Charlemagne: b. April 2, 742 d. January 28, 813. He is my Great (40) Grandfather.
(meaning Charles the Great) (
King Pippin the Short and Bertrada of Laon, he succeeded his father and
co-ruled with his brother Carloman I. The latter got on badly with
but war was prevented by the sudden death of Carloman in 771.
continued the policy of his father towards the papacy and became its
Today he is regarded not only as the founding father of both French and German monarchies, but also as the father of
A coin of Charlemagne's with the inscription "Carolus Imperator Augustus" KAROLVS IMP AVG.
century, the Franks were Christianised, and Francia ruled by the
had become the most powerful of the kingdoms which succeeded the
Pippin of Herstal, mayor of the
Carloman resigned his office, Pippin had Childeric
new dynasty, the Frankish kingdom spread to encompass an area including
is believed to have been born in 742; however, several factors have led
reconsideration of this date. First, the year 742 was calculated from
given at death, rather than from attestation in primary sources.
is given in the Annales Petaviani, that of
In many eastern European languages, the very word for "king" derives from Charles' name.
native language is a matter of controversy. It was probably a Germanic
of the Ripuarian Franks, but linguists differ on its identity and
Some linguists go so far as to say that he did not speak Old Frankish
as he was
born in 742 or 747, by which time Old Frankish had become extinct. Old
is reconstructed from its descendant, Old Low Franconian, which would
to the Dutch language and to the modern dialects in the German North
The area of Charlemagne's birth does not make determination of his native language easier. Most historians agree he was born around Liège, like his father, but some say he was born in or around
Charlemagne (left) and Pippin the Hunchback. Tenth-century copy of a lost original from about 830.
The names he gave his children are also good indicators of the language he spoke, as all of his daughters received Old High German names.
Apart from his native language he also spoke Latin "as fluently as his own tongue" and understood a bit of Greek: Grecam vero melius intellegere quam pronuntiare poterat, "He understood Greek better than he could pronounce it."
Though no description from Charlemagne's lifetime exists, his personal appearance is known from a good description by Einhard, author of the biographical Vita Karoli Magni. Einhard tells in his twenty-second chapter:
He was heavily built, sturdy, and of considerable stature, although not exceptionally so, given that he stood seven feet tall. He had a round head, large and lively eyes, a slightly larger nose than usual, white but still attractive hair, a bright and cheerful expression, a short and fat neck, and a slightly protruding stomach. His voice was clear, but a little higher than one would have expected for a man of his build. He enjoyed good health, except for the fevers that affected him in the last few years of his life. Toward the end he dragged one leg. Even then, he stubbornly did what he wanted and refused to listen to doctors, indeed he detested them, because they wanted to persuade him to stop eating roast meat, as was his wont, and to be content with boiled meat.
The physical portrait provided by Einhard is confirmed by contemporary depictions of the emperor, such as coins and his 8-inch bronze statue kept in the Louvre. Charles description of Charlemagne's height at 7 feet (6 feet 3 inches, or 190.50 centimeters) was not far off. Though it was Herculean stature, particularly in a period in which people were a little shorter than we are today, archaeology has confirmed his tallness: in 1861, Charlemagne's tomb was opened by scientists who reconstructed his skeleton and found that it indeed measured 74.9 inches (192 centimeters).
Charles is well known to have been fair-haired, tall, and stately, with a disproportionately thick neck. The Roman tradition of realistic personal portraiture was in complete eclipse in his time, where individual traits were submerged in iconic typecastings. Charlemagne, as an ideal ruler, ought to be portrayed in the corresponding fashion, any contemporary would have assumed. The images of enthroned Charlemagne, God's representative on Earth, bear more connections to the icons of Christ in majesty than to modern (or antique) conceptions of portraiture. Charlemagne in later imagery (as in the Dürer portrait) is often portrayed with flowing blond hair, due to a misunderstanding of Einhard, who describes Charlemagne as having canitie pulchra, or "beautiful white hair", which has been rendered as blonde or fair in many translations.
Charlemagne wore the traditional, inconspicuous and distinctly non-aristocratic costume of the Frankish people, described by Einhard thus: He used to wear the national, that is to say, the Frank dress: next to his skin a linen shirt and linen breeches, and above these a tunic fringed with silk; while hose fastened by bands covered his lower limbs, and shoes his feet, and he protected his shoulders and chest in winter by a close-fitting coat of otter or marten skins.
