King of the Franks, first Holy Roman Emperor

Charlemagne[lower-alpha 2] (/ˈʃɑːrləmn, ˌʃɑːrləˈmn/ SHAR-lə-mayn, -MAYN; 2 April 748[lower-alpha 1] – 28 January 814) was King of the Franks from 768, King of the Lombards from 774, and Emperor of the Carolingian Empire from 800, holding all these titles until his death in 814. Charlemagne succeeded in uniting the majority of Western Central Europe, and was the first recognized emperor to rule in the west after the fall of the Western Roman Empire approximately three centuries earlier. Charlemagne's rule saw a program of political and social changes that had a lasting impact on Europe in the Middle Ages.

Quick Facts King of the Franks, Reign ...

A member of the Frankish Carolingian dynasty, Charlemagne was the eldest son of Pepin the Short and Bertrada of Laon. With his brother Carloman I, he became king of the Franks in 768 following Pepins's death, and became sole ruler in 771. As king, he continued his father's policy to provide protection for the papacy and became its chief defender, removing the Lombards from power in northern Italy in 774. Charlemagne's reign saw a period of expansion that led to the conquests of Bavaria, Saxony, and northern Spain, as well as other campaigns that led Charlemagne to extend his rule over a vast area of Europe. He spread Christianity to his new conquests, often by force, as seen at the Massacre of Verden, perpetrated against the Saxons.

In 800, Charlemagne was crowned as emperor in Rome by Pope Leo III. While historians debate about the exact significance of the coronation, the title represented the height of the prestige and authority he had achieved. Charlemagne's position as the first emperor in the West in over 300 years brought him into conflict with the contemporary Eastern Roman Empire based in Constantinople. Through his assumption of the imperial title, he is considered the forerunner of the line of Holy Roman Emperors that lasted into the nineteenth century. As king and emperor, Charlemagne engaged in a number of reforms in administration, law, education, military organization, and religion which shaped Europe for centuries. The stability of his reign saw the beginning of a period of significant cultural activity known as the Carolingian Renaissance.

Charlemagne died in 814, and was laid to rest in the Aachen Cathedral, within his imperial capital city Aachen. He was succeeded by his only surviving son Louis the Pious. After Louis, the Frankish kingdom would be divided, eventually coalescing into West and East Francia, which would respectively become France and the Holy Roman Empire. Charlemagne's profound impact on the Middle Ages, and the influence on the vast territory he ruled has led him to be called the "Father of Europe". He is seen as a folk hero and founding figure by many European states, and a number of historical royal houses of Europe trace their lineage back to him. Charlemagne has been the subject of artworks, monuments and literature, during and after the medieval period, and has received veneration in the Catholic Church.


Various languages were spoken in Charlemagne's world, and he was known to contemporaries as Karlus in the Old High German he spoke; Karlo to Romance speakers; and Carolus (or alternatively Karolus)[2] in Latin, the formal language of writing and diplomacy.[3] Charles is the modern English form of these names. The name Charlemagne, by which the emperor is normally known in English, comes from the French Charles-le-magne, meaning "Charles the Great".[1] In modern German, he is known as Karl der Große.[4] The Latin epithet magnus ('great') may have been associated with him already in his lifetime, but this is not certain. The contemporary Royal Frankish Annals routinely call him Carolus magnus rex ('Charles the great king').[5] As an epithet, it is certainly attested in the works of the Poeta Saxo around 900, and it had become commonly applied to him by 1000 CE.[6]

Charlemagne was named after his grandfather Charles Martel.[7] The name and its derivatives are unattested before their use by Charles Martel and Charlemagne.[8] Karolus was adapted into Slavic languages as their word for king (present in modern languages, e.g. Ukrainian: korol, Polish: król, and Slovak: král), either through the influence of Charlemagne or his great-grandson Charles the Fat.[9]

Early life and rise to power

Political background and ancestry

Francia, early 8th century

By the sixth century, the western Germanic tribe of the Franks had been Christianised, due in considerable measure to the conversion of their king Clovis I to Catholicism.[10] The Franks had established a kingdom in Gaul in the wake of the Fall of the Western Roman Empire.[11] This kingdom, Francia, grew to encompass nearly all of modern France and Switzerland, along with parts of modern Germany and the Low Countries under the rule of the Merovingian dynasty.[12] Francia was often divided under different Merovingian kings, due to the partible inheritance practiced by the Franks.[13] The late 7th century saw a period of war and instability following the murder of King Childeric II, which led to factional struggles among the Frankish aristocrats.[14]

In 687, Pepin of Herstal, mayor of the palace of Austrasia, ended the strife between various kings and their mayors with his victory at the Battle of Tertry.[15] Pepin was the grandson of two important figures of Austrasia: Arnulf of Metz and Pepin of Landen.[16] The mayors of the palace had gained influence as the Merovingian kings' own power waned due to the divisions of the kingdom and several succession crises.[17] Pepin was eventually succeeded by his son Charles, later known as Charles Martel.[18] Charles did not support a Merovingian successor upon the death of King Theuderic IV in 737, leaving the throne vacant.[19] Charles made plans to divide the kingdom between his sons Carloman and Pepin the Short, who succeeded upon his death in 741.[20] The brothers placed the Merovingian Childeric III on the throne in 743.[21] In 747, Carloman abdicated and entered a monastery at Rome. Carloman had at least two sons, and the elder, Drogo took his place.[22]


Charlemagne was the first-born son of Pepin the Short and his wife Bertada,[23] a member of an influential noble Austrasian family.[24] His birth date is uncertain, though was most likely in 748.[25][26][27][28] An older tradition, based on three sources, gives a birth year of 742. The 9th-century biographer Einhard reports Charlemagne as being in his seventy-second year at his death; the Royal Frankish Annals imprecisely gives his age at death as about 71; and his original epitaph called him a septuagenarian.[29] Einhard claimed not to know much of Charlemagne's early life. Some modern scholars believe that, not knowing the emperor's true age, he nonetheless presented an exact date in keeping with the Roman imperial biographies of Suetonius which he used as a model.[30][31] All three sources may have been influenced by Psalm 90: "The days of our years are threescore years and ten".[32]

The German scholar Karl Werner challenged the acceptance of 742 and cited an addition to the Annales Petaviani which record Charlemagne's birth in 747.[33][lower-alpha 3] Lorsch Abbey commemorated Charlemagne's date of birth as 2 April from the mid-9th century, and this date is likely to be genuine.[34][35] As the annalists recorded the start of the year from Easter rather than 1 January, the historian Matthias Becher built off of Werner's work and showed that 2 April in the year recorded would have actually been in 748.[25] The date 2 April 748 has therefore become widely accepted among scholars.[36][25][26] Roger Collins, believing that Pepin and Bertrada did not marry until 749, considers that Charlemagne would have been an illegitimate child.[28] Charlemagne's place of birth is also unknown; the Frankish palaces in Vaires-sur-Marne and Quierzy are among the places suggested by scholars.[37] Pepin the Short held an assembly in Düren in 748, but it cannot be proved either that it took place in April or that Bertrada was with him.[38]

Language and education

Sketch thought to be of Charlemagne c.800

Einhard speaks of Charlemagne's patrius sermo ('native tongue').[37] Most scholars have identified this as a form of Old High German, probably a Rhenish Franconian dialect.[39][40] Due to the prevalence in Francia of the "rustic Roman" language that was rapidly developing into Old French, he was probably functionally bilingual in both Germanic and Romance dialects from a young age.[37] Charlemagne also spoke Latin, and according to Einhard could understand and perhaps speak some Greek.[41]

