A denarius of Charlemagne dated c. 812–814 with the inscription KAROLVS IMP AVG
(Karolus Imperator Augustus)
King of the Franks
Reign9 October 768 – 28 January 814
Coronation9 October 768
PredecessorPepin the Short
SuccessorLouis the Pious
King of the Lombards
ReignJune 774 – 28 January 814
Emperor of the Carolingian Empire
Reign25 December 800 – 28 January 814
Coronation25 December 800
Old St. Peter's Basilica, Rome
SuccessorLouis the Pious
Born(748-04-02)2 April 748[a]
Died(814-01-28)28 January 814
Aachen, Francia
Among others
FatherPepin the Short
MotherBertrada of Laon
ReligionChalcedonian Christianity
Signum manusCharlemagne's signature

Charlemagne[b] (/ˈʃɑːrləmn, ˌʃɑːrləˈmn/ SHAR-lə-mayn, -⁠MAYN; 2 April 748[a] – 28 January 814) was King of the Franks from 768, King of the Lombards from 774, and Emperor of the Carolingian Empire from 800, all until his death in 814. Charlemagne succeeded in uniting the majority of Western Central Europe, and he was the first recognized emperor to rule in the west after the fall of the Western Roman Empire approximately three centuries earlier. Charlemagne's rule saw a program of political and societal changes that had a lasting impact on Europe in the Middle Ages.

A member of the Frankish Carolingian dynasty, Charlemagne was the eldest son of Pepin the Short and Bertrada of Laon. With his brother Carloman I, he became king of the Franks in 768 following Pepins's death, and became sole ruler in 771. As king, he continued his father's policy towards the protection of the papacy and became its chief defender, removing the Lombards from power in northern Italy in 774. Charlemagne's reign saw a period of expansion that led to the conquests of Bavaria, Saxony, and northern Spain, as well as other campaigns that led Charlemagne to extend his rule over a vast area of Europe. He spread Christianity to his new conquests, often by force, as seen at the Massacre of Verden against the Saxons.

In 800, Charlemagne was crowned as emperor in Rome by Pope Leo III. While historians debate about the exact significance of the coronation, the title represented the height of prestige and authority he had achieved. Charlemagne's position as the first emperor in the West in over 300 years brought him into conflict with the contemporary Eastern Roman Empire based in Constantinople. By his assumption of the imperial title, he is considered the forerunner of the line of Holy Roman Emperors that lasted into the nineteenth century. As king and emperor, Charlemagne engaged in a number of reforms in administration, law, education, military organization, and religion which shaped Europe for centuries. The stability of his reign saw the beginning of a period of significant cultural activity known as the Carolingian Renaissance.

Charlemagne died in 814, and was laid to rest in the Aachen Cathedral, in his imperial capital city of Aachen. He was succeeded by his only surviving son Louis the Pious. After Louis, the Frankish kingdom would be divided, eventually coalescing into West and East Francia, which would respectively become France and the Holy Roman Empire. Charlemagne's profound impact on the Middle Ages, and the influence on the vast territory he ruled has led him to be called the "Father of Europe". He is seen as a founding figure by multiple European states, and many historical royal houses of Europe trace their lineage back to him. Charlemagne has been the subject of artwork, monuments, and literature since the medieval period, and has received veneration in the Catholic Church.


Various languages were spoken in Charlemagne's world, and he was known to contemporaries as Karlus in the Old High German he spoke; Karlo to Romance speakers; and Carolus (or alternatively Karolus)[2] in Latin, the formal language of writing and diplomacy.[3] Charles is the modern English form of these names. The name Charlemagne, by which the emperor is normally known in English, comes from the French Charles-le-magne, meaning "Charles the Great".[1] In modern German, he is known as Karl der Große.[4] The Latin epithet magnus ('great') may have been associated with him already in his lifetime, but this is not certain. The contemporary Royal Frankish Annals routinely call him Carolus magnus rex ('Charles the great king').[5] As an epithet, it is certainly attested in the works of the Poeta Saxo around 900, and it became commonly applied to him by 1000.[6]

Charlemagne was named after his grandfather Charles Martel.[7] The name and its derivatives are unattested before their use by Charles Martel and Charlemagne.[8] Karolus was adapted into Slavic languages as their word for king (present in modern languages, e.g. Ukrainian: korol, Polish: król, and Slovak: král), either through the influence of Charlemagne or his great-grandson Charles the Fat.[9]

Early life and rise to power

Political background and ancestry

Francia, early 8th century

By the sixth century, the western Germanic tribe of the Franks had been Christianised, due in considerable measure to the conversion of their king Clovis I to Catholicism.[10] The Franks had established a kingdom in Gaul in the wake of the Fall of the Western Roman Empire.[11] This kingdom, Francia, grew to encompass nearly all of modern France and Switzerland, along with parts of modern Germany and the Low Countries under the rule of the Merovingian dynasty.[12] Francia was often divided into several sub-kingdoms under different Merovingian kings, due to the partible inheritance practiced by the Franks.[13] The late 7th century saw a period of war and instability following the murder of King Childeric II, which led to factional struggles among the Frankish aristocrats.[14]

In 687, Pepin of Herstal, mayor of the palace of the Frankish sub-kingdom Austrasia, ended the strife between various kings and their mayors with his victory at the Battle of Tertry.[15] Pepin was the grandson of two important figures of Austrasia: Arnulf of Metz and Pepin of Landen.[16] The mayors of the palace had gained influence as the Merovingian kings' own power waned due to the divisions of the kingdom and several succession crises.[17] Pepin was eventually succeeded by his son Charles, later known as Charles Martel.[18] Charles did not support a Merovingian successor upon the death of King Theuderic IV in 737, leaving the throne vacant.[19] Charles made plans to divide the kingdom between his sons Carloman and Pepin the Short, who succeeded upon his death in 741.[20] The brothers placed the Merovingian Childeric III on the throne in 743.[21] In 747, Carloman abdicated and entered a monastery at Rome. Carloman had at least two sons, and the elder, Drogo took his place.[22]


Charlemagne was the first-born son of Pepin the Short and his wife Bertada,[23] a member of an influential noble Austrasian family.[24] His birth date is uncertain, though was most likely in 748.[25][26][27][28] An older tradition, based on the 9th-century biographer Einhard's report of Charlemagne being 72 at death, gives a birth year of 742.[29] Einhard admittedly did not know much of Charlemagne's early life, and, not knowing the emperor's true age, still presented an exact date in keeping with the Roman imperial biographies of Suetonius which he used as a model.[30][31] The German scholar Karl Werner challenged the acceptance of Einhard's date and cited a near-contemporary additions to annals which recorded Charlemagne's birth in 747.[c] Lorsch Abbey commemorated Charlemagne's date of birth as 2 April since the mid-9th century, and this date is likely genuine.[33][34] As the annalists recorded the start of the year from Easter rather than 1 January, Matthais Becher built off of Werner's work and showed that 2 April in the year recorded would have actually been in 748.[25] 2 April 748 has therefore become the accepted date among scholars.[35][25][26] The date of 742 had led to the belief that Charlemagne may have been an illegitimate child, as Pepin and Bertrada did not marry until 744.[34] Charlemagne's place of birth is also unknown; the Frankish palaces in Vaires-sur-Marne and Quierzy are among the places suggested by scholars.[36]

Language and education

Sketch thought to be of Charlemagne c. 800

Einhard speaks of Charlemagne's patrius sermo ('native toungue').[36] Most scholars have identified this as a form of Old High German, probably a Rhenish Franconian dialect.[37][38][39] Due to the prevalence in Francia of the "rustic Roman" language that was rapidly developing into Old French, he was probably functionally bilingual in both Germanic and Romance dialects from a young age.[36] Charlemagne also spoke Latin, and according to Einhard could understand and perhaps speak some Greek.[40]

