The greatest king of the Middle Ages, Charlemagne forged a powerful empire during his long reign from 768 to 814 and left an indelible mark on his age and the generations to come. The son of Pippin the Short, the first Carolingian king, Charles (called Charles the Great, in Latin Carolus Magnus, whence his commonly used name) inherited an important political and military legacy from his father. He used that inheritance and expanded upon it, creating a political ideal that would influence European history for the next thousand years.
   The great king was physically and personally imposing as well. A full seven times the length of his foot in height, according to his biographer Einhard, Charlemagne towered over his contemporaries, of lofty stature and of regal bearing whether seated or standing. Although his neck was thick, his stomach rather pronounced, and his voice a bit higher than his size would suggest, Charles carried himself in such a way as to make these defects unnoticeable. His health was excellent until old age, but even then he refused to eat boiled meat as his doctors recommended. He had long hair, large eyes, and his face was cheerful and full of laughter.
   In his biography Einhard describes a monarch who was most personable and who loved company. He often had many guests to dinner, where he indulged in food but drank only in moderation, while German epic tales were told or pages from the works of St. Augustine of Hippo were read. Moreover, he built a great palace over a hot spring, where he would swim with many fellow bathers. He seldom went anywhere without his daughters, whom he loved so much that he could not bear to be apart from them. His daughters never married, but they did bear Charles several grandchildren he loved as dearly as he loved his own children. He took great pains to educate his children and often took them riding and hunting, pastimes at which he excelled and which he enjoyed greatly. He was also deeply religious, according to the climate of the age, attended mass regularly, and honored the pope, bishops, and abbots. For Einhard, Charlemagne was as great a person as he was a ruler.
   The early part of his reign, however, was a time of crisis. In accordance with Frankish tradition, at his death in 768 Pippin divided the realm between his two sons, Charles and Carloman. In some ways the division was more favorable to the younger Carloman, whose kingdom was compact and easier to manage than the territory given to Charles. Moreover, Charles received territory that had only recently been fully incorporated into the kingdom and was more susceptible to revolt at the change of leadership. And in the opening years of his reign Charles did face a serious revolt in his territory, which was suppressed only with difficulty. The situation was made all the worse by Carloman's unwillingness to come to his brother's aid. Despite efforts to prevent civil war by their mother, Bertrada, who had recently arranged a marriage for her older son with the daughter of the Lombard king, tensions ran high between her two sons. The two were on the point of war when Carloman suddenly died, leaving Charles as the sole Carolingian king, a situation he exploited by dispossessing his nephews and repudiating his Lombard wife.
   Having survived his brother and a potentially disastrous civil war, Charlemagne was now able to make his mark as king. His success as king rested on his indomitable will and his ability as a warrior, a fact recognized by Einhard, who dedicated much of his tale of the great king to his military campaigns. One of Charlemagne's first actions after Carloman's death was the conquest of Saxony, a process that lasted thirty years and had important consequences for later medieval history. The wars began in 772 as punitive expeditions against Saxon raiders who plundered Frankish territory, but soon after took on a crusading character. Perhaps inspired by the support the Anglo-Saxon missionary St. Boniface received from his father, Pippin the Short, and uncle, Carloman, Charlemagne was determined to convert the pagan Saxons to Christianity. The great king not only sent armies of warriors into Saxony to impose Frankish political authority over the inhabitants but also sent armies of priests to spread the Christian faith. The Saxons, however, refused to accept the great privilege of being subject to the political and religious power of the Franks and resisted mightily.
   One contemporary lamented that the Saxons revolted against Carolingian rule annually, and Frankish armies had to return to put down the revolts. Charlemagne would not be refused, however, and he met force with force. He imposed the death penalty for Saxons who harmed priests or practiced pagan religion, as well as for those who violated Christian fasts or burned their dead. His warriors destroyed pagan shrines, massacred 4,500 Saxons at Verdun, and moved many Saxons from their homeland into Frankish territory; his priests imposed baptism before teaching the Saxons the Christian faith and built churches on destroyed pagan shrines. Even the great revolt of Widukind (782-785) did not stop the process of conversion and subjugation of the Saxons. Charles's brutality was tempered by the time of the second Saxon capitulary of 797, which provided the milk and honey of the faith instead of Frankish iron. Charlemagne's conquest and conversion of the Saxons was completed by the early ninth century, a process that bore great fruit in the tenth century.
   Charlemagne's activities as a warrior found other theaters as well. He annexed Bavaria after its duke, Tassilo, failed to honor an oath he had sworn to attend the court of the Frankish king. Breaking an oath was seen as a violation of God's will, and thus again Charlemagne could be seen doing God's work and ensuring God's justice. In the early 790s, in part as a result of the annexation of Bavaria, he was forced to secure his southeastern frontier. He sent his armies against the remnants of the Hunnish tribes that had plundered Europe savagely and smashed the central stronghold of the Huns. Huge wagonloads of treasures were taken from the Huns, and a good portion was diverted to the pope in Rome.
