He lived from 748 to 814. He was the greatest ruler in the Medieval Age in his known world and surpassed the conquests and glory of many kings for centuries.
Source of image: Charles Edward Russell (see below for bibliographic data)
Let’s get right into his complicated family. Sometimes a wife’s name is not known to us.
Source for the above two tables: Matthias Becher (see below for bibliographic data).
Source for above table: Robert Folz (see below for bibliographic data)
KEY TERMS AND TITLES
The word “Frank” probably means “brave, bold, and impetuous.”
In Latin his name is Carolus Magnus; Charles le Magne (Charles the Great) in French; and in German Karl der Grosse (Carl or Charles the Great). English took over from the French, combing the three words (and the French combined the three words too).
Pippin: variation is Pepin.
The early royal courts were organized on a Roman pattern: a comes (the word count comes from it) was the official office holder. He was in charge of the military contingent and royal law courts.
Dux or duke appears, all the way back to the Merovingians.
Vassus is of Celtic origins and means a ruler’s subordinate. In Charlemagne’s time they were noblemen, and they expected to provide more than service, but consilium and auxilium or counsel and aid. In other words, the vassus at this time pushed for advancement in his position in the class structure.
A comes stabuli (constable comes from these words) oversaw transportation resources.
The thesaurius was the treasurer (from Greek for treasure);
The cubicularius was the chamberlain, who oversaw the administration of the court.
The seneschal was responsible both for feeding the household and the administration of the imperial fisc (royal estate).
The royal chancery was run by clerks.
Another office holder was the major domus, that is, the head of household (in French majordome comes from this word and = butler in English).
The Mayor of the Palace, as the name implies, had a powerful position as a representative of a king, so powerful that Charlemagne abolished it. (His ancestors used that position to depose the last Merovingian king (see the Merovingian Genealogical Table, above).
The chapel was originally the place where the cappa or cloak of the Frankish royal saint Martin was kept. The clerics who served there were called capellani. The chapel was originally used to store important documents. This is why clerics were involved in writing and records.
See this post for more information: Glossary of Medieval Terms: A to Z
PERSONAL DESCRIPTION OF CHARLEMAGNE
Einhard was an historian who lived during Charlemagne’s life. Here is his description:
He was broad and strong in the form of his body and exceptionally tall without, however, exceeding an appropriate measure. As is well known, his height was equal to the length of seven of his feet.
The top of his head was round, and his eyes were very large and lively. His nose was somewhat larger than usual. He had attractive gray hair and a friendly, cheerful face. His appearance was impressive whether he was sitting or standing despite having a neck that was fat and too short and a large belly. The symmetry of his other limbs obscured these points. He had a firm gait, a thoroughly manly manner of holding himself and a high voice which did not really correspond to the rest of his body.
He was healthy, aside from the four years before he died when he frequently suffered from fever and finally also developed a limp. Even at this time, however, he followed his own counsel rather than the advice of the doctors, whom he very nearly hated because they advised him to give up roast meat, which he loved, and to restrict himself to boiled meat instead.
He regularly rode and hunted as was the custom of his people …
He greatly enjoyed the steam from warm springs. He was a very practiced swimmer and enjoyed it so much that it was very difficult to get him to leave. It is for this reason that he built a royal palace at Aachen (city in western Germany now) and lived there regularly during the last years of his life. He invited not only his sons, but also the nobles, his friends, and frequently his men and his bodyguards to join him in the baths so that at times a hundred or more men were bathing with him (qtd. in Becher, slightly edited)
Let’s look at other personal features.
The Emperor’s skeleton was measured and it was over 1.8 m in height (5 ft.9 in.).
Einhard was honest enough to says his nose was large, his neck short, his belly hanging, his voice high-thin.
He was stubborn, gluttonous. He complained that fasting weakened his body.
He detested drunkenness.
He liked to be the center of attention and made friends easily.
He was frank and open. He was talkative and extroverted.
He displayed his emotions, being sad and shedding tears when someone close died, like the death of his son or daughter. When Pope Hadrian died, he cried as much as if he had lost a brother.
In the summer he slept two to three hours after the midday meal; he interrupted his sleep during the night four or five times; he not only woke up but got up.
If the count of the palace brought up a lawsuit that could not be decided without consulting him, he summoned the litigants and rendered a judgment, as if he was a judge.
He practiced his writing, without much success. His ability to read is not clear to historians.
At mealtimes he had the works of Augustine read to him.
He liked history of the lives of great men and deeds of the past.
Music was played during meals.
He was interested in the science of his day, like astronomy and the movement of the stars.
He insisted on classical Latin to be used in important documents, not Medieval Latin. This is why various Latin-based or romance languages emerged (e.g. French).
