- Charlemagne’s Early Years
- Charlemagne Expands His Kingdom
- Charlemagne’s Family
- Charlemagne as Emperor
- Charlemagne’s Death and Succession
Charlemagne was born around 742, the son of Bertrada of Laon (d.783) and Pepin the Short (d.768), who became king of the Franks in 751. Charlemagne’s exact birthplace is unknown, although historians have suggested Liege in present-day Belgium and Aachen in modern-day Germany as possible locations. Similarly, little is known about the future ruler’s childhood and education, although as an adult, he displayed a talent for languages and could speak Latin and understand Greek, among other languages. After Pepin’s death in 768, the Frankish kingdom was divided between Charlemagne and his younger brother Carloman (751-771). The brothers had a strained relationship; however, with Carloman’s death in 771, Charlemagne became the sole ruler of the Franconians.
Once in power, Charlemagne sought to unite all the Germanic peoples into one kingdom, and convert his subjects to Christianity. In order to carry out this mission, he spent the majority of his reign engaged in military campaigns. Soon after becoming king, he conquered the Lombards (in present-day northern Italy), the Avars (in modern-day Austria and Hungary) and Bavaria, among others. Charlemagne waged a bloody, three-decades-long series of battles against the Saxons, a Germanic tribe of pagan worshippers, and earned a reputation for ruthlessness. In 782 at the Massacre of Verden, Charlemagne reportedly ordered the slaughter of some 4,500 Saxons. He eventually forced the Saxons to convert to Christianity, and declared that anyone who didn’t get baptized or follow other Christian traditions be put to death.
In his personal life, Charlemagne had multiple wives and mistresses and perhaps as many as 18 children. He was reportedly a devoted father, who encouraged his children’s education. He allegedly loved his daughters so much that he prohibited them from marrying while he was alive. Einhard (c. 775-840), a Frankish scholar and contemporary of Charlemagne, wrote a biography of the emperor after his death. In the work, titled “Vita Karoli Magni (Life of Charles the Great),” he described Charlemagne as “broad and strong in the form of his body and exceptionally tall without, however, exceeding an appropriate measure…His appearance was impressive whether he was sitting or standing despite having a neck that was fat and too short, and a large belly.”
In his role as a zealous defender of Christianity, Charlemagne gave money and land to the Christian church and protected the popes. As a way to acknowledge Charlemagne’s power and reinforce his relationship with the church, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor of the Romans on December 25, 800, at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. As emperor, Charlemagne proved to be a talented diplomat and able administrator of the vast area he controlled. He promoted education and encouraged the Carolingian Renaissance, a period of renewed emphasis on scholarship and culture. He instituted economic and religious reforms, and was a driving force behind the Carolingian miniscule, a standardized form of writing that later became a basis for modern European printed alphabets. Charlemagne ruled from a number of cities and palaces, but spent significant time in Aachen. His palace there included a school, for which he recruited the best teachers in the land. In addition to learning, Charlemagne was inter...
According to Einhard, Charlemagne was in good health until the final four years of his life, when he often suffered from fevers and acquired a limp. However, as the biographer notes, “Even at this time…he followed his own counsel rather than the advice of the doctors, whom he very nearly hated, because they advised him to give up roasted meat, which he loved, and to restrict himself to boiled meat instead.” In 813, Charlemagne crowned his son Louis the Pious (778-840), king of Aquitaine, as co-emperor. Louis became sole emperor when Charlemagne died in January 814, ending his reign of more than four decades. At the time of his death, his empire encompassed much of Western Europe. Charlemagne was buried at the cathedral in Aachen. In the ensuing decades, his empire was divided up among his heirs, and by the late 800s, it had dissolved. Nevertheless, Charlemagne became a legendary figure endowed with mythical qualities. In 1165, under Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (1122-1190), Charlema...
Charlemagne, king of the Franks (768–814), king of the Lombards (774–814), and first emperor (800–814) of what was later called the Holy Roman Empire. His feats as a ruler, both real and imagined, served as a standard to which many European rulers looked for guidance in defining and discharging their royal functions.
Charlemagne was the eldest son of Pepin the Short and Bertrada of Laon, born before their canonical marriage. He became king of the Franks in 768 following his father's death, initially as co-ruler with his brother Carloman I, until the latter's death in 771.
Apr 01, 2014 · Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great, was the founder of the Carolingian Empire, best known for uniting Western Europe for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire.