   Great conqueror though he was, Charlemagne's military record is not without failure. In the last years of his reign he was unable to respond successfully to the attacks of the Danes, whose lands abutted the Carolingian Empire as a result of the conquest of the Saxons. He also suffered a serious defeat in 778. In that year, responding to the invitation of the Muslim leader of Barcelona to assist him in a struggle against the Spanish emir, Charlemagne invaded Spain. He found his allies in disarray and was able to accomplish little in Spain, but worse was to come. As he crossed the Pyrenees back into France his rearguard was attacked, and it and its commander, Roland, were destroyed. The memory of the event later provided the foundation for one of the most enduring epics of the Middle Ages, the Song of Roland, but this could provide little consolation for Charlemagne, who left Spain early to respond to unrest in the kingdom and to another in the series of Saxon revolts. Indeed, the great king not only faced the occasional military setback, he also faced a number of revolts during his long reign, including one led by his favorite illegitimate son, Pippin the Hunchback.
   Despite the occasional failure and revolt, Charlemagne was a warlord to be reckoned with. He did suppress the revolts he faced, and he extended the boundaries of the empire with the creation of the Spanish March, a militarized border region that included territory on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. But his most important military campaign, after the conquest of Saxony, was his conquest of the kingdom of the Lombards in Italy. This was also one of his earliest victories (773-774), following shortly after the death of his brother Carloman in 771. It signaled a dramatic reversal of a Carolingian policy of close ties with the Lombards that had been in effect, in some ways, since the time of Charlemagne's grandfather, Charles Martel. Even though his father, Pippin the Younger, invaded Italy twice, he did so without the force or the desire that Charlemagne had. Moreover, it was also a dramatic change in the personal life of the king himself. His mother, hoping to keep the peace among her sons and with traditional Frankish allies, had arranged a marriage between her older son and Desiderata, the daughter of the Lombard king in Italy, Desiderius. But Charles repudiated his wife and broke with the Lombards, preferring to ally himself with a far greater power, the pope in Rome. His invasion quickly brought about the defeat of the Lombards and the capture of their capital at Pavia. His invasion also brought much new territory to the growing empire, as Charles not only defeated Desiderius but deposed him and usurped his crown.
   Illustration from a ninth-century manuscript of Emperor Charlemagne and his son presiding over a tribunal (The Art Archive/Biblioteca del Duomo Modena/Dagli Orti)
   The conquest of the Lombards was important for a number of reasons. It brought Charlemagne into close contact with Rome, provided him the legal right to exercise authority in Italy as the king of the Lombards, brought under his control the heartland of the old Roman Empire, and gave him the opportunity to visit Rome as a pilgrim. The first of several visits to the city, his pilgrimage in 774 strengthened the devotion that Charles and his line had for St. Peter and reinforced the family's relationship with Peter's successor, the pope. Although relations with the reigning pope, Hadrian, were sometimes strained, they were of great importance to Charles, who wept openly when Hadrian died. Rome supplied Carolingian ecclesiastics and their king with a great deal of material essential to Carolingian church reform, including numerous legal and liturgical texts. But more than a source for religious reform and spiritual inspiration, Rome provided Charles with the political justification of his power as an anointed ruler.
   One of his most important legacies was his idea of kingship. His father before him had been crowned and anointed by the pope, an act that consciously recalled the ceremonies at the crowning of the ancient kings of Israel. The influence of the Hebrew Bible on the Carolingians was great, and the biblical king David was the model king for the new Frankish dynasty. Charlemagne himself, inspired by his court scholars, saw himself as a "new David" ruling a new chosen people and was given the nickname of David by those at court. He saw himself as God's anointed, with responsibilities over God's church and people, a belief that manifested itself in his relations with the church in his kingdom and in Rome. In his capitularies, he instituted moral reform of the clergy, encouraging them to know the mass, to live a chaste life, and to avoid frequenting taverns. He also reformed the organization of the Frankish church. He introduced liturgical reforms, appointed bishops and abbots, and employed ecclesiastics in the highest levels of his government. He felt an obligation to defend the faith from heresy and moral corruption and to extend the boundaries of Christendom. His conquests accomplished the goal of extending the faith, and he presided over church councils to protect the faith from internal enemies. At his most famous council, at Frankfurt in 794, he and the assembled clerics denounced the Spanish heresy of Adoptionism (teaching that Jesus was the son of God by adoption), struggled to find the appropriate response to the Iconoclastic Controversy in the Byzantine Empire, and instituted a series of organizational and disciplinary reforms.
