Charlemagne --  Charles the Prince (1995) (mini)



Director:  Clive Donner

Starring:  Christian Brendel (Charlemagne), Anny Duperey (Reine Berthe), Lino Capolicchio (Léon), André Oumansky (King Pippin), Gilles Gaston-Dreyfus (Eginhard), Xavier Deluc (Roland), Paolo Bonacelli (Vitale), Vanni Corbellini (Ganelon), Pierre Anais (Turpin), Arno Chevrier (Roger), Valentine Varela (Luitpergue), François D'Aubigny (Gilbert), Nils Tavernier (Carloman), Anne De Broca (Gerberge), Dominic Gould.

This is an historical drama in five volumes dealing with the life of King Charles the Great (Charlemagne) of France:  Volume 1 - "Charles the Prince," Vol. 2 - "King of the Franks," Vol. 3 - "To Build an Empire," Vol. 4 - "Faith and Betrayal" Vol. 5 - "Emperor Charlemagne."



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

768 A.D.  Frank Kingdom.  Pepin the Short rules.  It is said that the eldest son Charles will never rule because he is too frivolous.  Queen Berthe wants to make Charles grow up and stop playing games like a boy. 

The king dies.  Charles arrives late and can only kiss the corpse.  He learns that his father has given him the coast of the later France to rule, while his brother Carloman rules the interior, which is a much larger area.  Geographically Charles's kingdom is completely cut off from Rome.  The two brothers do not get along.  Carloman asks nastily "Who invited your whore"?  Charles has a humped-back son named Pepin from this woman. 

The Duke of Aquitaine refuses to swear allegiance to Charles.  The man believes that Charles is just some silly boy.  He believes he and his supporters can kill off one of the brothers and then the other.  But Charles launches a surprise attack on the castle of the Duke of Aquitaine.  Charles invades the Duke's quarters and kills the upstart.  

Lombardy threatens the Pope's territory to see if Charles will protect Rome.  Queen Mother Berthe tells Charles that his brother holds a stronger position than he because Carloman married well and gained more land and resources.  She urges Charles to get a real marriage.  She tells him to marry their enemy's daughter to give them a chance to control those "damn" Lombards. 

Tassilon, the Duke of Bavaria, wants to move against the pope without Charles squashing him and Bavaria.  He believes that Charles is a stupid man.  Charles's first wife is sent to a convent and she cannot take her son Pepin with her.  Pepin is hidden away because Charles believes that his son could be used against him.  The mother tells Charles that she hates him and that Pepin will also hate him. 

Charles's bride-to-be, who is only 16 years old, arrives at the castle.  Charles sees her for the first time and very much likes what he sees. 

Rome.  There is a group in the Pope's inner circle that are very much opposed to the "barbarian" Charles.  They believe Charles's recent marriage is dangerous for their own political ambitions.  One of the plotters is Cardinal Vitale.  Vitale travels to see Charles to give him the message that the Pope reprimands him for choosing his wife from among the Lombards.  But the real message is that Lombardy will attack and Charles is the only hope for saving Rome. 

Charles goes to war with Lombardy knowing that it will cost him his marriage.  He sends for a messenger to tell his brother that Charles will be marching through his kingdom.  But his friend Ganelon tells the king that Carloman died last night of food poisoning and adds "God has cleared the way for you."  The Kingdom of the Franks is now united.  Charles distributes territories to those who he can trust.  His close friend Roland is made the Count of Brittany.  Charles tells Ganelon to come with him to Pavia for he will be the man who tastes the king's food.  Charles's second wife has her hair cut and is placed in a convent.  The marriage is over. 

Charles lays siege to the Lombards.  But as he waits his men start dying of disease.  He is so concerned that he goes to the the Pope.  He asks him:  "Is God with us?"  Charles is the first "barbarian" to come in peace to Rome.  He and the Pope pray to God to end the plague.  The plague subsides in Charles's camp, but starts to flourish among the Lombards.  The situation for the Lombards becomes so bad that they have to throw themselves on the mercy of their enemy.  Charles says that the leadership of the Lombards will be spared for the sake of his former wife.

The plotters against Charles in Rome, under the direction of a nephew of the Pope named Pascalis, decide that Charles's main weakness is his love of women.  Pascalis speaks with beautiful Empress Irène of Byzantium to get her to use her sexual charms to weaken Charles. 

Charles places the Lombard crown on his head to emphasize the unity of the two kingdoms.  Roland buys Charles a congratulatory horse.  But a young woman named Hidegarde claims that the horse is hers and steals it.  Charles chases  and catches her.  She is so charming that he sells the horse to her for a kiss.  He later marries this woman. 

