Charlemagne and the Birth of Europe

Obverse of a Charlemagne denier
coined in Frankfurt from 812 to 814

On December 25, 800 AD, Charlemagne also known as Karl the Great was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by Pope Leo III in Rome. Thereby, he was the very first emperor of western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Back in the 6th century, the West Germanic Franks had been christianised and Francia, ruled by the Merovingian dynasty, was the most powerful of the kingdoms that succeeded the Western Roman Empire. But the Merovingians already declined into a state of powerlessness, for which they have been dubbed the “rois fainéants”, the lazy kings. Almost all government powers of any consequence were executed by their chief officers, the mayor of the palace.

Charlemagne was born around 742 as son of Bertrada of Laon and Pepin the Short, who became king of the Franks in 751. Although his parents married before his younger brother Carloman was born, they were not legally married at the time of Charlemagne’s birth, and he was thus thought to be illegitimate. Charlemagne’s exact birthplace is unknown, although historians have suggested Liege in present-day Belgium and Aachen in modern-day Germany as possible locations. Only very little is known about Charlemagne’s childhood and education, whereby as an adult, he displayed talents for foreign languages. He even could speak Latin and understand Greek among other languages. In 754, he participated in the ceremony where Pope Stephen II appointed Charlemagne’s father Pepin king of the Franks. He also joined Pepin on many military campaigns. In the division of the realm after Pepin’s death in 768, his brother Carloman received a larger and richer portion. Under these circumstances relations between the brothers turned out to be difficult, but Carloman died unexpectedly in 771, leaving Charlemagne the sole ruler of the entire kingdom.  The brothers had a strained relationship; however, with Carloman’s death in 771, Charlemagne became the sole ruler of the Franconians.

Charlemagne aimed to unite all the Germanic peoples into one kingdom, and convert all his subjects to Christianity. In order to carry out this mission, he spent the majority of his reign engaged in some military campaigns. In 772, it was resolved at the Diet at Worms to make war against the Saxons, for the security of the frontiers, which they continually threatened, and for the extension of the Christian religion. Charlemagne advanced as far as the Weser in 772, securing his conquests by castles and garrisons. Subsequently, Pope Adrian I. called him to his aid against Desiderius, King of the Lombards. Charlemagne crossed the Alps from Geneva with two armies by the Great St. Bernard and Mount Cenis in 773 and overthrew the Kingdom of the Lombards in 774, who acknowledged him as their King. Next, he hastened to interfere in the wars of the Arabs and Moors in Spain in 778, and added to his dominions the region between the Pyrenees and the Ebro. Subsequent insurrections and wars in Germany resulted in victories over the Bulgarians and Huns, and in the further consolidation and extension of his Empire at its eastern boundaries.

In his role as a zealous defender of Christianity, Charlemagne gave money and land to the Christian church and protected the popes. As a way to acknowledge Charlemagne’s power and reinforce his relationship with the church, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor of the Romans on December 25, 800, at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Amid the acclamations of the people, who saluted him as Carolus Augustus, Emperor of the Romans, Charlemagne tied up his rule to the Roman Empire, which greatly confirmed and increased the respect entertained for him. As emperor, Charlemagne proved to be a talented diplomat and able administrator of the vast empire he controlled. He strongly promoted education and encouraged the Carolingian Renaissance, a period of renewed emphasis on scholarship and culture. He instituted economic and religious reforms, and was a driving force behind the Carolingian miniscule, a standardized form of writing that later became a basis for modern European printed alphabets. During his reign, Charlemagne always was on the move and ruled from a number of cities and palaces, but spent significant time in Aachen. His palace there included a school, for which he recruited the best teachers in the land, a predecessor of later universities. In addition to learning, Charlemagne also was interested in athletic pursuits. Known to be highly energetic, he enjoyed hunting, horseback riding as well as swimming. Aachen held particular appeal for him due to its therapeutic warm springs. His fame spread to all parts of the world. Even the caliph of Baghdad Harun-al-Raschid sent ambassadors to salute him. Charlemagne enjoyed good health till shortly before his death, January 28th, 814. He was buried at Aix-la-Chapelle, in a church which he had built there. Interestingly to mention is that actor Sir Christopher Lee, who is an offspring of the Cardini noble family which can be laid back up to the Carolingians, is said to be Charlemagne’s most famous descendent.

At yovisto you can learn more about Carolongian Art in the Otis Art lecture series.

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