Charlemagne Biography

Charles the Great
Charlemagne was great in every aspect. He was a great military leader and ruler as well as great patron of art and learning but he was also great literally. He was 6 feet 3 ½ inches (1,92 meter) tall which is extreme for his times when men were in average 5 ½ feet (1,69 meter) tall.

Charlemagne – One of the Greatest Medieval Kings

Charlemagne, the King of the Franks and Emperor of the West was one of the greatest medieval kings. He created an empire that covered much of Western and Central Europe, initiated cultural and intellectual revival known as the Carolingian Renaissance, carried out a number of reforms including weight and monetary reform giving Europe the pound unit, halted the political and cultural disintegration of early medieval Europe and paved the way for the emergence of the West as the dominant political, economic and cultural power in the High and Late Middle Ages.

Early Life and Co-Rule with His Brother Carloman

Little is known about Charlemagne’s early life. He was probably born in 742 to Pepin the Short, the first King of the Franks from the Carolingian dynasty and his wife Queen Bertrada. After his father’s death in 768, he became co-ruler of the Frankish Kingdom with his younger brother Carloman who received a larger portion of the realm. Tense relationship that marked the joint rule from the beginning was further strained when Carloman refused to aid Charlemagne to put down an uprising in Aquitaine in 769. One year later Charlemagne married Desiderata, the daughter of the Lombard King Desiderius to win the Lombards against Carloman but he divorced the Lombard Princess already in 771 and married to a 13-year old Swabian noblewoman Hildegard. Desiderata returned to the court of her father who would probably allied himself with Carloman to defeat Charlemagne but Carloman died unexpectedly in 771 before the war broke out.

Italian Campaign

Charlemagne became sole ruler of the Realm of the Franks after his brother’s death, while Carloman’s widow Gerberga who expected her elder son to succeed her deceased husband was given refuge by the Lombard King Desiderius. Thus Charlemagne gladly responded the Pope’s appeal to provide military assistance against Desiderius. He invaded Italy in 773 and laid a siege to Pavia forcing the Lombards to surrender in 774. Charlemagne had himself crowned King of the Lombards and incorporated the Lombard Kingdom into his realm. Desiderius was sent into a monastery, while the fate of Carloman’s widow and her sons is unknown. They may have been sent to religious institutions as well.

Campaigns in the North, East and the Iberian Peninsula

During his Italian campaign, Charlemagne started the Saxon Wars that brought him Saxony by 804. Meanwhile he also led campaigns against the Slavs, Avars and Bavarians in the east that resulted in incorporation of Bohemia, Carinthia, Danubian Plain and Bavaria into the Realm of the Franks. He also expanded the Frankish border south of the Pyrenees and united his territorial gains into the Spanish March in 795. In 799, he helped restore Pope Leo III in Rome who crowned him Imperator Romanorum (Emperor of the Romans) on Christmas Day in 800. Charlemagne allegedly was not aware of Leo’s intention to crown him emperor and would not enter Saint Peter’s Basilica if he would know about it. This may due to the fact that Europe already had an Emperor in Constantinople or perhaps because he felt that the Pope is arrogating his authority although some historians believe that he must have known about it. Either way, he became accepted as the Emperor of the West including by the Byzantine Empire in return for ceding Venice, Istria and Dalmatia to Constantinople.

Patronage of Art and Learning

Charlemagne is primarily remembered as a warrior king and great military leader but he was also a major patron of art and learning. He made Aachen the capital of his empire and put a lot of effort to beautify his court at Aachen, while the Byzantine influence that can be still seen in the Palace Chapel of Aachen reveals his attempt to equalize himself with the Byzantine Emperor. But even of greatest importance were the scholars and scribes from all over Europe that made Charlemagne’s court the intellectual center of the Carolingian Empire and initiated the intellectual and cultural revival - the Carolingian Renaissance. Charlemagne’s main purpose of his support to learning was to train the clergy to unify the Christian faith throughout his empire as well as to undertake administrative tasks as he also used the Church as an instrument of government through its network of bishops. According to Einhard (c. 770-840) who wrote biography of Charlemagne – Vita Karoli Magni (Life of Charlemagne), Charlemagne studied himself and practiced writing in his bed but he also noted that he started learning too late in life and achieved little success. Eihhard also reports that Charlemagne spoke fluent Latin and studied Greek.

Offspring and Successors

Like his predecessors, Charlemagne divided his empire among his three sons from his second marriage to Hildegard (he remarried twice after her death in 783 but neither the third nor the fourth wife bore him sons) in 806. However, outlived his eldest sons Pepin of Italy and Charles the Younger who died in 810 and 811, respectively, and therefore he had his youngest son Pepin the Pious crowned as co-emperor in 813 leaving him the entire empire except for Italy that was granted to Pepin’s illegitimate son Bernard. Charlemagne had several illegitimate children himself including three sons but they were excluded from the inheritance as well as his daughters whom he even forbid to marry. He seemed to tolerate extramarital relationships as two of his daughters had illegitimate children.

Appearance and Character

Charlemagne soon became a legend and was idealized throughout the Middle Ages. However, his empire was held together primarily by his personality and perhaps also his appearance. Einhard, author of the first Charlemagne biography reports that he was 7 feet tall (2,13 meters). The opening of his tomb in the mid-19th century has shown that he was 6 feet 3 ½ inches (1,92 meter) tall which is still way above the average that was at the time 5 ½ feet (1,69 meter) for men. He was very generous and jovial to his friends yet very cruel towards his enemies. During the Saxon Wars he allegedly ordered beheading of 4,500 Saxons known as the Massacre of Verden for practicing paganism and as a punishment for revolt.