Who Was Charlemagne?

Who was Charlemagne? We explore the achievements of the Frankish King and the first Holy Roman Emperor, Carolus Magnus.

Mar 21, 2024By Cameron Hughes, MA Field Archaeology, MA Politics

who was charlemagne


On Christmas Day in the year 800 CE, Pope Leo III quietly crossed the floor of St. Peter’s Basilica while his congregation knelt in prayer. Leo approached the kneeling King of the Franks & Lombards, normally a towering figure of more than six feet. As the king rose the Pope placed a crown on his head, declaring him Emperor of the Romans. The congregation affirmed this and chanted “life and victory” to their emperor. Later, Charlemagne would deny he knew what was to happen and that he ever wanted it to. However, with this acclamation, the 324 year interregnum of the western imperial title was ended and new life was breathed into the Roman legacy in western Europe. But who was Charlemagne? And how did he come to reestablish a title once thought lost to history?


Who Was Charlemagne? The Franks & the Romans

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The baptism of King Clovis I of the Franks in Reims, by François-Louis Dejuinne, 1786-1844, via wikimedia commons


In the dying days of the Western Roman Empire a federation of Germanic peoples, known as the Franks, living around the lower Rhine moved to settle in the Roman provinces of Gaul. These Franks had been known to the Romans for nearly two centuries and had likely coalesced and crystallised from smaller tribal groups in the face of the Roman superstate. Though they had fought with and raided Roman territory, by the late 5th century the Frankish King, Childeric I, was in the employ of the Roman authorities as a federated ally, commanding the Roman forces in northern Gaul. As the central administration in Italy lost its grip over the provinces, the Frankish Kings came into conflict with other Roman field commanders such as Aegidius, who had rebelled against the Italian leadership.


The respective sons of Childeric and Aegidius, Clovis and Syagrius, faced each other at the Battle of Soissons in 486 CE. The Franks won and established control over northern Gaul. By his death in 511 CE, King Clovis I had extended his kingdom to encompass nearly all of Gaul, reaching through Aquitaine to the Pyrenees. The kings that followed Clovis were known as the Merovingians, named for the semi-mythical Meroveus, an ancestor of Clovis and Childeric. Their line would rule for nearly two and a half centuries, but would be characterized by disunity and infighting thanks to the system of partible inheritance. By the end of their dynasty, the kings would be puppets for the Mayors of their palaces in the three main regions of their domains: Austrasia, Neustria, and Burgundy.


The Merovingians & Carolingians

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


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One of the more powerful Mayors of the Palace of Austrasia was Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles Martel. He was so influential over the Merovingian king and Frankish aristocracy that he was able to secure the Mayorship of Neustria, stack the nobility of Burgundy with his loyal supporters, and reconquer the Duchy of Aquitaine. Famously he defeated an advancing Muslim army at the Battle of Tours in 732 CE, stemming the tide of the Umayyad expansion after their takeover of the Iberian peninsula. This victory put Charles in such a position that when the Merovingian king Theuderic IV died in 737 CE, he ruled the Frankish empire without appointing a new king. On his death in 741 CE two of his three sons, Carloman and Pepin (excluding their half-brother Grifo), divided the Frankish realms between them, roughly as Austrasia and Neustria.


Carloman and Pepin cooperated well together, deciding to reappoint a Merovingian to the throne in 743 CE, Childeric III. They continued to rule the Frankish empire as Mayors of the Palace in their respective regions, assisting each other militarily and politically, flexing Frankish power abroad, and supporting the Catholic faith. In 747 CE, Carloman voluntarily withdrew from public life, answering the call of monasticism. His son, Drogo, was dominated by Pepin and eventually forced to become a monk as well, while his uncle ruled all of Francia.


By 751 CE, Pepin no longer saw any need to maintain the veneer of legitimacy afforded by the Merovingian kings. He took the kingship for himself following a series of letters between himself and the Pope that confirmed the Papacy supported his decision. The Bishop of Rome was likely happy to keep the most powerful ruler in the west on his side as he was navigating between the Byzantine empire and the Lombard kings in Italy.


Lombards, Greeks, & Romans 

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Byzantine and Lombard holdings in the Italian peninsula in the late 6th century, 2011, via Britannica


Since the final collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the late 5th century the eternal city had fallen from grace. First, they had been ruled by a succession of Gothic kings before the armies of the Eastern Emperor Justinian had recaptured the city (537 CE). Northern Italy had then become a warzone between Goths and Byzantine Greeks for decades until the Lombards swept in (568 CE) and established a kingdom and two duchies, surrounding the strip of land between Rome and Ravenna.