Charlemagne's father Pepin had been educated at the abbey of Saint-Denis, though the extent of Charlemagne's formal education is unknown.[41] He almost certainly was trained in military matters as a youth in Pepin's court,[42] which was itinerant.[43] Charlemagne also asserted his own education in the liberal arts when encouraging their study by his children and others, though it is unknown whether his study was as a child or at court during his later life.[42] The question of Charlemagne's literacy is subject to debate, and there is little direct evidence from contemporary sources. He normally had texts read aloud to him and dictated responses and decrees, though this was not unusual even for a literate ruler at the time.[44] The German historian Johannes Fried considers it likely that Charlemagne would have been able to read,[45] though the medievalist Paul Dutton writes that "the evidence for his ability to read is circumstantial and inferential at best,"[46] and concludes it likely that he never properly mastered the skill.[47] Einhard makes no direct mention of Charlemagne reading, but recorded that he only attempted to learn to write later in life.[48]

Accession and joint reign with Carloman

There are only sparse references to Charlemagne in the Frankish annals during his father's lifetime.[49] By 751 or 752, Pepin deposed Childeric and replaced him as king.[50] Early Carolingian-influenced sources claim that Pepin's seizure of the throne was sanctioned beforehand by Pope Stephen II,[51] but modern historians dispute this.[52][21] It is possible papal approval only came when Stephen traveled to Francia in 754, apparently to request Pepin's aid against the Lombards, and on this trip anointed Pepin as king, legitimizing his rule.[53][52] Charlemagne had been sent to greet and escort the Pope, and he and his younger brother Carloman were anointed along with their father.[54] Around the same time, Pepin sidelined Drogo, sending him and his brother to a monastery.[55]

20th-century painting of Charlemagne's coronation at Noyon in 768.

Charlemagne began issuing charters in his own name in 760. Next year, he joined his father's campaign against Aquitaine.[56] Aquitaine, led by Duke Hunald was constantly in rebellion during Pepin's reign.[57] Pepin fell ill on campaign there and died on 24 September 768, and Charlemagne and Carloman succeeded their father.[58] They had separate coronations, Charlemagne at Noyon and Carloman at Soissons, each on 9 October.[59] The brothers maintained separate palaces and separate spheres of influence, though they were considered joint rulers of a single Frankish kingdom.[60] The Royal Frankish Annals report that Charlemagne ruled Austrasia and Carloman ruled Burgundy, Provence, Aquitaine, and Alamannia, with no mention made of which brother received Neustria.[60] The immediate concern of the brothers was the ongoing uprising in Aquitane.[61] While they marched into Aquitaine together, Carloman returned to Francia for unknown reasons, and Charlemagne completed the campaign on his own.[61] Charlemagne's capture of Duke Hunald marked the end of ten years of war in the attempt to bring Aquitaine in line.[61]

Carloman's refusal to complete in the war against Aquitaine led to a rift between the two kings.[61][62] It is uncertain why Carloman abandoned the campaign. It is possible that the brothers disagreed over control over the territory,[61][63] or that Carloman was focusing on securing his rule in the north of Francia.[63] Regardless of strife between the kings, they still maintained a joint rule out of practicality.[64] Both Charlemagne and Carloman worked to obtain the support of the clergy and local elites to solidify their positions.[65]

Pope Stephen III was elected in 768, but was briefly deposed by an antipope before being restored to Rome.[66] With factional struggle still occurring, Stephen sought the support of the Frankish kings.[67] Both brothers sent troops to Rome, each hoping to exert their own influence.[68] The Lombard king Desiderius also had interests in the affairs in Rome, and Charlemagne moved to gain him as an ally.[69] Desiderius already had alliances with Bavaria and Benevento through the marriages of his daughters to their dukes,[70] and an alliance with Charlemagne would add to his influence.[69] Charlemagne's mother Betrada went on his behalf to Lombardy in 770, where she brokered the marriage alliance before returning to Francia with Charlemagne's new bride.[71] Desiderius's daughter is traditionally named Desiderata, though she may have been named Gerperga.[72][61] Being anxious at the prospect of a Frankish–Lombard alliance, Pope Stephen sent a letter to both Frankish kings decrying the marriage, while also separately seeking closer ties with Carloman.[73]

Charlemagne had already had a relationship with the Frankish noblewoman Himiltrude, having a son in 769 they named Pepin.[59] Paul the Deacon wrote in his 784 Gesta Episcoporum Mettensium that Pepin was born "before legal marriage", but does not specify as to whether Charles and Himiltrude were never married, were joined in a non-canonical marriage or friedelehe, or if they married after Pepin was born.[74] Pope Stephen's letter described the relationship as a legitimate marriage, but he had a vested interest in preventing Charlemagne from marrying Desiderius's daughter.[75]

Carloman died suddenly on 4 December 771, leaving Charlemagne as sole king of the Franks.[76] He moved immediately to secure his hold on his brother's territory, forcing Carloman's widow Gerberga to flee to Desiderius's court in Lombardy with their children.[77][78] In response, Charlemagne ended his marriage to Desiderius's daughter and married Hildegard, daughter of count Gerold, a powerful magnate of Carloman's kingdom.[78] This was both a reaction to Desiderius's sheltering of Carloman's family[79] as well as a move to secure the Gerold's support.[80][81]

King of the Franks and the Lombards

Annexation of the Lombard kingdom

Political map of Europe in 771, showing the Franks and their neighbors.

Charlemagne's first campaigning season as sole king of the Franks was spent on the eastern frontier, in his first war against the Saxons. Saxons had engaged in border raiding against the Frankish kingdom, and Charlemagne responded, destroying the pagan irminsul shrine at Eresburg and seizing the Saxons' gold and silver.[82] The successful war helped secure Charlemagne's reputation among his brother's former supporters as well as providing funds for further military action.[83] This campaign was the beginning of over thirty years of near continuous warfare against the Saxons by Charlemagne.[84]

Pope Adrian I succeeded Stephen III in 772, and sought the return of papal control of cities captured by Desiderius.[85] Unable to get results directly by dealing with the Lombard king, Adrian sent emissaries to Charlemagne to gain his support in recovering papal territory. Charlemagne, motivated by this appeal and the dynastic threat posed by the presence of Carloman's sons in the Lombard court, gathered his forces and moved to intervene.[86] First seeking diplomatic solutions, he offered gold to Desiderius in exchange for the return of the papal territories and his nephews.[87] These overtures were rejected, and Charlemagne's army (with command divided between himself and his uncle Bernard) crossed the Alps to besiege the Lombard capital Pavia in late 773.[88]

Charlemagne's second son, also named Charles, had been born in 772, and Charlemagne brought the child and his wife to the camp at Pavia. Hildegard was pregnant, and gave birth to a daughter named Adelhaid. The baby was sent back to Francia, but died on the way.[88] Charlemagne left Bernard to maintain the siege at Pavia while he took a force to capture Verona, where Desiderius's son Adalgis had taken Carloman's sons.[89] Charlemagne captured the city, and no further record exists of his nephews or of Carloman's wife, and their fates are unknown.[90][91] The historian Janet Nelson likens them to the "princes in the tower" of the Wars of the Roses.[92] Fried puts forth the possibilities that the boys were forced into a monastery (a common solution for dynastic issues) or that "an act of murder smooth[ed] Charlemagne’s ascent to power."[93] Adalgis was not captured by Charlemagne and fled to Constantinople.[94]

Pope Adrian receiving Charlemagne at Rome

Charlemagne left the siege in April 774 to celebrate Easter at Rome.[95] Pope Adrian arranged for a formal welcome of the Frankish king, and the two swore oaths to each other over the relics of St. Peter.[96] Adrian presented a copy of the agreement between Pepin and Stephen III outlining the papal lands and rights Pepin had agreed to protect and restore.[97] What exact lands and rights the agreement pertained to is unclear, and would remain a point of dispute for centuries.[98] Charlemagne deposited a copy of the agreement in the chapel above St. Peter's tomb as a symbol of his commitment, then left Rome to continue the siege at Pavia.[99]

Shortly after his return to Pavia, disease struck the besieged Lombards and they surrendered the city by June.[100] Charlemagne deposed Desiderius and took the title king of the Lombards for himself.[101] The complete takeover of one kingdom by another was "extraordinary" (Roger Collins),[102] and the authors of The Carolingian World say it was "without parallel".[91] Charlemagne was able to secure the support of the Lombard nobles and Italian urban elites to seize power in a mostly peaceful annexation.[102][103] The historian Rosamond McKitterick suggests that the elective nature of the Lombard monarchy eased Charlemagne's takeover;[104] Collins attributes the easy conquest to the Lombard elite's "presupposition that rightful authority was in the hands of the one powerful enough to seize it".[102] Charlemagne shortly returned to Francia with the Lombard royal treasury and with Desiderius and his family, who would be confined to a monastery for the rest of their days.[105]