- Early Life & Rise to Power
- Military Campaigns & Expansion
- Saxon Wars
- Holy Roman Emperor
- Ecclesiastical & Educational Reforms
Charlemagne was born, probably at Aachen (in modern-day Germany) during the final years of the Merovingian Dynasty, which had ruled the region since c. 450. The Merovingian monarch had been steadily losing power and influence for years while the supposedly subordinate royal position of Mayor of the Palace(equivalent to a Prime Minister) had grown more powerful. By the time of King Childeric III (r. 743-751), the monarch had virtually no power and all administrative policies were being decided by Pepin the Short, Mayor of the Palace. Pepin understood that he could not simply usurp the throne and expect to be recognized as a legitimate king and so he appealed to the papacy, asking, “Is it right that a powerless ruler should continue to bear the title of King?” (Hollister, 108). The papacy at this time was dealing with a number of problems ranging from the hostile Lombards in Northern Italy to the iconoclasm controversy with the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Emperorhad recently conde...
As sole ruler of the Franks, Charlemagne ruled from the start by force of his personality which embodied the warrior-king ethos combined with Christian vision. Hollister describes the king: After building up his army, he launched his first campaign into Saxony in 772, beginning a long and bloody conflict known as the SaxonWars (772-804) in an effort to root out Norse paganism in the region and establish his authority there. Leaving troops in Saxony, he turned to Italy where the Lombards were asserting themselves again. He conquered the Lombards in 774 and brought their lands into his kingdom, thereafter calling himself “King of the Franks and Lombards”, and then turned back to Saxony. Basque unrest in the Pyrenes drew Charlemagne and his army in that direction for a number of engagements including the famous Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778 (the inspiration for the later epic poem The Song of Roland) in which Charlemagne's rearguard was ambushed and massacred, including the count Rol...
Each time Charlemagne thought he had subdued the Saxons and put their struggle to rest, they rebelled again. Prior to the Saxon Wars, the region of Saxony had been on good terms with Francia and regularly interacted with them, serving as a tradeconduit to Scandinavian countries. In 772, a Saxon party was said to have raided and burned a church in Deventer (in the modern-day Netherlands, then part of Charlemagne's kingdom) and this gave Charlemagne his excuse to invade the region. Why the Saxons would have burned the Deventer church, and even whether they really did, is unknown. Knowing Charlemagne's intolerance for pagan beliefs and practices, it is likely he was behind the church's destruction to justify an invasion he would have undertaken anyway. In retribution for the burned church, Charlemagne marched on Westphalia and destroyed the Irminsul, the sacred tree representing Yggdrasil (the Tree of Life in Norse mythology), and slaughtered a number of Saxons on his first campaign. H...
Throughout the Saxon Wars and his other campaigns, Charlemagne was acting entirely on his own initiative and paying very little attention to the papacy. None of the popes were complaining, however, because Charlemagne's various enterprises coincided with their own interests or benefited them directly. It was clear by 800, however, that Charlemagne's power exceeded that of the papacy and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Charlemagne allegedly did not want to be crowned by Leo and reportedly said he would never have entered the church if he had known it would happen. However that may be, it is well-established that the crown was clearly visible in the church when Charlemagne entered and the man was certainly intelligent enough to realize it had not been left there accidentally. Most likely, Charlemagne welcomed the prestige of the title but was not about to allow the papacy an upper hand to wield their Donation of Constantine pseudo-leverage over him.
There seems little doubt that the coronation was an attempt by the papacy at establishing some measure of control over Charlemagne. Hollister notes how “the popes believed that the emperors ought to be papal stewards – wielding their secular political authority in the interests of the Roman Church” (112). Even so, there was no practical need to do this as Charlemagne had been consistently combining his own interests with those of the Church since he came to power. Aside from his regular military victories, Charlemagne had also engaged in ecclesiastical and educational reform, improving the function of churches, monasteries, and educational institutions throughout his kingdom – now his empire. Technological advances during the Merovingian Dynasty and the reign of Pepin the Short had already provided a foundation for greater prosperity. Agricultural advances - such as crop rotation between three fields, the invention and use of the compound plow which replaced the earlier scratch plow...
