Charles the Great aka Charlemagne or Charles I (2 April 742 28 January 814). King of the Franks, King of the Lombards, and Imperator Romanorum. Established the Carolingian Empire. Fostered the spread of Christianity throughout Western Europe. Crowned the first Western Roman Emperor in over three centuries since the end of the actual Western Roman Empire, sowing the seeds of what would become the Holy Roman Empire. Shed the blood of four thousand Saxon men.
The son of Pepin the Short and Bertrada of Laon (aka "Bertha Broadfoot"), as well as grandson of the legendary Charles The Hammer Martel, Charles was born into the brutal and cutthroat world that was 8th century Europe. Both his father and grandfather had grand ambitions to quell the internal power struggles that plagued the Frankish kingdom and build a larger, more stable empire. But Charlemagne was the one who actually pulled it off, and he pulled it off so brilliantly that he is still regarded as one of the greatest leaders in European history, the inspiration for many statesmen and would-be conquerors throughout history...for better or for worse.
Not much is known for certain about Charlemagnes early life. He was born some time around 742, in what is now Belgium. He was apparently very well educated; he was literate (which was a big deal back then, even for royalty), and spoke several languages, including Latin and Greek. With the death of Pepin in 768, in accordance with Frankish tradition, his kingdom was divided evenly between his sons Charles and Carloman. Despite working together to quell an Aquitanian uprising early in their reigns, the two brothers were almost constantly at each other's throats. After a diplomatic falling out between Charles and the Lombards of northern Italy, Carloman was just about ready to ally himself with the Lombards and go to open war with his brother... when Carloman suddenly — conveniently — died of illness in 771. This left Charles as now sole ruler of the Franks, at which point he promptly got down to business conquering the known world.
Lombardy was first on the list. Forming an alliance with Pope Adrian I, Charlemagne rolled into northern Italy, besieging the Lombards at Verona and Pavia, and accepting their surrender in the summer of 774. In gratitude, the Pope bestowed upon him the title of patrician note . Charlemagne himself, meanwhile, crowned himself King of Lombardy. There was very little dissent.
More battle was to follow, as Charlemagne began to expand the boundaries of his empire in nearly all directions. He waged a long war of conquest against the Saxons to the east (during which the aforementioned blood was shed). He sparred with Saracen pirates in the Mediterranean, conquering the islands of Corsica and Sicily in the process. His son Louis pushed over the Pyrenees Mountains, capturing Catalonia and Barcelona, and establishing a fortified borderland against Muslim Spain.
Greater things were to come, however, and it was after the death of Adrian in 795, that events began to be set in motion. The alliance between the Papacy and the Franks wasnt universally approved of in Rome, and the successor to Adrian Leo III was very quickly selected in order to mitigate any possible influence the Franks might have on the election process. However, it turned out that Leo had every intention of maintaining the alliance, sending gifts to Charlemagne and reaffirming his role as defender of Christendom. This decision galvanized the anti-Frankish elements in the Vatican to action, and in 799 Leo was forced to flee Rome after an assassination attempt and accusations of adultery and perjury. Naturally, he fled to Charlemagnes court. And naturally, Charlemagne came to his aid. In late 800, Charlemagne accompanied Leo back to Rome, convened a legal council, and acquitted Leo of all the accusations his enemies had made, reinstating him as Pope.
Such a service to the Church did not go unrewarded, for on Christmas Day, 800, Leo bestowed upon Charlemagne the title of Carlo Augustus, Imperator Romanorum: Charles the Great, Emperor of the Romans. This also served a political purpose, as Leo was on the outs with the Eastern Roman Empire a.k.a. the Byzantine Empire, and its Empress, Irene, for both political and religious reasons. Since Irene's succession was dubious (both because she was a woman without a consort and because she blinded her son to take it), he had a technical excuse to do so. The first to bear that title in Western Europe since 476, Charlemagnes power in the region was now pretty near absolute, and he almost immediately put that power to use. He began to institute widespread reform throughout the lands he controlled, introducing standardized codes of law, repairing roads, and encouraging the growth of centers of art and learning. His reign as Emperor is referred to by historians as the Carolingian Renaissance, and is commonly held to mark the end or at least, the beginning of the end of The so-called Dark Ages (mostly, it's now referred to along the lines of the Early Medieval Period).
