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Charlemagne (Charles the Great, also known as Charles I, l. 742-814) was King of the Franks (r. 768-814), King of the Franks and Lombards (r. 774-814), and Holy Roman Emperor (r. He is among the best-known and most influential figures of the Early Middle Ages for his military successes which united most of Western Europe, his educational and ecclesiastical reforms, and his policies which laid the foundation for the development of later European nations.

He was the son of Pepin the Short, King of the Franks (r. 751-768, first king of the Carolingian Dynasty). Charlemagne ascended to the throne at his father's death, co-ruling with his brother Carloman I (r. 768-771) until the latter's death. As sole ruler afterwards, Charlemagne rapidly expanded his kingdom, styled himself the head of the Western Church - superseding the popes of the time in power - and personally led military campaigns to Christianize Europe and subdue unrest almost continuously for the 46 years of his reign.

His death in 814 of natural causes was considered a tragedy by his contemporaries, and he was mourned throughout Europe; more so after the Viking raids began shortly after he died. He is often referred to as the Father of Modern Europe.

Early Life & Rise to Power

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 Emperor had recently condemned any representation of Christ in churches as idolatry and ordered them removed. Further, he had tried to dictate this same policy to the pope and have it followed in Western Europe. As the scholar C. Warren Hollister phrases it, “the papacy had never been in such desperate need of a champion” when Pope Zachary (served 741-752) received Pepin's letter. He more or less instantly agreed with Pepin.

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Pepin was crowned King of the Franks in 751 and, in keeping with royal precedent, named his two sons as his successors. Among his earliest acts as king, Pepin defeated the Lombards and donated a significant amount of their land to the papacy (a grant known as the “Donation of Pepin”). The papacy, for their part, hoped to control Pepin and his successors and claimed authority over the Frankish crown by virtue of a document known as the Donation of Constantine, allegedly drawn up by the first Christian Roman emperor Constantine I himself, stating that a Christian monarch gave his rule up voluntarily to the papacy and the pope then graciously handed it back.

According to the document, the Church was actually the power behind every throne and could take that power as easily as it had been given. The document was a forgery - and there is no evidence that Constantine ever made any such statement in any way - but there was no way Pepin could have known that and, being illiterate, he had little choice but to believe whatever the clergy told him was on the paper they waved in front of his face. Pepin accepted the stipulation of the Donation of Constantine; his son would not.

Charlemagne ruled from the start by force of his personality which embodied the warrior-king ethos combined with Christian vision.

Pepin died in 768 and his sons ascended to the throne. Co-rule with Carloman was far from harmonious as Charlemagne favored direct action in dealing with difficulties while his brother seems to have been less decisive. The first test of their rule was the rebellion of the province of Aquitaine, which Pepin had subdued, in 769. Charlemagne favored a military campaign, which Carloman did not support.

Charlemagne marched on Aquitaine and defeated the rebels, also subduing neighboring Gascony, while Carloman refused to participate in any of it. In 770, Charlemagne married and then repudiated a Lombard princess, daughter of the king Desiderius (r. 756-774) to marry the teenage Hildegard (future mother of Louis the Pious, r. 814-840). Following overtures by Desiderius to Carloman to topple Charlemagne and avenge his daughter's honor, the two brothers were on a direct course to civil war when Carloman died in 771.

Military Campaigns & Expansion

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:

Charlemagne towered over his contemporaries both figuratively and literally. He was 6 ft. 3 ½ in. tall, thick-necked, and pot bellied yet imposing in appearance for all that. He could be warm and talkative, but he could also be hard, cruel, and violent, and his subjects came to regard him with both admiration and fear…Above all else, Charlemagne was a warrior-king. He led his armies on yearly campaigns as a matter of course. Only gradually did he develop a notion of Christian mission and a program of unifying and systematically expanding the Christian West. (109)

After building up his army, he launched his first campaign into Saxony in 772, beginning a long and bloody conflict known as the Saxon Wars (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 Roland of the Breton March. This defeat did nothing but further Charlemagne's resolve to bring the region completely under his control.

Between 778 and 796, Charlemagne campaigned every year in the Pyrenes, Spain, and Germania winning repeated victories. In 795, he accepted the surrender of the Avars of Hungary but, refusing to trust them, attacked their stronghold (known as The Ring) and defeated them completely in 796, effectively ending them as a people. He had also defeated the Saracens of northern Spain, establishing a buffer zone called the Spanish March, and taken the island of Corsica. His kingdom now extended through the region of modern-day France, northern Spain, northern Italy, and modern-day Germany except for Saxony in the north.

