Charlemagne: King of the Franks and Lombards

Charlemagne receives Alcuin, 780
Charlemagne receives Alcuin, 780.

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Charlemagne was also known as:

Charles I, Charles the Great (in French, Charlemagne; in German, Karl der Grosse; in Latin, Carolus Magnus)

Charlemagne's titles included:

King of the Franks, King of the Lombards; also generally considered the first Holy Roman Emperor

Charlemagne was noted for:

Consolidating a large portion of Europe under his rule, promoting learning, and instituting innovative administrative concepts.


Military Leader
King & Emperor

Places of Residence and Influence:


Important Dates:

Born: April 2, c. 742
Crowned Emperor: Dec. 25, 800
Died: Jan. 28, 814

Quote Attributed to Charlemagne:

To have another language is to possess a second soul.

About Charlemagne:

Charlemagne was the grandson of Charles Martel and the son of Pippin III. When Pippin died, the kingdom was divided between Charlemagne and his brother Carloman. King Charlemagne proved himself a capable leader from early on, but his brother was less so, and there was some friction between them until Carloman's death in 771.

Once King, Charlemagne had sole rule of the government of Francia, he expanded his territory through conquest. He conquered the Lombards in northern Italy, acquired Bavaria, and campaigned in Spain and Hungary.

Charlemagne used harsh measures in subduing the Saxons and virtually exterminating the Avars. Though he had essentially amassed an empire, he did not style himself "emperor," but called himself the King of the Franks and Lombards.

King Charlemagne was an able administrator, and he delegated authority over his conquered provinces to Frankish nobles. At the same time, he recognized the diverse ethnic groups he had brought together under his dominion, and allowed each to retain its own local laws.

To ensure justice, Charlemagne had these laws set down in writing and strictly enforced. He also issued capitularies that applied to all citizens. Charlemagne kept an eye on events in his empire through the use of missi dominici, representatives who acted with his authority.

Though never able to master reading and writing himself, Charlemagne was an enthusiastic patron of learning. He attracted noted scholars to his court, including Alcuin, who became his private tutor, and Einhard, who would be his biographer.

Charlemagne reformed the palace school and set up monastic schools throughout the empire. The monasteries he sponsored preserved and copied ancient books. The flowering of learning under Charlemagne's patronage has come to be known as the "Carolingian Renaissance."

In 800, Charlemagne came to the aid of Pope Leo III, who had been attacked in the streets of Rome. He went to Rome to restore order and, after Leo purged himself of the charges against him, he was unexpectedly crowned emperor. Charlemagne wasn't pleased with this development, because it established the precedent of papal ascendancy over secular leadership, but though he still often referred to himself as a king he now also styled himself "Emperor," as well.

There is some disagreement as to whether or not Charlemagne was really the first Holy Roman Emperor. Although he did not use any title that directly translates as such, he did use the title imperator Romanum ("emperor of Rome") and in some correspondence styled himself deo coronatus ("Crowned by God"), as per his coronation by the pope. This appears to be enough for most scholars to allow Charlemagne's hold on the title to stand, especially since Otto I, whose reign is generally considered to be the true beginning of the Holy Roman Empire, never used the title either.

The territory Charlemagne governed is not considered the Holy Roman Empire but is instead named the Carolingian Empire after him. It would later form the basis of the territory scholars would call the Holy Roman Empire, although that term (in Latin, sacrum Romanum imperium) was also seldom in use during the Middle Ages, and never used at all until the mid-thirteenth century.

All pedantry aside, Charlemagne's achievements stand among the most significant of the early Middle Ages, and although the empire he built would not long outlast his son Louis I, his consolidation of lands marked a watershed in the development of Europe.

Charlemagne died in January, 814.

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Snell, Melissa. "Charlemagne: King of the Franks and Lombards." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Snell, Melissa. (2020, August 28). Charlemagne: King of the Franks and Lombards. Retrieved from Snell, Melissa. "Charlemagne: King of the Franks and Lombards." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).