Photo of Charlemagne on grounds of Notre-Dame
Taken August 2007


Who Was Charlemagne?

Charlemagne, in Latin Carolus Magnus (Charles the Great) (742-814), king of the Franks (768-814) and Emperor of the Romans (800-14), who led his Frankish armies to victory over numerous other peoples and established his rule in most of western and central Europe. He was the best-known and most influential king in Europe in the Middle Ages.

Early Years

Charlemagne was born probably in Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle), on April 2, 742, the son of the Frankish king Pepin the Short and the grandson of Charles Martel. In 751 Pepin dethroned the last Merovingian king and assumed the royal title himself. He was crowned by Pope Stephen II in 754. Besides anointing Pepin, Pope Stephen anointed both Charlemagne and his younger brother Carloman.

Within the year Pepin invaded Italy to protect the pope against the Lombards, and in 756 he again had to rush to the pope's aid. From 760 on, Pepin's main military efforts went into the conquest of Aquitaine, the lands south of the Loire River. Charlemagne accompanied his father on most of these expeditions.


When Pepin died in 768, the rule of his realms was to be shared between his two sons. Charlemagne sought an alliance with the Lombards by marrying (770) the daughter of their king, Desiderius (reigned 757-774). In 771 Carloman diedsuddenly. Charlemagne then seized his territories, but Carloman's heirs took refuge at the court of Desiderius. By that time Charlemagne had repudiated his wife, and Desiderius was no longer friendly. In 772, when Pope Adrian I appealed to Charlemagne for help against Desiderius, the Frankish king invaded Italy, deposed his erstwhile father-in-law (774), and himself assumed the royal title. He then journeyed to Rome and reaffirmed his father's promise to protect papal lands. As early as 772 Charlemagne had fought onslaughts of the heathen Saxons on his lands. Buoyed by his Italian success, he now (775) embarked on a campaign to conquer and Christianize them. That campaign had some initial success but was to drag on for 30 years, in which time he conducted many other campaigns as well. He fought in Spain in 778; on the return trip his rear guard, led by Roland, was ambushed, a story immortalized in The Song of Roland. In 788 he subjected the Bavarians to his rule, and between 791 and 796 Charlemagne's armies conquered the empire of the Avars (corresponding roughly to modern Hungary and Austria).


Having thus established Frankish rule over so many other> peoples, Charlemagne had in fact built an empire and become an emperor. It remained only for him to add the title. On Christmas Day, in 800, Charlemagne knelt to pray in Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome. Pope Leo III then placed a crown upon his head, and the people assembled in the church acclaimed him the great, pacific emperor of the Romans. Charlemagne's biographer, Einhard, reported that the king was surprised by this coronation and that had he known it was going to happen, he would not have gone into the church that day. This report has led to much speculation by historians. Charlemagne probably desired and expected to get the imperial title and he subsequently used it. In 813 he designated his sole surviving son, Louis, as his successor, and personally crowned him.


Charlemagne established a more permanent royal capital than had any of his predecessors. His favorite residence from 794 on was at Aix-la-Chapelle. He had a church and a palace constructed there, based in part on architectural borrowings from Ravenna and Rome. At his court he gathered scholars from all over Europe, the most famous being the English cleric Alcuin of York, whom he placed in charge of the palace school. Administration of the empire was entrusted to some 250 royal administrators called counts. Charlemagne issued hundreds of decrees, called capitularies, dealing with a broad range of topics from judicial and military matters to monasteries, education, and the management of royal estates. The empire did not expand after 800; indeed, already in the 790s the seacoasts and river valleys experienced the first, dreaded visits of the Vikings. Charlemagne ordered a special watch against them in every harbor, but with little effect. He died before their full, destructive force was unleashed on the empire.


Charlemagne is important not only for the number of his victories and the size of his empire, but for the special blend of tradition and innovation that he represented. On the one hand, he was a traditional Germanic warrior, who spent most of his adult life fighting. In the Saxon campaigns he imposed baptism by the sword, and he retaliated against rebels with merciless slaughter. On the other hand, he placed his immense power and prestige at the service of Christian doctrine, the monastic life, the teaching of Latin, the copying of books, and the rule of law. His life, held up as a model to most later kings, thus embodied the fusion of Germanic, Roman, and Christian cultures that became the basis of European civilization.

Source: Généalogie des Rois de France - ÉditionsOuest-France - 2000

© Lucie LeBlanc Consentino
Acadian & French Canadian Ancestral Home
1998 - Present

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