Saxon Wars

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 trade conduit 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. His second, third, and the rest (totaling 18) followed the same model of destruction and massacre. In 777 a Saxon warrior-chief named Widukind led the resistance and, although an able leader, he was as helpless to seriously challenge Charlemagne's war machine as anyone else in Europe had been. He did, however, negotiate with King Sigfried of Denmark to allow Saxon refugees into his kingdom.

In 782, Charlemagne ordered the execution of 4,500 Saxons in an atrocity known as the Massacre of Verden to break the Saxon's will to fight, but they still would not surrender their autonomy or repudiate their religion. Widukind offered himself for baptism soon after (either in 784 or 785) in a gesture of peace and it is recorded that he was baptized but then disappears from the historical record soon after.

Charlemagne put an end to the refugee train to Denmark in 798, and the Saxon rebellions continued after Widukind's disappearance. Charlemagne responded as he had for the past 30 years, with the same results. Finally, in 804, Charlemagne deported over 10,000 Saxons to Neustria in his kingdom and replaced them in Saxony with his own people, effectively winning the conflict but earning the enmity of the Scandinavian kings, particularly Sigfried who attacked the Frankish region of Frisia shortly afterwards. This conflict could have become another prolonged event but Sigfried died and his successor sued for peace.

Holy Roman Emperor

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.

This became clear when Pope Leo III (served 795-816) was attacked by a mob in the streets of Rome and was forced to flee. The mob had been stirred up by Roman nobles who, hoping to replace Leo with one of their own, had accused him of immorality and abusing his office. Leo went to Charlemagne for protection and, on the advice of his learned counselor, the scholar Alcuin (l. 735-804), Charlemagne agreed to accompany Leo back to Rome to clear his name, which he then did. Scholar Norman Cantor describes the events:

On December 23, at a trial at which Charlemagne presided, Leo finally purged himself of the accusations against him. This course of events had signified a dreadful humiliation for the pope and his abnegation before the Carolingian ruler and he determined to try to regain the prestige and authority of his office by carrying out the imperial coronation of Charlemagne. On Christmas day, 800, as Charlemagne rose from prayer before the tomb of St. Peter, Pope Leo suddenly placed the crown on the king's head and the well-rehearsed Roman clergy and people shouted, “Charles Augustus, crowned great and peace-giving emperor of the Romans, life and victory!” (181)

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.

Ecclesiastical & Educational Reforms

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, and encouraging peasants to pool their resources and labor in farming - all led to increased food production and better care of the land. Charlemagne improved on the improvements by encouraging further development of mechanization such as the water mill for grinding grain instead of the previous method of grinding by human labor.

Pepin the Short had initiated a reform of the Frankish Church spearheaded by St. Boniface (l. 672-754) who established order in religious houses and developed monastic schools. He also divided regions into parishes for easier administration. Charlemagne capitalized on these advances by furthering their development and surrounding himself with the brightest minds of his era, such as the scholar Alcuin of York who emphasized literacy as an important aspect of piety. This policy was advanced in the monastic schools throughout Charlemagne's empire, improving literacy rates and producing better students. The earlier reforms of Boniface were continued as Charlemagne sent out commissioners from his capital at Aachen to the various districts and parishes to make sure his decrees were being implemented properly and that all aspects of his administration were functioning toward a single goal. However, it seems there was no real reason for these commissioners as those whom Charlemagne trusted with positions of authority performed their duties out of personal loyalty to him, not to the state.


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 death of only a few enlightened leaders, or even the sudden loss of one great personality, can cause the whole system to collapse and open the way for an equally rapid reversion to chaos and barbarism. Surrounding the enlightened group of leaders in such a preindustrial society are a mass of wild warriors and bovine peasants who lack any comprehension of what the leaders are trying to do. Consequently, as the central direction falters, there is an immediate backsliding into barbarism. (172)

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 Vikings struck 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.

When Louis died in 840, the empire was divided among his three sons who fought each other for supremacy. Their conflict was concluded by the Treaty of Verdun of 843 which divided the empire between Louis I's sons. Louis the German (r. 843-876) received East Francia, Lothair (r. 843-855) took Middle Francia, and Charles the Bald (r. 843-877) would rule West Francia. None of these kings were interested in helping the others, and the empire's infrastructure, as well as most of the reforms advanced by Charlemagne, deteriorated. The Viking raids continued from 843 - c. 911 when they were finally ended by Charles the Simple (r. 893-923) through a treaty with the Viking chieftain Rollo (later Rollo of Normandy, r. 911-927).

