Charlemagne: The First Emperor of Europe

Charlemagne The Formation of a European Identity by Rosamond McKitterick
Charlemagne The Formation of a European Identity by Rosamond McKitterick

Charlemagne: The Father of Europe


Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great, was a member of the Carolingian dynasty and was born on April 2, 747. He became King of the Franks in 768 after the death of his father, Pepin the Short. Charlemagne is known for his remarkable achievements, including the unification of most of Western and Central Europe, and becoming the first recognized emperor to rule from Western Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier.

Early Reign

Initially, Charlemagne ruled as a co-ruler with his brother, Carloman I. But after his brother’s death in 771, he became the sole ruler. He continued his father’s policy of protecting the papacy and became its sole defender, leading to the removal of the Lombards from power in northern Italy. Charlemagne also campaigned against the Saxons to his east, Christianizing them, which resulted in the Massacre of Verden.

Crowning as Emperor Charlemagne reached the pinnacle of his power in 800 when he was crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day at Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This event marked a significant milestone in European history, as it signaled the emergence of a new era.

The Carolingian Empire

Charlemagne’s reign spurred the Carolingian Renaissance, a period of intellectual and cultural growth within the Western Church. He is known as the “Father of Europe” because he united most of Western Europe for the first time since the Roman Empire’s classical era, and he also united parts of Europe that had never been under Frankish or Roman rule. Charlemagne’s reign also laid the foundation for the Holy Roman Empire, which is considered the successor of the Carolingian Empire.


Charlemagne’s death in 814 marked the end of his reign, but his legacy lived on. He was laid to rest in the Aachen Cathedral, in his imperial capital city of Aachen. He married at least four times, and three of his legitimate sons lived to adulthood. Only the youngest, Louis the Pious, survived to succeed him. Charlemagne is a direct ancestor of many of Europe’s royal houses, including the Capetian dynasty, the Ottonian dynasty, the House of Luxembourg, the House of Ivrea, and the House of Habsburg.

The Rise of the Carolingian Dynasty

The Rise of the Franks

In the 6th century, the Franks, a western Germanic tribe, were Christianized, largely thanks to the Catholic conversion of their king, Clovis I. The Franks became the most powerful of the kingdoms that succeeded the Western Roman Empire, ruling over a territory known as Francia, which was led by the Merovingians.

The Decline of the Merovingians

Following the Battle of Tertry, the Merovingians gradually declined in power and were called the rois fainéants, or do-nothing kings. Most government powers were exercised by their chief officer, the mayor of the palace. In 687, Pepin of Herstal, the mayor of the palace of Austrasia, ended the strife between various kings and their mayors with his victory at Tertry, becoming the sole governor of the entire Frankish kingdom.

The Carolingian Dynasty

Pepin was succeeded by his son Charles, also known as Charles Martel. Charles governed the Franks in lieu of a king and declined to call himself king until his sons, Carloman and Pepin the Short, placed Childeric III on the throne in 743 to curb separatism in the periphery. Carloman resigned in 746 to enter the church as a monk, while Pepin brought the question of the kingship before Pope Zachary, asking whether it was logical for a king to have no royal power. The pope decreed that it was better for Pepin to be called king, and in 750, he was elected by an assembly of the Franks, anointed by the archbishop, and raised to the office of king. The Merovingian dynasty was replaced by the Carolingian dynasty, named after Charles Martel.

Expansion of the Frankish Kingdom

Under the Carolingians, the Frankish kingdom spread to encompass most of Western Europe. The Treaty of Verdun in 843 between the grandsons of Charlemagne formed the basis for modern France and Germany, with Charles the Bald becoming the first king of an independent France, Louis the German becoming the first king of an independent Germany, and Lothair I retaining the title of emperor and the capitals Aachen and Rome without jurisdiction. The middle kingdom broke up by 890 and was partly absorbed into the Western and Eastern kingdoms, while the rest developed into smaller “buffer” states that exist between France and Germany today, such as Benelux and Switzerland.

