Who is Charlemagne?
Charlemagne (742 – 814), also known as Charles the Great or Charles I, was the King of the Franks from 768, the King of Italy from 774, the first Holy Roman Emperor, and the first emperor in western Europe since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier.
The oldest son of Pepin the Short and Bertrada of Laon, Charlemagne became king in 768 following the death of his father. He was initially co-ruler with his brother Carloman I.
Carloman's sudden death in 771 under unexplained circumstances left Charlemagne as the undisputed ruler of the Frankish Kingdom. Through his military conquests, he subdued the Saxons and the Bavarians and pushed his frontier into Spain. He expanded his kingdom into an empire that incorporated much of Western and Central Europe.
Charlemagne continued his father's policy towards the papacy and became its protector, removing the Lombards from power in Italy, and leading an incursion into Muslim Spain. He also campaigned against the peoples to his east, forcibly Christianizing them along the way (especially the Saxons), eventually subjecting them to his rule after a protracted war. Charlemagne reached the height of his power in 800 when he was crowned as "Emperor" by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day.
Called the "Father of Europe" (pater Europae), Charlemagne's empire united most of Western Europe for the first time since the Roman Empire. His rule spurred the Carolingian Renaissance, a revival of art, religion, and culture through the medium of the Catholic Church.
Through his foreign conquests and internal reforms, Charlemagne encouraged the formation of a common European identity. Both the French and German monarchies considered their kingdoms to be descendants of Charlemagne's empire.
Charlemagne died in 814 after having ruled as Emperor for just over thirteen years. He was laid to rest in his imperial capital of Aachen in today's Germany. His son Louis the Pious succeeded him as Emperor.
Date of birth
The most likely date of Charlemagne's birth is reconstructed from a number of sources. The date of 742—calculated from Einhard's date of death of January 814 at age 72—suffers from the defect of being two years before the marriage of his parents in 744. The year given in the Annales Petaviani, 747, would be more likely, except that it contradicts Einhard and a few other sources in making Charlemagne less than a septuagenarian at his death. The month and day of April 2 is established by a calendar from Lorsch Abbey.
In 747, that day fell on Easter, a coincidence that would have been remembered but was not. If Easter was being used as the beginning of the calendar year, then April 2, 747 could have been, by modern reckoning, April 2, 748 (not on Easter). The date favored by the preponderance of evidence is April 2, 742, based on the septuagenarian age at death. This date would appear to support an initial illegitimacy of birth, which is not, however, mentioned by Einhard.
Place of birth
Charlemagne was most likely born in Herstal, Wallonia, where his father was born, a town close to Liège in modern day Belgium. The Merovingians had a number of hunting villas in the vicinity. Liège is close to the region from where both the Merovingian and Carolingian families originated. He went to live in his father's villa in Jupille when he was around seven, which caused Jupille to be listed as a possible place of birth in almost every history book.
Other cities have been suggested, including Aachen, Düren, Gauting, Mürlenbach, and Prüm. No definitive evidence as to which is the right candidate exists. Charlemagne was the eldest child of Pepin the Short (714 – 24 September 768, reigned from 751) and his wife Bertrada of Laon (720 – 12 July 783), daughter of Caribert of Laon and Bertrada of Cologne. Records name only Carloman, Gisela, and three short-lived children named Pepin, Chrothais and Adelais as his younger siblings.
The ambiguous high office
The most powerful officers of the Frankish people, the Mayor of the Palace (Maior Domus) and one or more kings (rex, reges), were appointed by election of the people; that is, no regular elections were held, but they were held as required to elect officers ad quos summa imperii pertinebat, "to whom the highest matters of state pertained." Evidently interim decisions could be made by the Pope, which ultimately needed to be ratified using an assembly of the people, which met once a year.
Before he was elected king in 750, Pepin the Short was initially a Mayor, a high office he held "as though hereditary" (velut hereditario fungebatur). Einhard explains that "the honor" was usually "given by the people" to the distinguished, but Pepin the Great and his brother Carloman the wise received it as though hereditary, as did their father, Charles Martel. There was, however, a certain ambiguity about quasi-inheritance.
