Charles the Great or Charles I (German: Karl der Große, French: Charlemagne; C. 742-814), Roman-German emperor and king of the Germanic Franks, was the elder son of Pippin the Short, King of the Franks, and Bertha, or Bertrada, daughter of Charibert, count of Laon. The place of his birth is unknown and its date uncertain. Although some authorities give it as the 2nd of April 742, doubts have been cast upon his legitimacy, and it is just possible that the marriage of Pippin and Bertha took place after the birth of their elder son. When Pippin was crowned king of the Franks at St Denis on the July 28, 754 by Pope Stephen II, Charles and his brother Carloman were anointed by the pope as a sign of their kingly rank. The rough surroundings of the Frankish court were unfavourable to the acquisition of learning, and Charles grew up almost ignorant of letters, but hardy in body and skilled in the use of weapons. His favoured residence was the Imperial City of Aachen in Germany.
In 761 he accompanied his father on a campaign in Aquitaine, and in 763 undertook the government of several counties. In 768 Pippin divided his dominions between his two sons, and soon after his death Charles became the ruler of the northern portion of the Frankish kingdom, and was crowned at Noyon on the 9th of October 768. Bad feeling had existed for some time between Charles and Carloman, and when Charles in early 769 was called upon to suppress a rising in Aquitaine, his brother refused to assist. This rebellion, however, was easily crushed, its leader, the Aquitainian duke Hunold, was made prisoner, and his territory more closely attached to the Frankish kingdom. About this time Bertha, having effected a temporary reconciliation between her sons, overcame the repugnance with which Pope Stephen III. regarded an alliance between Frank and Lombard, and brought about a marriage between Charles and a daughter of Desiderius, king of the Lombards. Charles had previously contracted a union, probably of an irregular nature, with a Frankish lady named Himiltrude, who had borne him a son Pippin, the "Hunchback."
The peace with the Lombards, in which the Bavarians as allies of Desiderius joined, was, however, soon broken. Charles thereupon repudiated his Lombard wife (Bertha or Desiderata) and married in 77 1 a princess of the Alamanni named Hildegarde. Carloman died in December 771, and Charles was at once recognized at Corbeny as sole king of the Franks. Carloman's widow Gerberga had fled to the protection of the Lombard king, who espoused her cause and requested the new pope, Adrian I., to recognize her two sons as the lawful Frankish kings. Adrian, between whom and the Lombards other causes of quarrel existed, refused to assent to this demand, and when Desiderius invaded the papal territories he appealed to the Frankish king for help. Charles, who was at the moment engaged in his first Saxon campaign, expostulated with Desiderius; but when such mild measures proved useless he led his forces across the Alps in 773. Gerberga and her children were delivered up and disappear from history; the siege of Pavia was undertaken; and at Easter 774 the king left the seat of war and visited Rome, where he was received with great respect.
During his stay in the city Charles renewed the donation which his father Pippin had made to the papacy in 754 or 756. This transaction has given rise to much discussion as to its trustworthiness and the extent of its operation. Our only authority, a passage in the Liber Pontificalis, describes the gift as including the whole of Italy and Corsica, except the lands north of the Po, Calabria and the city of Naples. The vast extent of this donation, which, moreover, included territories not owning Charles's authority, and the fact that the king did not execute, or apparently attempt to execute, its provisions, has caused many scholars to look upon the passage as a forgery; but the better opinion would appear to be that it is genuine, or at least has a genuine basis. Various explanations have been suggested. The area of the grant may have been enlarged by later interpolations; or it may have dealt with property rather than with sovereignty, and have only referred to estates claimed by the pope in the territories named; or it is possible that Charles may have actually intended to establish an extensive papal kingdom in Italy, but was released from his promise by Adrian when the pope saw no chance of its fulfilment. Another supposition is that the author of the Liber Pontificals gives the papal interpretation of a grant that had been expressed by Pippin in ambiguous terms; and this view is supported by the history of the subsequent controversy between king and pope.
