The Carolingian Dynasty and the Holy Roman Empire

The Holy Roman Empire existed in medieval and modern Western and Central Europe, founded by Charlemagne, of the Frankish Carolingian dynasty.

Nov 8, 2021By Igor Radulovic, MA History Education, BA Art History
charlemagne alcuin with aachen cathedral carolingian dynasty
Charlemagne receives Alcuin 780, by Jean Victor Schnetz, 19th century, via; with Photograph of Aachen Cathedral, via


After the Migration Period that destroyed the Western Roman Empire, most of the newly formed Germanic states collapsed very fast. But not in France, which would become the most powerful new state of the early middle ages. The Franks, a Germanic tribe of skilled and courageous warriors led by Clovis of the Merovingian dynasty, established a state in the Roman province of Gaul and extended Frankish rule to the surrounding Germanic tribes. By accepting Christianity, Clovis became friendly with the clergy and thus laid the foundations for an alliance between Church and State. This alliance was strengthened in the second half of the 8th Century, during the reign of Pepin the Short of the Carolingian Dynasty. The alliance between the church and the Carolingians was eventually sealed in 800, when Charlemagne was proclaimed the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.


The Carolingians Create Their Dynasty: Before the Holy Roman Empire

Battle of Poitiers, by Charles de Steuben, 1837, via


After the death of the aforementioned Clovis, rulers from the Merovingian Dynasty were not able to preserve their dominance in the country. The state territory was divided among Clovis’ four sons, none of whom had the abilities of their father. This period in Frankish history is called the “age of do-nothing kings,” when the centralized government disappeared.


The disintegration of the Frankish central government led to the division of Frankish lands into several larger areas. True power was in the hands of the most powerful noblemen, the mayors or majordomos. The unity of the Frankish Kingdom was re-established by one of the most powerful majordomos — a man named Charles. He forced all Frankish regions to recognize his supreme authority. With his rule, the power of the majordomo was strengthened. This family would later obtain royal power for itself, becoming the famous Carolingian dynasty. Charles defeated the Arabs and stopped the Islamic invasion at the Battle of Tours (Poitiers) in 732. On that occasion, he received the nickname Martel (the hammer).


Alliance with the Church

Pepin the Short, from the Imperial Chronicle, Corpus Christi College, 12th century, via the


The rise of the Carolingians continued under Charles’ son Pepin the Short. He reformed the church and strengthened discipline in its ranks. He also prepared for his ascension to the rank of king. Through the mission which he sent to Rome, he asked the Pope: “Is it wise to have kings who hold no power or control?” The Roman high priest answered: “It is better to have a king able to govern. By apostolic authority, I bid that you be crowned King of the Franks.” This answer encouraged Pepin the Short to ascend the royal throne at the end of 751.

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The former king of the Merovingian Dynasty, and his son, were forced to become monks. After that, a good connection between the papacy and the Carolingian dynasty was established. The best indication of these good relations is that Pepin helped the Pope fight against the Lombards, who held northern Italy and often attacked papal estates. Pepin handed over the conquered lands to the Pope, which helped to create the Papal States centered around Rome and Ravenna.


Charlemagne’s Military Campaigns 

Charlemagne, by Albercht Durer, 1512, via


Pepin the Short was succeeded by his son Charlemagne (768-814), the most important ruler of the early middle ages in Western Europe. Charlemagne spent a significant part of his long reign at war, conquering new territories. He first conquered the Lombards in Italy, something neither the Byzantine Empire, nor his father Pepin the Short, succeeded in doing. Then he conquered Bavaria, and after several campaigns and hard battles, he finally managed to break the resistance of the Saxons, baptize them, and absorb them into his state.


After that, he expanded at the expense of the Slavs in the east, overthrowing the Avar state in Pannonia at the end of the 8th Century. In other words, Charlemagne’s new state, apart from today’s France, included today’s Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and parts of Italy, Pannonia, and the Balkan Peninsula. Thus he created a huge empire, known as the Holy Roman Empire that stretched from eastern Spain to the River Tisza. At the turn of the 8th and 9th centuries, the Frankish kingdom was the strongest state in the triangle of the world powers at that time: the Frankish Kingdom, the Arab Caliphate, and Byzantium. It should also be noted that the famous Caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid, aspired to ally with Charlemagne and that he sent an elephant to him as a gift.


Creating the Empire

Pope Leo III Crowns Charlemagne, via


On Christmas Day, December 25, 800, in the church of St. Peter’s in Rome, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The proclamation of Charlemagne as the emperor had a symbolic meaning because this event theoretically rejected the possibility of subjecting Western Europe to the Eastern Roman Empire. At the same time, it marked the birth of Europe — giving political and cultural autonomy to a western community of peoples. The seeds of future conflicts between secular and ecclesiastical authorities on European soil were sown. The Pope’s action caused real upset in the Eastern Roman Empire, and Constantinople rose to its feet, because the emperor in the East saw himself as the only legal holder of the title of Roman emperor.