Charlemagne's Early Life

The Bust of Charlemagne is a reliquary from around 1350 which is said to contain the top part of Charlemagne's skull

The Bust of Charlemagne is a reliquary from around 1350 which is said to contain the top part of Charlemagne’s skull

Elusive Birthdate and Unknown Birthplace

Charlemagne’s birth date has been a subject of debate among historians, as different sources offer varying dates. One of the most commonly accepted dates is 742, which is based on Einhard’s calculation of Charlemagne’s age at the time of his death in 814. However, this date conflicts with the date given in the Annales Petaviani, which suggests that Charlemagne was born in 747. This contradiction has led some to question the accuracy of both sources.

Another possible date is April 2, 747, which was Easter Sunday. If Easter was considered the start of the calendar year, then April 2, 747, could have been equivalent to April 748 in modern reckoning. However, the preponderance of evidence suggests that Charlemagne was born on April 2, 742, as this date aligns with his age at the time of his death.

Charlemagne’s illegitimate birth is another interesting aspect of his early life. Although he was born out of wedlock, his parents, Pepin and Bertrada, were bound by a private contract or Friedelehe at the time of his birth. They did not marry until two years later, in 744. Einhard, Charlemagne’s contemporary biographer, does not mention his illegitimate birth in his works.

The exact location of Charlemagne’s birthplace remains a mystery, with historians suggesting several possible locations, including Aachen in modern-day Germany and Liège (Herstal) in present-day Belgium. These locations are close to the region where the Merovingian and Carolingian families originated. Other cities have also been proposed, but no definitive evidence exists to support any one location.

The Question of Legitimacy

Historians have debated whether Charlemagne was illegitimate or not. While some argue that his parents’ marriage took place after his birth, others contend that this fact does not exclude him from the line of succession.


Charlemagne had several siblings. Records show that his younger siblings included Carloman, Gisela, and three children who died at a young age: Pepin, Chrothais, and Adelais. These siblings, however, did not overshadow Charlemagne’s eventual ascent to the throne.

Charlemagne’s Reign and Legacy

Charlemagne’s reign as king of the Franks lasted from 768 until his death in 814. During this time, he expanded his kingdom and established the Carolingian Empire, which stretched across much of western and central Europe. He was also known for his military conquests, religious reforms, and cultural patronage.

Today, Charlemagne is regarded as one of the most significant figures of the medieval period. His legacy continues to be felt in modern-day Europe, particularly in the realms of law, language, and religion.

Ambiguous High Office: The Mayor of the Palace

In the Frankish people’s hierarchy, the Mayor of the Palace (Maior Domus) and one or more kings (rex, reges) held the most powerful offices. These officers were elected by the people as required to handle “the highest matters of state.” However, there was a certain ambiguity about these offices, and interim decisions could be made by the Pope, but they needed to be ratified by an assembly of the people annually.

Pepin’s Rise to Power 

Pepin, who later became king in 751, was initially a mayor, a high office he held “as though hereditary.” The Mayorship was usually “given by the people” to the distinguished, but Pepin the Great and his brother Carloman the Wise received it as though hereditary, as had their father, Charles Martel. However, there was a certain ambiguity about quasi-inheritance, and the office was treated as joint property: one Mayorship held by two brothers jointly.

The Pope’s Decision on the Joint Property of the Mayorship

When Carloman decided to resign and become a Benedictine at Monte Cassino, the question of the disposition of his quasi-share was settled by the Pope. He converted the mayorship into a kingship and awarded the joint property to Pepin, who gained the right to pass it on by inheritance. However, this decision was not accepted by all family members, and Carloman’s son, Drogo, was to be disqualified as an heir in favor of his cousin Charles.

Family Conflict

Drogo and Grifo, a half-brother of Pepin and Carloman, opposed the Pope’s decision. Grifo had been given a share by Charles Martel but was stripped of it and held under loose arrest by his half-brothers after an attempt to seize their shares by military action. Grifo perished in combat, and Drogo was hunted down and taken into custody.

Pepin’s Sons Jointly Rule 

Pepin died in Paris on 24 September 768, and the kingship passed jointly to his sons, “with divine assent.” The Franks “in general assembly” gave them both the rank of a king, but “partitioned the whole body of the kingdom equally.” The language suggests that there were not two inheritances, which would have created distinct kings ruling over distinct kingdoms, but a single joint inheritance and a joint kingship tenanted by two equal kings, Charles and his brother Carloman.

