The Conquests, Coronation, and Rule of Charlemagne
Jamie L. Wood
Western Civilization Paper #2
Tuesday, November 10, 1998
Charlemagne one of the most ambitious, aggressive, and noble kings of medieval
times. He ruled the Franks from 768 to 814 and became Emperor of the Romans from
800-814. During his tenure as Emperor of the Romans Charlemagne created an empire
that would be the envy and model for many ambitious monarchs to follow. The
coronation of Charlemagne as emperor goes beyond the conflict between Church and
state. It is a symbolic event. Charlemagne's coronation marks the union of the Roman
and the German civilizations, and the union of the Mediterranean and the northern
Charlemagne was born in Northern Europe on April 2, 742. He was born the first
of two sons to the Mayor of the Palace and Frankish King, Pepin the Short, and
Bertrade ("Bertha Greatfoot"). Charlemagne's father, Pepin the short, was elevated by
decree of the Roman Pope Stephen II, from the rank of Mayor of the Palace to that of
King and ruled alone over the Franks from 752 to 768. On September 24, 768, Pepin
died of dropsy. At that time he was in Paris. It was towards the end of the Aquitanian
War, which he had undertaken with William, Duke of Aquitania, for nine consecutive
years. Following the death of Pepin his two sons, Charlemagne and Carloman
succeeded him, "upon whim, by the grace of God, the succession devolved. (Einhard
October 9, 786, the Franks appointed Charlemagne and Carloman each as kings.
The kingdom was equally divided between them. Ultimately, Charlemagne ruled the part
that had belonged to their father, Pepin the Short, and Carloman ruled the part which
their uncle, Carloman had governed. However, shortly thereafter and in 771, Carloman
died, and Charlemagne became sole ruler of the entire kingdom.
Charlemagne was reportedly tall, powerful, and tireless. His secretary, Einhard,
wrote that Charlemagne had fair hair and a "face laughing and merry . . . . his
appearance was always stately and dignified (Einhard par. 22)." He had a ready wit ,
but could be stern. He was typical of the Franks in his love for hunting and for feasting,
but Einhard notes that his king drank in moderation-- a mere three cups of wine with a
meal. Charlemagne was a ruthless king. However equally notable was his
perseverance, his ability to organize, and his ability to carry through a plan. One more
important attribute of Charlemagne was his physical energy. He was able to work longer
and more arduous hours than his commanders or his secretaries.
Charlemagne's character was contradictory. "All the rest of his life he was
regarded by everyone with the utmost love and affection, so much that not the least
accusation of unjust rigor was ever made against him (Einhard par. 20)." Notably, in an
age when the usual penalty for defeat was death, Charlemagne was known to spared
the lives of his defeated opponents. Yet in 782 at Verden, after a Saxon uprising, he
ordered about 4,500 Saxons beheaded. He forced kings and princes to kneel at his feet,
yet his mother and two of his favorite wives often overruled him in his own household.
He obliged the clergy and nobles to reform, on the other hand, but he divorced two of his
four wives without any known cause being reported therefore.
During Charlemagne's reign, he was determined to strengthen his realm and
bring order to Europe. He launched a thirty-year campaign to accomplish this objective.
More than fifty military expeditions were sent out by Charlemagne to increase the Frank
kingdom by almost doubling it during his forty-seven years of reign:
"The authority of the Franks was formerly
confined to that part of Gaul included between the Rhine and
the Loire, the Ocean and the Balearic Sea; to that part of
Germany which is inhabited by the so-called Eastern Franks,
and is bounded by Saxony and the Danube, the Rhine and
the Saale- this stream separates the Thuringians from the
Sorabians' and to the country of the Alemannir and bavarians
. . . . he first made tributary Auitania, Gascony, and the whole
of the region of the Pyrenees as far as the River Ebro, which
rises n the land of the Navarrese, flows through the most
fertile districts of Spain, and empties into the Balearic Sea,
beneath the walls of the city of Tortosa. He next reduced
and made tributary all Italy from Aosta to Lower Calabria,
where the boundary line runs between the Beneventans and
the Greeks, a territory more than a thousand miles long; then
Saxony, which constitutes no small part of Germany . . . . in
addition both Pannonias, Draca beyond the Danube, and
Istria, Liburnia, and Dalmatia . . . . he vanquished and made
tributary all the wild and barbarous tribes dwelling in
Germany between the Rhine and Vistula, the Ocean and the
Danube (Einhard par. 15)"
After bringing the war begun by Charlemagne's father with Aquitania to an end,
Charlemagne was persuaded in 773 by Hadrian, Bishop of the city of Rome, to declare
war on the Lombards of Italy. Charlemagne was married to the sister of the Lombard
king, Desidrius. However, Charlemagne was no longer interested in maintaining the
marriage so he repudiated her and sent her away claiming the marriage was not valid.
The enraged Desidrius immediately began plotting to rebel against Charlemagne. When
this conspiracy was discovered, Charlemagne had all the reason needed to justify an
invasion of Italy in order to dethrone Desiderius. Charlemagne sent the captured king off
to a monastery and proceeded to claim the royal title for himself, thus, ending the age of
The conquest of the Saxons was a much more lengthy mission. Saxony was still
ruled by Saxons, who had remained pagan. "No war ever undertaken by the Frank
nation was carried on with such persistence and bitterness, or cost so much labor,
because the Saxons, like almost all the tribes of Germany, were a fierce people, given to
the worship of devils, and hostile to our religion, and did not consider it dishonorable to
transgress and violate all law, human and divine (Einhard par. 7)." In 772, Charlemagne
decided that it was in the best interests of both the realm and Church that he end all
The war with the Saxons lasted for thirty-three successive years because of the
Saxon's faithfulness. Many times they were defeated and humbly succumbed to
Charlemagne. However, the next year he was pre-occupied by the war with Lombardy,
and the Saxon chiefs ignored their oath to receive missionaries and to send tributes
payments to the Christian King.
