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Charlemagne (2 April 742 - 28 January 814), also known as Charles the Great or Charles I, was the King of the Franks from 768, King of Italy from 774, and the first emperor in western Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire, becoming the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800. In 802, following his marriage to Irene of Athens, he became the Emperor of the Byzantines, though he never referred to himself as such until 807 when Irene died.
Renowned for his fairness and skill in ruling, he is often seen as the Father of Europe. His unification of the Frankish Empire and Byzantine Empire led to the eventual union of cultures and religion. This explosion of culture, the Carolingian Renaissance, is often credited with keeping the Frankish Empire and Byzantine Empires unified after his death.
Charles I was born to the Frankish King Pepin the Short and Bertrada of Laon. The exact place or date of his birth is unknown, but evidence supports to him being born on 25 April 742 in Liège. The eldest son of Pepin the Short, Charles had several known siblings: Carloman, Gisela, and several short-lived siblings. Little is known about his childhood due to the lack of records kept regarding his youth. Historians of the time considered his childhood unimportant.
Upon Pepin's death in 768, Charles and his brother, Carloman, both shared the title 'King of the Franks', as was the custom of Frankish royal lineage at the time. Despite this, Charles clearly showed superior decision-making and strategic decisions due to his older age. Charles ruled Neustria, western Aquitaine, and northern Austrasia. Carloman was placed in charge of southern Austrasia, Septimania, eastern Aquitaine, Burgundy, Provence, and Swabia. The relationship between these siblings was generally very cold. Their mother, Bertrada, maintained the relationship in such a way that the brothers were not tempted to war with each other. Nevertheless, the early reigns of the two brothers was quite perilous. Aquitaine and Gascony revolted in 769.
While Charles acted, Carloman refused to assist his brother. With Aquitaine invading as far as Angoulême, Charles went to war, routing the revolting state and pushing their forces back beyond their own borders. Bordeaux was invaded and the leader of Aquitaine, Hunald, fled to Gascony. The Duke, however, handed Hunald over to Charles out of fear. Furthermore, Gascony surrendered to the Franks, allowing for Charles to claim the two under his kingdom.
Upon returning home, Charles married his first wife, Desiderata of Lombardy. Doing so allowed for Charles to surround himself with allies should his brother or any other contender attempt to dethrone Charles. However, Charles had Desiderata repudiated in favor of Hildegard, a 13-year old Swabian girl. He soon married Hildegard. The end of Desiderata's marriage enraged the Lombards, who allied with Carloman in a plot for Charlemagne's downfall. Fortunately for Charlemagne, Carloman died due to allegedly natural causes soon after in 771. Carloman's holdings had now become Charlemagne's.
War with the Lombards
Carloman's death was not the end of Charlemagne's trouble with the Lombards. Following a deal with Pope Adrian I gone wrong, the Lombards invaded several cities before turning their attention to Rome. Pepin the Short had a history with the Pope, something Adrian had hoped Charlemagne would continue. Luckily for the Pope, Charlemagne was willing and able to defend him. After demanding that the Lombards stand down, Charlemagne invaded the Lombards, launching a siege of Pavia in 773.
The seige of Pavia lasted for the better part of a year, ending in 774. Upon Frankish victory, the Lombards were subjected to various punishments. The king was sent to an abbey and the prince, who had fled the kingdom, reportedly died soon after. Charles, donning the Iron Crown, forced the various magnates of Lombardy to submit to Frankish rule. All accepted, save for Benevento. Charles now had two titles under his belt: King of the Franks and King of Italy.
To prevent uprisings in the Aquitaine-Basque area, Charlemagne placed a pro-Frankish count in charge of Bordeaux and other key cities in the area. This weakened the power of the Duke of Gascony. Angered, Gascony revolted, defeating the Frankish army at Roncevaux Pass in 778. The Basque Duke allegedly assisted the Vascones in this battle. The outraged Charlemagne wished to make Aquitaine more powerful and appointed his son, Louis the Pious, as King of Aquitaine. With a consolidation of power in the area, Charlemagne began to take measures to ensure that the incident in Roncevaux Pass didn't happen again.