Returning to the scene of hostilities, Charles witnessed the capitulation of Pavia in June 774, and the capture of Desiderius, who was sent into a monastery. He now took the title " king of the Lombards," to which he added the dignity of " Patrician of the Romans," which had been granted to his father. Adalgis, the son of Desiderius, who was residing at Constantinople, hoped the emperor Leo IV. would assist him in recovering his father's kingdom; but a coalition formed for this purpose was ineffectual, and a rising led by his ally Rothgaud, duke of Friuli, was easily crushed by Charles in 776. In 777 the king was visited at Paderborn by three Saracen chiefs who implored his aid against Abdar-Rahman, the caliph of Cordova, and promised some Spanish cities in return for help. Seizing this opportunity to extend his influence Charles marched into Spain in 778 and took Pampeluna, but meeting with some checks decided to return. As the Frankish forces were defiling through the passes of the Pyrenees they were attacked by the Wascones (probably Basques), and the rearguard of the army was almost annihilated. It was useless to attempt to avenge this disaster, which occurred on the 15th of August 778, for the enemy disappeared as quickly as he came; the incident has passed from the domain of history into that of legend and romance, being associated by tradition with the pass of Roncesvalles. Among the slain was one Hruodland, or Roland, margrave of the Breton march, whose death gave rise to the Chanson de Roland.
Charles now sought to increase his authority in Italy, where Frankish counts were set over various districts, and where Hildebrand, duke of Spoleto, appears to have recognized his overlordship. In 780 he was again in the peninsula, and at Mantua issued an important capitulary which increased the authority of the Lombard bishops, relieved freemen who under stress of famine had sold themselves into servitude, and condemned abuses of the system of vassalage. At the same time commerce was encouraged by the abolition of unauthorized tolls and by an improvement of the coinage; while the sale of arms to hostile peoples, and the trade in Christian slaves were forbidden. Proceeding to Rome, the king appears to have come to some arrangement with Adrian about the donation of 774. At Easter 781, Carloman (Karlmann), his second son by Hildegarde, was renamed Pippin and crowned king of Italy by Pope Adrian, and his youngest son Louis was crowned King of Aquitaine; but no mention was made at the time of his eldest son Charles, who was doubtless intended to be king of the Franks. In 783 the king, having lost his wife Hildegarde, married Fastrada, the daughter of a Frankish count named Radolf; and in the same year his mother Bertha died. The emperor Constantine VI. was at this time exhibiting some interest in Italian affairs, and Adalgis the Lombard was still residing at his court; so Charles sought to avert danger from this quarter by consenting in 781 to a marriage between Constantine and his own daughter Rothrude.
In 786 the entreaties of the pope and the hostile attitude of Arichis II., duke of Benevento, a son-in-law of Desiderius, called the king again into Italy. Arichis submitted without a struggle, though the basis of Frankish authority in his duchy was far from secure; but in conjunction with Adalgis he sought aid from Constantinople. His plans were ended by his death in 787, and although the empress Irene, the real ruler of the eastern empire, broke off the projected marriage between her son and Rothrude, she appears to have given very little assistance to Adalgis, whose attack on Italy was easily repulsed. During this visit Charles had presented certain towns to Adrian, but an estrangement soon arose between king and pope over the claim of Charles to confirm the election to the archbishopric of Ravenna, and it was accentuated by Adrian's objection to the establishment by Charles of Grimoald III.. as duke of Benevento, in succession to his father Arichis.
These journeys and campaigns, however, were but interludes in the long and stubborn struggle between Charles and the Saxons, which began in 772 and ended in 804 with the incorporation of Saxony in the Carolingian Empire (see Saxony). This contest, in which the king himself took a very active part, brought the Franks into collision with the Wiltzi, a tribe dwelling east of the Elbe, who in 789 was reduced to dependence. A similar sequence of events took place in southern Germany. Tassilo III., duke of the Bavarians, who had on several occasions adopted a line of conduct inconsistent with his allegiance to Charles, was deposed in 788 and his duchy placed under the rule of Gerold, a brotherin-law of Charles, to be governed on the Frankish system (see Bavaria). Having thus taken upon himself the control of Bavaria, Charles felt himself responsible for protecting its eastern frontier, which had long been menaced by the Avars, a people inhabiting the region now known as Hungary. He accordingly ravaged their country in 791 at the head of an army containing Saxon, Frisian, Bavarian and Alamannian warriors, which penetrated as far as the Raab; and he spent the following year in Bavaria preparing for a second campaign against them, the conduct of which, however, he was compelled by further trouble in Saxony to entrust to his son king Pippin, and to Eric, margrave of Friuli. These deputies succeeded in 795 and 796 in taking possession of the vast treasures of the Avars, which were distributed by the king with lavish generosity to churches, courtiers and friends. A conspiracy against Charles, which his friend and biographer Einhard alleges was provoked by the cruelties of Queen Fastrada, was suppressed without difficulty in 792, and its leader, the king's illegitimate son Pippin, was confined in a monastery till his death in 811. Fastrada died in August 794, when Charles took for his fourth wife an Alamannian lady named Liutgarde.