Pascalis has a plan.  He will lure Charles into Spain where he can be assassinated.  The Queen Mother tells her son not to even go near Spain, but Charles says he will go to Saragossa to claim the crown.  His mother responds by saying that crowns are not given away, they are fought for.  With a small force, Charles heads into Spain.  He passes into the land of the Basques.  Their leader, Lord Ortes, says that Charles may pass through peacefully as long as he agrees to cause no harm to the land and people of the Basques.  He also warns Charles of the dangers ahead of him for the Christians do not hold the balance of power in Saragossa. 

Charles receives a message from the leaders in Saragossa, namely the heads of Charles's Christian hosts.  The message is that Charles should leave now.  But Charles is not a man easily discouraged.  He decides to take Saragossa.  But later he decides it is wiser to return home.  Unbeknownst to Charles, Roland burns down the city of Pamplona, enraging the Basques.  Lord Ortes takes Ganelon as prisoner and forces him to tell him who burned the city of Pamplona.  Ortes spares Charles, but his men massacre Roland and all his men. Ganelon is freed, but too ashamed to return to Charles.    

A religious man named Alcuin of York finds Charles to give him some advice.  He tells the king that ignorance causes defeats and that he himself must learn and must promote education in his kingdom.  Charles is so impressed by the man that he makes him an unofficial adviser.  Charles watches his daughter Gertrude as she does her work in a classroom. 

Empress Irène of Byzantium is now a widow.  She invites Charles to visit with her with promises of enormous pleasure.  His wife tells him to divorce her and marry Empress Irène, but Charles refuses saying "I want to be emperor of the West, not the East."  He is going to go to Rome with his two sons to be crowned kings.  Evan is crowned King of Italy and Louis is crowned king of Aquitaine. 

Charles has a great deal of trouble with the Saxons under leader Widukind, who says that the Franks murdered his wife and children.  Charles decides to find the god of the Saxons in order to destroy it.  The plan is then to convert Widukind and the Saxons to Christianity.  Charles and his forces travel to Fulda near the Saxon border.  There they find the local Abbott nailed to the cross.  The Queen traveled with Charles.  She gives birth, but dies. 

Charles learns that the Duke of Bavaria has warned Widukind and now their enemy is behind them.  He further learns that Widukind and his forces are gathered at their Holy Tree.  Charles finds Widukind.  He tells the leader "I come as a Christian."  Widukind suddenly disappears.  Charles then tells the Saxons that everyone who accepts the new faith will be spared.  He then has the Holy Tree cut down. 

Ganelon goes to see the Duke of Bavaria.  He tells the Duke that the hump-back Pepin is now old enough to rule in place of his father Charles. 

The Saxons killed all the people at Fulda.  Charles hunts the culprits down and captures them.  All the prisoners are then killed.  Widukind comes to Charles saying that all his men are dead.  He asks Charles about prayer.  He wants to know what it means.  Charles talks with the Saxon leader.  Widukind then asks Charles to make him believe in his God.  Peace with the Saxon and their conversion to Christianity leads to a period of stability.  Charles marries again. 

Charles marches on Bavaria to confront the Duke, who paid for Saxon raids on the Franks.  He silences the Duke with the penalty of death. 

While Charles is gone, the new Queen befriends a young man with a humped back being teased by three boys.  Later she learns that his father is her husband, the Frank King.  But when the Queen Mother sees Pepin she tells him to get away and stay away from the throne. 

Charles spares the life of the Duke of Bavaria.  He is put in a monastery.  Charles starts to build a great canal to connect the Rhine River to the Danube River in order to unite his entire kingdom.  But the work goes very badly as the rains keep destroying any progress made.

Ganelon takes over and makes Pepin a Prince.  He tells the Queen that Pepin will be king and she tells Ganelon that he must be mad for Charles will surely kill him. 

Alcuin of York visits Charles.  He is worried that Charles is ignoring his kingly duties to pursue the foolish dream of his grand canal.  He tells Charles that another king now sits on his throne.  He is also told of the work of Ganelon, who Charles thought had died in Spain.  Charles heads for home. 

Charles arrives and starts to kill Pepin, but is stopped by Alcuin of York.  The real king then calls Ganelon a Judas.  Pepin is sent to a monastery. 

Ganelon visits Charles for the last time.  He tells the king that he put Pepin on the throne to force Charles not only to come home, but also to insure that he could come home.  Charles forgives his friend. 

