Charlemagne (742-814), or Charles the Great, was king of the Franks, 768-814, and emperor of the West, 800-814. He founded the Holy Roman Empire, stimulated European economic and political life, and fostered the cultural revival known as the Carolingian Renaissance.

In contrast to the general decline of western Europe from the 7th century on, the era of Charlemagne marks a significant revival and turning point. Through his use of available resources (such as the Church, Irish missionaries, and manorial and feudal institutions), his alliance with the papacy, and his numerous governmental and ecclesiastical reforms, Charlemagne was able to halt the political and cultural disintegration of the early Middle Ages and lay the foundation for strong central government north of the Alps. Partially as a result of Charlemagne's activity, northern Europe emerged in the high and late Middle Ages as the dominant economic, political, and cultural force in the West.

Early Life

Charlemagne, the son of Pepin the Short and Bertrada, was born in 742. In 741 Pepin had become mayor of the palace, and in 751 he deposed the last Merovingian king and was declared king of the Franks. Little is known about Charlemagne's childhood; in 754, however, he participated in the anointment of Pepin as king by Pope Stephen II. He was educated at the palace school primarily by Fulrad, the abbot of St. Denis.

When Pepin died in October 768, Charlemagne came into his inheritance. According to a general assembly of the Franks, Charlemagne and his brother, Carloman, were both proclaimed king and were to rule the kingdom jointly. In the division of the realm, however, Carloman received a larger and richer portion. Under these circumstances ill feelings between the two brothers were inevitable, and the tension was heightened when Carloman refused to aid Charlemagne in his campaign against an uprising in Aquitaine. Toward the conclusion of the Aquitanian campaign, from which Charlemagne emerged victorious, a fraternal war seemed certain; but Carloman died unexpectedly in 771 and left Charlemagne the ruler of the entire kingdom.

Territorial Expansion

Charlemagne moved aggressively to remove those who threatened his suzerainty and to expand his power, especially in Italy. He immediately attacked and vanquished Desiderius, King of the Lombards; and in 774 Charlemagne was received by Pope Adrian I in Rome. The two renewed the alliance between the Frankish monarchy and the papacy, and shortly thereafter Charlemagne was crowned king of the Lombards at Pavia. The Frankish conquest of Italy—first of Lombardy in the north and later of the southern duchy of Benevento—had a twofold effect: all threats to the independence of the Holy See were removed, and a large portion of Italy was annexed by Charlemagne, thus bringing new wealth and peoples into his kingdom.

During his Italian campaigns Charlemagne also declared war against the Saxons, who had menaced the northeastern frontier of Francia for several generations. Begun in 772, this cruel and bitter war was finally concluded in 804 by the annexation of Saxony by Francia and the enforced Christianization of the Saxon tribes.

In the midst of the continual struggles to subdue the Saxons, Charlemagne carried on several major campaigns that resulted in territorial expansion. Perhaps the most renowned of these was his expedition into Spain. In 778, during the return from this successful campaign, Charlemagne's rear guard, led by Count Roland of the Breton March, was ambushed by traitorous Basques near Roncesvalles. The story of this episode was immortalized in the epic poem The Song of Roland. The historical importance of this campaign was the establishment of a military district called the Spanish March, a territorial buffer zone between Frankish Gaul and Moslem Spain.

On his eastern frontier Charlemagne defeated Tassilo, the Duke of Bavaria, and made the duchy of Bavaria part of his empire. He divided the western portion of the duchy into counties, each administered by a count loyal to the king; the eastern half formed a march, or border zone, called the Ost Mark (Austria), protected by a military duke, or margrave.

Further to the east, the major power and ultimate threat to the Frankish realm was the vast Slavic kingdom of the Avars, or Huns, an Asiatic tribe which had settled along the upper Danube. Between 791 and 795 Charlemagne crushed the power of the Avars and made their kingdom a tributary state. This victory opened the entire Danubian Plain to German colonization and the eastern expansion of Christianity—the beginning of the Drang nach Osten, or push to the East.

