What do you call a big guy



Even if there had already been states like Germany, France or Belgium in the 8th century, one would not know which nationality the future emperor would be assigned to. Because where and even when exactly Karl was born, opinions differ.

The year 747 is often given as the year of birth. It is likely that Karl saw the light of day in one of the many residences his father Pippin owned between the Loire and the Rhine.

Nothing is known about his childhood and youth, at least that's what Karl's biographer Einhard reports. The clergyman put the life of Charles on paper 15 years after the death of the Frankish king. Einhard's biography is the most important source that today's historians use to describe Karl's deeds and works.

What is known: Charlemagne came from the Carolingian family, which goes back to Karl Martell, the grandfather of the future emperor. The Carolingians, like various other families, belonged to the Franconian Empire. The Franconian royal crown claimed the Merovingian dynasty until the 8th century.

Under the Merovingian dynasty, the Carolingians held the office of "Hausmeiers", the "major domus". The caretaker was the chief official in the Merovingian kingdom, who was responsible for the royal household and the estates.

Karl's father Pippin, who had also usurped the military command and financial authority, brought the Frankish empire more and more under his control in his position as caretaker. There was only one bold step missing before the final takeover.

Pippin did that in 751: he sent the last Merovingian king Childerich to the monastery and put the Franconian royal crown on his head.


After the death of his father, Karl initially shared the rule with his brother Karlmann. When he too died in 771, Charlemagne became the sole ruler of the Franks.

The Franconian Empire stretched from today's Thuringia via Friesland to the French Atlantic coast. In order to consolidate his empire on the borders, Karl waged a multi-front war for years.

In the south he fought on the side of Pope Hadrian I against the Lombards, defeated their last king Desiderius and took his title as king. On the western border, after several campaigns across the Pyrenees, Karl succeeded in defeating the Moors living there.

According to the imperial administrative language, he transformed the territory that had been wrested from them north of the river Ebro into a "Spanish mark".

The Saxons - a West Germanic tribe that vehemently opposed Christianization - kept the Frankish king in the north-east of the empire in suspense the longest. At the beginning of the Saxon Wars, the Irminsul was destroyed in 772. The Saxons suspected that this pagan tree sanctuary was the world column that supported the vault of heaven.

In the years that followed, Karl faced an opponent who waged a kind of guerrilla war against his troops. The small flocks of Saxons holed up again and again in the swamps and forests of northern Germany and ambushed the overpowering Franks.

Again and again Karl's troops pushed into Saxon territory and founded settlements like Karlsburg, today's Paderborn. By depopulating the conquered area and deporting many Saxons to his empire, especially from the ranks of the tribal societies, he finally succeeded in defeating the Saxon tribes and occupying the land east and west of the Weser.

But it was only after a final uprising in 804 that the Saxon resistance was completely broken.

Imperial coronation

At the height of his power, Charles's empire stretched from the North Sea to central Italy, from the Pyrenees to present-day Hungary. He was the most powerful man in Europe, but Karl wanted more. He saw himself as the legitimate successor of the Roman emperors, but only the Pope could crown him.

Pope Leo III was in a precarious position in 799. He had to fend off a strong opposition in Rome that wanted to drive him out of office because of his immoral conduct. The Pope was to be blinded and his tongue cut out. He fled to Paderborn to ask Karl for help. There the decision was made: Karl demanded the imperial crown in return for his support.

At Christmas in the year 800 Charles moved into Rome and received the imperial anointing. The empire now completed Charles's claim to power in the heart of Europe.

Two years earlier, Karl had striven for the Empire and prepared it in cooperation with the Eastern Roman Empire Byzantium. Until now, the Byzantine Empress Irene had been the legitimate successor to the fallen Roman Empire.

In a recently discovered source it is said that in 798 a Byzantine envoy brought the Frankish king a document from the Empress, in which the Empress Irene Karl granted equal rights to the "Roman Empire".