Frontier wars in Saxony and Spain

Charlemagne's additions to the Frankish Kingdom

Saxons had taken advantage of Charlemagne's absence in Italy to raid the Frankish borderlands, leading to a counter-raid in the autumn of 774 and a campaign of reprisal in 775.[106] Charlemagne was soon drawn back to Italy, as Duke Hrodgaud of Friuli rebelled against him.[107] Charlemagne quickly crushed the rebellion and distributed Hrogaud's lands to Franks to better consolidate his rule in Lombardy.[108] He wintered in Italy, and further consolidated his power through issuing charters and legislation as well as taking Lombard hostages.[109] In the midst of the 775 Saxon and Friulian campaigns, his daughter Rotrude was born in Francia.[110]

Returning north, Charlemagne waged another brief but destructive campaign against the Saxons in 776. This led to the submission of many Saxons, who turned over captives and lands as well as submitting to baptism as Christians.[111] In 777, Charlemagne held an assembly at Paderborn with both Frankish and Saxon men, and many more Saxons came under his rule, but the Saxon magnate Widukind fled to Denmark to make preparations for a new rebellion.[112] Charlemagne's third son Carloman was also born this year.[113]

Also present at the Paderborn assembly were representatives of dissident factions from al-Andalus (or Muslim Spain). These included the son and son-in-law Yusuf ibn Abd al-Rahman al-Fihri, the former governor of Cordóba, who had been ousted by the Caliph Abd al-Rahman in 756. They sought Charlemagne's support for al-Fihri's restoration. Also present was Sulayman al-Arabi, governor of Barcelona and Girona, who wished to become part of the Frankish kingdom and receive Charlemagne's protection rather than remain under the rule of Cordoba.[114] Charlemagne, seeing an opportunity to strengthen the security of the kingdom's southern frontier and further extend his influence, agreed to intervene.[115] Crossing the Pyrenees, his army found little resistance until an ambush by Basque forces in 778 at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass. The Franks had been defeated in the battle and withdrew from the campaign, though with most of the army intact.[116]

Building the dynasty

Adrian crowning Louis as Charlemagne looks on.

Charlemagne returned to Francia to greet his new twin sons Louis and Lothair, who had been born while he was in Spain.[117] Lothair would die in infancy.[118] Again, Saxons had seized on the king's absence to raid. Charlemagne sent an army to Saxony in 779,[119] while he took time to hold assemblies, legislate, and address a famine in Francia.[120] Hildegard gave birth to another daughter, Bertha.[118] Charlemagne himself returned to Saxony in 780, holding assemblies where he received hostages from Saxon nobles and oversaw their baptisms.[121]

In the spring of 781, Charlemagne and Hildegard traveled with their four younger children to Rome (leaving Pepin and Charles at Worms), making a journey requested by Adrian since 775.[118] Adrian baptized Carloman and renamed him Pepin, resulting in him sharing a name with his half brother.[122] Louis and the newly renamed Pepin were then anointed and crowned, Pepin appointed king of the Lombards and Louis king of Aquitaine.[123] This was not merely nominal, as the young kings were sent to reside in their kingdoms under the care of regents and advisors.[124] A delegation from the Byzantine regent Empress Irene came to meet Charlemagne during his stay in Rome, and he agreed to betroth his daughter Rotrude to her son Emperor Constantine VI.[125]

Hildegard also gave birth to her eighth child, Gisela during this trip to Italy.[126] After the royal family's return to Francia, she had her final pregnancy, and died from resulting complications on 30 April 783. The child, named for her, died shortly thereafter.[127] Charlemagne commissioned epitaphs for both his wife and daughter, and arranged for daily mass to be said at Hildegard's tomb.[127] Charlemagne's mother Betrada died shortly after Hildegard, on 12 July 783.[128] By the end of the year, Charlemagne remarried to Fastrada, daughter of the East Frankish count Radolf.[129]

Saxon resistance and reprisal

Charlemagne receiving the submission of Widukind at Paderborn in 785, painted c. 1840 by Ary Scheffer.

In summer 782, Widukind returned from Denmark to attack the Frankish positions in Saxony.[130] He defeated a Frankish army, possibly due to rivalry among the Frankish counts leading it.[131] After learning of the defeat, Charlemagne came to Verden but Widukind fled before his arrival. Charlemagne convoked the Saxon magnates to an assembly, and compelled them to turn over prisoners to him as he regarded their previous acts as a treachery. The annals record that Charlemagne had 4,500 Saxon prisoners beheaded in what is called the Massacre of Verden.[132] Fried writes that "although this figure may be exaggerated, the basic truth of the event is not in doubt."[133] The historian Alessandro Barbero regards it as "perhaps the greatest stain on his reputation."[134] Likely in the immediate aftermath, or as a prescursor for the massacre, Charlemagne issued the Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae legal code.[135] Featuring a harsh set of laws that included death penalty for pagan practices, the Capitulatio "constituted a program for the forced conversion of the Saxons" (Barbero)[136] and " suppressing Saxon identity" (Nelson).[137]

Charlemagne's focus for the next several years would be to attempt to complete the subjugation of the Saxons. Concentrating first in Westphalia in 783, he pushed into Thuringia in 784 as Charles the Younger continued operations in the west. At each stage of the campaigns, the Frankish armies seized wealth and carried Saxon captives into slavery.[138] Unusually, Charlemagne remained campaigning through the winter rather than resting his army.[139] By 785, Charlemagne had cowed the Saxon resistance and commanded complete control of Westphalia. That summer, he met Widukind and convinced him to end his resistance. Widukind agreed to be baptized with Charlemagne as his godfather, ending this phase of the Saxon Wars.[140]

Benevento, Bavaria, and Pepin's revolt

Charlemagne traveled to Italy in 786, arriving by Christmas. Aiming to extend his influence further into southern Italy, he marched into the Duchy of Benevento.[141] Duke Arechis fled to a fortified position at Salerno, before offering Charlemagne his fealty. Charlemagne accepted the submission along with hostages, who included Arechis's son Grimoald.[142] While in Italy, Charlemagne also met with envoys from Constantinople. Empress Irene had called the 787 Second Council of Nicaea, but did not inform Charlemagne nor invite any Frankish bishops. Charlemagne, likely in reaction to the perceived slight of this exclusion, broke the betrothal between his daughter Rotrude and Constantine VI.[143]

Solidus of Benevento with Grimoald's effigy and Charlemagne's name (DOMS CAR RX, the Lord King Charles).

After Charlemagne left Italy, Arechis sent envoys to Irene to offer an alliance. He suggested she send a Byzantine army along with Adalgis, the exiled son of Desiderus, to remove the Franks form power in Lombardy.[144] Before his plans could be finalized, both Aldechis and his elder son Romuald died of illness within weeks of each other.[145] Charlemagne sent Grimoald back to Benevento to serve as duke and return it to Frankish suzerainty.[146] The Byzantine army did invade but were repulsed by the Frankish and Lombard forces.[147]

As affairs were being settled in Italy, Charlemagne turned his attention to Bavaria. Bavaria was ruled by Duke Tassilo, Charlemagne's first cousin who had been installed by Pepin the Short in 748.[148] Tassilo's sons were also grandsons of Desiderius, and therefore a potential threat to Charlemagne's rule in Lombardy.[149] The two neighboring rulers had a growing rivalry throughout their reigns, but had sworn oaths of peace to each other in 781.[150] In 784, Rotpert, Charlemagne's viceroy in Italy, accused Tassilo of conspiring with Widukind in Saxony and unsuccessfully attacked the Bavarian city of Bolzano.[151] Charlemagne gathered his forces to prepare an invasion of Bavaria in 787. Dividing the army, the Franks launched a three-pronged attack. Quickly realizing the poor position he was in, Tassilo agreed to surrender and recognize Charlemagne as his overlord.[152] The next year, Tassilo was accused of plotting with the Avars to attack Charlemagne. Tassilo was deposed and sent to a monastery, and Charlemagne absorbed Bavaria into his kingdom.[153] Charlemagne spent the next several years based in Regensburg, largely focused on consolidating his rule Bavaria and warring against the Avars.[154] Successful campaigns against the Avars were launched from Bavaria and Italy in 788,[155] and Charlemagne led campaigns in 791 and 792.[156]