As a political entity, Charlemagnes empire was short-lived. Following his death in 814, his sole surviving legitimate son Louis took the throne. His reign was marked by unrest and civil war, and following his death in 840 his three sons divided the empire up between them, marking the end of a united Carolingian kingdom—which is how both France and Germany can (and do) claim Charlemagne as their own. As a cultural force, however, his empire's impact outlived him. The peace and stability Charlemagne's reign brought to Western Europe established the foundations for a stronger, more egalitarian society, with a greater sense of cultural unity than before. Western Europe had been a battleground for the better part of four centuries, host to intertribal warfare, barbarian invasions, disease, and death. The psychological impact of suddenly having one benevolent overlord who really did seem to be interested in creating a better world cannot be underestimated. In the chivalric traditions, Charlemagne is depicted as the proverbial Good King, on par with King Arthur and Louis IX/Saint Louis as a paragon of wisdom, justice, and piety.
How much of that reputation is rooted in fact, however, is not certain. Charlemagnes reign as King of the Franks was a period of almost constant warfare, first in building his empire, and then in maintaining it against rebellious tribes and ambitious underlords. It was a brutal world that Charlemagne was born into, and he couldnt very well get as far as he did without being equal to the brutality that surrounded him. One infamous incident occurs during his campaigns against the Saxons. Charlemagne instituted a strict "Convert or Die" policy toward the Germanic pagans, and at the city of Verden he was forced to put his dedication to this policy to a very dark test, executing over four thousand captive Saxons who refused to embrace Christianity. Of course, violence on this scale was hardly unheard of in the Middle Ages, but the wholesale slaughter of unarmed prisoners is something of a black mark on the record of the man traditionally held up as a shining example of all that is good and just.
That aside, Charlemagne does seem to have been a pretty decent guy, all things considered. Very well educated himself, he appreciated the value of learning and literacy, and did his best to foster its spread throughout his realms. He was also an accomplished diplomat as well as a warrior: its worth noting that he tried to negotiate with the Lombards before going to war with them, only doing so when all diplomatic avenues were exhausted. Under his reign, the Franks even maintained good diplomatic relations with many of their Muslim neighbors, including a strategic alliance with the Abbasids against the Byzantines. By all accounts, he was a genuinely devout Christian, donating large sums of money and land to the Church during his reign, as well as a loving and devoted father to his children.
Speaking of which, not unlike a certain other similar conqueror, Charlemagne got himself around. He had several wives and mistresses over the course of his life, and among them all, had close to twenty children. The royal families of England, France, Italy, and several German states can claim him as a distant ancestor. Not to mention a whopping 34 of the 46 U.S. Presidents, and at least one awesome movie icon. He is also one of the rare ruling figures to have equal importance in both French and German nationalisms, a division of the Waffen SS made of French volunteers (the 33rd) was even named after him during World War II.
Tropes as portrayed in fiction
So much of Charlemagne's life is conflated with legend that it's hard to really determine what was real and what wasn't. Some common themes in his fictitious portrayals include:
- Big Good: in the chivalric tradition.
- Boisterous Bruiser: Most portrayals have him loving beer, wine, food, and feasting as well as fighting. This is based in fact; his palaces were basically continuous parties, and even when he was on campaign he would bring the fun.
- Cincinnatus: A key component of the folklore surrounding Charlemagne was that he did not actively seek to be named Emperor, that it was a reward bestowed upon him by the Pope for his service. It's not clear from historical sources how much of that is true, but considering that the title of Imperator Romanorum was a purely honorary one by that point in history - albeit one that Charlemagne just happened to be able to back up with actual military might - there might be something to it. Some stories even have Charlemagne taken completely unawares by the Coronation, with Leo and his courtiers coming around and springing it on him like some kind of surprise party. While it's unlikely he was totally ignorant, he didn't take it too seriously.
- Cool Sword: Joyeuse, said to have a gold-plated hilt encrusted with multicolored gems, and a blade forged from Thunderbolt Iron. Or from a piece of The Spear of Destiny. Or from the remains of Attila the Hun's Sword of Mars. Depends on who's telling the story, really.
- Founder of the Kingdom: Tradition accounts Charlemagne as the first Holy Roman Emperor, even though the actual entity didn't come into existence until 150 years after his death. This is technically true, since "Holy Roman Emperor" is more or less the title Leo bestowed upon Charlemagne, but any direct political continuity between the Carolingian Empire and the Holy Roman Empire is mere folklore.