He wore a blue cloak and always carried a sword with him. The typical sword was of a golden or silver hilt. He wore fancy jewelled swords to banquets or ambassadorial receptions. Nevertheless:
He despised foreign costumes, however handsome, and never allowed himself to be robed in them, except twice in Rome, when he donned the Roman tunic, chlamys, and shoes; the first time at the request of Pope Hadrian, the second to gratify Leo, Hadrian's successor.He could rise to the occasion when necessary. On great feast days, he wore embroidery and jewels on his clothing and shoes. He had a golden buckle for his cloak on such occasions and would appear with his great diadem, but he despised such apparel, according to Einhard, and usually dressed like the common people.
was the eldest child of Pippin the Short (714 –
Much of what is known of Charlemagne's life comes from his biographer, Einhard, who wrote a Vita Caroli Magni (or Vita Karoli Magni), the Life of Charlemagne. Einhard says of the early life of Charles:
It would be folly, I think, to write a word concerning Charles' birth and infancy, or even his boyhood, for nothing has ever been written on the subject, and there is no one alive now who can give information on it. Accordingly, I determined to pass that by as unknown, and to proceed at once to treat of his character, his deeds, and such other facts of his life as are worth telling and setting forth, and shall first give an account of his deeds at home and abroad, then of his character and pursuits, and lastly of his administration and death, omitting nothing worth knowing or necessary to know.
death of Pippin, the kingdom of the Franks was
Charlemagne and Carloman. Charles took the outer parts of the kingdom,
bordering on the sea, namely
October, immediately after the funeral of their father, both the kings
from Saint Denis to be proclaimed by their nobles and consecrated by
bishops, Charlemagne in Noyon and Carloman in
event of the brothers' reign was the rising of the Aquitainians and
769, in that territory split between the two kings. Years before Pippin
suppressed the revolt of Waifer, Duke of Aquitaine. Now, one Hunald
other than Hunald the duke) led the Aquitainians as far north as
Charlemagne met Carloman, but Carloman refused to participate and
brothers maintained lukewarm relations with the assistance of their
Bertrada, but in 770 Charlemagne signed a treaty with Duke Tassilo
year after his marriage, Charlemagne repudiated Desiderata, and quickly
remarried to a 13-year-old Swabian named Hildegard. The repudiated
returned to her father's court at
Frankish king Charlemagne was a devout Catholic who maintained a close
relationship with the papacy throughout his life. In 772, when Pope
was threatened by invaders, the king rushed to
succession of Pope Hadrian I in 772, he demanded the return of certain
in the former exarchate of
lasted until the spring of 774, when Charlemagne visited the pope in
for their lives, the
still instability, however, in
Charlemagne directed his attention towards
first peace of any substantial length (780–782), Charles
began to appoint his
sons to positions of authority within the realm, in the tradition of
and mayors of the past. In 781 he made his two younger sons kings,
crowned by the Pope. The elder of these two, Carloman, was made king of
taking the Iron Crown which his father had first worn in 774, and in
ceremony was renamed "Pippin." The younger of the two, Louis, became
fought many wars on behalf of their father when they came of age.
mostly preoccupied with the Bretons, whose border he shared and who
on at least two occasions and were easily put down, but he was also
against the Saxons on multiple occasions. In 805 and 806, he was sent
Charlemagne's attitude toward his daughters has been the subject of much discussion. He kept them at home with him, and refused to allow them to contract sacramental marriages – possibly to prevent the creation of cadet branches of the family to challenge the main line, as had been the case with Tassilo of Bavaria – yet he tolerated their extramarital relationships, even rewarding their common-law husbands, and treasured the bastard grandchildren they produced for him. He also, apparently, refused to believe stories of their wild behaviour. After his death the surviving daughters were banished from the court by their brother, the pious Louis, to take up residence in the convents they had been bequeathed by their father. At least one of them, Bertha, had a recognised relationship, if not a marriage, with Angilbert, a member of Charlemagne's court circle.