Charlemagne's father Pepin had been educated at the abbey of Saint-Denis, though the extent of Charlemagne's formal education is unknown.[42] He almost certainly was trained in military matters as a youth in Pepin's court,[43] which was itinerant.[44] Charlemagne also asserted his own education in the liberal arts when encouraging their study by his children and others, though it is unknown whether his study was as a child or at court during his later life.[43] The question of Charlemagne's literacy is subject to debate, and there is little direct evidence from contemporary sources. He normally had texts read aloud to him and dictated responses and decrees, though this was not unusual even for a literate ruler at the time.[45] The German historian Johannes Fried considers it likely that Charlemagne would have been able to read,[46] though the medievalist Paul Dutton writes that "the evidence for his ability to read is circumstantial and inferential at best,"[47] and concludes it likely that he never properly mastered the skill.[48] Einhard makes no direct mention of Charlemagne reading, but recorded that he only attempted to learn to write later in life.[49]

Accession and joint reign with Carloman

There are only occassional references to Charlemagne in the Frankish annals during his father's lifetime.[50] By 751 or 752, Pepin had deposed Childeric and replaced him as king.[51] Early Carolingian-influenced sources claim that Pepin's seizure of the throne was sanctioned beforehand by Pope Stephen II,[52] but modern historians dispute this.[53][21] It is possible that papal approval came only when Stephen travelled to Francia in 754, apparently to request Pepin's aid against the Lombards, and on this trip anointed Pepin as king, legitimizing his rule.[54][53] Charlemagne had been sent to greet and escort the Pope, and he and his younger brother Carloman were anointed along with their father.[55] Around the same time, Pepin sidelined Drogo, sending him and his brother to a monastery.[56]

20th-century painting of Charlemagne's coronation at Noyon in 768.

Charlemagne began issuing charters in his own name in 760. In the following year, he joined his father's campaign against Aquitaine.[57] Aquitaine, led by Duke Hunald was constantly in rebellion during Pepin's reign.[58] Pepin fell ill on campaign there and died on 24 September 768, and Charlemagne and Carloman succeeded their father.[59] They had separate coronations, Charlemagne at Noyon and Carloman at Soissons, each on 9 October.[60] The brothers maintained separate palaces and separate spheres of influence, though they were considered joint rulers of a single Frankish kingdom.[61] The Royal Frankish Annals report that Charlemagne ruled Austrasia and Carloman ruled Burgundy, Provence, Aquitaine, and Alamannia, with no mention made of which brother received Neustria.[61] The immediate concern of the brothers was the ongoing uprising in Aquitane.[62] While they marched into Aquitaine together, Carloman returned to Francia for unknown reasons, and Charlemagne completed the campaign on his own.[62] Charlemagne's capture of Duke Hunald marked the end of the ten years of war that had been waged in the attempt to bring Aquitaine in line.[62]

Carloman's refusal to participate in the war against Aquitaine led to a rift between the two kings.[62][63] It is uncertain why Carloman abandoned the campaign. It is possible that the brothers disagreed over control over the territory,[62][64] or that Carloman was focusing on securing his rule in the north of Francia.[64] Regardless of this strife between the kings, they maintained a joint rule out of practicality.[65] Both Charlemagne and Carloman worked to obtain the support of the clergy and local elites to solidify their positions.[66]

Pope Stephen III was elected in 768, but was briefly deposed by Antipope Constantine II before being restored to Rome.[67] Stephen's Papacy suffered from continuing factional struggles, so he sought the support of the Frankish kings.[68] Both brothers sent troops to Rome, each hoping to exert their own influence.[69] The Lombard king Desiderius also had interests in the affairs in Rome, and Charlemagne attempted to gain him as an ally.[70] Desiderius already had alliances with Bavaria and Benevento through the marriages of his daughters to their dukes,[71] and an alliance with Charlemagne would add to his influence.[70] Charlemagne's mother Betrada went on his behalf to Lombardy in 770, where she brokered a marriage alliance before returning to Francia with Charlemagne's new bride.[72] Desiderius's daughter is traditionally named Desiderata, though she may have been named Gerperga.[73][62] Being anxious at the prospect of a Frankish–Lombard alliance, Pope Stephen sent a letter to both Frankish kings decrying the marriage, while also separately seeking closer ties with Carloman.[74]

Charlemagne had already had a relationship with the Frankish noblewoman Himiltrude, having a son in 769 they named Pepin.[60] Paul the Deacon wrote in his 784 Gesta Episcoporum Mettensium that Pepin was born "before legal marriage", but does not say whether Charles and Himiltrude were never married, were joined in a non-canonical marriage or friedelehe, or if they married after Pepin was born.[75] Pope Stephen's letter described the relationship as a legitimate marriage, but he had a vested interest in preventing Charlemagne from marrying Desiderius's daughter.[76]

Carloman died suddenly on 4 December 771, leaving Charlemagne as sole king of the Franks.[77] He moved immediately to secure his hold on his brother's territory, forcing Carloman's widow Gerberga to flee to Desiderius's court in Lombardy with their children.[78][79] In response, Charlemagne ended his marriage to Desiderius's daughter and married Hildegard, daughter of count Gerold, a powerful magnate from Carloman's kingdom.[79] This was both a reaction to Desiderius's sheltering of Carloman's family[80] as well as a move to secure Gerold's support.[81][82]

King of the Franks and the Lombards

Annexation of the Lombard kingdom

Political map of Europe in 771, showing the Franks and their neighbors.

Charlemagne's first campaigning season as sole king of the Franks was spent on the eastern frontier, in his first war against the Saxons. Saxons had been engaging in border raiding against the Frankish kingdom when Charlemagne responded, destroying the pagan irminsul shrine at Eresburg and seizing the Saxons' gold and silver.[83] The success of the war helped secure Charlemagne's reputation among his brother's former supporters as well as providing funds for further military action.[84] The campaign was the beginning of over thirty years of nearly continuous warfare against the Saxons by Charlemagne.[85]

Pope Adrian I succeeded Stephen III in 772, and sought the return of papal control of cities that had been captured by Desiderius.[86] As he was unable to get results by dealing with the Lombard king directly, Adrian sent emissaries to Charlemagne to gain his support in recovering papal territory. Charlemagne, in response to this appeal and the dynastic threat posed by the presence of Carloman's sons in the Lombard court, gathered his forces in order to intervene.[87] He first sought diplomatic solutions, by offering gold to Desiderius in exchange for the return of the papal territories and his nephews.[88] These overtures were rejected, and Charlemagne's army (with command divided between himself and his uncle Bernard) crossed the Alps to besiege the Lombard capital Pavia in late 773.[89]

Charlemagne's second son, also named Charles, had been born in 772, and Charlemagne brought the child and his wife to the camp at Pavia. Hildegard was pregnant, and gave birth to a daughter named Adelhaid. The baby was sent back to Francia, but died on the way.[89] Charlemagne left Bernard to maintain the siege at Pavia while he took a force to capture Verona, where Desiderius's son Adalgis had taken Carloman's sons.[90] Charlemagne captured the city, and no further record exists of his nephews or of Carloman's wife, and their fates are unknown.[91][92] The historian Janet Nelson likens them to the "princes in the tower" of the Wars of the Roses.[93] Fried puts forth the possibilities that the boys were forced into a monastery, which was a common solution for dynastic issues, or that "an act of murder smooth[ed] Charlemagne’s ascent to power."[94] Adalgis was not captured by Charlemagne and fled to Constantinople.[95]

Pope Adrian receiving Charlemagne at Rome

Charlemagne left the siege in April 774 to celebrate Easter at Rome.[96] Pope Adrian arranged for a formal welcome of the Frankish king, and the two swore oaths to each other over the relics of St. Peter.[97] Adrian presented a copy of the agreement between Pepin and Stephen III outlining the papal lands and rights Pepin had agreed to protect and restore.[98] It is unclear to which exact lands and rights the agreement applied, and this would remain a point of dispute for centuries.[99] Charlemagne deposited a copy of the agreement in the chapel above St. Peter's tomb as a symbol of his commitment, then left Rome to continue the siege at Pavia.[100]

