Charlemagne, or Charlemagne, ruled the vast Carolingian Empire that spanned Europe during the Middle Ages. He became king of the Franks in AD 768 and conquered much of Europe during his 46-year reign.
During his lifetime, he laid the foundations for the Holy Roman Empire, which would last nearly a millennium. He also established a new kind of royal leadership that would inspire generations of European kings.
“Charlemagne was a model for kings for centuries after his death, and his empire also formed the highest ideal of government until the nineteenth century,” Michael Frassetto (opens in new tab)an adjunct instructor of history at the University of Delaware, wrote in “Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe: society in transformation (opens in new tab)(ABC-CLIO, 2003).
Charlemagne advocated religious reform and maintained close ties with the popes in Rome. Charlemagne also facilitated the Carolingian Renaissance by investing in the establishment of monasteries and cathedrals and fueling a renaissance of learning. As a result, science and religion flourished both in his capital Aachen (in present-day Germany) and beyond. Today, Charlemagne is remembered as the “Father of Europe” because he united much of the continent under his rule.
In the late fourth and early fifth centuries, the Roman empireIts influence in Western Europe collapsed as Germanic tribes moved through Rome, eventually culminating in the fall of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476. From this power vacuum emerged a series of Frankish tribes who settled in Gaul (modern France). who consolidated their rule under a series of kings.
From these Frankish tribes emerged the Merovingian dynasty (mid 5th century – 751 AD). But by the seventh century, the Merovingian kings had little power. The Frankish territories were very rarely united under one ruler and internal fighting was rampant.
Instead, the mayors of the palace fulfilled a prime minister-type role and held the real power. Charles Martel, Charlemagne’s grandfather, held this office and came to politically dominate both the eastern and western sides of the kingdom, beginning the nascent Carolingian dynasty’s slow takeover of the Merovingians, early medieval historian said Jennifer R. Davis (opens in new tab)associate professor of history at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.
“It was Charlemagne’s father who finally deposed the Merovingian dynasty and made himself king in 751, and Carolingian historiography in particular devoted quite a bit of energy to belittling the Merovingians and justifying what was essentially a coup d’état”, Davis told Live Science.
Pepin the Short, Charlemagne’s father, claimed to have received papal approval for deposing the Merovingians, though only Frankish sources confirm this, Davis said. However, in 753 AD, both Frankish and Papal sources note that Pope Stephen II first traveled to the Frankish states and formed an alliance. The pope declared that Frankish kings should be chosen only from the Carolingian line, and in return the Franks would support the territorial interests of the papacy against pressure from the Lombards in Italy.
Who was Charlemagne?
Charlemagne was born around 742 AD as the son of Pepin the Short and Bertrada van Laon.
After the death of Charlemagne in 814 AD.Vita Karoli Magni (opens in new tab)‘, his biography of the king.
“Whatever his early education, it didn’t include much reading or writing. He never learned to write, so he could barely sign his documents — only with clumsy handwriting, but that wasn’t his strong point,” Albert Classen (opens in new tab)a professor of German studies at the University of Arizona, told Live Science.
Charlemagne inherited half of his father’s kingdom after Pepin the Short’s death in 768 AD, Einhard wrote. Charlemagne’s brother, Carloman, inherited the eastern half. The two Frankish kings had a difficult relationship.
“Many in Carloman’s party continued to try to disrupt their good relations, and some even plotted to draw them into war with each other,” Einhard wrote.
But in 771 AD, the premature death of Carloman saved the kingdom from civil war and gave Charlemagne suzerainty over all Frankish territories, wrote François L. Ganshof, a Belgian medieval historian, in “Charles the Great (opens in new tab)(Speculum, University of Chicago Press, 1949).
Expansion of the Frankish Empire
Almost immediately after his accession as King of the Franks, Charlemagne launched a campaign to secure his lands from neighboring forces who had continually attempted to infiltrate Frankish territory, according to Ganshof.
Charlemagne began a long and bloody war against the Saxons, another Germanic tribe who had harassed Charlemagne’s father. In 772 AD, Charlemagne’s troops marched into Saxony (present-day northern Germany), eventually establishing a permanent military presence in a fortified border region.
