The Greatness of Charlemagne

Sandra Pantic, Dickson college, 2010

Sandra Pantic wrote 'The Greatness of Charlemagne' for The Dark Ages unit taught by John Hood at Dickson College, Semester 1, 2010.

Charlemagne depicted in the Cathedral of Moulins, France, 15th century.
Charlemagne (circa 742-814) – ‘Charles the Great’ - left a strong and enduring impression upon the consciousness of posterity. 'King of the Franks' and 'Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire' were the titles placed next to his lordship’s name and, in the subsequent Middle Ages, he was viewed as the embodiment of the ideal king. The numerous accomplishments of the historical ruler remain a testimony of Charlemagne’s greatness, ranging from administrative and educational reforms to political and military dominance.

Like most kings called ‘Great’, Charlemagne was successful at warfare. His success in the art of combat is evident through the numerous campaigns in which the Frankish army was engaged in (starting from Charles’s joint accession in 789 until four years prior to his death in 814) and their triumphant conclusions. The monarch’s subduing of Aquitaine; defeat of the Lombard king, Desiderius; the incorporation of Lombardy and Bavaria into the kingdom of the Franks, as well as the integration of the Frisians and Slavs, are a few of Charlemagne’s military accomplishments.

Once having initiated a war, Charlemagne remained resolute in bringing about a permanent and definitive conclusion. This condition is made apparent through his war with the fierce Avars, lasting for eight years in which Charles was only satisfied to cease fighting after he had captured the Hun’s large hoard and completely annihilated the enemy. "Just... how much blood was shed is shown by the fact that Pannonia is now completely uninhabited and that the site of the Khan’s palace is now so deserted that no evidence remains that anyone ever lived there." (Einhard in Thorpe 1969) Moreover, the unwavering resoluteness of Charlemagne and his thoroughness in victories can further be seen through the ruler’s longest fought war. For thirty-three years, despite being engaged in other campaigns, Charles fought a brutal and ceaseless war against the pagan Saxons in which the Saxons would regularly submit to the Frankish king’s authority, yet just as frequently rebel against it. However, despite the heathens’ stubborn defiance, Charlemagne ultimately conquered Christianised Saxony. "The war that had lasted so many years was at length ended by their acceding to the terms offered by the King... acceptance of the ...Christian faith..." (Einhard in Thorpe 1969)

Charles the Great was a devoted Christian and his faith permeated nearly all that he did. “Charlemagne practised the Christian religion with great devotion and piety...” (Einhard). However, the king’s condition of all conquered people needing to adopt Christianity as their religion did not solely stem from Charlemagne’s personal preferences: "...conditions imposed by the King... were to give up their devil worship and... once they had adopted the sacraments of the Christian faith...” (Einhard in Thorpe 1969). It is likely that the main reason as to why Charlemagne demanded that the Saxons, Frisians and Slavs convert to the Christian religion before he would recognise any of their submissions was because the faith served as a means of uniting his subjects and hence, maintaining peace in Frankland. This masterful, yet subtle control over his people demonstrates Charlemagne’s administrative capacity to rule.

Once having gained sufficient control over the people, Charles took two approaches to properly maintain his power. The first way was by continuously travelling around the empire, personally over-seeing matters. The second way was through the implementation of reforms in the judicial system. Perhaps the most important reform was the use of missi dominici, royal commissioners, who were sent out across the entire kingdom to supervise counts and report directly to Charlemagne. Hence, by having personal messengers throughout the realm, Charles could ensure that his commands were being obeyed.

The appointment of the missi dominci also significantly improved the justice system by notifying Charlemagne of any issues concerning the law (thereby, providing a means of rectification) and by sharply reducing the count’s and, in some instances, the bishop’s, unlimited power over judicial and administrative matters. Charles then decided to make national laws uniform and transparent to all. He accomplished his aim via the introduction of capitularies, documents that expressed the governmental will (King, 1986). The capitularies managed to improve the Frankish legal system by forcing judges to judge in accordance with the recorded law, thus preventing cases to be decided at individual discretion. "That judges shall judge justly, according to the written law and not according to their own judgment." (Capitulary of Charlemagne Issued in the Year 802, chapter 2, paragraph 26). Lastly, Charles revised and amended necessary codes of the Germanic groups which he ruled over. This proved very helpful for the tribes had varying laws which were not recorded. "He caused the unwritten laws of all the tribes that came under his rule to be compiled and reduced to writing." (Einhard in Thorpe 1969).

Further contributing to the view regarding Charlemagne’s magnanimity as a monarch was the leader’s concern for his subjects. Charles strongly believed that it was his personal duty to ensure the welfare of his people so he stated it thus in the capitularies: “...for the lord emperor himself, after God and His saints, had constituted himself their protector and defender.” (General Capitulary of the Missi, para. 5).
Charlemagne with Popes Gelasisus I. and Gregory I. from the sacramentary of Charles the bald (ca. 870).
During his reign, Charlemagne took extraordinary steps (by Dark Age standards) to fulfil his assigned role by passing a number of reforms that were directed at protecting his subjects from dishonest merchants and greedy landowners (Dahmus, 1967). Charles also thought it of great import to ensure that the people had a guaranteed supply of food, in times of crop failure, so he forbade the export of corn. Moreover, in the capitulary of 807, Charlemagne attempted to protect farmers who were unable to hire help for tending their crops by restricting military obligations to freemen who could best afford participating in extended campaigns.

