Rebuilding Paderborn: Charlemagne’s Political Statement


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For Frankish King Charles (Charlemagne), building a palace at the Saxon settlement of Paderborn was a way to physically impose his will—a tangible symbol of his might. To make that symbol even more tangible, he held an assembly there in 777.

Perhaps that is why Paderborn made an attractive target. The Saxon peoples and Franks had a long history of fighting each other. Although the Saxons didn’t write down their side of the conflict, they likely saw Charles as an oppressor. In 778, with Charles occupied in Hispania (Spain), Saxons rose up against the Frankish king and burned down the palace. Charles rebuilt it and held another assembly there in 785. The Saxons again destroyed the palace in 794. Charles rebuilt it again.


Photo of 21st century Paderborn by Andreas Nowak (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Each time, it was an expensive endeavor for the materials, including imports befitting a palace, and craftsmen’s labor. The complex featured two large buildings: an audience hall and a church. About 34 feet wide and more than 100 feet long, the audience hall was a blend of Germanic and Roman architecture. It was made of mortared rubble and plastered and painted on the inside. And the church, when rebuilt in the 790s, was enlarged and include an outdoor platform for a throne.

Why make this investment—twice—in such hostile territory? Charles was proving was the ruler, and attempts to destroy his power were futile.

With that in mind, below is how I chose to portray how Fastrada, my heroine in Queen of the Darkest Hour, sees Paderborn as she arrives for the 785 assembly in Paderborn during the continuing wars with the Saxons.


Inside the bulwarks, her jaw dropped. The palace and church sat atop an incline, and their towers peeked from the walls surrounding them. But she was equally amazed by houses and huts in front of her.

“It looks like a Frankish city!” she said.

Charles grinned. “We were not going to let Widukind’s little fire defeat us.”

Fastrada reached for Charles’s hand. It had been seven years ago, when she had seen twelve winters, but she had not forgotten her father’s grim face when he recounted how Widukind’s Saxons had destroyed Paderborn while the Franks were doing God’s work in Hispania. Now that the city was rebuilt, what better way to show Charles’s power than to hold the assembly here?

Only the peasants who emerged from their homes were different. The men wore knee-length tunics and sheepskin cloaks similar to the Frankish style, but they had long hair and beards. The women favored sleeveless dresses held with brooches and covered their hair with voluminous veils. The expressions on their faces were mixed. Some people seemed curious; others were glowering.

The travelers rode toward the city’s center, passed through another gate, and entered a courtyard. Among the smaller structures and livestock pens stood the manor, a large, rectangular two-story stone building with square windows. The stone church about the same size was a few paces away. Fastrada straightened her shoulders. She was mistress of the palace and of these lands.

Inside the manor, the great hall would inspire awe in its guests. Bordered with delicate carvings near the ceiling, the plastered walls were painted with murals of saints and a Latin inscription in red letters. The columns were topped with thin pieces of marble forming geometric designs. Lamps overhead and a huge hearth would give the vast room its light after the sun set. Now, the windows were open for the summer air, and the hall was sweetened with the smell of fresh rushes on the floor. Opposite the entrance, Charles’s throne, made even higher with five steps, sat on a dais, and Fastrada’s ornately carved chair was beside it.

“This is what we need at Aachen and Ingelheim,” Charles whispered.

Nonfiction Sources

The Origins of Medieval Architecture: Building in Europe, A.D. 600-900, by Charles B. McClendon

Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers


No One Would Believe an Oath Stops Murderers


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The ninth century monk Notker the Stammerer has an interesting take on the discovery of the plot to overthrow Charlemagne in 794:

This son of Charles had been plotting the death of the emperor with a gathering of nobles, in the church of Saint Peter; and when their debate was over, fearful of every shadow, he ordered search to be made, to see whether anyone was hidden in the corners or under the altar. And behold they found, as they feared, a clerk hidden under the altar. They seized him and made him swear that he would not reveal their conspiracy. To save his life, he dared not refuse to take the oath which they dictated: but, when they were gone, he held his wicked oath of small account and at once hurried to the palace. (From The Monk of Saint Gall: The Life of Charlemagne, Internet Medieval Sourcebook, Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies)

So, let me get this straight, a group of men bent on treason and murder would release someone who overheard their plot merely because he promised not to tell? While a medieval audience might believe the conspirators would not wish to desecrate the church (and anger God) by spilling blood within it, I think even they would have a hard time believing the would-be killers would simply walk away from the clerk under those circumstances.

