Who was Charlemagne? Charlemagne Life Story and Empire


Who was Charlemagne? Information on Charlemagne biography, life story, inheritance, empire, religion and administration.

CHARLEMAGNE, (742-814), was king of the Franks, first emperor and greatest ruler of the Carolingian dynasty, which bears his name. Charlemagne means Charles the Great in French. He is also known as Charles I, both as king of France and as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

Who was Charlemagne? Charlemagne Life Story and Empire

By the time of his coronation as emperor in 800, Charlemagne’s ceaseless military campaigns had brought many tribes under his rule—from the Avars along the Danube to the Bretons on the Atlantic coast, from the Frisians and Saxons who lived along the North Sea to the Bavarians in southern Germany, the Lombards of northern Italy, and the mixed peoples of the Spanish March. Although Charlemagne’s realm was held together by his own power and was not, in the modern sense, a territorial state, it was the largest realm the West had known since the 4th century.

Charlemagne’s reign was known for the Carolingian Renaissance, a rebirth of the imperial, scholarly, and law-making traditions of the Roman Empire. His vast empire was given legal codes. Scholars were encouraged to explore the great works of the past and to create new works. Tribal forms of government began to give way and the forms of government that characterized the Middle Ages—especially feudalism—began to take shape.


Charlemagne’s Inheritance.

The exact place and year of Charlemagne’s birth is uncertain, but it is likely that he was born in 742 and that the place of his birth was Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle in French), now in West Germany. His paternal grandfather was Charles Martel. His father was Pepin III (known as Pepin the Short), king of the Franks. His mother’s name was Bertha.

The shaping of Charlemagne’s political attitudes and political future began when he was a boy. In 750 his father, Pepin III, began negotiating an alliance with Pope Zacharias (reigned 741-752) in which the Pope recognized Pepin as king of the Franks. In 754 the bond with the papacy was further strengthened when Pope Stephen III (reigned 752—757) crowned Pepin and his sons, Charlemagne and Carloman, jointly as kings of the Franks and Patricians of the Romans. Sometime between 754 and 756, probably in 756, Pepin promised the papacy extensive land holdings in central and northern Italy and pledged his support and that of his heirs to defend papal rights in this area if challenged. This promise is known as tire Donation of Pepin.

When Pepin died in 768, his titles and land holdings were shared by his two sons. Carloman was given southern and central France (including eastern Aquitaine), Alsace, and the regions around Orléans, Paris, and Reims. Charlemagne received the rest, from the Atlantic coast of Aquitaine to Thuringia. Charlemagne was crowned a second time, at Noyon.

Who was Charlemagne? Charlemagne Life Story and Empire

King of the Lombards.

In 770, much against the will of Pope Stephen IV, who feared a coalition against the papacy, Charlemagne’s mother, Bertha, entered a diplomatic arrangement with the Lombards, who controlled most of Italy. The alliance was sealed in 770 by the marriage of Charlemagne to a daughter of Desiderius, the Lombard king. But the alliance did not endure. Within a year Charlemagne had expelled his wife. When his brother Carloman died in 771, Carloman’s widow fled with their children to Lombardy, and Charlemagne seized Carloman’s lands. Thereby he became sole king of all the Franks. Having no further need of the Lombard alliance, he divorced Desiderata, his Lombard wife. He was later to have several other wives and concubines.

The terms of the Donation of Pepin now came into play, for it was the papacy’s fear of the Lombards that had prompted the arrangements made in the Donation. In 772, Pope Adrian I appealed to Charlemagne for military help, protesting that Desiderius, Charlemagne’s father-in-law and king of the Lombards, had usurped control of papal lands. Adrian invoked Charlemagne’s oath to defend the Roman Church.

Charlemagne’s first move was to offer Desiderius a substantial financial settlement on the condition that he withdraw from the lands claimed by the papacy. When Desiderius refused to comply, Charlemagne renewed the Donation of Pepin and invaded Italy. This was the first of Charlemagne’s five military expeditions into Italy, and the most successful. Desiderius was captured and imprisoned in a Frankish monastery. Carlo-man’s widow and children fell into Charlemagne’s custody and disappeared. The Lombard duchies of northern Italy submitted to Charlemagne, who assumed the title of king of the Lombards.



In 781, Charlemagne used the papacy’s special powers to strengthen his position by persuading Pope Adrian I to crown his sons Pepin and Louis kings, respectively, of Italy and Aquitaine. But his support of Adrian’s successor, Leo III, who came to the papal throne in 795, won Charlemagne the imperial crown. Leo III had not been able to reconcile the factions that split at his election. The crisis reached a head in 799 when Pope Leo, charged by his enemies with both perjury and adultery, was waylaid during a religious procession in Rome and brutally attacked. Charlemagne’s envoys in Rome rescued Leo from his attackers and sent him to Gaul. Charlemagne interviewed him at Paderborn and then dispatched him back to Rome with a commission of inquiry to look into the charges against him. Later Charlemagne went to Rome himself. He would have presided at Leo’s trial, but the Pope was allowed to clear himself of the charges against him on canonical grounds, without trial, by taking an oath of purgation before Charlemagne and a synod. After punishing Leo’s enemies, Charlemagne was ritually crowned and adored as emperor by the Pope on Christmas Day, 800. At the same time, Leo also crowned Charlemagne’s son Charles as king of the Franks.