to the Muslim historian Ibn al-Athir, the Diet of Paderborn had
representatives of the Muslim rulers of
led the Neustrian army across the
the struggle against the Moors continued unabated throughout the latter
his reign. His son Louis was in charge of the Spanish border. In 785,
Charlemagne was engaged in almost constant battle throughout his reign, often at the head of his elite scara bodyguard squadrons, with his legendary sword Joyeuse in hand. After thirty years of war and eighteen battles—the Saxon Wars—he conquered Saxonia and proceeded to convert the conquered to Roman Catholicism, using force where necessary.
were divided into four subgroups in four regions. Nearest to
first campaign, Charlemagne forced the Engrians in 773 to submit and
an Irminsul pillar near
his campaign in
summer of 779, he again invaded
Thereafter, the Saxons maintained the peace for seven years, but in 792 the Westphalians once again rose against their conquerors. The Eastphalians and Nordalbingians joined them in 793, but the insurrection did not catch on and was put down by 794. An Engrian rebellion followed in 796, but Charlemagne's personal presence and the presence of Christian Saxons and Slavs quickly crushed it. The last insurrection of the independence-minded people occurred in 804, more than thirty years after Charlemagne's first campaign against them. This time, the most unruly of them, the Nordalbingians, found themselves effectively disempowered from rebellion. According to Einhard:
The war that had lasted so many years was at length ended by their acceding to the terms offered by the King; which were renunciation of their national religious customs and the worship of devils, acceptance of the sacraments of the Christian faith and religion, and union with the Franks to form one people.
Charlemagne turned his attention to
Avars, a pagan Asian horde which had settled down in what is today
For the next two years, Charles was occupied with the Slavs against the Saxons. Pippin and Duke Eric of Friuli continued, however, to assault the Avars' ring-shaped strongholds. The great Ring of the Avars, their capital fortress, was taken twice. The booty was sent to Charlemagne at his capital, Aachen, and redistributed to all his followers and even to foreign rulers, including King Offa of Mercia. Soon the Avar tuduns had thrown in the towel and travelled to Aachen to subject themselves to Charlemagne as vassals and Christians. This Charlemagne accepted and sent one native chief, baptised Abraham, back to Avaria with the ancient title of khagan. Abraham kept his people in line, but in 800 the Bulgarians under Krum swept the Avar state away. In the 10th century, the Magyars settled the Pannonian plain and presented a new threat to Charlemagne's descendants.
recognition of his new pagan neighbours, the Slavs, Charlemagne marched
Austrasian-Saxon army across the
Charlemagne also directed his attention to the Slavs to the south of the Avar khaganate: the Carantanians and Carniolans. These people were subdued by the Lombards and Bavarii and made tributaries, but never incorporated into the Frankish state.
He at first had such an aversion that he declared that he would not have set foot in the Church the day that they [the imperial titles] were conferred, although it was a great feast-day, if he could have foreseen the design of the Pope.
Many modern scholars suggest that Charlemagne was indeed aware of the coronation; certainly he cannot have missed the bejeweled crown waiting on the altar when he came to pray. In any event, he would now use these circumstances to claim that he was the renewer of the Roman Empire, which had apparently fallen into degradation under the Byzantines. In his official charters from 801 onward, Charles preferred the style Karolus serenissimus Augustus a Deo coronatus magnus pacificus imperator Romanum gubernans imperium ("Charles, most serene Augustus crowned by God, the great, peaceful emperor ruling the Roman empire") to the more direct Imperator Romanorum ("Emperor of the Romans").
The Iconoclasm of the Isaurian Dynasty and resulting religious conflicts with the Empress Irene, sitting on the throne in Constantinople in 800, were probably the chief causes of the pope's desire to formally acclaim Charles as Roman Emperor. He also most certainly desired to increase the influence of the papacy, honour his saviour Charlemagne, and solve the constitutional issues then most troubling to European jurists in an era when Rome was not in the hands of an emperor. Thus, Charlemagne's assumption of the imperial title was not an usurpation in the eyes of the Franks or Italians. It was, however, in Byzantium, where it was protested by Irene and her successor Nicephorus I—neither of whom had any great effect in enforcing their protests.