Charlemagne used this expansion as an opportunity to spread Christianity to a traditionally pagan part of Europe, Ganshof wrote. Charlemagne’s Christianization of the Saxons was a personal success for the emperor. During the decades-long war in Saxony, Charlemagne’s military expansion continued in other parts of Europe. In 774, his conquest of the Lombards in northern Italy resulted in his coronation there. In 788 he conquered Bavaria and, according to him, also included it in his kingdom Britain (opens in new tab).
To maintain order in such a vast area, Charlemagne created a sophisticated administrative organization. Charlemagne also used the structures within the church to maintain control.
“The bishops or priests or deacons weren’t necessarily interested in secular power,” Classen told Live Science. “But they were educated and they were then supported by Charlemagne, who then had first-class administrators all over his country.”
But Charlemagne did not hesitate to use force against rebellious subjects. In his war with Saxony he committed atrocities against those he sought to conquer, most notably in 782 at the Verden massacre where he is said to have ordered the killing of about 4,500 Saxons.
Charlemagne, on the other hand, allowed the population he conquered to function largely as before.
“He generally doesn’t go ahead and try to take land away from the entire existing aristocracy,” Davis told Live Science. “If you rebel, yes; but otherwise he kind of leaves people alone.”
Becoming Emperor of the Romans
Charlemagne’s relationship with the Church flourished during his lifetime. Charlemagne established monasteries and cathedrals throughout his dominions and, like his father before him, offered patronage to the pope in return for the pope’s continued patronage.
This symbiotic relationship led to Charlemagne being proclaimed Emperor of the Romans, making him the first person to hold this title since the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
The coronation is said to be the result of Charlemagne’s intervention to save Pope Leo III. In 799, the pope fled to Charlemagne’s court after being blinded in the street. Charlemagne arranged for the Pope’s safe return to Rome. In 800, Charlemagne traveled to Rome and organized for Pope Leo III to publicly take an oath to root out the charges of wrongdoing leveled against him by his opponents.
On Christmas Day 800 AD, Pope Leo III thanked Charlemagne by anointing him Emperor – an honor Charlemagne had probably been fishing for, Mario Costambeys (opens in new tab), a medieval historian at the University of Liverpool in England, told Live Science. “Hardly anyone believes what his biographer says, which is that when he goes to Rome and is crowned, it will be a complete surprise to him and he did not expect it,” he said. “There are many signs that this was, in fact, all set up a few years in advance.”
Charlemagne was crowned Emperor, but in the intervening centuries that title would become Leader of the Holy Roman Empire, which did not yet exist in Charlemagne’s time. Once crowned, Charlemagne became the first non-Roman emperor in Europe, appointed by the Pope and thus by God, helping to consolidate Charlemagne’s authority throughout his empire.
Charlemagne and the Carolingian Renaissance
Charlemagne’s reign ushered in the Carolingian Renaissance. Charlemagne founded religious schools all over Europe.
“He brought in the first great schoolmaster, Alcuin of York,” Classen said. “When that school had graduated a number of students, they became abbots. They founded their own monasteries, and each monastery had its own school. From those schools came new abbots for other churches. So it spread all over the country.”
Art, architecture and literature inspired by fourth-century Roman culture flourished throughout the Carolingian Empire, even though the emperor was illiterate, Classen said.
The Renaissance, or “correctio” as the Carolingians called it, also helped Charlemagne promote Christian science and culture. His investment in monastic schools and the production of manuscripts and documents allowed for wider access to biblical and liturgical knowledge, Costambeys said.
What is Charlemagne’s legacy?
Charlemagne died in AD 814 at the age of 72, leaving his throne to his son, Louis the Pious, who had acted as co-emperor when his father’s health declined in the later years of his life. After his death, Charlemagne was elevated to legendary status and mythologized as the perfect example of kingship, much like the mythical King Arthur in England.
The Frankish king also inspired future leaders, such as Napoleon Bonaparte, who saw the reign of Charlemagne as an ideal example of imperialism. Charlemagne “is becoming a model very quickly,” Costambeys said. “He is the point of reference for rulership in Europe, especially in Latin-Christian Europe, for more than a thousand years afterward,” Costambeys said.
The Holy Roman Empire, which grew out of Charlemagne’s Carolingian Empire, survived under a series of emperors until 1806, nearly a millennium after Charlemagne’s death.