Successive popes were able to seek support from the Byzantine Exarchate in Ravenna, the Byzantine holdings in southern Italy and Sicily while pitting the Lombard kings and dukes against each other. This way they were able to maintain their independence while also taking over most of the functions of government for the former capital of the world. However, by the late 8th century, this situation was becoming ever more difficult to maintain.


Pepin & the Popes

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The Iron Crown of the Lombards, via medieval.eu


Though he had already agreed to Pepin’s kingship, in 753 CE, Pope Stephen II fled Italy due to the growing power of the Lombard King, Aistulf. He sought refuge with Pepin and while there officially anointed him as king, as well as his two sons Carolus and Carloman as his heirs. He also officially declared that the Papacy would support no Frankish king who did not descend from Pepin. This was a pillar of legitimacy never held by the Merovingians, divine approval. In return, however, Pepin was to support the Pope against the expansionist Lombards.


Resultantly, in 755 CE, Pepin marched into Italy, sweeping aside Lombard forces and granting the Papacy control of the lands specified in the fabricated Donation of Constantine, roughly the strip between Rome and Ravenna. Though Pepin had to return the following year to quell a Lombard uprising, the ties between the Papacy and the Franks had been established.


Carolus & Carloman

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Frankish kingdom divided between Carolus (Charlemagne) and Carloman, Auguste Longnon: Atlas historique de la France depuis César jusqu’à nos jours, 1907, via Wikimedia Commons


Pepin continued to rule as King of the Franks until his death in 768 CE. Like their father, young Carolus and Carloman had to begin their rule by sharing the Frankish domains. Though each of their holdings were contiguous, Carolus held a long belt of land stretching from the Pyrenees up along the Atlantic coast and pushing over the Rhine into western Germany. Carloman meanwhile held most of Aquitaine, Burgundy, and Provence, with access to Italy and the Mediterranean sea.


Though the brothers cooperated in putting down a revolt in Aquitaine, they remained suspicious of one another. Their mother, who favoured Carolus, had arranged for his marriage (770 CE) to the daughter of the Lombard King Desiderius. This created an alliance between Carolus and the Lombards that encircled Carloman.


This marriage would not last as Carolus would seek to assert his independence and divorce Desiderata in less than a year, choosing his own bride instead. This upset his mother and angered the King of the Lombards but it pleased the Pope who was happy to see the alliance broken. Not long after this, Carloman died. His widow fled with their children into the arms of Desiderius in the Lombard capital, Pavia, who was more than happy to provoke Carolus. Meanwhile, the nobles of Carloman’s territories swiftly transferred their allegiance to Carolus who now controlled all the Frankish kingdom. These events had also set the scene for the first phase of his sole rule, a hostile Lombard kingdom and a friendlier Papacy in Rome.


The Lombards & Saxons 

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Demolition of the Irminsul shrine, fresco at the Gothic Aachen Rathaus, photo by Howi, 2015, via Wikimedia Commons


Like before, the Papacy and the city of Rome were coming under increasing pressure from the Lombards. King Desiderius had been working his way down from Ravenna, taking city after city on his way towards Rome. Pope Hadrian I implored Carolus to march to his aid and in 773 CE, he did. Carolus rallied the feudal Frankish armies, and utilizing both cavalry and infantry, marched over the Alps into Italy.


The Frankish host harassed the Lombards and besieged them in their capital. Pavia finally surrendered in the spring of 774 CE and Carolus had himself crowned with the iron crown of the Lombards, exiling Desiderius and his son. Now as King of both the Franks and the Lombards, Carolus also subjugated the Lombard Duchies of Spoleto (776 CE) and Benevento (787 CE). He was now the effective ruler of two former prefectures of the Western Roman Empire, Italy and Gaul, and the ally and defender of the Catholic Church in Rome, whose lands he also returned.


Before he had set out for his Italian campaigns Carolus had also led a column against the heathen Saxons. While the Franks had converted to Catholicism under Clovis I, their Germanic brethren the Saxons had remained pagans. This demonic worship angered Carolus who, inspired by Constantine the Great, increasingly sought to style himself as a Christian ruler. In 772-773 CE he marched into the dark Saxon forests, forcing conversions and razing tribal villages. He tore down a sacred pagan shrine, the Irminsul, a pillar-like tree trunk erected in open ground. These were the brutal tactics he would return to after returning from his victory over the Lombards.