One of the great debates surrounding the appointment of Charlemagne as emperor is whether the king knew the intentions of Pope Leo III or not. Some modern sources claim that he did not want the title and that if he had known that he was going to be awarded it, he would have rejected it. Meanwhile, other historians argue that Charlemagne knew perfectly well that he would be crowned and agreed to receive the title and power bestowed upon him, although he chose to look humble.


Conflict with the Eastern Empire

Nicephorus I captured by Krum, from the Manasses Chronicle, 12th century, via


It was believed by some that power in the West could only be entrusted by the authority of the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. The new Byzantine emperor, Nicephorus I, did not want to confirm Charlemagne’s imperial title, so tensions between the two empires continued. The Eastern Roman Empire was in conflict with the Bulgarians and the Arabs at the time, so Charlemagne believed that military pressure would force Nicephorus to give in. The war games ended with peace negotiations in 810-812 in Aachen, where Charlemagne’s court was located. The Byzantine Empire was forced to recognize Charlemagne’s imperial crown but it gained power over Venice and the Dalmatian cities and islands.


The Carolingian Renaissance 

Photograph of Aachen Cathedral, via


One of the most important aspirations of Charlemagne was to revive scholarship in the Holy Roman Empire. This was seen as a key part of his desire to restore the former Roman Empire. After the establishment of order and peace, and the reorganization of the church, favorable conditions for intellectual and artistic prosperity were acquired. To improve the education of his clergy, Charlemagne sought the necessary teachers from the monasteries.


From then on in the Holy Roman Empire, there were more and more educated clergymen who carefully studied the Latin language and classical Latin literature. Among them were various scientists, poets, historians, theologians, and philosophers whose intellectual achievements could be compared with the works of late antique authors. This classic revival, which we call the Carolingian Renaissance, originated at the court. The bearers of the renewal were mostly foreigners.


Probably the most valuable effort of the educated people who carried this civilizational flight was the planned rewriting of older works. For the successful work of the scriptorium, a new alphabet, the so-called Carolingian minuscule, was used. It had clear letters and was easy to read. Charlemagne’s fascination with Roman culture also found its expression in the court chapel he built on the model of the Byzantine imperial church of San Vitale in Ravenna.


Ruling the Great Empire

Charlemagne receives Alcuin 780, by Jean Victor Schnetz, 19th century, via


The center of Charlemagne’s administration was his court in Aachen, and the whole Holy Roman Empire was divided into smaller units — counties in which the governors were margraves. The area of ​​Italy, where the Papal States was, had a special position as the Kingdom of Italy. The biggest administrative problem for Charlemagne was exerting effective control over a large territory and its local administrators. He managed to solve this problem in a number of ways.


First, he toured his empire, supervising law enforcement, and hearing complaints against local governors. He also appointed special traveling inspectors who conducted annual inspections of different areas. They were like an extended arm of the emperor himself, which allowed imperial power to be felt in every corner of the empire. They were incorruptible and controlled both ecclesiastical and secular persons, and reported all negativity to Charlemagne. He also demanded his nobility and clergy attend annual general assemblies, during which the emperor was informed of the situation in his counties and dioceses, was advised on many matters, and gave his directives.


The Collapse of the Holy Roman Empire

Treaty of Verdun, via


Charlemagne died on January 28, 814 in the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, Aachen. Before his death, he ordered his son Louis the Pious, who served as king of Aquitaine, to appear before him in 813, so that he could crown him emperor. About a week before his death, Charlemagne suffered from pleurisy which left him in a coma that subsequently caused his death. The Carolingian emperor was buried the same day in Aachen Cathedral. Reports from the time confirm that all the subjects of Charlemagne were in true and general grief,  fearing the time to come after such a favorable reign. He was succeeded by his son Louis the Pious, the only person who was able to keep intact the territory that Charlemagne managed to control. After Louis’ death, there was a division between his descendants which later created both France and Germany.


The successors of Charlemagne failed to preserve the power of the Frankish state. After Louis’ death, a civil war broke out in France between his three sons, the grandsons of Charlemagne. Charlemagne’s grandsons clashed over the division of territories, and a peace was made in Verdun in 843, which divided the Frankish kingdom into three parts. The Carolingian dynasty was eventually greatly weakened, and Europe again found itself the target of various invaders. The Arabs attacked from the south, the Hungarians from the east, and the Vikings ravaged the north and west of Europe. Thus the rise of the great power, known as the Holy Roman Empire, was halted. Nevertheless, the division of the Empire created new states, which in time would become the dominant forces in medieval Europe.

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By Igor RadulovicMA History Education, BA Art HistoryIgor is a historian and a history teacher from Podgorica, Montenegro. His main focus are contemporary history and controversial historical topics. He still likes researching different periods, spanning from ancient to modern history.