The final step in Charlemagne’s political ascendancy came in 812. As a result of a Frankish naval defeat of the Byzantine forces, and after palace revolutions in Constantinople, the Byzantine emperor, Michael I, acknowledged Charlemagne as emperor. Charlemagne died on Jan. 28, 814, at Aachen.

Empire Builder.

Although some of the territory in Charlemagne’s empire came to him through inheritance and through diplomatic negotiations and alliances, he won other parts by conquest. He had first invaded Italy in 773-774. His next three invasions (776, 780-781, 786-787) consolidated his conquests there and settled his conflicts with the papacy.

Charlemagne made one expedition into Spain, in 778, fighting both the Arabs and the Christian Basques, who inflicted upon him the famous defeat of Roncevalles. Forced to retreat, he left Spain north of the Ebro River to local governors, encouraging them to make guerrilla war against the Arabs. He organized the Spanish March.

Beginning in 778, Charlemagne strove to supplant Breton tribal authorities with agents of his royal government. He himself led two expeditions to quell the ensuing Breton revolts in 786 and again in 799.

The most dangerous and protracted struggles of Charlemagne’s reign occurred in the East. From 773 on, the Saxons launched periodic attacks on Frankish lands, once penetrating as far as Cologne under their leader Wittekind. Their raids inflicted great destruction, and Charlemagne responded with fire and sword. In 785 he brought Wittekind to a settlement, set forth in Charlemagne’s capitulary De partibus Saxoniae, in which, among other things, he prescribed death for any Saxon who refused to be baptized. Acceptance of the Franks’ God signified submission to their king, Charlemagne. However, the settlement provided only a pause in the fighting. Almost every year between 792 and 800 there was a Saxon revolt against the Franks. A final outburst occurred in 804.

Charlemagne was able to win clearer victories along the Saale and Danube rivers over the Bavarians and their allies, the Avars. Duke Tassilo, the ruler of Bavaria, conspired with Arechis of Benevento against Charlemagne. The duke also entered into a pact with the Avars in 781. In 787, Charlemagne invaded Bavaria, seized and imprisoned Tassilo, and divided his duchy among his counts. In 794, at the Synod of Frankfurt, Charlemagne forced Tassilo publicly to abdicate his authority over Bavaria.

Who was Charlemagne? Charlemagne Life Story and Empire

Charlemagne launched an elaborate campaign against the Avars by land and river. Forced to retreat in 791, he left command of his army to his son, Pepin of Italy. In 795 the Franks seized the camp of the leader of the Avars, called the Khagan, and with it enormous treasure. The Franks had to put down further Avar revolts in 796 and again in 805. As in Saxony, conversion to Christianity followed conquest. Charlemagne made the city of Salzburg, now in Austria, a missionary center for work among the Avars. In 805 the leader of the Avars was converted and entered Charlemagne’s custody.

By means of these conquests and by eildless negotiations and alliances Charlemagne created the Frankish empire.


The rapid extension of Charlemagne’s control over many diverse and widely separated peoples required administrative improvisation of a high order. In some lands, like the duchy of Benevento, he subjected the local rulers to his service by oaths of fealty. In other areas, as in Bavaria, he supplanted the local rulers with his own agents. Along his frontiers he erected buffer provinces, called marches, commanded by counts with virtually autonomous powers. These “margraves” (as such counts were called) erected a military cordon, or line of defense, between the Franks and hostile peoples outside the empire.


In Frankish lands, Charlemagne developed the administrative system of his predecessors, making counts and bishops his agents in local government. He introduced the missi dominici (teams of inspectors), each consisting of one count and one bishop, who went as his personal envoys through a number of counties, supervising fiscal and legal matters.

Of his many specific changes, Charlemagne’s reform of the Frankish monetary system in 790-794 was perhaps the most important. By increasing the weight of the pound and reserving to the crown the exclusive mintage of silver, he began the monometallic system of currency that prevailed in western Europe until the 13th century.


Besides introducing the capitulary as a form of legal promulgation in 779, Charlemagne had written copies prepared of the tribal laws of the Saxons, Thuringians, and Frisians. He also supplemented the Bavarian code and, after 800, revised the codes of the two chief Frankish tribes, the Ripuarians and the Salians. He also encouraged the study of Church law. In the Codex Carolinus, he made a collection of 8th century papal letters to Frankish kings, which was invaluable for later studies of canon law.

Religion and Learning.

Charlemagne’s father had encouraged the purification of liturgical texts. Under Charlemagne himself a critical study of the liturgy led to a scrutiny of Scriptural texts and, ultimately, to the highly accurate Alcuinian Rescension (or edition) of the Scriptures, prepared under the supervision of Alcuin, the Anglo-Saxon scholar. Careful editions were also prepared of ancient and patristic writings.