Alcuin of York tells Charles to give up on the canal.  Instead he should build roads throughout his kingdom to unify it.  Good news arrives.  The last tribe of the Saxons will now accept baptism.  More good news:  "Spain is now yours." 

The Pope learns of Charles's great victories and asks him to come to Rome as his true son in Christ.  The plotters against Charles are upset by the news.  They arrange for a Byzantine fleet to sail to Rome to stop Charles.  Alcuin of York heads back to England to stay.  Before Charles can reach Rome, Pope Hadrian dies.  The new Pope will be Leo III. 

The badly beaten Leo is brought in secret to Charles.  After becoming Pope, the enemies of Charles attacked him and beat him badly.  The enemies now think that the Pope is probably dead.  While the Pope is with Charles, the plotters trump up a lot of accusations about Leo.  They accuse him of blasphemy, sale of privileges and corruption of youths. 

Leo recovers from the beating.  Now he and Charles travel to Rome.  They set themselves up in a monastery near Rome.  Here they learn that the plotters have put the Pope on trial and that the plan is for the Byzantines to take over control of Rome.  Leo tells Charles that he does not want war and he does not want any trial.  But Charles starts his men preparing for a trail  He asks his scribe to seek legal precedents they can use against the claims of the plotters.  The scribe finds one precedent:  the Holy See cannot be judge by anyone.  He then continues to look for other precedents.  A really strong precedent is found:  the Oath of Innocence.  If the Pope takes before God an Oath of Innocence then he is innocent. 

Charles has another trick up his sleeve.  He has the scribe forge a document in the hand-writing style of plotter Pascalis.  At trial Charles reveals to those in the courtroom that the Byzantine fleet is not coming.  It has turned around and headed for home.  Pascalis demands to know by whose order.  Charles tells him "By your order Pascalis."  Charles then presents the forged document asking the Byzantines to return home.  There is a loud outcry against Pascalis.  Then Charles has the Pope take the Oath of Innocence.  The plotters are vanquished.  Now Charles asks for a new trail, this time of all of the Pope's false accusers.  The plotters are arrested, as Cardinal Vitale slips out of the courtroom.  Charles is greatly pleased for now there will be a Holy Roman Empire.  The Pope crowns Charles emperor of a Christian empire. 


The mini-series is around 4 hours and 30 minutes long.  And at many spots the action dragged.  But it does cover a lot of ground in the life of the very important Charlemagne.  And I liked Christian Brendel as the King of the Franks.  But I don't think we learn much about the inner workings of the man who became emperor of a Holy Roman Empire.  I am not, however, going to complain that much about a very needed film about a very important personage. 

Patrick L. Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


750 end of Merovingian line: Childeric III deposed, Pepin the Short chosen king (-768)

754 Pope Stephen III journeys to Pepin to ask for protection from the Lombards: Pepin helps with a large army and helps in creating the Papal states

756 Pepin reduces Lombardy to vassal state

759 the Franks get Narbonne back from the Arabs

765 Frankish royal court at Aix-la-Chapelle

768 Pepin the Short dead; his kingdom is ruled by his two sons Charles (Charlemagne) and Carloman (-771)

771 Charles becomes, after the death of his brother Carloman, sole ruler (-814)

Charlemagne (reign 771-814) was not a king of France; he was ruler of the Frankish lands whose center was in Germany and in Gaul. His vision was to hold together and protect all western Christendom now that the successor the of the Roman Emperors held court in Byzantium, far away in the east.

772 Charlemagne subdues Saxony under Widuking and converts it to Christianity (-804)

773 he annexes Lombard kingdom (-774)

774 Charlemagne confirms Pepin's donation of territory to the pope, and enlarges it in 781

777 he, after his victory over the Saxons, holds his first Diet

778 Charlemagne defeated by the Basques at Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees

782 he executes 4,500 Saxon hostages at Verden

787 he annexes Lombard duchy of Beneventum

788 he deposes Tassilo of Bavaria & annexes his country

795 Charlemagne forms the Spanish march (i.e., name of a formed political area)

796 after his victory over the Avars, Charlemagne's son Pepin founds the Avar march with an archbishopric at Salzburg

800 Charlemagne crowned first Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III at Rome

804 Charlemagne's last war against Saxons; his domain extends now to the Elbe

807 war between the Franks and the Eastern Empire

813 Charlemagne crowns his son Louis the Pious at the diet of Aix-la-Chapelle

814 Charlemagne dead: succeeded by his son, Louis the Pious (-840)


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