Holy Roman Empire

By 800 Charlemagne had succeeded in extending his overlordship from the Elbe River in the northeast to south of the Pyrenees in the southwest and from the North Sea to southern Italy. He ruled all of the Christianized western provinces, except the British Isles, that had once been part of the Roman Empire. As the sworn protector of the Church, Charlemagne was in fact the political master of Rome itself. Thus his authority, which extended over a vast realm and included numerous peoples, rivaled that of the Roman emperors of antiquity.

The papacy, at odds with Byzantium and its empress Irene over the question of iconoclasm (the problem of image worship and the use of images in the Church), looked to Charlemagne for protection and political leadership and regarded him as the true emperor of Latin Christendom and as the divinely appointed ruler of the earthly sphere. Thus the Pope crowned Charlemagne Holy Roman emperor on Christmas Day, 800.

Charlemagne endeavored to create unity and harmony within his vast realm and to promulgate laws and promote learning that would achieve his goals of empire. In his effort to assure his equality of rank with the Byzantine emperor, Charlemagne borrowed much from his eastern counterpart. The Byzantine influence is most clearly seen in the Palace Chapel of Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle), which was a conscious imitation of the imperial residence at Constantinople. In style, the building is based upon the church of S. Vitale in Ravenna, the former western Byzantine capital. Thus Charlemagne, in contrast to his Merovingian predecessors, who traveled incessantly throughout their realm, attempted to create a fixed capital parallel to that of Byzantium, and he resided at Aachen during most of his later years.

Character and Appearance

The major contemporary record of Charlemagne's personal attributes and achievements is the Vita Caroli Magni, the first medieval biography, written by Einhard between 817 and 836. This biography is largely a firsthand account, since Einhard was a member of the palace school during Charlemagne's reign and was his close associate.

In the Vita is the actual physical description of the man who has since become one of the greatest legendary heroes of the Middle Ages. The most striking feature about Charlemagne was his immense size in comparison to the average man of his day. Einhard believed him to be seven times the length of a foot, but with the opening of his tomb in 1861 scholars discovered that his actual height was 6 feet 3 1/2 inches. He was well built and admirably proportioned, except for his rather short thick neck and a protruding paunch. He took frequent exercise on horseback and enjoyed excellent health for most of his life. Einhard says that "his eyes [were] very large and animated, nose a little long, hair fair, and face laughing and merry."

Toward his friends Charlemagne was jovial, and he particularly enjoyed the company of others. Yet toward his enemies he was a stern and often cruel warrior to be feared for his strength and ability. Although primarily a man of action, he had great admiration for learning and "was such a master of Latin that he could speak it as well as his native tongue." He studied Greek and the liberal arts and thus combined to some extent the personality of a warrior and a scholar.

Charlemagne's Administration

In many respects Charlemagne's government, which proved so successful and which began the ascendancy of northern Europe, differed little in its institutions from the Merovingian era. In keeping with Frankish tradition, the monarchy was considered a matter of family inheritance; the government itself was personal, and its administration was founded on feudal oaths of allegiance between lord and follower. There was no distinction between the king's personal servants and the public officials. Thus the public and private nature of political control were inseparable, as were the secular and the religious aspects of kingship. Much as the Merovingians had done in the past, Charlemagne presided over ecclesiastical synods, depended upon the clergy for advice and counsel, and interfered in matters of Church discipline and property.

What is most striking about Charlemagne's rule of so vast a realm was that he was able to maintain, largely through the strength of his own personality, a centralized state wherein royal authority was primary. Power and political authority descended from the Emperor's imperium to his vassals. In this system the count, a direct vassal of the Crown, was the primary link between central and local government. Each count was in charge of an administrative district or county, which he governed with the help of lesser officials. There was always the danger that a count might become too powerful in his own district, and Charlemagne therefore created a group of special envoys, missi dominici, who inquired into abuses in the kingdom. He also maintained a small group of elite warriors, the vassi dominici, who acted as his personal retinue and helped him enforce imperial authority.