In 789, Charlemagne gave his son Charles the Younger rule over Maine in Neustria, leaving Pepin the Hunchback as his only son without lands.[157] Charlemagne's relationship with Himiltrude was by this point apparently seen as definitively illegitimate at Charlemagne's court, and Pepin by result was being sidelined in the succession.[158] In 792, as his father and brothers were all gathered at Regensburg, Pepin conspired with Bavarian nobles to assassinate them and install himself as king. The plot was discovered and revealed to Charlemagne before it could go ahead. Pepin was sent to a monastery and many of his co-conspirators were executed.[159]

The early 790s saw a marked focus on ecclesiastical affairs by Charlemagne. He summoned a council at Regensburg in 792 to address the theological controversey over the Adoptionism doctrine in the Spanish church, as well as formulate a response to the Second Council of Nicea.[160] The council condemned Adoptionism as a heresy and led to the production of the Libri Carolini, a detailed argument against Nicea's canons.[161] In 794, Charlemagne called another council at Frankfurt.[162] The council confirmed Regensburg's positions on Adoptionism and Nicea, recognised the deposition of Tassilo, set grain prices, reformed the Frankish coinage system, forbade abbesses to give blessings to men, and endorsed prayer in vernacular languages.[163] Soon after the council, Fastrada fell ill and died.[164] Charlemagne married the Alamannian noblewoman Luitgard shortly after.[165][166]

Continued wars with the Saxons and Avars

With Saxon resistance continuing, Charlemagne gathered an army after the council of Frankfurt. This was the beginning of a series of annual campaigns that would last through 799.[167] The campaigns of the 790s were even more destructive than those of earlier decades, with the annal writers frequently referring to Charlemagne "burning", "ravaging", "devastating", and "laying waste" to the Saxon lands.[168] Charlemagne forcibly removed a large number of Saxons to Francia, installing Frankish elites and soldiers in their place.[169] Charlemagne's extended wars in Saxony led to him establishing his court at Aachen, which had easy access to the frontier. At Aachen, he built a large palace, including a chapel which is now part of the Aachen Cathedral.[170] It was during this period the Einhard joined the court.[171] In the south, Pepin of Italy engaged in further wars against the Avars which led to the collapse of their kingdom and the expansion of Frankish rule east.[172]

During the wars of the 790s, Charlemagne also worked through diplomatic means to expand his influence, with particular attention on the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britain. Charles the Younger proposed a marriage pact with the daughter of King Offa of Mercia, but Offa insisted that Charlemagne's daughter Bertha also be given as a bride for his own son.[173] Charlemagne refused this arrangement, and the marriage did not occur.[174] Charlemagne and Offa did enter into a formal peace in 796, protecting trade and securing the rights of English pilgrims to pass through Francia on their way to Rome.[175] Charlemagne also served as host and protector of several deposed English rulers who were later restored: Eadbehrt of Kent, Ecgberht, King of Wessex, and Eardwulf of Northumbria.[176][177] Nelson writes that Charlemagne treated the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms "like satellite states," even establishing direct relations with English bishops.[178] Charlemagne also made an alliance with Alfonso II of Asturias, though Einhard describes Alfonso as a "dependent" of Charlemagne.[179]

Reign as emperor


Imperial Coronation of Charlemagne, by Friedrich Kaulbach, 1861

Leo III had become pope in 795, and faced political opposition since his accession. In April 799, his enemies accused him of various crimes and attacked him, attempting to remove his eyes and tongue.[180] Leo escaped and fled north to seek Charlemagne's help.[181] Charlemagne continued his campaign against the Saxons before breaking off to meet Leo at Paderborn in September.[182][183] Charlemagne, hearing evidence from both the Pope and his enemies, sent Leo back to Rome along with royal legates, who had instructions to reinstate the Pope and investigate the matter further.[184] It was not until August of the next year that Charlemagne himself made plans to go to Rome, after an extensive tour of his lands in Neustria.[184][185] Charlemagne met Leo in November near Mentana, at the twelfth milestone outside Rome, the traditional location where Roman emperors began their formal entry to the city.[185] Charlemagne presided over an assembly to hear the charges, but believed that no one could sit in judgement of the Pope. Instead, Leo swore an oath on 23 December declaring his innocence of all charges, which was accepted.[186] At mass in St. Peter's Basilica on Christmas Day 800, Leo acclaimed Charlemagne as emperor and crowned him. In doing so, Charlemagne became the first reigning emperor in the west since the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476.[187] His son, Charles the Younger, was anointed as king by Leo at the same time.[188]

Coronation of Charlemagne, drawing by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld, 1840.

Historians differ as to intentions behind the imperial coronation, the extent to which Charlemagne was aware of it or participated in its planning, and the significance of the events to those present and to Charlemagne's reign.[182] Contemporary Frankish and papal sources differ in their emphasis and representation of events.[189] Einhard insists that Charlemagne would not have entered the church had he known of the Pope's plan; modern historians have regarded his report as truthful, or rejected it as a "literary device" used as a sign of Charlemagne's humility.[190] Collins argues that the actions surrounding the coronation indicate that it was planned by Charlemagne as early as his meeting with Leo in 799,[191] and Fried writes that Charlemagne planned to adopt the title of emperor by 798 "at the latest."[192] In the years before the coronation, Charlemagne's courtier Alcuin had referred to Charlemagne's realm as an Imperium Christianum ("Christian Empire"), wherein, "just as the inhabitants of the Roman Empire had been united by a common Roman citizenship", presumably this new empire would be united by a common Christian faith.[193] This is the view of the French scholar Henri Pirenne who says "Charles was the Emperor of the ecclesia as the Pope conceived it, of the Roman Church, regarded as the universal Church".[194]

Pope Leo III, crowning Charlemagne from Chroniques de France ou de Saint Denis, vol. 1; France, second quarter of 14th century.

For both Leo and Charlemagne, the Roman Empire remained a significant contemporary power in European politics, especially in Italy. The Byzantines continued to hold a substantial portion of Italy, with borders not far south of Rome. Empress Irene had seized the throne from her son Constantine VI in 797, deposing and blinding him.[195] Irene was the first reigning Byzantine empress, and faced opposition in Constantinople both for her gender and for her method of accession.[196] One of the earliest narrative sources for the coronation, the Annals of Lorsch present the presence of a female ruler in Constantinople as a vacancy in the imperial title, and therefore a justification for Leo to crown Charlemagne.[197] Pirenne disputes this, saying that the coronation "was not in any sense explained by the fact that at this moment a woman was reigning in Constantinople."[198] Leo's main motivations may have been the desire to increase his own standing after his political difficulties, showing himself as a power broker and securing Charlemagne as his powerful ally and protector.[199] The Byzantine Empire's lack of ability to influence events in Italy and support the papacy were also important in Leo's position.[199] The Royal Frankish Annals emphasize that Leo prostrated himself before Charlemagne after crowning him, an act of submission standard in Roman coronation rituals from the time of Diocletian. This account represents Leo, rather being the superior of Charlemagne, merely acting as an agent of the Roman people in recognizing their acclamation of Charlemagne as emperor.[200]

The historian Henry Mayr-Harting argues that assumption of the imperial title by Charlemagne was an effort to incorporate the Saxons into the Frankish realm, as they did not have a native tradition of kingship.[201] However, Costambeys et al. note in The Carolingian World that "since Saxony had not been in the Roman empire it is hard to see on what basis an emperor would have been any more welcomed."[199] These authors argue that the decision to take the title of emperor was aimed at furthering Charlemagne's influence in Italy, as an appeal to traditional authority recognized by Italian elites both within and especially outside his current control.[199]

The Coronation of Charlemagne, by assistants of Raphael, c. 1516–1517

Collins concurs that becoming emperor gave Charlemagne "the right to try to impose his rule over the whole of [Italy]", and regards this as a motivator for the coronation.[202] He also notes the "element of political and military risk"[202] inherent in the affair, due to the opposition of the Byzantine Empire as well as potential opposition from the Frankish elite as the imperial title could draw him further into Mediterranean politics.[203] Collins sees several actions of Charlemagne as attempts to ensure his new title was cast in a distinctly Frankish context.[204]