Medieval people believed oaths, especially those sworn on a saint’s relic, were sacred, and breaking them could bring divine retribution. But they had seen people break those oaths and shift loyalties. Even the conspirators would know oaths made under duress were invalid.

This is another reason Notker strikes me as the kind of guy who doesn’t let the facts get in the way of his story.

In the real history, Fardulf, a Lombard deacon and scholar, revealed the plot against Charles by his eldest son. Exactly how he discovered that plot is a mystery in the reliable sources, so I borrowed a tiny bit from Notker’s account for a scene in Queen of the Darkest Hour. Just enough to be believable.


Notker depicted in an 11th century manuscript (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s Not Me; It’s My Characters: Disabilities


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One of the toughest things for me as a 21st century novelist is when my medieval heroine believes something I find repugnant.

In Queen of the Darkest Hour, it was unavoidable. If we are to believe Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard, the monarch’s eldest son, Pepin, was hunchbacked. Medieval folk believed their rulers must be physically perfect, and a deformity or disability was a curse from God, angry about a parent’s sin. One early medieval mother wanted to sell her misshapen child into slavery to forget her sin of conceiving the baby on a Sunday.

If my villains were the only people to hold such prejudices, writing would be so much easier. Heck, I want readers to have someone to route against as much as I need a character for them to cheer on.

But my heroine, Queen Fastrada, is a medieval woman. Among the tidbits we know about the real woman, she was pious. The 787 entry in the Royal Frankish Annals has her and Charles praising God for His mercy when they are reunited in Worms after his journey to Italy. A 791 letter from Charles to her asks her to ensure that three days of litanies are carried out at home as they were in a settlement at the River Enns. The Franks literally want God on their side as they are about to go to war with the Avars.

In my novel, I took liberties with the truth; this is a work of fiction after all. But Fastrada was a real person, and I feel a responsibility to stick to what’s known about her where I can. So this medieval heroine has the biases and beliefs that come with her time. She perceives Pepin’s condition as a divine sign.

Pepin himself is a product of those times too. In my version of events—we don’t have anything to reveal the real Pepin’s thoughts—he believes his deformity is God’s retribution for a parent’s sin and resents it. And that anger drives him to plot against the person he holds responsible.

Hunchback of Notre Dame

MGM studio publicity still from the 1923 film Hunchback of Notre Dame (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Was Pepin the Hunchback Really Hunchbacked?


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In Queen of the Darkest Hour, I needed to make a choice: should Charlemagne’s eldest son, Pepin, have a deformed spine?

Pepin has been called Pepin the Hunchbacked through history—I did not make that up. We can credit (or blame) the monarch’s posthumous biographer Einhard, who described Pepin that way. He and Notker—a guy who embellished stories and made stuff up decades after the emperor’s death—are the only contemporary sources to do so.

Medieval writers did not stick only to known facts. Einhard already called Pepin’s mother a concubine rather than a wife. (Readers of this blog will remember why I think Himiltrude was indeed married to Charles.) Could Pepin’s physical imperfection be an invention to further delegitimize him? Such an imperfection would be a sign of God’s displeasure and make Pepin, who later rebelled against his father, unfit to rule.

Unless Pepin’s skeleton is found somewhere, the answer remains a mystery. As a novelist, I had to do what I always do: decide what works best for my story. Sort of. Pepin had stooped shoulders in my first two books, long before I knew I would make him a major character. In my version of events, he was stuck with the affliction.