During the course of his reign Charlemagne sent a number of written instructions to his officials. These enactments, known as the Capitularii had the force of law and were implemented directly by the royal agents. They are exceedingly valuable as sources in understanding the social and legal structure of Carolingian France.

In general, the reign of Charlemagne, because of his military and political ability, was a period of internal tranquility and prosperity. He succeeded, through diplomatic negotiations, in having his imperial title recognized by the Byzantine emperor and, through his program of cultural revival and Church reform, in upgrading the level of civilization in the West.

Carolingian Culture

Charlemagne's support of art and letters had several purposes beyond the general improvement of culture and literacy in the empire. One of the major purposes was to provide an educated clergy that could undertake many of the administrative tasks of government. A second purpose, for which an educated clergy was also a necessity, was to ensure the acceptance of orthodox doctrine as well as a uniform liturgy throughout the empire. Such uniformity not only strengthened the Church but facilitated the political task of integrating and centralizing the administration of the empire. The spread of a uniform script known as the Caroline minuscule, the attempts at achieving uniformity of doctrine through the suppression of heresy, and the publication of a uniform Mass book, book of lessons, and monastic rule were sponsored as a means of furthering unity and integration. A third purpose of this cultural revival was to enhance the prestige and authority of Charlemagne himself, who thus appeared as the defender and protector of the Church, of orthodoxy, and of education.

The intellectual traditions and educational institutions supported by Charlemagne greatly influenced the development of Western culture. Grammarians and rhetoricians from northern Italy and English scholars, such as Alcuin, enhanced his court. This mixture of Italian and Anglo-Irish culture provided a broad foundation for the later stages of the Carolingian revival. Charlemagne expanded the number of schools, both monastic and episcopal, and the quality of education was greatly improved through the influence of the scholars who taught at the palace school.

Last Years

In 806, at the age of 64, Charlemagne took measures to provide for the succession of his empire. He divided the realm among his three sons—Charles, Pepin, and Louis. But the death of Charles in April 810 was soon followed by that of Pepin. The remaining son, Louis, later called "the Pious," who was the least warlike and aggressive of the three, was left as the sole heir to the empire, and he was crowned by his father in 813.

The last years of Charlemagne's reign saw difficult times. Civil disobedience increased; pest and famine created hard times; there were troubles on the frontiers. In many respects an era of crisis and decline loomed in the future. In 811 Charlemagne made his final will and gave a sizable portion of his treasures (more than to his own heirs) to various churches of the realm. He died, while fasting, on Jan. 28, 814, and was buried at his palace at Aachen.

Further Reading on Charlemagne

Among the studies that focus on Charlemagne's life are Jesse L. Weston, The Romance Cycle of Charlemagne and His Peers (1901). Harold Lamb, Charlemagne: The Legend and the Man (1954); and Richard Winston, Charlemagne: From the Hammer to the Cross (1954). Recommended among the general, recent works are Donald A. Bullough, The Age of Charlemagne (1965), especially distinguished for its illustrations, and E. M. Almedingen, Charlemagne: A Study (1968). The best introduction to Charlemagne and Carolingian institutions is Heinrich Fichtenau, The Carolingian Empire: The Age of Charlemagne (trans. 1964).

The documents for the Carolingian period are abundant, many of them in translation. For a general collection of sources see Stewart C. Easton and Helene Wieruszowski, The Era of Charlemagne: Frankish State and Society (1961). One of the best translations of Einhard is S. Epes Turner, The Life of Charlemagne (1960). Because of the importance of the coronation of Charlemagne, scholars have devoted special attention to the subject. Many of the evaluations have been collected in Richard E. Sullivan, ed., The Coronation of Charlemagne: What Did It Signify? (1959). For the artistic achievement during Charlemagne's reign see Roger Hinks, Carolingian Art: A study of Early Medieval Painting and Sculpture in Western Europe (1935), and Kenneth John Conant, Carolingian and Romanesque Architecture, 800-1200 (1959; 2d ed. 1966). One of the most stimulating works on Carolingian culture is M. L. Laistner, Thought and Letters in Western Europe, A.D. 500 to 900 (1931; new ed. 1957).