Although Charlemagne himself was never affected by the church's absurd Donation of Constantine fraud, his descendants were not as strong, and the later Carolingian Dynasty would suffer accordingly as the popes asserted their supposed political authority. The separate kingdoms of Charlemagne's empire would eventually form the modern nations of Europe and, for all his faults, could not have done so if not for his vision of purpose and natural abilities to lead in such a way that others were eager to serve him.

Charlemagne - History

Charlemagne, or Charles I, was one of the great leaders of the Middle Ages. He was King of the Franks and later became the Holy Roman Emperor. He lived from April 2, 742 until January 28, 814. Charlemagne means Charles the Great.

Charlemagne becomes King of the Franks

Charlemagne was son of Pepin the Short, King of the Franks. Pepin had begun the rule of the Carolingian Empire and the golden age of the Franks. When Pepin died he left the empire to his two sons, Charlemagne and Carloman. There would likely have been war between the two brothers eventually, but Carloman died leaving Charlemagne to be King.

Charlemagne by Unknown

The Franks were Germanic tribes mostly living in the area that is today France. Clovis was the first King of the Franks to unite the Frankish tribes under one ruler in 509.

Charlemagne Expands the Kingdom

Charlemagne expanded the Frankish Empire. He conquered much of the Saxon territories expanding into what is today's Germany. As a result, he is considered the father of the Germany Monarchy. At the request of the Pope, he also conquered the Lombards in Northern Italy and took control of the land including the city of Rome. From there he conquered Bavaria. He also took on campaigns in Spain to fight the Moors. He had some success there and a portion of Spain became part of the Frankish Empire.

When Charlemagne was in Rome in 800 CE, Pope Leo III surprisingly crowned him Emperor of the Romans over the Holy Roman Empire. He gave him the title Carolus Augustus. Although this title had no official power, it gave Charlemagne much respect throughout Europe.

Charlemagne's Coronation by Jean Fouquet

Government and Reforms

Charlemagne was a strong leader and good administrator. As he took over territories he would allow Frankish nobles to rule them. However, he would also allow the local cultures and laws to remain. He had the laws written down and recorded. He also made sure the laws were enforced.

A number of reforms occurred under the rule of Charlemagne. He instituted many economic reforms including establishing a new monetary standard called livre carolinienne, accounting principles, laws on money lending, and government control of prices. He also pushed education and personally supported many scholars as their patron. He set up schools in monasteries throughout Europe.

Charlemagne had an impact in many other areas as well including church music, cultivation and the planting of fruit trees, and civil works. One example of a civil work was the building of the Fossa Carolina, a canal built to connect the Rhine and Danube rivers.

#203: Life of Charlemagne

Although missionaries like Patrick and Augustine had made Christianity hugely successful in the British Isles, there was really only one tribe in the whole of mainland Europe who were mainstream Christians &mdash the Franks, whose King had converted in 496. The others were all pagans or Arians.

All this changed when Charles the Great, or &ldquoCharlemagne&rdquo became King of the Franks, ruling from 771 to 814. He was a great military conqueror, and channeled this talent into the service of the church, for in taking over most of Western Europe and a fair bit of the east, he used military force to compel all his subject peoples to become Christian. He also sponsored more subtle missionary efforts, and encouraged the spread of Benedictine monasteries, and especially the copying of theological manuscripts.

The Pope crowned him Roman Emperor in 800, centuries after the ancient Roman Empire had collapsed in Europe &mdash a move which infuriated the Eastern Emperor who still claimed to rule both east and west. His &ldquoHoly Roman Empire&rdquo shrank rapidly after his death, but it remained a major force in Europe into the Reformation. Although centered in modern Germany, its influence spread much wider.

Einhard, who wrote this biography, was a nobleman and a diplomat and adviser in Charlemagne&rsquos service for over twenty-three years. In fact, the two were personal friends. This makes his report an invaluable source of firsthand information about the Emperor, but also alerts us to watch for personal bias.

Charlemagne presents Christians today with a dilemma. On the one hand, we ask, aren&rsquot Charlemagne&rsquos bloodthirsty ways of spreading the church completely alien to the gospel of Christ? On the other, we wonder would the church have survived if not for him?

Source Material

[Einhard outlines Charlemagne&rsquos 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&rsquos life of Charlemagne.]

7. Saxon War

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 [772].

