Updated: Nov 3, 2021
Volume I - Origins
Europe is undoubtedly home to some of the most powerful and influential monarchs to have ever lived. Boasting names such as that of Alexander the Great of Greece, Augustus Caesar of Rome, Elizabeth I of England, and Napoleon Bonaparte of France, Europe’s list of absolute rulers is no short of impressive with many of them having their influence still being felt in this modern day and age.
Now one of these prominent sovereigns was the main driving force behind the Carolingian Renaissance. To say the least, he held several notable titles such as the “King of the Franks and Lombards,” “Holy Roman Emperor,” and is praised by many as “Europae pater,” or the “Father of Europe”. This man is none other than Charles the Great, better known as Charlemagne.
Portrait of Charlemagne
Fun fact: The name Charlemagne comes from Old French “Charles le Magne,”
which means “Charles the Great.”
The Origins of a King
Charlemagne was born into the Carolingian Dynasty, one of the two main dynasties that ruled the Kingdom of Francia. He was the son of Pepin III (also known as Pepin the Short, who was another Frankish king) and Bertrada of Laon. Born as Charles I (or Karl in old German), he was named after his grandfather on his father’s side, Charles Martel (also known as Charles the Hammer), who was another notable Frankish government official who is known for helping preserve Christendom in Europe.
Carolingian Family Tree
The specific details of his birth, unfortunately, are not well-documented. His exact date of birth remains unclear although what historians and several historical records point to was that it was most likely in the first or second of April and possibly in the years 742, 747, or 748. Furthermore, the location of his birth is unknown though some have speculated that it may have been in the City of Aachen, which is part of present-day Germany, or the City of Liège, a city currently in Belgium.
Likewise, nothing is said about the events of his youth and early adulthood. Einhard himself, a medieval historian who also served as Charlemagne’s secretary, stated that “nothing has ever been written on the subject.” What we do know, however, is that Christianity was taught to him at a very early age. His devotion to his religion would be one of the key drivers of his conquests and political and cultural reforms. Charles’s early life is indeed shrouded in a cloud of mystery, and one can only speculate on what type of training he received in his youth which has produced such an effective ruler.
Charlemagne Ascends to Power
Pepin the Short died on the 24th of September, 768 from edema (known before as dropsy). A Frankish assembly was held shortly after, and it was decided that the realm be divided equally between Pepin’s sons Charles and his younger brother Carloman, for each of them to rule their own half of the kingdom as kings. This quickly descended into a tense and uneasy rivalry between the two brothers, for each of them had their own vision of how to rule the kingdom. Charles preferred a more hands-on approach to ruling while Carloman was less decisive in doing so.
One of the first disputes to test this joint rule of the two brothers was the Aquitanian War. Their father (Pepin the Short) had waged a war with the French province of Aquitaine and had yet to put it to a close before his untimely death. In the year 769, a rebellion broke out once again in Aquitaine. Charles was eager to put down the rebellion through military action while Carloman did not. Nonetheless, the former marched to the French province and quickly defeated the rebels, which led to the annexation of Gascony to the Frankish realm.
The sense of unity in the Frankish kingdom seemed to dwindle, and a civil war seemed nigh. In response, Charles quickly sought to organize an alliance with King Desiderius, king of the Lombard Kingdom. He took the Lombard princess’s hand in marriage in the year 770 to secure the agreement (although in the accounts of Einhard, it is stated that this marriage was actually at the insistence of Charles’ mother).
Charles, however, quickly repudiated (that is, the refusal to accept and be associated with) his marriage with the Lombard princess. Shortly after, he married a Swabian woman named Hildegard. Infuriated, Desiderius went to Carloman to seek alliance in order to overthrow Charles. A great civil war seemed to be over the horizon.
This crisis, however, would not progress any further. Carloman died on the 5th of December, 771, just three years after taking the throne, due to illness. Upon Carloman’s death, Charles then seized power despite his brother having left an heir behind. The Frankish kingdom was united once again, under one king.
