Gregory Brown
513 Agnes Arnold Hall
Department of Philosophy
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204-3004


King of the Franks (768-814)
King of the Lombards (774-814)
Holy Roman Emperor (800-814)

born April 2, c. 742
died Jan. 28, 814, Aachen, Austrasia [now in Germany]

also called Charles I, byname Charles the Great, French Charles le Grand, Latin Carolus Magnus, German Karl der Grosse

King of the Franks (768–814), king of the Lombards (774–814), and emperor (800–814).

As king of the Franks, Charlemagne conquered the Lombard kingdom in Italy, subdued the Saxons, annexed Bavaria to his kingdom, fought campaigns in Spain and Hungary, and, with the exception of the Kingdom of Asturias in Spain, southern Italy, and the British Isles, united in one superstate practically all the Christian lands of western Europe. In 800 he assumed the title of emperor. (He is reckoned as Charles I of the Holy Roman Empire, as well as Charles I of France.) Besides expanding its political power, he also brought about a cultural renaissance in his empire. Although this imperium survived its founder by only one generation, the medieval kingdoms of France and Germany derived all their constitutional traditions from Charles's monarchy. Throughout medieval Europe, the person of Charles was considered the prototype of a Christian king and emperor.

Early years

Charles was born probably in 742, the elder son of Pippin III, also called Pippin the Short. Pippin and his older brother, Carloman, had just jointly assumed the government of the Frankish kingdom as major domus, or “mayor of the palace.? The dynasty, later called Carolingian after Charlemagne, had originated in the Meuse-Moselle region on the borders of modern France, Germany, Belgium, and The Netherlands. In the course of a few generations, it had, as mayors of the palace to the Merovingians, gained control of the entire Frankish kingdom. Charlemagne's grandfather, Charles Martel, reconstituted a realm that had been on the point of breaking up, and, without infringing on the royal prerogatives of the otherwise powerless Merovingians, he had in effect bequeathed the empire to his sons, Pippin and Carloman, like a family inheritance.

Charles grew to manhood while his father was engaged in acquiring sole sovereignty and the kingship. On Carloman's retirement to a monastery, Pippin eliminated the latter's sons from the government. Having thus prepared the way, he had himself proclaimed king in 751, after dethroning the Merovingians. An oracular response by Pope Zacharias furnished the ecclesiastical approbation for thus shunting aside the former reigning house, which had been held sacred. Zacharias's successor, Stephen II, arrived in the Frankish kingdom during the winter of 753–754, in order to seek help against the Lombards who were attacking Rome. As the reigning monarch's oldest son, Charles, then about 12 years of age, traveled ahead to welcome the pope, who anointed him king, along with his father and his brother Carloman, thus sanctioning the new dynasty. The political alliance between the Franks and the pope against the Lombards was affirmed on the same occasion. When his father subdued Aquitaine (France south of the Loire) in a series of yearly campaigns beginning in 760, reasserting the integrity of the Frankish kingdom all the way to the Pyrenees, Charles repeatedly accompanied the army.

These youthful experiences probably contributed to the formation of Charles's character and to the formulation of his aims. He shared with his father an unbending will to power, a readiness to fight resolutely against external enemies and to increase his domains, and the determination to rule by himself even if it meant usurping the rights of close relatives. Charles early acknowledged the close connection between temporal power and the church; he had a high regard for the church and the king's duty to spread the Christian faith and, while asserting royal suzerainty over the church, considered himself accountable to God for the Christians entrusted to him.

King of the Franks

In accordance with old Frankish custom, the kingdom was divided on Pippin's death in 768 between his two sons. It was not long, however, before a strong rivalry sprang up between the brothers: with his mother's support, Charles concluded, with the Lombard king Desiderius, whose daughter he married, and with his cousin Duke Tassilo of Bavaria, alliances directed against Carloman.

On Carloman's sudden death in 771, Charles was able to make himself sole ruler of the kingdom, unopposed by his young nephews, whose rights he ignored. When Carloman's widow with her children and a few remaining supporters had fled to the Lombard court, and King Desiderius, breaking his alliance with Charles, put pressure on the pope to anoint Carloman's sons as Frankish kings, Charles was forced to come to the aid of Pope Adrian I. He marched on the Lombard capital, Pavia, and after its fall made himself king of the Lombards. His brother's sons, who had fallen into his hands, disappeared. While the siege of Pavia was still in progress, Charles journeyed to Rome, where he celebrated Easter 774 with the pope and reiterated, in St. Peter's Basilica, his father's promise to transfer to papal rule large sections of Italy. But he actually enlarged the pope's lands only slightly, assuming for himself the sovereignty over the entire Lombard kingdom.