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 commands. Sometimes they were so weakened that they promised to renounce their worship of devils, and to adopt Christianity, but they were as quick to violate these terms as they were to accept them. This kind of thing happened almost every year of the war. But Charlemagne&rsquos steadfast purpose faced good and bad fortune alike, and he was never wearied by their fickleness, or diverted from his task. He never allowed their faithless behavior to go unpunished, either fighting them in person or sending his counts&rsquo armies to get vengeance and righteous satisfaction.

At last, after conquering and subduing all who resisted, he resettled ten thousand of his subjects with their wives and children throughout Gaul and Germany [804]. This long war finally ended with the Saxons submitting on Charlemagne&rsquos terms, renouncing their national religious customs and the worship of devils, accepting the sacraments of the Christian faith and religion, and uniting with the Franks to form one people.

[Conquest of Bretons, Beneventans, Bavarians, Slavs, Huns, Bohemians, Linonians. ]

15. Extent of Charlemagne&rsquos Conquests

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 &mdash though it was already great and strong when he received it at his father &mdash that more than double its former territory was added to it.

17. Public Works

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.

18. Private Life

After his father&rsquos 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 [794], he married Liutgard, an Alemannic woman, who bore him no children. After her death [800] he had three concubines who each bore him sons.

22. Personal Appearance

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.

23. Dress

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 &mdash sometimes jeweled, but only on great feast days or when entertaining foreign ambassadors.

24. Habits

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 &mdash 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&rsquos 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 he was dressing and putting on his shoes, he not only gave audience to his friends, but if the Count of the Palace told him of a case requiring his judgment, he had them come to his room right then, and judged the case just as if he were at his court and pronounced judgment. At this time, he would perform any of the day&rsquos duties at all.

25. Studies

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.

26. Piety

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.

27. Charlemagne and the Roman Church

Charlemagne gave a great deal of charity to the poor, and not only in his own country. Wherever he heard that there were Christians living in poverty &mdash Syria, Egypt, Africa, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Carthage &mdash he had compassion on them, and sent money over the seas to them. This is why he strove to make friends with foreign kings, so that he could give relief to the Christians living under their rule.

He cherished the Church of St. Peter at Rome above all other holy places, and heaped its treasury with a vast wealth of gold, silver, and precious stones. He sent countless large gifts to the popes and throughout his whole reign his most heartfelt wish was to re-establish the ancient authority of Rome under his care and by his influence, and to defend and protect St. Peter&rsquos, beautifying and enriching it himself above all other churches. But though he held it in such veneration, he only went to Rome to say his vows and prayers four times during the whole of his forty-seven-year reign.

28. Charlemagne Crowned Emperor

His last journey there had another purpose though. Pope Leo had been mutilated by the Roman people who tore out his eyes and cut out his tongue, and he had called upon the King for help. Charlemagne accordingly went to Rome to set these affairs of the Church in order, because all was in confusion, and he spent the whole winter there. It was then that he was given the title of Emperor and Augustus. At first he had such an aversion to the title that he declared that he would not have set foot in the Church on the day they were conferred if he had known what the Pope intended, even though it was a great feast day. [Christmas 800]

The Roman emperors were unhappy about his taking this title, but he bore their jealousy very patiently. Through frequent embassies and letters, in which he addressed them as brothers, he made their haughtiness give way to his magnanimity, a quality in which he was unquestionably much their superior.

29. Reforms

After receiving the title of Emperor, Charlemagne realized that the laws of his people were defective. The Franks have two completely different sets of laws, and he decided to add what was missing, sort out the discrepancies, and correct what was wrong. He never got very far with this project, but he had the unwritten laws of all the tribes under his rule to be written up. He also had the old songs celebrating the deeds and wars of ancient kings written out for posterity.

30. Charlemagne&rsquos Death

Toward the close of his life [813], broken by ill-health and old age, he summoned his son Louis, King of Aquitaine, and gathered together all the chief men of the whole kingdom of the Franks in a solemn assembly. He appointed Louis, with their unanimous consent, to rule with himself over the whole kingdom and made him heir to the imperial title.

He spent the rest of the autumn hunting, and in January he was struck with a high fever, and took to his bed. As soon as he was taken sick, he decided to abstain from food, as he always had done when he had a fever, hoping that the disease could be driven off, or at least mitigated, by fasting. Besides the fever, he suffered from pleurisy, but he still persisted in fasting, and in keeping up his strength only by the occasional drink. He died 28 January, seven days after he took to his bed, at nine o'clock in the morning, after receiving holy communion, at the age of seventy-two and having reigned for forty-seven years.

Military Campaigns

Following Pepin’s death in 768 AD, the kingdom was divided between Charlemagne and his younger brother, Carloman. Following Carloman’s death in 771 AD, Charlemagne became the sole ruler of the Kingdom of the Franks. The new ruler began to expand his kingdom in all directions in a series of military campaigns.