   As an anointed Christian king, Charles felt obligated to ensure justice throughout his realm, and to accomplish this end he implemented several new administrative practices and reformed existing ones. The use of writing in government increased dramatically during Charlemagne's reign, and the most important instrument in his administration was the capitulary, a written decree divided into chapters (capitula). These laws addressed a broad range of topics, and the greatest of them, the Admonitio Generalis of 789, outlined Charlemagne's program of government. Other capitularies addressed matters of secular and ecclesiastical administration, religious reform, religious belief and orthodoxy, legal jurisdiction, the price of bread, weights and measures, and general economic matters. The capitularies were issued, often orally (to be afterward written down), from the effective center of government, Charlemagne's court, which moved from place to place and was attended by the leading religious and secular figures of the kingdom.
   On the local level Charlemagne's will and desire for justice was implemented by a number of officers. The most important regional officer was the count, who ruled over a specific territorial unit. The count was the king's deputy and received the authority to govern from the king. He was responsible for protecting the interests of the king and disseminating his laws. The count had the right to punish criminals and was expected to maintain peace and order. He also owed military and court service to the king, and could be called on to serve as the king's special envoy. Another area of comital responsibility was the administration of justice, and included in that was the appointment of the scabini. The scabini were a new class of permanent judges established by Charlemagne to render judgment of legal disputes at the local level. The most important of the royal officials, however, were the missi dominici, or messengers of the lord king. These officials, eventually sent out in pairs of one secular and one ecclesiastical noble, were charged with ensuring the proper application of royal laws and justice. They were to guarantee that legal cases were resolved without corruption and that the king's other representatives-counts, judges, and the like-enforced the law honorably.
   Charlemagne's sense of responsibility as an anointed Christian king was perhaps the source of inspiration for his promotion of what is called Carolingian Renaissance. Although not the decisive break with an earlier "dark age" it has traditionally been considered, the renaissance did see a quickening of intellectual pace and a dramatic increase in the use of writing in government and the church. Charlemagne's goal was to create an educated clergy that could properly say the mass and teach the fundamentals of the faith to his people. As God's chosen king, he felt responsible for the salvation of his people and desired that all his subjects know the Lord's Prayer and the Apostles' Creed. To do this he needed learned priests and books. He attracted some of the best minds of his day, including Theodulf of Orléans, Paul the Deacon, Peter of Pisa, and, most importantly, the great Anglo-Saxon scholar and teacher, Alcuin of York. These scholars brought with them a devotion to Charlemagne's reforms and a devotion to Christian learning, which they shared with their students, who then contributed to the increasing sophistication of Carolingian government and society. They brought great learning with them, as well as numerous books, especially books of the Bible, and they oversaw the production of new copies of these books. And, beginning in Charlemagne's day, his efforts at cultural reform led to the production of a new edition of the Bible, heightened theological discussion, works of history and poetry, and numerous magnificently illuminated manuscripts.
   By the last decade of the eighth century, Charlemagne was the preeminent figure of Western Europe. He ruled over the greatest kingdom, presided over councils and governmental and religious reform, and in many ways rivaled the Byzantine emperor in status and prestige. Indeed, there was the sense among some of his court scholars that Charles was more than a king. A letter from Charlemagne to the pope in 795, a letter from Alcuin to Charlemagne in 799, and the palace complex at Aachen, which was modeled on an imperial palace in Ravenna, all suggest that Charlemagne, or at least those around him, had imperial pretensions. Whether Charles did harbor the desire to be recognized as an emperor in the 790s is unknowable, but the opportunity to become an emperor presented itself shortly after the ascension of Leo III to the papal throne.
   The chain of events that led to Charlemagne's elevation to the imperial dignity began in a crisis early in the reign of Pope Leo III. Elected pope in 795 after the death of the powerful and well-connected Hadrian, Leo faced the challenge of ruling the church with significant enemies in Rome, especially relatives of the former pope who were dissatisfied by the election of Leo. Although Charlemagne supported the new pope and called on him to raise his arms in prayer like Moses to support the success in battle of the king, Leo's position remained tenuous. On April 25, 799, Leo was attacked by Hadrian's nephews, Paschal and Campulus, while leading a religious procession through the streets of Rome. He was dragged from his horse and, according to some reports, was blinded and had his tongue cut out. He was then imprisoned in the monastery of St. Erasmus, and his attackers alleged that he was corrupt and guilty of adultery and perjury. He escaped from the monastery and was escorted to the Frankish court by one of Charlemagne's dukes in Italy, where he regained the powers of sight and speech. He was welcomed by the king and returned to Rome, where he awaited the arrival of the king to resolve the dispute.