- His empire is sometimes seen as a precursor for the European Union (as the most recent political entity to unify Western Europe). The union of the founding member States of the EU (West Germany, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy) correspond roughly to the Carolingian Empire. Incidentally, the European Commission is housed in the Charlemagne Building.
- Genius Bruiser: A scholar and diplomat as well as a seasoned warrior, although most fictional depictions tend not to delve too deeply into that aspect of his character.
- The Good King: Medieval works consistently depict him as the model warrior-king: strong and ruthless in war, but just and fair in peace.
- Large and in Charge: Folklore holds that Charlemagne was a giant among men, a massive and imposing figure. In fact there's a story that the imperial foot unit of measure was based on the actual size of his foot. He actually stood about six feet tall - which is pretty tall for his day, but not exactly freakishly so - and was more on the thin and wiry side.
- Named Weapons: The aforementioned Cool Sword Joyeuse. It's also the name of a medieval sword currently on display in the Louvre that was once used in coronation ceremonies during the time of French monarchy. Testing has revealed that at least some part of the extant blade could have been forged in the 8th or early 9th Centuries, but it's extremely unlikely to be the same sword Charlemagne wielded.
- Old Shame: As mentioned above, the Bloody Verdict of Verden is the city-sized black mark on Charlemagne's record as an otherwise just and reasonable monarch. Some depictions of Charlemagne (in particular the Metal Concept Album version) have him regretting it later in life.
- Overprotective Dad: Many portrayals that involve someone trying to marry one of Charlemagne's daughters mention how protective he was of them. This is half-true; although he only ever allowed one of his daughters to marry, he appeared to have no problem with his remaining daughters having affairs and even children with various courtiers.
- Praetorian Guard: The Twelve Peers, aka the Paladins, Charlemagne's best warriors and most trusted companions. The word "Paladin" has since gone down in literature and folklore to mean a Lawful Good Holy Warrior of the highest order.
- Realpolitik: You don't get to be Imperator Romanorum without knowing how to play the game, and Charlemagne sure knew how. By the 9th Century, the title was more a symbolic one than anything else, but Charlemagne used that symbolic authority to press his territorial ambitions to the fullest extent possible: being crowned Emperor by the Pope effectively meant that Charlemagne had the tacit approval of God Himself to govern Western Europe as he saw fit, and he did not hesitate to do so. Meanwhile, Charlemagne was a piece on the Papacy's board in their game against The Byzantine Empire. Byzantium was the successor state to the old Roman Empire, and had in fact held Rome itself for the better part of two centuries until 754. It also had both the political and economic muscle to back up its claim to succession, being one of the most powerful polities around the Mediterranean, leaving the traditional authority of Rome at the risk of fading into irrelevancy. The emergence of a powerful local king who was willing to support the Papacy gave Rome the opportunity to reassert itself as the legitimate authority in Western Europe. The fact that Constantinople was currently being ruled by an Empress (Irene Sarantapechaina) didn't hurt either when Charlemagne was declared the new Roman Emperor.
- Religious Bruiser: A common theme in his portrayals is his genuine and sincere Christian faith, and his devotion to his role as Defender of Christendom. Seems to also have been true of him in Real Life.
- What Could Have Been: Speaking of Empress Irene, early in Charlemagne's reign there were rumors of an effort to negotiate a marriage between the two, creating a political union of Eastern and Western Europe that would have effectively restored the old Roman Empire. Nothing came of it - if it ever was anything more than a rumor in the first place - and Irene herself was overthrown a few years later by the nobles of Constantinople in favor of a male bureaucrat. (The Byzantine nobles may well have had Charlemagne's imperial title in mind when they deposed Irene, since (1) putting a man on the throne of Constantinople removed the argument that the position of Emperor was vacant and (2) they may have feared even the remote possibility of a strategic marriage between Irene and Charlemagne, as that would threaten their power base by bringing Western military strength into the picture. Of course, these were secondary considerations at best; they mostly didn't care for Irene and thought that their chosen candidate would be more pliable.)
Works featuring or referencing Charlemagne:
- Charlemagne's Coronation as Emperor is a popular subject in Medieval and Renaissance art, considered to be a real-life Awesome Moment of Crowning. Raphael Sabatini painted a famous version◊ which still decorates the Papal residence in Vatican City.