Jurisdictions of Charles and Carloman 

As before, distinct jurisdictions were awarded. Charles received Pepin’s original share as Mayor, while Carloman was awarded his uncle’s former share. The question of whether these jurisdictions were joint shares reverting to the other brother if one brother died or were inherited property passed on to the descendants of the brother who died was never definitely settled. It came up repeatedly over the succeeding decades until the grandsons of Charlemagne created distinct sovereign kingdoms.

Charlemagne and Aquitaine: A Tumultuous Relationship

The lands controlled by the Franks at the time of Charles Martel's accession in 714

The lands controlled by the Franks at the time of Charles Martel’s accession in 714

Charlemagne was known for his military prowess and expansion of his kingdom. However, his relationship with the region of Aquitaine was a tumultuous one. Despite his efforts to exert control over the region, he faced fierce resistance from its people and leaders. 

Early History of Aquitaine

Aquitaine, located in the southwest region of modern-day France, was a distinct region with its own culture, language, and identity. It had a long and complex history, having been ruled by various tribes, kingdoms, and empires over the centuries. By the 8th century, it was ruled by Duke Lupus II, who was succeeded by his son, Odilo.

Charlemagne’s Military Campaigns

In the early years of his reign, Charlemagne sought to expand his kingdom by conquering neighboring lands. In 769, he launched his first campaign against Aquitaine, with the goal of subjugating the region and bringing it under his control. His forces were successful in capturing several cities and territories but faced fierce resistance from the Aquitanian people, who saw Charlemagne as a foreign invader.

Political Struggles

Despite his military victories, Charlemagne struggled to establish control over Aquitaine. The region was known for its strong sense of independence and resistance to outside rule. In 778, Charlemagne faced a major setback when his forces were defeated by the Basques while crossing the Pyrenees on their way back to France. The defeat was a significant blow to Charlemagne’s prestige and power.

Ultimate Victory

Despite the setbacks, Charlemagne continued his efforts to subdue Aquitaine. He launched several more military campaigns, and in 781, he succeeded in capturing the Aquitanian capital of Toulouse. Over the next several years, he worked to establish his authority over the region, including appointing loyal officials and building fortifications.


Charlemagne’s efforts to subdue Aquitaine had a lasting impact on the region. While he succeeded in bringing it under his control, his heavy-handed tactics and disregard for local customs and traditions created resentment among the people. Over time, this resentment would lead to further uprisings and conflicts.

The Family Life of a Great Emperor

Charlemagne and Pippin of Italy

Charlemagne and Pippin the Hunchback

Charlemagne, one of the most powerful and successful rulers of the Middle Ages, was not only a formidable warrior and conqueror but also a family man. Over the course of his life, he had several marriages and many children, whose lives and legacies would play a significant role in the history of Europe.

First Marriage: Desiderata

Charlemagne’s first marriage was to a woman named Desiderata, who was the daughter of the Lombard king, Desiderius. The marriage was part of a political alliance between Charlemagne and the Lombards, but it was not a happy one. According to contemporary sources, Desiderata was not well-liked by Charlemagne’s family and courtiers, and the marriage was annulled after just a few years.

Second Marriage: Hildegard

Charlemagne’s second marriage was to a woman named Hildegard, who was from a prominent family in Swabia. The marriage was a happy one, and Hildegard was known for her intelligence and her influence over her husband. Together, they had several children, including their eldest son, Pepin the Hunchback, who was later disinherited due to a physical disability.

Other Marriages and Children

In addition to his marriages to Desiderata and Hildegard, Charlemagne also had several other wives and many children. Some of these marriages were political alliances, while others were the result of Charlemagne’s numerous love affairs.

One of Charlemagne’s most famous mistresses was a woman named Regina, who was said to be a beautiful and intelligent woman from a noble family. Regina bore Charlemagne several children, including a son named Drogo and a daughter named Hruodtrude. Although they were not officially recognized as legitimate heirs, Charlemagne was said to be very fond of his children with Regina.

Charlemagne and his son, Louis the Pious

Charlemagne and his son, Louis the Pious

Charlemagne also had several other children with various women, including several sons who would go on to become powerful rulers in their own right. These included Charles the Younger, who ruled over parts of modern-day Germany and France, and Louis the Pious, who would become emperor after his father’s death.