Charlemagne's coronation led to a centuries-long ideological conflict between his successors and Constantinople, termed the problem of two emperors,[d] as it could be seen as a rejection or usurpation of the Byzantine emperors' claim to be the universal, preeminent Christian rulers.[205][206] The historian James Muldoon writes that Charlemagne may have had a more limited view of his role, seeing the title simply representing dominion over the lands he already ruled.[207] Nonetheless, the title of emperor gave Charlemagne enhanced prestige and ideological authority.[208][209] He immediately incorporated his new title into documents issued, adopting the formula "Charles, most serene Augustus, crowned by God, great peaceful emperor governing the Roman empire, and who is by the mercy of God king of the Franks and the Lombards"[e] as opposed to the earlier form "Charles, by the grace of God king of the Franks and Lombards and patrician of the Romans."[f][2] The avoidance of the specific claim of being a "Roman emperor" as an opposed to the more neutral "emperor governing the Roman empire" may have been to improve relations with the Byzantines.[210] This phrasing, alongside the continuation of his earlier royal titles, may also represent a view of his role as emperor as merely being the ruler of the people of the city of Rome, just as he was of the Franks and the Lombards.[210][211]

Governing the empire

Charlemagne's throne in Aachen Cathedral.

Charlemagne left Italy in the summer of 801 after judging several ecclesiastical disputes in Rome and further stops in Ravenna, Pavia, and Bologna.[212] He would not return to Rome again.[208] Although continuing trends and style of rulership established in the 790s,[213] the period of Charlemagne's reign from 801 onward marks a "distinct phase"[214] characterized by a more stationary rule from Aachen.[208] While there continued to be conflict until the end of Charlemagne's reign, the relative peace of the imperial period saw increased focus on internal governance through the issuing of laws and capitularies. The Franks continued to wage war, though they increasingly focused on defending and securing the empire's frontiers,[215][216] and Charlemagne rarely led armies personally.[217] A significant expansion of the Spanish march was achieved following a series of campaigns by Louis against the Emirate of Cordoba, culminating in the capture of Barcelona in 801, finding success where Charlemagne's own war in Northern Spain had ended in defeat.[218]

Charlemagne did not campaign in either 802 or 803.[219] The Capitulare missorum generale issued in 802, called the "programmatic capitulary", was an expansive piece of legislation, with provisions governing the conduct of royal officials and requiring a loyalty oath to the emperor to be taken by all free men under his rule.[220][221] The capitulary reformed the institution of the missi dominici, officials who would now be assigned in pairs (a cleric and a lay aristocrat) to administer justice and oversee governance in defined territories.[222] The emperor also ordered the revision of the Lombard and Frankish law codes.[223]

In addition to the missi, Charlemagne also ruled the empire through his sons as sub-kings. Pepin and Louis had been appointed kings of the Italy and Aquitaine respectively in 781, though both were children at the time and were ruled by regents in their minority.[224] Though both had some devolved authority as kings in adulthood, Charlemagne still had ultimate authority and intervened in matters directly.[225] Charles, their elder brother, had been given rule over lands in Neustria in 789 or 790, and had been made a king in 800.[226]

The 806 charter Divisio Regnorum ('division of the realm'), set the terms of Charlemagne's succession.[227] Charles, as his eldest son in good favour, was given the largest share of the inheritance, with rule of Francia proper along with Saxony, Nordgau, and parts of Alemannia. The two younger sons were confirmed in their kingdoms and gained additional territories, with most of Bavaria and Alemmannia given to Pepin and Provence, Septimania, and parts of Burgundy to Louis.[228] Charlemagne did not address the inheritance of the imperial title.[226] The Divisio also addressed the death of any of the brothers, and urged peace between them and between any of their nephews who might inherit.[229]

Conflict and diplomacy with the east

15th-century woodcut of Charlemagne and Irene.

Following his coronation, Charlemagne sought recognition of his imperial title from Constantinople.[230] Several delegations were exchanged between Charlemagne and Irene in 802 and 803. A Byzantine chronicler claims that Charlemagne made an offer of marriage to Irene, which she was close to accepting.[231] Irene, however, was deposed and replaced by Nikephoros I, who was unwilling to recognize Charlemagne as emperor.[231] The two empires came into conflict over control of the Adriatic Sea (especially Istria and Veneto) several times during Nikephoros' reign, before peace negotiations commenced in 810.[232] Charlemagne's envoys made peace with emperor Michael I, who had succeeded his father-in-law Nikephoros. As part of the peace, Michael recognized Charlemagne as emperor and basileus.[233] Charlemagne soon issued the first Frankish coins mentioning his imperial title, though papal coins minted in Rome had used the titles as early as 800.[234]

Charlemagne began diplomatic contact with the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid in the 790s, due to their mutual interest in affairs in Spain.[235] As an early sign of friendship, Charlemagne requested an elephant as a gift from Harun. Harun obliged and the elephant, named Abul-Abbas arrived in Aachen in 802.[236] Cordial relations were retained with the Abbasids during the first decade of imperial rule. Harun, himself at war with the Byzantines during this period, sought to ensure Charlemagne's relations with Nikephoros remained poor.[237] As part of his outreach, Harun gave Charlemagne nominal rule of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, as well as other gifts.[237] Harun's death lead to a succession crisis, and under his successors, churches and synagogues were destroyed in the caliphate.[238] Unable to intervene directly, Charlemagne sent specially minted coins and arms to the eastern Christians in order to restore and defend churches and monasteries. The coins with their inscriptions also served as an important tool of imperial propaganda.[239] The souring of relations with Baghdad after Harun's death may have been the impetus for the renewed negotiations with Constantinople that would lead to Charlemagne's peace with Michael in 811.[240]

As emperor, Charlemagne became involved in a religious dispute between eastern and western Christians over the recitation of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, the fundamental statement of orthodox Christian belief. The original text of the creed adopted at the Council of Constantinople professed that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father. However, a tradition developed in Western Europe that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father "and the Son", inserting the Latin term filioque in the Creed.[241] This difference in tradition did not cause significant conflict until 807, when Frankish monks in Bethlehem were denounced as heretics by a Greek monk for using the filioque form.[241] The monks appealed the dispute to Rome, where Pope Leo affirmed the text of the creed omitting the phrase and also passed the report on to Charlemagne.[242] Charlemagne summoned a council at Aachen in 809, which defended the use of filioque, and sent this decision to Rome. Leo consented that the Franks could maintain their tradition, but asserted that the canonical creed did not include filioque.[243] Leo went so far as to commission two silver shields with the Creed in Latin and Greek which he hung in St. Peter's Basilica.[241][244]

Wars with the Danes

Europe at the death of the Charlemagne in 814

Raids on Charlemagne's lands by Danes, who the Franks called nordmanni ("northmen") began around 800.[245] Scandinavia had been brought into contact with the Frankish world through Charlemagne's continuous wars with the Saxons.[246] Charlemagne engaged in his final campaign in Saxony in 804, taking control of Saxon territory east of the Elbe and removing the Saxon population, giving the land to his Obotrite allies.[247] During this campaign, the Danish king Gudfred, uneasy at the extension of Frankish power, offered to meet with Charlemagne to arrange peace and possibly hand over Saxons that had fled to him.[245][248] These talks were not successful for unknown reasons.[248]

The northern frontier was quiet until 808, when Gudfred led an incursion into the Obotrite lands, extracting tribute from over half the territory.[249][245] Charles the Younger led an army across the Elbe in response, but only attacked some of Gudfred's Slavic allies.[250] Gudfred again attempted diplomatic overtures in 809, but it seems no peace was made.[251] Danish pirates raided Frisia in 810, though it is uncertain if they were connected to Gudfred.[252] Charlemagne sent an army to secure Frisia while he himself led a force against Gudfred, who reportedly had challenged the emperor to face him directly in battle.[217][252] The battle never took place, as Gudfred was murdered by two of his own men before Charlemagne's arrival.[216] Gudfred's nephew and successor Hemming immediately sued for peace, and a commission led by Charlemagne's cousin Wala reached a final settlement with the Danes in 811.[217] The Danes did not pose a threat for the remainder of Charlemagne's reign, but the effects of this war and earlier expansion in Saxony would help create the factors for the intense Viking raids across Europe later in the ninth century.[253][254]

Final years and death

A portion of the 814 death shroud of Charlemagne. It represents a quadriga and was manufactured in Constantinople.

