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Blessed Charles the Great

Updated on July 10, 2012
Blessed Charles the Great
Blessed Charles the Great

Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor

Like Saint Constantine, almost everybody knows who Blessed Charles the Great is but very few people know that he is a Blessed. Unlike Constantine, Charlemagne (another, more famous form of his name) is not technically a Saint. Instead, he is, as previously mentioned, a Blessed. This means that while the Blessed, like a Saint, is definitively said to be in Heaven, the Blessed should only be publicly venerated in certain places and used in conjunction with certain specific liturgical exercises. In Blessed Charlemagne's case, it is permitted to publicly venerate him in France and Germany; privately, Catholics are at liberty to ask for his intercession and use him as a model of Holiness wherever they would like.

Blessed Charles the Great was born around 751 (I say "around" since the exact year of his birth is not known; some sources give his birth year as early as 742). He was the son of King Pepin the Short and Bertrada of Laon, making him the heir to the Frankish Empire conquered by his grandfather Charles Martel. In 768 Charlemagne succeeded his Father and ruled the Empire together with his brother Carolman I.

The relationship between Charlemagne and his brother was said to be strained, although this may have been exaggerated by Carolingian chroniclers of the time period (Carolingian is the term used to refer to Charlemagne's noble family). Nevertheless, it is undisputed that in 771 Carolman died; the circumstances of his death are not clear, but it left Charlemagne as the sole ruler of the Carolingian Empire.

As the sole ruler of his Empire Charlemagne continued his Father's favorable policy toward the papacy in Rome (Pepin the Short was actually anointed by Pope Stephen III and declared Patrician of Rome, a title Charlemagne also adopted). As the Patrician of Rome Charlemagne was charged to protect the Holy See from invasion. His first challenge was against the Lombards of Lombardy, Italy. Charlemagne ultimately beat and conquered them at the Italian town of Pavia.

He also spent 30 years of near-constant campaigning in an attempt to conquer the pagan Saxons of Saxonia. He gave them two choices: Conversion to Christianity or death. Their leader Wittekind converted to Christianity in 785. In 777 Charlemagne suffered his most famous defeat, as recorded (and mythicized) in the epic Song of Roland. The epic recounts Charlemagne's failed invasion into Moslem Spain and his subsequent retreat where he lost his great paladin, Roland (a paladin was one of Charlemagne's great knightly champions).

For his efforts (efforts they were, even if not all of them were completely successful) defending the papacy and converting people to Christianity, Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day 800.

This crowning by Pope Leo III was a shrewd strategic move; the Western Roman Empire was effectively being revived. More ominously, the Pope was also claiming the Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantine Empire) illegitimate, as it was ruled by a woman, the Empress Irene. This probably did a lot to lead to the later Great Schism between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches; in any case, the power struggle between Rome and Constantinople had been set up in spectacular fashion.

Charlemagne himself, however, did a lot of good for Christianity and for his Empire during his reign. He was a lover of learning and revived education throughout Europe. He studied under another great Saint, Saint Alcuin, and promoted many of the liberal arts, which flourished in his Empire. He was also a great promoter of liturgical music. His understanding of the technical aspects of music led him to have a great appreciation of it, and he supported Rome's insistence on properly regulated liturgical music and enforced proper Church music throughout his Empire.

Charlemagne also encouraged ecclesiastical discipline and was highly interested in the deliberation of Church synods (meetings). In 806, Charlemagne divided his great Empire amongst his three sons, none of whom were ever nearly as spectacularly successful as their father (who did admittedly set a remarkably high standard). Charlemagne tragically died on January 28, 813, after receiving Holy Communion in his bed. He was 62 years old. He was buried that same day in the Cathedral in Aachen, the capital of his empire. His death was mourned greatly by the people.

Charlemagne's legacy as a Christian was a great one. He converted several large groups of people to Christianity and protected the Holy See from invaders. He helped regulate Church music that is still used in mass to this day. His educational reforms ensured that knowledge of the ages past did not fade away over time and he helped create a better quality of life for his people...and what's more Christ-like than that?

The feast day for Blessed Charles the Great is January 28, the day of his death. He is the patron of the University of Paris,.


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