A picture from the 15th century depicting the emperor Charlemagne. ( Public Domain )

Some of these campaigns include the war against the Saxons from 772 AD until the end of that century, and the conquest the Lombard Kingdom in 774 AD. In war, Charlemagne was a ruthless leader. For example, the war against the Saxons, who were pagans, was marked by a great amount of bloodshed. The conquered Saxons were supposedly given the choice of either converting to Christianity, or being put to the sword. At the Massacre of Verden in 782 AD, around 4500 Saxons were slaughtered by Charlemagne’s forces.

The Sachsenhain memorial to the massacre in Verden an der Aller, Germany. (CC BY 3.0 )

Charlemagne&rsquos legacy

<p>In addition to educational reforms, Charlemagne instituted vast administrative reforms that aided in the development of keeping the Frankish empire to live in concordance. In order to successfully control and regulate his vast empire, Charlemagne created laws and codes called <em>capitularies</em>, which all citizens were expected to oblige. Einhard mentions the creation of capitularies and how Charlemagne wished to revamp the old laws within his kingdom. Einhard acknowledged the creation of the capitularies in his biography of Charlemagne:

&ldquoIt was after he had received the imperial name, finding the laws of his people very defective, he determined to add what was wanting, to reconcile the discrepancies, and to correct what vicious and wrongly cited in them. However, he went no further in this matter than to supplement the laws by a few capitularies, and those imperfect ones&hellip&rdquo

It is rather unusual that Einhard did not go into any further detail regarding the capitularies. Contrary to the writings of Einhard, there were recordings of the capitularies and they were presented in an orderly and detailed manner, which were the legitimate codes of law at the time. In order to enforce these laws, Charlemagne needed messengers that were extensions of his own authority.

These prolocutors would come to be known as missi dominici, which were always sent in sets of two, one was called an ecclesiastic, for the clerical matters and the other a layman for all other citizens. These regulators would collect taxes, investigate disputes, and make sure the capitularies were being obeyed. Although this system had its flaws and corruption was vast, it seems to have been effective, at least to the aristocrats who were generally employed as these legates. One such capitulary from 802 states rather simply: &ldquoThat judges shall judge justly, according to the written law and not according to their own judgment.&rdquo

Ultimately, they were to serve the king and without their ability to communicate regularly with him, the empire certainly would have collapsed or had constant rebellions leaving no room for any renaissance. In this aspect, by not elaborating, Einhard unfairly did not pay homage to the importance of these significant governmental creations within the Frankish Empire.

Another aspect to government reform that was vital in keeping checks and balances was a new coinage system. Similar to the need for handwriting having become universal, the monetary system was in dire need of reform so that all classes of people could easily purchase goods, pay taxes, and increase trade. The creation of this coinage unification also aided to infrastructural improvements. Unfortunately, Einhard gave no mention of this tremendous innovation, which was quite peculiar considering its necessity.

In the end, we have an incredible dynasty that paved the way for the medieval era to progress and expand into the incredible historic anecdotes that we all know and cherish. Without the notable conquests and reforms by Charlemagne, medieval history would be different than what we know. The depiction of these feats penned by Einhard is most likely a mélange of fidelity with some embellishments. Nevertheless, different historical recordings were registered that confirmed the truthful aspects to Einhard&rsquos tale. Thus, the puissant ruler, Charlemagne, lives on as the begetter of medieval Europe and its amazing impact on history.

1. Judith Bennet, Medieval Europe: A Short History, (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2011), 89.
2. Bennet, Medieval Europe: A Short History, 90.
3. Einhard. The Life of Charlemagne, (Wyatt North Publishing, 2012), Ipad book edition, chap. 7, pg. 28
4. &ldquoCharlemagne,&rdquo New Advent, Last modified 2009. Accessed October 1, 2013.
5. Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, pg. 30.
6. Encyclo Online Encyclopedia. UK: 2012. s.v. &ldquoPoeta Saxo.&rdquo Saxo. Accessed October 1, 2013.
7. Rosamond Mckitterick, Charlemagne (New York City: Cambridge University Press, 2008). Ipad book edition, pg. 105.
8. Bennet, Medieval Europe: A Short History, pg. 44.
9. &ldquoThe One and the Many: Devoted to the Universal and the Particulars,&rdquo The Unique Boethius: His Contributions, Influence, and Legacy (blog), February 20, 2008,
10. Bennet, Medieval Europe: A Short History, pg. 97.
11. Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, pg. 69.
12. McKitterick, Charlemagne, pg. 349.
13. Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, pg. 75.
14. &ldquoCapitulary of Charlemagne issued in the year 802,&rdquo Sam Houston State University, Accessed October 2, 2013.

