Charlemagne (742-814), also known as Carolus Magnus or Charles the Great, was King of the Franks (771-814) and the Western Emperor (or Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (800-814). He was also the greatest ruler of the Carolingian Dynasty.
When we say that he ruled the Franks, we mean that he ruled the area that is now France, Belgium, the Netherlands and part of Germany. When we say that he ruled the Holy Roman Empire, we mean that he ruled France, Belgium, the Netherlands, all of Germany, and northern Spain. Thus he ended up ruling most of Christian Western Europe.
During his reigns, Charlemagne was often at war against neighboring Christian kingdoms: he defeated the Saxons (772-804), he subdued and was crowned king of the Lombards of northern Italy (773-774) and he fought against the Moors (Arabs) in Spain (778).
In the battles against the Moors at Roncevalles, Spain, one of Charlemagne’s warriors, Roland, was killed heroically in battle. This inspired the great poem, the Chanson de Roland.
Charlemagne spent the remaining years of his reigns consolidating his military gains. He founded a capital and royal court at Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) in what is now Germany.
Charlemagne forced the peoples he conquered to become Christians. For example, in 785, he prescribed death for any of the Saxons he conquered who refused to be baptized. For this reason, he gained the support of Pope Leo III, who gave him the imperial title of the Holy Roman Emperor. Charlemagne was crowned as the Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 800.
Interestingly, despite his wars against the Moors in Spain, Charlemagne was to maintain friendly relations with Muslim countries in the East. In 798 the caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid, sent ambassadors to Charlemagne bearing a celebrated gift of a white elephant.
Charlemagne’s method of governing his empire was to divide it among his counts and bishops, who each given both land and the power to control the lives of the people who lived on that land. These counts and bishops in turn had to pledge allegiance to the emperor and fight for him in battle. This system of government, called feudalism, prevailed all over Europe until the time of the French Revolution.
Charlemagne presided over a revival of learning in his realms, that has often been termed the Carolingian Renaissance. He promoted education, architecture, the arts, manufacturing, commerce, better administration and good laws.
Education was promoted via Latin learning taught at cathedral and monastic schools. Notable architectural achievements included beautiful new palaces and churches.
Many of the greatest scholars of the age, such as the Anglo-Saxon, Alcuin of York, were invited to come to Charlemagne’s court at Aachen. Liturgical and scriptural texts were purified and appeared in new editions. Charlemagne himself knew Latin and Greek and wrote letters and poems that have survived to this day.
Charlemagne’s life and achievements were renowned in his day and became the subject of legends and literary works.