Following another Vasconian revolt much later, the counts defeat the Vasconians. Over the span of the next two decades, Charlemagne works on making the Pyrenees, making the Pamplona a power in the region.
Perhaps one of the most famous wars of Charlemagne's career as King, the Saxon Wars lasted for over three decades and cost countless lives. The Saxons were composed of four major kingdoms at the time: the Westphalia, Eastphalia, Engria, and Nordalbringa.
The first on the chopping block was Engria. In 773, the Franks had led a campaign into the Germanic kingdom, violently spreading Christianity and defacing Germanic religious totems as they went. The Engrians submitted and converted to the religion of the Franks. After their submission, the Saxon Wars were put on hiatus for a few years while Charlemagne was battling the Lombards. Once he was done, he returned to the war, invading Westphalia next.
Westphalia quickly fell, with Eastphalia soon following suit. The remaining kingdom, Nordalbringa, was invaded soon after, in 776. The leader fled to Denmark and the last Saxon kingdom fell soon after. Charlemagne worked on integrating the area into the Frankish Kingdoms. The kingdoms revolted in 779, forcing Charlemagne to return to the kingdoms and retake them, reconquering Westphalia, Eastphalia, and Engria. The lands were divided into missionary districts and continued forcibly Christianizing the Saxons.
782 saw the return of Charlemagne to Saxon lands, where he created several laws and appointed multiple counts in the area. Many of the laws enacted were very brutal religious laws. The most famous of these laws was the Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae, which stated that Saxons that did not convert to Christianity were to be killed. Enraged, the old Saxon King emerged from hiding and started a new revolt. Charlemagne responded with the Massacre or Verden, where over 4500 Saxons were killed due to their refusal to convert.
This sparked a three-year-long revolt in which the Saxons were again subdued. The Frisians, who had assisted the Saxons, also fell during this time. In the end, the old Saxon king surrendered and accepted baptism. Saxony was silent for another 7 years until, in 792, Westphalia revolted once again. While the Eastphalians and Nordalbringans assisted the Westphalians, the revolt was not as successful and had ended by 794. Minor revolts continued until 804.
Against the Avars and Bohemia
The Avars, a hostile group of Asians, had ravaged parts of Central and Eastern Europe in the late 780s. During this time, Charlemagne was at war with Bavaria after stating that their king's right to rule was invalid. The Franks, however, decided to face the threat of the Avars in 790. Charlemagne led an army across the Danube where they fought the Avars, pushing them back to Győr. The Saxon revolt, however, drew Charlemagne's attention away from the Avars, though Pippin and Duke Eric of Fruili continued where Charlemagne left off. Their war with the Avars captured their major capital twice. Eventually, several Avar tribes surrendered and became Christianized vassals of the Franks.
Charlemagne, once he was done with the Saxons, had turned his attention to Bavaria instead, attacking them again and subjugating them in 794. Ironically, the downfall of one spelled the downfall of the other. In 803, a Bavarian army wiped out the Avar tribes who hadn't surrendered already.
Upon discovering the pagans inhabiting the area, the Franks prepared to march on the Northern Slavs. The Slavs, not wanting a fight, surrendered immediately. The territory was integrated into the Frankish Empire. The Northern Slavs later assisted Charlemagne against the Saxons when they rebelled in 795.
Holy Roman Emperor
A coup in 799 forced Pope Leo III to flee from Rome and hide in Frankish Lands. Charlemagne assisted in putting down the coup and restoring order in the Papal States. In gratitude, the Pope crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor, due to the fact that there was no male in charge of the Eastern Roman Empire. Legend has it that it was a surprise or that Charlemagne was unaware of the coronation. The likelihood of this being true, however, is very low.
