Charlemagne: Birth Story, Family, Reign, & Achievements
Widely known as the father of Europe, Charlemagne was the famous king of the Franks who ruled from 768 until his death in 814. This eight-century monarch’s fame remains very much unrivalled even to this day because he was the first person to rule Western and Central Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476.
His reign over the continent brought forth immense cultural, economic and political renaissance (the Carolingian Renaissance). Such was his impact and influence across Europe that Pope Leo III in 800 crowned him “Emperor of the Romans” (i.e. Holy Roman Emperor).
Charlemagne spent the majority of his over four-decade reign bringing Germanic tribes together and imposing Christianity on those that he conquered. As a result, he was able to create a homogenous culture that allowed his kingdom to expand even farther to include powerful and wealthy people like the Lombards, the Avars, the Saxons and Bavarians.
The Franks’ greatest warrior-king Charlemagne died in 814 and was succeeded to the throne by his son Louis the Pious.
The article below contains everything you need to know about the birth story, family, reign, and accomplishments of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor.
Fast Facts: Charlemagne
Date of Birth: c. 742
Place of Birth: Aachen, Frankish Kingdom
Date of Death: January 814
Place of Death: Aachen
Burial place: A cathedral in Aachen (present-day Germany)
Parents: Pepin the Short and Bertrada of Laon
Grandfather: Charles Martel
Siblings: Carloman, Gisela, Pepin, Adelais, Chrothais
Spouse: — 4 – Desiderata (from 770 to 771); Hildegard of Vinzgouw (from 771 to 783); Fastrada (from 783-794); Luitgard (from 794 to 800)
Children: about 18 children (legitimate and illegitimate), including Pepin the Hunchback, Charles the Younger, Pepin of Italy, Louis the Pious
Religion: Roman Catholicism
Title: King of the Franks (768-814) and of the Lombards (774-814); Holy Roman Empiror (800-814)
Also known as: Charles I, Charles le Magne, Charles le Grand (Charles the Great), Karl der Grosse, Carolus Magnus (“Charles the Great”)
Most famous for: Conquering the Lombards, the Saxons, and the Avares
Accomplishments: Responsible for the Carolingian Renaissance
Other names: the Father of Europe (Pater Europae)
Birth Story and childhood
Believed to have been born around 742, Charlemagne’s parents were Pepin the Short (also known as Pippin III) and Bertrada of Laon. His father Pepin the Short, who was almost like the grand vizier of the Merovingian rulers, rose to the throne of the Franks by toppling Childeric III (the last king of the Merovingians) around 751.
Although his birthplace remains generally unknown, many scholars have stated that Charlemagne was born in modern-day Germany at a place called Aachen. Other historians claim that he was born in Liège– a place in modern-day Belgium.
There is still quite a lot that historians do not know about how Charlemagne grew up as well what kind of education he received. Being the son of the mayor of a powerful and wealthy kingdom, Charlemagne most likely was tutored in politics, languages and military lessons.
What we do know for certain is that Charlemagne grew up with a passion for learning and development. In his adult years, he would have a strong knack for learning different languages of the era, including having reasonable fluency in languages such as in Greek and Latin.
Charlemagne’s father – Pepin the Short
Charlemagne’s father was not a member of the royal family; he was actually a mayor – a prime-minister-like job – of the royal palace during the Merovingian dynasty.
Supported by Pope Stephen II in Rome, Pippin was able to maneuver his way to the throne around 751. He signed a pact with the Church leaders at Ponthion around 754. In exchange for the religious backing from the Church, Pippin promised to forever protect Christianity and the papacy in Rome.
No sooner had the ink dried on the alliance document than did Pippin rush in defense of Rome against the Lombards in 756. As a sign of appreciation for the papal sanction, Pippin gave several gifts to Rome, including granting vast lands for the construction of churches in his kingdom.
Death of Pepin the Short
Upon the death of his father Pepin in 768, Charlemagne and his younger brother Carloman co-ruled. In accordance with Frankish customary practice, the Frankish kingdom was split (by the general assembly) between the siblings “with divine assent” (divino nutu).
Right from the onset, sibling rivalry caused the kingdom to suffer quite a bit. Power-hungry and selfish, Charlemagne tried to outmaneuver his brother by going into an alliance with the Lombards. To strengthen the pact, Charlemagne married the daughter of Desiderius, the king of the Lombards. This pact, as well as aggressive moves by Carloman, posed a huge challenge to the unity of the kingdom.