Volume II - Charlemagne Leads the Revival
Charlemagne, the Warrior-king
One of the things that made Charlemagne unique from several other monarchs was his warrior-king character. Frankish tradition held the expectation that the king himself would lead his army straight into battle, which Charlemagne often did. The first three decades of Charles’s rule were marked by his numerous, yearly military campaigns in western Europe in order to defend his realm against foreign enemies, to expand his realm and unite the Germanic peoples, and to spread Christianity. He led his forces in multiple bloody battles, and though not all of them were successful, his kingdom flourished and expanded nonetheless. Throughout his battles, he had earned himself the reputation of being a very calculated, pragmatic, and ruthless war leader.
Here are some of the notable wars and military campaigns he waged during his conquests according to several historical accounts as well as that of his servant, Einhard.
The Aquitanian War (769)
As mentioned a while ago, this war was fought between Charlemagne’s Frankish forces and the French rebels of Aquitaine. The untimely death of Charlemagne’s father left his war with the Aquitainians unfinished. An uprising in Aquitaine occurred in the year 769. Charlemagne and his forces marched to the French province, and swiftly dealt with the rebels. They emerged victorious, and Aquitaine was annexed into the Frankish kingdom.
The Saxon Wars (772-804)
The Saxon Wars were the most well-known campaigns launched by the king of the Franks. The pagan people of Saxony (Saxony is currently part of modern-day Germany, and parts of the Netherlands and Denmark) have long been hostile towards the Franks for religious differences. Charlemagne launched this 32-year endeavor in hopes of gaining this territory as well as converting these peoples to his religion of Christianity. Many battles were fought up until 804, the year their three-decade-long struggle finally came to a conclusion, and Saxony was absorbed into the Frankish realm.
It is said that in the year 782, after a victory in one of the many battles of the Saxon Wars, Charlemagne ordered the killing of around 4,500 Saxons, to which even his contemporaries deplored. This tragic event is what is now known as the Massacre of Verden. He would continue to compel the Saxons to accept and convert to Christianity or else they would face the penalty of death.
The Lombard War (773-774)
The Lombard War started as a request from Pope Adrian I to protect the Papal States from the Lombards, for King Desiderius (the father of the woman whom Charles repudiated) had taken over some of these states. Answering the call, Charlemagne and his forces marched across over the alps to northern Italy and defeated the Lombard forces. After several more campaigns, the Lombard kingdom was now officially absorbed into the Frankish realm, making Charles the “King of the Franks and Lombards.”
The Spanish Expeditions (778-812)
Charlemagne launched a campaign in Spain in order to defend the southern regions of Gaul from Muslim leaders. This campaign, however, did not go as well as the others. The Spanish campaign up to that point had been the most difficult battle the king had ever experienced. Charlemagne then decided to retreat from this battle. During their homeward travel, they were ambushed by Basque forces from Gascony. This battle would come to be known as the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, and in the end, led to a tragic Frankish defeat.
Despite this defeat, Charlemagne continued with his Spanish conquests, specifically against the Saracens of Northern Spain. He would periodically launch campaigns against these peoples until his eventual victory in the year 812. With this victory, he would gain the territories of Sardinia, Corsica, and the Balearic Islands.
Bavarian Campaign (787-788)
Charlemagne set his sights to the east and waged war against Bavaria. This battle though was a rather short one. After a quick Frankish victory, the region of Bavaria, as well as Carinthia (a region to the east of Bavaria) was annexed into Charlemagne’s kingdom.
Slavic War (789)
The war between the Slavs (peoples of central and eastern Europe who spoke Slavic dialects) and the Franks did not last too long as well. In a single campaign, Charlemagne’s army took care of Slavic forces and crushed them.
War with the Huns (791-796)
Right after the Slavic war came the war with the Huns, also known as the Avars. Charlemagne launched a series of campaigns against these nomadic peoples to take advantage of their steady decline in power with the first of these campaigns happening in 791. He and his forces marched down the Danube River into what is now modern-day Hungary and launched an attack on their camps. Their conflict would carry on for a few years until the Avars fell in 796. Their capital, which was a ring-shaped stronghold (filled with immense amounts of gold, silver, and other forms of valuable loot) called “The Great Ring of the Avars,” fell into the hands of the Franks.