The Importance of Charlemagne’s Family

Charlemagne’s marriages, wives, and children were not only important for his personal life but also for his political and military ambitions. His marriages to women from powerful families helped to cement alliances and forge peace treaties, while his children were often used as pawns in political negotiations and as future rulers of conquered territories.

Furthermore, Charlemagne’s family legacy would continue long after his death. His descendants would go on to rule over much of Europe for centuries to come, and his impact on the course of European history cannot be overstated.

Charlemagne's Ambitions in Italy

Charlemagne’s ambition to expand his kingdom beyond the Frankish territories was a key driving force behind his Italian campaigns. Italy, with its rich and fertile lands, strategic location, and cultural significance, presented an attractive target for Charlemagne. However, Italy was not an easy conquest. The Lombards, who had ruled Italy since the sixth century, had a strong military and political presence in the region, and the Papacy also had significant influence. Charlemagne would need to employ a combination of military might and strategic alliances to achieve his objectives.

First Campaign: The Lombard Threat

Charlemagne’s first campaign in Italy began in 773, in response to a Lombard attack on the Papal States. Charlemagne swiftly moved to the aid of the Pope, and within a year, he had conquered much of Lombardy. However, the Lombards were not easily defeated, and Charlemagne’s forces faced several setbacks before securing a decisive victory at the Battle of Pavia in 774. With the Lombard king, Desiderius, captured, Charlemagne became the new ruler of Lombardy, and the Papacy gained significant territorial concessions.

Second Campaign: Consolidating Power

With Lombardy under his control, Charlemagne’s attention turned to consolidating his power in Italy. He recognized the importance of the Papacy in securing his position and formed a close alliance with the Pope, granting him significant political and economic support. Charlemagne also established his own capital in Italy, at Pavia, which became a hub for Frankish power and administration. He continued to expand his control over other parts of Italy, including Tuscany, Spoleto, and Benevento, through a combination of military conquest and diplomatic alliances.

Third Campaign: Defeating the Byzantine Threat

Charlemagne’s ambitions in Italy put him in conflict with the Byzantine Empire, which also had significant interests in the region. In 776, Charlemagne launched a campaign against the Byzantines, who controlled parts of southern Italy. Charlemagne’s forces secured a series of victories and forced the Byzantines to cede control of several territories, including Ravenna, to the Franks. This campaign further strengthened Charlemagne’s position in Italy and demonstrated his military prowess.

Legacy: Charlemagne’s Italian Conquests

Charlemagne’s Italian campaigns were a triumph of power and strategy. Through a combination of military conquests and strategic alliances, he extended his control over much of Italy, securing his position as a dominant figure in Europe. Charlemagne’s rule in Italy had a lasting impact, laying the foundations for the Holy Roman Empire and shaping the political and cultural landscape of Italy for centuries to come.

Charlemagne's Conquest of the Basques

Charlemagne, the legendary Frankish ruler, is remembered as one of the greatest conquerors in European history. He expanded his empire through numerous military campaigns, subduing many kingdoms and peoples, including the Basques of Vasconia in the western Pyrenees. The story of Charlemagne’s conquest of Vasconia and the Pyrenees is one of warfare, diplomacy, and cultural exchange.

The Basques of Vasconia

The Basques were a people with a distinct language and culture who inhabited the Pyrenees mountains and the surrounding regions. They had a long history of resisting outside powers, including the Romans and the Visigoths, who had failed to subdue them. The Basques had developed a reputation for being fierce warriors and were known for their skill with the javelin, which they used to great effect in mountain warfare.

Charlemagne’s Campaign

In the early 8th century, the Basques controlled a large territory that included the northern parts of what is now Spain and the southern parts of France. Charlemagne, who had been expanding his empire in all directions, saw the Basques as a threat to his power and decided to launch a campaign against them.

Charlemagne’s army, which was made up of Frankish and Lombard troops, advanced into Vasconia and engaged the Basques in a series of battles. The Basques, who were defending their homeland, fought fiercely and inflicted heavy casualties on the Frankish army. However, Charlemagne was a master strategist, and he used his superior numbers and resources to gradually wear down the Basques and gain the upper hand.

