Charlemagne (English: Charles the Great, Dutch: Karel de Grote, German:
Karl der Grosse, Latin: Carolus Magnus) was born on April 2, 742 in
In 768, when Charlemagne was 26, he and his younger brother Carloman
inherited the kingdom of the Franks. In 771 Carloman died, and
Charlemagne became sole ruler of the kingdom. At that time the Franks
were falling back into barbarian ways, neglecting their education and
religion. The Saxons of northern Europe were still pagans. In the
south, the Roman Catholic church was asserting its power to recover
land confiscated by the Lombard kingdom of Italy. Europe was in turmoil.
Charlemagne was determined to strengthen his realm and to bring order
to Europe. In 772 he launched a 30-year military campaign to accomplish
this objective. By 800 Charlemagne was the undisputed ruler of Western
Europe. His vast realm encompassed what are now France, Switzerland,
Belgium, and The Netherlands. It included half of present-day Italy and
Germany, and parts of Austria and Spain. By establishing a central
government over Western Europe, Charlemagne restored much of the unity
of the old Roman Empire and paved the way for the development of modern
On Christmas Day in 800, while Charlemagne knelt in prayer in Saint
Peter's in Rome, Pope Leo III seized a golden crown from the altar and
placed it on the bowed head of the king. The throng in the church
shouted, "To Charles the August, crowned by God, great and pacific
emperor, long life and victory!"
Charlemagne is said to have been surprised by the coronation, declaring
that he would not have come into the church had he known the pope's
plan. However, some historians say the pope would not have dared to act
without Charlemagne's knowledge.
The coronation was the foundation of the Holy Roman Empire. Though
Charlemagne did not use the title, he is considered the first Holy
Roman emperor (see Holy Roman Empire).
"By the sword and the cross," Charlemagne (Charles the Great) became
master of Western Europe.
"He was six feet four inches tall, and built to scale.
He had beautiful white hair, animated eyes, a powerful nose...
a presence "always stately and dignified." He was temperate
in eating and drinking, abominated drunkenness, and kept
in good health despite every exposure and hardship."
—Eginhardt (the King's secretary) describing Charlemagne