Charlemagne ruled his empire for 14 years until his death from natural causes in 814. Loyn notes how his “force and dynamic personality were needed to create the empire and, without him, disintegrating elements quickly gained the ascendancy” (79). He had already crowned Louis the Pious as successor in 813 but he could do nothing to ensure his legacy would endure after he died. Cantor comments: The initial troubles for the empire, however, were due not to any backsliding or disintegrating elements but to Charlemagne's own choices regarding Saxony decades earlier. The Saxon Wars destroyed the region, killed thousands of people, and did little else except enrage the Scandinavian kings who bided their time until Charlemagne's death and then unleashed the Viking raids on Francia. During Louis' reign, between 820 and 840, the Vikingsstruck repeatedly at Francia. Louis did his best to fend off these attacks but found it easier to appease the Norse through land grants and negotiations. Alth...
- Joshua J. Mark
- HIS FATHER WASN'T BORN A KING. Charlemagne's father, Pepin III—often called Pepin the Short—was mayor of the palace (administrator of the royal court) before he was named the first King of the Franks.
- HIS BROTHER DIED SOON AFTER BECOMING CO-KING. After Pepin III died, Charlemagne shared power with his younger brother Carloman, with the two acting as joint kings.
- HE IS CONSIDERED THE FATHER OF EUROPE. As the King of the Franks, Charlemagne set out on an ambitious and bloody campaign to expand his territory. By the time of his death in 814, this kingdom included the majority of what is now considered Western, and some of Central, Europe.
- BEING CROWNED EMPEROR MAY HAVE BEEN A SURPRISE. Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor at Christmas mass in 800. Charlemagne had arrived in Rome a few weeks earlier at the request of the pope, but by many accounts, including that of his court scholar Einhard, he was not expecting his new role, and only realized what was happening when the pope put the imperial crown upon his head.
- Source Material
- Saxon War
- Extent of Charlemagne’s Conquests
- Public Works
- Private Life
- Personal Appearance
[Einhard outlines Charlemagne’s conquests of Aquitaine and the Lombards and his reconquest and return of lands seized from the papacy. The numbered sections below correspond to selected sections in Einhard’s life of Charlemagne.]
Now Charlemagne restarted his war against the Saxons. The Franks never fought another war with such persistence, bitterness or effort, because the Saxons, like almost all the German tribes, were a fierce people who worshipped devils and were hostile to our religion. They did not consider it dishonorable to violate any law, human or divine. Every day there had been fighting. Except where forests or mountain ridges formed clear boundaries, the whole boundary between us and the Saxons ran through open country, so that there was no end to the murders, thefts and arsons on both sides. The Franks therefore became so embittered that they at last resolved to make reprisals no longer, but to come to open war with the Saxons . The war lasted thirty-three years with great fury, and the Saxons came off worse than the Franks. It would have ended sooner, had it not been for the duplicity of the Saxons. They were conquered repeatedly and humbly submitted to the King, promising to do follow his com...
These were the wars so skillfully planned and successfully fought that this most powerful king fought during his forty-seven-year reign. He increased the Frank kingdom so much — though it was already great and strong when he received it at his father — that more than double its former territory was added to it. ...
King Charlemagne, as I have showed, greatly extended his empire and powerfully subdued foreign nations, and was constantly occupied with such plans. But he also started also many public works to adorn and benefit his kingdom, and brought several of them to completion. The greatest were the Church of the Holy Mother of God at Aix-la-Chapelle, a most impressive building, and a bridge over the Rhine at Mayence, though this bridge was destroyed by fire the year before Charles died, and since he died so soon afterwards, it could not be repaired, although he had intended to rebuild it in stone. He began two beautiful palaces at Ingelheim and Nimeguen. But he cared above all for sacred buildings throughout his kingdom. Whenever he found them falling into disrepair, he commanded the priests and monks in charge to repair them. He also fitted out a naval fleet to protect Gaul and Germany from the Vikings, and Italy from the Moors.
After his father’s death, Charlemagne shared the kingdom with his brother, bearing his unfriendly jealousy patiently, and, to the amazement of everyone, never got angry with him. He married the daughter of Desiderius, King of the Lombards, at the insistence of his mother, but he divorced her after a year for unknown reasons, and married Hildegard, a Swabian noble. He had three sons by her, Charles, Pepin and Louis, and three daughters, Hruodrud, Bertha, and Gisela. He had three other daughters too, two by his third wife, Fastrada, a German woman and the third by a concubine, whose name for the moment escapes me. At the death of Fastrada , he married Liutgard, an Alemannic woman, who bore him no children. After her death he had three concubines who each bore him sons. ...