However, that all changed upon the death of Carolaman in 771; Charlemagne ended up ruling the entire kingdom by all by himself. He quickly set out to leave a long-lasting legacy by expanding his empire and promoting a cultural and intellectual renaissance across Europe.
Note: Had Carolaman not died, the sibling rivalry that existed between Caroloman and Charlemagne would definitely have torn the Franks apart. And the Europe we know today would have been quite different had there not been Charlemagne to kick start the cultural and intellectual golden age.
Sole Reign and the Expansion of his kingdom
It must be noted that up until Charlemagne, no other previous king of the Franks had maintained a strong grip on the entire of Europe (apart from the Western Roman empire that collapsed in the 5th century).
During Charlemagne’s reign, Europe witnessed a level of unity not seen for a long time. A warrior-king who was steep deep in Frankish tradition, Charlemagne’s expansions and conquests were fueled by his passion to spread Christianity. His goal was to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors who failed to create a homogenous culture in the kingdom.
During all that cultural, political and economic growth in Francia, the Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantines) was experiencing a steady and gradual decline. The Byzantine emperors constantly had to fend off of incursions from the Arabs and other invaders from Central Asia and Scandinavia.
Charlemagne’s Francia war machine
Such was the effectiveness of his military campaigns that he was regarded as the greatest conqueror of his era. To those unfortunate kingdoms that he vanquished, he was infamous for his ruthless methods. This trait of his was evident in 782 when he is believed to have sent more than 4,500 Saxons to their early graves in what would later be termed as the Massacre of Verden.
Owing to his willingness to learn and to keep a very curious mind, he knew when to unleash his Francia war machine and when to pursue diplomacy. At the end of the day, his natural way of leading won him the respect and loyalty of his subjects.
Most importantly, his war machine was greased by his desire to loot, protect his empire against external invaders, suppress rebellions in his kingdom, and ultimately turn the entire of Europe into a Christian kingdom.
Campaigns against the Lombards
Upon becoming the sole ruler of the Franks, Charlemagne quickly cast his attention to the Lombards that he had earlier gone into an alliance with. He annulled his marriage to his Lombard wife, enabling him to carry out his conquests against the Lombards.
Around 774, Charlemagne headed the call of Pope Adrian I and marched his army to northern Italy to protect the papacy interests there. After vanquishing those areas, he incorporated the Lombards into his territory. With the full backing of the papacy, he carved some parts of his Italian territory and made his son Pippin the king of those areas.
Humiliation in Spain
In 778 Charlemagne marched into Spain after leaders in southern Gaul and northern Spain had reached out to him to protect them from Umayyad Muslim rulers. Gravely underestimating the Umayyad rulers, the Frankish army had to retreat. On their way back home, however, they were pounded by Gascon forces (i.e. Basque).
Some level of consolation came after he was able to establish territorial control between the Pyrenees and the Ebro River.
Conquests of Bavaria and the Avars
For years, the leaders of Bavaria had refused succumbing to rule of the Franks. However, that all changed in 787/788 when Charlemagne led his mighty army and took control of the area.
With Bavaria part of his kingdom, Charlemagne proceeded to the bordering empire that was made up of the Avars – a wealthy group of Asiatic nomads whose political and military power was dwindling. After a series of campaigns between 791 and 796, it did not take too long for the Avars to yield to Charlemagne’s authority.
The emperor was very pleased by his new found riches in the region. As part of his conversion strategy, he also built numerous churches in the area.
Charlemagne’s campaigns against the Saxons
Of all his military campaigns, perhaps the ones he had against the Saxons were the most challenging and time consuming.
The Saxons were powerful Germanic people that occupied areas from present-day Schleswig to areas along the Baltic coast. Their expansion came on the back of their mastery of piracy and raids in the North Sea.
During the time of Charlemagne, Saxon’s expansion put them on a collision course with the mighty Franks. Beginning around 772, the Charlemagne began a campaign against the Saxons in a bid to incorporate them into his vast and expanding empire. In the 30 years that followed, the two sides brutally fought intermittently against each other. Charlemagne quest to force Christianity upon them knew no bounds.
After over three decades of bloodshed, the Saxons – who were by the way pagan worshippers – eventually capitulated and had to convert to Christianity imposed on them by Charlemagne. He worked hard to infuse a Frankish social system that was based on kinship, war and ethnicity ties with one based on honoring a divine being.
How did Charlemagne become Holy Roman Emperor (“Emperor of the Romans”)?
About 30 years into his reign, his largely prosperous Frankish people were described by Rome as being blessed by God. As the Frankish Empire rose, the rulers in Constantinople were shamed as heretics, particularly for their coronation of Irene of Athens as ruler of Eastern Roman Empire in 797.
