“He was six feet four inches tall, and built to scale. He had beautiful white hair, animated eyes, a powerful nose...a presence ‘always stately and dignified.’ He was temperate in eating and drinking, abominated drunkenness, and kept in good health despite every exposure and hardship.”- EINHARD (the King's secretary) describing Charlemagne
Charlemagne - Charles the Great, King of the Franks, Holy Roman Emperor - was born on April 2, 742. There are two Charlemagnes - the historic and the legend. Only King Arthur vies for the title of the ideal Christian king in the Medieval world. (with Richard the Lionheart a distant third.) But whereas Arthur is mostly myth (although there was a real King Arthur; that will be another day), Charlemagne is mostly fact.
He was the eldest son of Pepin II, also known as Pepin the Short. When Pepin died the Frankish kingdom was divided between his two sons - Charles and Carloman. In 771 Carloman suddenly died and Charles, age 29, became sole king of the Frankish kingdom.
The Franks originated in were a western Germanic tribe. Between the third and fifth centuries many of the Frankish tribes had raided Roman territory, while others joined the Romans. As the Roman Empire collapsed, the Franks were taking over. By the fifth century they had taken over the Western Roman Empire, but the it was not one kingdom, but several different ones.
By 490, King Clovis had conquered all the Frankish kingdoms except one and formed one Empire.Clovis I was the first King of the Franks in 509. (guess where we get the name France). But Clovis continued the tradition of dividing the kingdoms between sons. So he left each of his 4 sons part of his kingdom. Then they had sons so it was divided even more. By 534 it was a mess, with constant feuding and rivalry.
Eventually three subkingdoms emerged - Austrasia, Neustria, and Burgundy. These ups and downs continued until 751 when Pepin I had himself crowned and began a new dynasty - the Carolingians.
When Charles became sole king Europe was splintered and returning in turmoil. The Franks had reverted to their barbarian ways, neglecting education and religion. In the North, the Saxons were pagans, In the south, the Catholic Church was trying to recover lands taken by the Lombards. Charles was determined to strengthen his kingdom and bring order to Europe. He launched a 30 year military campaign. By 800 he was the ruler of Europe. With the establishment of a central government, Charles restored a great deal of the unity of the old Roman Empire and paved the way for the development of modern Europe.*
In 773 pope Hadrian II sent Charlemagne an plea for aid against the Lombards who were invading the Papal States. Charlemagne complied, took the crown of Lombardy, and accepted the role of protector of the Church. Over the next several years he commanded 53 campaigns, leading almost every one of them himself. He conquered and Christianized Bavaria and Saxony which helped to shield Italy and put off the Moors of Spain from invading Francia. There were several other campaigns, all which were successful.
In 799 Pope Leo III was arrested by the Romans and beaten. The Pope escaped and fled to Charlemagne, asking Charlemagne to intervene. Charlemagne agreed and went to Rome in Nov. 800. By Dec. 23, Leo was restored. On Christmas Day, Charlemagne was
at Mass. As he knelt at the altar to pray, the pope crowned him
"Emperor of the Romans. Supposedly Charlemagne did not know
the Pope's intention and really did not want it. They were not happy
in the East Roman Empire - in Byzantium. (modern day Turkey,
Syria, etc). Byzantium had controlled the Roman Empire for the past
3 or 4 centuries. it wasn't until 812 that the East recognized
Charlemagne as emperor. Thus power was re-established in the west.
Also by this act, pope Leo III established papal supremacy over a unified Christiandom. (at right Charlemagne being crowned Holy Roman emperor)
Europe was re-united, power was, for the most part, back in the west. But this was not Charlemagne's only accomplishment. Charlemagne is known as much for his reforms as for his military accomplishments. After his crowning, Charlemagne returned to France. He put in place a more efficient government. He divided the kingdom into several administrative districts, appointed military governors along the borders, sent out messengers to check on how things were in the kingdom and then report back to him. He also traveled through the kingdom himself in order to keep in contact with the people. He standardized coin minting and encouraged trade with other nations. And, probably most significantly, brought literacy back.
Charlemagne was a great admirer of learning and education. He saw to it that all his children and grandchildren were well educated and set about educating himself as well.(But he never could learn to write.) His actions in this area brought about what is called the Carolingian Renaissance. He did it with the help of a monk named Alcuin, an Anglo-Saxon from York. Alcuin set up a classical curriculum for the palace school that was set up to educate the monks and clergy, most of whom were illiterate.Schools were organized in the parishes, not only for the nobility but for everyone.
A scriptorium was set up, not only manuscript copying but for correcting the hundreds of manuscripts that had been copied by illiterate monks. By doing this, Charlemagne instituted a standard form of writing style. Letters were now written in upper and lower case, with punctuation and separation of words. It is the script that we still use today.
He standardized medieval Latin, encouraged uniform religious practices, roads and bridges were repaired,laws were put into place to protect peasants from serfdom, and many other reforms..
Unfortunately, much of what he put in place disintegrated a generation or two after his death in 814. Not only was Charlemagne no longer around but the barbaric tribes once again began their invasions. These invasions came to an end by the latter part of the 11th century with the rise of feudalism. But the roots of modern Europe were now planted.
Charlemagne's Tomb Charlemagne entered the world of legends and songs during the feudal era. In France, chansons de geste (heroic poems) were written about his exploits, the most famous one being the Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland).