Charles the Great built an empire unifying Europe. His kingdom was from the Pyrenees to Poland. It bordered toward South with the pope’s lands. It touched the shores of the North Sea and the Baltic toward North. Charlemagne created the single European currency.
Charlemagne was crowned emperor on December 25, 800, on Christmas night, in Basilica of S. Pietro in Rome by Pope Leo III. Einhard, his personal historian, wrote that the coronation was a surprise to Charles, reporting all the events that saw him involved. But it was a lie told to keep calm the Byzantine emperors, who thought they were the only legitimate perpetrators of the Roman Empire and they considered Charlemagne as a usurper.
Even Charlemagne was not really happy of as the ceremony was developed. Leo III had done so to crown Charles knelt down before him, as if to establish the supremacy of the pope on the emperor. Even the frank nobility was not very satisfied with the coronation with the final acclamation of the Roman people, who confirmed they right to elect “their” Emperor.
The coronation of Charlemagne followed that to the King of Italy in 774. He had been girded with the Iron Crown in the cathedral of Pavia. With this latest ceremony had taken formal possession of his three kingdoms: King of the Franks, King of Italy, Emperor of the western side of former Roman Empire (then Holy Roman Empire).
Charlemagne was born on April 2, 742 at an unknown location. His father was Pepin the Short, the first Carolingian to be crowned king of the Franks, the mother was Bertrada of Laon. The Merovingians had kept the royal office until the death, without heirs, of Theodoric IV. The grandfather of Charlemagne, Charles Martel, was the last of the Mayors of the Palace of the Merovingian “kings lazy”. The Mayors of the Palace were in fact the ones who actually ruled. Charles Martel had accumulated so much power and wealth that his son Pepin managed to establish himself as a new sovereign, founding the Carolingian dynasty.
Charles Martel had taken steps to expand the kingdom. He faced the Moors who had invaded France and he defeated they in the famous battle of Poitiers. The son Pepin had consolidated his power. The kingdom including France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the western part of Germany, excluding Saxony and Bavaria. The main subdivisions of France were: Neustria to north, Aquitaine to west, Burgundy to east. The part of Germany under the Carolingian domination was divided as follows: Austrasia to north, Swabia to south, and other smaller regional entities.
Pepin the Short died on September 23, 768. His two sons, Charles, nicknamed the Great or Charlemagne, and Carloman succeeded him. The territories of Neustria, Austrasia and the northern Aquitaine, Atlantic belt of the kingdon, were assigned to Charles. The south Equitania, Burgundy, Swabia and other small regions, Mediterranean and Alpine belt of the kingdom, were assigned to Carloman.
Charles tried to expand his territory to eastern Germany and the Baltic, while Carloman was on the defensive, since he had to worry about the Moors of Spain who were trying to overflow beyond the Pyrenees, as well as Lombard question in Italy, a thorn in the south of his kingdom.
The mother of two, Bertrada, moved to have an alliance with the Lombards, forming with their boss a series of family relationships. She arranged the marriage between Desiderata, daughter of Desiderius, king of the Lombards, and Charles. Charles the Great, to marry Desiderata, had to repudiate his previous wife, Himiltrude, with whom he had two children: Pippin and Alpais. The son of Desiderius, Adelchis, was married Gisela, sister of Charles and Carloman.
This alliance between Desiderius and Bertrada, irritated the pope but also Carloman, who was excluded from the mother’s planes. The two joined forces to counter the dominance of Charles and resize the power of the Lombards in Italy in favor of the pope.
Carloman died suddenly and mysteriously on 4 December 771, he was 23 years old. His brother took possession of the whole kingdom. Charles, called Charlemagne, was king of the Franks, and reigned over France, Germany, Holland and Belgium.
In 771 Charlemagne also repudiated his second wife Desiderata (also known as Ermengalda), married following an agreement with his father Desiderius, as the relationships were compromised with the Lombards.
He married the woman of his life, Hildegard, with whom he had nine children, after the divorce of his second wife. Hildegard was the daughter of Gerold I Swabian and German Emma.
Charlemagne led the Franks through more than 60 military campaigns during his life, to conquer new territories and to consolidate his power.