Shortly after his return to Pavia, disease struck the besieged Lombards, and they surrendered the city by June.[101] Charlemagne deposed Desiderius and took the title of King of the Lombards for himself.[102] The complete takeover of one kingdom by another was "extraordinary" (Collins),[103] and the authors of The Carolingian World say it was "without parallel".[92] Charlemagne was able to secure the support of the Lombard nobles and Italian urban elites to seize power in what was a mostly peaceful annexation.[103][104] The historian Rosamond McKitterick suggests that the elective nature of the Lombard monarchy eased Charlemagne's takeover;[105] Collins attributes the easy conquest to the Lombard elite's "presupposition that rightful authority was in the hands of the one powerful enough to seize it".[103] Charlemagne shortly returned to Francia with the Lombard royal treasury and with Desiderius and his family, who would be confined to a monastery for the rest of their days.[106]

Frontier wars in Saxony and Spain

Charlemagne's additions to the Frankish Kingdom

Saxons had taken advantage of Charlemagne's absence in Italy to raid the Frankish borderlands, leading to a Frankish counter-raid in the autumn of 774 and a campaign of reprisal against the Saxons in 775.[107] Charlemagne was soon drawn back to Italy, as Duke Hrodgaud of Friuli rebelled against him.[108] Charlemagne quickly crushed the rebellion and distributed Hrodgaud's lands to Franks, in order to consolidate his rule in Lombardy.[109] He wintered in Italy, and further consolidated his power by issuing charters and legislation, as well as taking Lombard hostages.[110] In the midst of the 775 Saxon and Friulian campaigns, his daughter Rotrude was born in Francia.[111]

Returning north, Charlemagne waged another brief but destructive campaign against the Saxons in 776.[lower-alpha 4] This led to the submission of many Saxons, who turned over captives and lands as well as submitting to baptism as Christians.[113] In 777, Charlemagne held an assembly at Paderborn with both Frankish and Saxon men, and many more Saxons came under his rule, but the Saxon magnate Widukind fled to Denmark to make preparations for a new rebellion.[114]

Also present at the Paderborn assembly were representatives of dissident factions from al-Andalus (or Muslim Spain). These included the son and son-in-law of Yusuf ibn Abd al-Rahman al-Fihri, the former governor of Cordóba, who had been ousted by the Caliph Abd al-Rahman in 756. They sought Charlemagne's support for al-Fihri's restoration. Also present was Sulayman al-Arabi, governor of Barcelona and Girona, who wished to become part of the Frankish kingdom and receive Charlemagne's protection, rather than remain under the rule of Cordoba.[115] Charlemagne, seeing an opportunity to strengthen the security of the kingdom's southern frontier and further extend his influence, agreed to intervene.[116] Crossing the Pyrenees, his army found little resistance until an ambush by Basque forces in 778 at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass. The Franks were defeated in the battle and withdrew from the campaign, though with most of their army intact.[117]

Building the dynasty

Adrian crowning Louis as Charlemagne looks on.

Charlemagne returned to Francia to greet his newly born twin sons Louis and Lothair, who had been born while he was in Spain.[118] Lothair would die in infancy.[119] Again, Saxons had seized on the king's absence to raid. Charlemagne sent an army to Saxony in 779,[120] while he took time to hold assemblies, legislate, and address a famine in Francia.[121] Hildegard gave birth to another daughter, Bertha.[119] Charlemagne himself returned to Saxony in 780, holding assemblies in which he received hostages from Saxon nobles and oversaw their baptisms.[122]

In the spring of 781, Charlemagne and Hildegard traveled with their four younger children to Rome, leaving Pepin and Charles at Worms, to make a journey first requested by Adrian in 775.[119] Adrian baptized Carloman and renamed him Pepin, resulting in him sharing a name with his half brother.[123] Louis and the newly renamed Pepin were then anointed and crowned. Pepin was appointed as king of the Lombards and Louis as king of Aquitaine.[112] This act was not merely nominal, as the young kings were sent to reside in their kingdoms under the care of regents and advisors.[124] A delegation from the Byzantine regent Empress Irene came to meet Charlemagne during his stay in Rome, who agreed to betroth his daughter Rotrude to Irene's son, the Emperor Constantine VI.[125]

Hildegard also gave birth to her eighth child, Gisela during this trip to Italy.[126] After the royal family's return to Francia, she had her final pregnancy, and died from resulting complications on 30 April 783. The child, named after her, died shortly thereafter.[127] Charlemagne commissioned epitaphs for both his wife and daughter, and arranged for mass to be held daily at Hildegard's tomb.[127] Charlemagne's mother Betrada died shortly after Hildegard, on 12 July 783.[128] By the end of the year, Charlemagne was remarried to Fastrada, the daughter of the East Frankish count Radolf.[129]

Saxon resistance and reprisal

Charlemagne receiving the submission of Widukind at Paderborn in 785, painted c.1840 by Ary Scheffer.

In summer 782, Widukind returned from Denmark to attack the Frankish positions in Saxony.[130] He defeated a Frankish army, possibly due to rivalry among the Frankish counts leading it.[131] After learning of the defeat, Charlemagne came to Verden but Widukind fled before his arrival. Charlemagne summoned the Saxon magnates to an assembly, and compelled them to turn over prisoners to him as he regarded their previous acts as a treachery. The annals record that Charlemagne had 4,500 Saxon prisoners beheaded in what is called the Massacre of Verden.[132] Fried writes that "although this figure may be exaggerated, the basic truth of the event is not in doubt."[133] The historian Alessandro Barbero regards it as "perhaps the greatest stain on his reputation."[134] Charlemagne issued the Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae legal code, most likely in the immediate aftermath of, or as a precursor for, the massacre.[135] Featuring a harsh set of laws that included death penalty for pagan practices, the Capitulatio "constituted a program for the forced conversion of the Saxons" (Barbero)[136] and was "aimed … at suppressing Saxon identity" (Nelson).[137]

Charlemagne's focus for the next several years would be his attempt to complete the subjugation of the Saxons. Concentrating first in Westphalia in 783, he pushed into Thuringia in 784 as his son, Charles the Younger, continued operations in the west. At each stage of the campaigns, the Frankish armies seized wealth and carried Saxon captives into slavery.[138] Unusually, Charlemagne campaigned through the winter rather than resting his army.[139] By 785, Charlemagne had suppressed the Saxon resistance and commanded complete control of Westphalia. That summer, he met Widukind and convinced him to end his resistance. Widukind agreed to be baptized with Charlemagne as his godfather, ending this phase of the Saxon Wars.[140]

Benevento, Bavaria, and Pepin's revolt

Charlemagne travelled to Italy in 786, arriving by Christmas. Aiming to extend his influence further into southern Italy, he marched into the Duchy of Benevento.[141] Duke Arechis fled to a fortified position at Salerno, before offering Charlemagne his fealty. Charlemagne accepted his submission along with hostages, who included Arechis's son Grimoald.[142] While in Italy, Charlemagne also met with envoys from Constantinople. Empress Irene had called the 787 Second Council of Nicaea, but did not inform Charlemagne nor invite any Frankish bishops. Charlemagne, probably in reaction to the perceived slight of this exclusion, broke the betrothal between his daughter Rotrude and Constantine VI.[143]

Solidus of Benevento with Grimoald's effigy and Charlemagne's name (DOMS CAR RX, the Lord King Charles).

