Born: 2 April 742, 747 or 748, Frankish Kingdom (modern-day France)
Died: 28 January 814 (aged 65, 66 or 71), Aachen, Francia (modern-day Germany)
Reign: King of the Franks (9 October 768 – 28 January 814); King of the Lombards (10 July 774 – 28 January 814); Holy Roman Emperor (25 December 800 – 28 January 814)
Marriages: Desiderata (m. c.770, ann. 771); Hildegard of Vinzgouw (m. 771. d. 783); Fastrada (m. c.783, d. 794); Luitgard (m. c.794; d. 800)
Children: Pepin the Hunchback, Charles the Younger, Pepin of Italy, Louis the Pious; amongst others (roughly 18 in total)
Early Life (c. 742 – c. 770)
Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great or Charles I, was King of the Franks from 768, King of the Lombards from 774, and the Holy Roman Emperor from 800. But how did he get there in the first place?
First of all, there is debate about when Charlemagne was even born. It is often assumed that he was born in either 742, 747, or 748 – somewhere in the Frankish Kingdom (likely Aachen, in modern-day Germany). His father was the first Carolingian king of the Franks, Pepin the Short (r. 751-68). The debate largely lies around the fact that if he was born in 742, he would have been born out of wedlock – something which was completely unacceptable for a king in medieval Europe. Either way, Charlemagne was born at some point during the 740s in the Frankish Kingdom!
Unfortunately, there is not much evidence from his early years. He was the eldest child of Pepin the Short and Bertrada of Laon, and had a younger brother, called Carloman, who co-ruled with Charlemagne (as Carloman I) from 768-71.
Fast-forwarding to that tumultuous period in the late 760s, Pepin the Short had decided, before his death, to split his kingdom between his two sons, Charlemagne and Carloman. This was never going to work when two sons were both fighting for the crown, and neither wanted to rule jointly with the other. After roughly three years of quarrelling with one another, Carloman was dead. A contemporary report suggested that he died of a bad nosebleed. Ignoring the suspicious circumstances surrounding his brother’s death, Charlemagne wasted no time in seizing what he viewed as his rightful lands: in 771, he took away lands from Carloman’s two young sons (who were not old enough to challenge him for it), and combined it with his own inheritance, which was mostly in modern-day Belgium and Germany. Charlemagne was ready to take on Europe.
Early Conquests, c. 770 – c. 780
Arguably the most adventurous years of Charlemagne’s life had just begun. He started by uniting together the two halves of his father’s realm, gifted to himself and Carloman (Neustria and Austrasia in medieval European geographical terms). Ultimately, this stretched his Frankish kingdom from the Danube River to the Atlantic Ocean in an East-West direction, and from the Netherlands to Provence in a North-South direction.
His next major campaign took him south towards Italy, where he conquered Lombardy, south of the Alps. From winter 773 to summer 774 he managed to consolidate a hold over this kingdom and was crowned King of the Lombards on 10 July 774. Upon seeing how easy he made this mission, contemporary chroniclers reported that other Germanic tribes beyond the Elbe River in Central Europe paid homage to Charlemagne, although many still remained pagan.
The following year, in 775, Charlemagne begun the long conquest of Saxony, arguably his hardest. He eventually succeeded in converting the Saxons to Catholicism, but it took him until 804 to fully subdue them.
The ‘Father of Europe’ and Courtly Life, c. 770 – c. 800
Amongst all of the fighting (which he almost constantly did throughout his reign), Charlemagne’s court was sophisticated. For instance, it was in this court that the ancient term of ‘Europe’ was revived: the Carolingians needed a term to describe the section of the known world which they dominated, and more importantly they needed a term which distinguished themselves from the pagan lands of Central and Eastern Europe, from Byzantium, or from Christendom as a whole. Historian Norman Davies argues that “This ‘First Europe’, therefore, was an ephemeral Western concept which lasted no longer than Charlemagne himself.” Even so, this plays a large part in why Charlemagne is often referred to as the ‘Father of Europe’.
In addition to this, Charlemagne was an enthusiastic builder. He built palaces across his realm, including at Nijmegen, Engelheim and Aachen. He also built bridges over the Rhine at Mainz, and linked together the tributaries of the Rhine and Danube with a canal known as the Kaisergarb. Additionally, he was a pioneer of Romanesque architecture north of the Alps, bringing architectural influences from Lombardy across the mountain range into North-Western Europe; he sought to make his capital of Aachen a ‘northern Rome’, according to historian Simon Jenkins: he based his palatine chapel on St Vitale in Ravenna, and begged the Pope for mosaics from Ravenna to adorn it.
He was also a patron of education and learning, yet despite this, he himself was illiterate. One of his most famous scholars was an English monk, Alcuin of York (735-804). Alcuin became head of Aachen’s palace school, as well as Charlemagne’s spiritual adviser, and presided over what came to be known in history as the Carolingian Renaissance.
Charlemagne (as we shall see later) governed the Church as an integral part of his domains. Some historians call him hypocritical for some of his actions, because while he forbade his bishops to engage in battle personally, the way he spread the Gospel through kingdoms he conquered was through ‘fire and sword’.
Holy Roman Emperor and Later Years, c. 788 – 814
After conquering Bavaria in 788, the West of Charlemagne’s empire was relatively secure, and it gave him chance to turn his attention to problems elsewhere, notably in the east.
Over in Byzantium, the Emperor Leo IV had died, leaving his consort Empress Irene in charge. And this was the main problem – Irene was sitting in as consort until her son Constantine VI was of age (he was still a minor), and the main problem in the West was that a woman was in charge of the Byzantine Empire – something unfathomable to most medieval kings!
