Charlemagne & His Empire

Charlemagne & His Empire

Queen Goosefoot's Son

Charlemagne was born around 742 in Aachen, a city in the Frankish kingdom of Austrasia, located in what is now Germany. His real name was Charles; he wasn't called Charlemagne (from the Latin "Carolus Magnus," or Charles the Great) until long after his death.

His father, Pepin or Pippin III, was elected king of the Frankish Empire when Charlemagne was a child. The king was nicknamed Pepin the Short, while his wife, Charlemagne's mother Bertrada, was nicknamed Bertha of the Big Foot, or Queen Goosefoot. The inspiration for the name "Mother Goose" may have come from Bertha, although she had nothing to do with the English nursery rhymes now published under that name.

Charlemagne was probably an illegitimate child, but his parents eventually tied the knot and had two more surviving children, Carloman and Gisela. Pepin ruled the Frankish empire for 15 years or so before dying of dropsy in 768. His kingdom was then divided between Charlemagne and Carloman.

Charlemagne was about 26 years old when he became king. Carloman was still in his teens. In his Life of Charlemagne, Frankish historian Einhard, who knew Charlemagne personally and presented him in the best possible light, says Carloman treated Charlemagne with "unfriendliness and jealousy," but Charlemagne endured this "most patiently, and, to the wonder of all, could not be provoked to be angry with him."

After just a few years, Carloman died of natural causes and Charlemagne became the ruler of the entire Frankish empire. He went on to conquer much of what remained of Western Europe, making the Carolingian empire one of the greatest empires in world history.

An affectionate man, Charlemagne got along very well with his sister, Gisela, and their mother, Bertrada, treating both with great respect. Gisela was a nun, so she lived in a convent, but Bertrada lived with Charlemagne. It was Bertrada who arranged for Charlemagne to marry a daughter of King Desiderius of the Lombards (a Germanic tribe whose kingdom was in Italy). But it seems this wife was not to Charlemagne's liking, because he soon ended the marriage and took a new wife named Hildegarde, with whom he had six children, according to Einhard.

In 783, Charlemagne was twice bereaved when both Hildegarde and Bertrada died. Before long he found a new wife, Fastrada.

Charlemagne's Children

Charlemagne was a devoted father, and he had a large family: three sons and three daughters by Hildegarde, two daughters by Fastrada, and at least seven other children by various women. "The more the merrier" seems to have been his motto toward children -- when one of his sons died young, leaving five daughters, Charlemagne took all five girls into his household and raised them as his own.

Despite the duties of kingship, he found time to personally supervise his children's upbringing. He ate all of his meals with his children, and took them with him wherever he traveled. In fact, he was so fond of his daughters that he didn't marry them off for political purposes, as most royal fathers did, but kept them at his court. It seems they didn't lack for boyfriends; at least two of the princesses gave birth to illegitimate children. Einhard says Charlemagne pretended not to know about his daughters' love affairs.

Among the king's many children was a son called Pepin the Hunchback, whose mother, Himiltrude, was either Charlemagne's first wife or a concubine. In 792, while Charlemagne was away at war, Pepin conspired with a group of Frankish nobles to kill his father and take the throne. After learning about the plot, Charlemagne sent Pepin to live in a poor monastery.

According to a 9th century writer known as the Monk of Saint Gall (also called Notker the Stammerer), Charlemagne later discovered another plot against his life. Reluctant to punish the conspirators, he sent messengers to ask Pepin the Hunchback for advice. The messengers found Pepin weeding the monastery garden. Grouchily he told them to go back to his father and tell him what he was doing: "digging up useless weeds" to make room for more valuable plants.

The messengers weren't happy with this reply, but Charlemagne understood at once that Pepin had given him good advice. He decided to weed his enemies out of his lands -- by executing them. Then he rewarded Pepin by letting him "choose the manner of life that most pleased him." Pepin chose to move to "the most noble monastery then in existence."

This story probably isn't true, but it does demonstrate that, decades after his death, Charlemagne was remembered as a forgiving father and a wise king. But why did his nobles -- and even his own son -- plot against him? Einhard blames Charlemagne's wife Fastrada, saying her cruelty caused the Frankish nobles to turn against Charlemagne.

After Fastrada died in 794, Charlemagne married his final wife, Luitgard. They had no children together. Luitgard died in 800, and Charlemagne did not remarry.

Holy Roman Emperor

Charlemagne, reigning over his vast empire in West Europe, was in many ways a successor to the emperors of the Western Roman Empire. When Pope Leo III was violently attacked in 799, he fled to Charlemagne for help. Charlemagne placed the pope under his protection and punished his enemies.

Meanwhile, the former Eastern Roman empire, which we now call the Byzantine Empire, was ruled by an empress named Irene, who had deposed her son, Constantine VI, and had his eyes put out. The emperors of the Byzantine empire had always considered themselves to be the rightful successors to the emperors of ancient Rome, but the pope believed that Irene could not legally rule under Roman law because she was a woman, so he decided to give Charlemagne the title of emperor.