The Turning Point

The turning point in the campaign came when Charlemagne realized that he could not defeat the Basques through military means alone. He began to use diplomacy to win over the Basque leaders and persuade them to submit to his rule. Charlemagne offered the Basques generous terms, including autonomy and protection of their culture and language, in exchange for their allegiance to him.

The Basques, who valued their independence and cultural identity, were initially reluctant to accept Charlemagne’s terms. However, over time, they came to see the benefits of submitting to his rule, including access to trade and protection from other outside powers. Charlemagne also recognized the value of the Basque people and culture, and he encouraged cultural exchange between the Franks and the Basques.

Legacy of the Conquest

Charlemagne’s conquest of Vasconia and the Pyrenees was a significant achievement that helped to consolidate his power and expand his empire. The conquest also had lasting effects on the Basque people and culture. The Basques, who had previously been a fiercely independent people, became part of a larger political entity and were exposed to new ideas and ways of life. However, they also maintained their distinct language and culture, which has survived to this day.

Charlemagne's Roncesvalles Campaign

In the early 9th century, the Basque people were a fiercely independent group who lived in the mountainous regions of what is now Spain and France. They were known for their skill as fighters and their resistance to outside forces. In the year 778, Charlemagne, seeking to expand his empire, launched an invasion of Spain. His army, which was made up of Frankish soldiers and their allies, marched through the Basque region on their way to Pamplona.

The Campaign

As Charlemagne’s army marched through the mountains, they were ambushed by Basque fighters in the pass of Roncesvalles. According to some accounts, the Basques were seeking revenge for the destruction of their city of Pamplona by Charlemagne’s forces. In any case, the ambush was a devastating blow to the Frankish army.

Among those killed in the ambush was Roland, the commander of the rear guard. Roland was a legendary figure in Frankish history and his death at Roncesvalles became the subject of many songs and stories. The battle was also notable for the use of the Basque weapon known as the “hachas de armas,” or battle axes, which were effective against the Frankish knights.


The Roncesvalles Campaign was a significant setback for Charlemagne’s empire. The loss of so many soldiers and the death of a key commander was a blow to his prestige and his ability to project power. It also showed the resilience and determination of the Basque people, who continued to resist outside forces for centuries to come.

In the years following the campaign, Charlemagne attempted to assert his control over the Basque region through a series of military campaigns and treaties. However, the Basques remained fiercely independent and were never fully subjugated by the Frankish Empire.

Charlemagne's Wars with the Moors

Harun al-Rashid receiving a delegation of Charlemagne in Baghdad

Harun al-Rashid receiving a delegation of Charlemagne in Baghdad


In the early eighth century, the Iberian Peninsula was ruled by various Muslim kingdoms collectively known as the Moors. These kingdoms were a significant threat to the Christian kingdoms in the region, and their expansionist policies led to conflicts with the Franks, who were expanding their own empire at the time. In 777, the emir of Córdoba, Abd al-Rahman I, sent a group of soldiers to capture a strategic pass in the Pyrenees. This move was seen as a provocation by Charlemagne, who responded by launching a series of military campaigns against the Moors.


Charlemagne’s campaigns against the Moors began in 778 when he led an army across the Pyrenees to help his ally, the Christian kingdom of Asturias, which was under attack by the Moors. The Frankish army successfully captured the city of Pamplona, but on their way back to France, they were ambushed by Basque tribesmen and suffered a significant defeat. This event, known as the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, is famously depicted in the epic poem The Song of Roland.

Charlemagne did not give up on his campaigns against the Moors, and over the next several years, he launched a series of attacks against their strongholds in the region. In 785, he captured Girona and established the Marca Hispanica, a buffer zone between his empire and the Muslim kingdoms. He also led a successful campaign in 797, which resulted in the capture of Barcelona.


Charlemagne’s wars with the Moors were significant in their impact on both the Franks and the Moors. The Frankish king’s campaigns established the Marca Hispanica, which would serve as a buffer zone between the two empires for several centuries. They also weakened the Muslim kingdoms in the region and paved the way for the eventual Christian reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula.

On the other hand, the Moors’ resistance to Charlemagne’s campaigns also had significant consequences. The campaigns led to the strengthening of the Muslim kingdoms and their ability to defend themselves against future attacks. This ultimately led to the development of the Al-Andalus, a powerful Muslim state that would control much of the Iberian Peninsula for several centuries.

