Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, was king of the Franks between 768 and 814, and emperor of the West between 800 and 814. He founded the Holy Roman Empire, strengthened European economic and political life, and promoted the cultural revival known as the Carolingian Renaissance. Charlemagne's rule greatly influenced Europe's push to create a unique civilization different from thatof Rome or other ancient empires.
Early life.- Charlemagne, the son of Pepin the Short and Bertrada, was born in 742. Although his parents married before his brother Carloman was born, they were not legally married at the time of Charlemagne's birth, and he was thus thought to be illegitimate (born out of wedlock). In 741 Pepin had become mayor of the palace, and in 751 he deposed (removed fromoffice) the last Merovingian king and was declared king of the Franks, a powerful Germanic tribe that lived in the region today known as France. Little is known about Charlemagne's childhood. In 754, however, he participated in the ceremony where Pope Stephen II appointed Pepin king. Charlemagne also joined Pepin on many military campaigns.
When Pepin died in October 768, Charlemagne and Carlomanwere both proclaimed king and were to rule the kingdom together. In the division of the realm, however, Carloman received a larger and richer portion. Under these circumstances relations between the brothers turned sour. But Carloman died unexpectedly in 771, leaving Charlemagne the sole ruler of the entire kingdom.
Territorial expansion.- Charlemagne moved aggressively, especially in Italy, toremove those who threatened his power. He immediately attacked and defeated King Desiderius of the Lombards. Shortly thereafter Charlemagne was crowned king of the Lombards at Pavia.
The Frankish conquest of Italy—first of Lombardy in the north and later Benevento in the south—brought new wealth and people into his kingdom.
During his Italian operations Charlemagne also declared war againstthe Saxons, a Germanic tribe who threatened the northeastern frontier of Francia. Begun in 772, this cruel and bitter war finally ended in 804. Francia absorbed the land of Saxony and enforced the Christian religion on the Saxon tribes.
On his eastern frontier Charlemagne defeated Tassilo, the duke of Bavaria. To his empire Charlemagne added the Bavarian duchy, or territory controlled by a duke.He divided the western portion of the duchy into counties, each controlled by a count loyal to the king.
Further to the east the major power and ultimate threat to the Frankish realm was the vast Slavic kingdom of the Avars, or Huns, an Asiatic tribe that had settled along the upper Danube River. Between 791 and 795 Charlemagne crushed the power of the Avars and added their kingdom as a state.This victory opened the entire Danubian Plain to German colonization and the eastern expansion of Christianity—the beginning of the Drang nach Osten, or push to the East.
Holy Roman Empire.- By 800 Charlemagne had succeeded in greatly extending his power while crushing several enemies. He ruled all of the Christianized western provinces, except the British Isles, that had once been part of theRoman Empire. As the sworn protector of the Church, Charlemagne was in fact the political master of Rome itself. The papacy, or office of the pope, also recognized Charlemagne's power. The pope crowned Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, 800.
Charlemagne attempted to create unity and harmony within his vast realm and to support laws and promote learning that would achieve his goals ofthe empire. Charlemagne, in contrast to his Merovingian predecessors (who constantly traveled throughout their realms) attempted to create a fixed capital to rival that of Byzantium, an ancient culture legendary for its beauty and wealth.
A closer look at Charlemagne.- The major record of Charlemagne's personal achievements is the Vita Caroli Magni, the first medieval biography. Written by...