Charlemagne was large and strong, and tall. His height was seven times the length of his foot. The upper part of his head was round, his eyes very large and animated, nose a little long, hair fair, and face laughing and merry. Thus his appearance was always stately and dignified, whether he was standing or sitting. Admittedly, his neck was thick and somewhat short, and his belly rather prominent; but the symmetry of the rest of his body concealed these defects. His walk was firm, his whole carriage manly, and his voice clear, but surprisingly thin. His health was excellent, except for the four years before he died, when he frequently suffered from fevers, and limped a little. Even then he followed his own inclinations rather than the advice of doctors. They were almost hateful to him, because they wanted him stuck to boiled meat instead of roasts.
He always kept to the Frank national dress. This was a linen shirt and pants as underwear, covered with a silk-fringed tunic, and trousers tied with bands, shoes on his feet, and in winter an otter skin coat over his shoulders. Over all he flung a blue cloak, and he always wore a sword, usually one with a gold or silver hilt and belt — sometimes jeweled, but only on great feast days or when entertaining foreign ambassadors.
Charlemagne was moderate in eating, and particularly so in drinking, because he hated drunkenness in anybody, even more so in himself and his household. But he could not abstain from food for long, and often complained that fasts injured his health. He very rarely held banquets, except on great feast-days, but when he did, he invited large numbers of people. His meals usually consisted of four courses — not counting the roast, which his huntsmen would bring in on the spit. He loved this better than of any other dish. At meal times, he listened to reading or music. The readings were stories of the old days, and he was also very keen on St. Augustine’s writings, especially The City of God. He was so moderate in drinking wine that he rarely allowed himself more than three cups in the course of a meal. In summer after lunch, he would eat some fruit, drink a single cup, undress, and rest for two or three hours. He would wake and get up from bed four or five times during the night. While...
Charlemagne was fluent in speech, and could express whatever he had to say with the utmost clarity. He was not satisfied with speaking his native language, but learned foreign ones. He was a master of Latin, but he could understand Greek better than he could speak it. He might have passed for a teacher of eloquence. He was keen on the arts, and held teachers in great esteem, conferring great honors on them. Peter of Pisa, the elderly deacon taught him grammar. Alcuin, an Anglo-Saxon from Britain and the greatest scholar of his day, taught him other subjects. The King spent much time with him studying rhetoric, dialectics, and especially astronomy. He investigated the motions of the stars most carefully. He also tried learning to write, and used to keep tablets and notebooks in bed under his pillow, so that at leisure hours he could practice making the letters. But, though he tried hard, he was starting late in life, and had little success.
Charlemagne was fervently devoted to Christian principles, which had been instilled into him from infancy. He built the beautiful church at Aix-la-Chapelle, which he adorned with gold and silver and lamps, and with rails and doors of solid brass. He had the columns and marbles brought from Rome and Ravenna, as he could not find suitable ones anywhere else. He worshipped there constantly as long as his health permitted, going morning and evening, even at night, besides attending mass. He made sure that all services there conducted properly in every way, and often warned the sextons not to let anything improper to be brought into the building. He provided many sacred vessels of gold and silver, and so many clerical robes that not even the lowliest doorkeepers had to wear their everyday clothes. He took great pains to improve reading and singing there, for he was well skilled in both although he never read in public, or sang except quietly along with the congregation.
Charlemagne was born in the late 740s near Liège in modern day Belgium, the son of the Frankish king Pepin the Short. When Pepin died in 768, his kingdom was divided between his two sons and for ...
- Charles The Man
- Charles The Associate King
- Charles The Conqueror
- Charles The Administrator
- Charles The Patron of Learning
- Charles The Emperor
- The Legacy of Charles The Great
We know a fair amount about Charlemagne from a biography by Einhard, a scholar at court and an admiring friend. Although there are no contemporary portraits, Einhard's description of the Frankish leader gives us a picture of a large, robust, well-spoken, and charismatic individual. Einhard maintains that Charlemagne was exceedingly fond of all his family, friendly to "foreigners," lively, athletic (even playful at times), and strong-willed. Of course, this view must be tempered with established facts and the realization that Einhard held the king he had so loyally served in high esteem, but it still serves as an excellent starting point for understanding the man who became the legend. Charlemagne was married five times and had numerous concubines and children. He kept his large family around him nearly always, occasionally bringing his sons at least along with him on campaigns. He respected the Catholic Church enough to heap wealth upon it (an act of political advantage as much as s...
