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Karl der Große, or Charlemagne

Kaiser Karl der Große, by Albrecht Dürer

Charlemagne (April 2, 742 – January 28, 814), numbered Charles I, was King of the Franks from 768, King of the Lombards from 774 and Emperor of the Romans from 800. He united much of Europe during the early Middle Ages. He was the first recognized emperor in western Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier. The expanded Frankish state that Charlemagne founded is called the Carolingian Empire.

Charlemagne was the eldest son of Pepin the Short and Bertrada of Laon, having been born before their canonical marriage. He became king in 768 following his father’s death, initially as co-ruler with his brother Carloman I. Carloman’s sudden death in December 771 under unexplained circumstances left Charlemagne as the sole, undisputed ruler of the Frankish Kingdom. He continued his father’s policy towards the papacy and became its protector, removing the Lombards from power in northern Italy and leading an incursion into Muslim Spain. He campaigned against the Saxons to his east, Christianizing them upon penalty of death and leading to events such as the Massacre of Verden. Charlemagne reached the height of his power in 800 when he was crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day at Rome’s Old St. Peter’s Basilica.

Bust of Charlemagne, located at Aachen Cathedral Treasury

Charlemagne has been called the “Father of Europe” (Pater Europae), as he united most of Western Europe for the first time since the Roman Empire and united parts of Europe that had never been under Roman rule. His rule spurred the Carolingian Renaissance, a period of energetic cultural and intellectual activity within the Western Church. All Holy Roman Emperors considered their kingdoms to be descendants of Charlemagne’s empire, up to the last Emperor Francis II and the French and German monarchies. However, the Eastern Orthodox Church views Charlemagne more controversially, labeling as heterodox his support of the filioque and recognition by the Bishop of Rome as legitimate Roman Emperor, rather than recognizing Irene of Athens of the Eastern Roman Empire. These and other machinations led to the eventual split of Rome and Constantinople in the Great Schism of 1054.

Charlemagne married at least four times and had three legitimate sons, but only his son Louis the Pious survived to succeed him. Charlemagne was in good health until the final four years of his life, when he often suffered from fevers and acquired a limp. So in 813 Charlemagne called his son Louis, king of Aquitaine and crowned him next emperor. Charlemagne had originally intended to divide his empire among his sons according to Frankish traditions but, with the death of the two elder sons it left Louis as the sole heir to the throne. In 814 Charlemagne dies leaving his Empire intact to Louis who rules until 840, when Louis dies and the empire is divided among his sons and eventually dissolves. Charlemagne died in 814, having ruled as emperor for thirteen years. He was laid to rest in his imperial capital city of Aachen.

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