Charlemagne, otherwise known as Charles the Great, or Charles the First, was King of the Franks from AD 768-814. He was the eldest son born to Pepin the Short and his wife Bertrada. In the eyes of his contemporaries, he possessed many qualities of greatness: imposing physical stature, warrior prowess, piety, generosity, intelligence, devotion to family and friends, and joy for life. His actions made him a hero in his own time and also for many European generations to come.
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Charlemagne and his brother, Carloman, served as co-rulers over the Frankish domains in a spirit of animosity until 771 when Carloman died and Charlemagne became sole ruler. This territory became known as the Carolingian Empire after Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the reconstituted Western Roman Empire by Pope Leo III on Christmas day of 800 in return for preventing the Pope's ouster by unruly Romans.
His military victories and annexations of land included conquering the Lombards in 773-774 in response to Pope Adrian's request for aid against them. He also subdued the Saxons in wars that lasted thirty years, from 772-864. In one day alone 4,500 Saxons were executed at Verden. He annexed Bavaria in 788 and conquered the Avars in the Danube region in 798. He led an invasion into Spain in 777 that didn't result in a takeover but the great literary work called "The Song of Roland" was a result of his action. Charlemagne's conquests left him the great undisputed master of nearly the entire Christian West. The wealth he acquired in these conquests gave him temporary independence from his Austrasian aristocratic supporters and he was able to institute several significant administrative reforms.
Among his administrative reforms, Charlemagne regularized the central administration and implemented more direct influence on local affairs through expanded use of the written word. He developed special agents, missi dominici, to investigate imperial affairs. These agents also taught the local officials what was expected of them and reported to the court on local conditions. Charlemagne also issued royal orders, capitularies, that informed local officials of royal intent and guided them in their actions in matters relating to public order. He promoted commerce, education, and building by implementing educational reform, importing scholars, and establishing interest in history, architecture, and literature. The capital, Aachen, became the cultural center of Carolingian learning and art.
Charlemagne assumed a major responsibility for religious life in his realm. Religious reform became a prime focus of his program. He made royal government the directive force in religious affairs and gave a subordinate role in the service of the king to the clergy. Charlemagne made reluctant pagans, such as the Saxons, receive baptism and imposed a tax of 10 percent of all income, called a tithe, on all Christians to support religious life. In formulating his new religious program Charlemagne relied on guidance from the papacy, especially Pope Hadrian I (772-795). Charlemagne played a major role in enhancing the authority of the papacy in the West.
During the last years of Charlemagne's reign most aspects of his administrative, social, and religious reforms deteriorated. The Austrasian aristocracy gained control over the central administration again and local counts and magnates increased their power at the expense of both the emperor and the poor. The clergy and administration was full of corruption by 814 AD
In 806 AD Charlemagne arranged that his three sons, Pepin, Louis, and Charles, would be his successors. However, in 813 Pepin and Charles died, leaving Louis as the sole successor. Charlemagne left Louis the imperial title when he died in Aachen in 814 at the age of 72. Compared to the reigns of his son and grandsons, the age of Charles the Great quickly became idealized as a golden age of prosperity and government. Even though the concept of kingship in his day was rooted in "bannum," which entitles the ruler to command people to serve him and punish those who disobey, he never used his title to alter the constitutional basis for his rule except for the reform of national laws of the kingdom.
R. E. Sullivan, D. Sherman, J.B. Harrison, A Short History of Western Civilization, Eighth Edition, McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York, 1994.
Louis John Paetow, Guide to the Study of Medieval History, Millwood, New York, 1959.
Joseph R. Strayer, Dictionary of the Middle Ages, Vol. 3., Scribner Sons, New York, 1983.
Bruce Wetterau, World History: A dictionary of important people,places and events from ancient times to the present, Henry Holt and Co., New York, 1994.
Text copyright 1996-1999 by David W. Koeller. All rights reserved.