Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, was born in Liege in c. 742 and came to be known as the father of Europe. As the founder of both the French and German monarchies, Charlemagne is revered throughout Europe for his historic reign which fostered the Carolingian Renaissance—a movement defined by the revival of religion, art, and music in Western Europe. Also, Charlemagne’s conquests united Europe for the first time since the Roman Empire and nurtured a strong sense of identity for the people of Western Europe.
Charlemagne was the eldest child of King Pippin the Short and Bertrada of Laon. Pippin the Short’s father was Charles Martel, known as Charles the Hammer. Pippin was anointed as the King of the Franks with the approval of the Papacy. The Frankish kingdom included most of Western Europe. Historians are uncertain about what language Charlemagne spoke as the area of his birth was one of great linguistic diversity that included Old East Low Franconian, Old Ripuarian Franconian, and Gallo-Romance. With the death of his father and according to tradition, the kingdom was divided between Charlemagne and his brother Carloman.
History demonstrates that the brothers did not particularly get along well, but Carloman’s death in 771 left Charlemagne in control of the kingdom. The following year the Lombard (Italy) King Desiderius took over several papal cities. Pope Hadrian I requested Charlemagne’s help which he granted. War with the Lombards resulted in Charlemagne’s victory and he added the kingdom of Lombard to his rule. Over the subsequent years Charlemagne began to appoint his sons to positions of authority. His son Carloman was made King of Italy and his son Louis was named King of Aquitaine.
Some time after his conquest of Italy, Charlemagne turned his attention toward Spain and areas occupied by the Moors, also known as Saracens, in the hopes of adding more territory to Christendom. In 778 after crossing the Pyrenees, Charlemagne was famously attacked by the Basques and lost several key members of his army including Roland, the Breton of March, for which The Song of Roland was written, an epic that fictionalized the famous battle. Although it took decades of fighting, Charlemagne and his sons had success in Spain and conquered most of the territory up to the Ebro River.
Throughout much of his career Charlemagne also waged war with the Saxons, but finally placed them in submission by 804 forcing them to accept Christianity. Charlemagne also fought campaigns in Bavaria and Pannonia and his territory was subject to Danish attacks. Most of Charlemagne’s reign was consumed with warfare. However, on Christmas Day in the year 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans after Charlemagne had traveled to Rome to restore the Pope’s order.
Charlemagne died in 814. He left his kingdom to his son Louis the Pious, his only surviving legitimate son. Defending Christianity and uniting much of Western Europe are two hallmarks of Charlemagne’s rule. He was also known for his great economic and monetary reforms as well as his promotion of education and the arts.