15. Bennet, Medieval Europe: A Short History, pg. 94.

Bennet, Judith. Medieval Europe: A Short History. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2011.

Einhard. The Life of Charlemagne. Wyatt North Publishing, 2012. Ipad book edition.

Encyclo Online Encyclopedia. UK: 2012. s.v. &ldquoPoeta Saxo.&rdquo Accessed October 2, 2013, Saxo.

New Advent. Charlemagne. Accessed October 1, 2013,

Kitterick, Rosamond. Charlemagne. New York City: University of Cambridge Press, 2008.

&ldquoThe One and the Many:Devoted to the Universal and the Particulars.&rdquo The Unique Boethius: His Contributions, Influence, and Legacy (blog), February 20, 2008. Accessed October 1, 2013,

Sam Houston State University, &ldquoCapitulary of Charlemagne issued in the year 802.&rdquo Accessed October 2, 2013.

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The Emperor Charlemagne is the ancestor of most, perhaps all Europeans. His ancestry goes back only a few generations but he has become the gateway for hundreds of fake genealogies back to antiquity, all based on wishful thinking.

Experts generally agree that only 8 ancestors of Charlemagne can be proven. Another 5 are almost certain. Everything else is academic conjecture or amateur speculation. See, e.g., Francisco Tavares de Almeida, "The 8 proven ancestors of Charlemagne" at soc.genealogy.medieval, posted Jan. 13, 2017, citing Christian Settipani, Les Ancètres de Charlemagne 2nd. ed. (2014).


"Our task [as secular ruler] is externally, with God's help, to defend with our arms the holy Church of Christ against attacks by the heathen from any side and against devastation by the infidels."

Pepin III, King of the Franks, knelt with his sons to be anointed by Pope Stephen III in conscious imitation of the anointing of King David by the prophet Samuel. And like David's son Solomon, Pepin's son Charles would preside over a renowned cultural and religious flowering.

Expanding borders

Charles received his education from his mother and the monks of Saint Denis. He could speak and read Latin and his native Germanic tongue, but he never learned to write, though he tried to his entire life. He mastered the military and political arts close to his father's throne.


Boniface begins mission to the Germans

Controversy over icons begins in Eastern church

Treaty of Verdun divides Carolingian Empire

When Pepin died in 768, Charles was in his mid-20s: vital, energetic, and at six feet three-and-a-half-inches tall, he towered over his subjects. When his brother, Carloman, died in 771, Charles was left as sole ruler of the Franks.

Charles's early reign was marked by incessant warfare, which expanded his control in all directions. His longest wars (772&ndash785) were in an area just below modern Denmark, against the Saxons. As he conquered, he converted them to Christianity at the point of the sword.

Pope Hadrian then asked for his help in the south, calling on Charles to deliver him from the Lombards. Charles obliged and quickly compelled the Lombard king to retire to a monastery. He took the crown for himself in 774, and now ruled over much of what is modern Italy. During an Easter visit to Rome that year he was greeted by the pope with the words "Behold another Constantine, who has risen in our times."

Charles's 778 campaign against the Spanish Moors did not go as well and he was forced to withdraw. (An unimportant defeat in the Pyrenees formed the theme of the heroic epic, The Song of Roland , one of the most widely read poems of the Middle Ages.) Charles was determined to establish a secure border south of the Pyrenees, and he finally did so in 801, when he captured Barcelona.

In the meantime, he had turned his attention to the southeast border of his lands and conquered and absorbed Bavaria. Looking southeast, he pushed farther east along the Danube River into the territory of the Avars. His defeat of these fierce warriors not only netted him 15 large wagons of gold and silver but highlighted his political and military superiority to the Byzantine Empire to the east.

New Roman emperor

His triumph culminated on Christmas 800, when in one of the best known scenes of the Middle Ages, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne "Emperor of the Romans."

Charles told his biographer that he attended the service unaware that the pope was going to do this, but modern historians discount this as overly modest. In addition to complex political reasons for wanting the caption, Charles had theological reasons. Charles was also a great student of Augustine, much taken with his idea of the City of God . He believed the church and state should be allied as forces in the unification of society.