After Charlemagne left Italy, Arechis sent envoys to Irene to offer an alliance. He suggested she send a Byzantine army along with Adalgis, the exiled son of Desiderus, to remove the Franks from power in Lombardy.[144] Before his plans could be finalised, both Aldechis and his elder son Romuald died of illness within weeks of each other.[145] Charlemagne sent Grimoald back to Benevento to serve as duke and return it to Frankish suzerainty.[146] The Byzantine army did invade but were repulsed by the Frankish and Lombard forces.[147]

As affairs were being settled in Italy, Charlemagne turned his attention to Bavaria. Bavaria was ruled by Duke Tassilo, Charlemagne's first cousin who had been installed by Pepin the Short in 748.[148] Tassilo's sons were also grandsons of Desiderius, and therefore a potential threat to Charlemagne's rule in Lombardy.[149] The two neighbouring rulers had a growing rivalry throughout their reigns, but had sworn oaths of peace to each other in 781.[150] In 784, Rotpert, Charlemagne's viceroy in Italy, accused Tassilo of conspiring with Widukind in Saxony and unsuccessfully attacked the Bavarian city of Bolzano.[151] Charlemagne gathered his forces to prepare an invasion of Bavaria in 787. Dividing the army, the Franks launched a three-pronged attack. Quickly realizing the poor position he was in, Tassilo agreed to surrender and recognise Charlemagne as his overlord.[152] The next year, Tassilo was accused of plotting with the Avars to attack Charlemagne. Tassilo was deposed and sent to a monastery, and Charlemagne absorbed Bavaria into his kingdom.[153] Charlemagne spent several of the next years based in Regensburg, largely focused on consolidating his rule Bavaria and warring against the Avars.[154] Successful campaigns against the Avars were launched from Bavaria and Italy in 788,[155] and Charlemagne led campaigns in 791 and 792.[156]

In 789, Charlemagne gave Charles the Younger rule over Maine in Neustria, leaving Pepin the Hunchback as his only son without lands.[157] Charlemagne's relationship with Himiltrude was by this point apparently seen as definitively illegitimate at Charlemagne's court, and Pepin was as a result being sidelined in the succession.[158] In 792, as his father and brothers were all gathered at Regensburg, Pepin conspired with Bavarian nobles to assassinate them and install himself as king. The plot was discovered and revealed to Charlemagne before it could go ahead. Pepin was sent to a monastery and many of his co-conspirators were executed.[159]

The early 790s saw a marked focus on ecclesiastical affairs by Charlemagne. He summoned a council at Regensburg in 792 to address the theological controversy over the Adoptionism doctrine in the Spanish church, as well as to formulate a response to the Second Council of Nicea.[160] The council condemned Adoptionism as a heresy and led to the production of the Libri Carolini, a detailed argument against Nicea's canons.[161] In 794, Charlemagne called another council at Frankfurt.[162] The council confirmed Regensburg's positions on Adoptionism and Nicea, recognised the deposition of Tassilo, set grain prices, reformed the Frankish coinage system, forbade abbesses to give blessings to men, and endorsed prayer in vernacular languages.[163] Soon after the council, Fastrada fell ill and died.[164] Charlemagne married the Alamannian noblewoman Luitgard shortly after.[165][166]

Continued wars with the Saxons and Avars

Charlemagne gathered an army after the council of Frankfurt as Saxon resistance continued. This was the beginning of a series of annual campaigns by Charlemagne that would last through 799.[167] The campaigns of the 790s were even more destructive than those of earlier decades, with the annal writers frequently referring to Charlemagne "burning", "ravaging", "devastating", and "laying waste" to the Saxon lands.[168] Charlemagne forcibly removed a large number of Saxons to Francia, installing Frankish elites and soldiers in their place.[169] Charlemagne's extended wars in Saxony led to him establishing his court at Aachen, which had easy access to the frontier. At Aachen, he built a large palace, including a chapel which is now part of the Aachen Cathedral.[170] It was during this period that Einhard joined the court.[171] In the south, Pepin of Italy engaged in further wars against the Avars which led to the collapse of their kingdom and the expansion of Frankish rule eastwards.[172]

During the wars of the 790s, Charlemagne also worked to expand his influence through diplomatic means, with particular attention on the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britain. Charles the Younger proposed a marriage pact with the daughter of King Offa of Mercia, but Offa insisted that Charlemagne's daughter Bertha also be given as a bride for his own son.[173] Charlemagne refused this arrangement, and the marriage did not occur.[174] Charlemagne and Offa did enter into a formal peace in 796, protecting trade and securing the rights of English pilgrims to pass through Francia on their way to Rome.[175] Charlemagne also served as host and protector of several deposed English rulers who were later restored: Eadbehrt of Kent, Ecgberht, King of Wessex, and Eardwulf of Northumbria.[176][177] Nelson writes that Charlemagne treated the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms "like satellite states," even establishing direct relations with English bishops.[178] Charlemagne also made an alliance with Alfonso II of Asturias, though Einhard describes Alfonso as a "dependent" of Charlemagne.[179]

Reign as emperor


Imperial Coronation of Charlemagne, by Friedrich Kaulbach, 1861

Since Leo III became pope in 795, he had faced political opposition. In April 799, his enemies accused him of various crimes and physically attacked him, attempting to remove his eyes and tongue.[180] Leo escaped and fled north to seek Charlemagne's help.[181] Charlemagne continued his campaign against the Saxons before breaking off to meet Leo at Paderborn in September.[182][183] Charlemagne, hearing evidence from both the Pope and his enemies, sent Leo back to Rome along with royal legates, who had instructions to reinstate the Pope and investigate the matter further.[184] It was not until August of the next year that Charlemagne himself made plans to go to Rome, after an extensive tour of his lands in Neustria.[184][185] Charlemagne met Leo in November near Mentana, at the twelfth milestone outside Rome, the traditional location where Roman emperors began their formal entry to the city.[185] Charlemagne presided over an assembly to hear the charges, but believed that no one could sit in judgement of the Pope. Instead, Leo swore an oath on 23 December declaring his innocence of all charges.[186] At mass in St. Peter's Basilica on Christmas Day 800, Leo acclaimed Charlemagne as emperor and crowned him. In doing so, Charlemagne became the first reigning emperor in the west since the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476.[187] His son, Charles the Younger, was anointed as king by Leo at the same time.[188]

Coronation of Charlemagne, drawing by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld, 1840.

Historians differ as to the intentions behind the imperial coronation, the extent to which Charlemagne was aware of it or participated in its planning, and the significance of the events, both to those present, and for Charlemagne's reign.[182] Contemporary Frankish and papal sources differ in their emphasis and representation of events.[189] Einhard insists that Charlemagne would not have entered the church had he known of the Pope's plan; modern historians have regarded his report as truthful, or rejected it as a "literary device" used as a way to signal Charlemagne's humility.[190] Collins argues that the actions surrounding the coronation indicate that it was planned by Charlemagne as early as his meeting with Leo in 799,[191] and Fried writes that Charlemagne planned to adopt the title of emperor by 798 "at the latest."[192] In the years before the coronation, Charlemagne's courtier Alcuin had referred to Charlemagne's realm as an Imperium Christianum ("Christian Empire"), wherein, "just as the inhabitants of the Roman Empire had been united by a common Roman citizenship", presumably this new empire would be united by a common Christian faith.[193] This is the view of the French scholar Henri Pirenne who says "Charles was the Emperor of the ecclesia as the Pope conceived it, of the Roman Church, regarded as the universal Church".[194]

Pope Leo III, crowning Charlemagne from Chroniques de France ou de Saint Denis, vol. 1; France, second quarter of 14th century.

