Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great or Charles I (742-814), was King of the Franks from 768 to 814, King of the Franks and Lombards from 774 to 814, and Holy Roman Emperor from 800 to 814. Renowned for his military achievements that brought together a significant portion of Western Europe, he remains a prominent figure from the Early Middle Ages.
Early Life & Rise to Power
Charlemagne’s birthplace was likely Aachen, in present-day Germany, during the final years of the Merovingian Dynasty, which had governed the region since around 450. The authority of the Merovingian kings had steadily diminished over time, with the Mayor of the Palace (equivalent to a Prime Minister) assuming greater influence. By the reign of King Childeric III (743-751), the monarch held little power, and administrative decisions were predominantly made by Charlemagne's father, Pepin the Short, who was the Mayor of the Palace.
Recognising that a direct usurpation of the throne wouldn't guarantee recognition as a legitimate king, Pepin sought papal approval and was crowned king of the Franks in 751. Upon his death in 768, his sons, Charlemagne and Carloman, inherited the throne. Their co-rule was marked by discord, with Charlemagne favouring direct action, while Carloman was less decisive. The first test of their rule came in 769 with the rebellion of Aquitaine, previously subdued by Pepin. Charlemagne advocated for military intervention, which Carloman opposed. Tensions escalated in 770, but Carloman’s death in 771 altered the course, leading to Charlemagne’s sole rule.
As the sole ruler of the Franks, Charlemagne exerted his authority through a compelling personality that embodied a blend of the warrior-king ethos and Christian vision. Primarily a warrior-king, he embarked on yearly military campaigns, integrating a Christian mission to unify and expand the Christian West.
In 772, Charlemagne initiated the Saxon Wars, a prolonged conflict against Norse paganism in Saxony. In 774, he conquered the Lombards, extending his kingdom’s boundaries and receiving the title of “King of the Franks and Lombards”.
In the meanwhile, the Pyrenees experienced unrest among the Basques, prompting Charlemagne to engage in multiple conflicts. One notable event was the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778, later inspiring the epic poem “The Song of Roland”. During this battle, Charlemagne's rearguard was ambushed and massacred. However, rather than deterring him, this defeat only strengthened his determination to fully assert control over the region.
Between 778 and 796, his military achievements expanded his kingdom across modern-day France, northern Spain, northern Italy, and Germany. The Saxon Wars, however, proved persistent. Charlemagne’s ruthless tactics, including the Massacre of Verden in 782, failed to quell Saxon autonomy. In 804, he deported over 10,000 Saxons and replaced them with his subjects, effectively winning the conflict but earning the enmity of the Scandinavian kings.
By 800, it was clear that Charlemagne’s power surpassed the papacy when Pope Leo III sought his protection against a Roman mob, leading to Charlemagne’s coronation as Holy Roman Emperor. Despite the papacy’s attempt to control him, Charlemagne’s consistent alignment of his interests with those of the Church showcased a pragmatic approach to governance.
Aside from military triumphs, Charlemagne engaged in ecclesiastical and educational reforms. He improved churches, monasteries, and schools and emphasised literacy, fostering educational development. His reign also saw technological advancements, agricultural improvements, and a reform of the Frankish Church initiated by St. Boniface.
Death & Legacy
Charlemagne governed his empire for 14 years until his death in 814. Although he had crowned his son Louis the Pious as his successor in 813, ensuring the endurance of his legacy proved challenging. The empire faced initial troubles due to Charlemagne’s earlier choices in the Saxon Wars, which had enraged Scandinavian kings. Consequently, Viking raids on Francia intensified during Louis’ reign, who ultimately resorted to land grants and negotiations.
In 840, Louis’ death led to a power struggle among his three sons, culminating in the Treaty of Verdun in 843. This division marked the decline of the Carolingian Empire, as each son ruled a separate kingdom. Louis the German received East Francia, Lothair took Middle Francia, and Charles the Bald would rule West Francia. None were interested in helping the others, and the empire’s infrastructure deteriorated. The Viking raids continued until they were finally ended by Charles the Simple through a treaty with the Viking chieftain Rollo. Ultimately, the separate kingdoms that emerged from Charlemagne’s empire laid the foundation for modern European nations.