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Sunday, 9 March 2014

Charlemagne, Charles I the Great

Charlemagne, Charles 1st the Great (742 – 814) was the son of Pepin the Short and Bertha of the Big Foot. (Bertrada)

Pepin the Short was 4ft 6ins and of German ancestry. He carried a 6ft sword and was a greatly feared warrior. The legendary Roland was a nephew of his.

Charlemagne's grandfather was called Charles Martel (Charles the Hammer) because he nailed the Islamic invaders of Europe near Tours forcing them into retreat into Spain.

Charlemagne could speak Latin and German and understood Greek. (He spoke Latin almost as fluently as his own tongue).

Charlemagne was crowned King of The Franks along with his brother Carloman I on October 9, 768 following the death of his father. Carloman's sudden death on December 4, 771 under unexplained circumstances left Charlemagne as the undisputed ruler of the Frankish Kingdom.

In 773 Pope Hadrian asked for Charlemagne's help after the Lombard King had taken over some of his Papal States. He proceeded to conquer Lombardy and made himself King of the Lombards.

The German Saxons hated the Christian Franks and were constantly raiding Frankish areas  killing their priests and burning their monasteries. Charlemagne’s constant attempts to convert the Saxons to Christianity by the sword made them more bitter. After 4,500 Saxons in Verden were caught practising paganism despite having converted to Christianity, he had them all beheaded in a single day.

Charlemagne had a famous sword called Flamberge of Floberge (The Flame Cutter) which was decorated with precious stones mounted in gold.

When the Anglo Saxon Northumbrian Alcun entered his service in 782. Charlemagne began a kind of academy around his court at Aachen. On the advice of Alcuin many literate Christians from Britain and Ireland came over to man these schools. His court academy provided for education of young nobles and even particularly bright poor boys. It was probably the first school to give classical education for the laity.

Charlemagne's 789 general reminder (Admonitio Generalis) decreed every monastery must have a school for education of boys in singing, arithmetic and grammar.

In 789 Charlemagne introduced uniformity of worship based closely on the Roman Mass. He held the Church of Rome in much veneration. Throughout his reign he sent great and countless gifts to the popes and he made several pilgrimages to Rome.

Charlemagne also made a law that each of his people should have a leek on their roof to ward off evil spirits. Other laws forbid the clergy wives or concubines, hunting and visits to the tavern.

Charlemagne was 6 foot, an imposing height in those smaller stature days. He had a prominent straight nose rising at the bridge. Physically powerful, he had light yellow hair, thick necked, large, intelligent and lively eyes, a drooping thin Frankish mustache.

Mask reliquary of Charlemagne, located at Cathedral Treasury in Aachen. By Beckstet - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, $3

He was very strong, according to legend Charlemagne could bend three horse shoes at once in his hands.

Charlemagne had a high pitched voice and was inclined to stutter.

Charlemagne wore the national Frankish dress, he hated foreign costumes. Typically he was clad in short linen shirts, linen drawers to the knees, with stockings and leg bandages in winter. Over it he wore a waistcoat made from otter skin which covered shoulders and chest.

He used to carry a cane cut from an apple tree with symmetrical knots.

Charlemagne married four times:
In 770 He sought an alliance with the Lombards by marrying Desiderata, daughter of Desiderius, king of Lombards. He divorced her a year later. She had no known children and her ultimate fate is unknown.
Hildegard of Savoy Hildegard (758 –  783), the daughter of the Germanic Count Gerold of Vinzgouw and Emma of Alamannia Charlemagne married her around 771 and they had nine children.
Fastrada (765–794) An East Frankish noblewoman, who was the daughter of the powerful Count Rudolph. Charlemagne married her in October 783 at Worms, Germany, a few months after Queen Hildegard’s death. A probable reason behind the marriage was to solidify a Frankish alliance east of the Rhine when he was still fighting the Saxons. As wife of Charles I (Charlemagne), she became Queen of the Franks. She bore him two children.
Liutgard was the daughter of an Alamannian count and married Charlemagne around 794. She did not have any children with the king and died of unknown causes.

Charlemagne was a devoted husband but in the spirit of the age had several mistresses from whom he had many children.

