Charlemagne was long-lived and the most influential Carolingian king. Born in 768 and dead in 814, he reigned for over forty years. Indeed, he is so successful in his military endeavors that he subdues areas which even the Romans were unable to conquer. Eventually, he declares himself ‘emperor’ over the West, a title not used since 476, and receives the title on Christmas day in the year 800.
Reinhardt, a friend, and confidant of Charlemagne wrote a biography from which we know some intimate details about the emperor’s life. Unfortunately, since Reinhardt was deeply indebted to Charlemagne and the numerous perks he receives while in his court, the biography strives to put Charlemagne in the best possible light. Written also to act as a commentary on the policies of Lewis the Pious, and Reinhardt regarded as being very clever, there is little which is trustworthy in the biography itself. Even so, since information on Charlemagne is short, we must rely on it if we wish to know anything about Charlemagne.
Some details from the biography: Charlemagne was a physically imposing individual. He is very tall, thick, and has a bit of a bulging stomach, though he has a thin voice. He liked to dress down and wear Frankish clothing while hating it whenever the pope tried to put him in fancy Italian clothing for important events (here, it seems like Charlemagne is like a contemporary conservative politician, wearing Carharrts in an effort to appeal to the poor working class). Among his hobbies, he liked swimming and taking hot baths. He hated singing in public. A very devout person, Charlemagne loved listening to monks chant and liturgical sounds; he was, however, very selective in his practices and spurned fasting as well as from abstaining from meat, which was his favorite food. Supposedly, Charlemagne knew Latin, well, and even a little Greek. His favorite book was, supposedly, St. Augustine’s City of God which was read aloud to him.
However, we should treat these claims with a degree of modesty since Charlemagne could not spell his own name, even after years of trying. Another biographer writing several decades after Charlemagne’s death, a monk named Monker, tells how Charlemagne would interrupt the monks chanting at the oddest of places, such as in the middle of a sentence or even part way through a word; the idea is that if Charlemagne was not good in Latin, then he would have interrupted the monks in this way in order for them to repeat certain words and phrases so he would understand them.
Inhardt tells how Charlemagne was a family man and had good relations with his son, Lewis the Pious who would succeed him. But even this is spun a way by Inhardt, who tells that the reason why Charlemagne traveled with his daughters was that he could not bear to be separated from them for even a minute, looking the other way when they became involved with romances on the basis that it was just ‘kids being kids’. More likely, the reason why Charlemagne kept his daughters single was because he was afraid that a usurper would try and re-orient the direction of the Frankish kingdoms.
In 771, after his brother dies of natural causes, Charlemagne inherits his kingdom after his brother’s wife and infant sons escape across the borders to the Lombards. Had this fortunate turn of events not happened, it is unlikely that Charlemagne would have been as successful as he had been as he would have needed to devote years to conquer his brother’s territories by force.
In the 770s, Charlemagne began attacking his neighbors in every direction. First, he takes on the Saxons living east of the Rhine River— people who live as the Franks did some centuries earlier, they are pagan, illiterate, and no urban life. Though there was a long history of raiding the Saxons for slaves, Charlemagne didn’t want slaves, he wanted to integrate the Saxons into his kingdom and impose Christianity upon them. His wars against the Saxons were long and bloody and likely the most difficult that he had to fight; his first campaign comes in 772 and his final campaign comes in 804, more than thirty years of annual fighting. The reason for the difficulty in conquering the Saxons was that because the Saxons had no urban life, and were divided up into hundreds of various tribes, they would need to be conquered one by one. Once conquered, Charlemagne would demand that they be baptized en mass. But this was a laborious process and the Saxons, after being conquered, would renounce Christianity and renounce Charlemagne, forcing him to return the following spring. Eventually, he became frustrated with the Saxons and had several thousand executed by hand. In the end, though, they did succumb to Charlemagne. Ironically, centuries later, the Saxons would do to their east, what the Carolingians did to them.
