Charlemagne, or Charles the Great (742-814), was king of the Franks and Lombards and first Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He is often referred to as the “father of Europe,” as his reign witnessed the consolidation of much of Western Europe following centuries of disunity. For this reason, Charlemagne is considered among the most important rulers of all time. His long reign represents a watershed period in human history; during it he expanded the Frankish Kingdom into a vast empire that included much of Western and Central Europe. He oversaw a revival of learning and culture referred to by historians as the Carolingian Renaissance, so named after his family dynasty. During this period, may of the peoples of Northern and Eastern Europe were converted to Christianity. In acknowledgment of these achievements, Charlemagne was crowned Imperator Augustus, emperor of the Romans, by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day, 800. This action was deemed provocative by the Byzantine emperor in the east, confirming the schism between the two churches. The famous coronation of Charlemagne gave birth to the Holy Roman Empire, which survived until 1806, when it was dissolved by Napoleon Bonaparte.
Charlemagne was the oldest son of Pepin III and grandson of Charles Martel. At the death of his brother Carloman in 771, with whom he had shared rule, Charlemagne took control of the entire Frankish Kingdom. In 773 he allied with Pope Adrian I, who was in a conflict with the Lombard ruler Desiderius. Charlemagne defeated Desiderius and in 774 became king of the Lombards. He continued the close relationship with the Christian church that had been pursued by his father. Charlemagne greatly expanded his realm in a series of military campaigns in Saxony, in Bavaria, and in Italy, but was checked in Spain in 778. He compelled the Saxons to convert to Christianity. His close friendship with Pope Leo III and coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in 800 incurred the jealousy of Constantinople, which still claimed to rule the Roman Empire. Charlemagne’s rule legitimized the old split between East and West and yet also renewed the precedent set by Imperial Rome of uniting the various nations of Europe under one rule. The coronation of Napoleon I in 1804 was done in implicit imitation of Charlemagne’s, testament to his influence on history, although with a different role for the Pope.
The Carolingian Renaissance, a resurgence of learning and culture during Charlemagne’s reign, was centered at his imperial court at what is now Aachen in modern-day Germany. There he oversaw the creation of the palace school and invited intellectuals from across Europe, including Alcuin and Einhard, to instruct and to promote scholarship. Charlemagne encouraged commerce throughout his empire and dispatched administrators, missi dominici, to the most remote quarters of the realm so that he could supervise affairs. His efforts promoted the preservation of classical literature.
Charlemagne has been depicted as a legendary figure in much art and literature since his death in 814, notably in the medieval tale Chanson de Roland, and during the 19th century’s Romantic period. In modern times he has been referred to as a forerunner for the idea of European unity. Charlemagne is buried in the imposing Byzantine- Romanesque cathedral he commissioned to be built at Aachen.
James P. Bonanno
See also Alexander the Great; Attila the Hun; Caesar,
Gaius Julius; Christianity; Genghis Khan; Rameses II;
Barbero, A. (2004). Charlemagne: Father of a continent
(A. Cameron, Trans.). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Chamberlin, R. (1986). Charlemagne: Emperor of the Western world. London: Grafton Books.