His kingdom would unite western Europe and end the Dark Ages. Charlemagne was born in 747 as the son of Austrasian King Pepin the Short. At the age of 19, he inherited his deceased father’s territory and jointly ruled it with his brother Carloman. Pepin intended for his sons to cooperate as rulers, but they had an uneasy relationship.
After jointly ruling for three years, Carloman would suspiciously die. It was believed that Charlemagne had his brother poisoned. However, this rumor was never proven. After becoming the sole ruler, Charlemagne consolidated his territories of western Aquitaine, Neustria, Austrasia, and Bavaria together with his brother’s lands. The Frankish King’s efforts went unchallenged by Carloman’s sons due to their youth. As a result, Charlemagne became the uncontested ruler of a united Frankish kingdom.
During the 700s, it was expected of kings to be both rulers and warriors. Charlemagne led many military campaigns during his life. Due to the diverse nature of his territories, conflict often arose within them. Charlemagne’s forces became very skilled and disciplined through fighting in these conflicts. The stability that these victories brought the Frankish king allowed him to focus on lands outside his kingdom.
Despite his many military victories, Charlemagne’s army did suffer defeat. The worst occurred in 777. In 777, Charlemagne and his forces traveled to Iberia (southwest Spain) to assist the Muslim Emir of Zaragoza. The expedition turned into a disaster as Charlemagne’s forces failed to capture the desired stronghold. They were forced to retreat upon receiving news of an approaching army. As they withdrew, Charlemagne’s men would be ambushed and harassed by the enemy. This unsuccessful campaign caused an unnecessary loss of soldiers and gained nothing in return.
During his life, Charlemagne would face one of the greatest threats to his kingdom: the Saxons. Their territory bordered Charlemagne’s in the northeast. Beginning in 772, the Saxons would be a thorn in his side for 33 years. Led by a crafty leader named Widukind, the Saxons launched 18 campaigns against Charlemagne’s forces. After a particularly devastating defeat by them in 782, Charlemagne retaliated by executing 4,500 Saxons. The king intended this action to destroy his enemy’s will to fight. Instead, Charlemagne’s decision backfired, and the Saxons became more determined.
In 785, Widukind realized that his forces couldn’t continue fighting against Charlemagne’s in the long term. He surrendered himself to the Frankish king and became a Christian per Charlemagne’s wishes. Widukind’s surrender did not stop the Saxons from fighting. Charlemagne still had to contend with the opposing Saxon forces. He would eventually deport 10,000 from his territory and redistributed their lands to Frankish subjects.
The Frankish Court
Off the battlefield, Charlemagne spent most of his time in his homeland of Austrasia. Despite being illiterate, learning was highly encouraged at Charlemagne’s court. As more academics congregated to Austrasia, his court gradually became the center of European culture. A cultural renaissance would develop from this gathering of intellectuals. In his free time, Charlemagne attempted to better himself by learning to read and write. Although he gained some knowledge of both, Charlemagne would never master either.
Charlemagne’s kingdom was vast and diverse. He wisely understood that a sole king could not effectively govern without help. Although he wasn’t a political innovator, Charlemagne recognized that an efficient system was needed. To accomplish this, Charlemagne appointed numerous representatives to rule on his behalf. In return, these officials would report to a central government under his leadership. This method of rule proved to be successful and increased the stability of the Frankish kingdom.
Charlemagne made an effort to spread Christianity throughout his lands and into others. When Lombardy threatened the Catholic Church, Pope Adrian I called on Charlemagne for help. He dutifully sent troops to attack the Lombards. After laying siege to the kingdom, the King of Lombardy surrendered in 774. Charlemagne claimed the Lombard crown for himself and further extended his kingdom. Charlemagne would later reaffirm his commitment to the papacy and would serve as its protector.
In his private life, Charlemagne had at least five wives: Himiltrude, Desiderata, Hildegard, Fastrada, and Liutgard. Each of his wives would bear him many children. Hildegard was allegedly Charlemagne’s main partner and had nine children by him, whom he preferred over their other siblings. One of his sons, Pepin the Hunchback, resented his father’s favoritism of his half-siblings and attempted to launch a coup. He failed and was imprisoned in an abbey as punishment. Two of Charlemagne’s sons, Pepin (not the Hunchback) and Louis, would later assist their father politically by becoming kings of Italy and, Aquitaine respectively.
From King to Emperor
By the late 790s, Charlemagne ruled over the largest territory in Europe and was the defender of the Catholic faith. Due to these factors, Charlemagne’s status as a king would eventually evolve into something more legendary. On December 25, 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne the Holy Roman Emperor. This was partially due to Leo’s precarious position as pope and the power of Charlemagne. It’s been debated whether Charlemagne knew or not that he was becoming emperor on that fateful day. Regardless, he accepted.
The newly created Holy Roman Empire served as a statement. The holy aspect came from the support of the Catholic Church. Since Charlemagne had long been its staunch supporter, Leo III readily gave his blessing. Roman Empire alluded to the once-mighty empire that had ruled in Europe. Since its collapse in 476, Europe had entered into a chaotic period known as the Dark Ages.
It was initially intended that the newly established Holy Roman Empire would be a revival of the former Roman Empire. Charlemagne viewed it as something new entirely. Through his vast landholdings and approval of the pope, the new empire became a legitimate, prestigious European power. Charlemagne’s new dominance of Europe and his countless victories on the battlefield would earn him the famous moniker of “the great.”
Towards the end of his life, Charlemagne developed a pain in his side and would eventually die after a fever on January 28, 814. He was 67 and succeeded by his son, Louis. Charlemagne has left a significant mark on European history that has not been replicated since. The Holy Roman Empire brought much-needed stability to the land and united western Europe under Charlemagne’s rule. His descendants continued his legacy by ruling throughout the continent, and many continue to do so today. This is a fitting tribute to the man known as the Father of Europe.
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Sullivan, R. E. (2019, August 20). Charlemagne. Retrieved October 1, 2019, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charlemagne.
Charlemagne. (2009, November 9). Retrieved October 1, 2019, from https://www.history.com/topics/middle-ages/charlemagne.