For both Leo and Charlemagne, the Roman Empire remained a significant contemporary power in European politics, especially in Italy. The Byzantines continued to hold a substantial portion of Italy, with borders not far south of Rome. Empress Irene had seized the throne from her son Constantine VI in 797, deposing and blinding him.[195] Irene was the first reigning Byzantine empress, and faced opposition in Constantinople both because of her gender and her means of accession.[196] One of the earliest narrative sources for the coronation, the Annals of Lorsch, presented the presence of a female ruler in Constantinople as a vacancy in the imperial title, which therefore provided a justification for Leo to crown Charlemagne.[197] Pirenne disputes this, saying that the coronation "was not in any sense explained by the fact that at this moment a woman was reigning in Constantinople."[198] Leo's main motivations may have been the desire to increase his own standing after his political difficulties, placing himself as a power broker, and securing Charlemagne as a powerful ally and protector.[199] The Byzantine Empire's lack of ability to influence events in Italy and support the papacy were also important in Leo's position.[199] The Royal Frankish Annals emphasize that Leo prostrated himself before Charlemagne after crowning him, an act of submission standard in Roman coronation rituals from the time of Diocletian. This account presents Leo not as Charlemagne's superior, but as merely acting as the agent of the Roman people recognising their acclamation of Charlemagne as emperor.[200]

The historian Henry Mayr-Harting argues that the assumption of the imperial title by Charlemagne was an effort to incorporate the Saxons into the Frankish realm, as they did not have a native tradition of kingship.[201] However, Costambeys et al. note in The Carolingian World that "since Saxony had not been in the Roman empire it is hard to see on what basis an emperor would have been any more welcomed."[199] These authors argue that the decision to take the title of emperor was aimed at furthering Charlemagne's influence in Italy, as an appeal to traditional authority recognised by Italian elites both within and especially outside his current control.[199]

The Coronation of Charlemagne, by assistants of Raphael, c.1516–1517

Collins agrees that becoming emperor gave Charlemagne "the right to try to impose his rule over the whole of [Italy]", and regards this as a motivation for the coronation.[202] He also notes the "element of political and military risk"[202] inherent in the affair, due to the opposition of the Byzantine Empire, as well as potential opposition from the Frankish elite, as the imperial title could draw him further into Mediterranean politics.[203] Collins sees several of Charlemagne actions as attempts to ensure that his new title was cast in a distinctly Frankish context.[204]

Charlemagne's coronation led to a centuries-long ideological conflict between his successors and Constantinople, termed the problem of two emperors,[lower-alpha 5] as it could be seen as a rejection or usurpation of the Byzantine emperors' claim to be the universal, preeminent rulers of Christendom.[205] The historian James Muldoon writes that Charlemagne may have had a more limited view of his role, seeing the title as simply representing dominion over the lands he already ruled.[206] Nonetheless, the title of emperor gave Charlemagne enhanced prestige and ideological authority.[207][208] He immediately incorporated his new title into the documents he issued, adopting the formula "Charles, most serene Augustus, crowned by God, great peaceful emperor governing the Roman empire, and who is by the mercy of God king of the Franks and the Lombards"[lower-alpha 6] as opposed to the earlier form "Charles, by the grace of God king of the Franks and Lombards and patrician of the Romans."[lower-alpha 7][2] The avoidance of the specific claim of being a "Roman emperor" as an opposed to the more neutral "emperor governing the Roman empire" may have been designed to improve relations with the Byzantines.[209] This formulation, alongside the continuation of his earlier royal titles, may also represent a view of his role as emperor as merely being the ruler of the people of the city of Rome, just as he was of the Franks and the Lombards.[209][210]

Governing the empire

Charlemagne's throne in Aachen Cathedral.

Charlemagne left Italy in the summer of 801 after providing his judgement on several ecclesiastical disputes in Rome.[211] He would not return to Rome again.[207] Although continuing trends and style of rulership established in the 790s,[212] the period of Charlemagne's reign from 801 onward marks a "distinct phase"[213] characterized by a more sedentary rule from Aachen.[207] While there continued to be conflict until the end of Charlemagne's reign, the relative peace of the imperial period saw an increased focus on internal governance. The Franks continued to wage war, although they increasingly focused on defending and securing the empire's frontiers,[214][215] and Charlemagne rarely led armies personally.[216] A significant expansion of the Spanish March counties was achieved through a series of campaigns by Louis against the Emirate of Cordoba, culminating in the capture of Barcelona in 801.[217]

The Capitulare missorum generale issued in 802, called the programmatic capitulary, was an expansive piece of legislation, with provisions governing the conduct of royal officials and requiring that all free men make an oath of loyalty to him.[218][219] The capitulary reformed the institution of the missi dominici, officials who would now be assigned in pairs (a cleric and a lay aristocrat) to administer justice and oversee governance within defined territories.[220] The emperor also ordered the revision of the Lombard and Frankish law codes.[221]

In addition to the missi, Charlemagne also ruled parts the empire through his sons as sub-kings.[222] Though both Pepin and Louis had some devolved authority as kings in Italy and Aquitaine, Charlemagne still had ultimate authority and intervened in matters directly.[223] Charles, their elder brother, had been given rule over lands in Neustria in 789 or 790, and had been made a king in 800.[224]

The 806 charter Divisio Regnorum ('division of the realm'), set the terms of Charlemagne's succession.[225] Charles, as his eldest son in good favour, was given the largest share of the inheritance, with rule of Francia proper along with Saxony, Nordgau, and parts of Alemannia. The two younger sons were confirmed in their kingdoms and gained additional territories, with most of Bavaria and Alemmannia given to Pepin and Provence, Septimania, and parts of Burgundy to Louis.[226] Charlemagne did not address the inheritance of the imperial title.[224] The Divisio also provided that, in the event that any of the brothers predeceased Charlemagne, their own sons would inherit their share, and urged peace among all his descendants.[227]

Conflict and diplomacy with the east

15th-century woodcut of Charlemagne and Irene.

Following his coronation, Charlemagne sought recognition of his imperial title from Constantinople.[228] Several delegations were exchanged between Charlemagne and Irene in 802 and 803. The contemporary Byzantine chronicler Thophanes claims that Charlemagne made an offer of marriage to Irene, which she was close to accepting.[229] Irene, however, was deposed and replaced by Nikephoros I, who was unwilling to recognize Charlemagne as emperor.[229] The two empires came into conflict over control of the Adriatic Sea (especially Istria and Veneto) several times during Nikephoros' reign. In 810, Charlemagne sent envoys to Constantinople to make peace, giving up his claims to Veneto. Nikephoros died in battle before the envoys could leave Constantinople, but Nikephoros' son-in-law and successor Michael I confirmed the peace, sending his own envoys to Aachen to recognize Charlemagne as emperor.[230] Charlemagne soon issued the first Frankish coins mentioning his imperial title, though papal coins minted in Rome had used the titles as early as 800.[231]

Charlemagne had sent envoys and initiated diplomatic contact with the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid in the 790s, due to their mutual interest in affairs in Spain.[232] As an early sign of friendship, Charlemagne requested an elephant as a gift from Harun. Harun later provided an elephant named Abul-Abbas, which arrived at Aachen in 802.[233] Harun also sought to undermine Charlemagne's relations with the Byzantines, with whom he was at war. As part of his outreach, Harun gave Charlemagne nominal rule of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, as well as other gifts.[234] According to Einhard, Charlemagne "zealously strove to make friendships with kings beyond the seas" in order "that he might get some help and relief to the Christians living under their rule." A surviving administrative document, the Basel roll, shows the work his agents performed on the ground in Palestine in furtherance of this goal.[235][lower-alpha 8]

Harun's death lead to a succession crisis, and under his successors, churches and synagogues were destroyed in the caliphate.[236] Unable to intervene directly, Charlemagne sent specially minted coins and arms to the eastern Christians in order to defend and restore their churches and monasteries. The coins with their inscriptions also served as an important tool of imperial propaganda.[237] Johannes Fried writes that deteriorating relations with Baghdad after Harun's death may have been the impetus for the renewed negotiations with Constantinople that would lead to Charlemagne's peace with Michael in 811.[238]

As emperor, Charlemagne became involved in a religious dispute between eastern and western Christians over the recitation of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, the fundamental statement of orthodox Christian belief. The original text of the creed adopted at the Council of Constantinople professed that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father. However, a tradition developed in Western Europe that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father "and the Son", inserting the Latin term filioque into the Creed.[239] This difference in tradition did not cause significant conflict until 807, when Frankish monks in Bethlehem were denounced as heretics by a Greek monk for using the filioque form.[239] The Frankish monks appealed the dispute to Rome, where Pope Leo affirmed the text of the creed omitting the phrase and also passed the report on to Charlemagne.[240] Charlemagne summoned a council at Aachen in 809, which defended the use of filioque, and sent this decision to Rome. Leo consented that the Franks could maintain their tradition, but asserted that the canonical creed did not include filioque.[241] Leo commissioned two silver shields with the Creed in Latin and Greek, omitting the filioque, which he hung in St. Peter's Basilica.[239][242] Another product of the council of Aachen was the so-called Handbook of 809, an illustrated calendrical, astronomical and computistical compendium.[243]

