Charlemagne (SHAR-leh-main) was the greatest European warrior and king of the Middle Ages. Born in Aachen (AH-ken), in present-day Germany, he was a grandson of Charles Martel (see no. 19) and the son of Pippin the Short. Prior to his death in A.D. 768, Pippin gave the northern half of his lands to Charlemagne and the southern half to Charlemagne’s brother Carloman.
His brother died in A.D. 771. Charlemagne seized Carloman’s lands and declared himself sole king of the Franks. In A.D. 772, he responded to a call for help from Pope Adrian I. Charlemagne took his army into Lombardy (northeast Italy). By A.D. 774, Charlemagne was king of the Lombards as well as the Franks.
Charlemagne invaded Italy a total of five times between A.D. 772 and A.D. 778. He also invaded Moslem Spain in A.D. 778. He fought the Moslems to a draw, but on his return home, his rear guard, led by Count Roland, was ambushed and destroyed by Christian Basques at Roncevalles. Charlemagne’s grief over the loss of Roland and his knights was later memorialized in the great epic poem “ Le Chanson de Roland’(“The Song of Roland”), written in the 13th century.
The Frankish king put down revolts in Brittany, but the greatest danger lay to the East, where the Saxon, Bavarian, and Avar tribes resisted both his rule and the Christian faith. Charlemagne fought a number of gruel¬ ing battles against the Saxons, which finally ended when the Saxon leader, Wittekind, accepted Christianity in A.D. 783.
Charlemagne defeated the Bavarians along the Danube River in A.D. 787, but he was forced to retreat from the Avar lands in A.D. 791. A Central Asian tribe which had migrated to central Europe, the Avars had gained great wealth by extorting payments from the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople. The Frankish warriors finally defeated the Avars in A.D. 793. The wealth found in the Avar capi¬ tal of Khagan made Charlemagne incredibly wealthy.
Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne “King of the Romans” on Christmas Day, in A.D. 800. No European leader since the fall of the Roman Empire had controlled as much land and as many people.
Charlemagne devoted much of the last 10 years of his life to cultural enrichment. He brought Alcuin of York to his court at Aachen and gathered a team of other scholars who helped create the “Carolingian Renaissance.” Books and manuscripts were copied; knowledge of Latin was renewed, and a new type of writing, known as Carolingian minuscule, came into use. The present-day use of capital and lower-case letters, punc¬ tuation and word spaces dates from the Carolingian era.
Charlemagne died in A.D. 814, leaving a troubled empire to his son, Louis the Pious. Tremendously successful during his lifetime, Charlemagne was unable to prevent a storm of barbarian invaders — Viking, Magyar, and Moslem — from wreaking havoc on the empire after his death. He left a rich cultural heritage and the idea of a truly united Europe.