Owing to all that Charlemagne had a strong claim over the Christian community. It was also around this time that Pope Leo III’s authority in Rome came under questioning. The Pope was shunned by his clerics as lacking morals with some sections of Rome even attacking him for what they claimed was for his misconduct. Leo fled Rome and took shelter at the court of Charlemagne thereby reinforcing the latter’s status as the protector of Christendom and the papacy.
Charlemagne matched alongside with Leo into Rome and resolved the issue. He restored Leo to his original position in Rome. For his efforts in restoring order to the Papal States, Charlemagne was crowned “emperor of the Romans” (i.e. Holy Roman Emperor) by Pope Leo at a Mass on Christmas Day [at the basilica of St. Peter].
Many historians claim that both men collaborated to incite tensions in Rome in order to end with a mutually beneficial outcome. With the coronation of Charlemagne by Leo, the former’s authority came to be seen as originating from God. Pope Leo III on the other hand had elevated the status of the Papacy to levels not seen for a very long time.
Described as the “Defender of the Pope”, Charlemagne became the sole guardian of orthodox Christendom in Western Europe. He was seen as the “New Constatine”.
How did Charlemagne manage his large empire?
How does one safeguard the cultural integrity and boundary of an empire as massive as the one built by Charlemagne? Using the military alone was not enough; Charlemagne had to leverage on his apt diplomatic prowess in order to manage his vast empire. The emperor went into peace pacts with Slavic tribes that resided along the eastern borders of his empire. He made similar pacts with the tribes in the Danish kingdom, the Muslims in Spain and the Bretons in Gaul. He did all of that to keep his empire safe from foreign invaders.
Charlemagne also leveraged all the religious support that he could get from the popes in Rome. As a result, his authority was seen as one that came from the divine grace of God.
Not wanting to antagonize the emperors in the East (i.e. Eastern Roman Empire), Charlemagne sent ambassadors to Constantinople as a sign of respect. In return, the Eastern Roman emperors proclaimed him as the emperor of the Western Empire. Similarly, he sent emissaries to the palaces of the Abbasid caliph in Bagdad, the rulers of Northumbria and Mercia. All of that was done in a bid to secure the eastern and northern borders of his empire.
His diplomatic efforts allowed him to be seen as the defender of Christianity not just in Europe but also in the holy city of Jerusalem.
Wives and Children
When Charlemagne and his brother jointly inherited the throne their relationship was somewhat warm and friendly; this was perhaps owing to the respect they had for their mother.
However, Charles decided to make allies with states along Carloman’s kingdom. In 769, he married Princess Desidarata, the daughter of King Desiderius. The marriage was purely for political reasons. Charlemagne also signed a treaty with the Duke of Tassilo III of Bavaria.
In any case, he annulled the marriage to Desidarat in just a year, triggering immense fury from King Desiderius. The king even contemplated going into an alliance with Carloman so as to defeat Charlemagne. Luckily for Charlemagne, his brother died just before tensions could flare up.
Shortly after splitting with his first wife, he married a 13-year-old Swabian girl named Hildegard. In the course of his life, he is believed to have had ten known wives and concubines.
His first concubine was believed to be Himiltrude. The two started seeing each other around 768, a couple of years before he married Desiderata.
It was during his second marriage (to Hildegard of the Vinzgau) that he sired about nine, including Charles the Younger, Pepin (later King of Italy), Rotrude, Louis (later King of Aquitaine and later the sole ruler of the empire), Bertha, etc.
His third and fourth wives were Fastrada and Luitgard respectively. With the former, he sired Theodrada and Hiltrude. Luitgard on the other hand died childless.
In addition to Himiltrude, Charlemagne had the likes of Gersuinda, Madelgard and Regina as concubines.
All in all, Charlemagne sired close to 20 children with several wives and court mistresses. Even though his brutish nature was certainly not appreciated by those that he conquered, he was believed to have been committed to the welfare and education of his children. He employed the services of renowned scholars at the time to tutor all his children.
Starting around the 780s, he started elevating the status of his legitimate sons. For example, he crowned his son Pepin king of Italy. His other son Louis was crowned King of Aquitaine. Both coronations received the blessing of the Pope in Rome.
In a bid to protect his kingdom from claims of say a son-in-law, Charlemagne prevented all his daughters from getting married.
Charlemagne’s administration technique
Granted he was largely able to secure his border towns from foreign invaders, Charlemagne was still faced with the herculean task of keep his empire united. How then did he maintain unity among his people – people that were different in terms ethnicities and customs?
