, , , , , , , ,

Lombard King Desiderius was in a good position in the spring of 771. Two daughters were married to dukes, and another had recently wed Charles, a king of Francia. Plus, two troublesome papal ministers were permanently out of the way.

A few months later, it would all start to fall apart with the death of Charles’s brother. And just three years after that, Desiderius would lose his kingdom in northern Italy and be imprisoned in a monastery. His son and heir, Adalgis, was in exile.

Alda, the Frankish teenage heroine of my novel The Cross and the Dragon, sees Desiderius as a madman who refused a bribe of gold in exchange for returning conquered lands. But the Lombard king’s story is much more complicated, a tale of power, intrigue, family honor, and revenge.

Intervening in Papal Succession

To understand Desiderius’s story, it helps to go back to 767, when Pope Paul I is dying. At this time, Desiderius had been king for 11 years, having seized power in a coup with Paul’s brother and predecessor as an ally. The alliance lasted only a few months, and the relationship between Rome and Pavia was uneasy because of a territorial dispute.

When Paul’s death was imminent in June 767, four aristocratic brothers from Roman Tuscany seized control of Rome, and one of them, Constantine, was elevated to the papacy, even though he was a layman (never mind canon law).

Papal minister Christopher and his son, Sergius, opposed this move but were forced to take refuge in the basilica of Saint Peter. They were allowed to leave when they asked to retire to a monastery, a common repository for political opponents. Instead of traveling to the monastery, they visited the duke of Spoleto and asked him to take them to his king, Desiderius. After hearing their case, Desiderius lent his support in the form of Spoletan soldiers and Waldipert, a Lombard priest.

The forces retook Rome and arrested Constantine. But Desiderius was not above installing a pope of his own liking. Waldipert and some Romans grabbed Philip, the chaplain at the monastery of Saint Vitas, and acclaimed him pope, with the intent of making him a figurehead. On Christopher’s bidding, Philip was quickly sent home and a cleric named Stephen was elevated to pope.

Eighth-century justice was brutal, even in Rome. Accused of plotting to kill Christopher and hand Rome over to the Lombards, Waldipert was blinded, and his tongue was cut out, the same fate as Constantine and some of his followers. Waldipert died of his injuries.

Desiderius at Court illustration

Desiderius holding court in what is believed to be an illustration to Alessandro Manzoni’s Adelchi, a 19th century tragedy (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons).


Desiderius probably wanted revenge, but he had to wait a few years. In the meantime, there was an opportunity to build an alliance with a Frankish king. King Pepin, who also had the title of patrician of Rome, died in September 768, and his sons, Charles and Carloman, succeeded him.

No one knows whose idea it was for Charles to marry one of Desiderius’s daughters, but it had the full support of Queen Mother Bertrada, even though Charles was already married. The Church saw itself as the protector of marriage, but it was not a sacrament in those days. (Desiderius also wanted Charles’s sister to marry Lombard Prince Adalgis, but that idea was nixed on the Frankish side.)

In 770, the pope was upset when he heard rumors of the Lombard-Frankish marriage, and a strongly worded letter that bears his name opposes the idea. Bertrada went on a mission to ensure peace between her sons, the duke of Bavaria who was also the kings’ first cousin and Desiderius’s son-in-law, the pope, and the Lombard king. She returned to Francia with the Lombard princess.

For Desiderius, Bertrada’s diplomacy had the added benefit of distancing the anti-Lombard Christopher from the pope. Around Easter 771, Pope Stephen sent a message that “the most abominable Christopher and his most wicked son, Sergius,” schemed with one of Carloman’s men to kill him. The intervention of “our most excellent son, King Desiderius,” saved the day. But the pope was also distressed to report that Christopher and Sergius were blinded. Because of the handiwork of Desiderius’s ally Paul Afiarta, Christopher died of his wounds while his son was imprisoned.


King Carloman’s death at age 20 in December 771 changed Desiderius’s fate. Charles seized his brother’s lands, even though Carloman had two young sons. To solidify his place as king of all Francia, he repudiated the Lombard princess and married a young woman from the Agilolfing clan, an important family in Carloman’s former kingdom.

The divorce was an insult to Desiderius, and he must have seen an opportunity for revenge when Carloman’s widow, Gerberga, fled to his court with the boys.

But he had another problem to deal with. Pope Stephen died February 3, 772. While Stephen was sick, Paul Afiarta exiled or imprisoned enemies and for good measure, had the blinded Sergius strangled, but his efforts to succeed Stephen failed. Deacon Hadrian, Afiarta’s enemy, was made pope, freed prisoners and exiles, and ordered an investigation of Afiarta, who was later executed. Hadrian was no friend of Desiderius.

Two months into Hadrian’s papacy, Desiderius risked Frankish intervention and invaded papal territories, trying to pressure Hadrian to anoint Carloman’s sons as kings, one way to avenge the insult to his daughter. The pope refused. Even as Desiderius was conquering papal cities, Hadrian was reluctant to ask for Charles’s aid, wanting to preserve Italy’s independence.

The pope’s threat of anathema kept the Lombards away for a while, but the pressure got to be too much. Hadrian asked for Charles’s intervention. In 773, Charles, who had just fought his first war with the Saxons, tried diplomacy and offered gold in exchange for the conquered territory.

Desiderius Lombard camp illustration

Desiderius’s camp

Desiderius refused, which at first seems baffling because he did not want a war with the Franks. His predecessor was forced to make territorial concessions when a Frankish king invaded Italy 17 years ago. Perhaps, Desiderius thought the pope would demand an invasion anyway. In that case, holding onto the territory would weaken his opponent.

Desiderius might also have thought that he would lose lands but not his whole kingdom. Charles’s father, Pepin, had been content with a treaty. Once the Franks’ backs were turned, Desiderius might have reasoned, he could reconquer lost territory, just as he did a few months into his reign. For details about Charles’s first war in Lombardy, see my earlier post about Charles’s family feud and the fate of the Church.

In the end, things for Desiderius turned out far worse than he might have imagined. Perhaps Charles thought that if he didn’t remove Desiderius from the throne, he would continue to threaten Rome and distract the pope from praying for Francia, an important duty in age that believed in divine intervention.

To Charles, the prayers worked. After months of holding siege with Desiderius in Pavia, Charles went to Rome for Easter in early April 774. The Lombard city finally fell that June.


“Pavia and Rome: The Lombard Monarchy and the Papacy in the Eighth Century,” an excellent scholarly article by Jan T. Hallenbeck, published in 1982 by Transactions of the American Philosophical Society.

Charlemagne: Translated Sources, P.D. King

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

This post was first published on Jan. 7, 2013 on author Tinney Heath’s blog Historical Fiction Research.