The continuous interest taken by the king in ecclesiastical affairs was shown at the synod of Frankfort, over which he presided in 794. It was on his initiative that this synod condemned the heresy of adoptianism and the worship of images, which had been restored in 787 by the second council of Nicaea; and at the same time that council was declared to have been superfluous. This policy caused a further breach with Pope Adrian; but when Adrian died in December 795, his successor, Leo III., in notifying his elevation to the king, sent him the keys of St Peter's grave and the banner of the city, and asked Charles to send an envoy to receive his oath of fidelity. There is no doubt that Leo recognized Charles as sovereign of Rome. He was the first pope to date his acts according to the years of the Frankish monarchy, and a mosaic of the time in the Lateran palace represents St Peter bestowing the banners upon Charles as a token of temporal supremacy, while the coinage issued by the pope bears witness to the same idea. Leo soon had occasion to invoke the aid of his protector. In 799, after he had been attacked and maltreated in the streets of Rome during a procession, he escaped to the king at Paderborn, and Charles sent him back to Italy escorted by some of his most trusted servants. Taking the same journey himself shortly afterwards, the king reached Rome in Boo for the purpose (as he declared) of restoring discipline in the church. His authority was undisputed; and after Leo had cleared himself by an oath of certain charges made against him, Charles restored the pope and banished his leading opponents.
The great event of this visit took place on the succeeding Christmas Day, when Charles on rising from prayer in St Peter's was crowned by Leo and proclaimed emperor and Augustus amid the acclamations of the crowd. This act can hardly have been unpremeditated, and some doubt has been cast upon the statement which Einhard attributes to Charles, that he would not have entered the building had he known of the intention of Leo. He accepted the dignity at any rate without demur, and there seems little doubt that the question of assuming, or obtaining, this title had previously been discussed. His policy had been steadily leading up to this position, which was rather the emblem of the power he already held than an extension of the area of his authority. It is probable therefore that Charles either considered the coronation premature, as he was hoping to obtain the assent of the eastern empire to this step, or that, from fear of evils which he foresaw from the claim of the pope to crown the emperor, he wished to crown himself. All the evidence tends to show that it was the time or manner of the act rather than the act itself which aroused his temporary displeasure. Contemporary accounts lay stress upon the fact that as there was then no emperor, Constantinople being under the rule of Irene, it seemed good to Leo and his counsellors and the " rest of the Christian people " to choose Charles, already ruler of Rome, to fill the vacant office.
However doubtful such conjectures concerning his intentions may be, it is certain that immediately after his coronation Charles sought to establish friendly relations with Constantinople, and even suggested a marriage between himself and Irene, as he had again become a widower in 800. The deposition and death of the empress foiled this plan; and after a desultory warfare in Italy between the two empires, negotiations were recommenced which in 810 led to an arrangement between Charles and the eastern emperor, Nicephorus I. The death of Nicephorus and the accession of Michael I. did not interfere with the relations, and in 812 an embassy from Constantinople arrived at Aix-la-Chapelle, when Charles was acknowledged as emperor, and in return agreed to cede Venice and Dalmatia to Michael.
Increasing years and accumulating responsibilities now caused the emperor to alter somewhat his manner of life. No longer leading his armies in person he entrusted the direction of campaigns in various parts of his empire to his sons and other lieutenants, and from his favourite residence at Aix watched their progress with a keen and sustained interest. In 802 he ordered that a new oath of fidelity to him as emperor should be taken by all his subjects over twelve years of age. In 804 he was visited by Pope Leo, who returned to Rome laden with gifts. Before his coronation as emperor, Charles had entered into communications with the caliph of Bagdad, Harun-al-Rashid, probably in order to protect the eastern Christians, and in 801 he had received an embassy and presents from Harun. In the same year the patriarch of Jerusalem sent him the keys of the Holy Sepulchre; and in 807 Harun not only sent further gifts, but appears to have confirmed the emperor's rights in Jerusalem, which, however, probably amounted to no more than an undefined protectorate over the Christians in that part of the world. While thus extending his influence even into Asia, there was scarcely any part of Europe where the power of Charles did not make itself felt.
He had not visited Spain since the disaster of Roncesvalles, but he continued to take a lively interest in the affairs of that country. In 798 he had concluded an alliance with Alphonso II., king of the Asturias, and a series of campaigns mainly under the leadership of King Louis resulted in the establishment of the " Spanish march," a district between the Pyrenees and the Ebro stretching from Pampeluna to Barcelona, as a defence against the Saracens. In 799 the Balearic Islands had been handed over to Charles, and a long warfare was carried on both by sea and land between Frank and Saracen until 810, when peace was made between the emperor and El-Hakem, the emir of Cordova. Italy was equally the scene of continuous fighting. Grimoald of Benevento rebelled against his overlord; the possession of Venice and Dalmatia was disputed by the two empires; and Istria was brought into subjection.
