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HISTORY AND POLITICAL STATE
IN THE NINTH CENTURY,
THE AGE OF KING ALFRED THE GREAT.
Although the period of general European history, from which it is proposed to offer some illustrations of the times of Alfred the Great, belongs, strictly speaking, to the latter half of the ninth century, it is from its earliest days that the point of departure will be most advantageously taken in an attempt to trace the series of changes which the states of Europe underwent in the course of the century, and to arrive at a satisfactory apprehension of the principles which were developing themselves in its political system.
The year 800 was rendered a memorable epoch by the investiture of the king of the Franks and Lombards with the ensigns of imperial dignity, at the hands of the pope, and amidst the acclamations of the Roman people; and if there be truth in the metaphor which represents the reign of Charlemagne as a bridge between two wild and gloomy regions,-the zone of barbarism on one side, and of feudalism on the other, that event may be considered as the key-stone in the mighty fabric which his genius had reared or restored out of the ruins of the Western Empire. His reign, prolonged for fourteen years, was yet too short to admit of the empire's attaining, under the circumstances of the times, the coherence and stability indispensable to the maintenance of its integrity when his sceptre fell to feebler hands. 33
As in other instances of brilliant but transitory supremacy, both in ancient and modern times, its dissolution was as rapid as the conquests on which it was based.
Perhaps no period of European history, on a cursory view, presents a field more barren of interest than the age which succeeded the reign of Charlemagne. None can well oppose greater difficulties to an attempt to draw out from the tangled web of contemporary annals a thread of narrative which may serve for a guide through the confused labyrinth of events, and for a clue to the discovery of the conflicting elements which were indistinctly working out a new order of things in the political state of Europe. The mind recoils from contemplating the condition of anarchy and wretchedness into which society was again plunged; and neither the long series of intestine wars originating in the contests of the descendants of Charlemagne for fragments of his vast empire, nor their feeble struggles against the aggressions of the barbarous hordes which, when his powerful arm was withdrawn, renewed their assaults on all the frontiers,-alike inglorious,shed any lustre on the annals of the age. Nor is it an easy task to trace on a chart of reduced compass the variable outlines of kingdoms created, severed, reunited or absorbed, and the vicissitudes of the empire, at times restored to almost its original integrity, till it was at length finally resolved into its constituent segments.
Some idea may be formed of the intricacy in which the details of this period of history are involved, from the fact that nearly forty of the immediate descendants of Charlemagne, Frankish emperors and kings, attained imperial or royal dignity, in the fluctuations of the times, within a century after his death; besides many other powerful chiefs, who in the final dismemberment of the empire carved out for themselves independent states, and sought to legitimatize their assumption of power by claims of descent from the great Emperor, in whose blood the Franks recognised the right of sovereignty, as in the heroic times of Greece all the great families traced their lineage from one com
But however intricate and uninviting the path which lies before us may, on a hasty glance, appear to be, if it is pursued with
diligence, it will open views circumscribed by no narrow and clouded horizon. Light breaks through the surrounding gloom. Amidst the general confusion which prevailed during the greater part of the ninth century,-international wars and barbarian invasions, the rivalry of imperfectly amalgamated races, with various elements of power struggling for supremacy, and none sufficiently preponderating to acquire the mastery,—amidst all these disorders, and springing out of these conflicts, may be discovered the germs of political systems destined to have an enduring influence in the frame of the European common-wealth. The foundations were being laid for the ascendancy of that territorial aristocracy which in the next century, under the organization of the feudal system, gave to Europe at least the benefits of external security with internal order and subordination. And from the dismemberment of the empire of Charlemagne sprung those national monarchies which, for a long period overshadowed by the power of the nobles,—at length rose to supremacy, and subsisted until lately, under forms more or less constitutional, in the greater part of the European kingdoms. The history of the ninth century therefore requires a careful examination, if we wish to form precise ideas of the political state of Europe in the middle ages, and of the origin of those forms of government and territorial arrangements which have come down to our own times.
