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|The widely conquering and powerful king of the Franks (768-814) and Emperor of the Romans (800-14) that
English speakers today know as Charlemagne (742-814), or Charles the Great, was known in latin as Carolus Magnus. He is
today remembered by the French as Carlus Magnus and by the Germans as Karl der Grosse - both these peoples see
him as having had a positive role in their respective histories.
He was probably born in Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle), on April 2, 742, as a son of the Pepin III "the Short." This Pepin was himself one of two brothers who effectively controlled the Frankish kingdom as "Mayors of the Palace" and who were sons of the renowned warrior Charles Martel. The year and the place of the birth of Charlemagne are both uncertain, according to the contemporary scholar Alcuin he could have been born as late as 745 - others suggest Liege as the place of his birth. It is not certain that Bertrada (or Bertha), the mother of Charlemagne, a daughter of Charibert, Count of Laon, was legally married to Pepin until some years later than either 742 or 745.
In 751 Pepin the Short, having sought the consent of the then pope, dethroned the last of the ineffectual Merovingian royal line and assumed the royal title himself. He was crowned by Pope Stephen II at St. Denis on the Seine, on the 28th of July, 754.
Besides anointing Pepin, Pope Stephen anointed both Charlemagne and his younger brother Carloman. Within the year Pepin invaded Italy to protect the pope against the Lombards, and in 756 he again had to rush to the pope's aid. From 760 on, Pepin's main military efforts went into the conquest of Aquitaine, the lands south of the Loire River. Charlemagne accompanied his father on most of these expeditions.
When Pepin died in 768, sovereignty of his realms was divided according to an arrangement, as finalised by Pepin before his death, between his two sons. Frankish custom supported such divisions of territory amongst the sons of rulers.
Charlemagne sought an alliance with the Lombards by marrying (770) the daughter of their king, Desiderius (reigned 757-774). Some significant infighting between the brothers was ended by Carloman's death on 4 December, 771. In line with Frankish custom Charlemagne assumed control of the vast lands Carloman had inherited and a less serious dispute was continued thereafter with Carloman's descendants who took refuge in the court of Desiderius. Relations between Charlemagne and Desiderius were further complicated by Charlemagne having divorced Desiderius' daughter in 771 in order to marry a beautiful Swabian lady.
After Pope Adrian I appealed to Charlemagne for help (against Desiderius who had invaded the papal lands in his efforts to secure papal recognition of titles for Carloman's sons) the Frankish king invaded Italy, deposed his erstwhile father-in-law (774), and himself assumed the royal title. He then journeyed to Rome and reaffirmed his father's promise to protect papal lands.
From about 772 Charlemagne was frequently involved in wars with other, often pagan, peoples. The Saxons were numbered amongst the earliest and most enduring (over 30 years!!!) of these adversaries as Charlemagne attempted to forcefully induce them to accept baptism. Other campaigns were pursued in today's Spain (778) and Bavaria (788) and against the Avars (791-6) who held sway over much of today's Hungary and Austria.
The considerable inheritance that had derived from Pepin together with the vast lands that Frankish armies under Charlemagne had won control over taken together constituted a remarkably powerful kingdom. On Christmas Day 800, as Charlemagne knelt in prayer in Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome, Pope Leo III placed an Emperor's crown upon his head. It is not clear that Chartlemagne expected this but whether he did or not the people assembled in the church acclaimed him the great, pacific emperor of the Romans. Western rulers and popes had tender to regard the Emperors in Constantinople with the respect due to a sovereign previous to this but a disputed succession to that title helped to clear the way for this coronation.
Charlemagne maintained a more permanent royal capital than had any of his predecessors. His favorite residence from 794 on was at Aachen. He delighted in the good hunting territory in that locality. An imposing church and a palace were constructed there based, in part, on architectural borrowings from Ravenna and Rome. At his court he gathered scholars from all over Europe, the most famous being the English cleric Alcuin of York, whom he placed in charge of the palace school. This school became the focus of a renaissance in learning - the so-called Carolingian renaissance.
From the 790s the lands controlled by Charlemagne began to experience what later proved to be a most grievious scourge. Viking longships bore vigourous bands of warriors along the sea-coasts and up navigable rivers leading to much spoil and devastation. Charlemagne attempted to combat this new threat by building up a naval force but such destructive raidings were not effectively prevented.
The empire did not expand significantly after 800. In 813 Charlemagne designated his sole surviving son, Louis, as his successor, and personally crowned him in a ceremony conducted at Aachen. Charlemagne died at Aachen, on January 28, 814 after some four years of poor health.
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Start of Charlemagne
King of the Franks
Holy Roman Emperor