The Carolingian dynasty had multiple losses in 810, as Charlemagne's sister Gisela, his daughter Rotrude, and his son Pepin of Italy died.[255] His eldest sons Pepin the Hunchback and Charles the Younger both died the next year.[256] The deaths of Charles and Pepin of Italy left Charlemagne's earlier plans for succession in disarray. In the wake of these deaths, he declared Pepin's son Bernard ruler of Italy, and his own only surviving son Louis as heir to the rest of the empire.[257] He also completed a new will detailing the disposition of his property, with bequests to the Church as well as all of his children and grandchildren.[258] Einhard (possibly relying on tropes from Suetonius's The Twelve Caesars) recounts that Charlemagne viewed the deaths of his family members, astronomical phenomena, and other misfortunes in his last years as signs of his own impending death.[259] In his final year, Charlemagne continued to govern with energy, ordering bishops to assemble in five ecclesiastical councils.[260] These culminated in a large assembly at Aachen, where Charlemagne formally crowned Louis as his co-emperor and Bernard as king in a ceremony on 11 September 813.[261]

Charlemagne became ill in the autumn of 813 and spent his last months praying, fasting, and studying the Gospels.[259] He developed pleurisy, and became completely bedridden for seven days before dying on the morning of 28 January 814.[262] Thegan, a biographer of Louis, records the emperor's last words as "Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit", quoting from Luke 23:46.[263] Charlemagne's body was prepared and buried in the chapel at Aachen by his daughters and palace officials the same day.[264] Louis arrived at Aachen thirty days after his father's death, making a formal adventus, taking charge of the palace and the empire.[265] Charlemagne's remains were exhumed by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in 1165, and reinterred in a new casket by Frederick II in 1215.[266]

Proserpina sarcophagus, in which Charlemagne is thought to have been originally buried.
The Karlsschrein, in which Frederick II reinterred Charlemagne in 1215.


Political legacy

Partition of the Empire after the Treaty of Verdun 843.

The stability and peace of Charlemagne's reign would not long outlast him. Louis' reign was marked by strife, including multiple rebellions of his own sons. Following Louis' death, the empire was divided between West, East, and Middle Francia.[267] Middle Francia saw several more divisions over subsequent generations.[268] Carolingians would rule with some interruptions in East Francia until 911[187] and in West Francia (which would become France) until 987.[269] After 887, the imperial title was held sporadically by a series of non-dynastic Italian rulers[270] before lapsing in 924.[271] East Francian King Otto the Great conquered Italy and was crowned emperor in 962.[272] The Holy Roman Empire founded by Otto would last until its dissolution in 1806.[273]

Charlemagne served as a model for medieval rulership "at least until the final end of empire in the West in the early nineteenth century."[274] Charlemagne is often given the epithet "the father of Europe" because of the influence of his reign, and the legacy he left across the large area of the continent he ruled.[275] The political structures Charlemagne established remained in place through his Carolingian successors, and continued to have influence into the eleventh century.[276] During his reign, groundwork was laid for the process of concentration of power in military aristocrats that would characterize the later Middle Ages.[277]

Despite the end of ruling Carolingian lines, Charlemagne is considered a direct ancestor of European ruling houses, including the Capetian dynasty,[g] the Ottonian dynasty,[h] the House of Luxembourg,[i] the House of Ivrea[j] and the House of Habsburg.[k] The Ottonians and Capetians, direct successors of the Carolingans, drew on the legacy of Charlemagne to bolster their legitimacy and prestige. Ottonians and future emperors would continue to hold their German coronations at Aachen through the Middle Ages.[284] The marriage of Philip II of France to Isabella of Hainault, a direct descendant of Charlemagne was seen as a sign of increased legitimacy for their son Louis VIII, and association with Charlemagne by French kings continue until the monarchy's end.[285] German and French rulers such as Frederick Barbarossa and Napoleon directly cited the influence of and associated themselves with Charlemagne.[286]

The city of Aachen has, since 1949, awarded an international prize (called the Karlspreis der Stadt Aachen) in honour of Charlemagne. It is awarded annually to those who have promoted the idea of European unity.[286] Winners of the prize include Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi, the founder of the pan-European movement, Alcide De Gasperi, and Winston Churchill.[287]

Carolingian renaissance

Charlemagne and Alcuin, 19th century.

Contacts with the wider Mediterranean world through Spain and Italy, and the influx of foreign scholars at court, along with the relative stability and length of Charlemagne's reign led to a cultural revival known as the Carolingian Renaissance.[288] While the beginnings of this revival are apparent under Charles Martel and Pepin, Charlemagne took an active and direct role in shaping intellectual life that led to the revival's height.[289] Charlemagne promoted learning as a matter of policy and direct patronage, with the aim of creating a more effective clergy.[290] The Admonitio generalis and the Epistola de litteris colendis outlined Charlemagne's policies and his aims in promoting education and learning.[291]

The intellectual life at court was dominated by Irish, Anglo-Saxon, Visigothic, and Italian scholars including Dungal of Bobbio, Alcuin of York, Theodulf of Orléans, and Peter of Pisa, though Franks such as Einhard and Angelbert also made substantial contributions.[292] Aside from the intellectual activity at the palace, Charlemagne promoted ecclesiastical schools as well publicly-funded schools for elites and clergy.[293] Students learned the basic tenets of Latin literacy and grammar, arithmetic, and other subjects of the medieval liberal arts.[294] From their own education, it was expected that priests in even rural parishes provide basic instruction in religious matters and possibly basic literacy skills required for worship to "the broadest level of Carolingian society."[295]

Carolingian authors produced extensive works including legal treatises, histories, and poetry as well as religious texts.[296][297] Scriptoria at monasteries and cathedrals focused on copying of both new and old works produced an estimated 90,000 manuscripts during the ninth century.[298] The Carolingian minuscule script developed and popularized during the renaissance endured in medieval copying and influenced modern typefaces.[299] John J. Contreni considers the educational and learning revival under Charlemagne and his successors as "one of the most durable and resilient elements of the Carolingian legacy.[299]

Memory and historiography

Charlemagne was a frequent subject of and inspiration for medieval writers after his death. Einhard's Vita Karoli Magni "can be said to have revived the defunct literary genre of the secular biography."[300] Einhard drew on classical sources such as Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars, the orations of Cicero, and Tacitus' Agricola to frame the structure and style of his work.[301] The Carolingian period also saw an revival in the genre of mirrors for princes.[302] The author of the Visio Karoli Magni written around 865 uses facts gathered apparently from Einhard and his own observations on the decline of Charlemagne's family after the dissensions war (840–43) as the basis for a visionary tale of Charles' meeting with a prophetic spectre in a dream.[303] Notker's Gesta Karoli Magni, written for Charlemagne's great-grandson Charles the Fat, presents moral anecdotes (exempla) to highlight the emperor's qualities as a ruler.[304]

Charlemagne depicted as a knight, bearing his attributed arms, Castello della Manta, 1420s

Charlemagne as a figure of myth and emulation grew in later centuries; Matthias Becher writes that over 1,000 legends are recorded about Charlemagne, far outstripping later emperors and kings.[305] Later medieval writers painted a portrait of Charlemagne as a crusader and Christian warrior.[305][306] Charlemagne is the main figure of the medieval literary cycle known as Matter of France. Works of this cycle, which originated during the period of the Crusades, centre on depictions of the emperor as a leader of Christian knights in wars against Muslims. The cycle includes chansons de geste (epic poems) such as the Song of Roland, and chronicles such as the Historia Caroli Magni, or Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle.[307] Charlemagne was depicted as one of the Nine Worthies, becoming a fixture in medieval literature and art as an exemplar of a Christian king.[308]

