Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a king? Would it be an easy life for a hard one? Would you just do whatever you please, or would you work to make your kingdom a better place for the people living in it? Today we’re going to learn about Charlemagne, one of the most powerful kings of Europe.
Charlemagne was born around the year 742 C.E. He lived during what is known as medieval times. Think of castles and knights and ladies. That is the medieval times. Charlemagne was a Frank. The Franks were a Germanic people who lived in what is now known as Belgium, France, Luxemborg, the Netherlands and Germany. The Franks became very powerful at the time the Roman Empire was losing power. France is named after the Franks.
Charlemagne’s father was Pepin the Short who was the king of the Franks. Pepin led the Franks in war and won many battles. His kingdom grew as he won battles for his people. This made him and his family very powerful. Very little is known about Charlemagne’s childhood to this day, but it is known that he grew tall and strong, he had light hair, and was good at learning languages. He became a powerful warrior and later in battle carried a large sword with a gold hilt, which he named Jway-uze.
When Charlemagne’s father died in 768, his kingdom was divided between Charlemagne and his brother, Carloman, who didn’t get along very well. But once his brother died, Charlemagne became the only ruler of the kingdom. He was also known as Charles the Great, which is what Charlemagne translates to.
As king, Charlemagne’s main goal was to unite all of the people of his kingdom under one rule and one religion, which was Christianity. Charlemagne was a skilled military leader and used his talents and his army to bring other people under his rule. Over the years he fought in 53 military campaigns to enlarge his kingdom. The people he fought included the Avars (what is now Austria and Hungary), the Lombards (what is now Italy) and Bavaria, along with other peoples. One of his most difficult opponents were the Saxons, the people of what is now Germany. They wanted to be free and control their own lands, not be part of Charlemagne’s kingdom. They resisted him fiercely, but Charlemagne was determined to bring them under his rule, even though it required a great deal of violence and cruelty. Charlemagne was known for doing whatever it took to reach his goals of growing his kingdom. Even if it meant hurting others. But whenever Charlemagne conquered the Saxons in one place, they’d start fighting him in another place. It took him over 30 years to finally bring the Saxon’s under his rule, they were a very independence people. Because Charlemagne was Christian, anyone forced into his kingdom was required to adopt the his religion as well. Charlemagne also fought very hard to take control of Italy, which finally ended in 777 C.E.
Charlemagne had a very large family! It was very important to him that his children became educated. At the time only monks knew how to read and write, but Charlemagne believe it was important for kings and their families to be educated. This was very out of the ordinary for his day. He loved books and often had someone read to him while he was eating. Even though he was a kind and very rich, he dressed very simply and ate simple food. He believed this made him stronger. He also saw how many kings became rich and then became lazy, spending all of their time enjoying their money, good food, big castles, and nice clothes. Instead, Charlemagne focused on staying strong and smart. He built libraries in his homes and stayed active. He also made sure his children didn’t grow lazy with all of their wealth. He hired tutors to make sure his many children learned how to read and studied good books.
Charlemagne once said to his sons, “You think because you are rich and are the sons of the great men of my kingdom that your birth and wealth will protect you in my favor. I will let you know that you stand in need of learning more than those who are poor and dependent. You think only of your pleasures and of your dress and play, but I attach no importance to your wealth and to your station, and if you idle your time when you are young you will be worthless when you are old.”
During the time of Charlemagne’s reign, the Christian church based in Rome was concerned about being taken over by its enemies. Because Charlemagne was Christian, he gave much of his money to support the church in Rome. The leader of the church in Rome was called the Pope, and at the time his name was Pope Leo III. In order to create a strong alliance between Rome and Charlemagne, so he could protect them, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor of the Romans in 800 C.E. on Christmas Day at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This gave people and leaders throughout Rome even greater respect for Charlemagne.
After taking control of much of Europe, and even though he did it in a very violent way, Charlemagne did a good job at taking care of the lands he had conquered. He allowed people to keep most of their laws and customs and let them rule themselves. Because he believed in education, he had schools built and used his money to pay for teachers. He also pushed for schools to use an alphabet that was the same, so people could communicate better within his big empire.
He also wanted the economy to be strong in his empire. An economy relates to how people buy and sell things. He worked to have common money used throughout his empire, to make it easier for people to buy and sell goods. He ordered the construction of a great canal, the Fossa Carolina, to connect the Rhine and Danube Rivers. A canal is a man-made river. The uniting of these lands and the result of his reforms are called the Carolingian Renaissance. He also became known as the “Father of Europe.”
Charlemagne often moved throughout his empire, living in different lands in order to help govern them and push his reforms. He was also known to be very athletic. He liked hunting, horseback riding, and swimming.
Because of his activity, Charlemagne was known to be very healthy most of his life, but during the last four years he had fevers and started to limp. In 813, he crowned his son Louis the Pious as a co-emperor. In 814 when Charlemagne died Louis became the emperor. He was buried in a cathedral in Aachen, ending a reign of more than 40 years. It is incredible to think of all that was accomplished during his reign.
Like many people in history, Charlemagne’s character is a complicated one. Like many military leaders like Julius Caesar or Napolean, he was very driven by power to conquer all of Europe. This led him to do many terrible things and attack people who just wanted to be left alone. When Charlemagne did finally conquer, he did his best to make his kingdom a good one.