Charlemagne and his army of iron, conquers Lombardy

January 19, 2012

The Monk of St. Gall, who wrote a most entertaining Life of Charles at the end of the ninth century, has left in his pages a vivid picture of what the armed might of Charlemagne meant in the imaginations of his contemporaries and immediate successors. The Monk says that he was told these things as a child, often unwilling to listen, by old Adalbert, who had himself served in the wars of Charles.

“Now it happened that some years before, one of the first [Frankish] nobles called Otker, had incurred the wrath of the most terrible Emperor and had fled for refuge to Desiderius [the king of the Lombards]. When the near approach of the dreaded Charles was known, these two went up to a very high tower, from which they could see any one approaching at a very great distance. When therefore the baggage-wagons appeared, which moved more swifty than those used by Darius or Julius, Desiderius said to Otker: “Is that Charles in that vast army?” And Otker answered: “Not yet.” Then, when he saw the vast force of the nations gathered together from all parts of his Empire, he said with confidence to Otker: “Surely Charles moves in pride among those forces.” But Otker answered: “Not yet, not yet.” Then Desiderius fell into great alarm and said: “What shall we do if a yet greater force comes with him” And Otker said: “You will see what he is like when he comes. What will happen to us I cannot say.” And, behold, while they were thus talking, there came in sight Charles’s personal attendants, who never rested from their labors; and Desiderius saw them and cried in amazement: “There is Charles.” And Otker answered: “Not yet, not yet.” Then they saw the bishops and the abbots and the clerks of his chapel with their attendants. When he saw them he hated the light and longed for death, and sobbed and stammered: “Let us go down to hide ourselves in the earth from the face of an enemy so terrible.” And Otker answered, trembling, for once, in happier days, he had had thorough and constant knowledge of the policy and preparations of the unconquerable Charles:

Charlemagne and his army, painted by Ary Scheffer

“When you see an iron harvest bristling in the fields; and the Po and the Ticino pouring against the walls of the city like the waves of the sea, gleaming black with glint of iron, then know that Charles is at hand.” Hardly were these words finished when there came from the west a black cloud which turned the bright day to horrid gloom. But as the Emperor drew nearer the gleam of the arms turned the darkness into day, a day darker than any night to that beleaguered garrison. Then could be seen the iron Charles, helmeted with an iron helmet, his hands clad in iron gauntlets, his iron breast and broad shoulders protected with an iron breast-plate; an iron spear was raised on high in his left hand; his right always rested on his unconquered iron falchion. The thighs, which with most men are uncovered, that they may the more easily ride on horseback, were in his case clad with plates of iron: I need make no special mention of his greaves, for the greaves of all the army were of iron. His shield was all of iron: his charger was iron-colored and iron-hearted. All who went before him, all who marched by his side, all who followed after him and the whole equipment of the army imitated him as closely as possible. The fields and open places were filled with iron; the rays of the sun were thrown back by the gleam of iron; a people harder than iron paid universal honor to the hardness of iron. The horror of the dungeon seemed less than the bright gleam of iron. “Oh the iron! Woe for the iron” was the confused cry that rose from the citizens. The strong walls shook at the sight of the iron; the resolution of young and old fell before the iron. Now when the truthful Otker saw in one swift glance all this which I, with stammering tongue and the voice of a child, have been clumsily explaining with rambling words, he said to Desiderius: “There is the Charles that you so much desired to see,” and when he had said this he fell to the ground half dead.”

With the fall of Pavia and the capture of Desiderius, his wife and daughter, Charles was master of Lombardy.


Douglas Woodruff, Charlemagne (New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc., 1935), pp. 36-39.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 144



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