His having a deformed spine worked to my advantage, after all. If the real Pepin was misshapen, we don’t know what he thought or felt. That is where the novelist steps in. It is possible he, like most medieval people, believed that his condition was God’s curse for a parent’s sin. And that provides the necessary resentment for him to plot against his father.

Construction of Aachen Palace

That guy on the ladder is supposed to be Pepin (15th century manuscript by Jean Fouquet, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Princess and Emperor’s Breakup


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One untrue tidbit from research for Queen of the Darkest Hour: Frankish Queen Fastrada was so envious that her stepdaughter would become Byzantine empress she thwarted the girl’s marriage plans in 788.

The betrothal between Charlemagne’s eldest daughter, Hruodtrude, and Emperor Constantine was indeed thwarted, but there is no evidence that Fastrada was behind it, let alone motivated by envy. The reason for the breakup is the same as the betrothal: politics.

Let’s go back seven years to 781, when Hruodtrude was 6 and Constantine was 11, with his widowed mother, Irene, serving as regent. The couple’s parents agreed their children should wed—traditional marriage for medieval royals. The hope was to secure an alliance between the two most powerful realms in Christendom.

Coin with Constantine and Irene

Constantine and his mom, Irene (photo by PHGCOM, CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons)

For the time being, Hruodtrude would stay in her parents’ household. Irene sent a tutor to Charles’s court to teach the girl Greek and familiarize her with Byzantine customs. Perhaps the agreement was that Hruodtrude would move to Constantinople when she was a marriageable age, about 12 or 13.

All was not well at the time of the betrothal. In her court, Irene harbored one of Charles’s enemies: his ex-brother-in-law Adalgis. The son of the Lombard king Charles had deposed, Adalgis had escaped to Constantinople during Frankish-Lombard war in 773-74.

When Constantine turned 16, Irene did not give up her power. And then there was Irene’s habit of calling councils His Holiness did not approve. A believer in the power of prayer to win wars, Charles would not want to risk offending God.

The situation worsened in 788, when Adalgis tried to claim the Lombard throne, impossible without Irene sheltering him. Shortly after the Franks defeated him, the betrothal between Hruodtrude and Constantine was broken.

Both Charles and Irene take credit for the breakup. Constantine was upset to lose the Frankish princess, according to both Frankish and Byzantine sources. History is silent on Hruodtrude’s sentiments.

Himiltrude: Charlemagne’s First Ex-Wife


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Who was Himiltrude?

Was she Charlemagne’s first wife, whom he divorced to marry a Lombard princess? Or was the mother of Charles’s eldest son, Pepin, merely a concubine?

Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard calls her a concubine, and some scholars agree with him. But as you can see from the title of this post, I think she was a wife. Here is what Pope Stephen said in an angry letter to both Charles and his younger brother, Carloman, fearing one of the Frankish kings would wed the daughter of his political enemy, the king of the Lombards: “Moreover, most gentle and most gracious God-instituted kings, you are already, by His will and decision and by your father’s order, joined in lawful marriage, having accepted as most illustrious and noble kings wives of great beauty from the same land as yourselves.” (Charlemagne: Translated Sources by P.D. King.)

No one disputes Carloman was married. When he died in 771, his widow, Gerberga, fought for their sons’ rights. While Stephen’s successor, Hadrian, refused to anoint Carloman’s son, he didn’t argue they were bastards. He would have had an easier time if he could.

It makes no sense that Charles and Carloman’s father, Pepin, would arrange for only his younger son’s marriage when he planned to split the kingdom between his heirs, following Frankish tradition. A matter of political alliances, marriage was much too important to be left to young men. When Pepin died in 768, Charles was 20, and Carloman was 17.


Might Himiltrude have seen herself as an empress? (From Costume of All Nations, 1882)

Little is known about Himiltrude other than she was a Frankish noblewoman and Pepin’s mother. Her skeleton might have been found at the double monastery of Nivelles, which was connected to the royal family.

