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King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor
Carolus Magnus (Charles the Great) was born on April 2, 742, the son of Pepin the Short and the grandson of Charles Martel.
King of the Franks, 768-814
In September 768, Pepin the Short made a partition of his dominions between his two sons, Charlemagne and Carloman; he died a few days later. Charlemagne shared Pepin's kingdom with his brother until Carloman's death on December 4, 771, at which time he assumed control of the entire Frankish realm.
Conquest of Lombardy
In 770, Charlemagne married the daughter of Desiderius, King of the Lombards. In 771 he repudiated the Lombard princess and married Hildegarde, a Suabian lady, who became the mother of his three legitimate sons, Charles, Pepin, and Lewis. Desiderius naturally resented the slight put upon his daughter and vowed to take revenge at the first opportunity. The opportunity came when Carloman died and Charlemagne appropriated the vacant kingdom to the exclusion of his brother's infant sons. Their mother, Queen Gerberga, fled with them to the court of Desiderius, who immediately announced his intention of supporting their claims and urged the pope to crown them. When Pope Hadrian refused, Desiderius took his frustrations out on the Papal States.
From his father, Charlemagne had inherited the title Patrician of the Romans, which gave him the right to hear appeals from the Roman law courts. It also carried with it a special obligation to protect the temporal rights of the Holy See, so, in the autumn of 772, Charlemagne agreed to come to the Pope's aid. By early 774 Charlemagne's nephews had ceased to be a problem, Desiderius had become a monk, and Charlemagne had taken the title of King of the Lombards.
War with the Saxons
In 772, Charlemagne decided it was time to convert the Saxons, who had until then been nothing but troublesome heathens on his northern and eastern borders. In July of that year he took Eresburg by storm and destroyed the sacred pillar Irminsul. The Saxons retaliated by raiding Hesse while Charles was busy in Italy.
Upon his return from Italy in 775, Charlemagne opened a war of conquest against the Saxons. His chief opponent was the Westphalian chieftain Widukind who, in 778, raided the east bank of the Rhine up to Coblenz, and, in 782, destroyed a Frankish punitive force in Saxony. Charlemagne retaliated with the massacre of 4,500 Saxon captives at Verden. Widukind eventually submitted to Charlemagne's terms and was baptized in 785. Although it took several more campaigns, the rest of Saxony had been brought under Charlemagne's control by 804.
Invasion of Spain
In 777, three Moorish emirs visited Charlemagne and proposed a mutual invasion of northern Spain, to which Charlemagne agreed. In 778, Charlemagne himself cammanded an expedition against Saragossa. The expedition failed, however, due to the failure of the emirs to provide promised support. To repair his relations with the Spanish Christians, Charlemagne took their side when they indicted the Archbishop of Toledo as a heretic. In return, Charlemagne was allowed to create a Frankish March on the south slope of the Pyrenees. In 801, Barcelona was captured by Charlemagne's son Lewis, and Pampeluna accepted the protection of Charlemagne in 807, thus securing his hold on the March.
Annexation of Bavaria
Tassilo, the Duke of Bavaria, had received the duchy in 748 from Pepin III, but had never followed through on his obligations towards either Pepin or Charlemagne. Under pressure, he renewed his fealty in 781 and 787, but on the second occasion only took the oath upon learning that Charlemagne was preparing to invade Bavaria. In 788, Tassilo was indicted for conspiring with the Lombards against Charlemagne. His life was spared, but he was relegated to a monastery and Bavaria was divided between Frankish counts.
Tribute from Benevento
The Duchy of Benevento was officially independent throughout Charlemagne's reign, but in 788 the reigning duke agreed to pay an annual tribute, to date his charters by the regnal years of Charlemagne, and to inscribe the name of Charlemagne upon his coinage.
War with the Avars
As the master of Bavaria, Charlemagne came into collision with the Avars, who had been settled in the Hungarian steppes since 568. In 791 he harried their western lands, between the rivers Enns and Raab. By the capture of the famous "Ring" of the Avars, with its nine concentric circles, in 795, Charlemagne came into possession of vast quantities of gold and silver. The Avars subsequently sent to Aachen several of their chiefs who made peace and accepted baptism. In 805 the Khan, finding himself hard pressed by the Slavs, became a Christian and placed himself under Charlemagne's protection.
Holy Roman Emperor, 800-814
Pope Hadrian I died on December 25, 795, and was succeeded by Leo III. Upon his election, Leo sent Charlemagne the keys of Saint Peter and the standard of the city of Rome, indicating his choice of Charlemagne as protector of the city and the Holy See. In return Charlemagne sent a fortune in gold, which Leo used to build churches and found charitable institutions.
On April 25, 799, a Roman faction, who accused Leo of adultery and perjury, assaulted him on the streets of Rome. Leo escaped the loss of his tongue and eyes and was confined in a Roman monastery. His attendants succeeded in conveying him to the Duke of Spoleto for protection, and in appealing to Charlemagne for assistance. Initially reluctant to intercede, Charlemagne finally agreed to preside over a synod at which the charges against Leo would be presented. Charlemagne arrived in Rome in November 800, and spent more than three weeks reviewing the situation. On December 23, Leo, under oath, declared publicly in St. Peter's that he was innocent of the charges brought against him, and Charlemagne concurred. Two days after declaring Leo innocent of all charges, Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. By this action, the Papal States were added to Charlemagne's empire, as was Spoleto.
Designation of Succession
In 806, Charlemagne drew up a scheme for the partition of his realms between his three legitimate sons. It provided that each son should be absolute in his own sphere, and did not designate a successor to the empire. But in 813, after peace had been made with Constantinople, and Charles the Young and Pepin had both died, he named Lewis the Pious as his consort and successor in the empire, at the same time assigning Italy to Bernhard, the son of Pepin.
Charlemagne died at Aachen on January 28, 814, and Lewis did indeed succeed him as King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor.
Map of Charlemagne's empire, with
the 'original' kingdom in brown.
This page was last updated on January 27, 2017.