Charlemagne worked to improve upon the existing administration techniques used by his predecessors. He kept a very centralized power structure with him sitting at the top of the hierarchy. Assisting him were the palatium – his inner circle of knowledgeable advisers, obedient courtiers, clerics, and trusted family members. These royal aides had his backing in enforcing compliance to his programs for the empire. They were also responsible for managing the empire’s resources, acting as spies in foreign lands, serving as diplomats, and performing other rudimentary administrative duties.
At the local level, he appointed (in consultation with his advisers) counts to represent him in the various counties (pagi). Those counts were responsible for law enforcement, administration of the local troops, and tax collection. Almost all the time, the counts were supported by bishops, who enforced Christian values among the locals. To keep the bishops and abbots happy, Charlemagne didn’t impose any taxes on the properties of them.
He used periodic meetings and assemblies, made up of the palatium, the counts and bishops, to attain a level of coordination across the empire never seen before. Those meetings allowed him to keep tabs on the activities of his officials. At those meetings, he could also relay his vision for the empire directly to his officials.
Additionally, he was able to integrate the activities of his court with those of the local officials using the missi dominici – royal officials that went around the kingdom appraising the performance of local officials and abbots and then relaying what they see back to the king.
As he aged, he was unable to muster the same level of strength he had during his youth. With fewer conquests, the resources he needed to manage his large territory came to be affected. This in turn affected the loyalty of his followers.
Charlemagne in his later years also struggled to properly handle external threats from Northmen (Vikings) and the Saracens. His administration increasingly got fatigued after decades of managing such a vast empire. The administrative loopholes and inadequacies resulted in less and less money coming to the royal coffers.
The emperor and his royal officials had to grapple with increasing opposition from some local clerics and ecclesiastical scholars.
Charlemagne also started to rely less on his advisers and courtiers. For example, he constantly disregarded the advice of his physicians who told him to quit eating roasted meat. The emperor’s health in his last few years sharply declined due to his unhealthy lifestyle.
Death and Succession
In spite of the challenges he faced in his late years, he was still a formidable force to be reckoned with. By 812, the rulers in Constantinople (i.e. the Eastern Roman Empire) had formally recognized Charlemagne as the true emperor of Western Roman – the inheritor of classical Rome and the defender of the Christian faith.
In 813, he named his only surviving, legitimate son Louis the Pious co-emperor and successor. A year later, he succumbed to fever at his royal residence in Aachen. Charlemagne the Great – the first Holy Roman Empire who began a cultural and intellectual renaissance across Western Europe – died in January, 814. His body was laid to rest at a cathedral in Aachen.
His death left a huge shoes for his descendants to fill, of which none of them could ever do. After his son’s reign, the kind fractured and was rife with inter-sibling rivalry. By 800s, the once great empire had become a pale shadow of the one Charlemagne reign over for more than four decades.
Other interesting facts about Charlemagne
- The administration of Charlemagne’s army relied on a system which made it mandatory for all abled freemen of the empire to serve on the notice of the king. The soldiers weren’t paid to serve. The emperor was able to maintain their morale using land grants and other forms of compensation.
- A great fraction of his coffers was made up of riches looted during wars. Court fines, fees, trade taxes from merchants, and direct taxes constituted the remaining portion.
- For what was most likely a political move, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa canonized Charlemagne in 1165. The Church to this day does not recognize his sainthood.
- The humiliation of the Franks at the hands of Basque was the major theme in the epic poem the Song of Roland.
- Many contemporary European leaders seeking to rule all of Europe have often been inspired by the life and conquests of Charlemagne. Most notable of such leaders were Adolf Hitler and Napoleon Bonaparte.
- The Carolingian rulers differed from their predecessors – the Merovingian kings – in the sense that they actively sought to create a Frankish-inspired homogenous culture that was underpinned by the pursuit of knowledge in art, poetry and science. Charlemagne and his successors viewed the Merovingian kings as spineless “do-nothing” monarchs who busied themselves fighting amongst each other.
- Much of what we know about Charlemagne was written by the Frankish historian and scholar, Einhard. Shortly after the death of Charlemagne, Einhard authored “Vita Karoli Magni” (Life of Charles the Great). In Einhard’s biography about Charlemagne, the king of the Franks was praised for his physical abilities; he was described as very tall, energetic and strong.
- Almost all of the major European noble families of the subsequent era are one way or the other related to Charlemagne. It for this reason, as well as many others, he is considered the father of Europe.