Important Facts about Charlemagne

Charlemagne Study Guide

Charlemagne, king of the Franks, c1920. Charlemagne (Charles the Great) (747-814). Print Collector / Contributor/ Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

Birth and Family:

  • Charlemagne's parents were Pippin III and Bertrada, who wed in 744.
  • His traditional date of birth (742) makes him illegitimate. Most scholars agree he was born after his parents married, possibly as late as 747.
  • Charlemagne married five times and had numerous concubines and children. He kept his family around him nearly always, sometimes bringing his sons with him on campaigns.
  • Only one legitimate son, Louis, survived him to inherit the empire.

Campaigns, Conquests & Expansion:

Charlemagne's methods could be extreme, but the end result was the largest territory to be governed under one ruler in Europe in the Middle Ages. (See map.)

  • Avars: 791-796
    The Avars had once controlled a small empire near present-day Belgrade. Charlemagne virtually eliminated their society, the remains of which would succumb to the Bulgars in the 9th century.
  • Bavaria: 788
    When Duke Tassilo reneged on his oath of fealty, the king removed him from power and put Bavaria under his jurisdiction. This brought the territory of all the Germanic tribes into one political unit.
  • Lombardy: 771-774
    Answering the call for help of Pope Adrian I, who was pressured by the Lombard king to anoint Carloman's sons as Frankish kings, Charlemagne launched a campaign that included an extended siege of Pavia, Lombardy's capital.
  • Saxons: 772-804
    The war against the Saxons, though interrupted by truces, pledges of allegiance and mass baptisms, was particularly bloody and included the execution of 4,500 Saxon prisoners in one day. In all, Charles engaged the Saxons 18 times.
  • Spain: 778
    Charlemagne's most serious defeat took place when he failed to take Saragossa, retreated across the Pyrenees, and was ambushed by Basques. The death of one of his lords would later be memorialized in the epic poem, The Song of Roland.


Charles generally delegated authority as follows:

  • Comtes (Counts) ruled regions within the stable territory of Francia
  • Margraves governed newly-acquired territories ("marches"), where military measures were necessary to maintain order
  • Both comtes and margraves reported to Dukes, governors of the larger divisions of land who were Charlemagne's close relatives and most trusted friends
  • Missi dominici acted as his emissaries and inspectors general, traveling throughout the empire

Cultural Impact:

Charlemagne's patronage of learning would result in:

  • A "Carolingian Renaissance" in which art and literature would flourish
  • The preservation of numerous Latin manuscripts that would otherwise have been lost
  • The establishment of a good number of monastic schools
  • The creation of "Carolingian Miniscule," an alternative to the capital letters used in Latin text

Charlemagne's Legacy:

Although the empire Charles built did not long outlast his death, still his consolidation of territory was an important stage in the growth of Europe. In addition, many of the changes and developments made by Charles himself, or fostered due to his patronage, would endure long beyond the Carolingian Empire.

  • The offices created or adapted by Charlemagne would persist for centuries in the variations of counts, dukes and marquises across Europe and Britain.
  • Charlemagne reorganized the monetary system, devising the system of pounds, shillings and pence used throughout Europe in the middle ages and in Britain until the 1970s.
  • The monastic schools Charlemagne developed would preserve a tradition of learning, which in turn made an important burst of medieval scholarship possible in what became known as the 12th-century Renaissance.
  • 90% of the works of ancient Rome now in existence are preserved in the form of eighth- and ninth-century manuscripts copied in Carolingian monasteries.
  • The Carolingian miniscule script would eventually become the lower-case letters we use today.
  • The Song of Roland, inspired by events that took place in Charlemagne's worst defeat, is the earliest known chanson de geste. It is part of a cycle of works that revolve around Charlemagne, about whom many legends sprang up. These legends, known as "the matter of France," would influence French and European literature through the centuries to today.
  • Charles had a palace and a cathedral built in his favorite town, Aachen (or Aix-la-Chapelle), where he also died and was buried. Aachen became the location of the coronation of every emperor until the 16th century.
  • The Carolingian Empire would inspire a tenth-century ruler, Otto the Great, to consolidate his territory in what came to be known as the Holy Roman Empire. Covering much of what Charles had controlled during his lifetime, the Holy Roman Empire was one of the most significant political entities of the Middle Ages.

Charlemagne Study Guide