Charlemagne (Charles the Great) is one of the most influential figures in French and European history of the early medieval time. He was a skilled military commander and a shrewd politician. His reign from 768 to 814 AD marked the set up of the Carolingian Empire that replaced the Roman Empire in the Western parts of Europe. Its successor (although with a smaller territory limited to so-called West Francia) was the Kingdom of France and consequently after the French Revolution the present French Republic.
Statue of Charlemagne standing at the front of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.
Charlemagne was not the first ruler of the united realm of Franks. Before him for around 400 years, Frankish kings united and ruled descendants of Germanic, Gaul and Roman people. The Franks were a Germanic tribe that migrated to the area that is now modern-day France in the 3rd century AD. Over time, they intermarried and assimilated with the local Gallo-Roman population. Although having different roots ‘Frankish’ people seemingly developed a common language and seemed to be a coherent nation for the outsiders. Charlemagne himself was of Frankish descent, but he saw himself as a ruler of all the peoples within his empire, regardless of their ethnic background. He encouraged the use of Latin as a unifying language, and his court was open to scholars, artists, and intellectuals from across the continent.
During his reign, Charlemagne extended by far the Frankish territories. He led numerous military campaigns and conquered many territories, including parts of modern-day France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Spain, and even parts of Hungary. This way, he was able to convince the pope (head of the Catholic Church, who that time in history had much political power in Western Europe) to crown him (800 AD). He became the first recognized emperor in Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Technically, he was already ruling an empire, but the papal ‘blessing’ gave him the ultimate power. This coronation was, however, to the detriment of relations between Rome (Western Europe) and Constantinople (South-Eastern Europe). On the other hand, the coronation of Charlemagne by the pope was not without controversy, as it raised questions about the relationship between church and state, and about the role of the pope in political affairs. However, despite these concerns, Charlemagne’s reign as Holy Roman Emperor helped to establish a strong tradition of cooperation between the Catholic Church and secular rulers in Western Europe.
Charlemagne was married several times over the course of his life, and he had a total of at least 18 children. Charlemagne’s first recorded marriage was to a Frankish noblewoman named Himiltrude, with whom he had a son named Pepin the Hunchback. After this marriage was dissolved, Charlemagne married a Lombard princess named Desiderata, but this marriage was also annulled. His next marriage was to a Frankish noblewoman named Hildegard, who became his main wife and with whom he had nine children, including three sons who would go on to become kings: Charles the Younger, Pepin of Italy, and Louis the Pious. In addition to his legitimate children, Charlemagne also had several children born out of wedlock, although little is known about them. One of his most famous illegitimate sons was Roland, who was later celebrated in medieval epic poetry and song.
Charlemagne died in 814 AD at the age of 72, and he was buried in the city of Aachen. After Charlemagne’s death, his empire was divided among his heirs. Charlemagne himself did not have a clear plan for succession, and he did not designate a single heir to the throne. Instead, he divided his empire among his three sons, with Charles the Younger receiving the western Frankish lands, Louis the Pious receiving the eastern Frankish lands, and Pepin of Italy receiving the Italian lands. The Empire was weakened by succession struggles, Viking invasions, and other external pressures. Eventually it evolved into a series of smaller, more localized kingdoms.