Charlemagne was king of the Franks (768-814) and the founder of Holy Roman Emperor, of which he was the first emperor (800-814). He was the greatest of medieval kings who expanded the Frankish kingdom into a Frankish Empire that comprised much of Western and Central Europe. His grandfather was Charles Martel, the Mayor of the Palace that defeated the Muslim army, under Abdul Rahman Al-Ghafiqi, at the Battle of Tours in 732. Through his foreign conquests and internal reforms, Charlemagne helped define both Western Europe and the Middle Ages. He is numbered as Charles I in the regnal lists of France, Germany, and the Holy Roman Empire.

Charlemagne was born in 742, at a place unknown. He was tall, powerful, and tireless. He was described as being intelligent and stern. His tastes were simple and moderate. He liked hunting, riding, and swimming. He wore the Frankish dress: linen shirt and breeches, a silk-fringed tunic, hose wrapped with bands, and, in winter, a tight coat of otter or marten skins.

Antecedents

By the 6th century, the Franks were Christianized, and the Frankish kingdom, ruled by the Merovingians, had become the most powerful of the kingdoms which succeeded the Western Roman Empire. But following the Battle of Tertry, the Merovingians declined into a state of powerlessness, for which they have been dubbed do-nothing kings. Almost all government powers of any consequence were exercised by their chief officer, the mayor of the palace or major domus.

In 687, Pippin, the Middle, mayor of the palace of Austrasia, ended the strife between various kings and their mayors with his victory at Tertry and became the sole governor of the entire Frankish kingdom. Pippin the Middle was eventually succeeded by his illegitimate son Charles, later known as Charles Martel. After 737, Charles governed the Franks without a king on the throne but desisted from calling himself “king”. Charles was succeeded by his sons Carloman and Pippin the Short, the father of Charlemagne. To curb separatism in the periphery of the realm, the brothers placed on the throne Childeric III, who was to be the last Merovingian king.

When Carloman resigned his office, Pippin the Short remained the sole mayor and had Childeric III deposed with Pope Zachary’s approval. In 751, Pippin was elected and anointed King of the Franks and in 754, Pope Stephen II again anointed him and his young sons, now heirs to the great realm which already covered most of western and central Europe. Thus Merovingian dynasty was replaced by the Carolingian dynasty, named after Pippin’s father Charles Martel.

Charlemagne’s Reign

When Pippin the Short died in 768, Charlemagne and his brother Carloman inherited the throne. But in 771 Carloman died, and Charlemagne became sole ruler of the kingdom. At that time the Franks were falling back into barbarian ways, neglecting their education and religion. The Saxons of northern Europe were still pagans. In the south, the Roman Catholic church was asserting its power to recover land confiscated by the Lombard kingdom of Italy. Europe was in turmoil.

Charlemagne was determined to strengthen his realm and to bring order to Europe. In 772 he launched a 30-year campaign that conquered and Christianized the powerful pagan Saxons who were led by Widikind. He subdued the Avars, a huge Tatar tribe on the Danube. He compelled the rebellious Bavarian dukes to submit to him. When possible he preferred to settle matters peacefully, however. For example, Charlemagne offered to pay the Lombard king Desiderius for return of lands to the pope, but, when Desiderius refused, Charlemagne seized his kingdom in 773 to 774 and restored the Papal States.

In 778, Charlemagne went south on a military expedition. Crossing the Pyrenees, he besieged and took the town of Pamplona, then retreated northwards. An incident of some kind took place at a pass (traditionally identified as the pass of Roncesvalles), where either Basques or Gascons attack the rearguard of his army. Paradoxically, in the heroic fantasy of the Chanson de Roland, this minor failure becomes the most famous moment in the whole Charlemagne legend.

In Spain, the struggle against the Moors continued unabated throughout the latter half of his reign. His son Louis was in charge of the Spanish border. In 785, his men captured Gerona permanently and extended Frankish control into the Catalan littoral for the duration of Charlemagne’s reign (and much longer, it remained nominally Frankish until the Treaty of Corbeil in 1258). The Christians chiefs in the northeast of Spain were constantly revolting against the Muslim rule and they often turned to the Franks for help. The Frankish border was slowly extended until 795, when Gerona, Cardona, Ausona, and Urgel were united into the new Spanish March, within the old duchy of Septimania. The Franks continued to press forwards against the emir as they took Tarragona in 809 and Tortosa in 811. The last conquest brought them to the mouth of the Ebro and gave them raiding access to Valencia, prompting the Emir al-Hakam I to recognise their conquests in 812.

In 800 he sent his troops to Italy to help the new Pope Leon III who had been ousted through a conspiracy. When the Leon III was on the papal throne again, Charlemagne went to Rome to judge the conspirators. On Christmas Day in 800, while Charlemagne knelt in prayer in Saint Peter’s in Rome, Pope Leo III seized a golden crown from the altar and placed it on the bowed head of the king. The throng in the church shouted. Charlemagne is said to have been surprised by the coronation, declaring that he would not have come into the church had he known the pope’s plan. However, some historians say the pope would not have dared to act without Charlemagne’s knowledge.

While extending his territories, Charlemagne needs to improve the administration of the empire. Christian clerics (the only literate group in the barbarian north) are enlisted as his civil servants at Aachen, where the emperor also establishes a programme of education and cultural revival. Charlemagne never stopped studying. He brought an English monk, Alcuin, and other scholars to his court. He learned to read Latin and some Greek but apparently did not master writing. At meals, instead of having jesters perform, he listened to men reading from learned works.

Charlemagne tried to divide his territory equally between his sons. But the two eldest die, in 810 and 811, leaving only Louis, who succeeds as sole emperor in 814 upon Charlemagne’s death. His subsequent name, Louis the Pious, reveals a character different from his father’s; he is more interested in asserting authority through the medium of church and monastery than on the battlefield. Charlemagne’s great empire remains precariously intact for this one reign after his death. Its fragmentation begins when Louis dies, in 840. Louis’s three quarreling sons split the empire between them by the Partition of Verdun in 843.

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