BASIC FACTS AND STORIES
- The earliest Franks were a collection of mixed groups of peoples between the Rhine and Weser Rivers.
- The Franks expanded into northern / Gaul / France and western Germany.
- In 496/97 Clovis (see Merovingian Genealogical Table) made a momentous break from paganism and converted to Christianity. Clovis also consolidated his rule over petty (small) Frankish kings.
- The various descendants of Clovis fought each other for control, until Charles Martel (martellus or the Hammer) arose and unified the divided realm and even expanded it.
- Charles Martel defeated the Saracens (Muslims) between Tours and Poitiers (southern France) in 732.
- Charlemagne was born to Charles Martel’s son Pippin on 2 April 748. He was Pippin’s oldest son. Charlemagne’s brother Carloman was born in 751. Pippin named his two sons after their grandfather Charles, and a variation of Charles is Carl.
- Pippin took over from his father Charles Martel who died and in July 754 Pippin had himself and his sons Charlemagne and Carloman anointed by Pope Stephen II.
- Would the co-anointing of the two sons cause strife and conflict between them later on? Count on it!
- Pippin took his sons under his wings and developed, for example, their warrior skills. Charlemagne finished his adolescence and received a sword from his father, which indicates that his training as a warrior was over. Carloman’s adolescence finished later and he also got a sword.
- Pippin died on 24 September 768 and was buried with his father at St. Denis, but he had carefully divided his realm between his two sons. For example, by lot, Charlemagne got Aquitaine, which revolted. He asked for help from Carloman, who refused to help.
- Let’s describe Charlemagne a little more.
- In 769/70 Charlemagne had a son first with his wife Himiltrud and named him Pippin, but he was a hunchback. Carloman had a son with his wife Gerberga and also named him Pippin. This put Carloman in direct competition with his older brother.
- Their mother Bertrada, wife of Pippin entered the fray and she favored Charlemagne.
- In May 770 she met with Carloman and told him to be at peace. Charlemagne was destined to marry a daughter of Desiderius, a Lombard king (Lombardy was in northern Italy). Her name is unknown, though one historian says it’s Desiderata.
- At this point in history, the Church was not able to maintain the indissolubility of marriage.
- However, before Charlemagne and Carloman came to blows, Carloman died on 4 December 771 at the age of 20. In one stroke, Charlemagne became the sole ruler of the Frankish Empire.
- Desiderius took in Gerberga and her children (she had had a second son).
- Charlemagne threw out his Lombard wife of one year when the Lombards schemed against him with the pope, asking the pope to anoint Carloman’s son as the king of the Franks.
- In 774 Charlemagne conquered Lombardy and Desiderius surrendered. Charlemagne took the title “King of the Franks and Lombards.” (However, In 776 he had to return to Italy to put down a revolt of the Lombards.)
- In 775 he turned his attention to the disunited, pagan Saxons. He was called on to protect the churches that bordered Saxony since the pagans burned them.
- Part of the Saxons was conquered: If they kept their oaths of loyalty, they would remain subordinate to the Franks. If they did not keep their oaths, then the Franks could enter Saxon lands and treat them as traitors.
- Charlemagne was secure, such that he entered Spain when the Muslim governor of Saragossa appealed to him for help against the emir of Cordoba. His ally no longer ruled there, so he marched back across the Pyrenees (mountains between Spain and France).
- He razed the defenses of Pamploma, which infuriated the Christian Basques, so they attacked and wiped out the Frankish rearguards in the Pyrenees. This battle was made famous by the twelfth-century Song of Roland.
- The Saxons took Charlemagne’s absence as a moment to rebel. This was a crisis in his reign in 778.
- At this time, his third wife Hildegard bore him twin sons and he named them Louis (Clovis) and Lothar (Clothar), connecting him back to the Merovingians. They were destined to secure the dynasty and realm as “sub-kings.”
- Hildegard died in 783.
- Even the tough Bavarians and Avars or Huns (on the Great Hungarian Plain) were fought and eventually conquered.
- It took 30 years for Charlemagne to conquer the Saxons. Why so long? They were disunited, so he couldn’t conquer one capital and one king—no central power. Each successive year a new group of Saxons rebelled. Yet due to their disunity, the Saxons couldn’t hope to succeed. Charlemagne was a superior commander, and his technical military superiority (e.g. a moveable bridge over the Danube) guaranteed success over the long haul.
- The Saxons became Christianized and had to follow Christian law and abandon old customs, like cannibalism and human sacrifice.
- King Charlemagne imposed Frankish social structure like the comital (counts) system.
- During this time he married a fourth wife Fastrada.