At the end of 800, Charlemagne went to Rome, and on Christmas Day he was crowned emperor by the pope. The Holy Roman Empire was born.

(Some experts consider 10th century German king Otto I to be the first true Holy Roman Emperor. Either way, Charlemagne's coronation set the precedent; he was first in a line of emperors that continued for the next one thousand years.)

It is possible that Charlemagne considered marrying Empress Irene to reunite the Eastern and Western empires, but nothing came of this plan. In 802 Irene was overthrown by her own subjects; she died in 803. A later Byzantine ruler, Emperor Michael I, officially recognized Charlemagne as Emperor of the West.

The Greatness of Charlemagne

Charlemagne was a great -- and sometimes brutal -- military leader who expanded his empire by conquering the Lombards, the Saxons, and others. He was also a great reformer and administrator who governed his sprawling empire very effectively.

One of his most important achievements was the establishment of a school system so that all boys throughout his empire could be educated. The emperor believed in educating himself, too; as an adult he studied grammar, mathematics, and other subjects. He was particularly interested in astronomy and foreign languages; he spoke Latin fluently and understood Greek. Like so many people at that time, he could not write, but he tried to learn, and even kept writing tablets under his pillow so he could practice when he had time.

Charlemagne was a tall, strong, active man. He ate simply and preferred to dress in the garb of ordinary Frankish people. According to Einhard, the emperor was deeply religious and very generous to both the church and the poor.

In later centuries, Charlemagne came to be viewed as the ideal Christian king. Legends arose in which Charlemagne and his paladins were portrayed as romantic figures, like King Arthur and his knights.

The real Charlemagne ruled for more than 45 years. He died in 814 and was buried in Aachen Cathedral (located in modern Germany), where his tomb can still be seen. The cathedral, which Charlemagne founded, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Empire After Charlemagne

Near the end of Charlemagne's life, he had his only living legitimate son, Louis I (Louis the Pious), crowned as his co-emperor. After Charlemagne's death, pious Louis packed his sisters off to convents and jumped vigorously into the business of governing the empire.

But, like previous Frankish kings, Louis faced trouble from within his own family. When his nephew Bernard revolted against him, Louis put down the rebellion, had Bernard blinded (inadvertently killing him in the process), and sent Charlemagne's illegitimate sons Drogo, Hugo, and Theodoric to monasteries so they couldn't rebel against him too. Later three of the emperor's own sons from his first marriage -- Lothair, Pippin, and Louis the German -- rose up against him and briefly deposed him.

Upon Louis I's death in 840, the empire was divided between Lothair, Louis the German, and their half-brother Charles the Bald. But Lothair, who had been given the title emperor, believed that his brothers should bow to his authority, and their refusal to do so led to a war -- which Lothair lost. Eventually Lothair abdicated and became a monk. His kingdom was divided between his three sons, one of whom had already been crowned Emperor Louis II.

Louis II died in 875 and was succeeded as emperor by his uncle Charles the Bald (Charles II), who spent his short reign fighting Louis the German's sons. The bald emperor died in 877, and the imperial title passed to Louis the German's son Charles III, nicknamed Charles the Fat. This emperor had a chance to reunite the Carolingian empire -- not because he was a great leader, but because his brothers and cousins kept dying and he kept inheriting their kingdoms. Within a few years, almost all of Charlemagne's empire had fallen into his fat hands.

But Charles III was not up to ruling an empire, and in 887 he was deposed by his nephew Arnulf, who became king of the East Franks. Burgundy, Italy, and the West Franks elected other kings, and the Carolingian empire fell further into chaos.

In 891, Italian king Guido II (Guy of Spoleto) forced Pope Stephen V to crown him emperor. Guy's son Lambert was later crowned co-emperor. But Guy died in 894, and in 896 Arnulf was crowned emperor by Pope Formosus.

The dynamic Arnulf reminded observers of his ancestor Charlemagne, but any dreams he had of restoring the empire were dashed when, soon after his imperial coronation in Rome, the ailing emperor became paralyzed. He returned to Germany and spent several years dying while his fledgling empire fell apart.

Emperor Arnulf died in 899. His successor to the imperial title was Emperor Louis III, son of King Boso of Provence and his wife Irmingard, daughter of Emperor Louis II. (Emperor Louis III, later called Louis the Blind, should not be confused with Arnulf's son Louis the Child, who succeeded his father as king of Germany but not as emperor.) Emperor Louis III engaged in a power struggle with another of Charlemagne's descendants, King Berengar I of Italy -- a struggle which Berengar won in 905, when he blinded Louis and kicked him out of Italy. Louis III went back to Provence, where he died in 928.

Berengar claimed the imperial title in 915. By this time, however, Charlemagne's empire had evaporated, replaced by many separate kingdoms, and the title of emperor brought Berengar little real power. He was murdered in 924.

There is disagreement about whether Charles the Fat, Arnulf, or Louis the Blind should be called the last Carolingian emperor. In any case, the Frankish empire came to an end less than a century after the death of its founder, Charlemagne.