The papal alliance was, from the beginning, essential to this work. For although the Franks differed with the papacy on political issues, they accepted the authority of the church in matters of faith and religious practice. Charlemagne sought and received from Adrian I books of liturgical order, an authentic copy of the Benedictine rule, and an authoritative collection of canon law texts. The Carolingian concepts of the king as the vicar of God, of his realm as in some sense a reflection of the Heavenly Kingdom, and of royal ceremonies as a sort of divine liturgy made these theological and liturgical studies an integral part of Charlemagne’s effort to establish a reign of law and order.

Charlemagne was convinced that right government, that is, government upheld by divine favor, must follow a pattern that careful study could uncover in Christianity’s holy books. This conviction led to stringent regulations about education of the clergy. Ordination of ‘illiterates was forbidden. He assembled the so-called Palatine Academy to prepare textual criticism and to teach the clergy of the royal chapel, from among whom bishops were usually chosen.

Alcuin, the Anglo-Saxon scholar, was Charlemagne’s closest academic adviser between 782 and 796. The Lombard scholar Paul the Deacon, Peter of Pisa, Agobard of Spain, Leidrad of Bavaria, Theodulf the Visigoth, and the eunuch Elissaeus (the Byzantine tutor in Greek) gathered at Charlemagne’s court both as intellectual ornaments representing his far-flung empire and as theological strategists in what Charlemagne, inspired by St. Augustine’s City of God, considered his war against the Devil for peace and justice.

The normal conduct of government, court ceremonies and architecture, as well as Charlemagne’s intervention in great theological disputes (such as the Adoptionist conflict in Spain and the iconoclastic controversy in Byzantium) show the impact of the scholars’ work. Indeed, the blending of modes of thought from many lands was ultimately the most lasting achievement of Char lemagne’s reign. The scholars’ letters, treatises, and canon law collections survived, together with the legislation Charlemagne issued under theii counsel. Their teachings disciplined the greal theologians and lawyers in the reign of Charlemagne’s grandson Charles the Bald. The missionary work among the eastern tribes pressed the frontier of Christendom beyond the Elbe River and gave that region the cultural stamp that still appears in its retention of the Latin rite of the Christian church rather than the Eastern rite.

Weaknesses in the Empire.

The intellectual accomplishments of Charlemagne’s empire endured, but the empire they were meant to sustain crumbled. In Charlemagne’s day, western Europe was just emerging from a period of political and cultural anarchy. His predecessors, in the aftermath of the barbarian invasions, had laid foundations on which Charlemagne built the illusion of a vast and powerful empire. Like most barbarian kingdoms, Charlemagne’s realm was actually a personal union. The empire was an agglomeration of kingdoms and provinces, a confederation of tribes, having nothing in common besides personal subjection to Charlemagne.

Charlemagne had gathered the empire; he could divide it as he chose. In 806, he prepared a division of the empire among his three sons. But two of the sons predeceased him, and shortly before his own death Charlemagne crowned as emperor his son Louis the Pious. Consequently, Louis inherited the empire intact, but he partitioned it among his own sons. This act unleashed the tribal divisions, the increasing independence of great nobles, and the latent power of the protofeudal classes that Charlemagne had both held in check and encouraged to his own advantage. The system of local administration, the cordon of marches, and all other administrative supports of Charlemagne’s personal union dissolved in a welter of civil wars.

Who was Charlemagne? Charlemagne Life Story and Empire


Still, the assertion of independent power by the great nobles marked progress toward a new and higher system of government as well as the decay of a primitive order. The splintering of Charlemagne s empire signified the end of tribal government in which the realm was, in effect, the personal property of the king. It indicated the beginning of the state as a permanent, territorial unit bound up with, but still separate from, individual kings. Thus began the distinction, extremely faint at first, between king and kingdom that lies at the heart of constitutional forms of government.


In most of his works, Charlemagne built on precedents. His special talents lay, not in innovation, but in development. Pepin the Short had introduced the Roman mode of chant and the purification of liturgical texts, which under Charlemagne evolved into a broad revival of law, theology, and rhetoric. Charlemagne’s involvement in Roman affairs was rooted in negotiations that began under Charles Martel and matured in Pepin’s alliance with Pope Stephen III. His role as patron of Christian missions among the pagan tribes between the Weser and Elbe rivers likewise continued policies of Charles Martel and Pepin. It was as though Charlemagne’s predecessors had stretched a canvas, made preliminary designs, and left him the greater work of the final design and painting.

By his conquests, Charlemagne takes his place with the Byzantine emperors and the caliphs of Baghdad and Cordova as a great ruler. He entered into diplomatic negotiation with all of them. The silks, balsam, musk, and spices that, according to a chronicle ascribed to Einhard, went with Charlemagne to his tomb at Aachen in 814 gave evidence of the wide contacts of his realm.

Posterity overlooks Charlemagne’s slaughter of the Saxons, his probable murder of his brother Carloman’s children, his treachery toward Desiderius, his Lombard father-in-law, and his moral laxity, which scandalized even the barbaric age in which he lived. Posterity remembers the victories and the broad movement of government reform and learning that accompanied them, which has been called the Carolingian Renaissance.


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