- During the long conquests of Saxony, Charlemagne also stayed involved in papal politics. In 774 he went down to Rome to celebrate Easter. He surprised Pope Hadrian, but they were allies.
- Charlemagne took the title patricius Romanorum, Protector of the Romans, a title that only the pope had used.
- As the ruler of the greater part of Italy he took the title King of the Franks and Lombards.
- But then the Byzantines and Lombards formed an alliance (Byzantines were the eastern half of the Roman Empire and based in Byzantium or Constantinople).
- One controversy was the veneration of images or not. Due to pressure from expanding Islam, the Byzantines said no to images and advocated iconoclasm (breaking images), while the West—the Pope and the Franks—favored them.
- However, in 787 at the Council of Nicaea Constantine IV and his mother Irene reintroduced icons, to the delight of the pope. The Franks were not at the Council, so now ecclesiastical matters are being decided without Charlemagne.
- Charlemagne held a Council at Frankfurt so the decisions of Nicaea were dismissed, even though both the Franks and Byzantines now believed in imagery. He required Constantine to be declared a heretic, even though Constantine had returned to the true faith.
- Pope Hadrian died on Christmas Day 795, and Charlemagne was so moved that he wept and sent a black marble gravestone to St. Peter’s. One can still read the poem composed by Alcuin, Charlemagne’s main scholar, as follows: “I shed tears for the father [pope]. I, Charles [Charlemagne], had these verses written for him. ‘I weep for you, father, my heartfelt love. I unite the names with shining titles: Hadrian and Charles, I a king, you a father.’ You who pray here and read these humble verses speak: ‘God show mercy and take pity on these two!’”
- On Christmas day in 800 he was in Rome and St. Peter’s to celebrate Christmas Mass. He was prostrate. When he got up, Pope Leo III placed a crown on his head, proclaiming three times: “To Charles [Charlemagne] the most pious Augustus, crowned by God, the great and pacific emperor, live and victory!” Then the Pope prostrated himself before him, to honor him.
- Being anointed Emperor was offensive to the Byzantines. Only the eastern Emperor could claim that title. The Byzantine historian Theophanes of the day mocked the coronation, calling it the “last unction.”
- Rome and the pope regularly declared someone as emperor just to swipe at the East, but this came to nothing. Charlemagne, however, was effective. Would he attack the East?
- Byzantine Empress Irene was deposed at the end of 802, after she had deposed her son Constantine IV and blinded him in 797. Nikephoros ascended the throne.
- In 806, Charlemagne incorporated Venice, Italy, which had broken into factions, one side favoring Byzantines, the other favoring the Franks. At the same time he also incorporated Dalmatia (across the Adriatic Sea from Italy). Both these areas were part of the Byzantine Empire. Nikephoros could not let that stand.
- Four-year war resulted. The Franks were stronger on land, while the Byzantines were stronger at sea.
- The Bulgarians made trouble for the Byzantines, so Nikephoros sued for peace with Charlemagne.
- Charlemagne was willing to give up Venice, if the eastern Emperor acknowledged Charlemagne’s status as Emperor.
- By the time the envoys of the Franks arrived in Byzantium for negotiations, Nikephoros had fallen in battle against the Bulgarians in 811.
- In 812, Nikephoros’s son-in-law and successor Michael I acclaimed Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans at Aachen.
- During this time, a theological controversy erupted. The Franks added a new phrase to the credo (creed): “The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The Byzantines had just said, “From the Father.”
- In 809 Charlemagne held a conference at Aachen and called on the pope, Leo III, to accept the addition to the creed. He refused because that would have disturbed whatever peace there was between the two sides of the Church—East and West.
- In the Frankish Kingdom, the creed was sung with the addition, but in the East, just with the original phrasing.
- Conquering vast territories, he considered himself a Christian ruler, and as his lead scholar Alcuin told him, he must lead his subjects (correctio in Latin). A very influential work titled Concerning the Twelve Vices of the World obligated kings to rule justly. He tried to follow it.
- Numerous free peoples, not just noblemen, had to swear loyalty to Charlemagne.
- Charlemagne ordered the editing or re-editing or recorded for the first time the codes of law of the Franks, Frisians, Saxons, or Thuringians,
- He assembled all dukes, counts and other Christians ordered the laws to be read before them. He was well known centuries afterward as a lawgiver.
- He did not allow his eight daughters—three from Hildegard and five from various concubines—to marry because he didn’t want his own sons to compete with their nephews (his grandsons). He allowed his daughters to stay at court, and he looked the other way when they took lovers and had children.
- This policy and his own concubines and many wives flew in the face of church teaching, but he was too valuable to the Church in Rome for the leaders to seriously order him to stop. A German monk saw him in a vision undergoing a painful penance for his overstepping the line.
