Siege of Pavia (773 – 774)
Upon their joint accession to the throne of the Franks in 768, brothers Charlemagne and Carloman found themselves in a tense situation. The brothers, the papal curia, and the Lombard king, Desiderius, were all embroiled in bitter antagonism. The imbroglio of insults began in 771, when Charlemagne had his marriage to Desiderata, a daughter of Desiderius, annulled and his erstwhile wife returned to her father. Naturally, the Lombards perceived this as a grave insult. When Carloman died under suspicious circumstances in 771, his wife Gerberge fled the kingdom with her children for reasons now unknown. She sought refuge with Desiderius at Pavia, giving him the perfect opportunity to return the insult to the Franks by protesting that her children ought to be given their fair share of the Kingdom of the Franks.
Pope Hadrian wasted no time in taking advantage of this total breakdown of the relationship between Frank and Lombard. In 772, he expelled all the Lombard officials from the papal curia. When Desiderius responded by invading papal territory, Hadrian called upon Charlemagne for help. After digging out the facts of Desiderius’ aggressions and deliberating the threat to his own empire, Charlemagne marched his troops toward Italy in 773.
Charlemagne chose to divide his army into two halves, giving command of one half to his uncle Bernard, son of Charles Martel, to lead through the Great St. Bernard pass. At the same time, he led his half of the army through the pass at Dora Susa. Although they had enough men to completely surround the city of Pavia, the Franks had neglected to bring siege engines. Despite this lapse, the Lombards were no better off: they had not stocked the city thoroughly enough with food, and the surrounding countryside was now controlled by the Franks. Charlemagne began subduing the entire region in the early months of 774, but was not greeted by any attempts at relief from other Lombard dukes or counts. Neither did Desiderius make any strong counterattack. Rather, when famine hit in the tenth month of the siege, Desiderius realized that he was on his own and opened the gates of the city to Charlemagne in surrender.
After this battle, Charlemagne had himself declared king of the Franks and the Lombards. Never before in the history of the Germanic kingdoms had a ruler taken the title of a conquered people before; this was Charlemagne’s first step towards forging a true empire. His close alliance with the papal curia and recognition of its temporal authority laid the groundwork for the enormous Papal power of the Middle Ages.