Charles had fought the pagan Saxons, in what is now Lower Saxony and Westphalia, in retribution for their attacks on the lower Rhine region, as early as 772, before the first Italian campaign. From 775 on, however, it was his goal to subdue the whole Saxon tribe, converting it to Christianity and integrating it into his kingdom. This aim appeared to have been realized after several campaigns culminating in declarations of allegiance by the Saxon nobility and mass baptisms performed in 775–777. A diet held in 777 in Paderborn sealed the submission of the Saxons. Among those attending the diet had been some Arab emissaries from northern Spain who sought Charles's aid in their uprising against the Umayyad emir of Córdoba. In the summer of 778 Charles advanced into Spain and laid siege to Saragossa, without, however, being able to take the city. Retreating across the Pyrenees, the Frankish army was badly mauled by the Basques. Roland, warden of the Breton march, who died on this occasion, was later immortalized in legend and poetry.

This defeat marks the end of the first period of Charles's rule, the period of vigorous expansion. Within a decade he had become the sole ruler of the Franks, conquered the Lombard kingdom, visited Rome, subdued the Saxons, and invaded Spain. Henceforth he was concerned with defending and safeguarding his quickly won gains (which were to be extended only on the right bank of the Rhine), while consolidating the state internally and protecting cultural life and the rule of law.

Not long after Charles's defeat in Spain, the Saxons rose up once more. The war against them became the longest and most cruel war fought by the Franks. In Charles's eyes, the resistance of this people that had undergone baptism and signed a treaty of allegiance amounted to political high treason and religious apostasy. These offenses called for severe punishment, and 4,500 Saxons were reported to have been executed en masse in 782. New outbreaks occurred after 792, and the last Saxons were not vanquished until 804. Between 772 and 804, Charles took the field against the Saxons no fewer than 18 times. In the end he carried out his aim of not only subjecting them to his rule but also incorporating them fully into his empire. Given the indissoluble tie between temporal power and the Christian faith, this meant they had to be converted. But the violent methods by which this missionary task was carried out had been unknown to the earlier Middle Ages, and the sanguinary punishment meted out to those who broke canon law or continued to engage in pagan practices called forth criticism in Charles's own circle—for example, by Alcuin, his adviser and head of his palace school.

When, in 788, Charles deposed his cousin Duke Tassilo III of Bavaria, who had acknowledged the Frankish kings as feudal lords, he in effect deprived of its independence the last of the German tribes beyond the Rhine. The Bavarians, who had long been Christians, were now directly integrated into the empire. The West Germanic tribes of the Alemanni, Bavarians, Saxons, and Thuringians thus found themselves for the first time gathered into one political unit. Charles's conquests on the right bank of the Rhine were, however, not limited to the Germanic tribes. Making Ratisbon (Regensburg), the residence of the Bavarian dukes, his base, he conducted several campaigns, partly under his own command, against the Avar kingdom (in modern Hungary and Upper Austria). The remaining Avar principalities and the newly founded Slav states of the Danubian region drifted into a loose dependence on the Franks, whose sovereignty they more or less acknowledged.

The gigantic expansion of the Frankish state, raising it far above the tribal states of the early Middle Ages, entailed qualitative as well as quantitative changes. Yet the idea of bestowing on Charles the Roman title of emperor arose only at a very late stage and out of a specific political constellation. While the Eastern, or Byzantine, Empire laid claim to universal recognition, the popes, constitutionally still subjects of Byzantium, were opposed to the iconoclastic religious policies of the Eastern emperors. Moreover, under the protection of Charles, Pope Adrian sought to erect an autonomous domain over central Italy, the more so as the Byzantines, abandoning for all practical purposes Rome and Ravenna, were asserting their rule only in Sicily and the southernmost edge of Italy. The papacy's desire for independence found a significant expression in the Donation of Constantine, a forgery dating probably from the first few years of Adrian's reign and purporting to legitimize these papal aims in the name of the first Christian emperor, Constantine I the Great. Charles paid a second visit to Rome in 781, when he had the pope crown his young sons Pippin and Louis as kings of the Lombards and Aquitanians and gained de facto recognition of his Italian position from the Byzantine empress Irene, the mother of Constantine VI. The entente that existed between Charles and Byzantium came to an end after a Frankish attack on southern Italy in 787.