In 773 he was called by the new Pope Adrian I, as the Lombards of Desiderius had not complied with the agreements and did not deliver some territories to the pope. Charlemagne and his army crossed the Mont Cenis and he besieged Pavia, where Desiderio barricaded with his men. The siege of the city lasted nine months, as Charlemagne waited patiently, without clashes, that the defenders surrendered by starvation.
During the nine-month of siege, Charlemagne went to Rome to pay homage and to strengthen the alliance with the new pope. He was received with all the honors, with the crowd that was celebrating him as a Roman Patrician. The pope and the cardinals were waiting for him at the door of Basilica of S. Pietro.
The king of the Franks renewed his alliance with the pope, confirming the transfer of the territories already granted by Pepin the Short, but never took place. This assignment however will never happen. Charles, in the following years, escaped the encounter with the Pope because he was not reproached by Pope for the broken promise.
In June 774 the Pavia siege ended with the surrender of the city. Desiderius was submitted to the Franks and Italy came under the Carolingian crown. It was on this occasion that Charles was crowned in the cathedral of Pavia King of the Franks, the Lombards and Roman Patrician, girdling the Iron Crown.
Charles, after having defeated the Lombards, waged a military campaign against the Saxons. They occupied the lands in the north of Germany, beyond the Rhine. Several military expeditions were necessary to completely subdue the people, the last was in 804. Charlemagne used the technique of scorched earth. The cultivated fields were destroyed to starve the proud population. Frankish militia made numerous massacres. The survivors were forcibly converted to the Christian faith, with mass baptisms. In 804 Charles, to win definitely their strength, made to deport more than 10,000 Saxons, transferring them in Aquitaine.
The Carolingian king, to control his vast empire, created the feudal system. He divided the territory into 200 provinces. He puts the “Counts” at the head of the same. This was the first level of nobility created by Charlemagne. The territories of the provinces were themselves divided among the vassals. The Counts represented the administrative direction, judicial and military of the provinces entrusted to them, the bishops tended the religious life of citizens. The second feudal level were the “Marquis” who had the larger territories, placed at the edges of the empire. The Marquis also had the burden of maintaining an army to defend the borders. Both Counts and Marquises were under the strict jurisdiction of the king, who could dismiss them at any time. The last feudal degree were the “Dukes”. These were the leaders of the defeated populations and aggregated to the empire, which were subdued to Charles. They preserved the sovereignty in respect of their people. They could only be dismissed in case of rebellion against their king. The imperial envoys checked everything, who were sent into the provinces to make sure that the laws and regulations issued by Charlemagne were respected.
In 778 Charlemagne had the bad idea to conquer the Iberian peninsula, to chase away the Moors and liberate Christians who lived there. He was called for help from one of caliphs, because of rivalry among them. The King of franks crossed the Pyrenees with his army, joined by allied forces. The attempt of Zaragoza conquest proved a fiasco, also because of the Christians, who lived in the city, were the Moors’ side instead of supporting the Christian king Charlemagne. The Moors treated Christians well. they were not convinced that they can get a better treatment from the Frankish king.
Charlemagne retreated with his army with a good booty in tow, after the failure of Zaragoza and noting that the local Christian populations were not avaiable to support the action of the franks. On 15 August 778 the retreating army was attacked by Basque forces in Roncvisvalle in the Pyrenees, following the betrayal of some noble of Aquitaine. Charlemagne suffered one of the hardest military defeats of his life. Thousands of soldiers killed in the battle. There was also Hruodlandus (Roland), prefect in Brittany, among the dead. The battle of Roncesvalles and his hero Roland were the subject of poems and songs (Chanson de Roland, Orlando Furioso), which recounted the exploits of the military leaders of France.
In 768 Charlemagne settled in Aachen (Latin: Aquisgrana) his winter residence. Although at the time there was no concept of capital, the German city became de facto capital of the Carolingian Empire. The name Aquisgrana derived from the presence of numerous thermal springs: Aquae (from the Latin: water), granne (from celtic: Health).