Saxons continued to rebel by killing Christian priests, rebuilding their pagan
temples and refusing to pay the tribute money. In 783, Charles himself fought in two
battles with the Saxons on Mount Osning and the other battle on the bank of the Hase
river. He once again devastated the land, defeated their armies, and converted their
chiefs. In return the Saxons rebelled, yet again. Lead by a war chief named Widukind,
the Saxons were so thoroughly destroyed by Charlemagne's army that further Saxon
resistance was impossible. After finally conquering the Saxons, Charlemagne took ten
thousand of the residents living on the banks of the Elbe and resettled them into other
lands. The Saxon culture was destroyed to the point where it would not rebel again.
In the middle of the vigorous and nearly continual struggles with the Saxons
Charlemagne covered the frontier by military forces at the proper points and marched
over the Pyrenees into Spain leading all the forced he was able to assemble. All the
towns and castles that he attacked surrendered, and until the time of his homeward
march he endured no loss. However, on his return through the Pyrenees he had cause
to be sorry for the disloyalties of the Gascons. The great threat from Spain were the
Charlemagne's march over the Pyreness enabled him and his armies to win back
a couple of cities and establish the territories of his realm. This venture was known as
the Spanish March. During his retreat over the mountains, Charles had in his trail his
booty of goods and winnings. The Pyrenees were a perfect place for an ambush for the
reason that the area was densely populated with both Moslems and Basques, neither of
whom cared for the Franks. Charles set a rear guard to cover his retreat. The theory of
having this rear guard was that it would ensure that no Moslem army would advance
suddenly and catch Charlemagne on the march. Once his army safely crossed over the
mountains the rear guard was to catch up and rejoin the main force. The young Brenton
prince, Roland, was the captain of the rear guard. Roland's force was ambushed and he,
along with the rest of his men, died while sacrificing himself and his men for their king.
Many of Charlemagne's men fell due to this ambush, including Eggihard, the King's
steward; Anselm, Count Palatine; and Roland, Governor of the March of Brittany.
Charlemagne had conquered many other lands as the result of several
campaigns during his rule, such as: the Brentons in 787, the Bavarian in 788, the Slavic
War in 789, The war with the Huns in 791, and the Danish War in 805. These
conquered territories had a significant affect on the shape of politics throughout the rest
of the Middle Ages. The campaigns tied northern Italy to the Empire; claimed French
kings to Navarre (the Spanish March); eliminated the Saxons, Lombards, and Avars;
and claimed French kings to parts of what would later be Germany. By establishing a
central government over Western Europe, Charlemagne restored much of the unity of
the old Roman Empire and paved the way for the development of modern Europe.
"Having thus established Frankish rule over so many other peoples, Charlemagne
had in fact built an empire and become an emperor. It remained only for him to add the
title (Little, par. 5)." On Christmas Day in 800, while Charlemagne knelt in prayer in
Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome, "Pope Leo III placed upon his head the imperial crown,
did him formal reverence after the ancient manner, saluted him as Emperor and
Augustus and anointed him, while the Roman's present burst out with the acclamation,
thrice repeated: 'To Carolus Augustus crowned by God, mighty and pacific emperor, be
life and victory' (Shahan, par.25)."
Charlemagne administered the Frankish realm by appointing counts to rule
particular regions within France. Above the counts were dukes, who were the provincial
governors whose duty it was to govern the principal divisions of the realm. However,
Charlemagne found this system to be inefficient. He knew that there was a constant
tendency for his dukes and counts to act independently of him and ignore
Charlemagne's order. To change this tendency, Charles appointed missi dominici, or
servants of the lord. The court officers would act as inspectors who investigated the
behavior of royal officials and reported back to the court. They carried all the prestige of
Charlemagne and, therefore, could imply the threat of his power.
Charlemagne created two main bodies of law; imperial law and local law. The
different peoples that made up the Carolingian empire continued to live according to
their own national laws. In order to rule the conquered peoples, Charlemagne sent out
scholars to study the laws and interview those who knew the laws of the individual
tribes. He then had the laws published and enforced. The imperial laws were superior to
the local laws. Charlemagne issued these laws which affected everyone and were
imposed throughout his realm.
Charlemagne believed that government should be for the benefit of the governed.
He was a tireless reformer who tried to improve his people's lives by working to spread
education and Christianity in every class of people. However, most importantly, the
coronation of Charlemagne marks the beginning of European history, for only now do we
begin to see a formation such as Europe. His many campaigns and conquests unified
the land by establishing a system of government and rule.
Einhard. "The Life of the Emperor Charles." (Samuel Epes Turner, trans.) n. pag.
Online. Internet. August 1996. Available
Little, Lester K. "Charlemagne." Microsoft Encarta Encyclopaedia. 1998
Pirenne, Henri. Mohammed and Charlemagne. New Jersey: Barnes and Noble
Riche, Pierre. Daily Linfe in the World of Charlemagne. (Jo Ann McNamara, trans.)
Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978.
Shahan, Thomas S. "The Catholic Encyclopedia: Charlemagne." n.pag. Online.
Internet. 1996. Available http://www.knight.org/advent/cathen/03610c.htm.