Emperor of the West

In the end, local Roman conflicts brought about the clarification of the city's constitutional position. In May 799, Pope Leo III was waylaid in Rome by personal enemies. He took refuge at the court of Charles, who had him conducted back to the city and who in November 800 came to Rome himself, where he was received with imperial honours. Before Charles and a synod, Pope Leo cleared himself under oath of the charges made by his enemies. During Christmas mass in St. Peter's, the Romans acclaimed Charles emperor, whereupon the pope crowned and perhaps anointed him.

The imperial title was by nature a Roman dignity. While the acclamation represented the juridically conclusive act, it was the coronation at the hands of the pope that, though of no constitutional importance, was to acquire for the Franks great significance. The pope had been determined to make Charles emperor, deciding to a large extent the outward form; yet Charles was surely not surprised by these events. His famous statement quoted by one of his favourites, the Frankish historian Einhard, that he would not have set foot in church that Christmas if he had known the pope's intention, implies a criticism of the ceremony initiated by the pope, as well as a formal expression of humility. The crowning had been preceded by negotiations. While Charles's imperial rank was legally substantiated by the fact of his dominion over the western part of the old Roman Empire, the desire to counteract the petticoat rule of the empress Irene (who had dethroned and blinded her son in 797) also played a role. Residing in Rome four months and pronouncing sentence on the pope's enemies as rebels guilty of lese majesty, Charles grasped the imperial reins with a firm hand. Likewise, after his return to Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle), he promulgated laws in full consciousness of his rank as emperor.

Byzantium braced itself for the usurper's attack, but Charles merely wished to see his new rank and his dominion over Rome recognized in negotiations; he gained his point in 812 when the emperor Michael I acknowledged him as emperor, though not as emperor of the Romans. While the imperial title did not bring Charles any additional powers, his control of Rome was now legitimized, and the estrangement of the papacy from Byzantium and its rapprochement with the Franks, a major historical event that had been initiated in 754, was rendered incontrovertible. A significant result of this development was the tradition to which Charles's assumption of the imperial title and function gave rise: all medieval concepts of empire and all the bonds between the constitutional traditions of the Franks and the later Holy Roman Empire with the Roman Empire founded by Augustus were based on the precedent of Charles's imperial title and position.

Court and administration

The creation of the empire was chiefly legitimized by Charles's efforts to raise its cultural level internally. When Charles came to power, the Frankish kingdom's cultural, administrative, and legal institutions were still relatively undeveloped. The Frankish king, for example, possessed no permanent residence. In the summer months he traveled about, deciding political issues and dispensing justice in assemblies of spiritual and temporal lords; above all, summer was the season for military campaigns. During the winter, from Christmas to Easter and sometimes longer, the king lived and held court at one of the imperial palaces. Charles especially favoured those situated in the Frankish heartland: only rarely did he spend the winter in one of the newly won territories, in encampment in Saxony, in Ratisbon, or in Rome. Not until 794 did Aachen, which the aging monarch liked because of its warm springs, become the court's abode, indeed almost a residence, during every winter and often even in summer. Here Charles built, partially with materials imported from Rome and Ravenna, the court church that is still standing, as well as the palace whose walls were incorporated into the 14th-century city hall.

Charles's court consisted of his family, of the clergy in his personal service, who were called the king's capella, and of temporal officials, among them the count palatine, the seneschal, and the master of the royal household. These men were occasionally joined, on an informal basis, by other spiritual or temporal men of rank who spent some time in the ruler's presence. For Charles had the ambition to make his court the intellectual, as well as the political and administrative, centre of the realm and accordingly summoned prominent scholars from all parts of the empire and even from abroad. Among these the most important were Einhard and Alcuin.

With the help of these and other literary men, Charles established a court library containing the works of the Church Fathers and those of ancient authors, and he founded a court academy for the education of young Frankish knights. Last but not least, he himself took part with his family and the learned and lay members of his entourage in a cultivated social life that afforded him entertainment no less than instruction. His mother tongue was an Old High German idiom, besides which he presumably understood the Old French dialect spoken by many Franks; as a grown man, he also learned Latin and some Greek, had historical and theological writings, including St. Augustine's City of God, read aloud to him, and acquired a rudimentary knowledge of mathematics and astronomy.