- The Song of Roland, a Medieval Epic taking place in Spain during the Umayyad Conquest, depicting the adventures of the Paladin Roland and his companions at the Battle of Roncesvalles. Charlemagne actually serves a supporting role to the ill-fated Roland.
- The Italian epic poems Orlando Innamorato and Orlando Furioso, being something of an Adaptation Expansion of The Song Of Roland, take place in Charlemagne's court. Here, Roland is re-imagined as the lovestruck adventurer Orlando, with Charlemagne serving as the ever-present Big Good in the background...and the Only Sane Man to the increasingly-insane happenings.
- Italo Calvino's The Non-Existent Knight is a riff of Charlemagne romances and features the Emperor inspecting a column of knights, one of which is the titular figure, an Animated Armor without a person inside.
- Tolkien's Legendarium: Middle-Earth being a Fantasy Counterpart Culture of Medieval Europe, there are a few examples to be found:
- Elendil the Tall, last Lord of Numenor, is a kind of fantasy Expy of Charlemagne. An exceptionally tall Good King with a Cool Sword, who founds a realm of peace and order after the fall of a greater one...and whose kingdom is torn apart by internal strife after his death (Arnor does hold itself together a bit longer than the Carolingian Empire, but their fates are still the same).
- Aragorn might qualify as a Charlemagne stand-in as well, since he resurrects the Kingdom of Arnor, which stands in pretty well for Western Rome. That said, he also reunites it with its Southeastern counterpart Gondor (whereas Charlemagne's Frankish kingdom never remerged with Byzantium) and is crowned by a wizard rather than a pope.
- There was a 1993 European coproduction biopic Mini Series titled Charlemagne (Charlemagne, le prince à cheval in francophone countries — literally "The prince on his horse"). It's the last time any major live-action media has made him center stage in a fiction.
- Covington Cross: In one episode, the Family Grey visits the Duke of Arundel, who collects antique weaponry, including a suit of armor alleged to belong to Charlemagne. When the Duke's castle is attacked, Shell-Shocked Veteran Armus snaps out of it long enough to don to the armor and fight off the attackers.
- Charlemagne, a pair of concept Symphonic Metal albums performed by Christopher Lee (one of Charlemagne's own descendants).
- Total War: Attila has the Age of Charlemagne campaign pack, which features Charlemagne in his rise to power, at the dawn of the medieval age.
- Crusader Kings II has a DLC named after him, which allows the player to start in 769 A.D., shortly after Pepin's death, and the beginnings of Charles' struggle with Carloman. The scenario's explanation for Carloman's sudden death was his mother favouring Charles, and poisoning Carloman in return. Bertrada also begins the scenario as Charles' spymaster.
- Before that, the Old Gods DLC featured his descendants in the 867 A.D. bookmark, who were squabbling over his lands and legacy. As mentioned above, his empire had fractured after the death of his son and successor, Louis the Pious.
- Charlemagne is central to the chapter "Suspicions of Conspiracy" in Eternal Darkness, which has a Frankish page named Anthony learning of a plot against him by agents of the Ancients, who want to disrupt Charlemagne's plans to reunify Europe under his banner. His death concludes the chapter's events; Anthony isn't so lucky...
- Shows up as the Strategist hero for the Dark Ages in Empire Earth (due to the game's epoch-based approach to timelines, his Warrior counterpart is Julius Caesar).
- In Fate/Extella Link, Charlemagne appears in two variation: A Saber-class Servant that looks like a young man who represents the figure from The Song of Roland and a Ruler-class Servant (going by "Karl der Große/Rex Magnus Karl") that looks like a larger older man in golden armor who represents him as the Holy Roman Emperor.
- Sigmar Heldenhammer of Warhammer Fantasy is as clear a fantasy stand-in for Charlemagne as you can get. Sigmar would go down in history for conquering and uniting numerous quarreling Germanic-sounding tribes into a great kingdom that would evolve after his death into a great Empire. Plus, Sigmar was deified upon death, while Charlemagne was beatified note . Also of note: Charlemagne had his twelve Paladins, and Sigmar had twelve subordinate chieftains to whom he gave the Runefangs.
- He is mentioned in Assassin's Creed: Valhalla as a member of the Order of the Ancients (the setting's precursor to the Templars) and despite his position as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire was simply exploiting religion for his own benefit.