Expansion and Consolidation

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Paladin Roland at the Battle at the Roncevaux Pass, by Jean Fouquet, 15th century, via Wikimedia Commons


Carolus remained a very active ruler after his subjugation of the Lombards, emancipation of the Papacy, and war against the Saxons. He returned to consolidate his power in his existing realms which he then began to expand. He made his son, Louis the Pious, king of Aquitaine (781 CE), a notoriously rebellious province, while continuing to increase his influence in Gascony and the Basque regions. This brought him into contact with the Muslim rulers of the Iberian peninsula who sought an alliance with Carolus in their own civil war against the Umayyads of Cordoba.


Hoping to expand Christendom, and his own influence, across the Pyrenees, Carolus marched a large army with contingents from across his empire, into Al-Andalus in 778 CE to fight the Saracens. This campaign is now most famous for a defeat suffered by Carolus’s armies at the hands of the Basques on their withdrawal — the Battle of Roncevaux Pass.


His attempted Christianization of Saxony led to further uprisings which he crushed harshly. Carolus continued his expansion eastward into Germany with an annexation of Bavaria and campaigns against the Avars and Slavs of central and eastern Europe. These campaigns continued to enrich his kingdoms and enhance his legitimacy and prestige. Throughout the last decades of the 8th century, Carolus cemented his position as the most powerful man in Western Europe and a leading force in Christendom. He maintained relationships with English kings, Muslim emirs, and of course, the Papacy in Rome. It would be his connection with Rome that would ensure the next step in his ascent to greatness.


Emperor of the Romans 

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The Coronation of Charlemagne, by Friedrich Kaulbach 1903, via Wikimedia Commons


Like in 753 CE it was a fleeing Pope that brought the Frankish King into Italian politics. Pope Leo III was elected to the Holy See in 795 CE, despite having many enemies in the Roman clergy. In 799 CE these enemies maimed Leo and imprisoned him. Leo escaped the city and fled to Paderborn to seek assistance from the King of the Franks and Lombards. Carolus also received accusations from Leo’s enemies of perjury and adultery and was unsure of how to decide the Pope’s fate.


He was advised by Alcuin of York that he was unable to cast judgment on the Bishop of Rome so instead Carolus marched on the eternal city, reinstated the Pope, and called a church synod to decide his fate. Leo was able to make an oath of compurgation to prove his innocence. Nobody knows the minutiae of what Leo and Carolus discussed at Paderborn or whether an agreement was made or not, but what happened next was clearly orchestrated by at least one party, if not both.


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Portrait of Charlemagne, by Albrecht Durer, 1512, via Textile Research Center, Leiden


On Christmas day 800 CE, Carolus knelt during mass in St. Peter’s in Rome and Pope Leo made his way towards him. As the King of the Franks arose, the Pope crowned him and the congregation acclaimed him Emperor of the Romans and wished him life and victory. Henceforth he would be Carolus Magnus, Charles the Great, or Charlemagne.


Charlemagne insisted that had he known the Pope’s intentions he would never have attended mass that Christmas. This may have been a declaration of modesty, but more likely  it was an indicator of Charlemagne’s annoyance at the Pope’s belief that he had the right to invest such authority in him, when all his existing legitimacy had come through conquest or dynastic inheritance. Charlemagne made sure to break this precedent by crowning his son as emperor himself in 813 CE, to demonstrate that his authority was not beholden to the Bishop of Rome.


Who Was Charlemagne? The Creator of the Holy Roman Empire

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Napoleon Bonaparte in Aachen, by Henri-Paul Motte 1804, via Wikimedia Commons


The crowning of Charlemagne in 800 CE was the pinnacle of his career. It also created a polity that would last through the Middle Ages until its dissolution in 1806 at the hands of Napoleon, himself a huge admirer of Charlemagne. The Holy Roman Empire established under Charlemagne would gradually disassemble under his sons and grandsons but be revived again by Otto the Great in 962 CE. For much of its existence it was to be known as simply the empire or the German empire due to its centrality in European affairs and its locality in the German regions. But, it was to claim the legitimate succession of the Caesars of antiquity with its Emperor being the secular authority of Christendom. It would see innumerable transformations, revivals and evolutions in its 1000 year existence, all of which sprang from the achievements of its first Emperor, Charlemagne.

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By Cameron HughesMA Field Archaeology, MA PoliticsCameron is a contributing writer with an interest in the transitional period between late antiquity and the early Middle Ages in Europe. He holds an MA in Field Archaeology from the University of York, and an MA in Politics from the University of Birmingham. His Masters dissertations have been on the end of Roman Britain and the concept of ‘crisis centuries’ in Western history.