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The Father of Europe: The Life of Charlemagne

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“I’m the successor, not of Louis XVI, but of Charlemagne.” Napoleon Bonaparte proclaimed this at his coronation as emperor of France in 1804. This was a thousand years after Pope Leo crowned Charles I, commonly known as Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800, and it reveals the lasting legacy he left behind. It is easy to see this legacy in the titles his people often called him: Carolus Magnus (“Charles the Great) and Europae pater (“father of Europe”). Charlemagne greatly influenced the generations to come through his military campaigns, administrative reforms, and cultural renaissance, which brought a period of unity and prosperity to the early Middle Ages, laying the foundations for modern Europe. 

Background/ Historical Context

Charlemagne’s father Pepin III (the Short) was not always Francia’s king. Initially, the Merovingian Dynasty held the Frankish throne and Pepin III was only the mayor of the palace. Originally, mayors of the palace were only meant to supervise the household and its sprawling estates, but, overtime, they came to have more power; the role grew to be more akin to what a prime minister would do today. The power began to shift in 732 after Charles Martel, Charlemagne’s grandfather, stopped the invading Muslim army from encroaching farther into Europe at the pivital Battle of Tours, earning the respect of the nobility and the people. By the time Charlemagne was born, the Merovingian King Childeric III was barely more than a figurehead. In 751, any illusion of the Merovingian’s power vanished after Pepin III staged a coup and seized the throne with the approval of Pope Zachery, which provided him with the necessary legitimacy for success. To secure the pope’s backing and essential legitimacy, Pepin III agreed to a forged copy of the Donation of Constantine, which essentially stated that the king received his power from the pope. Additionally, in the Donation of Pepin, Pepin III gave large portions of land to the Papacy, forming the foundation of the Papal States, and fended off the Lombards from their southern borders. 

Rise to Power

Amidst this political turmoil in 742, Charlemagne’s mother, Bertrada of Laon, gave birth to Charlemagne. Surprisingly, historians do not know much about Charlemagne’s childhood. Even Einhard, Charlemagne’s biographer and contemporary, knew nothing about it. He wrote, “It would be folly, I think, to write a word concerning Charles’ birth and infancy, or even his boyhood, for nothing has ever been written on the subject, and there is no one alive now who can give information on it.” One can speculate that he received military training in to prepare him for his role as a warrior king, but no concrete evidence exists to support this. 

Despite the general lack of information available about Charlemagne’s childhood, historians recorded two specific events. The first event was the oath Charlemagne made when he was six years old, where he pledged to protect the Papacy and Christendom, and the second was when he was 15, where he restated his oath to the Papacy and Christendom. The influence of these oaths is evident in his many military decisions and conquests, especially in regard to his campaigns against the pagans of Saxony and his opposition of the Muslims.

In 768, Pepin III passed away, leaving his kingdom split between his two sons: Charlemagne and Carloman. Tension grew between the two brothers almost immediately. The inciting incident, however, was the rebellion in the Aquitaine province in 769, which Charlemagne’s father had previously subdued. Charlemagne wanted to use the military to suppress the rebellion, but Carloman did not support this. Charlemagne marched his troops to Aquitaine anyway, crushing the rebellion and taking over part of the neighboring province of Gascony in the process. Tensions rose further after Charlemagne repudiated and divorced the daughter of Desiderius, king of the Lombards. Incensed, Desiderius approached Carloman about overthrowing Charlemagne. A civil war was brewing when Carloman mysteriously died, leaving his kingdom to Charlemagne. 

Major Military Campaigns

Charlemagne’s military campaigns greatly extended Francia, enlarging its borders to encompass modern-day France, northern Spain, northern Italy, and modern-day Germany. Charlemagne’s first major military success was his conquest of the Lombard Kingdom. It began around 771 when Pope Adrian I used the Papacy’s status as a Frankish protectorate and appealed to Charlemagne for protection. Charlemagne led an expedition into Italy in 773, quickly overwhelming the Lombards and claiming victory in less than a year. The Lombard’s king Desiderius was banished for life, and his son expelled from Italy. Charlemagne restored to Pope Adrian I all the territories the Papacy lost, and took the rest of the territory for himself, establishing his son Pepin Carloman as king of that subkingdom. 

