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When I told a fellow attendee of last weekend’s Historical Novel Society conference that I write novels set in eighth century Francia, he asked an interesting question: is the king Charlemagne or Karl der Grosse? In other words, does the monarch belong to France or Germany, both of which claim him?

My reply: he’s a Frank. And in the 770s, the time period for my novels, he’s merely King Charles.

Coin with Carlemagne

A coin with Charles’s image from late in his reign (from Wikimedia Commons, permission granted under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License)

At that time, his realm encompassed today’s France and a sizeable chunk of Germany. It also included Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, and Switzerland. To make assigning a modern-day country even more difficult, his court often moved to his villas and palaces throughout the land, including Quierzy, Worms, Herstal, and Nijmegen. His most famous residence was at Aachen, also called Aix-La-Chapelle, a villa expanded into a palace.

So, it would be disingenuous to assign Charles to a country that he would not have recognized.

Charles’s geography was different from ours. He would have seen his own country as Francia, and his neighbors were Brittany to the northwest, Saxony and Frisia to the northeast, Bavaria to the southeast, Avaria further east, Lombardy to the south, and Hispania to the southwest.

Need further proof that Charles saw himself as a Frank, pure and simple? You only need look at what biographer Einhard says about Charles’s choice of clothes: “He wore the national dress of the Franks.”