We don’t who was abbess at Nivelles at the time, so this allows a novelist some creative speculation. Might appointing Himiltrude to rule an abbey, and control its property and other assets, have been something of a divorce settlement to keep peace with her family?

Still, medieval women often did not go away quietly. Gerberga crossed the Alps and sought help from the ruthless Lombard king, the father of Charles’s second ex-wife.

As for Himiltrude, it is possible she bided her time and waited to see if Charles would treat her son right.

Might she have become bitter as she watched another woman’s sons be named heirs to the kingdom? Might she have plotted against her ex-husband to place her own son on the throne and become queen mother, the most powerful woman in Francia? At least one scholar has speculated as much, based on the little evidence that is available, and for me, that was good enough to incorporate into Queen of the Darkest Hour.

Did Charlemagne Worry about Too Many Heirs?


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When Fastrada married Charlemagne, she did not need to bear a son to ensure her place as queen. Her predecessor Hildegard had already provided Charles with three boys, and she and Charles likely made plans on how to divide kingdom among her sons, with Pepin (Himiltrude’s child) receiving a prize archbishopric.

Had Fastrada born a son, he too would have expected a kingdom, at the expense of his brothers. How Fastrada and her family felt about her children remains a mystery, and it provides fodder for a novelist. In Queen of the Darkest Hour, Fastrada and her father want a boy while Charles has a different desire.

For more about why Charles might have prayed for a girl, see my post on Susan Keogh’s blog.

Charlemagne's family tree

Charlemagne’s family tree from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514) (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Portable Reliquaries: Many Saints in One Small Space


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In Queen of the Darkest Hour, I have a newly baptized Christian swearing an oath on saints’ relics. A lot of saints’ relics. It is possible, if the holy objects are tiny enough for a portable reliquary.

Medieval portable reliquaries were the size and shape of a purse. It is possible a pilgrim could visit multiple sites, collect miniscule, ordinary looking objects, and house them inside the portable reliquary before it was gilded with metal and decorated.

Portable reliquaries allowed pilgrims to be in the presence of a saint even when they had returned home. They were also handy in politics, when someone promised to be a vassal to his lord.

In Queen, this new Christian was an important person—it would be a spoiler for me to identify him—and he was provided with two reliquaries for his vow to King Charles, my heroine’s husband: “By the bone fragments of the holy martyrs Ewald the Fair and Ewald the Black, the hairs of the holy martyr Ursula, the oil of the lamps burning above the tomb of the holy martyr Boniface, the stone chip from the tomb of Saint Lioba, the dust from Saint Willibald’s and Saint Walburga’s graves, and a splinter from the True Cross, I make this oath and will keep it all my days, so help me God, creator of the heavens and earth.”

For more about portable reliquaries, see my post on English Historical Fiction Authors.

Portable Reliquaries

In the front left, a 9th century gold-gilt wooden reliquary with a 12th century enameled cross (photo by Kleon3, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons)

Two Queens. Two Epitaphs. Lots of Speculations.


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Comparing and contrasting the epitaphs for Hildegard and Fastrada, Charlemagne’s third and fourth wives, can lead some misreading between the lines.

When they died—Hildegard in 783 and Fastrada in 794—Charles treated them the same. He had them interred with honors within a church, the most desirable of hallowed ground. He donated land to the Church and paid for Masses on behalf of their souls, and he commissioned epitaphs. Paul the Deacon is loquacious in his praise for Hildegard. What Theodulf wrote for Fastrada is shorter:

“Here lie the glorious remains of Queen Fastrada, whom cold death snatched away in the bloom of life. Noble by birth, she was united in marriage to her mighty husband, and nobler still, she is now united to the King of Heaven. The better part of her soul, King Charles himself, she left behind, to whom a merciful God may grant long life.”

Theodulf was famous for a lengthy poem lauding the royal family, so scholars have speculated on whether the epitaph’s brevity means something.

Was Fastrada so awful that Theodulf had a hard time finding something nice to say about her and was being tactful? If Theodulf had also written Hildegard’s epitaph, I would give credence to that.

