Charlemagne or Charles the Great established the greatest European empire since the fall of the Roman Empire. The son of Pepin the Short, Charlemagne expanded the boundaries of his father’s Frankish Empire from 771 to 814. In addition to bringing a measure of political stability to Western and Central Europe, Charlemagne encouraged an efflorescence of learning and culture centered at his court of Aachen. Let’s be frank: European history wouldn’t be the same without him.
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PEPIN THE SHORT
Poor Pepin. While his son got the appellation “The Great,” he was stuck with “The Short.” Nonetheless, he was a figure of some historical stature himself. Pepin was the son of the legendary Charles Martel and the first king of the Carolingian Dynasty. Following the death of Charles Martel, Pepin and his brother Carloman were initially content to allow the Merovingian Childeric III to reign as King of the Franks. However, Carloman eventually entered monastic life. With no one to question his political legitimacy or check his ambitions, Pepin deposed Childeric III and seized the throne. Not bad for a short guy!
Following Pepin’s death, Charlemagne and his brother Carloman (no, not the other one--both Pepin AND Charlemagne had brothers named Carloman) ruled jointly until 771. When Charlemagne became the sole, undisputed ruler of the Carolingian dynasty he undertook a series of bold military campaigns. The most vicious of these was a 30 year-long effort to end Saxon intrusions into the Frankish kingdom. Charlemagne converted many Saxons to Christianity and killed those he could not convert, most notably in the infamous Massacre of Verden.
ALCUIN OF YORK
Despite his military prowess Charlemagne wasn’t solely a bloodthirsty conqueror. In fact, his court was the center of an artistic and intellectual renaissance, overseen by capable men like Alcuin of York. Charlemagne invited the Yorkish scholar to join him at his court in the early 780s, and while there Alcuin of York wrote extensively on a variety of topics. We know about the vicious Viking raid on the Abbey of Lindisfarne thanks in part to Alcuin’s writings. Later in his life Alcuin left Charlemagne to serve as the Abbot of Marmoutier in the French city of Tours.
POPE LEO III
Charlemagne was a canny politician who worked closely with the Catholic Church. Charlemagne defeated the Lombards who had been menacing the Papacy of Pope Adrian I. When Adrian’s successor, Pope Leo III was deposed and driven from Rome he found refuge in Charlemagne’s court at Paderborn. Charlemagne allowed Pope Leo III to return to Rome and regain his throne, for which the grateful pope crowned him as the first Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, 800. Leo had even loftier ambitions for Charlemagne, attempting to secure a marriage between him and then-Byzantine Empress Irene, but these plans were not realized.
TREATY OF VERDUN
It was hard to fill Charlemagne’s shoes. Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious, was to be his sole heir. Louis initially planned to divide the empire between his three sons: Lothar, Louis the German, and Pepin of Aquitaine. However, when Louis had another son, known as Charles the Bald, he attempted to rope him into the inheritance arrangements. This agreement sparked bitter recriminations between the father and his older sons and resulted in twenty years of civil strife. The conflict was temporarily resolved by the 843 Treaty of Verdun, which divided Charlemagne’s empire into three parts.
Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:
Charlemagne’s scholarly companion Einhard was one of his first biographers. Learn more about him here!
Visit this site to learn more about the Byzantine Empress of Irene, a woman who was once considered a potential wife for Charlemagne.
Charlemagne’s military victories are well-known, but sometimes he didn’t achieve his objectives. Read about one such moment here.
Aachen, the site of Charlemagne’s court, is still a common tourist attraction. Take a look!
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