Charlemagne’s military expansion continued in 778, invading the Umayyad rulers in northern Spain. This campaign, however, ended in an utter disaster and his army was forced to retreat. Ironically, poets memorialized this one defeat in the epic poem The Song of Roland, disregarding Charlemagne’s numerous victories. This defeat did not deter Charlemagne, however, and by 796 he controlled Muslim territory from the Pyrenees to the Ebro river, which created a buffer zone between his kingdom and the Muslims called the Spanish March. 

His most hard-won and controversial territory though was the region of Saxony, which took 18 separate invasions and 30 years to fully conquer. Charlemagne’s casus belli for war with the Saxons was the burning of a church in Deventer (modern-day Netherlands) in 772. Interestingly, the Franks and the Saxons had good diplomatic relations and often traded with each other prior to the burning of the Deventer church, leading some to believe that Charlemagne staged the raid in order to have a reason to invade. Many cite his intolerance of pagan religions as a possible motivation. In 772, Charlemagne burned down the Saxon’s sacred tree, Irminsul, in retaliation for burning the church. He then proceeded to lead a campaign of burning, pillaging, and slaughter across the country. In response to this, in 777 the Saxons rallied behind warrior-chief Widukind as the leader of their resistance, although he could do little against Charlemagne’s army. He was, however, able to negotiate with the King of Denmark to allow Saxon refugees in his kingdom. The war came to a head in 782 at the Massacre of Verden, when Charlemagne beheaded 4,500 Saxons in an attempt to break the Saxons’ will to fight; despite this carnage, the Saxons continued fighting. Finally, around 784, Widukind extended an olive branch to Charlemagne and agreed to be baptized, and though it is recorded that he was baptized, the war continued until 802. 

Holy Roman Emperor

While Charlemagne’s kingdom was having military success after military success, the Papacy was in turmoil. In 799, Romans who thought Pope Leo III guilty of tyranny and “personal misconduct” brutally attacked him, causing Leo to flee to Charlemagne’s court in search of protection. In response, Charlemagne sent his army to escort Leo back to Rome, and then went to Rome himself to preside over Leo’s trial in 800. Charlemagne had the charges against Leo dropped in exchange for Leo publicly swearing an oath that atoned him of all the charges against him. The very next morning on Christmas Day in the year 800, Charlemagne was attending St. Peter’s Basilica for mass when Pope Leo placed a crown in his head proclaiming “Charles Augustus crowned great and peace-giving emperor of the Romans, life and victory!”

Interestingly, Einhard, states that Charlemagne “would never have set foot in the church that day… if he could have seen the design of the Pope.” Many historians, however, observe that the crowning of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor was greatly beneficial to both parties and more than likely planned. This new title gave Charlemagne the authority to punish those who acted against the church, officially recognized him as the guardian of the Christendom, and put him on the same level as other venerated emperors like Constantine. In return, the Pope strengthened his status as a protectorate of Francia while also creating the illusion of power as he was the one who crowned Charlemagne. Regardless of whether or not Charlemagne knew of the Pope’s plans to crown him, Charlemagne used and defended his new title to great effect, going so far as declaring war against Byzantium and ceding most of his territory in the Dalmation Coast to be recognized by Byzantium as Emperor of the West. Not only did Charlemagne physically wage war against the Byzantines, but he also engaged in a theological one, influencing the controversy over icons and objecting to the Eastern Orthodoxy version of the Nicene Creed. These actions and Charlemagne’s position as emperor greatly raised tensions between Rome and Constantinople, eventually leading to a full split of the church in 1054. 