Attention on Charlemagne became more scholarly in the early modern period as Eindhard's Vita and other sources began to be widely distributed.[309] Political philosophers debated over Charlemagne's legacy; Montesquieu depicted him as the first constitutional monarch and protector of freemen, while Voltaire saw Charlemagne as a despotic ruler and representative of the medieval period as a Dark Age.[310] As early as the sixteenth century, debate had begun over Charlemagne's "nationality" between German and French writers.[311] These contrasting portraits – a French Charlemagne and a German Karl der Große – became especially pronounced in the nineteenth century with Napoleon's use of Charlemagne's legacy and the rise of German nationalism.[306][312] German historiography and popular perception focused especially on the Massacre of Verden, variously emphasized with Charlemagne as the "butcher" of the Germanic Saxons, or downplayed as an unfortunate part of the legacy of a great German ruler.[313] Historical propaganda produced under Nazi Germany initially portrayed Charlemagne as an enemy of Germany, a French ruler who had worked to take away the freedom and native religion of the German people.[314] However, this quickly shifted as Adolf Hitler endorsed a portrait of Charlemagne as a great unifier of disparate tribes into the German nation.[315] This allowed Hitler to co-opt Charlemagne's legacy as an ideological model for his expansionist policies.[316]

Historiography after World War II focused on Charlemagne as "the father of Europe" rather than a nationalistic figure,[317] a view first advanced in the nineteenth century by the German romantic philosopher Friedrich Schlegel.[306] This view has led to Charlemagne's adoption as a political symbol of European integration.[318] Modern historians increasingly place Charlemagne in the context of the wider Mediterranean world, following the work of Belgian historian Henri Pirenne.[319]

Religious impact and veneration

Palatine Chapel constructed by Charlemagne at the Aachen palace.

Charlemagne gave ample attention to religious and ecclesiastical affairs, holding 23 synods during the course of his reign. Each was summoned to address specific issues, but in general they dealt with Church administration and organization, education of the clergy, and proper liturgy and worship.[320] Charlemagne and his successors used the Christian faith as a unifying factor within the realm, and in turn worked to impose unity within the Church.[321][322] Charlemagne implemented an edited version of the Dionysio-Hadriana book of canon law he acquired from Pope Adrian, required the use of the Rule of St. Benedict in monasteries throughout the empire, and promoted a standardized liturgy that was adapted from the rites of the Roman Church but edited to conform with Frankish practices.[323] Carolingian policies of promoting unity did not eliminate the diverse practices throughout the empire, but did creating an shared ecclesiastical identity;[324] Rosamond McKitterick terms this "unison, not unity."[325]

The condition of all his subjects as a "Christian people" was an important concern of Charlemagne's.[326] His policies encouraged preaching to the laity, particularly in the vernacular languages they would understand.[327] Recitation the Lord's Prayer and the Apostles' Creed were abilities Charlemagne believed to be essential, and he made efforts to ensure the clergy taught these as well as other basics of Christian morality.[328]

Medieval religious historian Thomas F. X. Noble argues that the efforts of Charlemagne and his successors at standardizing the doctrine and practices of Christianity, and in harmonizing Frankish practices was essential in the development of Christianity in Europe, and writes that the distinct Roman Catholic, or Latin Church "as an historical phenomenon, not as a theological or ecclesiological one, is a Carolingian construction."[329][330] He further argues that the medieval European concept of Christendom as an overarching community of Western Christians (as opposed to a collection of local western traditions) is a result of Carolingian policies and ideology.[331] Charlemagne's doctrinal policies of opposing the Second Council of Nicea and promotion of the filioque were key steps in the growing divide between Western and Eastern Christianity.[332]

Emperor Otto III attempted to have Charlemagne canonized as a saint in 1000.[333] In 1165, Frederick Barbarossa convinced the Antipope Paschal III to elevate him to sainthood.[333] As Paschal's acts were not considered valid, Charlemagne was not recognized as a saint by the Holy See in Rome.[334] Despite this lack of recognition, Charlemagne's cult became observed in Aachen, Reims, Frankfurt, Zurich, and Regensburg, and he has been venerated in France since the reign of Charles V.[335]

Charlemagne also drew attention from figures of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther criticized Charlemagne's apparent subjugation to the papacy by accepting his coronation from Leo.[310] However, John Calvin and other Protestant thinkers viewed Charlemagne as a forerunner of the Reformation, citing especially the condemnation of image and relic worship in the Libri Carolini, and the conflicts he and his successors had with the temporal power of the popes.[334]

Wives, concubines, and children

Further information: Carolingian dynasty

Charlemagne instructing his son Louis the Pious

Charlemagne had at least twenty children with both wives and other partners throughout his life.[336][337] After the death of his wife Luitgard in 800, he did not remarry but continued to have children with unmarried partners.[256] He was determined that all his children, including his daughters, receive an education in the liberal arts. His children were also taught skills in accord with their aristocratic status, which included training in riding and weaponry for his sons, and embroidery, spinning and weaving for his daughters.[343] Rosamond McKitterick writes that Charlemagne exercised "a remarkable degree of patriarchal control...over his progeny," noting that only a handful of his children and grandchildren were raised outside his court.[344]

Charlemagne's elder, legitimate sons reigned as kings and resided at their own courts.[124] Careers in the Church were arranged for his illegitimate sons.[345] His daughters were resident either at court or at Chelles Abbey where Charlemagne's sister was abbess, and those at court possibly fulfilled the duties of the queen after 800.[346]

Louis and Pepin of Italy both married and had children during their father's lifetime, and Charlemagne brought Pepin's daughters into his own household after Pepin's death.[347] Rotrude had been betrothed to Emperor Constantine VI, but this betrothal was ended.[348] None of Charlemagne's daughters married, though several had children with unmarried partners: Bertha had two sons, Nithard and Hartnid with Charlemagne's courtier Angilbert; Rotrude had a son named Louis possibly with Count Rorgon; and Hiltrude had a son named Richbod, possibly with a count named Richwin.[349] The Divisio Regnorum issued by Charlemagne in 806 provided that his legitimate daughters would be allowed to marry or become nuns after his death. Theodrada entered a convent, but the decisions of his other daughters are unknown.[350]

Appearance and iconography

Further information: Iconography of Charlemagne

Top: Carolingian-era equestrian statuette thought to represent either Charlemagne or his grandson Charles the Bald. Bottom: Bust of Charlemagne, an idealised portrayal and reliquary said to contain Charlemagne's skull cap, produced in the 14th century.

Einhard gives a first-hand description of Charlemagne's appearance later in life:[351]

He was heavily built, sturdy, and of considerable stature, although not exceptionally so, since his height was seven times the length of his own foot. He had a round head, large and lively eyes, a slightly larger nose than usual, white but still attractive hair, a bright and cheerful expression, a short and fat neck, and he enjoyed good health, except for the fevers that affected him in the last few years of his life.

In 1861, Charlemagne's tomb was opened by scientists who reconstructed his skeleton and estimated it to be measured 1.95 metres (6 ft 5 in).[352] A 2010 estimate of his height from an X-ray and CT scan of his tibia was 1.84 metres (6 ft 0 in). This puts him in the 99th percentile of height for his period, given that average male height of his time was 1.69 metres (5 ft 7 in). The width of the bone suggested he was slim in build.[353]

Charlemagne wore his hair short, in an abandonment begun by his father of the Merovingian tradition of long-haired monarchs.[354] He had a mustache, possibly in imitation of the Ostrogothic king Theoderic the Great, and contrasted with the bearded Merovingian kings.[355] Future Carolingian monarchs would adopt this style.[356] Paul Dutton notes the ubiquitous presence of a crown in portraits of Charlemagne and other Carolingian rulers replacing the earlier Merovingian royal symbol of long hair.[357] A ninth-century statuette depicts either Charlemagne or his grandson Charles the Bald[m] and shows the subject as mustachioed and with short hair,[359] and this appearance is also shown on contemporary coinage.[362]

By the twelfth century, Charlemagne was described as bearded rather than mustachioed in literary sources such as the Song of Roland and the Pseduo-Turpin Chronicle, as well as other sources in Latin, French, and German.[363] The Pseudo-Turpin uniquely claims that his hair was brown.[364] Later art and iconography of Charlemagne would follow suit, generally depicting him in a later medieval style as bearded and with longer hair.[365]


