Aachen cathedral interior
Interior of the Aachen Cathedral (Aachener Dom aka cathédrale d'Aix-la-Chapelle);
construction began in the late eighth century; it is the burial place of Charlemagne; photo credit Kasey Bateman

The groundwork for the eventual successes of Charlemagne was laid by Charles "The Hammer" Martel (Carolus Martellus aka Karl Martell, 714-41) who was able to turn back a Muslim raiding party at the battle of Tours/Poitiers. (See, Anonymous Arab Chronicler, The Battle of Tours (Poitiers), in 732 CE. Though a relatively minor skirmish at the time, it proved to be of crucial, long-term importance as it ended the Muslim advance into Western Europe and stabilized the Frankish kingdom.

"The Hammer" was a Frank, one of a handful of barbarian, Germanic tribes that circulated through northern Europe as the Roman Empire disappeared. The most important Frankish king was Clovis I (Chlodovechus aka Hlodowig, 481-511) who accepted Christianity and was baptized in 496. Clovis I established a small Frankish kingdom that waxed and waned in size over time--one problem was that the kings frequently divided up the kingdom amongst all heirs, and this led to repeated fragmentation.

Note: When giving dates for kings, it is usual practice to give dates of rule/reign, not birth-death.

In time, power became vested in the man who held the office of mayor of the palace (maior palatii). The Hammer's father, as mayor of the palace, had manged to consolidate lands in what would be considered today northwestern France. Through an alliance with the church (material aid in return for territorial growth and conversion of pagans into Christians), the kingdom began to expand in size. Charles' son, Pepin the short (Pippin der Kurze aka Pépin le Bref, 751-768), deposed the actual king and was crowned and later anointed king of the Franks by Pope Stephen II. On Pepin's death, the kingdom was divided, and when Carloman I died in 771, Charlemagne became sole king.

Note: The Carolingian dynasty got is name from its founder, Charles Martel, grandfather of Charlemagne.

Charlemagne (Carolus Magnus aka Charles the Great aka Karl der Große aka Charles I, 742-814, reigned 768-814) was probably the most important figure to emerge in Europe after the fall of the Western Roman empire.  (He was also one of the first figures about whom we have relatively detailed personal information.  See, for example, The Monk of Saint Gall (Notker the Stammerer), The Life of Charlemagne, c. 883/4.)  Charlemagne was the first leader able to restore some semblance of political unity to Europe since the fourth century; and, in fact, both his title of "Emperor" and that of his empire, "the Holy Roman Empire," indicated Charlemagne's intent to continue to uphold the traditions of Ancient Rome.

To accomplish control of Europe--Charlemagne never controlled all of Europe--he made use of an alliance with the Church. The Church provided Charlemagne with monetary and spiritual support ("obey the emperor or you will rot in hell") in return for Charlemagne's willingness to spread Christianity to newly conquered areas (often forcibly), which he did.  Charlemagne was also responsible for a rebirth of widespread intellectual activity in Western Europe, which is sometimes called the Carolingian Renaissance.

To bring most of Europe under the control of one man meant a lifetime of war, and Charlemagne was a great warrior.  (See, Einhard, The Wars of Charlemagne, excerpts from the Life of Charlemagne.)  His army came from a levy of knights who received land from the king in return for service. His deeds lived on in many epics, especially the Song of Roland.  This chanson de geste (or tale of glory), dating from the eleventh century, and recounting one of the battles of Charlemagne's reign, later became the French national epic and a symbol of "Frenchedness." He fought almost everywhere in Europe, and conquered all. That military success created a giant empire spanning most of continental Europe.

On Christmas day 800, Pope Leo III crowned him "Karolus serenissimus Augustus a Deo coronatus magnus pacificus imperator Romanum gubernans imperium" (Charles, most serene Augustus crowned by God, the great, peaceful emperor ruling the Roman empire), i.e., Roman emperor. This symbolized the revival of the power of Rome, but, more importantly for future developments in western Europe, the re-creation of the emperor indicated that there were now two contenders for ultimate power in western Europe, emperor and pope. The power struggle would play out over the ensuing centuries.

At this time, the pope was extremely weak, and he needed Charlemagne's political and military support to stay in office. Charlemagne really didn't need anything from the pope--Charlemagne already pretty much controlled the church throughout his empire--and we can only wonder about Charlemagne's thoughts about the pope trying to indicate that it was the pope that was more powerful, since it was the pope placing the crown on Charlemagne.

The Carolingian Renaissance is the name given to the revival of learning associated with Charlemagne. The emperor needed literate men to manage and run his empire, and so he brought Alcuin of York (735-804) from England to set up a palace school. Charlemagne also asserted control over the church and instructed that all monks would henceforth be subject to the rule of St. Benedict. Monks also set up schools and began to copy manuscripts.

But the empire did not long remain united after Charlemagne's death. There was not a dynamic warrior king to keep it all together.  (See The Ordinance of Louis the Pious dividing the empire in 817.)
Charlemagne's sons (Charles and Pepin) died leaving Louis the Pious (814-40) as king--he dealt with repeated civil wars as his sons vied for control of the empire. The civil continued after the death of Louis the Pious and was only resolved by the Treaty of Verdun (843) which divided the empire into three kingdoms. The ensuing Viking raids added to further difficulties for the kingdoms. Charlemagne's empire proved to be too big for its time.


Some recommended online lecture and websites:

This page is copyright © 2008-20, C.T. Evans
For information contact