Charlemagne Legendary King “Charles was large and strong, and of lofty stature… his appearance was always stately and dignified… His gait was firm, his whole carriage was manly …” -Einhard, Life of Charlemagne (1) In a time of chaos, one ruler arose to unite most of the western regions of the fallen Roman Empire. That ruler was Charles, king of the Frank s. While the unity he forged soon gave way to chaos after his death, he lived on as a legendary figure. He captivated the medieval mind as the strong Christian emperor Charles the Great, or Charlemagne. (2) Charlemagne ruled the Frankish Kingdom, which had emerged a couple of centuries earlier. Around the year 500 a man named Clovis gained power over the Germanic Tribe – the Franks. Clovis was the first Germanic ruler to convert to Christianity and he used Christianity to unite all of the Frankish tribes. By the year 510 the Frankish Kingdom had emerged under the reign of Clovis. Clovis was successful in controlling his kingdom, but trouble struck upon his death. (3) When Clovis died he divided his Kingdom amongst his sons and there was a struggle for power. Clovis’ heirs were afraid that power would fall into the wrong hands, so to combat this problem they engaged inter-family marriage. Though this kept power in their hands, it caused other problems because they lacked our modern knowledge of genetics. The result of the inter-family marriage was a series of inept rulers that could be classified as “big, fat, and stupid”. (4) The heirs of Clovis became increasingly less able to effectively rule the Frankish Kingdom and the responsibilities of the Kingdom were increasing delegated to their assistants. One such man was named Pepin-the-Short, who was able to push the king out of power and claim the throne for himself. When he died he passed he kingdom to his sons – Charles and Carloman. (5) As a young man, Charlemagne was taught at the palace school by the local abbot (head of the monastery). He also learned the arts of war from his father, Pepin the Short, during an invasion of northern Italy. Charles grew to be tall and strong, reaching six foot four inches, which was unusual in a world where the average height of men was five foot four inches. . His great size contributed to his legend. Surely, it was believed, this man who towered over all others was special. (6) In 768, Pepin died, and Charlemagne and his brother Carloman inherited the kingdom. Though older, Charlemagne received the smaller share. The reason may have been one of birth. Carloman was born after their parents were married, whereas Charlemagne had been born before. All was not good between the two brothers. This division sparked a conflict that intensified when Carloman refused to give Charlemagne help in a military campaign. The rift between the brothers was solved when in 771 Carloman unexpectedly died and Charlemagne became sole ruler. (7) Charlemagne sought to expand his kingdom and his conquests were extensive. When northern Italy caused trouble for the pope, Charles invaded and conquered the area. He was now king of the Lombards as well as the Franks. He fought for many years in Germany until he finally defeated the Saxons. He also drove the Avars out of the upper Danube River Valley. His advances were checked only in Spain. Yet defeat there became the source of one of the great medieval epic poems, The Song of Roland, which helped to perpetuate his legend. (8) Charlemagne traveled widely throughout his realm, seeking to impress his subjects with his awesome presence. He also wanted to watch over the nobles so that they could not increase their own power. When he was angry, he was ruthless. After many rebellions by the Saxons, he ordered 4,500 of them put to death in a single day. (9) In addition to expanding his area of political control, Charlemagne enlarged the Christian areas. He conquered the Saxons to bring them to Christianity. He built many churches and sponsored learning. His conquests also helped fund these pursuits. Defeat of the Avars yielded 15 wagons filled with gold, for instance – money to go to religion and education. Under Charlemagne culture was re-emerging in a world where it had been declining. (10) Charlemagne also built a huge and impressive palace located in his capital city. The chapel there was modeled after a church in the Byzantine Empire. This suggests that Charlemagne probably revealed his true wish: to be seen as heir to the Holy Roman Empire. He made a giant stride toward that goal on Christmas Day , 800, when Pope Leo III crowned him Holy Roman Emperor. Although Charlemagne accepted the title, he was not entirely happy with having Pope Leo III place the crown upon his head. Some think that Charlemagne objected to his coronation because he thought that it placed the pope in a higher position than the king. Nevertheless, Charlemagne accepted the title and began communicating with the Byzantine Emperor as an equal. (11) Charlemagne earned his reputation as a military and political leader, a proponent of the Church, and a patron of learned. Charlemagne’s coronation proved a symbol of great importance in European history. It clearly linked the emerging Europe to the glory of ancient Rome. Later, when German rulers hoped to establish their own right of rule, they called themselves Holy Roman Emperor to bask in the glory of the legendary king of the Franks. (12) Although Charlemagne was hugely successful and was legendary, his empire could not bask in the glory of his legend. When Charlemagne died in 814 the Frankish Kingdom (now known as the Carolingian Empire) was powerful and rich (both monetarily and culturally), but that would not last long. He left the empire to his heirs, but left no structure for them to take over and successfully maintain the empire – in other words the success of the kingdom depended solely on the presence of Charlemagne. (13) By the year 1000 the Frankish Kingdom had broken up due to internal fighting for power, bad leadership and external invasions. Charlemagne’s empire suffered the same fate as Clovis’ – a series of rulers who were not qualified to rule. Those who took over Charlemagne’s empire earned nicknames such as “Charles the Fat”, “Charles the Simple”, “Charles the Child”, and “Charles the Pious” (strict religious virtue). As their names suggest these men had concerns other than the fate of the empire. Coupled with the bad leadership were invasions of the Muslims (south) and the Vikings (north), the Carolingian Empire fell apart and retreated into the Dark Ages.