It is difficult to understand Charlemagne's attitude toward his daughters. None of them contracted a sacramental marriage. This may have been an attempt to control the number of potential alliances.

After his death the surviving daughters entered or were forced to enter monasteries. At least one of them, Bertha, had a recognised relationship, if not a marriage, with Angilbert, a member of Charlemagne's court circle.

After his death, Charlemagne's third son Louis the Pious  (778 – 840), got rid of his father's mistresses, banished his immoral sisters to nunneries, reformed the church and gave aid to the poor. He died when an eclipse quite literally frightened him to death.

Charlemagne instructing his son Louis the Pious Unknown - Grandes Chroniques de France Wikipedia Commons


Pursuing his father's reforms, Charlemagne did away with the monetary system based on the gold sou. Both he and King Offa of Mercia took up the system set in place by Pepin. He set up a new standard, the livre (i.e. pound)— both monetary and unit of weight— which was worth 20 sous (like the solidus, and later the shilling) or 240 deniers (like the denari, and eventually the penny). During this period, the livre and the sou were counting units, only the denier was a coin of the realm.

After Charlemagne's death, continental coinage degraded and most of Europe resorted to using the continued high quality English coin until about 1100.

Obverse of a Charlemagne denier coined in en:Frankfurt from 812 to 814. By PHGCOM - 

Charlemagne was accessible to all. Anyone seeking justice was invited to ring a bell at his palace.

Charlemagne hated to be alone and craved company. He invited everyone whatever their rank to dinner.  He decorated the walls of his banquet halls with ivy, floors were strewn with flowers and the tables were laid with silver and gold utensils. On special occasions, ladies were admitted to the royal table.

Whilst eating Charlemagne would listen to a public reading instead of having jesters perform.

He was very sparing in his use of wine and abominated drunkenness. Charlemagne rarely drank more than three cups during the course of dinner.

When the red wines he drank stained Charlemagne's beard, his wife persuaded him to plant vines that would produce white wines.

Regulated farms were obliged to keep bees and to hand over 2/3rds of the honey and 1/3rd of the bees wax to Charlemagne.

Charlemagne was partial to chick peas and cheese, especially brie, "one of the most marvellous of foods."

He insisted on having two mule loads of Roquefort sent to his palace every Christmas.

Charlemagne hated physicians as they wanted him to give up his favorite roast beef and eat boiled meat instead.

He ordered that all his farms have fish ponds to encourage the eating of fish on church fast days.

Charlemagne was an important figure in the development of herbs. He organised for the first time in his realm larger systematic plantings of temperate condimental plants. In 812 he ordered a number of useful plants, among them anise, fennel, fenugreek, and flax, to be grown on the imperial farms in Germany.

He was fond of music and took pride in his boys choir. Impressed by the beautiful Gregorian music of Rome, Charlemagne had monks sent over from Rome to train his Frankish singers.

Charlemagne owned a water clock that marked hours by dropping bronze balls into a bowl as mechanical knights emerged from little doors.

According to legend an abandoned horse once appeared at his palace seeking justice. The emperor sought out the owner and punished him for discarding his faithful servant.

Charlemagne habitually rested for two or three hours after his midday meal. During the night he slept so lightly he often woke four or five times and got up and wandered around a bit.

An instigator of great buildings both church and state, Charlemagne built a Palace church at Aachen in 796 in the style of Justinian's San Vitalie at Ravenna, Italy. This became Aachen cathedral but today only the chapel survives.

Having already lost Ravenna to the barbarian Lombards, Pope Leo III  feared a similar fate befalling Rome and sought alliance with Charlemagne, thus loosening their ties with Constantinople. This resulted in the crowning of the Frankish king on Christmas Day 800 as Holy Roman Emperor. The pope placed a crown on the new emperor’s head, then knelt before him and paid him homage.

The Coronation of Charlemagne by workshop of Raphael

Though Charlemagne acted surprised at his crowning as Holy Roman Emperor, the indications were the whole thing had been carefully planned. His goal was that the state and the church would work hand in hand for the glory of God and the care of man. His wish was for a Christian commonwealth, inspired by Augustine’s book City of God. His desire was that this would be the beginning of the Millennium, a new world order.