Areas to the south of the Danube, such as Carinthia and Pannonia, were absorbed into the Frankish realm afterward. Charlemagne would proceed to establish a missionary field, which would lead to some of the Avar and Slavic people converting to Christianity.
In order to secure his newly claimed territories, Charlemagne, through the use of diplomacy and military force, formed stable relations and strengthened diplomatic relations with several European tribes and kingdoms surrounding his empire who posed as potential adversaries. Thanks to his assertive diplomatic tactics, the Frankish realm was now in an excellent position, a position of leadership and progress in the European scene.
The Carolingian Renaissance
Charlemagne’s military campaigns were no doubt impressive in spite of the unquestionably brutal methods he used. Despite these impressive accomplishments, his conquests are but a precursor to his most important and significant contribution to the European cultural landscape - the Carolingian Renaissance, which described a period of revivification of the arts, literature, architecture and education. Its effects helped reshape and revive the European cultural scene of the Dark Ages, marked by its stagnant condition, to a more vibrant and progressive scene (at least for a time).
Charlemagne looked to improve the ecclesiastical systems of his kingdoms and made his subjects’ spiritual life one of his main priorities. He sought to improve the church’s system through a series of reforms such as strengthening the hierarchical structure of the church as well as properly defining the roles and powers each level of the clerical hierarchy held. He ordered monasteries to start up schools for priests and monks to raise the intellectual and moral standards of the clergy. He also focused on expanding and protecting the church’s resources, standardizing certain liturgical practices, and putting an end to paganism.
The papacy’s response to Charlemagne’s approach to handling church affairs through government intervention was interesting. Religious matters had always been handled by the church, and a king stepping into this domain had rarely been seen before, and would’ve been deemed as sacrilegious. However, the pope and other church officials were in full support of these reforms, for they shared the same vision of reinforcing the ecclesiastical structures, strengthening people’s faith, and spreading Christian values. Though it is important to note also that Charlemagne was in control of the appointment of some clergy, he often supported them financially, and was also the Papal States’ guarantor.
Political and Economic Reforms
Charlemagne also made several reforms to the political and economic system of his kingdom. He had a personal council called a palatium, which consisted of family members, trusted church officials, and several other important individuals who helped carry out policies. Members of the council carried out various types of royal orders such as resource management, carrying out diplomatic or military missions, producing written legal documents, and counseling the king. He would also make a lot of use of royal agents called missi dominici, who went around Charles’ kingdom to enforce his authority.
Furthermore, he put limits on the power of the nobility, though he still relied on the counts, or wealthy landowners, to enforce his policies on a local level. The counts were the ones to administer justice, collect taxes, raise soldiers, and preserve peace.
Charlemagne would also establish a monetary system wherein a single, uniform currency would be used for the exchange of goods and services. They used thin coins with a wide diameter made of silver called deniers. Silver became the primary metal of exchange, replacing its predecessor of gold. These reforms would change the way currency and coinage would be produced not just in their kingdom, but in Europe as a whole.
Cultural Revival and Education Reforms
Besides his military campaigns, another thing Charlemagne is best known for is his reforms on the education system, which prompted the cultural revival of his kingdom. To help carry out his cultural reforms, Charlemagne placed scholars (who were mostly clerics), to whom he gave powerful positions in his court. The most notable scholar among these was Alcuin of York, who played a key role in these reformations. Charles and his circle of scholars discussed what the purpose of his cultural policy ought to be, and they eventually came to an agreement that the primary goal was to extend Latin literacy amongst his people, which they viewed as vital to piety. To meet this goal, plenty of books and manuals were produced that taught Christian Latin culture. This prompted the establishment of a royal library, which housed these books on Latin culture. A royal scriptorium was also created in order to produce these works of literature on a much larger scale. The scriptorium then gave rise to a new system of writing, to whom Alcuin was given credit for promoting it, called the Carolingian minuscule. Carolingian minuscule was much clearer to read and easier to write compared to its predecessor, the Merovingian script.
