What Made Charlemagne so Great?

An Introduction to Europe's First All-powerful King

Charles the Great
Charlemagne Crowned by Pope Leo III, December 25th, 800. SuperStock / Getty Images

Charlemagne. For centuries his name has been legend. Carolus Magnus ("Charles the Great"), King of the Franks and Lombards, Holy Roman Emperor, the subject of numerous epics and romances—he was even made a saint. As a figure of history, he is larger than life.

But who was this legendary king, crowned emperor of all of Europe in the year 800? And what did he truly achieve that was "great"?

Charles the Man

We know a fair amount about Charlemagne from a biography by Einhard, a scholar at court and an admiring friend. Although there are no contemporary portraits, Einhard's description of the Frankish leader gives us a picture of a large, robust, well-spoken, and charismatic individual. Einhard maintains that Charlemagne was exceedingly fond of all his family, friendly to "foreigners," lively, athletic (even playful at times), and strong-willed. Of course, this view must be tempered with established facts and the realization that Einhard held the king he had so loyally served in high esteem, but it still serves as an excellent starting point for understanding the man who became the legend.

Charlemagne was married five times and had numerous concubines and children. He kept his large family around him nearly always, occasionally bringing his sons at least along with him on campaigns. He respected the Catholic Church enough to heap wealth upon it (an act of political advantage as much as spiritual reverence), yet he never subjected himself wholly to religious law. He was undoubtedly a man who went his own way.

Charles the Associate King

As per the tradition of inheritance known as gavelkind, Charlemagne's father, Pepin III, divided up his kingdom equally between his two legitimate sons. He gave Charlemagne the outlying areas of Frankland, bestowing the more secure and settled interior upon his younger son, Carloman. The elder brother proved to be up to the task of dealing with the rebellious provinces, but Carloman was no military leader. In 769 they joined forces to deal with a rebellion in Aquitaine: Carloman did virtually nothing, and Charlemagne subdued the rebellion most effectively without his help. This caused considerable friction between the brothers which their mother, Berthrada, smoothed over until Carloman's death in 771.

Charles the Conqueror

Like his father and his grandfather before him, Charlemagne broadened and consolidated the Frankish nation through force of arms. His conflicts with Lombardy, Bavaria, and the Saxons not only expanded his national holdings but also served to strengthen the Frankish military and keep the aggressive warrior class occupied. Moreover, his numerous and impressive victories, especially his crushing of tribal rebellions in Saxony, gained Charlemagne the enormous respect of his nobility as well as the awe and even the fear of his people. Few would defy such a fierce and powerful military leader.

Charles the Administrator

Having acquired more territory than any other European monarch of his time, Charlemagne was forced to create new positions and adapt old offices to suit new necessities. He delegated authority over provinces to worthy Frankish nobles. At the same time, he also understood that the various people he had brought together in one nation were still members of distinct ethnic groups, and he allowed each group to retain its own laws in local areas. To ensure justice, he saw to it that each group's laws were set down in writing and carefully enforced. He also issued capitularies, decrees that applied to everyone in the realm, regardless of ethnicity.

While he enjoyed life at his royal court in Aachen, he kept an eye on his delegates with envoys called missi dominici, whose job it was to inspect the provinces and report back to the court. The missi were very visible representatives of the king and acted with his authority.

The basic framework of Carolingian government, though by no means rigid or universal, served the king well because in all cases power stemmed from Charlemagne himself, the man who had conquered and subdued so many rebellious peoples. It was his personal reputation that made Charlemagne an effective leader; without the threat of arms from the warrior-king, the administrative system he had devised would, and later did, fall apart.

Charles the Patron of Learning

Charlemagne was not a man of letters, but he understood the value of education and saw that it was in serious decline. So he gathered together at his court some of the finest minds of his day, most notably Alcuin, Paul the Deacon, and Einhard. He sponsored monasteries where ancient books were preserved and copied. He reformed the palace school and saw to it that monastic schools were set up throughout the realm. The idea of learning was given a time and a place to flourish.

This "Carolingian Renaissance" was an isolated phenomenon. Learning did not catch fire throughout Europe. Only in the royal court, monasteries, and schools was there any real focus on education. Yet because of Charlemagne's interest in preserving and reviving knowledge, a wealth of ancient manuscripts was copied for future generations. Just as important, a tradition of learning was established in European monastic communities that Alcuin and St. Boniface before him had sought to realize, overcoming the threat of the extinction of Latin culture. While their isolation from the Roman Catholic Church sent the famous Irish monasteries into decline, European monasteries were firmly established as keepers of knowledge thanks in part to the Frankish king.

