It has been said that if you are of vaguely European descent, you are almost certainly related to Charlemagne. In fact, due to maths calculations, you are probably related to pretty much anyone alive in ninth century Europe who left descendants. As this week’s blog post was delayed because I took a trip to Germany, I thought I would do something vaguely related to Germany, and Charlemagne was one of the first things that popped to mind due to his fame.

Charlemagne lived between c. 747 and c. 814. He became joint Frankish King in 768 upon the death of his father, and once his brother and co-King, Carloman, died suddenly in 771, Charlemagne became sole ruler. Charlemagne then went on to expand his kingdom through several military campaigns in his early reign, and these were successful; by 800 he had conquered many territories including Saxony, northern Italy, northern Spain and Bohemia. During this expansion, Charlemagne began to plan for his children’s future, crowning one of his sons, Carloman, King of Italy in 781, and in the same year he made another son, Louis, King of Aquitaine. Charlemagne retained ultimate control of these kingdoms, with the plan being that his sons would fully receive their positions upon his death, and he was ready to take away control as quickly as he gave it – in 792 he banished his eldest son to a monastery after he had joined a rebellion against Charlemagne.

Charlemagne with his eldest son, Pippin the Hunchback, whom he banished in 792. 10th century copy of a lost original, which was made between 829 and 836.

Charlemagne’s wars and conquests were vast, and for full details of all his conquering, Wikipedia has quite extensive details. In this, Charlemagne’s numerous sons came in use, as he was able to use them to head different campaigns for him, allowing him to focus on vast expanses of land.

Charlemagne’s focus was not purely military, however, as he was a pious Catholic. Not only did he ensure the conversion to Christianity of areas he conquered, but he had close ties to the papacy, culminating in his eventual crowning as the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800. In 799, Pope Leo III was taking part in the procession of the Greater Litanies when he was attacked by a body of armed men sent by a number of relatives of his predecessor, Pope Adrian I. They tried to rip out his tongue and eyes in an attempt to render him unfit to hold his office. He was left injured and unconscious, but was rescued by some of Charlemagne’s men and came into his protection.  Charlemagne managed to return Pope Leo to Rome in late 800, and at mass on Christmas Day, Leo crowned Charlemagne Imperator Romanorum (“Emperor of the Romans”). After Charlemagne, the title of Holy Roman Emperor eventually became German-centric. The German princes would elect one of their peers as “King of the Germans”, and then he would be crowned as emperor by the Pope.

Charlemagne’s coronation as Roman Emperor, Friedrich Kaulbach, 1861.

Charlemagne had a long lasting impact across much of Europe. His conquests, and the subsequent division of his kingdom between his descendants, led to the foundations of modern day France and Germany. He made significant monetary reform during his reign by abandoning the previous system of gold standard and changing to a silver standard. This introduced the new standard of the livre carolinienne (from the Latin libra, the modern pound), which was based upon a pound of silver. This pound was worth 20 sous (later shillings) or 240 deniers (later pennies).

Charlemagne’s court was also famous for being a hub of education and culture. His sons were trained in riding and weaponry, and his daughters learnt embroidery, spinning and weaving – but crucially, he encouraged his daughters to be educated as well as his sons. He extended this reverence for learning to his wider court, and the era his reign began has often been referred to as the Carolingian Renaissance because of the blossoming of literature, art, architecture and scholarship. Because of Charlemagne’s vast conquests, his kingdom was brought into contact with the culture and learning of many other countries, such as England, Italy, and Moorish Spain. This led to an increase in monastic schools and book-copying centres in his kingdom. The Carolingian scholars copied and preserved most of the copies of works of classical Latin that we still have today. Despite the culture of learning that Charlemagne encouraged, and participated in himself, he was unable to write, and it has been questioned whether he was able to read or not. This does not mean he was not intelligent, however; he would listen to reading or music during his meals, and was particularly fond of St Augustine’s books. As well as his native language, which was probably a dialect of Old High German, Charlemagne could also speak Latin and understood Greek. An account written three centuries after his death also suggested that he could speak Arabic, though there is no contemporary evidence for this.

The “Throne of Charlemagne” in Aachen Cathedral that he erected in the 790s. Until 1531, it served as the coronation throne of the Kings of Germany, being used at a total of thirty-one coronations.

Charlemagne was particularly tall for his era, measuring probably 6 foot or slightly taller – the average height for a male at his time was 5 foot 7. Einhard gives a charming description of Charlemagne in his biography after death:

“He was heavily built, sturdy, and of considerable stature, although not exceptionally so, since his height was seven times the length of his own foot. He had a round head, large and lively eyes, a slightly larger nose than usual, white but still attractive hair, a bright and cheerful expression, a short and fat neck, and he enjoyed good health, except for the fevers that affected him in the last few years of his life. Towards the end, he dragged one leg. Even then, he stubbornly did what he wanted and refused to listen to doctors, indeed he detested them, because they wanted to persuade him to stop eating roast meat, as was his wont, and to be content with boiled meat.”

Einhard tells us that Charlemagne dressed in the traditional costume of the Frankish people, scorning rich, elaborate dress, and preferring to dress as ‘common people’. He wore “a linen shirt and linen breeches, and above these a tunic fringed with silk; while hose fastened by bands covered his lower limbs, and shoes his feet, and he protected his shoulders and chest in winter by a close-fitting coat of otter or marten skins” as well as a blue cloak, and he always carried a sword with him. He did recognise the need for dressing grandly from time to time, and on great feast days he would wear embroidery and jewels on his clothing and shoes. He had a golden buckle for his cloak and would wear his great diadem at such times.
Reliquiary of Charlemagne in Aachen Cathedral treasure

Charlemagne had 18 children, both legitimate and illegitimate, and his descendants founded several royal dynasties including the Habsburgs, Capetians, and Plantagenets. He changed the face of Europe, and in many European languages, the word for ‘king’ even derives from his name. He was buried in Aachen Cathedral, which he had begun building around 796. He was clearly an interesting and complex character, simultaneously a warmonger, a scholar, and a devoted Catholic. When he died, his empire encompassed much of Western Europe, and he had also ensured the survival of Christianity in the West. Today, Charlemagne is often referred to as the father of Europe which, as the beginning of this post points out, is pretty much true!


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