The court's cultural interests, however, extended beyond the intellectual gratification of a small circle, such as the exchange of verses and letters. Efforts were also made to raise the level of religious observance, morality, and the process of justice throughout the empire. The clearest and most famous instance of this was the Epistula de litteris colendis, dating presumably from 784 to 785 and compiled in Charles's name by Alcuin. Its main argument lies in the assertion that the right faith—indeed, every right thought—must be clothed in the appropriate form and language, lest it be falsified; hence, the prescription of intensive study of Latin language and literature for all monastic and cathedral schools. The spiritual and literary movement called the “Carolingian renaissance? had many centres, especially in the empire's monasteries; but it cannot be evaluated without reference to Charles's court and to his endeavour to call on the best minds of the whole world, setting them to work in the education of the clergy and, in the final instance, of the whole people. The court's theological knowledge and intellectual self-confidence are reflected in the Libri Carolini, a comprehensive treatise written about 791 in Charles's name and directed against the Council of Nicaea (787), at which Greeks and papal plenipotentiaries had countenanced the practice of iconolatry; at the same time, the Libri Carolini did not spare the iconoclasts.

Through this court, Charles ruled and administered his empire and dispensed justice. Once or twice a year at least, the court and the chief magistrates and nobles from all parts of the empire joined in a general assembly held either in the Frankish heartland or in one of the conquered territories. It is indicative of the unique structure of the Carolingian Empire that one cannot draw clear distinctions between an assembly of the armed forces, a constitutional assembly of the nobility, and a church synod: juridical, military, and ecclesiastical affairs were invariably discussed at one and the same time by the representatives of the nobility and the clergy. Above them all towered the figure of Charlemagne.

On the local level the ruler was represented in every region by counts and bishops. Liaison between these personages and the court was maintained through royal messengers who travelled about at Charles's command, usually in pairs made up of a civil servant and a clerical dignitary. Royal commands did not have to be written out, although Charles's decrees (capitularies) increasingly came to be recorded in writing, at first rather imprecisely, in the last two decades of his reign; the forms coined by the “renaissance? gained ground only with time. Charles respected the traditional rights of the various peoples and tribes under his dominion as a matter of principle, and, after he became emperor, he had many of them recorded. The capitularies served partly as complements to tribal laws, partly as regulations applying to the most disparate aspects of public and private life, and in part also as specific instructions issued to royal messengers, counts, bishops, and others. Punitive decrees against highwaymen, dispositions concerning military levies, and orders for the people to take an oath of allegiance to the emperor or to teach all Christians to recite the Lord's Prayer are found intermingled in the capitularies with jurisdictional dispositions and regulations about the internal organization of monasteries; temporal and spiritual problems are rarely treated separately. Taken as a whole, the legal documents of Charles's reign bear witness to a great concern, born of profound moral and religious convictions, with the administration of justice and with public enlightenment, but they also show discrepancies between the ideal and reality.

Limitations of his rule

Charles's organization of the empire was, however, not without its defects and limitations. The sovereign's power was restricted only by theoretical principles of law and custom, not by institutions or countervailing forces. Significantly, the records report little about opposition movements and conspiracies, which, in fact, did exist. A rebellion that Thuringian counts launched against Charles in 786 can perhaps be explained as ethnic opposition to the centralism of the Franks. More ominous was an aristocratic conspiracy that in 792 attempted to place on the throne the hunchback Pippin, Charles's only son from his first marriage, which was later declared invalid; yet here, too, the political concepts and motives remain unknown. These events and, more clearly still, the history of the empire under Charles's successor, Louis, show the extent to which the political system had been designed for one person on whose outstanding abilities everything depended and with whose disappearance it threatened to collapse. Their self-confidence enhanced by Charles's educational policy, the clergy could not accept for all time his theocracy without opposing it with their own political and religious principles. The temporal nobility that had built the empire with the Carolingians could be firmly tied to the dynasty only as long as new conquests held out the prospect of new spoils and fiefs; if these failed to materialize, there remained only the care of one's properties in the different regions and the hope of gaining advantages from party strife. External expansion, however, could not advance substantially beyond the borders reached by 800; in fact, economic and technical resources were insufficient to hold together and administer what had already been won and to defend it against foreign enemies. Charles's empire lacked the means by which the Romans had preserved theirs: a money economy, a paid civil service, a standing army, a properly maintained network of roads and communications, a navy for coastal defense. Already in Charles's lifetime, the coasts were being threatened by the Normans. In 806 Charles planned a division of the empire between his sons, but after the death of the elder two he crowned Louis of Aquitaine his coemperor and sole successor at Aachen in 813. It was only a few months later that Charles himself died there in 814.