The source says "Imperium traditurum" in Latin - in German: "The empire should be handed over". In Constantinople there were even rumors that Frankish diplomats had arranged a wedding between Karl and Irene.

The Byzantine ruling class, however, rejected any rapprochement between the two empires. Empress Irene was deposed and banished, also because a woman could not have the high command of the army under Roman law.

Her successor, Nikephorus I, was reluctant to recognize Charles' imperial title. From then on it was agreed on the coexistence of two Roman empires within the Christian world.

The coronation ceremony held in Rome confirmed Charles's leadership role in the Latin Church and his supremacy over the Pope. In a contemporary source by the Irish priest Cathwulf it says: "... because you (Karl) stand here in God's place, so that you watch over all the children of his people and rule them ... the Bishop of Rome, on the other hand, is in second place. "

Domestic reforms

Karl was not only a successful general and foreign politician, but he also turned his empire inside out. The county constitution was one of the cornerstones of his power. The various tribes in his empire were to be united by a unified administrative system.

Karl installed a count as the king's deputy in a certain area, who had the highest authority and was directly subordinate to Karl. In return, the officer received a fief and became the legal owner of land in the area. Messenger brought Charlemagne's instructions to the count in charge. In addition, the messengers had the task of controlling the counts.

Charles tied both the messengers and the counts to himself by means of an oath of allegiance. In addition, he used vassals who were obliged to serve him in the war and who were rewarded for their service with a manor, land or other dignity. There were about 1,000 families in the service of Charles as vassals.

As part of the church constitution, Charles reorganized the archbishopric and carried out an educational reform in the monasteries, which was intended to improve the general educational standard of Christians. In St. Gallen and on the island of Reichenau in Lake Constance, monastery schools were founded, in which not only young monks but also foreign students were taught.

Cultural bloom

Under the leadership of Charlemagne, there was a cultural boom in poetry, education and architecture. The Frankish king gathered many scholars around him. The court became the center of intellectual learning, from which many reformist impulses emanated.

As part of the monastic educational reform, many monks had not only learned to read and write, but were also required to systematically collect manuscripts and copy books. Ancient, predominantly secular manuscripts were copied and were thus preserved for posterity.

The production of the book copies also had a considerable influence on the script: The introduction of a simplified, uniform font, the Carolingian minuscule, made reading and writing easier.

In addition to the new script, Charlemagne also introduced a uniform currency: he had coins minted with a higher proportion of silver, which were valid for all trade as far as the Orient.

Charles death and the end of his empire

Even during his lifetime, Karl had the title "the great". In the heart of Europe he had united the greatest empire after the fall of the Roman Empire and could look back on an exceptionally long reign of 46 years.

He had reached a very old age in medieval terms, which did not prevent him from pursuing his favorite pastime - hunting.

In autumn 813 he caught a cold while out hunting in the Ardennes forests. The emperor was forced to stay in bed in his Aachen imperial palace, but the fever did not go away.

When there was also pneumonia, Karl's exhausted body no longer had any resistance. On January 28, 814, the emperor died in Aachen. His son Ludwig the Pious was the only legitimate heir who survived his father. In order to facilitate the transfer of power, Karl had made him co-regent during his lifetime.

The size of the Frankish Empire, which it had reached under Charlemagne, only existed for about 20 years after his death. In the Treaty of Verdun 843, the empire was divided among the three grandchildren of Charles who inherited their father Louis the Pious. According to the Franconian line of succession, each male descendant was entitled to an equal share of the paternal inheritance.

Charles the Bald received the western part of the empire from the Pyrenees to the river Scheldt in what is now Belgium. Ludwig the German was awarded the eastern part from Schleswig-Holstein to Bavaria. Lothar became ruler of the area in between from the Netherlands and Belgium over parts of what is now eastern France to Switzerland and central Italy.

There has never been an empire as large as that of Charlemagne in Central Europe.