With England the emperor had already entered into relations, and at one time a marriage was proposed between his son Charles and a daughter of Offa, king of the Mercians. English exiles were welcomed at his court; he was mainly instrumental in restoring Eardwulf to the throne of Northumbria in 80 9; and Einhard includes the Scots within the sphere of his influence.
In eastern Europe the Avars had owned themselves completely under his power in 805; campaigns against the Czechs in 805 and 806 had met with some success, and about the same time the land of the Sorbs was ravaged; while at the western extremity of the continent the Breton nobles had done homage to Charles at Tours in 800. Thus the emperor's dominions now stretched from the Eider to the Ebro, and from the Atlantic to the Elbe, the Saale and the Raab, and they also included the greater part of Italy; while even beyond these bounds he exercised an acknowledged but shadowy authority. In 806 Charles arranged a division of his territories among his three legitimate sons, but this arrangement came to nothing owing to the death of Pippin in 810, and of the younger Charles in the following year. Charles then named his remaining son Louis as his successor; and at his father's command Louis took the crown from the altar and placed it upon his own head. This ceremony took place at Aix on the filth of September 813. In 808 the Frankish authority over the Obotrites was interfered with by Gudrod (Godfrey), king of the Danes, who ravaged the Frisian coasts and spoke boastfully of leading his troops to Aix. To ward off these attacks Charles took a warm interest in the building of a fleet, which he reviewed in 811; but by this time Gudrod had been killed, and his successor Hemming made peace with the emperor.
In 811 Charles made his will, which shows that he contemplated the possibility of abdication. The bulk of his possessions were left to the twenty-one metropolitan churches of his dominions, and the remainder to his children, his servants and the poor. In his last years he passed most of his days at Aix, though he had sufficient energy to take the field for a short time during the Danish War. Early in 814 he was attacked by a fever which he sought to subdue by fasting; but pleurisy supervened, and after partaking of the communion, he died on the 28th of January 814 in his beloved Aachen, and on the same day his body was buried in the church of St Mary at Aix. In the year 1000 his tomb was opened by the emperor Otto III., but the account that Otto found the body upright upon a throne with a golden crown on the head and holding a golden sceptre in the hands, is generally regarded as legendary. The tomb was again opened by the emperor Frederick I. in 1165, when the remains were removed from a marble sarcophagus and placed in a wooden coffin. Fifty years later they were transferred by order of the emperor Frederick II. to a splendid shrine, in which the relics are still exhibited once in every six years. The sarcophagus in which the body originally lay may still be seen at Aix, and other relics of the great emperor are in the imperial treasury at Vienna. In 1165 Charles was canonized by the antipope Paschal III. at the instance of the emperor Frederick I., and Louis XI. of France gave strict orders that the feast of the saint should be observed.
Charlemagne was succeeded by his surviving son, Louis, who had been crowned the previous year. His empire lasted only another generation in its entirety; its division, according to custom, between Louis's own sons after their father's death laid the foundation for the modern state of Germany.
The personal appearance of Charles is thus described by Germanic-Frankisch scholar Einhard from the German-speaking east of the empire: - "Big and robust in frame, he was tall, but not excessively so, measuring about seven of his own feet in height. His eyes were large and lustrous, his nose rather long and his countenance bright and cheerful." He had a commanding presence, a clear but somewhat feeble voice, and in later life became rather corpulent. His health was uniformly good, owing perhaps to his moderation in eating and drinking, and to his love for hunting and swimming. He was an affectionate father, and loved to pass his time in the company of his children, to whose education he paid the closest attention. His sons were trained for war and the chase, and his daughters instructed in the spinning of wool and other feminine arts. His ideas of sexual morality were primitive. Many concubines are spoken of, he had several illegitimate children, and the morals of his daughters were very loose. He was a regular observer of religious rites, took great pains to secure decorum in the services of the church, and was generous in almsgiving both within his empire and without.