Wars with the Danes

Europe at the death of the Charlemagne in 814

Scandinavia had been brought into contact with the Frankish world through Charlemagne's continuous wars with the Saxons.[244] Raids on Charlemagne's lands by Danes began around 800.[245] Charlemagne engaged in his final campaign in Saxony in 804, taking control of Saxon territory east of the Elbe and removing the Saxon population, giving the land to his Obotrite allies.[246] During this campaign, the Danish king Gudfred, uneasy at the extension of Frankish power, offered to meet with Charlemagne to arrange peace and possibly hand over Saxons that had fled to him.[245][247] These talks were not successful for unknown reasons.[247]

The northern frontier was quiet until 808, when Gudfred, along with some allied Slavic tribes, led an incursion into the Obotrite lands, extracting tribute from over half the territory.[248][245] Charles the Younger led an army across the Elbe in response, but only attacked some of Gudfred's Slavic allies.[249] Gudfred again attempted diplomatic overtures in 809, but it seems no peace was made.[250] Danish pirates raided Frisia in 810, though it is uncertain if they were connected to Gudfred.[251] Charlemagne sent an army to secure Frisia, while he himself led a force against Gudfred, who had reportedly challenged the emperor to face him directly in battle.[216][251] The battle never took place, as Gudfred was murdered by two of his own men before Charlemagne's arrival.[215] Gudfred's nephew and successor Hemming immediately sued for peace, and a commission led by Charlemagne's cousin Wala reached a final settlement with the Danes in 811.[216] The Danes did not pose a threat for the remainder of Charlemagne's reign, but the effects of this war and their earlier expansion in Saxony would help create the factors for the intense Viking raids across Europe later in the ninth century.[252][253]

Final years and death

A portion of the 814 death shroud of Charlemagne. It represents a quadriga and was manufactured in Constantinople.

The Carolingian dynasty had multiple losses in 810 and 811, as Charlemagne's sister Gisela, his daughter Rotrude, and his sons Pepin the Hunchback, Pepin of Italy, and Charles the Younger died.[254] The deaths of Charles the Younger and Pepin of Italy left Charlemagne's earlier plans for succession in disarray. In the wake of these deaths, he declared Pepin of Italy's son Bernard ruler of Italy, and made his own only surviving son, Louis, heir to the rest of the empire.[255] He also completed a new will detailing the disposal of his property to take place at his death, with bequests to be made the Church as well as for all of his children and grandchildren.[256] Einhard (possibly relying on tropes from Suetonius's The Twelve Caesars) recounts that Charlemagne viewed the deaths of his family members, an accident he suffered falling off a horse, astronomical phenomena, and the collapse of part of the palace in his last years as signs of his own impending death.[257] In his final year, Charlemagne continued to govern with energy, ordering bishops to assemble in five ecclesiastical councils.[258] These culminated in a large assembly at Aachen, where Charlemagne formally crowned Louis as his co-emperor, and Bernard as king, in a ceremony on 11 September 813.[259]

Charlemagne became ill in the autumn of 813 and spent his last months praying, fasting, and studying the Gospels.[257] He developed pleurisy, and became completely bedridden for seven days before dying on the morning of 28 January 814.[260] Thegan, a biographer of Louis, records the emperor's last words as "Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit", quoting from Luke 23:46.[261] Charlemagne's body was prepared and buried in the chapel at Aachen by his daughters and palace officials on the same day.[262] Louis arrived at Aachen thirty days after his father's death, making a formal adventus, taking charge of the palace and the empire.[263] Charlemagne's remains were exhumed by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in 1165, and reinterred in a new casket by Frederick II in 1215.[264]

Proserpina sarcophagus, in which Charlemagne is thought to have been originally buried.
The Karlsschrein, in which Frederick II reinterred Charlemagne in 1215.


Political legacy

Partition of the Empire after the Treaty of Verdun 843.

The stability and peace of Charlemagne's reign would not outlast him for long. Louis' reign was marked by strife, including multiple rebellions of his own sons. Following Louis' death, the empire was divided among his sons into West, East, and Middle Francia by the Treaty of Verdun.[265] Middle Francia saw several more divisions over subsequent generations.[266] Carolingians would rule with some interruptions in East Francia (later the Kingdom of Germany) until 911,[187] and in West Francia (which would become France) until 987.[267] After 887, the imperial title was held sporadically by a series of non-dynastic Italian rulers[268] before lapsing in 924.[269] The East Francian king Otto the Great conquered Italy and was crowned emperor in 962,[270] founding the Holy Roman Empire which would last as an institution until its dissolution in 1806.[271]

According to historian Jennifer Davis, Charlemagne "invented medieval rulership" and his influence can be seen at least into the nineteenth century.[272] Charlemagne is often given the epithet "the father of Europe" because of the influence of his reign, and the legacy he left across the large area of the continent he ruled.[273] The political structures Charlemagne established remained in place through his Carolingian successors, and continued to have influence into the eleventh century.[274] During his reign, the groundwork was laid for the concentration of power in the hands of military aristocracies that would characterize the later Middle Ages.[275]

Despite the end of ruling Carolingian lines, Charlemagne is considered to be a direct ancestor of several European ruling houses, including the Capetian dynasty,[lower-alpha 9] the Ottonian dynasty,[lower-alpha 10] the House of Luxembourg,[lower-alpha 11] the House of Ivrea[lower-alpha 12] and the House of Habsburg.[lower-alpha 13] The Ottonians and Capetians, as direct successors of the Carolingans, drew on the legacy of Charlemagne to bolster their legitimacy and prestige. The Ottonians and their successors would continue to hold their German coronations at Aachen through the Middle Ages.[280] The marriage of Philip II of France to Isabella of Hainault, a direct descendant of Charlemagne, was seen as a sign of increased legitimacy for their son Louis VIII, and the French kings' association with Charlemagne continued to be expressed until the monarchy's end.[281] German and French rulers such as Frederick Barbarossa and Napoleon directly cited the influence of Charlemagne and associated themselves with him.[282]

The city of Aachen has, since 1949, awarded an international prize (called the Karlspreis der Stadt Aachen) in honour of Charlemagne. It is awarded annually to those who have promoted the idea of European unity.[282] Winners of the prize include Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi, the founder of the pan-European movement, Alcide De Gasperi, and Winston Churchill.[283]

Carolingian Renaissance

Charlemagne and Alcuin, 19th century.

Contacts with the wider Mediterranean world through Spain and Italy, and the influx of foreign scholars at court, along with the relative stability and length of Charlemagne's reign led to a cultural revival known as the Carolingian Renaissance.[284] While the beginnings of this revival can be seen under his predecessors Charles Martel and Pepin, Charlemagne took an active and direct role in shaping intellectual life that led to the revival's height.[285] Charlemagne promoted learning as a matter of policy and direct patronage, with the aim of creating a more effective clergy.[286] The Admonitio generalis and Epistola de litteris colendis outlined Charlemagne's policies and aims in promoting education and learning.[287]

Intellectual life at court was dominated by Irish, Anglo-Saxon, Visigothic, and Italian scholars including Dungal of Bobbio, Alcuin of York, Theodulf of Orléans, and Peter of Pisa, though Franks such as Einhard and Angelbert also made substantial contributions.[288] Aside from the intellectual activity at the palace, Charlemagne promoted ecclesiastical schools as well publicly-funded schools for the children of the elites and future clergy.[289] Students learned the basic tenets of Latin literacy and grammar, arithmetic, and other subjects of the medieval liberal arts.[290] From their own education, it was expected that priests in even rural parishes were able to provide basic instruction in religious matters and possibly the basic literacy skills required for worship to "the broadest level of Carolingian society."[291]