New Administration

Becoming Holy Roman Emperor caused Charlemagne to change his focus from constant military campaigns to administration, diplomacy, and religious reform. Charlemagne kept his original government structure. This structure divided his kingdom into core regions, where his rule was strong and more direct, and outer regions, where each county was ruled by a trusted earl or count. Additionally, he kept the Frankish tradition of annually summoning all the local rulers from across the whole empire to Marchfield. Most of his new reforms and decrees came in the form of the missi dominici, royal agents of Charlemagne who traveled around his empire enforcing and announcing his laws, as well as gathering information on local rulers to report back to Charlemagne. With Charlemagne’s newfound power as Holy Roman Emperor these laws could now affect the clergy and church officials, as well as the secular leaders. 

Charlemagne’s decrees were based on creating the perfect Christendom, resulting in many fair and just laws like the ones in his General Capitulary for the Missi. For example, he charged church officials to “not oppress their subjects with a harsh rule of tyranny, but with sincere love shall carefully guard the flock committed to them with mercy and charity.” Additionally, he charged judges to “judge justly in accordance with the written law, and not according to their own will.” Fitting with his desire to create the perfect Christendom, but in stark contrast to the sense of justice and fairness to all that pervades his General Capitulary for the Missi, Charlemagne has no tolerance to those who do not convert to Christianity. He condemns anyone who has “formed a conspiracy with the pagans” and any Saxon who has not been baptized to death. 

Carolingian Renaissance

While the Carolingian Renaissance spanned more than Charlemagne’s reign and its influence is best seen after is death, Charlemagne was the key figure in bringing it to fruition. The Carolingian Renaissance was the largest rebirth of scholarship, literature, art, and architecture since Rome. Charlemagne’s desire to create a Christian identity in Europe, in order to resist the influence of the Muslims, fueled this rebirth. Accordingly, Charlemagne gathered the best scholars around to his capital in Aachen, which he centered around Alcuin from York, England, who he made headmaster of his court’s school. Scholarship also concentrated around monasteries where monks copied both classical and Christian manuscripts, which preserved them for others to learn from and greatly increased the amount of manuscripts available in surrounding libraries. Charlemagne’s education policies, which required all education to be in Latin, and the royal scriptorium, which created a new and easier system of writing, known as the Carolingian minuscule, promoted learning and cultural unity even further. These changes led to numerous advances in architecture (Aachen’s Palatine Chapel), technology (iron horseshoe), and agriculture (triple crop rotation system). Additionally, they lead to new poems, hymns, histories, musical treatises, and theological commentaries. 

Personal Life

With all of Charlemagne’s achievements, it is easy to forget about his humanity. Einhard paints a vivid picture of him, however, describing him as “stately and dignified” looking, despite his “thick and somewhat short neck” and his “rather prominent” belly. Charlemagne rarely wore finery, preferring clothes reminiscent to what the commoners wore. Even the most handsome foreign robes would not tempt Charlemagne; he only ever wore them twice (both times on the behest of the pope). Einhard adds that since Charlemagne was illiterate and could not read himself. He often listened to music or readings while eating, and he especially loved St. Augustine’s books like The City of God. 

Additionally, Charlemagne’s household was huge, he had at least 18 children split between his four wives and three mistresses. Charlemagne married his first wife, daughter of King Desiderius for political advantage and on his mother’s insistence. Less than a year later, however, Charlamagne suddenly refused to associate with or even acknowledge her, and subsequently divorced her, much to his mother’s and King Desiderius’s displeasure. He then proceeded to marry Hildegard. She was his most notable wife as she bore him nine children, five sons and four daughters, in their nine years of marriage before dying at the young age of 26. After Hildegard died, he married Fastrada, daughter of an Austrian count. She gave Charlemagne two daughters, but she died, in 794 after only eleven years of marriage. That same year, Charlemagne again remarried, this time to Luitgard of Alamannia. The court loved her and touted her as “good and devout,” but she too died without ever bearing children after only six years of marriage. 