However, the reform which most distinguished Charlemagne’s reign from that of any other ruler of the Dark Ages was in the less traditional and highly neglected field of education. With the exception of a small handful of ecclesiastical members, the knowledge of reading and writing had almost been lost amongst the Franks and even the few holy men who were supposed to have been taught such skills, found themselves lacking. In the words of Gregory of Tours “…my speech is rude...”. Having recognised the poor educational state of the Frankish people, Charlemagne’s first step in addressing the crisis was to summon prominent scholars from throughout Europe: Peter of Pisa and Paul the Deacon from Italy; Theodulf of Orleans from Spain; Joseph from Ireland; and Alcuin from Northumbria, all accepted the king’s invitation. These brilliant and obliging scholars then formed an unofficial ‘Palace Academy’ with a primary objective of educating the court. Charlemagne, himself, was particularly enthusiastic to learn and decided to take personal lessons from Alcuin as well as organising for his whole family to be tutored, thereby also setting an example for his subjects. "... Albin of Britain, surnamed Alcuin was his teacher in other branches of learning; The plan that he adopted for his children’s education was... in the liberal arts." (Einhard in Thorpe 1969). The ensuing revival in learning at Charles’s court quickly led to the Carolingian Renaissance which became a ray of light in an age renowned for its scarce written documents. A court library was established containing the works of ancient authors and books written by fathers of the church. At the request of Charlemagne, Alcuin began correcting mistakes in the Frankish bible and service books (which had gradually crept in over the years) and monks were also urged to make new copies of worn or damaged books. This copying of texts proceeded throughout Frankland during the entire renaissance and, from this set task, the highly-legible script of Carolingian Miniscule was developed.

Envisaging universal education, Charles did not discriminate against the lower class, allowing boys of poorer backgrounds to study in schools. The king then further persisted in his endeavour to educate all his subjects by emphasising the importance of the written word in his Admonitio generalis of 789 and, in the same capitulary, passed a law that every abbey and monastery must have a school.

Charlemagne’s fostering of intellectual life is one feat contributing to his great reputation. Yet, according to King (1986), the reason for this deliberate fostering was because it was coincident with the ruler’s aim of reshaping society as a Christian one. The education received by his subjects focused on classical Latin so that their understanding of the Bible could be enhanced. Charles remained deeply pious: "...he went to church morning and evening with great regularity, and also for early-morning Mass, and the late-night hours." (Einhard in Thorpe 1969)
'The Coronation of Charlemagne' by Raphael, 1516/17
Furthermore, Charles strongly believed that he was the protector of Christianity. So, when Pope Leo III was attacked in Rome by his enemies, Charles granted him refuge; demanded that the pope first purge himself before his pleas for restoration would be answered; then provided Leo with protection and confirmed his title. This incident confirmed the great political power which the Frankish king possessed and is further reinforced through Charlemagne’s acclamation on Christmas Day, AD 800 as emperor.

Charles's political standing was also evident through the absence of a Frankish institution (such as an assembly of princes) which could have blocked his will. Nevertheless, Charlemagne did not get overly-confident and ensured his power by doing only what most of his subjects considered reasonable (Dahmus, 1967). The great strength of the Frankish military also contributed to asserting Charles’s influence in other realms and this is exemplified through the coercion of the Bretons to acknowledge his authority. As Einhard explains; "When they refused to obey him, he sent an army against them, and compelled them to give hostages, and to promise to do his bidding." (Einhard in Thorpe 1969).

Charlemagne was the embodiment of the ideal king. His strength in the military field expanded Frankish dominions to the north, south and east. His political authority was great and his administrative skills were brilliant. Charles the Great was the champion of Christianity and a patron of education. Under his stewardship, a ray of light known as the Carolingian Renaissance shone onto the Dark Ages. As a ruler, Charles remained true to his convictions forging his society in accordance with Christian tenets. Yet, it was the ethos which the Frankish king imparted to his forty-seven year reign, which was his greatest accomplishment. Charlemagne, King of the Franks, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, does not simply deserve his epitaph ‘Great’; he is owed it.


Dahmus, Joseph 1967, Seven Medieval Kings, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, London.

Fordham University, Medieval Sourcebook. Charlemagne, General Capitulary of the Missi (802). Accessed 1/05/2010 from

Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks. Accessed: 2/05/2010 from

King, P.D. 1986, Charlemagne, Methuen & Co. Ltd, London.

Thorpe, Lewis (trans. & ed.) 1969, Two Lives of Charlemagne, Penguin Books Ltd, England. [Translation of Einhard's Vita Karoli Magni imperatoris and of Notker's Gesta Karoli Magni.]

Yale Law School, The Avalon Project, Capitulary of Charlemagne Issued in the Year 802. Accessed on 1/05/2010 from