Capable Men of History: Charlemagne

From the years 768 to 814 BC, Charlemagne was the emperor who controlled and ruled a large part of medieval Western Europe. Today, he is also called Karl and Charles the Great. He was also the king of the Franks, which was a German-based tribe living in what we know today as Belgium, the Netherlands, western German, France, and Luxembourg.

Charlemagne’s life mission was to engage in warfare so that he could unite all the German people, rule over them in a single kingdom, and make sure that his subjects all converted to Christianity. He was skilled in military strategy, and most of his ruling years were spent in war.


He was crowned Charlemagne, the emperor of the Romans, by Pope Leo III in the year 800. Within this role, he supported the Carolingian Renaissance, which was an intellectual and cultural revival located mostly in Europe. Of all the capable men in history, Peter the Great was also one that aimed for a cultural revolution among other goals.

Until his death in 814, Charlemagne ruled over most of Western Europe and other areas. His efforts ensured that Christianity would survive for a long time in these western regions. Some even refer to him today as ‘The Father of Europe’.

Early Life


Charlemagne was born in 742 or thereabouts. His parents were known as Pepin the Short and Bertrada of Laon. Pepin the Short became the king of Franks in 751. While it’s not exactly known where Charlemagne was born, historians estimate it to be locations like Liege or Aachen. These are in Belgium and Germany respectively.

We also don’t know much about the childhood or education of this ruler. However, once he was an adult, it was evident that he had a knack for learning languages. He could understand Greek, speak Latin, and also converse in several different languages.

After Charlemagne’s father passed away in 768, his Franks kingdom came to his two sons. One was Charlemagne and the other was Carloman, his younger brother. The two brothers didn’t get on very well, but Carloman passed away a few years later in 771. After that, Charlemagne was the only surviving ruler of the Franks.

Charlemagne’s Empire


This empire was to be the only one to ever bring Germany and France together under one rule, with just Napoleon managing this feat for a few years. Charlemagne established the empire in the 8th century. When he died in 814, he had managed to unify most of Germany and northern Italy as well.

King of the Lombards

King of the Lombards

Charlemagne started a campaign in the early years of his rule; his aim for that was to take control of northern Italy. The pope collaborated with him in the venture. In 772, the pope Adrain I wanted Charlemagne to carry out Italian campaigns like Pepin the Short had done during his lifetime. Charlemagne was able to invade the Lombards in both 773 and 774. His victories earned him a large extension in the empire as well as his own new position as the king of the Lombards.

The Saxon’s Conversion    

The Saxon’s Conversion

Charlemagne also worked on extending his empire to the east. He did manage to take over Bavaria; however, his focus was more on making the Saxons in Germany convert to Christianity.

The Saxons were Germanic tribesmen who were an active lot and frequently harassed the Franks in their territories. They would usually take sanctuary in the forests and perform raids on the Franks. From 772 to 804, Charlemagne sought to deal with the pagan action of the Saxons. He did this by waging war on the, destroying a major shrine, one that contained the Irminsul, almost known as ‘the pillar of the world’. According to the Saxons’ beliefs, this large wooden pillar was supposed to provide support to the whole universe.

The struggle against the Saxons took around three decades until the tribe was subdued. Finally, in 804, most of the Saxons had been converted to Christianity and settled down in Charlemagne’s empire. The process was not a peaceful one, as the ruler’s method was mainly military conquests, forced conversions, and several missionary outposts or bishoprics. One of his rules was that anyone who refused baptism was to be officially sentenced and put to death. According to the historical records, around 4,500 Saxons were executed for their refusal to accept Christianity.

The 778 Crusade    


While Charlemagne had several successful campaigns, his first unsuccessful one was in liberating northern Spain from Muslim control. In 732, Charlemagne’s own grandfather, Charles Martel, had success nearby Tours, so he was inspired to do the same. In fact, Charlemagne’s invasion was invited by some Muslims who were against the then-caliph in Cordoba at that point.

To this end, Charlemagne started marching south in the year 778. He besieged Pamplona and overtook it, but wasn’t able to conquer Saragossa. Without having achieved anything much, he had to retreat back. At the pass of Roncesvalles, he encountered an attack at the rear of his army. Historical records aren’t clear about whether the attackers were the Gascons or the Basques.

The Title of Holy Roman Emperor

The Title of Holy Roman Emperor

In 800, Charlemagne was given the title of Holy Roman Emperor by the pope of that time. At this point, this was the third time in 50 years that a pope needed help from the King of the Franks.  In this particular event, he had suffered from physical attacks from enemies in the Roman streets. The intention of the attackers was to blind the pope and cut his tongue out so that he would be unable to keep his office. This is the reason why Leo III braved the Alps in order to pay Charlemagne a visit at Paderborn.

The exact agreement is unknown, but Charlemagne agreed to provide his support. Leo was supposed to anoint the son of Charlemagne in St Peter’s on Christmas Day, but he unexpectedly puts the crown on the ruler’s head instead and declares him emperor. While Charlemagne acted displeased, he did accept the honor. In any case, the reaction was a diplomatic one, as the legal emperor was in Constantinople. This action showed the status of political power within the west, launching the new Holy Roman Empire that will have a pivotal role in the Middle Ages. The official title of Charlemagne then was ‘Charles, most serene Augustus, crowned by God, great and pacific emperor, governing the Roman empire.’

Aachen as the Chosen City

Aachen as the Chosen City

Charlemagne’s chosen seat of power was Aachen, which sat directly opposite to Rome.  This was an ideal site for the united Frankish empire. It was right in the middle of the west and east kingdoms of the Franks.

Charlemagne was short and a bit stocky; he was also sometimes described as having a large belly in later years. Nevertheless, he was still a man with high energy and very interested in athletic activities. He liked hunting, swimming, and horseback riding, all of which were available in this city. Aachen was also attractive to him due to the therapeutic springs it had.

Establishing a Center of Learning

Establishing a Center of Learning

At Aachen, Charlemagne also focused on improving his empire’s administration. He thus enlisted the Christina clerics, who were the sole literate people in the north, as civil servants in the city. He thus established Aachen as a center of cultural revival and Christian learning.

A teacher based in York was invited to start a school in the Aachen palace in 780. This teacher, named Alcuin, also began manuscript copying, with the beautiful script later becoming the base for regular Roman type or the English alphabet we know today. This renewal and revival of artistic and intellectual life under the rule of Charlemagne would later be called the Carolingian Renaissance.

Death and Heirs

Death and Heirs

Charlemagne was in relatively good health until the last four years. At this point he started suffering from fevers and limping. However, he still hated doctors and ignored their advice to quit roasted meat. In 813, he made his son Louis the Pious a co-emperor. When Charlemagne passed away at the start of 814, after a reign of over 40 years, his son became the sole emperor of the empire. Afterwards, the land was divided among other heirs and had dissolved by the end of the 800s.

To this date, Charlemagne is still a legendary figure, with many myths and legends being woven around him. Under the rule of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, Charlemagne was even canonized in 1165 due to some political reasons. However, he is not recognized as a saint by any church today.  There have also been songs, especially the Song of Roland, written about Charlemagne and his achievements.


Charlemagne is a well-known name today, with his actions and life serving as inspiration for several world leaders after him. Two of the most notable examples of this are Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler. Both had goals of ruling over a united Europe with every citizen following a single ideology. From these examples, it’s evident that Charlemagne had a great impact on the modern world as we know it today.