Charles established a single silver coin, the “Denier“, with fixed exchange rate. This was a genuine European currency. The “denier” was also adopted in foreign territories to the Carolingian court. This monetary system replaced the various coins that were created during the Middle Ages and that derived from “solid” and “pound” Roman based on gold. “Denier” is still synonymous with money.
The administration of justice was entrusted to imperial officials: Counts, Marquises and Dukes. He tried to harmonize the laws of the various countries, which were not replaced but integrated. The adoption of written codes obliged the notables of the state to have a decent education. Charlemagne also promoted the restoring of a correct Latin. It was popularized during the Middle Ages, so that the Latin spoken and written in a place was almost incomprehensible in a different territory.
In 783 died Hildegard. Charles remarried for the third time with Fastrada, and they had two daughters. Fastrada died in 794. His last girlfriend was Luitgard whom he married in 799. The young Luitgard died the following year.
In 788 Charles the Great, suspecting treason cousin Tassilo, Duke of Bavaria, who some years before had made the oath of allegiance to the king, deposed him and had him arrested along with his wife Liutperga and children, fully annexing the duchy to his empire. Tassilo and the children were locked up in a monastery, his wife was banished and daughters were forced to become nuns.
The Avars were a population of Mongolian origin who lived in present-day Hungary. They were a threat to the empire’s eastern flank, with their raids in the territories of Bavaria and Friuli. In 791 Frankish troops invaded the territory of these tribes along the Danube route. The army was followed by boats and barges carrying supplies for troops. Military campaigns against the Avars ended in 795 when the Tudun Khan went to Aachen submitting to Charlemagne, agreeing to be converted to Christianity with his people.
In 795 Pope Adrian I died, he was a sincere friend of Charles. Leo III was his successor. He was of humble origins, and he was on the papal throne without being able to rely on the pontifical court and the powerful Roman families. Leo turned to the king of the Franks to have the necessary support to exercise his role, confirming him in the post of Roman Roman Patrician, and in that of king of the Franks and king the Lombards. Charlemagne, taking advantage of the weak position of the pope, wanted to impose his power even on the church. He sent an ambassador with a reform plan of the diocese of Bavaria, with the creation of a bishopric in Salzburg. The pope conformed to the will of Charlemagne, in fact acknowledging his supremacy over the church.
The king Charles the Great was also asked about the old question of “filoque“. The pope wanted to confirm the doctrine declaring the Holy Spirit descending from the Father through the Son, as it had been stated in several councils. Charles disagreed. He wanted that the doctrine “filoque”, the Holy Spirit descending from the Father and the Son on an equal footing, was adopted.
On December 25, 800 Charles was crowned emperor by the pope in St. Peter’s.
Irene empress reigned in Constantinople. She disagreed the news of the coronation of Charlemagne. This appointment put him on a pair of the Eastern emperors, who considered themselves the legitimate heirs of the Roman Empire. Several embassies attempted to establish friendly relations, These embassies decided to marry the son of Irene, Constantine VI, with the daughter of Charlemagne, Rotrude. The marriage did not celebrate for various reasons, not least the question of religion called “Iconoclasm”.
In 812 the emperor of Constantinople recognized the imperial authority of Charlemagne on the western part of the ancient Roman Empire. In return, Charles renounced his claim to the Dalmatia and Istria in favor of Constantinople.
In 806 Charlemagne had made a first division of his empire among his three sons. Inheritance was not recognized to the eldest son Pippin, borned by Himiltrude, because he was considered a natural son, although Charlemagne was married to the mother. Charles, the first child had with Hildegard, had intended the northern part of the empire. Carloman, the second son born to Hildegard, then called Pepin, had Italy, Bavaria and Alemannia, who ruled from that time under the rule of his father. The third son Louis had the Aquitaine, Gascony and Provence. Later, after the untimely death of Pepin and Charles, Louis was appointed successor to the whole empire, alongside his father in the administration of the kingdom.
Charlemagne died in his palace at Aachen on January 28, 814, at the age of 72, he was buried in the cathedral of Aachen.
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Derek Wilson, Carlomagno, barbaro e imperatore, Bruno Mondadori 2010