As per the tradition of inheritance known as gavelkind, Charlemagne's father, Pepin III, divided up his kingdom equally between his two legitimate sons. He gave Charlemagne the outlying areas of Frankland, bestowing the more secure and settled interior upon his younger son, Carloman. The elder brother proved to be up to the task of dealing with the rebellious provinces, but Carloman was no military leader. In 769 they joined forces to deal with a rebellion in Aquitaine: Carloman did virtually nothing, and Charlemagne subdued the rebellion most effectively without his help. This caused considerable friction between the brothers which their mother, Berthrada, smoothed over until Carloman's death in 771.
Like his father and his grandfatherbefore him, Charlemagne broadened and consolidated the Frankish nation through force of arms. His conflicts with Lombardy, Bavaria, and the Saxons not only expanded his national holdings but also served to strengthen the Frankish military and keep the aggressive warrior class occupied. Moreover, his numerous and impressive victories, especially his crushing of tribal rebellions in Saxony, gained Charlemagne the enormous respect of his nobility as well as the awe and even the fear of his people. Few would defy such a fierce and powerful military leader.
Having acquired more territory than any other European monarch of his time, Charlemagne was forced to create new positions and adapt old offices to suit new necessities. He delegated authority over provinces to worthy Frankish nobles. At the same time, he also understood that the various people he had brought together in one nation were still members of distinct ethnic groups, and he allowed each group to retain its own laws in local areas. To ensure justice, he saw to it that each group's laws were set down in writing and carefully enforced. He also issued capitularies,decrees that applied to everyone in the realm, regardless of ethnicity. While he enjoyed life at his royal court in Aachen, he kept an eye on his delegates with envoys called missi dominici, whose job it was to inspect the provinces and report back to the court. The missiwere very visible representatives of the king and acted with his authority. The basic framework of Carolingian government, though by no means rigid...
Charlemagne was not a man of letters, but he understood the value of education and saw that it was in serious decline. So he gathered together at his court some of the finest minds of his day, most notably Alcuin, Paul the Deacon, and Einhard. He sponsored monasteries where ancient books were preserved and copied. He reformed the palace school and saw to it that monastic schools were set up throughout the realm. The idea of learning was given a time and a place to flourish. This "Carolingian Renaissance" was an isolated phenomenon. Learning did not catch fire throughout Europe. Only in the royal court, monasteries, and schools was there any real focus on education. Yet because of Charlemagne's interest in preserving and reviving knowledge, a wealth of ancient manuscripts was copied for future generations. Just as important, a tradition of learning was established in European monastic communities that Alcuin and St. Boniface before him had sought to realize, overcoming the threat of...
Although Charlemagne had by the end of the eighth century certainly built an empire, he did not hold the title of Emperor. There was already an emperor in Byzantium, one who was considered to hold the title in the same tradition as the Roman Emperor Constantine and whose name was Constantine VI. While Charlemagne was no doubt conscious of his own achievements in terms of acquired territory and a strengthening of his realm, it is doubtful he ever sought to compete with the Byzantines or even saw any need to claim an illustrious appellation beyond "King of the Franks." So when Pope Leo III called on him for assistance when faced with charges of simony, perjury, and adultery, Charlemagne acted with careful deliberation. Ordinarily, only the Roman Emperor was qualified to pass judgment on a pope, but recently Constantine VI had been killed, and the woman responsible for his death, his mother, now sat on the throne. Whether it was because she was a murderess or, more likely, because she...
While Charlemagne attempted to rekindle an interest in learning and unite disparate groups in one nation, he never addressed the technological and economic difficulties that Europe faced now that Rome no longer provided bureaucratic homogeneity. Roads and bridges fell into decay, trade with the wealthy East was fractured, and manufacturing was by necessity a localized craft instead of a widespread, profitable industry. But these are only failures if Charlemagne's goal was to rebuild the Roman Empire. That such was his motive is doubtful at best. Charlemagne was a Frankish warrior king with the background and traditions of the Germanic peoples. By his own standards and those of his time, he succeeded remarkably well. Unfortunately, it is one of these traditions that led to the true collapse of the Carolingian empire: gavelkind. Charlemagne treated the empire as his own personal property to disperse as he saw fit, and so he divided his realm equally among his sons. This man of vision...
1 Royal descendants of Charlemagne (742-814) 1.1 Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom 1.1.1 From Charlemagne to William the Conqueror 1.1.2 From William the Conqueror to Elizabeth II 22.214.171.124 The most royal line, not the shortest 126.96.36.199 Shorter line of descent 1.2 Willem-Alexander, King of the Netherlands 1.2.1 From Charlemagne to William the Conqueror 1.2.2 From William the Conqueror to ...