The office was treated as joint property: one Mayorship held by two brothers jointly. Each, however, had his own geographic jurisdiction. When Carloman decided to resign, becoming ultimately a Benedictine at Monte Cassino, the question of the disposition of his quasi-share was settled by the pope. He converted the Mayorship into a Kingship and awarded the joint property to Pepin, who now had the full right to pass it on by inheritance.
This decision was not accepted by all members of the family. Carloman had consented to the temporary tenancy of his own share, which he intended to pass on to his own son, Drogo, when the inheritance should be settled at someone's death. By the Pope's decision, in which Pepin had a hand, Drogo was to be disqualified as an heir in favor of his cousin Charles.
He took up arms in opposition to the decision and was joined by Grifo, a half-brother of Pepin and Carloman, who had been given a share by Charles Martel, but was stripped of it and held under loose arrest by his half-brothers after an attempt to seize their shares by military action. By 753 all was over. Grifo perished in combat in the Battle of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne while Drogo was hunted down and taken into custody.
On the death of Pepin, September 24, 768, the kingship passed jointly to his sons, "with divine assent" (divino nutu). According to the Life, Pepin died in Paris. The Franks "in general assembly" (generali conventu) gave them both the rank of king (reges) but "partitioned the whole body of the kingdom equally" (totum regni corpus ex aequo partirentur). The annals tell a slightly different version.
The king died at St. Denis, which is, however, still in Paris. The two "lords" (domni) were "elevated to kingship" (elevati sunt in regnum), Carolus on October 9 in Noyon, Carloman on an unspecified date in Soissons. If born in 742, Carolus was 26 years old, but he had been campaigning at his father's right hand for several years, which may help to account for his military skill and genius. Carloman was 17.
The language in either case suggests that there were not two inheritances, which would have created distinct kings ruling over distinct kingdoms, but a single joint inheritance and a joint kingship tenanted by two equal kings, Charles and his brother Carloman.
As before, distinct jurisdictions were awarded. Charles received Pepin's original share as Mayor: the outer parts of the kingdom bordering on the sea, namely Neustria, western Aquitaine, and the northern parts of Austrasia; while Carloman was awarded his uncle's former share, the inner parts: southern Austrasia, Septimania, eastern Aquitaine, Burgundy, Provence, and Swabia, lands bordering Italy.
The question whether these jurisdictions were joint shares reverting to the other brother if one brother died or were inherited property passed on to the descendants of the brother who died was never definitely settled by the Frankish people. It came up repeatedly over the succeeding decades until the grandsons of Charlemagne created distinct sovereign kingdoms.
In 813, Charlemagne called Louis the Pious, king of Aquitaine, his only surviving legitimate son, to his court. There Charlemagne crowned his son with his own hands as co-emperor and sent him back to Aquitaine. He then spent the autumn hunting before returning to Aachen on 1 November. In January, he fell ill with pleurisy.
In deep depression (mostly because many of his plans were not yet realized), he took to his bed on 21 January and as Einhard tells it: He died January twenty-eighth, the seventh day from the time that he took to his bed, at nine o'clock in the morning, after partaking of the Holy Communion, in the seventy-second year of his age and the forty-seventh of his reign.
He was buried the same day as his death, in Aachen Cathedral, although the cold weather and the nature of his illness made such a hurried burial unnecessary. The earliest surviving planctus, the Planctus de obitu Karoli, was composed by a monk of Bobbio, which he had patronised.
A later story, told by Otho of Lomello, Count of the Palace at Aachen in the time of Otto III, would claim that he and Emperor Otto had discovered Charlemagne's tomb: the emperor, they claimed, was seated upon a throne, wearing a crown and holding a sceptre, his flesh almost entirely incorrupt. In 1165, Frederick I re-opened the tomb again and placed the emperor in a sarcophagus beneath the floor of the cathedral. In 1215 Frederick II re-interred him in a casket made of gold and silver.
Charlemagne's death greatly affected many of his subjects, particularly those of the literary clique who had surrounded him at Aachen. He was succeeded by his surviving son, Louis, who had been crowned the previous year. His empire lasted only another generation in its entirety; its division, according to custom, between Louis's own sons after their father's death laid the foundation for the modern state of Germany.
- "Charlemagne." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (with minor edits), under GFDL.