Clergy strived to establish new schools as well as to revitalize already existing monastic schools. This led to the development of new educational curricula, such as that of the liberal arts, which Charlemagne avidly supported.
A government building program would be launched in the city of Aachen, the kingdom’s capital. Several palaces and cathedrals were built, the most notable cathedral being the Palatine Chapel (now known as the Aachen Cathedral), which is considered to be “a masterpiece of Carolingian architecture.”
Charlemagne’s reforms had led (either directly or indirectly) to the improved rates of literacy, the increase in size and overall number of libraries, the expansion of the usage of written documents, literary works having much more advanced levels of discourse and stylistic versatility, and the rise of new styles of architecture. The Frankish kingdom prospered under Charlemagne’s rule. Its culture flourished into a colorful scene.
Volume III - Charles Augustus, The Father of Europe
Charles Augustus, Roman Emperor
In the year 800, Pope Leo III fled Rome for he had been assaulted by a mob of Romans who accused him of abuse of power and misconduct. Calling upon Charlemagne for help, the Frankish king escorted him back to the papal office in Rome, and quelled the mob who had attacked the pope. This event caused people to question the pope’s capability to effectively lead and rule the Christians.
On the 23rd of December, Pope Leo III purged himself of the claims against him. This act of humiliation made clear the pope’s decline in power and authority. On Christmas day, two days after the purge, Charlemagne attended a mass in St Peter’s Basilica. Out of gratitude (though some say that it was to restore the pope’s authority and prestige), Pope Leo III out of nowhere, set a crown upon Charles’ head, and crowned him “emperor of the Romans.” “Charles Augustus, crowned great and peace-giving emperor, life and victory!” the people shouted. Though it would not be called by this name for another few centuries after Charlemagne’s death, the empire he had established would eventually be known as the Holy Roman Empire.
Coronation of Charlemagne
By the end of Charlemagne’s numerous campaigns, the Frankish kingdom had doubled in size. Charles’ conquests to the lands south and west of the Frankish kingdoms had unified most of western Europe, a feat that had not been accomplished since the fall of the mighty Roman Empire four centuries prior to this. By the year 800, Charles Augustus, Roman Emperor, had become the most powerful western European monarch, and held more power than the papacy.
He would go on to reign his empire until his death on the morning of the 28th of January, 814, due to a sickness that lasted seven days, which he acquired after bathing in the hot springs of Aachen. He was then buried in the Aachen Cathedral on the same day of his death. Above his tomb, an arch was constructed with an inscription that stated: “In this tomb lies the body of Charles, the Great and Orthodox Emperor, who gloriously extended the kingdom of the Franks, and reigned prosperously for forty-seven years. He died at the age of seventy, in the year of our Lord 814, the 7th Indiction, on the 28th day of January.” Charlemagne’s rule lasted 47 years as the king of the Franks and 14 years as Emperor of the Romans.
Charlemagne’s descendants, unfortunately, were ineffective emperors. His son, Louis the Pious, succeeded him after his death. Louis the Pious was then succeeded by his three sons Lothair, Charles the Bald, and Lois the German, who split the empire their grandfather had established into three separate kingdoms.
Charlemagne’s death would prove to be a detriment not only to the preservation of his empire, but also the cultural reforms that he made. Emperors that succeeded him lacked the strength, creativity, and the dynamic character he had, which led to the slow retrogression of European culture to a more barbaric and primitive state than it had been during the peak of Charlemagne’s rule. With that being said, not all the blame can be put on his successors, for Charlemagne was also responsible for this in some ways. He made a lot of enemies with the surrounding kingdoms during his time of conquest, specifically with the Vikings of Scandinavia. They launched frequent attacks on the empire during Louis' reign, which contributed to its decline. As the historian Norman F. Cantor puts it:
“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)
Although some historians have criticized Charlemagne’s reign (and rightfully so at times) due to some glaring weaknesses of his system or governance, his cultural reforms giving too much power to the church and some of his social and economic policies being too harsh and oppressive, this still does not take away the impact he had. His revival of the Roman Empire in Western Europe proved that it was indeed possible to unite it once again. This served as the basis of the idea of a politically unified Europe, which inspired many of the most well-recognized European political leaders henceforth for better or for worse. The cultural revival brought about in his reign, despite it dying out after Charlemagne’s death, was not in vain. It provided plenty of books, libraries, schools, and educational curricula which served as the basis of the much more famous Renaissance that started in Italy in the 14th Century, which pulled Europe out of the bleak Dark Ages for good.
