Born: c. April 2, 742 in Liège, Frankish Kingdom
Died: Jan 28, 814 (at about age 71) in Aachen, Holy Roman Empire
Nationality: Frankish
Famous For: Founded the Carolingian Empire

Charlemagne, better known as Charles the Great or the first Holy Roman Emperor, was the King of the Lombards, King of the Franks (768-814), and Emperor of the West (800-814). He is the founder of the Holy Roman Empire and championed the strengthening of the European economic and political life.

He also promoted the cultural revival called the Carolingian Renaissance. Charlemagne’s rule in the West influenced the Europeans to push for the creation of a unique civilization, different from the civilization of Romans and other empires.

Early Years

Charlemagne was born on April 2, 742, in Aix-la-Chapelle. He was the son of Bertrada and Pepin the Short, the first Carlovingian King of the Franks. Although his parents were married during the birth of Carloman, Charlemagne’s brother, they were not legally married during his birth and he was thus considered to be born out of wedlock.

Little is known about Charlemagne’s childhood, but in 754, he participated in a ceremony where his father was appointed king by Pope Stephen II. He also joined Pepin on military campaigns.

Pepin died in October of 768 and both Carloman and Charlemagne were proclaimed king and were therefore to rule the kingdom together. However, a richer and larger portion was passed down to Carloman when dividing the realm. This led to a very sour relationship between the brothers, but in 771, Carloman died unexpectedly, leaving Charlemagne the sole ruler of the whole kingdom.

Territorial Expansion

Once the sole ruler, Charlemagne moved quickly and aggressively, especially in Italy, to eradicate those who threatened his position and power. He attacked and conquered king of the Lombards in the north, King Desiderius, after which he was proclaimed the King of the Lombards at Pavia. He later conquered Benevento in the south. This conquest of Italy brought new people and wealth into his kingdom.

During his operations in Italy, he declared war against the Saxons. The Saxons were a Germanic tribe threatening Francia from the northeastern frontier. Charlemagne used cruel and harsh means to subdue the Saxons in a bitter war that begun in 772 and ended in 804. He then absorbed the land of Saxony and forced the Saxons to convert to Christianity.

On the eastern frontier, Charlemagne conquered Tassilo, Duke of Bavaria, and added the Bavarian duchy to his empire. Further to the east, the Frankish realm faced a major power and the ultimate threat – Avars’ vast Slavic Kingdom. He was able to defeat the Avars between 791 and 795, adding the vast kingdom as a state.

Charlemagne as a Leader

King Charlemagne, the able administrator he was, delegated authority over the provinces he conquered to Frankish nobles. He recognized the ethnicity of the groups he had brought together under his dominion and thus allowed them to retain their own local laws.

To ensure that justice prevailed, Charlemagne crafted laws and put them in writing. These laws were strictly enforced. Alongside these laws, he issued capitularies that applied to all citizens of his empire. He also kept an eye on events by using missi dominici, which were representatives who were allowed to act with his authority.

Generally, Charlemagne reigned in a period of internal calm and great prosperity. This can be attributed to his military and political ability. He succeeded by negotiating diplomatically.

In 800, Charlemagne aided Pope Leo III who had been attacked in the streets of Rome. He went to Rome and restored order. Leo later purged himself to the changes against Charlemagne and unexpectedly crowned him emperor. Although he still called himself king, he styled himself as the Emperor.

Charlemagne’s Last Years

In 806, when Charlemagne was 64 years old, he took measures to ensure the succession of his empire. The realm was divided among his three sons, Pepin, Charles, and Louis, but Charles died in April 810, and was soon followed by Pepin. Louis was left as the sole heir to the empire and Charlemagne crowned him in 813.

During Charlemagne’s last years of reign, his empire faced civil disorder, disease, and famine. Moreover, there were reported troubles on the frontiers. Simply put, the future looked dark. Charlemagne made his final will in 811, giving more portions of his wealth to churches of the realm than his own heirs. His death came on January 28, 814, and he was buried somewhere in Aachen.