Charles delineated the roles of state and church in a letter to Pope Leo: "Our task [as secular ruler] is externally, with God's help, to defend with our arms the holy Church of Christ against attacks by the heathen from any side and against devastation by the infidels and, internally, to strengthen the Church by the recognition of the Catholic faith. Your share, Most Holy Father, is to support our army with hands upraised to God, as did Moses in ancient days, so that the &hellip name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified throughout the world."

Charles, then, believed the caption, "Emperor of the Romans," made him the successor of the Roman emperors. (Never mind that the Byzantine emperors had thought the same of themselves for centuries!)

Defender of the Church

Charles took seriously his mission to "internally strengthen the church." Indeed, within his kingdom he was far more influential in church affairs than was the pope.

Charles appointed and deposed bishops, directed a revision of the text of the Bible, instituted changes to the liturgy, set rules for life in the monasteries, and sent investigators to dismiss priests with insufficient learning or piety. He had his deacon, Paul, publish a collection of homilies for use throughout the kingdom, instructing him to "peruse the writings of the Catholic fathers and, as in a flowery meadow, pick the choicest blooms and weave a single garland of all that can be put to use."

Charles also took an active interest in the two main religious controversies of his era, adoptionism (which held that Jesus was not "God from God" but was adopted as God's son during his lifetime) and iconoclasm (which condemns icons as idolatry). In his reforms, Charles showed that, like Constantine, he believed he was overlord of the church.

Education was also carefully tended. The partially illiterate Charles believed that success in his political and religious reforms depended on learning: "although doing right is better than knowledge, knowledge comes before doing." Charles was a patron of scholars, creating a school for his many children in the palace and accumulating an impressive library. The only copy of many classical texts we have today came from the pens of monks he set to work. He required each cathedral and monastery to set up a school and compelled the children of nobles to attend (who might otherwise have considered this beneath them).

Charles's government helped set the feudal system deeply in place. His armies were made of nobles, bound to him by oaths and granted tracts of land to support themselves and their soldiers. He published his laws in "capitularies," and sent them throughout the realm by missi dominici, pairs of inspectors who made sure his orders were obeyed in castles and churches.

This energetic political, cultural, and religious reform, is today known as the Carolingian Renaissance and is one reason Charles was given the appellation, "Great," in Latin, Charlemagne.

#6 He ordered the construction of the famous Palatine Chapel in Aachen

Carolingian architecture was inspired from Early Christian and Byzantine architecture though it also had innovations of its own. There was increased architectural activity during the reign of Charlemagne with his capital Aachen being the center of a major building program that included the Palatine Chapel, a masterpiece of Carolingian architecture that served as Charlemagne’s imperial church. Another famous Carolingian style building is the Lorsch Abbey in Lorsch, Germany.

Military campaigns of Charlemagne

The first three decades of Charlemagne’s reign were dominated by military campaigns, which were prompted by a variety of factors: the need to defend his realm against external foes and internal separatists, a desire for conquest and booty, a keen sense of opportunities offered by changing power relationships, and an urge to spread Christianity. His performance on the battlefield earned him fame as a warrior king in the Frankish tradition, one who would make the Franks a force in the world once contained in the Roman Empire.

Charlemagne’s most demanding military undertaking pitted him against the Saxons, longtime adversaries of the Franks whose conquest required more than 30 years of campaigning (772 to 804). This long struggle, which led to the annexation of a large block of territory between the Rhine and the Elbe rivers, was marked by pillaging, broken truces, hostage taking, mass killings, deportation of rebellious Saxons, draconian measures to compel acceptance of Christianity, and occasional Frankish defeats. The Frisians, Saxon allies living along the North Sea east of the Rhine, were also forced into submission.

While the conquest of Saxony was in progress, Charlemagne undertook other campaigns. As soon as he became sole king in 771, he repudiated his Lombard wife and his alliance with her father, King Desiderius. Soon after, in 773–774, he answered the appeals of Pope Adrian I (772–795) for protection by leading a victorious expedition into Italy, which ended with his assumption of the Lombard crown and the annexation of northern Italy. During this campaign Charlemagne went to Rome to reaffirm the Frankish protectorate over the papacy and to confirm papal rights to the territories conceded by Charlemagne’s father. Additional campaigns were required to incorporate the Lombard kingdom fully into the Frankish realm, however an important step in that process came in 781, when Charlemagne created a subkingdom of Italy with his son Pippin as king.

