Charlemagne: King of the Franks

Family and Becoming King

Charlemagne ruled the Frankish Kingdom (what is today parts of France, Germany, and surrounding lands) from 768 until his death in 814. He ruled as Holy Roman Emperor beginning in 800.

He was the oldest son of Pepin the Short and Bertrada of Laon. When his father died in 768, a 20-year-old Charlemagne became King of the Franks alongside his brother Carloman I. When Carloman died a few years later in 771, Charlemagne became the sole ruler of the Franks.

Expanding the Kingdom

In the tradition of Germanic kings, Charlemagne set out to prove himself as a warrior and conquer new lands. His first conquest took him to Lombardy, in what is today northern Italy in 773. Charlemagne crushed the Lombards and crowned his son King of Italy, even though he retained the real power.

Four years later, Charlemagne set his sights on northern Spain, just across the Pyrenees Mountains from his kingdom. This proved more of a challenge, as his army was met with considerable resistance. Part of the resistance came from the Moors, Islamic peoples who had previously conquered the Iberian peninsula. Capturing northern Spain took several years and Charlemagne had to maintain a military presence into the early 800s.

Closer to home, Charlemagne sought to expand his empire into Saxony, which today is in northern Germany. However, Charlemagne faced a new challenge in Saxony: resistance to Christianity. His conquest of Saxony began in 773, prior to his becoming Holy Roman Emperor, but he was still a Christian King, and as such, he expected all of his subjects to follow the Christian faith as well. Saxony, however, remained pagan and resisted the spread of Christianity. While Saxony was officially conquered in 780, they periodically rebelled into the early 800s. Gradually, however, Saxon leaders converted to Christianity, eventually bringing peace to the region.

Crowned Holy Roman Emperor

Charlemagne’s father, Pepin, had already grown close to the Pope in Rome, and Charlemagne continued in his footsteps. Gradually, Rome began to rely on the protection of the powerful Frankish king, Charlemagne. In 799, Pope Leo III faced a rebellion and temporarily had to flee Rome. Where did he go for protection and help? You guessed it: Charlemagne. With Charlemagne’s help, the Pope regained control of Rome and Charlemagne visited him there in 800. In thanks for his help and protection, on Christmas Day, 800, Pope Leo III placed a crown on Charlemagne’s head and proclaimed him Holy Roman Emperor. This was the first time there had been a Holy Roman Emperor in more than 300 years.

Government and Reforms

As was typical, Charlemagne’s realm was locally controlled by members of the nobility, who Charlemagne worked with. With numerous local rulers and an ever-expanding kingdom, Charlemagne had to take steps to make sure his kingdom appeared unified. He met regularly with his regional rulers and instituted a legal system that was consistent throughout his realm. Another of the steps he took was to institute a new system of money and taxes that applied to the entire Kingdom.

Charlemagne loved both education and religion, and wanted his people to share these passions. In addition to working with the Pope and strengthening the Christian church in his kingdom, he encouraged the production of books and the translation of religious works from Latin to the vernacular (the everyday language people speak).

Charlemagne ruled most of central Europe, from the North Sea to Italy, and from Spain to Austria. He unified his realm politically and religiously, and became the first Holy Roman Emperor in more than 300 years.