The Struggle for Control of Northern Europe

Charlemagne fighting the Saxons, from a 13th century miniature

Charlemagne fighting the Saxons, from a 13th century miniature

In the early ninth century, the Frankish kingdom was expanding its power and influence across Europe. One of the most significant challenges faced by Charlemagne, the king of the Franks, was the conquest of the Saxons, a people who inhabited the region of modern-day Germany. 

The Saxon Threat

For Charlemagne, the Saxons represented a significant threat to the stability and security of the Frankish kingdom. Although they had been conquered and converted to Christianity by earlier Frankish kings, the Saxons remained fiercely independent and were prone to rebellion. Furthermore, their location on the eastern frontier of the Frankish kingdom made them vulnerable to influence and incursion by neighboring powers, such as the Avars and the Slavs.

The First Saxon War: Conquest and Conversion

Charlemagne’s first campaign against the Saxons began in 772, when he led his armies across the Rhine River and into Saxon territory. The goal of the campaign was twofold: to conquer the Saxons and to convert them to Christianity. Charlemagne believed that the spread of Christianity was essential to the unity and stability of his kingdom, and he saw the Saxons as a prime target for conversion.

The campaign was initially successful, with Charlemagne’s forces taking control of key Saxon strongholds and converting thousands of Saxons to Christianity. However, the Saxons were not easily subdued, and they soon launched a series of rebellions against Frankish rule. Charlemagne responded with a series of punitive expeditions, burning villages and executing rebellious Saxon leaders.

The Second Saxon War: The Massacre at Verden

In 782, Charlemagne launched a second campaign against the Saxons, this time with the goal of securing control of the region once and for all. The campaign was marked by brutal tactics on both sides, with Charlemagne’s forces burning and pillaging Saxon villages and the Saxons launching guerilla attacks on Frankish troops.

The most infamous incident of the second Saxon War was the massacre at Verden, in which Charlemagne ordered the execution of 4,500 Saxon prisoners who had been accused of participating in a rebellion. The massacre was a clear message to the Saxons that Charlemagne would not tolerate rebellion and that he was willing to use extreme violence to maintain control.

The Third Saxon War: Consolidation and Resistance

Following the massacre at Verden, Charlemagne consolidated his control over Saxon territory, dividing it into a series of administrative districts and installing loyal Frankish officials to govern them. However, Saxon resistance continued, and Charlemagne was forced to launch a third campaign against the Saxons in 793.

This campaign was marked by a shift in tactics, with Charlemagne employing a strategy of cultural assimilation to win over the hearts and minds of the Saxons. He encouraged the construction of churches and monasteries in Saxon territory and offered incentives for Saxons who converted to Christianity.

The Legacy of the Saxon Wars

Charlemagne’s Saxon Wars was a significant turning point in the history of northern Europe. The campaigns helped to cement the power and influence of the Frankish kingdom, and they paved the way for the spread of Christianity across the region. However, the wars also had a darker side, with the massacre at Verden serving as a reminder of the extreme violence and brutality that characterized the conflict.

Charlemagne's Coronation: The Symbolic Transformation of an Empire

Charlemagne and the Pope

Charlemagne and the Pope

The Road to Rome

In the year 799, Pope Leo III was attacked by a group of conspirators who attempted to blind him, cut out his tongue, and depose him from his office. The Pope managed to escape and fled to Charlemagne for protection. Charlemagne, who had been in northern Italy at the time, marched to Rome and restored order. In gratitude, the Pope crowned Charlemagne as the new “Patricius Romanorum” or “Protector of the Romans.”

The Coronation

One year later, on Christmas Day in 800, Charlemagne attended mass in the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome. As he knelt in prayer, the Pope approached him and placed a golden crown on his head, declaring him “Emperor of the Romans.” The congregation then shouted three times, “To Charles Augustus, crowned by God, great and peace-giving Emperor, be life and victory!” Charlemagne was taken aback by the coronation, as he had not expected it, but he accepted the title, which bestowed upon him the highest authority in Europe.

The Significance of the Coronation
The coronation of Charlemagne as Emperor, Maximilianeum Munich.

The coronation of Charlemagne as Emperor, Maximilianeum Munich.

