The History Makers: Charlemagne |

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The History Makers: Charlemagne

A man of war, scholarship and deep faith, Charlemagne is the king who united western Europe in battle, and fused it for a millennium with religion and a thriving renaissance, writes Jonny Wilkes
GOLDEN KING A 14th-century bust of Charlemagne – the divine ruler of medieval Europe – in Aachen Cathedral


Christmas Day in AD 800, and the powerful King of the Franks and Lombards, Charlemagne, is celebrating mass in Rome. Kneeling at the altar in the majestic setting of St Peter’s Basilica, he is about to rise from his prayers when, seemingly unexpectedly, Pope Leo III approaches the monarch, places a crown on his head and proclaims him Imperator Romanorum – ‘Emperor of the Romans’.

In many ways, the act shouldn’t have been all that surprising. Charlemagne was the most powerful man in Europe, having spent three decades building a domain the likes of which had not been seen since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century AD. He introduced sweeping reforms, centralised control, encouraged an intellectual renaissance and spread Christianity (although rarely peacefully). As a deeply pious man, he had proved himself a committed protector of papal authority and lands, and Leo owed his very life to Charlemagne’s recent intervention and support. Yet, if the story is to be believed, the Frankish King had no idea what the Pope was intending, or how important it would be to his legacy.

That moment on Christmas Day – the coronation of Charlemagne (or Charles the Great) as the first Holy Roman Emperor – has since been described as one of the most seismic events in European history. It laid the foundations for the continent we know today and ensured that the legend of Charlemagne would never be forgotten.

The details of his early life, however, may never be known. It is thought he was born in the AD 740s, either in Liege or Aachen (present-day Belgium and Germany respectively), but these are estimations. Even Einhard, a respected scholar of Charlemagne’s court, admits that: “It would be folly, I think, to write a word concerning Charles’s birth and infancy, or even his boyhood, for nothing has been written on the subject, and there is no-one alive now who can give information on it.” He was the son of Pippin III, who was Mayor of the Palace to the Merovingian Dynasty – the toothless rulers of the Franks. Although he was only an official, Pippin actually wielded far greater power and influence than the ‘do-nothing’ Merovingian kings (see Europe before Charlemagne, right), resulting, in AD 751, with him seizing the throne for himself. By the time of his death in AD 768, Pippin passed on a great kingdom to his sons, Carloman and Charlemagne.

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The January 2016 issue of History Revealed