Charlemagne, the "Father of Europe" was generous to friends and allies but a bloodthirsty merciless warrior to his enemies.
Charlemagne: Son of Pepin the Short and Bertrada of Laon
We don’t know precisely when or where Charlemagne was born. Some historians have accepted 742 A.D. with Aachen (in today’s Germany) as his birthplace. Others believe that he wasn’t born until 747-748 A.D. and probably in Liege in modern-day Belgium. Perhaps it was some or none of these options.
What is certain is that he was the son of Pepin the Short, Mayor of the Palace for the Merovingian dynasty king Childeric III who ruled over the Franks in areas of modern-day France. The Mayor of the Palace held the most influential role in court and it was a coveted position. Pepin and his father had been installed in the role. Charlemagne’s mother Bertrada of Laon was nicknamed Bertha Broadfoot, most probably because she was born with a club foot.
A Change of Ruler for the Franks
Charlemagne's childhood prepared him for leadership and power. It comprised military, state, political and court etiquette lessons. He came to appreciate how he could succeed using his wits. He grew into an unusually tall (around 6 feet tall), imposing and strong-willed man with a generous and gregarious nature, qualities that would serve him well.
In 751 Pepin the Short overthrew his king with Pope Stephen II’s approval. He was installed as King Pepin III of the Franks. Pepin promised to protect Rome on the condition that Stephen and his successors recognised his family as the rightful Frank rulers. Still a young child, Charlemagne was the unexpected heir to the Frankish throne. The Carolingian dynasty was to rule for the next 236 years.
In 756A.D. Pepin donated a huge swathe of land to the Pope which became the Papal States in Italy. When Pepin died on the 9th October 768 Charlemagne and his younger brother Carloman split the Frankish territories between them as was the convention.
King of the Lombards
Both brothers vied for supremacy and the peace in the kingdom was soon under threat. Conveniently or fortuitously Carloman died suddenly in 771 leaving Charlemagne as the sole ruler. He keenly upheld the old traditions and customs.
Charlemagne negotiated a pact with Desiderius, the King of the Lombards and he married Desiderus’ daughter Desiderata in 770 A.D. He annulled this union in 771 and claimed the Lombard throne for himself three years later on the 10th July 774.
He married his second wife when free of Desiderata; Hildegard of Vinzgouw remained his wife until her death in 783 A.D. He then married Fastrada. She died in 794. His last wife was Luitgard and she died in 800. Charlemagne had an array of lovers and concubines and he fathered at least 18 children.
Ruthless Warrior King and Conqueror
The king of the Franks and Lombards' skills on the battlefields of Europe were tested repeatedly during the first three decades of his reign. He was a warrior king in the true Frankish tradition and although the battles were hard-fought it was normally Charlemagne in the role of victor after leading his army into the fray.
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The Avars and Slavs in modern Austria and Hungary and the Bavarians of today's Germany were easier to overpower and convert to Christianity than the Saxons of northern Europe. The fight for supremacy over them took thirty years in which Charlemagne ordered massacres of his Saxon enemies and his soldiers pillaged and presumably raped the women. The pagan Saxons were pushed into a small area without the power or numbers to fight against Charlemagne's increasing Christian territories.
Roman Emperor Charles I, Carolus Magnus
One shattering defeat marked his reign. He could not dominate Spain when he invaded in the summer of 778 A.D. His army was sent away by the Muslim inhabitants who had no desire to be Christians or cede land.
He installed one of his sons, Pippin, as the king in Italy and another son Louis ruled Aquitaine which secured the Franks a defined border with Spain. Under Charlemagne, large sections of Europe were united under one overall ruler for the first time since the Romans dominated the continent.
He was installed as Charles I or Carolus Magnus, Emperor of the Romans on Christmas Day 800. after Pope Leo III was attacked by Romans amidst accusations of tyranny and fled. Charlemagne returned with him to the Papal States where negotiations took place and Leo III purged himself of his sins.
One of Charlemagne's courtiers recorded that he had not wanted to be emperor and that he was surprised when his coronation started although evidence shows that Pope Leo III and Charlemagne were both planning a coronation.
Charlemagne's Rule Ends
The new emperor meted out justice to the Pope’s enemies. He greatly enhanced the empire’s wealth and created a legacy as a patron of the arts, including religious music and he actively worked on educational initiatives.
By 813 A.D. he had just one surviving son, Louis the Pious, and he made a public show of placing the crown on Louis' head in a ceremony that left no question as to who his imperial co-ruler and successor would be.
Charlemagne became seriously ill in the early days of 814. He died on the 28th January. He was buried in Aachen Cathedral.
His descendants in the Carolingian dynasty aimed to emulate his model of rule but the dynasty weakened as the years passed. In 887 the Carolingian ruler Charles III was deposed and the Robertian dynasty alternated with the Carolingians until a final defeat in 988. A new page in history began with the Robertians and their cadet branch, the Capetians.
- Charlemagne - King, Emperor - Biography
Learn more about Charlemagne, the King of the Franks who united Western Europe for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire, at Biography.com.
- 13 Facts About Charlemagne | Mental Floss
Much of what we know about the ancient world is thanks to Charlemagne.
- Charlemagne | Biography, Accomplishments, Children, & Facts | Britannica
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Joanne Hayle