s children. She had a much longer relationship with an administrator in the court of Charlemagne named Angilbert. Together they had at least two sons, one of whom (named Nithard) became a notable Frankish historian in the ninth century. Bertrade’s relationship was fully recognized within the imperial court, but they never married. Angilbert served as a diplomat but also wrote poetry and served as a lay-abbot. Einhard and others found these non-marital relations discomforting and attempted to distance Charlemagne from them by claiming that he was unaware of their dalliances. Charlemagne himself had at least six extra-marital relationships that produced children—it would be wrong to say he was scandalized by his daughters’ relationships.
Piety and Bawdry
Charlemagne is known for his strong support of the Church and his eager involvement in many aspects (including sacral music and prayers). Yet, there was a dichotomy between his piety and his bawdy behavior and that of his children. To Charlemagne and his court, non-marital relationships were normal. Indeed, Charlemagne and his daughter’s lover Angilbert were both canonized. (Charlemagne’s sainthood was later revoked as an antipope had canonized him, but his beatification still stands.) Thus, what would have been scandalous in more recent times was more or less unexceptional in medieval Europe. Arguing that Charlemagne’s daughters were immoral ignores the historical context in which they lived. Their lives are examples of a bygone era in which the pious and the bawdy comfortably coexisted.
Sarah Jane Bodell