Byzantines, however, still held several territories in Italy: Venice
left of the Exarchate of Ravenna), Reggio (in Calabria), Brindisi (in
and Naples (the Ducatus Neapolitanus). These regions remained outside
Frankish hands until 804, when the Venetians, torn by infighting,
their allegiance to the Iron Crown of Pippin, Charles' son. The Pax
ended. Nicephorus ravaged the coasts with a fleet and the only instance
between the Byzantines and the Franks, as it was, began. It lasted
when the pro-Byzantine party in
conquest of Nordalbingia, the Frankish frontier was brought into
In 808, the king of the Danes, Godfred, built the vast Danevirke across the isthmus of Schleswig. This defence, last employed in the Danish-Prussian War of 1864, was at its beginning a 30 km long earthenwork rampart. The Danevirke protected Danish land and gave Godfred the opportunity to harass Frisia and Flanders with pirate raids. He also subdued the Frank-allied Wiltzes and fought the Abotrites.
Godfred invaded Frisia and joked of visiting Aachen, but was murdered before he could do any more, either by a Frankish assassin or by one of his own men. Godfred was succeeded by his nephew Hemming, who concluded the Treaty of Heiligen with Charlemagne in late 811.
Charlemagne called Louis the Pious, king of
He died January twenty-eighth, the seventh day from the time that he took to his bed, at in the morning, after partaking of the Holy Communion, in the seventy-second year of his age and the forty-seventh of his reign.
buried on the day of his death, in Aachen Cathedral, although the cold
and the nature of his illness made such a hurried burial unnecessary.
earliest surviving planctus, the Planctus de obitu Karoli, was composed
monk of Bobbio, which he had patronised. A later story, told by Otho of
Lomello, Count of the Palace at Aachen in the time of Otto
Charlemagne's death greatly affected many of his subjects, particularly those of the literary clique who had surrounded him at Aachen. An anonymous monk of Bobbio lamented:
“From the lands where the sun rises to western shores, People are crying and wailing...the Franks, the Romans, all Christians, are stung with mourning and great worry...the young and old, glorious nobles, all lament the loss of their Caesar...the world laments the death of Charles...O Christ, you who govern the heavenly host, grant a peaceful place to Charles in your kingdom. Alas for miserable me.”
succeeded by his surviving son, Louis, who had been crowned the
His empire lasted only another generation in its entirety; its
according to custom, between Louis's own sons after their father's
the foundation for the modern states of
had an important role in determining the immediate economic future of
He established a new standard, the livre carolinienne (from the Latin libra, the modern pound), and based upon a pound of silver – a unit of both money and weight – which was worth 20 sous (from the Latin solidus [which was primarily an accounting device, and never actually minted], the modern shilling) or 240 deniers (from the Latin denarius, the modern penny). During this period, the livre and the sou were counting units, only the denier was a coin of the realm.
Charlemagne instituted principles for accounting practice by means of the Capitulare de villis of 802, which laid down strict rules for the way in which incomes and expenses were to be recorded.
The lending of money for interest was prohibited, strengthened in 814, when Charlemagne introduced the Capitulary for the Jews, a draconian prohibition on Jews engaging in money-lending.
In addition to this macro-management of the economy of his empire, Charlemagne also performed a significant number of acts of micro-management, such as direct control of prices and levies on certain goods and commodities.
applied the system to much of the European continent, and Offa's
voluntarily adopted by much of
Charlemagne's success as warrior and administrator can be traced to his
admiration for learning. His reign and the era it ushered in are often
to as the Carolingian Renaissance because of the flowering of
literature, art, and architecture which characterise it. Charlemagne,
into contact with the culture and learning of other countries
Visigothic Spain, Anglo-Saxon England and Lombard Italy) due to his
conquests, greatly increased the provision of monastic schools and
(centres for book-copying) in Francia. Most of the surviving works of
Latin were copied and preserved by Carolingian scholars. Indeed, the
manuscripts available for many ancient texts are Carolingian. It is
certain that a text which survived to the Carolingian age survives
pan-European nature of Charlemagne's influence is indicated by the
many of the men who worked for him: Alcuin, an Anglo-Saxon from
Charlemagne took a serious interest in scholarship, promoting the liberal arts at the court, ordering that his children and grandchildren be well-educated, and even studying himself (in a time when even leaders who promoted education did not take time to learn themselves) under the tutelage of Paul the Deacon, from whom he learned grammar, Alcuin, with whom he studied rhetoric, dialectic (logic) and astronomy (he was particularly interested in the movements of the stars), and Einhard, who assisted him in his studies of arithmetic. His great scholarly failure, as Einhard relates, was his inability to write: when in his old age he began attempts to learn – practicing the formation of letters in his bed during his free time on books and wax tablets he hid under his pillow – "his effort came too late in life and achieved little success", and his ability to read – which Einhard is silent about, and which no contemporary source supports – has also been called into question.