  1. ^ a b Alternative birth years for Charlemagne include 742 and 747. There has been scholarly debate over this topic, see Birth and early life. For full treatment of the debate, see Nelson 2019, pp. 28–29. See further Karl Ferdinand Werner, Das Geburtsdatum Karls des Großen, in Francia 1, 1973, pp. 115–57 (online Archived 17 November 2013 at the Wayback Machine);
    Matthias Becher: Neue Überlegungen zum Geburtsdatum Karls des Großen, in: Francia 19/1, 1992, pp. 37–60 (online Archived 17 November 2013 at the Wayback Machine)
  2. ^
  3. ^ "At 747 the scribe had written: 'Et ipso anno fuit natus Karolus rex' ('and in that year, King Charles was born')."[32]
  4. ^ German: Zweikaiserproblem, "two-emperors problem"
  5. ^ Latin: Karolus serenissimus augustus a deo coronatus magnus pacificus imperator Romanum gubernans imperium, qui et per misercordiam dei rex francorum atque langobardorum
  6. ^ Latin: Carolus gratia dei rex francorum et langobardorum ac patricius Romanorum
  7. ^ Through Beatrice of Vermandois, great-great granddaughter of Pepin of Italy and grandmother of Hugh Capet.[278][279]
  8. ^ Through Hedwiga, great-great granddaughter of Louis the Pious and mother of Henry the Fowler.[280]
  9. ^ Through Albert II, Count of Namur, great-grandson of Louis IV of France and great-great grandfather of Henry the Blind.[281][282]
  10. ^ Berengar II of Italy was a great-great-great grandson of Louis the Pious.[283]
  11. ^ Radbot of Klettgau, the founder of the House of Habsburg, married Ida of Lorraine, who descended from Charlemagne through both of her parents; from Cunigunda of France on her father's side and through the Capetians on her mother's side.
  12. ^ The nature of Himiltrude's relationship to Charlemagne is uncertain. A 770 letter by Pope Stephen III describes both Carloman and Charlemagne "by [God's] will and decision...joined in lawful marriage...[with] wives of great beauty from the same fatherland as yourselves."[338] Stephen wrote this in the context of attempting to dissuade either king from entering into a marriage alliance with Desiderius.[75] By 784, at Charlemagne's court, Paul the Deacon wrote that their son Pepin was born "before legal marriage", but whether he means Charles and Himiltrude were never married, were joined in a non-canonical marriage or friedelehe, or if they married after Pepin was born is unclear.[74] Roger Collins,[339] Johannes Fried,[340] and Janet Nelson[341] all portray Himiltrude as a wife of Charlemagne in some capacity. Fried also dates the beginning of their relationship to 763 or even earlier.[342]
  13. ^ Janet Nelson considers it a depiction of Charlemagne,[358] Paul Dutton writes that it was "long thought to depict Charlemagne and now attributed by most to Charles the Bald,"[359] and Johannes Fried presents both as possibilities,[360] but considers it "highly contentious."[361]



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  14. ^ Costambeys, Innes & MacLean 2011, p. 38.
  15. ^ Frassetto 2003, p. 292.
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  17. ^ Nelson 2019, p. 16.
  18. ^ Waldman & Mason 2006, p. 271.
  19. ^ McKitterick 2008, p. 65.
  20. ^ Costambeys, Innes & MacLean 2011, pp. 51–52.
  21. ^ a b McKitterick 2008, p. 71.
  22. ^ Costambeys, Innes & MacLean 2011, p. 55.
  23. ^ Nelson 2019, p. 61, 64-65.
  24. ^ Fried 2016, p. 17.
  25. ^ a b c Nelson 2019, p. 29.
  26. ^ a b Costambeys, Innes & MacLean 2011, p. 56.
  27. ^ Fried 2016, p. 15.
  28. ^ Collins 1998, p. 32.
  29. ^ Barbero 2004, p. 11.
  30. ^ Becher 2005, p. 41.
  31. ^ Nelson 2019, pp. 28–28.
  32. ^ Nelson 2019, p. 15.
  33. ^ Nelson 2019, p. 28.
  34. ^ a b Barbero 2004, p. 12.
  35. ^ Fried 2016, pp. 15–16.
  36. ^ a b c Nelson 2019, p. 68.
  37. ^ Keller 1964.
  38. ^ Chambers & Wilkie 2014, p. 33.
  39. ^ McKitterick 2008, p. 318.
  40. ^ Fried 2016, p. 24.
  41. ^ Dutton 2016, pp. 71–72.
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  43. ^ Fried 2016, pp. 14–15.
  44. ^ Dutton 2016, pp. 75–80.
  45. ^ Fried 2016, p. 271.
  46. ^ Dutton 2016, p. 75.
  47. ^ Dutton 2016, p. 91.
  48. ^ Collins 1998, p. 120.
  49. ^ McKitterick 2008, p. 73.
  50. ^ McKitterick 2008, p. 71–72.
  51. ^ Costambeys, Innes & MacLean 2011, p. 32.
  52. ^ a b Costambeys, Innes & MacLean 2011, p. 34.
  53. ^ McKitterick 2008, p. 72.
  54. ^ McKitterick 2008, pp. 72–73.
  55. ^ Costambeys, Innes & MacLean 2011, p. 62.
  56. ^ McKitterick 2008, p. 74.
  57. ^ Costambeys, Innes & MacLean 2011, p. 64.
  58. ^ McKitterick 2008, p. 75.
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  60. ^ a b McKitterick 2008, p. 77.
  61. ^ a b c d e f Costambeys, Innes & MacLean 2011, p. 65.
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  64. ^ McKitterick 2008, p. 81.
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Further reading

Primary sources in English translation

  • Alcuin (1941). The Rhetoric of Alcuin and Charlemagne: A Translation, with an Introduction, the Latin Text, and Notes. Translated by Howell, Wilbur Samuel. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Alcuin (1974). Alcott, Stephen (ed.). Alcuin of York, c. AD 732 to 804: His life and letters. Translated by Alcott, Stephen. York: Sessions Book Trust. ISBN 0-900657-21-9.
  • Bachrach, Bernard S., ed. (1973). Liber Historiae Francorum. Translated by Bachrach, Bernard S. Lawrence, KS: Coronodo Press. ISBN 978-0872910584.
  • Davis, Raymond, ed. (1992). The Lives of the Eighth-Century Popes. Translated by Davis, Raymond. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. ISBN 9780853230182.
  • Einhard; Notker (1969). Two Lives of Charlemagne. Translated by Thorpe, Lewis. London: Penguin. ISBN 9780140442137.
  • Einhard (1998). Dutton, Paul (ed.). Charlemagne's Courtier: The Complete Einhard. Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures. Translated by Dutton, Paul. Petersborough, ON: Broadview Press. ISBN 1-55111-134-9.
  • Dutton, Paul, ed. (2004). Carolingian Civilization: A Reader. Petersborough, ON: Broadview Press. ISBN 978-1-55111-492-7.
  • Goodman, Peter, ed. (1985). Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance. Translated by Goodman, Peter. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0806119397.
  • King, P.D., ed. (1997). Charlemagne: Translated Sources. Translated by King, P.D. Lancaster: P.D. King. ISBN 978-0951150306.
  • McKitterick, Rosamond; van Espelo, Dorine; Pollard, Richard; Price, Richard, eds. (2021). Codex Epistolaris Carolinus: Letters from the popes to the Frankish rulers, 739-791. Translated by McKitterick, Rosamond; van Espelo, Dorine; Pollard, Richard; Price, Richard. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. ISBN 978-1-80034-871-4.
  • Lyon, H.R.; Percival, John, eds. (1975). The Reign of Charlemagne: Documents on Carolingian Government and Administration. Documents of Medieval History. Translated by Lyon, H.R.; Percival, John. London: Arnold. ISBN 9780713158137.
  • Scholz, Bernhard Walter; Rogers, Barbara, eds. (1970). Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard's Histories. Translated by Scholz, Bernhard Walter; Rogers, Barbara. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 978-0-472-08790-7.

Secondary works

Emperor Charles I the GreatCarolingian dynasty Died: 28 January 814 Regnal titles Preceded byPepin the Short King of the Franks 768–814with Carloman I (768–771)with Charles the Younger (800–811) Succeeded byLouis the Pious New creationProblem of two emperorsConstantine VI as undisputedByzantine emperor Holy Roman Emperor 800–814with Louis the Pious (813–814) Preceded byDesiderius King of the Lombards 774–814with Pepin of Italy (781–810)with Bernard of Italy (810–814) Succeeded byBernard of Italy