He is, no doubt, one of the most influential monarchs of Europe. His political decisions were way ahead of its time, and were so impactful that it ultimately helped change the course of the world’s history at a grand level. Feats such as these are why he is now known as Carolus Magnus, Charles the Great, the greatest of the Carolingian Dynasty. It is why he is celebrated as Charlemagne, the father of Europe.
Appendix - Life Behind the Scenes
Charlemagne had several wives, quite a few concubines, and a lot of children. Here is a list of his wives and mistresses (whose names are emboldened), and the children (whose names are underlined) he had with them.
Wives and Legitimate Heirs
Himiltrude was his first wife, whom he married in 766. Though their marriage ended, it was never formally annulled. With her he had his eldest son, Pepin the Hunchback.
Gerperga, his second wife, was the Lombard princess he married in 770 in order to please his mother. Their marriage was annulled, and they did not have any children together.
Hildegard, whom he married after repudiating his marriage with Gerperga, was his third wife. With her, Charlemagne had plenty of children: four sons, Charles, Pepin, and Louis, and Lothair, and five daughters: Adelaide, Hruodrud, Bertha, Gisela, and Hildegarde. Hildegard died in the year 784.
After the death of Hildegard, Charles married Fastrada in 784. With her he had three daughters, Theoderada, Hiltrud, and Ruodhaid. Fastrada died in 794.
His fifth and last wife was Luitgard, whom he married in 794. They did not have any children together.
Mistresses and Illegitimate Children
His first known concubine was Gersuinda, whom he had a daughter with named Adaltrud.
His second concubine was a woman named Madelgard, who bore him a daughter named Ruodhaid.
Amaltrud was his third known mistress, who with her had a daughter named Alpaida.
His fourth mistress was Regina. Together, they had two sons, Hugh and Drogo.
His fifth and last mistress was Ethelid. Charlemagne and her had a son together named Theodoric.
Charlemagne was described as being a devoted and loving father. He kept a very close eye on his children, and their education. Charlemagne made sure that all his children received a thorough education on the liberal arts. Einhard wrote that Charles would never eat his meals without his children, and always travelled with them.
Fun fact: it is said that Charlemagne loved his daughters a lot that he forbade them
from marrying whilst he was alive.
Charlemagne did not receive any formal education growing up, and was only able to attain one when he came into power. He was described as a gifted orator, fluent and articulate in his speech. Beyond his native tongue of Old Frankish, he learned Latin and Greek (though he could not speak Greek well, he could still understand it). As stated in his cultural reforms, he enthusiastically advocated for the liberal arts. He himself was instructed in this, and studied rhetoric, dialect, as well as astronomy. He diligently tried to study how to write. He allegedly kept stone tablets under his pillows, where he would practice writing during his free time. Unfortunately, due to him starting at such a late age, his efforts to learn how to write were met with little success.
Hobbies, Interests, and Food
Throughout his life, Charlemagne had always been fit and quite the active person. Charles loved physical activities such as horseback riding and swimming. He loved relaxing in the hot springs of Aachen. It was only in the last four years of his life where he saw a decline in his physical health. It is said that Charlemagne had a strained relationship with his doctors, for his physicians had urged him for the sake of his health to give up roasted meat in favor of boiling it instead, which Charlemagne simply could not accept.
Charlemagne was devout in his religion, Christianity. It is said that he always attended masses if his health allowed for it. He would often make generous donations to the church, often giving vessels of silver and gold, as well as robes for the clergy.
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