She also called the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, which condemned iconoclasm (the use of imagery and icons in the Catholic Church) as heretical. Charlemagne was irritated that he himself had not been called to the Council, and demanded an explanation from Pope Adrian I. Before Adrian could respond, Charlemagne ordered his theologians to produce a defence of iconoclasm, which came to be known as Libri Carolini. Due to this, his relationship with Adrian I was strained, but the cloud eventually passed, and both were on civil terms by the time of Adrian’s death in December 795.
Yet this is where the main even begins. Adrian’s successor, Pope Leo III (not to be confused with the Byzantine Emperor of the same name), was not of noble birth, and some even spread rumours that he was an Arab. As a result, Adrian’s family and friends tried to have him eradicated: on 25 April 799, a group led by the late Pope’s nephew attacked Leo while he was on a solemn procession in Rome. They failed in their mission of blinding him and cutting off his tongue – something which would have forced him to resign as Pope – but left him unconscious instead. Luckily, he was rescued by passers-by and friends, and removed to safety at Charlemagne’s court in Paderborn.
The two became good friends, and on Leo’s return to Rome in November 799, he found himself facing charges of adultery, simony and perjury. Charlemagne was suspicious of these wild accusations, and moreover questioned how could a Pope be tried? How could God’s voice on Earth be tried, and by whom? Normally, the answer would have been the Emperor in Constantinople – but Irene was on the throne. A woman passing judgement on a man in medieval Europe was incomprehensible. So as far as western Europe was concerned, the Throne of Emperors in Byzantium was vacant. That Irene, a woman, even sat on it in the first place showed how far the Roman Empire had fallen in the eyes of the Pope and Charlemagne.
By the time Charlemagne reached Rome in November 800, he had been firmly reminded by Alcuin that he had no more authority to pass judgement on the Pope than Irene did, but he also knew that while the accusations remained unsettled, Christendom lacked both an Emperor and a Pope. On 23 December, Leo solemnly swore on the Gospel that the accusations were untrue: remarkably, the assembly accepted the claim and his name was cleared. Two days later, on Christmas Day 800, Pope Leo III laid the imperial crown on Charlemagne’s head, and crowned him Holy Roman Emperor.
But why did Leo give Charlemagne this title of Holy Roman Emperor? It seemed at the time that Charlemagne would prove a more useful ally than distant Constantinople – should accusations come against the Papacy again, then it would be easier for the accusing party and the Papacy to sort it out in Central Europe, rather than waiting for a response from an Emperor on the fringes of Asia. Historian John Julius Norwich argues that Leo III created Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor because “the Byzantines had proved so unsatisfactory from every point of view – political, military and doctrinal – he would select a Westerner: the one man who, by his wisdom, his statesmanship and the vastness of his dominions…stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries.”
Yet for all the pomp and ceremony, and the imperial title being given to him, various chroniclers and historians alike have since argued that it was a complete surprise to Charlemagne that he was awarded this title: Charlemagne’s biographer, the Abbot Einhard, claimed that the coronation occurred spontaneously: despite this argument, regardless if it was spontaneous or carefully rehearsed, the coronation happened and left a Catholic Emperor in the West – independent of Byzantium – and the once barbaric Frankish kingdom which Charlemagne had inherited from his father in 768 was now upgraded, dependent on the Pope for its new status.
Moreover, Einhard also wrote that Charlemagne claimed that he never would have set foot in the basilica had he known that Leo would place the imperial crown upon his head, and to an extent this argument rings true: for the rest of his life, Charlemagne continued to style himself as Rex Francorum et Langobardorum (King of the Franks and the Lombards), rather than as Holy Roman Emperor.
The remaining years after Charlemagne’s coronation saw more conquests, further imperial expansion and surprisingly little involvement in religious matters, despite his title. Charlemagne died peacefully on 28 January 814, in Aachen, where he was buried. His eldest surviving son, Louis the Pious, succeeded him.
Few people have gone down in history as well as Charlemagne. To this day, he still inspires people from all walks of life (the indie band Blossoms released a song called Charlemagne in 2015, suggesting his legacy is still going strong today).
Despite the claim that he was uninterested in the imperial title, he nevertheless took his role seriously: the renewed Empire was intended to be both Roman and Christian. Historian David Starkey writes that “[Charlemagne] was soldier of the Faith and reformer of the Church, on the one hand, and, on the other, restorer of the Roman Empire, whose inheritance of law, language, literature, architecture and forms of government he was determined to revive.”
Moreover, despite the fact that the Eastern Roman Empire was reduced to Asia Minor and its Mediterranean outposts, Charlemagne, as the secular head of western Christendom, was the first figure since the Roman Emperors to span at least the heart of Europe. His legacy as Holy Roman Emperor (and Pope Leo III can also be thanked for this) stood the test of time: the Holy Roman Empire was a prominent feature of Europe’s political geography until it was dismantled by another Frenchman, Napoleon, in 1806. So for over 1000 years, this title stood strong, and survived numerous European dynasties.
Charlemagne was also canonised – although this process was not fully complete until 1165, as his sexual conquests were deemed no less extensive than his imperialistic ones: this might be something to do with the fact that he had eighteen (legitimate!) children with ten wives…not sure though!
To sum up his legacy in simple terms, I will turn to his epitaph on his tomb at Aachen (which is sadly lost now): it read:
Beneath this tomb lies the body of Charles, great and orthodox Emperor, who nobly increased the kingdom of the Franks, and reigned prosperously for forty-seven years.
And thus ends the story of the Father of Europe himself, Charlemagne. Thanks for reading!
For more of my other work, please check out my author profile at The Collector here.
Norman Davies, Europe: A History (2014)
Simon Jenkins, A Short History of Europe: From Pericles to Putin (2018)
John Julius Norwich, The Popes: A History (2011)
David Starkey, Crown & Country: The Kings and Queens of England – A History (2010)