Personality and influence

Charlemagne's posthumous fame shone the more brightly as the following generations were unable to preserve the empire's internal peace, its unity, and its international position. Even after the Carolingian dynasty had become extinct, political tradition in the East Frankish (German) kingdom and empire, as well as in the West Frankish (French) kingdom, drew sustenance from the example set by Charlemagne. Under Otto I, Aachen became the city in which the rulers of Germany were crowned, and, at Friedrich I. Barbarossa's request, the antipope Paschal III. (d. 1168) canonized Charlemagne in 1165. In France the Capetians, beginning with Philip II Augustus, revived the traditions that had grown up around Charlemagne. The controversial question whether the Germans or the French were the true successors of Charlemagne was kept alive through the Middle Ages and into modern times. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) called himself Charlemagne's successor; after the end of World War II, discussions of a united, Christian, “occidental? Europe invoked his model. Hand in hand with these political traditions went those in popular legend and poetry, culminating in the Roland epics. Nor did Charlemagne's fame stop at the boundaries of what was once his empire; some Slavic languages derived their term for “king? from his name (e.g., Czech: král; Polish: król).

Charles left no biographical document; his personality can be constructed only from his deeds and the reports left by contemporaries. This is how Einhard, who lived at the court from about 795 on, described Charlemagne's character and appearance in his famous Vita Karoli Magni:

"He had a broad and strong body of unusual height, but well-proportioned; for his height measured seven times his feet. His skull was round, the eyes were lively and rather large, the nose of more than average length, the hair gray but full, the face friendly and cheerful. Seated or standing, he thus made a dignified and stately impression even though he had a thick, short neck and a belly that protruded somewhat; but this was hidden by the good proportions of the rest of his figure. He strode with firm step and held himself like a man; he spoke with a higher voice than one would have expected of someone of his build. He enjoyed good health except for being repeatedly plagued by fevers four years before his death. Toward the end he dragged one foot."

The strength of Charlemagne's personality was evidently rooted in the unbroken conviction of being at one with the divine will. Without inward contradiction, he was able to combine personal piety with enjoyment of life, a religious sense of mission with a strong will to power, rough manners with a striving for intellectual growth, and intransigence against his enemies with rectitude. In his politically conditioned religiosity, the empire and the church grew into an institutional and spiritual unit. Although his empire survived him by only one generation, it contributed decisively to the eventual reconstitution, in the mind of a western Europe fragmented since the end of the Roman Empire, of a common intellectual, religious, and political inheritance on which later centuries could draw. Charlemagne did not create this inheritance single-handedly, but one would be hard put to imagine it without him. One of the poets at his court called him rex pater Europae—“King father of Europe.? In truth, there is no other man who similarly left his mark on European history during the centuries of the Middle Ages.

Additional reading

Einhard, Vita Karoli Magni Imperatoris: The Life of Charlemagne, trans. from Latin by Evelyn Scherabon Firchow and Edwin H. Zeydel (1972, reissued 1985), is the famous biography by one of Charlemagne's closest collaborators—a character analysis rather than an account of events. Donald A. Bullough, The Age of Charlemagne, 2nd ed. (1973, reissued 1980), is a modern presentation for the general reader by a good specialist. D.A. Bullough, “Europae Pater: Charlemagne and His Achievement in the Light of Recent Scholarship,? The English Historical Review, 85:59–105 (1970), reports on contemporary scholarship. Heinrich Fichtenau, The Carolingian Empire (1957, reprinted 1991; originally published in German, 1949), is a broad treatment. Wolfgang Braunfels (ed.), Karl der Grosse: Lebenswerk und Nachleben, 3rd ed., 5 vol. (1967–68), is an international compendium of 74 contributions by various experts (mostly in German with some articles in French, English, and Italian). Friedrich Heer, Charlemagne and His World (1975), provides a well-illustrated life for the general reader. Robert Folz, Coronation of Charlemagne (1974; originally published in French, 1964), contains a history of his antecedents and a study of his influence on both contemporaries and successors. Susan E. Farrier, The Medieval Charlemagne Legend: An Annotated Bibliography (1993), lists more than 2,700 titles concerning Charlemagne and his era, as well as the legend.

Peter Classen

The Editors of the Encyclopædia Britannica

Copyright © 1994-2002 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.


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