- The various queens of Charlemagne had real household and monetary power. Queen Liutgard was in charge of the treasury and therefore controlled an overwhelmingly powerful instrument of ruler.
- In 781, his two sons from his marriage with Hildegard, Carloman and Louis, were sub-kings of Italy and Aquitaine. Carloman, at his consecration by the pope, received the name Pippin, indicating he was higher than Pippin the Hunchback. Pippin the Hunchback had revolted, when Charlemagne was alive. Charles the Younger received Neustria in 789.
- Charlemagne wintered in 813/14 in his favorite palace at Aachen, where he spent a lot of time in the hot baths. He hunted until the beginning of November. He was seized of a strong fever in January and took to his bed. He began to fast to relieve the fever, but to no avail.
- Charlemagne died on 28 January 814 and was buried on the same day in the Church of St. Mary at Aachen. He had made plans forty years ago to be buried next to his father Pippin and grandfather Charles Martel at St. Denis. It is probable that no one remembered the original burial plan made all those years ago.
- This is how Charlemagne had divided his realm before he died in the Divisio regnorum or Partition of Kingdoms. (a) Charles the Younger: From Loire River (divides France north-south) to the Rhine up to the Elbe River and Danube. Austrasia (northern France) and Neustria (northwest France, about where Normandy is today), the core of the Frankish realm, also went to Charles. (b) Pippin: Italy where he already ruled, as well as Bavaria and southern Alemannia (central France). (c) Louis: Aquitaine and Septimania (southern France) and Provence (southern France) and parts of Burgundy (south-central France).
- Problem: Only Louis survived, and Charlemagne had a lesser regard for him. But he made Louis co-Emperor in September 813.
Charlemagne ruled over a vast territory: From the English Channel to southern Italy and from the Elbe River (originates in Czech Republic and cuts through much of Germany) to beyond the Pyrenees (mountain range between Spain and France).
The Byzantine Emperor acknowledged him, albeit as a “barbarian” ruler.
Charlemagne even exchanged embassies with the Arab Caliphate in Baghdad, the third great power in the Mediterranean region.
By the year 800 Charlemagne’s empire encompassed about 1 million square kilometers with 180 dioceses (not counting the emerging papal state), 700 monasteries, 750 royal estates (fisci), which enclosed 150 administrative districts in Italy, 20 in Frankish Spain, and 500 in Gaul and east of the Rhine.
He earned the honorific by later historians: “Charles the Great or Charlemagne.”
ADDENDUM: TIMELINE OF KEY EVENTS
Charlemagne: Interesting Facts and Stories
Pippin, Great-Grandson of Charlemagne (transition to the House of Vermandois)
HOUSE OF VERMANDOIS
Robert I (r. 922-23) (House of Robertines)
Hugh the Great (r. 938-956)
Hugh Capet (r. 987-996)
Robert II (r. 996-1031)
Henri I (r. 1031-60)
Philip I (r. 1059 or 1060-1108)
Louis VI (r. 1108-1037)
Louis VII (r. 1137-1180)
Philip II Augustus (r. 1180-1223)
Louis VIII (r. 1223-1226)
Louis IX, the Saintly King (r. 1226-1270)
Philip III (r. 1270-1285)
Philip IV (r. 1285-1314)
Louis X (r. 1314-1316)
Philip V (r. 1316-1322)
Charles IV (r 1322-1328) (last Capetian king)
Matthias Becher, Charlemagne, trans. David S. Bachrach (New Haven: Yale UP, 1999, 2003). This is the main source for this post.
Christian Bonnet and Christine Descatoire, Les Carolingiens (741-987) (Armand Colin / VUEF, 2001).
Russell Chamberlin, Charlemagne: Emperor of the Western World (London: Grafton Books, 1986).
Marios Costambeys, Matthew Innes, and Simon MacLean, the Carolingian World (Cambridge UP, 2011).
Eleanor Shipley Duckett, Carolingian Portraits: A Study in the Ninth Century (University of Michigan P, 1962 and 1969).
Paul Edward Dutton, Charlemagne’s Mustache and Other Cultural Clusters of a Dark Age, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)
Robert Folz, The Coronation of Charlemagne 25 December 800, trans. J.E. Anderson (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974).
Medieval France: An Encyclopedia, eds. William B. Kebler and Grover A. Zinn (New York: Garland, 1995).
Douglas Richardson, Royal Ancestry: A Study of Colonial and Medieval Families, vol. 5, ed. Kimball G. Everingham (Salt Lake, Privately Published, 2013).
Charles Edward Russell, Charlemagne: First of the Moderns (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1930).