Carolingian authors produced extensive works including legal treatises, histories, and poetry as well as religious texts.[292][293] Scriptoria at monasteries and cathedrals focused on the copying of both new and old works, and produced an estimated 90,000 manuscripts during the ninth century.[294] The Carolingian minuscule script was developed and popularized during the Renaissance, and used in Medieval copying while influencing modern typefaces.[295] Scholar John J. Contreni considers the educational and learning revival under Charlemagne and his successors as "one of the most durable and resilient elements of the Carolingian legacy.[295]

Memory and historiography

Charlemagne was a frequent subject of and inspiration for medieval writers after his death. Einhard's Vita Karoli Magni "can be said to have revived the defunct literary genre of the secular biography."[296] Einhard drew on classical sources, such as Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars, the orations of Cicero, and Tacitus' Agricola, to frame the structure and style of his work.[297] The Carolingian period also saw a revival of the genre of mirrors for princes.[275] The author of the Latin poem Visio Karoli Magni written circa 865 uses facts apparently gathered from Einhard, alongside his own observations on the decline of Charlemagne's family after the dissensions war (840–843) as the basis for a visionary tale of Charles' meeting with a prophetic spectre in a dream.[298] Notker's Gesta Karoli Magni, written for Charlemagne's great-grandson Charles the Fat, presents moral anecdotes (exempla) to highlight the emperor's qualities as a ruler.[299]

Charlemagne depicted as a knight, bearing his attributed arms, Castello della Manta, 1420s

Charlemagne as a figure of myth and emulation grew in later centuries; Matthias Becher writes that over 1,000 legends are recorded about Charlemagne, far outstripping subsequent emperors and kings.[300] Later medieval writers depicted Charlemagne as a crusader and Christian warrior.[300][301] Charlemagne is the main figure of the medieval literary cycle known as the Matter of France. Works in this cycle, which originated during the period of the Crusades, centre on characterisations of the emperor as a leader of Christian knights in wars against Muslims. The cycle includes chansons de geste (epic poems) such as the Song of Roland, and chronicles such as the Historia Caroli Magni, or Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle.[302] Charlemagne was depicted as one of the Nine Worthies, becoming a fixture in medieval literature and art as an exemplar of a Christian king.[303]

Attention on Charlemagne became more scholarly in the early modern period as Eindhard's Vita and other sources began to be widely distributed.[304] Political philosophers debated over Charlemagne's legacy; Montesquieu depicted him as the first constitutional monarch and protector of freemen, while Voltaire saw Charlemagne as a despotic ruler and representative of the medieval period as a Dark Age.[305] As early as the sixteenth century, debate between German and French writers had begun contesting Charlemagne's "nationality".[306] These contrasting portraits—a French Charlemagne versus a German Karl der Große—became especially pronounced in the nineteenth century with Napoleon's use of Charlemagne's legacy, and the rise of German nationalism.[301][307] German historiography and popular perception focused especially on the Massacre of Verden, variously emphasised with Charlemagne shown as the "butcher" of the Germanic Saxons, or with the incident downplayed as an unfortunate part of the legacy of a great German ruler.[308] Historical propaganda produced under Nazi Germany initially portrayed Charlemagne as an enemy of Germany, a French ruler who had worked to take away the freedom and native religion of the German people.[309] However, this quickly shifted as Adolf Hitler endorsed a portrait of Charlemagne as a great unifier of disparate German tribes into a common nation.[310] This allowed Hitler to co-opt Charlemagne's legacy as an ideological model for his expansionist policies.[311]

Historiography after World War II focused on Charlemagne as "the father of Europe" rather than a nationalistic figure,[312] a view first advanced in the nineteenth century by the German romantic philosopher Friedrich Schlegel.[301] This view has led to Charlemagne's adoption as a political symbol of European integration.[313] Modern historians increasingly place Charlemagne in the context of the wider Mediterranean world, following the work of Belgian historian Henri Pirenne.[314]

Religious impact and veneration

Palatine Chapel constructed by Charlemagne at the Aachen palace.

Charlemagne gave much attention to religious and ecclesiastical affairs, holding 23 synods during the course of his reign. His synods were called in order to address specific issues at particular times, but in general dealt with church administration and organization, education of the clergy, and the proper forms of liturgy and worship.[315] Charlemagne used the Christian faith as a unifying factor within the realm, and in turn worked to impose unity within the Church.[316][317] Charlemagne implemented an edited version of the Dionysio-Hadriana book of canon law he acquired from Pope Adrian, required the use of the Rule of St. Benedict in monasteries throughout the empire, and promoted a standardized liturgy that was adapted from the rites of the Roman Church but edited to conform with Frankish practices.[318] Carolingian policies of promoting unity did not eliminate the diverse practices throughout the empire, but did create a shared ecclesiastical identity;[319] Rosamond McKitterick terms this "unison, not unity."[320]

The condition of all his subjects as a "Christian people" was an important concern of Charlemagne.[321] His policies encouraged preaching to the laity, particularly in vernacular languages that they would understand.[322] Charlemagne believed that it was essential to be able to recite the Lord's Prayer and the Apostles' Creed, and he made efforts to ensure the clergy taught these as well as other basics of Christian morality.[323]

Religious historian Thomas F. X. Noble argues that the efforts of Charlemagne and his successors at standardizing the doctrine and practices of Christianity, and in harmonizing Frankish practices, was an essential step in the development of Christianity in Europe, and writes that the distinct Roman Catholic, or Latin Church "as a historical phenomenon, not as a theological or ecclesiological one, is a Carolingian construction."[324][325] He further argues that the medieval European concept of Christendom as an overarching community of Western Christians, rather than remaining a collection of local western traditions, is the result of Carolingian policies and ideology.[326] Charlemagne's doctrinal policies of promoting the use of filioque and opposing the Second Council of Nicea were key steps in the growing divide between Western and Eastern Christianity.[327]

Emperor Otto II attempted to have Charlemagne canonised as a saint in 1000.[328] In 1165, Frederick Barbarossa convinced Antipope Paschal III to elevate him to sainthood.[328] As Paschal's acts were not considered valid, Charlemagne was not recognized as a saint by the Holy See in Rome.[329] Despite this lack of recognition, Charlemagne's cult became observed in Aachen, Reims, Frankfurt, Zurich, and Regensburg, and he has been venerated in France since the reign of Charles V.[330]

Charlemagne also drew attention from figures of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther criticised Charlemagne's apparent subjugation to the papacy by accepting his coronation from Leo.[305] However, John Calvin and other Protestant thinkers viewed Charlemagne as a forerunner of the Reformation, drawing particular attention to the condemnation of the worship of images and relics in the Libri Carolini, and the conflicts Charlemagne and his successors had with the temporal power of the popes.[329]

Wives, concubines, and children

Charlemagne instructing his son Louis the Pious

Charlemagne had at least twenty children with his wives and other partners throughout his life.[331][332] After the death of his wife Luitgard in 800, he did not remarry but continued to have children with unmarried partners.[338] He was determined that all his children, including his daughters, should receive an education in the liberal arts. His children were also taught skills in accord with their aristocratic status, which included training in riding and weaponry for his sons, and embroidery, spinning and weaving for his daughters.[339] Rosamond McKitterick writes that Charlemagne exercised "a remarkable degree of patriarchal control … over his progeny," noting that only a handful of his children and grandchildren were raised outside his court.[340]

Charlemagne's older, legitimate sons reigned as kings and resided at their own courts.[124] Careers in the Church were arranged for his illegitimate sons.[341] His daughters were resident either at court or at Chelles Abbey where Charlemagne's sister was abbess, and those at court possibly fulfilled the duties of the queen after 800.[342]

Louis and Pepin of Italy both married and had children during their father's lifetime, and Charlemagne brought Pepin's daughters into his own household after Pepin's death.[343] Rotrude had been betrothed to Emperor Constantine VI, but this betrothal was ended.[344] None of Charlemagne's daughters married, though several had children with unmarried partners: Bertha had two sons, Nithard and Hartnid with Charlemagne's courtier Angilbert; Rotrude had a son named Louis possibly with Count Rorgon; and Hiltrude had a son named Richbod, possibly with a count named Richwin.[345] The Divisio Regnorum issued by Charlemagne in 806 provided that his legitimate daughters be allowed to marry or become nuns after his death. Theodrada entered a convent, but the decisions of his other daughters are unknown.[346]

Appearance and iconography

Top: Carolingian-era equestrian statuette thought to represent either Charlemagne or his grandson Charles the Bald. Bottom: Bust of Charlemagne, an idealised portrayal and reliquary said to contain Charlemagne's skull cap, produced in the 14th century.

