Charlemagne is still politically relevant today. He is often called the “founder of Europe,” and in France and Germany he is celebrated as an iconic figure. The royal families of Europe claimed descendance from him until the 20th century, and the Empire he created in central Europe lasted until 1806. He took the earlier work of Charles Martel in saving the west from invaders and Clovis in unifying France and did what nobody had managed to do since the fall of Rome – finally bring Europe out of the dark ages.
He was born under the name of Carolus sometime in the 740s AD, the grandson of Charles “the hammer” Martel, the man who had repelled a series of Islamic invasions and ruled as de facto monarch until his death in 741. Martel’s son Pepin the Short became the first truly recognised King of Charles’ Carolingian dynasty, and when he died in 768 the throne of the already impressively large Frankish kingdom passed to his two sons Carolus and Carloman. Dividing the kingdom, too big to govern solo by Dark Age standards, between brothers was common Frankish practice, and predictably it never ended well. Carloman and Carolus were only kept from open hostility by their despairing mother Bertreda, and – like many of history’s great figures – Carolus enjoyed a huge slice of luck when his brother died in 771 just as Bertreda’s influence was beginning to be overcome by their bitter rivalry. Now recognised by the Pope as sole ruler, Carolus became one of the most powerful men in Europe overnight, but he was unable to rest on his laurels for long. Much of the power of the Carolingian Kings rested on their close relationship with the Pope. It was he, in fact, who had elevated Pepin from Mayor to King, and this divinely ordained power was an important political as well as religious aspect of Charlemagne’s reign. In 772, just as he consolidated his kingship, Pope Adrian I was attacked by the northern Italian Kingdom of the Lombards, and Carolus rushed across the Alps to help him, crushing his enemies in battle and then launching a two-year siege of Pavia before heading south and receiving the Pope’s adulation. A thousand years later, Napoleon would compare himself to Charlemagne after making the same move, and David’s famous painting of him on horseback bears the name Karolus Magnus inscribed on a rock in the foreground. Charlemagne then had himself crowned with the famous Iron Crown of Lombardy, and became master of Italy as well as France Germany and the Low Countries.
He was truly a warrior King in a way that is almost unmatched before or since, spending almost the entirety of his thirty-year reign at war. His style was to ride at the head of his men surrounded by his heavily-armoured Spoila bodyguards, brandishing his famous sword Joyeuse. Given his record as a commander, this alone must have been a huge morale blow for his enemies. The Italian campaign was followed by near-constant conquests in Saxony, Spain and as far afield as Hungary and Slovakia, as his armies crushed the Avars, brutal nomadic invaders from the east. Tribute flooded in from across Europe, and the serenity brought to its heart by the war zones becoming further and further away allowed a flowering of art and culture, particularly in Charlemagne’s capital of Aachen. With the Avars now Frankish vassals and all other states up to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the north-west enjoying good if slightly terrified relations with Charlemagne, Europe was far more of a collection of interdependent states than it had been for many centuries. This was no small thing. It meant that the horizons of its small squabbling kingdoms expanded beyond simple survival for the first time since the fall of Rome, and their shared Christian faith meant that learning was shared and encouraged between kingdoms. It is no coincidence that European federalists today salute Charlemagne as their inspiration.
His greatest moment was still to come. In 799 another squabble in Rome lead to the new Pope, Leo, taking refuge with the Frankish King and demanding his restoration. When this was achieved Charlemagne was unexpectedly crowned Holy Roman Emperor in an elaborate ceremony where the Pope declared that the Western Roman Empire, which had fallen in 476, had never really died but was waiting for the right man to restore it to its former glory. There is some historical debate about whether Charlemagne wanted or was expecting this coronation or not, but the important thing is that he accepted the Imperial Title and became the heir of a line of Emperors dating back to Augustus. For the remaining fourteen years of his life it truly was as if the golden days of the Roman Empire had returned. On this day in 814 Charlemagne, which means Charles the Great, died in Aachen, aged about seventy. His legacy would last a very long time. Though the power of the Holy Roman Empire declined over the following centuries and the title lost its prestige, it was not dissolved until Napoleon, ironically, broke it up in 1806. The latter took a huge amount of inspiration from Charlemagne, and his legacy was honoured greatly in Napoleon’s own coronations as King of the Lombards and Emperor of the French. Most importantly, however, the European-wide influence of Charlemagne’s empire started a long process by which that insignificant bit of land at the western end of Eurasia came to dominate world history as its tiny kingdoms got a brief glimpse of glory.