After 802 Charlemagne was accompanied on his travels inspecting his kingdom by an elephant presented to him by Caliph Harvn-Al-Rashid. Also amongst his collection of exotic animals were a bear and a lion.

Charlemagne finished his campaign against the Saxons in 804 having succeeded in conquering most of Western Europe. He felt he was divinely inspired in battle and his military motives were to Christianise the pagan Saxons.

The Scourge of the Saxons as he was known  issued anti pagan laws such as forbidding the eating of meat during Lent or the pretending to be baptized being punishable by death.

A good swimmer, Charlemagne had a great marble pool at his Aachen palace and even as an old man beat young men in races.

There was much prayer for Charlemagne. For instance at Centula, 300 monks and 100 clerks prayed continually for the Frankish 's health and salvation working in three eight-hour shifts. His health was generally excellent.

The name Hamburg comes from the first permanent building on the site, a castle which Charlemagne ordered constructed in AD 808.

Charlemagne did not have a permanent palace, instead he travelled around his kingdom living in royal property called Pfalz. His favorite pfalz was at Aachen where he spent the last years of his life A 14th century town hall is built on the site of his palace.

He never learnt to write but could read (most rulers of his time felt reading was beneath their dignity and left such things to monks). Charlemagne did make several attempts to learn to write but never mastered it and as a result he had to dictate his letters.

In his old age Charlemagne would sleep with writing tablets under his pillow so that if he was sleepless he could practice on them.



Charlemagne died in bed of pleurisy om January 28, 814 at nine o'clock in the morning, after partaking of the Holy Communion.  His last words were "Lord into thy hands I command my Spirit."

He was buried at Aachen Cathedral on the same day as his death, in Aachen Cathedral, although the cold weather and the nature of his illness made such a hurried burial unnecessary.

At his death Charlemagne's kingdom extended from South Italy and Pyrenees to Bohemia.

After his death Charlemagne was embalmed dressed in his royal robes, a crown placed on his head and propped up in a sitting position on his marble throne and there he remained for 40 years.

In 1000AD his tomb was opened by Emperor Otto III in Aachen cathedral. His remains were revealed, seated on a tomb, as if alive, a crown on his skull, a globe in one hand, a sceptre in the other and the imperial mantle on his shoulders. After praying to Charlemagne, Otto had the tomb closed.

Charlemagne was canonized in 1165. His feast day 28th January, is an annual French school holiday.

The Karlsschrein (English: Shrine of Charlemagne) in Aachen Cathedral was made in Aachen at the command of Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor. Frederick II personally carried out the transfer of the bones and the sealing of the shrine on July 27,  1215.

Karlsschrein at Aachen Cathedral. By Sailko - Wikipedia

In the Middle Ages, many legends based on Charlemagne's deeds were written. Most famous was the 12th century Song of Roland, which tells of Charlemagne's 778 invasion of Spain at the request of two Muslim princes, his occupation of Pamplona and his failure to take Sargossa.

The Orlando Furioso, an epic poem by Ludovico Ariosto, told of love of Orlando (Roland) for a princess of Cathay and Charlemagne's wars against the Saracens was one of the most influential poems of the Renaissance.

The 70s musical Pippin is about Charlemagne's son of that name, who tried war, religion and sex to find fulfilment but never found his exclusive El Dorado.

Andorra's National Anthem is "The Great Charlemagne my Father Liberated me from the Saracen". (1914)

In Palermo, Sicily, there is a marionette theatre where two foot high puppets perform extracts from the life of Charlemagne.

It is thanks to Charlemagne's interest in commanding monks to copy ancient manuscripts that today we possess most of the Latin classics. The style they used to copy- Carolingian, is the style most books are printed in today.

The King of hearts in a deck of cards represents Charlemagne.

Veteran actor Christopher Lee released two heavy metal concept albums, Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross and Charlemagne: The Omens of Death based on the first Holy Roman Emperor's life. The release of “Let Legend Mark Me” on Lee's 90th birthday (May 27, 2012), as the first single from Omens of Death, made him the oldest heavy metal performer in history.

Sources Food For Thought by Ed Pearce,  Harraps Book of Scientific Anecdotes, The Faber Book of Anecdotes The. Penguin Book of Middle Ages by Morris Bishop

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