Einhard gives a first-hand description of Charlemagne's appearance later in life:[347]

He was heavily built, sturdy, and of considerable stature, although not exceptionally so, since his height was seven times the length of his own foot. 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 he enjoyed good health, except for the fevers that affected him in the last few years of his life.

In 1861, Charlemagne's tomb was opened by scientists, who reconstructed his skeleton and measured it at 1.92 metres (6 ft 4 in) in length, roughly equivalent to Einhard's seven feet.[348] A 2010 estimate of his height from an X-ray and CT scan of his tibia was 1.84 metres (6 ft 0 in). This puts him in the 99th percentile of height for his period, given that average male height of his time was 1.69 metres (5 ft 7 in). The width of the bone suggested he was slim in build.[349]

Charlemagne wore his hair short, in an abandonment begun by his father of the Merovingian tradition of long-haired monarchs.[350] He had a moustache, possibly in imitation of the Ostrogothic king Theoderic the Great, and contrasted with the bearded Merovingian kings.[351] Future Carolingian monarchs would adopt this style.[352] Paul Dutton notes the ubiquitous presence of a crown in portraits of Charlemagne and other Carolingian rulers replacing the earlier Merovingian royal symbol of long hair.[353] A ninth-century statuette depicts either Charlemagne or his grandson Charles the Bald[lower-alpha 15] and shows the subject as moustachioed and with short hair,[355] and this appearance is also shown on contemporary coinage.[358]

By the twelfth century, Charlemagne was described as bearded rather than moustachioed in literary sources such as the Song of Roland and the Pseduo-Turpin Chronicle, as well as other sources in Latin, French, and German.[359] The Pseudo-Turpin uniquely claims that his hair was brown.[360] Later art and iconography of Charlemagne would follow suit, generally depicting him in a later medieval style as bearded and with longer hair.[361]


  1. Alternative birth years for Charlemagne include 742 and 747. There has been scholarly debate over this topic, see Birth and early life. For full treatment of the debate, see Nelson 2019, pp. 28–29. See further Karl Ferdinand Werner, Das Geburtsdatum Karls des Großen, in Francia 1, 1973, pp. 115–57 (online Archived 17 November 2013 at the Wayback Machine);
    Matthias Becher: Neue Überlegungen zum Geburtsdatum Karls des Großen, in: Francia 19/1, 1992, pp. 37–60 (online Archived 17 November 2013 at the Wayback Machine)
  2. "At 747 the scribe had written: 'Et ipso anno fuit natus Karolus rex' ('and in that year, King Charles was born')."[25]
  3. Charlemagne's third son Carloman was also born in 776 based on the four-year old boy's baptism at Pavia in 780.[112]
  4. German: Zweikaiserproblem, "two-emperors problem"
  5. Latin: Karolus serenissimus augustus a deo coronatus magnus pacificus imperator Romanum gubernans imperium, qui et per misercordiam dei rex francorum atque langobardorum
  6. Latin: Carolus gratia dei rex francorum et langobardorum ac patricius Romanorum
  7. For more on the Basel roll, see: McCormick 2011
  8. Through Beatrice of Vermandois, great-great granddaughter of Pepin of Italy and grandmother of Hugh Capet,[276]
  9. Through Hedwiga, great-great granddaughter of Louis the Pious and mother of Henry the Fowler.[277]
  10. Through Albert II, Count of Namur, great-grandson of Louis IV of France and great-great grandfather of Henry the Blind.[278]
  11. Berengar II of Italy was a great-great-great grandson of Louis the Pious.[279]
  12. Radbot of Klettgau, the founder of the House of Habsburg, married Ida of Lorraine, who descended from Charlemagne through both of her parents; from Cunigunda of France on her father's side and through the Capetians on her mother's side.[citation needed]
  13. The nature of Himiltrude's relationship to Charlemagne is uncertain. A 770 letter by Pope Stephen III describes both Carloman and Charlemagne "by [God's] will and decision...joined in lawful marriage...[with] wives of great beauty from the same fatherland as yourselves."[333] Stephen wrote this in the context of attempting to dissuade either king from entering into a marriage alliance with Desiderius.[76] By 784, at Charlemagne's court, Paul the Deacon wrote that their son Pepin was born "before legal marriage", but whether he means Charles and Himiltrude were never married, were joined in a non-canonical marriage or friedelehe, or if they married after Pepin was born is unclear.[75] Roger Collins,[334] Johannes Fried,[335] and Janet Nelson[336] all portray Himiltrude as a wife of Charlemagne in some capacity. Fried also dates the beginning of their relationship to 763 or even earlier.[337]
  14. Janet Nelson considers it a depiction of Charlemagne,[354] Paul Dutton writes that it was "long thought to depict Charlemagne and now attributed by most to Charles the Bald,"[355] and Johannes Fried presents both as possibilities,[356] but considers it "highly contentious."[357]



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Further reading

Primary sources in English translation

  • Alcuin (1941). The Rhetoric of Alcuin and Charlemagne: A Translation, with an Introduction, the Latin Text, and Notes. Translated by Howell, Wilbur Samuel. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Alcuin (1974). Alcott, Stephen (ed.). Alcuin of York, c. AD 732 to 804: His life and letters. Translated by Alcott, Stephen. York: Sessions Book Trust. ISBN 0-900657-21-9.
  • Bachrach, Bernard S., ed. (1973). Liber Historiae Francorum. Translated by Bachrach, Bernard S. Lawrence, KS: Coronodo Press. ISBN 978-0872910584.
  • Davis, Raymond, ed. (1992). The Lives of the Eighth-Century Popes. Translated by Davis, Raymond. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. ISBN 9780853230182.
  • Einhard; Notker (1969). Two Lives of Charlemagne. Translated by Thorpe, Lewis. London: Penguin. ISBN 9780140442137.
  • Einhard (1998). Dutton, Paul (ed.). Charlemagne's Courtier: The Complete Einhard. Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures. Translated by Dutton, Paul. Petersborough, ON: Broadview Press. ISBN 1-55111-134-9.
  • Dutton, Paul, ed. (2004). Carolingian Civilization: A Reader. Petersborough, ON: Broadview Press. ISBN 978-1-55111-492-7.
  • Goodman, Peter, ed. (1985). Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance. Translated by Goodman, Peter. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0806119397.
  • King, P.D., ed. (1997). Charlemagne: Translated Sources. Translated by King, P.D. Lancaster: P.D. King. ISBN 978-0951150306.
  • McKitterick, Rosamond; van Espelo, Dorine; Pollard, Richard; Price, Richard, eds. (2021). Codex Epistolaris Carolinus: Letters from the popes to the Frankish rulers, 739-791. Translated by McKitterick, Rosamond; van Espelo, Dorine; Pollard, Richard; Price, Richard. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. ISBN 978-1-80034-871-4.
  • Lyon, H.R.; Percival, John, eds. (1975). The Reign of Charlemagne: Documents on Carolingian Government and Administration. Documents of Medieval History. Translated by Lyon, H.R.; Percival, John. London: Arnold. ISBN 9780713158137.
  • Scholz, Bernhard Walter; Rogers, Barbara, eds. (1970). Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard's Histories. Translated by Scholz, Bernhard Walter; Rogers, Barbara. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 978-0-472-08790-7.

Secondary works

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