He reformed the Frankish liturgy, and brought singers from Rome to improve the services of the church. He had considerable knowledge of theology, took a prominent part in the theological controversies of the time, and was responsible for the addition of the clause filioque to the Nicene Creed. The most attractive feature of his character, however, was his love of learning. In addition to his native tongue he could read Latin and understood Greek, but he was unable to write, and Einhard gives an account of his futile efforts to learn this art in later life. He loved the reading of histories and astronomy, and by questioning travellers gained some knowledge of distant parts of the earth. He attended lectures on grammar, and his favourite work was St Augustine's De civitate Dei, He caused Frankish sagas to be collected, began a grammar of his native tongue, and spent some of his last hours in correcting a text of the Vulgate. He delighted in the society of scholars - Alcuin, Angilbert, Paul the Lombard, Peter of Pisa and others, and in this company the trappings of rank were laid aside and the emperor was known simply as David. Under his patronage Alcuin organized the school of the palace, where the royal children were taught in the company of others, and founded a school at Tours which became the model for many other establishments. Charles was unwearying in his efforts to improve the education of clergy and laity, and in 789 ordered that schools should be established in every diocese.
The atmosphere of these schools was strictly ecclesiastical and the questions discussed by the scholars were often puerile, but the greatness of the educational work of Charles will not be doubted when one considers the rude condition of Frankish society half a century before. The main work of the Carolingian renaissance was to restore Latin to its position as a literary language, and to reintroduce a correct system of spelling and an improved handwriting. The manuscripts of the time are accurate and artistic, copies of valuable books were made and by careful collation the texts were purified.
Charles was not a great warrior. His victories were won rather by the power of organization, which he possessed in a marked degree, and he was eager to seize ideas and prompt in their execution. He erected a stone bridge with wooden piers across the Rhine at Mainz, and began a canal between the Altmiihl and the Rednitz to connect the Rhine and the Danube, but this work was not finished. He built palaces at Aix (his favourite residence), Nijmwegen and Ingelheim, and erected the church of St Mary at Aix, modelled on that of St Vitalis at Ravenna and adorned with columns and mosaics brought from the same city. He loved the simple dress and manners of the Franks, and on two occasions only did he assume the more stately attire of a Roman noble. The administrative system of Charles in church and state was largely personal, and he brought to the work an untiring industry, and a marvellous grasp of detail. He admonished the pope, appointed the bishops, watched over the morals and work of the clergy, and took an active part in the deliberations of church synods; he founded bishoprics and monasteries, was lavish in his gifts to ecclesiastical foundations, and chose bishops and abbots for administrative work. As the real founder of the ecclesiastical state, he must be held mainly responsible for the evils which resulted from the policy of the church in exalting the ecclesiastical over the secular authority.
In secular affairs Charles abolished the office of duke, placed counts over districts smaller than the former duchies, and supervised their government by means of missi dominici, officials responsible to himself alone. Marches were formed on all the borders of the empire, and the exigencies of military service led to the growth of a system of land-tenure which contained the germ of feudalism. The assemblies of the people gradually changed their character under his rule. No longer did the nation come together to direct and govern, but the emperor summoned his people to assent to his acts. Taking a lively interest in commerce and agriculture, Charles issued various regulations for the organization of the one and the improvement of the other. He introduced a new system of weights and measures, which he ordered should be used throughout his kingdom, and took steps to reform the coinage. He was a voluminous lawgiver. Without abolishing the customary law of the German tribes, which is said to have been committed to writing by his orders, he added to it by means of capitularies, and thus introduced certain Christian principles and customs, and some degree of uniformity.
The extent and glamour of his empire exercised a potent spell on western Europe. The aim of the greatest of his successors was to restore it to its pristine position and influence, while many of the French rulers made its re-establishment the goal of their policy. Otto the Great to a considerable extent succeeded; Louis XIV. referred frequently to the empire of Charlemagne; and Napoleon regarded him as his prototype and predecessor. The empire of Charles, however, was not lasting. In spite of his own wonderful genius the seeds of weakness were sown in his lifetime. The church was too powerful, an incipient feudalism was present, and there was no real bond of union between the different races that acknowledged his authority. All the vigilance of the emperor could not restrain the dishonesty and the cupidity of his servants, and no sooner was the strong hand of their ruler removed than they began to acquire territorial power for themselves.
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Charlemagne
- Encyclopedia Britannica 1911 Edition: Charlemagne
- Encyclopedia.com: Charlemagne
- Bryce, D.C.L., James, The Holy Roman Empire, Macmillan, London, New Edition, 1915.
- Heer, Friedrich, Charlemagne and his World, BCA-Purnell, London, 1975.
- Becher, Matthias, Charlemagne, Yale University Press, 2003, ISBN:0-300-09796-4
- Barbero, Alessandro, Charlemagne - Father of a Continent, Folio, London, 2008.