Concerned with defending southern Gaul from Muslim attacks and beguiled by promises of help from local Muslim leaders in northern Spain who sought to escape the authority of the Umayyad ruler of Cordoba, Charlemagne invaded Spain in 778. That ill-considered venture ended in a disastrous defeat of the retreating Frankish army by Gascon (Basque) forces, immortalized three centuries later in the epic poem The Song of Roland. Despite this setback, Charlemagne persisted in his effort to make the frontier in Spain more secure. In 781 he created a subkingdom of Aquitaine with his son Louis as king. From that base Frankish forces mounted a series of campaigns that eventually established Frankish control over the Spanish March, the territory lying between the Pyrenees and the Ebro River.

In 787–788 Charlemagne forcibly annexed Bavaria, whose leaders had long resisted Frankish overlordship. That victory brought the Franks face to face with the Avars, Asiatic nomads who during the late 6th and 7th centuries had formed an extensive empire largely inhabited by conquered Slavs living on both sides of the Danube. By the 8th century Avar power was in decline, and successful Frankish campaigns in 791, 795, and 796 hastened the disintegration of that empire. Charlemagne captured a huge store of booty, claimed a block of territory south of the Danube in Carinthia and Pannonia, and opened a missionary field that led to the conversion of the Avars and their former Slavic subjects to Christianity.

Charlemagne’s military successes resulted in an ever-lengthening frontier, which needed to be defended. Through a combination of military force and diplomacy he established relatively stable relations with a variety of potentially dangerous enemies, including the Danish kingdom, several Slavic tribes inhabiting the territory along the eastern frontier stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Balkans, the Lombard duchy of Benevento in southern Italy, the Muslims in Spain, and the Gascons and the Bretons in Gaul. The Italian scene was complicated by the Papal States, whose boundaries remained problematic and whose leader, the pope, had no clearly defined political status relative to his Frankish protector, now his neighbour as king of the Lombards. In general, Charlemagne’s relations with the papacy, especially with Pope Adrian I, were positive and brought him valuable support for his religious program and praise for his qualities as a Christian leader. The expanded Frankish presence in Italy and the Balkans intensified diplomatic encounters with the Eastern emperors, which strengthened the Frankish position with respect to the Eastern Roman Empire, weakened by internal dissension and threatened by Muslim and Bulgar pressure on its eastern and northern frontiers. Charlemagne also established friendly relations with the ʿAbbāsid caliph in Baghdad (Hārūn al-Rashīd), the Anglo-Saxon kings of Mercia and Northumbria, and the ruler of the Christian kingdom of Asturias in northwestern Spain. And he enjoyed a vague role as protector of the Christian establishment in Jerusalem. By boldly and resourcefully combining the traditional role of warrior king with aggressive diplomacy based on a good grasp of current political realities, Charlemagne elevated the Frankish kingdom to a position of leadership in the European world.

Correcting and instructing

In such a diverse empire, it was essential that people not merely obey the laws, but also understand them. How did Charlemagne do this? Unlike the centralized approach of the Byzantine Empire (where all roads ran through Constantinople), Charlemagne’s correctio infiltrated the empire through a large class of learned, aristocratic clergy and monastics scattered throughout the empire. To them fell the responsibility of ensuring that Christian texts were copied correctly so that less literate clerics could recite them without error. A local priest’s mistake, after all, could lead an entire region astray.

The Admonition generalis singles out for concern those “who want to pray to God in the proper fashion, yet they pray improperly because of uncorrected books.” Alcuin tried to simplify all kinds of important theological books from antiquity—rewriting Augustine’s Commentary on John, for example. Many passages of Augustine’s writing were left intact, but many were taken out and replaced with other writings or with Alcuin’s own commentary. People responded. Particularly in Germany, local towns competed with each other to show their assent to the requirements of correctio.

Charlemagne could not foresee that his attempts to unite a fractured society would have such far-reaching impact. Though his dynasty petered out, his idea that church and state belonged naturally together—and that together they would hold back the barbarians from the gates—lasted long after Leo set the crown on his head that fateful Christmas Day.

It lasted through long lines of popes and Holy Roman Emperors outmaneuvering each other. It lasted through a Reformation in which reformers found their own ways to make governments Christian, even while protesting against the wreck they thought Catholicism had made of medieval government. It lasted as Christianity spread across the Atlantic to a new land, the United States, that had no state church but saw the state itself as carrying out God’s mission on earth.

Long after Charlemagne’s empire crumbled, long after no one remembered the 82 clauses of his general warning or competed to earn the favor of his bishops and abbots, people throughout Europe—and indeed all of the West—would still be wondering: Is our nation as bright with churches as the sky is with stars? And if it is no longer, should we praise or lament? CH

By Sarah Morice-Brubaker

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #108 in 2014]

Sarah Morice-Brubaker is assistant professor of theology at Phillips Theological Seminary.