Charlemagne’s coronation had significant implications for the future

of Europe. It marked the first time in over 300 years that a single ruler had been recognized as the legitimate ruler of the entire Roman Empire. The title of Emperor carried with it the promise of a new era of peace and stability in Europe, as well as the recognition of Charlemagne’s authority over other rulers in Europe. It also represented a new level of cooperation between the Church and the State, as the Pope had played a key role in Charlemagne’s coronation.

Charlemagne’s coronation also had symbolic significance. By crowning Charlemagne as Emperor of the Romans, the Pope was declaring that the Roman Empire still existed and that its capital was Rome. This was a powerful statement at a time when the Byzantine Empire, which had inherited the Roman Empire’s eastern half, was in decline. It was also a statement that would have far-reaching consequences in the centuries to come.


Charlemagne’s coronation was a momentous event that marked the beginning of a new era in European history. It was a declaration of Charlemagne’s authority over other rulers in Europe, as well as a new level of cooperation between the Church and the State. It also had symbolic significance, as it declared the existence of the Roman Empire and its capital in Rome. Charlemagne’s coronation paved the way for a new era of European history and established the foundation for the Holy Roman Empire.

Charlemagne's Death

 Persephone sarcophagus of Charlemagne made of Parian marble, Aachen Cathedral

Persephone sarcophagus of Charlemagne made of Parian marble, Aachen Cathedral

On January 28, 814, Charlemagne died in his palace at Aachen. His death came after a brief illness, and he was 72 years old at the time. His passing marked the end of an era, both for the Carolingian Empire and for Europe as a whole.

Succession and Aftermath

Following Charlemagne’s death, his only surviving legitimate son, Louis the Pious, inherited the empire. However, the succession was not without its challenges. Charlemagne had several other sons from different wives, and there was significant tension between them and their stepbrother Louis. In addition, the various territories that had been conquered by Charlemagne were often difficult to control, and his death led to numerous rebellions and uprisings.


Despite the difficulties that arose after his death, Charlemagne’s legacy continued to be felt throughout Europe. His military conquests helped to expand the Frankish kingdom and establish it as a dominant force in Europe. His administrative reforms laid the groundwork for centralized government and paved the way for the development of modern nation-states. And his cultural achievements helped to spark a revival of learning and artistic creativity that would continue to flourish for centuries to come.


Charlemagne’s death marked the end of an era in European history. His reign had been marked by numerous military conquests, administrative reforms, and cultural achievements. However, his passing also led to significant challenges and upheaval, both for the Carolingian Empire and for Europe as a whole. Nevertheless, his legacy continued to be felt throughout the continent, and his influence on European history remains significant to this day.


Featured Image

Charlemagne at dinner

Charlemagne at dinner

The dinner table is set, and guests are seated, eagerly anticipating the feast. As they take their seats, they notice a beautiful miniature painting adorning the wall. The painting depicts Charlemagne, the great king and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, in all his glory. The miniature is from BL Royal MS 15 E vi, f. 155r (the “Talbot Shrewsbury Book”), which is held and digitized by the British Library.

The painting captures Charlemagne’s commanding presence, with his majestic crown and regal attire. He is surrounded by knights and courtiers, who appear to be paying homage to their great leader. Charlemagne’s face exudes a sense of authority and wisdom, befitting a ruler who achieved so much during his lifetime.

The guests at the dinner table marvel at the painting, discussing the historical significance of Charlemagne’s reign. They talk about how he united most of Western Europe, and how he was the first recognized emperor to rule from Western Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. They also discuss how Charlemagne’s reign spurred the Carolingian Renaissance, a period of energetic cultural and intellectual activity within the Western Church.

As the guests continue to admire the painting, they are reminded of Charlemagne’s enduring legacy as a powerful ruler and defender of the papacy. The painting serves as a reminder of Charlemagne’s historical significance and his lasting impact on Europe.


  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, March 28). Charlemagne. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation.

  • Einhard. (1880). The Life of Charlemagne. Translated by Samuel Epes Turner. New York: Harper and Brothers

  • Charlemagne, Emperor. (1969). Two Lives of Charlemagne. Translated by Lewis Thorpe. London: Penguin Books

  • Hummer, H. (2010). Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity, by Rosamond McKitterick (2008). Journal of Interdisciplinary History; The MIT Press.‌

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