Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, was born the eldest son of Pepin the Short, king of the Franks (751–768), and his wife, Bertrada of Laon. Upon his father’s death the Frankish kingdom was divided between Charlemagne and his younger brother Carloman in 768. When Carloman died suddenly in 771, Charlemagne seized control of his brother’s lands and reunified the Frankish realm.

Charlemagne’s kingdom grew to an empire under his relentless and resourceful military campaigns. Beginning in 772 he initiated a campaign to subdue the Saxons, a task he would only complete in 804. Soon after becoming sole ruler of the Franks, he invaded Italy and crushed the Lombard Kingdom, taking the Crown of the Lombards for himself (773–774).

An initial foray against the Muslims into Spain in 778 ended in disaster when Charlemagne’s rear guard was ambushed and destroyed at Roncesvalles, while returning home from this expedition. But by 811 Charlemagne had extended his sway south of the Pyrenees down to the Ebro River and had created the Spanish March to act as a buffer zone between the Moors in Spain and his own lands north of the Pyrenees.

On his eastern front Charlemagne deposed his onetime ally the duke of Bavaria (787), and incorporated his territory into his own lands. This brought him into contact with the fierce Slavic people known as the Avars, who held sizable lands in the areas of modern day Austria and Hungary.

Charlemagne inflicted a massive defeat on these people in 796 and created another heavily defended march known as the Ostmark (Austria), to protect his eastern border against marauding Avars. In helping him overcome and rule such disparate foes and lands, Charlemagne was fortunate in having three capable and loyal sons.

His son Charles (d. 811) ruled the northwest part of Charlemagne’s Frankish lands known as Neustria, while Pepin (d. 810) administered Italy, and Louis (d. 840) ruled over Aquitaine. The latter two in particular fought long, hard campaigns either with their father or on his behalf.

Charlemagne empire
Charlemagne empire

The strength of Charlemagne’s empire depended in part upon his reputation and success as a warlord, together with the tight bonds of personal loyalty that existed between him and his chief administrators. In addition to his three sons who ruled as cadet kings, Charlemagne also relied heavily upon the margraves who ruled over the marks/marches that he created along volatile border areas.

In less troublesome areas in the interior of his lands Charlemagne posted counts to keep the peace, administer imperial laws, and protect the realm. To ensure the loyalty of these and other top officials Charlemagne created the office of the missi dominici, whose duty it was to ride circuit throughout the realm inquiring as to the honesty and efficiency of his royal officials.

Another reason for Charlemagne’s success was his approach to justice throughout his realm. Religion aside, he respected the traditions, tribal laws, and rights of the various Germanic peoples under his authority, and rather than replace tribal laws, he sought to codify them in writing.

He did however issue a number of imperial laws called capitularies, which laid out regulations for his own royal officials or administrators or which touched upon religious issues. Historians have long acknowledged the important role that Christianity and the institutional church played in enabling Charlemagne to maintain a firm hold on both his throne and his empire. His conquest and eventual integration of Saxony into his empire are illustrative in this regard.

Charlemagne relied upon a combination of military offensives against the Saxons and the missionary activities of Benedictine monks finally to pacify this belligerent tribe. In 782 he issued a series of laws forbidding the practice of pagan religion among the Saxons, with harsh penalties for those caught transgressing. The overall effect of these measures was slowly to saturate Saxon tribal culture with the religion and culture that Charlemagne endorsed.

Charlemagne also engaged in a vigorous attempt to improve the level of morality and education among the clergy throughout his realm. To this end he utilized the talents of Alcuin of York (735–804), who, beginning in 781, undertook the arduous process of bringing discipline to the monastic houses throughout the empire and introducing the classical Roman program of the liberal arts as the educational curriculum used throughout the Carolingian monastic schools.

Charlemagne receiving manuscripts from his tutor, the monk Alcuin
Charlemagne receiving manuscripts from his tutor, the monk Alcuin

For 15 years Alcuin himself oversaw a school at Charlemagne’s palace at Aachen. The results of this educational program were impressive and produced a flourishing of culture and learning that has been termed the Carolingian Renaissance.

A number of Carolingian Benedictine monasteries became vibrant centers of learning, such as Fulda, St. Gall, and Reichenau. Monks at these institutions assiduously set about learning classical Latin grammar and rhetoric and in the process copied and preserved for posterity numerous works from classical Rome. Scholarship and literature flourished in this era, as is evident from such works as Paul the Deacon’s History of the Lombards and Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne.

On Christmas Day in the year 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Roman emperor (Imperator Romanorum). Historians have long quarreled over the significance of the coronation, and even whether Charlemagne himself approved. The Roman Empire at the time of Charlemagne’s coronation referred to the Greek or Byzantine Empire, which was under the control of the empress Irene (797–802). Through his actions the pope may well have been seeking to curry favor with Charlemagne and ensure his aid in maintaining the pope’s temporal control over recently annexed lands in Italy.

Or, absent a male ruler on the Byzantine throne, he may actually have thought he was creating a legitimate emperor who could unite the Carolingian territories in the west with the Byzantine lands in the east. If so, he seriously miscalculated, for initial overtures between Charlemagne’s court and that of the empress Irene created an uproar among the people of the Byzantine Empire. Charlemagne himself actually disliked the title of emperor, and it certainly added nothing to his power or ability to rule over his own lands.

At the same time, the fact that the pope felt emboldened enough to proclaim this Germanic king a Roman emperor provides clear evidence of the spectacular political, military, religious, and cultural achievements Charlemagne realized during his rule over western Europe. In 813 Charlemagne designated his son Louis I as coemperor and his successor and crowned him at Aachen.