Legacy

In January 814, Charlemagne came down with a fever and died after living 72 years and reigning 47. While Charlemagne decreed in 806 that his empire would be divided between his three sons on his death, the line of succession was clear, as he had already given the imperial crown to his son Louis the Pious king in 813. Louis tried to fulfill his father’s wishes and hold together Charlemagne’s empire, but Charlemagne’s own campaigns had already doomed it. The slaughter of the people of Saxony destroyed the region and angered the Norse who frequently attacked Francia. Louis repelled these attacks to the best of his ability, but eventually, with no other option, he appeased the Norse through land grants instead. Charlemagne’s empire completely disintegrated in 840 when Louis died. His three sons fought over succession, and at the Treaty of Verdun (843) they reached a compromise: the empire would be divided three ways. Louis the German received East Francia (modern-day Germany), Lothair received Middle Francia (modern-day eastern France, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, and northern Italy), and Charles the Bald recieved West Francia (most of modern-day France). These new kingdoms were uninterested in collaborating with each other, making them more susceptible to Viking raids and further deteriorating infrastructure and reform. Additionally, they lacked the will and political power that Charlemagne had so deftly wielded against the pope, so they lost more and more power to the pope. 

Discussion

Undoubtedly, Charlemagne left behind a major legacy, but it is a legacy filled with contradictions. He created the largest empire since Rome, but it split in less than two generations. He was a devout Christian, but went against New Testament teachings by spreading Christianity through force. He greatly expanded his kingdom’s territory, but ultimately doomed it by angering his now much closer neighbors. He expanded the Roman Catholic Church’s power by becoming emperor, but lead to its decline by furthering the split between the East and West. But despite all these inconsistencies, Charlemagne unquestionably earned the title Europae pater or Father of Europe. His military campaigns united Europe, laying the foundations for the countries in present-dayEurope. His economic and judicial reforms brought a flourishing period of enlightenment amidst the Dark Ages that would not be seen again until the Renaissance. His emphasis on creating a Christendom kept the influence of Islam out of Europe. Imagine how different Europe, and the whole world for that matter, would look if Europe had acquired an Islamic culture. America may never have come to be, and European imperialism would have looked vastly different. It is little wonder that Napoleon considered Charlemagne his predecessor instead of Louis XVI, as Charlemagne single-handedly laid the foundations for the powerful and unified Europe that exists today. 

Works Cited

  • Andrews, Robert. The Columbia Book of Citations. Columbia University Press, 1957.
  • “Charlemagne’s Empire 814.” The Map Archive, https://www.themaparchive.com/ charlemagnes-empire-814.html
  • “Charlemagne: The Father of Modern Europe.” YouTube, 5 Sept. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J34_Qog2O8k.
  • Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Mayor of the Palace.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 15 May 2012, https://www.britannica.com/topic/mayor-of-the-palace.
  • Einhard. Life of Charlemagne. Translated by Samuel Epes Turner, Ann Arbor Paperbacks, 1960.
  • Fastrada, Wife of Charlemagne Bentonian. “Fastrada, Wife of Charlemagne.” The Eighth Century and All That, 29 May 2018, http://www.8thcentury.com/fastrada-wife-of-charlemagne/.
  • Gudek, Tea. “Charlemagne: Carolingian Renaissance – Third Part.” Medieval Wall, 22 Aug. 2010, https://medievalwall.com/historical-figures/charlemagne-carolingian-renaissance/.
  • Mark, Joshua J. “Charlemagne.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 17 Nov. 2019, https://www.ancient.eu/Charlemagne/.
  • Munro, Dana C, editor. “Sections from the Laws of Charles the Great.” Christian History: Charlemagne, p. 14.
  • Ray, Michael. “Battle of Tours.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 13 June 2019, https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Tours-732.
  • Reardon, Patrick Henry. “The Crowning of Charlemagne.” Christian History & Biography, no. 89, Winter 2006, pp. 46–47. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=20005775&site=ehost-live.
  • Sullivan, Richard E. “Charlemagne.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 20 Aug. 2019, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charlemagne.
  • “The Rule of Charlemagne: General Capitulary for the Missi.” Sources of the Making of the West. Ed. Katherine J. Lualdi. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2019. 155-159. Print. 

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