Charles' reign, the Roman half uncial script and its cursive version,
given rise to various continental minuscule scripts, were combined with
features from the insular scripts that were being used in Irish and
monasteries. Carolingian minuscule was created partly under the
Charlemagne. Alcuin of York, who ran the palace school and scriptorium
Historians have debated for centuries whether Charlemagne was aware of the Pope's intent to crown him Emperor prior to the coronation (Charlemagne declared that he would not have entered Saint Peter's had he known), but that debate has often obscured the more significant question of why the Pope granted the title and why Charlemagne chose to accept it once he did.
Collins points out "That the motivation behind the acceptance of the
imperial title was a romantic and antiquarian interest in reviving the
the Pope and Charlemagne, the Roman Empire remained a significant power
European politics at this time, and continued to hold a substantial
Italy, with borders not very far south of the city of Rome
itself—this is the
empire historiography has labelled the Byzantine Empire, for its
capital was Constantinople
(ancient Byzantium) and its people and rulers were Greek; it was a
Hellenic state. Indeed, Charlemagne was usurping the prerogatives of
whom, however, could he [the Pope] be
tried? Who, in other words, was qualified to pass judgement on the
Christ? In normal circumstances the only conceivable answer to that
would have been the Emperor at
The Imperial Cornation of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III.
Pope, then, there was "no living Emperor at the that time" (
Charlemagne's coronation, therefore, "the
know, from the Byzantine chronicler Theophanes (Collins 153), is that
Charlemagne's reaction to his coronation was to take the initial steps
securing the Constantinopolitan throne by sending envoys of marriage to
and that Irene reacted somewhat favorably to them. Only when the people
of emperor remained in his family for years to come, however, as
fought over who had the supremacy in the Frankish state. The papacy
never forgot the title nor abandoned the right to bestow it. When the
Charles ceased to produce worthy heirs, the pope gladly crowned
Italian magnate could best protect him from his local enemies. This
led, as could have been expected, to the dormancy of the title for
years (924-962). Finally, in 962, in a radically different
Charlemagne first made provision for the traditional division of the
his death. For Charles the Younger he designated
division may have worked, but it was never to be tested. Pippin died in
Charles in 811. Charlemagne then reconsidered the matter, and in 813,
his youngest son, Louis, co-emperor and co-King of the Franks, granting
half-share of the empire and the rest upon Charlemagne's own death. The
of the Empire which Louis was not promised was
Charlemagne had an immediate afterlife. The author of the Visio Karoli Magni written around 865 uses facts gathered apparently from Einhard and his own observations on the decline of Charlemagne's family after the dissensions of civil war (840–43) as the basis for a visionary tale of Charles' meeting with a prophetic spectre in a dream.
Charlemagne, being a model knight as one of the Nine Worthies, enjoyed an important afterlife in European culture. One of the great medieval literary cycles, the Charlemagne cycle or the Matter of France, centres on the deeds of Charlemagne—the King with the Grizzly Beard of Roland fame—and his historical commander of the border with Brittany, Roland, and the paladins who are analogous to the knights of the Round Table or King Arthur's court. Their tales constitute the first chansons de geste.
himself was accorded sainthood inside the
is sometimes credited with supporting the insertion of the filioque
Nicene Creed. The Franks had inherited a Visigothic tradition of
the Holy Spirit as deriving from God the Father and Son (Filioque), and
Charlemagne, the Franks challenged the 381 Council of Constantinople
proclamation that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father alone. Pope
The city of
Charlemagne is memorably quoted by Dr Henry Jones Sr. (played by Sean Connery) in the film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Immediately after using his umbrella to induce a flock of seagulls to smash through the glass cockpit of a pursuing German fighter plane, Henry Jones remarks "I suddenly remembered my Charlemagne: 'Let my armies be the rocks and the trees and the birds in the sky'." Despite the quote's popularity since the movie, there is no evidence that Charlemagne actually said this.
The Economist, the weekly news and international affairs newspaper, features a one page article every week entitled "Charlemagne", focusing on European government.
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