Charles the Emperor

Although Charlemagne had by the end of the eighth century certainly built an empire, he did not hold the title of Emperor. There was already an emperor in Byzantium, one who was considered to hold the title in the same tradition as the Roman Emperor Constantine and whose name was Constantine VI. While Charlemagne was no doubt conscious of his own achievements in terms of acquired territory and a strengthening of his realm, it is doubtful he ever sought to compete with the Byzantines or even saw any need to claim an illustrious appellation beyond "King of the Franks."

So when Pope Leo III called on him for assistance when faced with charges of simony, perjury, and adultery, Charlemagne acted with careful deliberation. Ordinarily, only the Roman Emperor was qualified to pass judgment on a pope, but recently Constantine VI had been killed, and the woman responsible for his death, his mother, now sat on the throne. Whether it was because she was a murderess or, more likely, because she was a woman, the pope and other leaders of the Church did not consider appealing to Irene of Athens for judgment. Instead, with Leo's agreement, Charlemagne was asked to preside over the pope's hearing. On December 23, 800, he did so, and Leo was cleared of all charges.

Two days later, as Charlemagne rose from prayer at Christmas mass, Leo placed a crown on his head and proclaimed him Emperor. Charlemagne was indignant and later remarked that had he known what the pope had in mind, he would never have entered the church that day, even though it was such an important religious festival.

While Charlemagne never used the title "Holy Roman Emperor," and did his best to appease the Byzantines, he did use the phrase "Emperor, King of the Franks and Lombards." So it is doubtful that Charlemagne minded being an emperor. Rather, it was the bestowal of the title by the pope and the power it gave the Church over Charlemagne and other secular leaders that concerned him. With guidance from his trusted advisor Alcuin, Charlemagne ignored the Church-imposed restrictions on his power and continued to go his own way as ruler of Frankland, which now occupied a huge portion of Europe.

The concept of an emperor in the West had been established, and it would take on much greater significance in centuries to come.

The Legacy of Charles the Great

While Charlemagne attempted to rekindle an interest in learning and unite disparate groups in one nation, he never addressed the technological and economic difficulties that Europe faced now that Rome no longer provided bureaucratic homogeneity. Roads and bridges fell into decay, trade with the wealthy East was fractured, and manufacturing was by necessity a localized craft instead of a widespread, profitable industry.

But these are only failures if Charlemagne's goal was to rebuild the Roman Empire. That such was his motive is doubtful at best. Charlemagne was a Frankish warrior king with the background and traditions of the Germanic peoples. By his own standards and those of his time, he succeeded remarkably well. Unfortunately, it is one of these traditions that led to the true collapse of the Carolingian empire: gavelkind.

Charlemagne treated the empire as his own personal property to disperse as he saw fit, and so he divided his realm equally among his sons. This man of vision for once failed to see a significant fact: that it was only the absence of gavelkind that made it possible for the Carolingian Empire to evolve into a true power. Charlemagne not only had Frankland all to himself after his brother died, his father, Pepin, had also become the sole ruler when Pepin's brother renounced his crown to enter a monastery. Frankland had known three successive leaders whose strong personalities, administrative ability, and above all sole governorship of the country formed the empire into a prosperous and powerful entity.

The fact that of all Charlemagne's heirs only Louis the Pious survived him means little; Louis also followed the tradition of gavelkind and, furthermore, almost single-handedly sabotaged the empire by being a little too pious. Within a century after Charlemagne's death in 814, the Carolingian Empire had fractured into dozens of provinces led by isolated nobles who lacked the ability to halt invasions by Vikings, Saracens, and Magyars.

Yet for all that, Charlemagne still deserves the appellation "great." As an adept military leader, an innovative administrator, a promoter of learning, and a significant political figure, Charlemagne stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries and built a true empire. Although that empire did not last, its existence and his leadership changed the face of Europe in ways both striking and subtle that are still felt to this day.

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Snell, Melissa. "What Made Charlemagne so Great?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-made-charles-so-great-1788566. Snell, Melissa. (2021, February 16). What Made Charlemagne so Great? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-made-charles-so-great-1788566 Snell, Melissa. "What Made Charlemagne so Great?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-made-charles-so-great-1788566 (accessed March 27, 2023).