   In November 800, Charles and a sizeable entourage ventured to Rome to determine the fate of the rebels and the pope. After several weeks of meeting with the pope and the nobility, a great council was held on December 23 where the rebels were found guilty and condemned to death, a sentence which was commuted to exile at Leo's request. Leo himself swore an oath of his innocence, which was accepted by all. On Christmas day, Charles attended a mass presided over by the pope, who placed a crown on the king's head when he rose from kneeling at the altar. The assembled crowd then arose and proclaimed Charles emperor and augustus.
   The empire had been revived and a new emperor crowned, but according to Einhard, had Charlemagne known what was going to happen he would not have attended mass that day. Einhard's remark has troubled historians ever since. It is most unlikely that Charles did not know and approve of what was going to happen. Although the imperial crown offered him little real new power, it surely brought great prestige. His conquests, his creation of an empire, and his protection of the church qualified him for the position in the eyes of his contemporaries and most likely in his own eyes. The construction of the palace and church in Aachen demonstrated his sense of his imperial authority, and his court scholars had spoken of him in imperial terms throughout the decade. Moreover, a letter from his most important advisor, Alcuin of York, identified Charlemagne as the greatest power in Christendom, given the attack on Leo and the vacancy of the imperial throne in Constantinople (vacant in eighth-century eyes because it was held by a woman). Indeed, it is quite likely that Charlemagne knew that he was to be crowned emperor and welcomed the imperial crown, but perhaps he was troubled by the way the coronation itself took place.
   The coronation opened the final phase of Charlemagne's career, a period of diminished activity for the emperor, during which the strains of empire began to show. The emperor was less active on the military front and faced an increasing Viking threat, one that his armies had difficulty stopping. He was also less peripatetic than he had been earlier in his reign, settling primarily at the palace at Aachen. He continued to pass new laws, however, including a capitulary in 802 that restated the religious and political program he had long promoted, now presented as the program of an emperor. By 802 he had also decided on his official title and had come to accept and appreciate the honor bestowed on Christmas day 800. In 806 he issued a succession decree, in which he divided the empire among his three sons but did not bestow the imperial title, which he may have regarded as a personal honor, on any of them. In 813 he altered the decree because two of his sons had died, leaving only his son Louis as his eventual successor. Charlemagne crowned Louis emperor in a great ceremony at Aachen, which was attended by members of the secular and religious aristocracy but not the pope. Having settled his affairs, dividing his wealth among his children and the church, Charlemagne died on January 28, 814.
   Although the empire dissolved in little more than a generation after his death, Charlemagne left an indelible mark on his age and the later Middle Ages. His model of Christian kingship remained the ideal for much of the rest of the Middle Ages, and the imperial dignity he created was regarded as the ultimate expression of political power into the modern era. The close ties he forged with the popes in Rome influenced political events long after his death, and his reform of the church in his kingdom revived a sagging institution. The efforts at cultural and religious renewal that created the Carolingian Renaissance established an important foundation for later cultural growth in the Middle Ages. Indeed, Charlemagne's achievement was unsurpassed in the early Middle Ages, and he was the greatest king of the entire Middle Ages.
   Equestrian statue of Charlemagne or another Carolingian ruler (The Art Archive/Musée du Louvre Paris/Dagli Orti)
   See also
 ♦ Bullough, Donald. "Europae Pater: Charlemagne and His Achievement in the Light of Recent Scholarship." English Historical Review 75 (1970): 59-105.
 ♦ Collins, Roger. Charlemagne. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.
 ♦ Davis, Raymond, trans. The Lives of the Eighth-Century Popes (Liber Pontificalis): The Ancient Biographies of Nine Popes from a.d. 715 to a.d. 817. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 1992.
 ♦ Dutton, Paul. Carolingian Civilization: A Reader. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 1993.
 ♦ Einhard and Notker the Stammerer. Two Lives of Charlemagne. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1981.
 ♦ Fichtenau, Heinrich. The Carolingian Empire. Trans. Peter Munz. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979.
 ♦ Ganshof, François Louis. The Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy: Studies in Carolingian History. Trans. Janet Sondheimer. London: Longman, 1971.
 ♦ ---. Frankish Institutions under Charlemagne. Trans. Bryce Lyon and Mary Lyon. Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 1968.
 ♦ Halphen, Louis. Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire. Trans. Giselle de Nie. Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1977.
 ♦ McKitterick, Rosamond. The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, 751-987. London: Longman, 1983.
 ♦ McKitterick, Rosamond, ed. Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
 ♦ Riché, Pierre. The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe. Trans. Michael Idomir Allen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.
 ♦ Scholz, Bernhard Walter, trans. Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard's History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972.
 ♦ Sullivan, Richard E. Aix-la-Chapelle in the Age of Charlemagne. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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