Nor can it be uninteresting, in such a work as this, to have that portion of European history, which comprises a period nearly contemporaneous with the life of Alfred the Great, sketched in lines parallel with his own; although there were but few occurrences, and no political relations, in that age, connecting the Anglo-Saxon kingdom with the states of the continent. Indeed for nearly six centuries after the severance of Britain from the Roman empire, its connection, both political and social, with the rest of Europe was very slight, except as respected ecclesiastical affairs, in which the missionary origin of the conversion of the Saxons linked it to the Holy See more intimately than any other national church. It was not till the Norman conquest, two centuries later, that those multiplied relations arose,—whether dynastic or territorial, of tenure, of institutions and of language, which, as it were, bridged over the channel and brought England again into the European system.
In the time of Alfred, the Frank kings were united by family compacts or engaged in mutual hostilities, to which the AngloSaxon monarch was equally alien. It might have been politic that both should have combined to form a powerful league against the northern invaders, the common enemy; but in those unsettled times each party was too much occupied with his own affairs to have any leisure either for forming or keeping up distant relations, and only strove with desultory efforts to repel the invaders from his own shores. On the whole, therefore, it is in the way of contrast, rather than of connexion, that the times of Alfred are to be viewed with reference to the other European kingdoms of that age.
The chronology of the century singularly facilitates a clear apprehension of its most important æras and events. It opens with the coronation of Charlemagne at Rome, the culminating point of his ambition, in the year 800; a most important epoch. Alfred was born towards the close of the first half of the century, just when the tripartite division of the empire had been consummated by the congress of Mersen in 847, a compact renewed in 849, the very year of Alfred's birth. That partition of the dominions of Charlemagne was a second memorable æra.
Alfred lived to see the close of the century, dying in 901, when the final dismemberment of the empire had been effected; Lewis third of that name and the last of the emperors of his blood, having been crowned in 900. Charles le Sot, the imbecile, retained but the shadow of power; for France, as well as nearly the whole of western Europe, was now parcelled out into a number of smaller kingdoms and independent dutchies and counties. Misrule and anarchy again prevailed. New swarms of barbarians of the race of the Huns, were ravaging the eastern frontier of Christendom; the Saracens had established themselves on the coasts of Italy and Provence; and the Normans were on the eve of wrenching from the feeble hands of Charles le Sot one of the finest provinces of France. The death of Alfred therefore nearly coincides with a third important epoch.
All interest in the political state of Europe during the ninth century centres in the Carlovingian empire, as it subsisted entire for nearly the first half of the century under Charlemagne and
his son Louis le Debonnair, and as it was apportioned and divided, during the second half, among their successors. The empire reunited nearly all the countries which had been subject to the rule of the Western Cæsars and had partaken of the Roman civilization. Viewed in its widest extent, as including the tributary nations beyond the proper frontier, the Elbe and the Baltic may be considered its extreme limits on the north; the Mediterranean, the Adriatic, or perhaps the Save, on the south; the Oder, the Carpathian mountains, the Danube or the Theiss on the east; and the ocean and narrow seas, from the gulf of Gascony to the mouth of the Elbe, on the west.
The first kingdoms founded by the Franks, after they crossed the Rhine, were those of Austrasia and Neustria, in Gaul, on the north of the Loire. Round these respective centres were grouped the kingdoms aud territories which were the fruits of their subsequent conquests. To Austrasia, having the Rhine and the Meuse for its northern and eastern boundaries, the Scheld on the west and the Vosges on the south, the victories of Pepin annexed the country between the Rhine, the Danube, and the Rhætian Alps, the antient Vindelicia; from which was formed the kingdom of Almaine or Bavaria. Those of Charlemagne northward on the Elbe added Saxony and Thuringia to the German branch of the empire.
In Gaul, the victorious arms of the Franks had gradually consolidated all the surrounding states with their original kingdom of Neustria. They became masters of the ancient Burgundian kingdom of the Goths between the Rhone and the Grecian Alps, from Provence on the shores of the Mediterranean to the Vosges where it met the Austrasian fontier, and to the sources of the Rhone; including, therefore, great part of modern Switzerland. The great province of Gothia or Septimania, afterwards called the Narbonnese, situated between the Rhone and the Garonne, with the dutchy of Gascony, extending from the Garonne to the Pyrenees, and bounded by the Atlantic on the west, completed the circuit of the south of Gaul. The central region, occupied by the Aquitani and lying between the two last named provinces and the circuitous course of the Loire, opposed the greatest resistance to the arms of the Franks. Their final subjugation was the first enterprise of Charlemagne's reign; and the kingdom of Aquitain,