Charlemagne: The First Holy Roman Emperor

Rachel McGlone

On Christmas Day 800 CE, Pope Leo crowned Charlemagne the Holy Roman Emperor.

The title and accompanying status were intended to indicate the bearer as the inheritor of Ancient Rome, and this new Empire remained unbroken for over a thousand years. Contemporary biographers, such as Einhard and Notker the Stammerer described Charlemagne as the ideal ruler – pious, wise, and strong. In the poem Karolus magnus et Leo papa, a court scholar lauded his patron as the ‘Father of Europe,’ victorious in battle, a just, powerful, and modest king. This strength of character, combined with the decorated title, sent Charlemagne’s name into legend, serving as a blueprint for medieval Christian kingship. The person we now call Charlemagne was born Charles, son of Pepin, sometime between 742 and 747 CE. At that time, Pepin was mayor of the Frankish palace, a role which marked him as the vital decision-maker behind Merovingian kings, ruling the Frankish kingdom in all but name. In 751 CE, with the aid of Pope Zachariah, the last Merovingian king was deposed, and Pepin was elected to the status of King of the Franks instead. In 754 CE this position was reaffirmed by Pope Stephen and was also extended to Pepin’s sons – Charles, and his younger brother Carloman. Pepin used his position to stabilise and expand the kingdom and was thus embroiled in many military disputes. As Charles grew into adulthood, he followed in his father’s footsteps, establishing himself as a great military leader. It is due to these endeavours that he gained the moniker Carolus Magnus – Charles the Great, or Charlemagne. When Pepin died in 768 CE, the Frankish kingdom was left jointly to his two sons, divided along a roughly East/West line. Ninth-century scholars describe Carloman, Charlemagne’s younger brother and co-ruler, as peevish and self-pitying, with little ability to rule. By comparison, Charlemagne’s charisma, strength, and energetic applications to military endeavours were attributed to the settling and expansion of Frankish lands. When Carloman died in December 771 CE, Charlemagne reabsorbed his brother’s territories into his own, creating one united Frankish Kingdom again. Through further military campaigns, which continued beyond the imperial coronation, Charlemagne became ruler of the majority of Western Europe - from Aquitaine in the West, to Carinthia in the East; from Saxony in the North, to Lombardy in the South.
Charlemagne: The First Holy Roman Emperor

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A significant motivation for Charlemagne’s military efforts was to bring Christianity to all reaches of his kingdom, and beyond

Indeed, the Saxon Wars, the most persistent conflict Charlemagne faced throughout this reign, was primarily focused on converting the pagan inhabitants. Spanning thirty-three years, the numerous truces to end the bloodshed were primarily hinged on Saxony submitting to the Christian faith. It was only in 804 CE that they were finally subdued and agreed to enter the fold. Einhard attributed this success to Charlemagne’s ‘mettlesome spirit and imperturbability.’ Further south, Charlemagne intervened when the Lombard king, Desiderius, threatened the Pope and infringed on papal territories in 774 CE. Charlemagne lay siege to the Lombard stronghold of Pavia, quelling the threat, and Pope Stephen labelled him ‘Defender of the faith.’ This title continued when the subsequent pope, Pope Leo, was attacked by the people of Rome in 799 CE. Leo fled and sought protection from Charlemagne. In turn, Charlemagne’s men restored Leo to Rome, leaving the Pope indebted to the king’s Christian kindness. Chroniclers were also effusive regarding Charlemagne’s patronage of religious standardisation, and the resurrection of Roman education. Part of this was executed through his religious reforms, where he gathered a church council to issue uniform directives to all regions under his rule. While Charlemagne himself could not read, he thoroughly supported the education movement. His palace scholars resurrected liberal arts teaching, developed a more readable font, and became a beacon of learning for the whole of Europe. Many of these scholars, such as Einhard, went on to write histories of Charlemagne’s reign – it is no wonder that they were prone to portray their patron in a positive light. Yet through his actions, the glowing descriptions of his character find merit. It is noted that Charlemagne never once referred to himself as the Roman Emperor following the imperial coronation, an exemplar of the modest and humble nature that chroniclers celebrated. However, Charlemagne did claim that he was governing the legacy of Ancient Rome. His military successes, his patronage of the arts, and staunch defence of Christianity hailed back to the famed emperors of Justinian and Theodosius. What is undeniable is the strength and charisma of his character played directly into his abilities as a great ruler.
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Charlemagne: The First Holy Roman Emperor

Rachel McGlone

Rachel McGlone studied History at the University of York, both at undergraduate level – focusing on Medieval England and Europe – and for an MA in Public History. Her current research focuses on textile history and its ability to tell grassroots stories, as well as its generational links to the past. She has previously contributed to the online magazines “The Historians” and “Periodically Dramatic,” and has written for the University of Cambridge’s “Doing History in Public” project. You can find her on Instagram @bookishhistorian
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