Relations with the Byzantines continued to sour. While the iconoclasm movement, which had been popular for a time up until Irene of Athens, was supported by the Franks, the West continued to grow apart from the East. With Irene in charge of the Byzantines, however, the East-West relationships had cooled. The relationship between Irene and Charlemagne had grown even warmer. In 803, to unify the two great powers of Europe, Irene and Charlemagne married, combining the Frankish and Byzantine Empires to form the Carolingian Union.
Unifying Two Powers
The marriage of Irene and Charlemagne angered both the Frankish and Byzantine empires. In order to bring the nations and cultures together, the newlyweds worked on pacifying their own kingdoms as well as each others' kingdoms. Charlemagne was slow and calm in his methods. He worked on uniting the two powers religiously and culturally. Byzantine music and food, along with art that hadn't been destroyed by the iconoclasts, began to be introduced to the Frankish Empire. Meetings with Dukes frequently featured Byzantine dishes, allowing for the rich and powerful to grow more accustomed to the Byzantines. Conversely, Frankish food was prepared as Charlemagne met with Byzantine senators and other officials.
Charlemagne was also afraid of appearing power-hungry. In order to make the Byzantines more at peace with the unification, Charlemagne signified a difference between 'Eastern Roman Emperor' and 'Holy Roman Emperor'. He avoided taking the title 'Eastern Roman Emperor' until the death of Irene. While Charlemagne was cautious and smooth in dealing with this difference in cultures, Irene of Athens used a more direct approach. Laws were created that forbade the mistreatment of Frankish travelers by Byzantines and vice versa. In 802, several senators and officials had already been replaced after an attempted coup. 803 and 804 saw Irene replacing many senators with people that were more sympathetic to the Frankish Empire.
Pope Leo III played a large role in this unification as well. In 805, he ordered the construction of a Papal palace near the Hagia Sophia. The Pope, every year, began to visit the Hagia Sofia and stay in Byzantium for a month. Groundwork for solving the religious issues between Eastern Europe and Western Europe had begun.
The Unification Wars
While the relations between the Franks and the Byzantines had started to heal, Irene and Charlemagne decided that it was wise to see what their empires could do if they fought on the front lines. The Franks had history with the Slavs, as had the Byzantines. In 806, the Unification Wars began with the goal of creating a common border between the Frankish and Byzantine Empires. As Charlemagne initially fought the Braniches, the Byzantines invaded the Dragovits and the Zagorechians.
The Unification War, like the Saxon War, lasted for quite some time. The Franks subjugated the Braniches before moving on to the Diocleans. Unfortunately, Irene passed away in 806. Furthermore, Charlemagne became unable to lead armies due to his age. His son, Pepin of Italy is entrusted with the armies at this time.
As Charlemagne grew older, he began to see himself as unfit to rule due to his advancing age. He had spent many of his later years in Constantinople. In 814, his health took a turn for the worse. Charlemagne, from 21 January, was bed-ridden. He died on 28 January and was buried on the same day. Pepin of Italy was entrusted with leading the Byzantine Empire while Louis the Pious became King of the Franks and later the Holy Roman Emperor.
Charlemagne left a lasting impression on Europe, changing it and its people forever. His expansion of the Frankish Empire led to it being a major power in Europe before and after its union with the Byzantine Empire. His policies towards the public good and the consolidation of his assets laid the groundwork for the creation of medical and education services around Europe. The unification of the Byzantine and Frankish Empires allowed for religious unity in Europe, allowing for union against marauding sultanates in the centuries to come.
Charlemagne is also noted for starting the Carolingian Dynasty in the Byzantine Empire as well as being a member of the dynasty in Frankia.
Marriages & Children
|Date||Marriage and Heirs||Concubines and Illegitimate Children|
|771||Hildegard of Vinzgouw (758-783)
|784|| Fastrada (765-794)
|803||Irene of Athens (752-807)|