In conquering the Saxons, Charlemagne conquered what it today Germany, the territory from the Rhine River up to the Elba River. In addition to the Saxons, Charlemagne took on the Lombards, though in contrast to the Saxon fighting, the fighting against the Lombards was swift and easy.
Because the Lombards had absorbed the culture which they encountered when they first entered Italy in the sixth century, they had become town dwellers and so centralized their kingdom to a degree. This worked against them when Charlemagne invaded and captured the capital, thereby forcing thereby of the territory to fall in short order. Inhardt says that why Charlemagne attacked the Lombards was for the same reason given previous—in order to protect papal property; meanwhile, no mention is given of the erstwhile wife and young heirs who fled to the Lombards, though we can expect the worst. At any rate, it took only one year for the Lombards to be conquered and in 774 the war was over.
But this conquest also made Charlemagne’s life more politically difficult. Since the Lombards took the land from the Byzantines, and the Byzantines would have liked the territory back, but since Charlemagne had no intention of giving the territory back, despite the various entreaties made by the Byzantines, as a result relations deteriorate.
Apparently, the state of affairs as they presently stood did not satisfy Charlemagne, who quickly became involved in Islamic Spain. Here, Charlemagne was opportunistic; encouraged to engage on the side of one of the two feuding Islamic dynasties, Charlemagne’s first foray into Spain was a disaster. However, once Charlemagne arrives at the city which called for his help, it appears that the two feuding families have settled affairs and no longer need Charlemagne, refusing to let him into the city. So, he returns home, but is ambushed by Christian Basque militants and suffers a grievous defeat where his rearguard is massacred. From this defeat emerges the text Song of Roland, written by a Carolingian fisher who died at this battle.
Despite this set-back, Charlemagne does not quit in attempting to make territorial gains in Muslim territories. In 801, his son captures Barcelona. This list of military undertakings, though, hardly scratches the surface Charlemagne’s enemies. When he is crowned emperor in 800, for example, it was a controversial event. Inhardt claims that Charlemagne did not know he was going to be crowned emperor that day, that when he went into Christmas mass he had no idea that the pope planned on popping a crown on his head. To say that Charlemagne did not know anything of what would happen was unlikely, especially since Charlemagne often tried to ape the Byzantines since he respected their empire so much. But it is also likely that he didn’t know all of the undertaking about the happening since much of the preparation was done by the pope (Leo the Third, 795-817).
Leo gives Charlemagne the title of emperor for trivial reasons. When Leo is elected pope, the relatives of the previous pope had hoped that another member of their own family would be elected; when such didn’t come to pass, they tried to remove Leo by slandering him (calling him a fornicator and a purger, allegations which were likely true), and when that didn’t work, they tried imprisoning him where they botched removing his tongue and blinding him. Eventually, Leo escaped from his monastery prison. He fled to Charlemagne’s court pleading his case for Charlemagne to come to Rome in order to defend him. Charlemagne did come to Rome since Carolingian authority was tied to papal authority; if the papacy was undermined, for instance, then Carolingian claims might be undermined as a result. When a committee elected to dig to the bottom of the issue fails to make a ruling, Charlemagne arranges for an oath to be taken by Leo in which if he truthfully swears to be innocent, then all charges are to be dismissed. Leo accepts the oath and several days later Charlemagne is crowned emperor.
With the tile of emperor also comes some disagreements on who will be crowned emperor; originally, Charlemagne feared that it could undermine the Carolingian dynasty by holding them in thrall to the papacy until the pope decided to declare them emperor in return for services. Originally, Charlemagne decides that all of his sons were to be given their individual kingdoms after his death and that none of them would receive the title of emperor. But after all but one of his sons dies, he changes his mind and in 813, Lewis the Pious is crowned emperor thereby tugging away the papacy’s authority on the matter. But, it is not clear that Charlemagne had the right to do this and so in 816, after Charlemagne’s death, Lewis the Pious undergoes a second crowning ceremony by the pope, in which the authority is reclaimed by the papacy.