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Who was Charlemagne?

Updated on December 3, 2016

Charlemagne (Charles the Great, 742-814), King of the Franks, was the son of Pepin the Short, whose realm included most of modern France and western Germany. In 772 Charles led a campaign against the heathen Saxons who had been raiding his borders, and for the next thirty years he was to be engaged in subduing these warlike tribesmen. In 773, at the request of Pope Hadrian I, he defeated the Lombard kingdom in northern Italy, but returned in 775 to deal with a Saxon rebellion and decided to convert the tribes by force. Missionaries baptized the pagans on pain of death and when they revolted under Witikind in 782 Charles took a terrible vengeance, massacring the nobles, dispersing tribes and extending his domains to the Elbe.

Earlier that year he had invaded Spain to attack the Saracens, but during his withdrawal his rearguard suffered a disastrous defeat at Roncesvalles, where his knights Roland and Oliver perished. Eventually he fortified the frontier and obtained a strip of territory called the Spanish March. Bavaria was added to his possessions in 788 and, after that, the territory of the dreaded Hungarian Avars, whom he exterminated.

As champion of Christendom, he went to Rome in 799 to save Pope Leo III from his enemies and to restore him to the papal throne. On Christmas Day 800 Leo crowned him Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. For the next fourteen years Charles concentrated on ruling and touring his domains, which now stretched from Brittany to the Elbe, from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. He divided the Empire into counties, each ruled by a count, and he also appointed envoys called missi to carry out tours of inspection.

A giant of a man, with colossal energy and a sharp inquisitive brain, he built churches, monasteries, schools and a splendid palace at Aachen, working ceaselessly to instil order and justice into his unruly subjects . Everything interested him, from peasant farming to religious debate, and he loved discussion with scholars like Alcuin, the English monk who became his chief adviser. During his long reign Charlemagne brought order and Christian culture to the West, but after his death the Empire, divided among his three sons, soon fell apart.

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