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Associated Press

Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor

January 15, 2011
by Colleen Brondou
By the time he was 40 years old, Charlemagne became King of the Franks, unified most of Europe and was named the first Holy Roman Emperor. A ruthless warrior, he was also responsible for tremendous social, political and economic reforms, and inspired a cultural renaissance.

Charlemagne’s Rise to Power

Charlemagne (meaning “Charles the Great”) was the son of Frankish King Pepin (or Pippin) the Short, ruler of the Franks (forebears of the French and the Germans). He was likely born in present-day Belgium; his birth date was traditionally given as 742, though modern historians believe it to be 747 or 748.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, young Charlemagne was trained for leadership by taking part in the social, political and military activities of his father’s court. When Pepin died in 768, the Frankish kingdom was divided between Charlemagne and his younger brother, Carloman.

For three years, the brothers ruled uneasily together, a rivalry threatening the unity of the kingdom. In order to gain an advantage over his brother, Charlemagne formed an alliance with Desiderius, king of the Lombards, and took Desiderius’ daughter as his wife.

When Carloman died unexpectedly in 771, Charlemagne ignored the rights of his brother’s heirs and became the sole ruler of the Frankish kingdom as Charles I.

Charlemagne’s Conquest of Europe

Over the next 30 years, Charlemagne spent much of his time expanding his kingdom through military conquests. In 772, he invaded Saxony and converted the area to Christianity. He then conquered the Lombards in northern Italy and, in 778, the Moors in northern Spain. Next he took over Bohemia and the Avars in the middle Danube basin.

The massive territory that Charlemagne united became known as the Carolingian empire. “Everywhere his rule was established, Charlemagne instituted the same reforms, creating a common identity in people from eastern Germany to southern Spain,” Heather Whipps writes for LiveScience.

He promoted commerce by putting all of Europe on a common silver currency, standardized measures and weights, appointed representatives in each region and made changes in legislation to protect the peasantry. Though he wasn’t an intellectual himself, he valued learning and instituted sweeping educational reforms.

According to court historian Einhard (or Einhart) in his 9th century work “The Life of Charlemagne,” he was an eloquent speaker who spoke Latin fluently but “could understand Greek better than he could speak it.” He tried his hand at writing but as he didn’t begin his efforts until “late in life, they met with ill success.”

When he was 39 years old, Charlemagne asked Alcuin, a prominent English scholar, to join his court. After five years of studying with Alcuin, Charlemagne proclaimed that all clergy would be educated; eventually, education was a staple of life in the monasteries, and Alcuin’s curriculum eventually took root in the first universities.

Together, the men had “set into motion the most important thing that came out of what we call the Dark Ages,” John H. Lienhard writes for Engines of Our Ingenuity, a series from the University of Houston College of Engineering. “And that was no less than modern education.”

Charlemagne not only promoted art, culture and education, inspiring the Carolingian Renaissance; he also spread Christianity across Europe. In 800, Charlemagne helped restore Pope Leo III to power after a rebellion had forced him from Rome. In gratitude, the pope crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans at a Christmas Day Mass.

“As soon as the crown was in position, the pope was on his knees, anointing the feet of the new emperor,” Deutsche Welle reports. “At the same time, so the account goes, hefty applause broke out among the Romans in attendance, while the clergy began the coronation litany.”

In 814, Charlemagne became feverish after bathing in warm springs in Aachen and died, possibly of pleurisy. “His successors lacked his vision and authority, and his empire did not long outlive him,” according to the BBC.

Charlemagne’s Legacy

Though he was heralded as Charles the Great and the “father of Europe,” modern historians point out that Charlemagne also had many failings. His policies and military forces had “limitations,” his religious reforms failed to “affect the great mass of Christians,” his cultural program was full of “clerical bias,” and his economic and social programs had “oppressive features,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

Such criticisms, however, “cannot efface the fact that his effort to adjust traditional Frankish ideas of leadership and the public good to new currents in society made a crucial difference in European history,” writes Britannica.

As a result, Charlemagne’s influence can still be seen today. In 1949, Dr. Kurt Pfeiffer created the International Charlemagne Prize to recognize those who work to promote European unification. According to the Stadt Aachen Web site, the prize has “become the most important and coveted award for services to European unification.” Past winners include Pope John Paul II, Bill Clinton and Donald Tusk, prime minister of Poland.

Charlemagne’s influence has even extended across the pond to the United States. The Economist magazine has a column called Charlemagne on the European Union, named for “one of the continent’s early unifiers.”

Mental Floss magazine, meanwhile, featured interesting “conversation starters” about Charlemagne, such as that “he spoke in an unusually high voice,” and that an Islamic caliph gave him an elephant, “believed to have been the first ever to venture into Northern Europe.”

Though much has been written about Charlemagne, his grave may never be found. It was long believed that he was buried in the atrium of the Aachen Cathedral, built by Charlemagne himself in 805. Even though his bones were moved by Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa 250 years after his burial and placed in the shrine of Aachen Cathedral, archaeologists had hoped to find some evidence of his burial in the atrium.

But according to News24, “the oldest items found during the latest dig date back to the 13th century—400 years after Charlemagne's death.”

Still, researchers remain convinced that Charlemagne was put to rest at Aachen. “It is certain that Charlemagne was buried in Aachen, and certain that it was in the area of the church,” Andreas Schaub, an Aachen archaeologist, told News24.

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