Queen chess piece

A 19th century queen chess piece inspired by Charlemagne (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Instead, I’ll provide a little speculation of my own. It is possible Paul’s grief drove him to write verse upon verse while Theodulf’s impaired him. Having supervised an obit desk, I can attest that grief affects everyone differently. Theodulf’s later poem praising Charles’s family was crafted under different circumstances. We don’t know how long it took the poet to compose or how many revisions he made.

Theodulf’s attitude toward women comes into play as well. He did write “A Woman’s Wiles,” urging men not to be manipulated by their wives. But when he refers to the king as “the better part of her soul,” he likely is referring to Fastrada and Charles’s close relationship—the original meaning of “better half.”

Perhaps, we are complicating something simple. Theodulf might have been acknowledging the grief of a bereaved husband while trying to comfort him. He says Fastrada is “united with the King of Heaven” yet left her husband all too soon.

Who Was the Real Queen Fastrada?


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Was Queen Fastrada, Charlemagne’s fourth wife, truly cruel or was she the victim of a backlash against strong-willed, influential women—a backlash we’ve seen in the 20th and 21st centuries with Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton? That question launched me into writing Queen of the Darkest Hour and making Fastrada my heroine.

I first heard of Fastrada while researching my debut novel, The Cross and the Dragon. Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard attributes attempted coups to “the cruelty of Queen Fastrada.” What did this woman do? I thought.

Einhard never elaborates, and since Hildegard was Charles’s queen at the time of my first two books, The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, I set the question aside, figuring that whatever it was, Fastrada must have been a bad person. That is, until I encountered Fastrada again in the Royal Frankish Annals, when she and Charles were overjoyed to see each other upon his return to Worms from Rome.

Maybe there was more to this story. Like how Thuringians might have resented Charles making peace with a Saxon leader who had wreaked havoc on them. Or an eldest son destined for the Church when he really wanted to be a future king like his brothers.

The royal family in Pippin the Musical, with Barry Williams (Pippin), I.M. Hogson (Charlemagne), Louisa Flaningam (Fastrada), and Adam Grammis (Lewis) (public domain via Wikimedia Commons).

What’s known about Fastrada: She married King Charles in October 783, a few months after the deaths of Queen Hildegard and Queen Mother Bertrada. She was joining a family with seven children and possibly an eighth on the way. She was from East Francia, an area where Charles needed an alliance during his ongoing wars with the Saxon peoples, but we don’t know where exactly in East Francia. We don’t know when she was born or what she looked like.

Documentary evidence indicates she and Charles loved each other and that she was influential—only people with power or influence attract enemies. Fastrada died in 794, possibly before her 30th birthday. The cause of her death is not disclosed. There is a clue of a chronic illness in a 791 letter, in which Charles asked her to write to him more often, specifically about her health.

She and Charles’s marriage produced two daughters, both of whom became abbesses. Unlike Hildegard, Fastrada was not the mother of future kings, and the lack of sons might have contributed to the posthumous trashing of her reputation.

Allegations of her cruelty come years after the deaths of Fastrada and Charles. In addition to Einhard, the anonymous writer of the Revised Royal Frankish Annals cited her bad behavior as the reason eldest son Pepin conspired to overthrow his father. Like Einhard, the Reviser doesn’t specify the alleged atrocities, and he implies skepticism about the rebels’ motives.

Cruelty, by medieval standards, was persecuting one’s own people—massacring the enemy was something to brag about. In the primary sources, the closest we come is blinding Thuringian rebels. But in the medieval mind, that brutality is justice for people who deserved death. Nor was this punishment unique to the Franks. The Romans and the Byzantines used this technique on political enemies.

A novelist can make any decision in portraying Fastrada, including a harpy. However, I believe she made a scapegoat to explain the plots against her husband. I chose to make her a true medieval woman with the beliefs and biases that come with her time, yet a sympathetic teenager who wants to be a good wife to her much older husband, a good mother to his children, and a good advocate for her people in East Francia.