Charlemagne, or Charles the Great (742 - 814), was king of the Franks between 768 and 814, and Holy Roman Emperor from 800 until his death. He was known as one of greatest rulers of the Middle Ages. Charlemagne founded the Holy Roman Empire and his rule is widely believed to have greatly influenced Europe's attempts to create a unique civilization different from that of Rome or other ancient empires. According to the UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography (2003) Charlemagne was the illegitimate son of Pepin the Short and Bertrada. In 751, Pepin deposed the last Merovingian king and was declared king of the Franks, a powerful Germanic tribe that lived in the region today known as France.
When Pepin died in 768, both Charlemagne and his brother Carloman became kings and the kingdom was divided up, but Carloman was given the largest and richest portion of land and the brothers fell out. However Carloman died suddenly in 771 and Charlemagne became the sole ruler of the kingdom. He was aggressive and attacked anyone who threatened his power, especially in Italy, where he defeated King Desiderius of the Lombards, and became King of the Lombards at Pavia. This was known as the Frankish conquest of Italy. In 772, Charlemagne declared war against the Saxons, a Germanic tribe, with this long and fierce war continuing until 804. Meanwhile, on his eastern frontier Charlemagne defeated Tassilo, the Duke of Bavaria, adding the Bavarian territory to his kingdom. Further to the east the major power and ultimate threat to the Frankish realm was the enormous Slavic kingdom of the Avars. Between 791 and 795 Charlemagne cracked down on the Avars. By 800, Charlemagne ruled all of the Christianized Western provinces that had once been part of the Roman Empire (except Britain) and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day.
The Vita Caroli Magni, the first medieval biography which details Charlemagne's life and achievements, was written by his close ally Einhard between 817 and 836. It gives an account of his life and an insight into his character, revealing how he was both "light-hearted and sociable." However towards his enemies he was a terrifying and mighty warrior. In contrast to this side of his character, Charlemagne was a patron of the arts and spoke fluent Latin and studied Greek, promoting cultural revival known as the Carolingian Renaissance. Through his program of cultural revival and changes to the Church, he improved the degree of civilization in the West. Charlemagne's reign is viewed by historians as period of calm and prosperity because of his ability as a soldier, politician and diplomat. He is admired for getting the Byzantine emperor to recognize his imperial title and for being an influential supporter of education. Under his reign there was an increase in the number of schools and a dramatic improvement in the quality of education.
In 806, Charlemagne was in his 60s, and feeling mortal, he decided to outline his plans for the succession of his empire. He divided his kingdom up between his three sons – Charles, Pepin and Louis. Tragically this was followed by the death of Charles in 810 and Pepin soon afterwards. Charlemagne's remaining son Louis, who was later known as "the Pious" was ironically was the least aggressive of the three boys and became the sole heir to his empire. He was crowned by Charlemagne in 813, a year before his father's death. The final part of Charlemagne's reign saw troublesome times, with civil disorder, disease, famine and threats to the empire's borders all taking their toll on the leader. In 811, he wrote his last will and decided to hand over many of his treasures to churches within his realm. He died on January 28, 814, and was buried at his palace at Aachen.
In The Coronation of Charles The Great: What Did It Signify? (1959) Richard E. Sullivan describes Charlemagne as "simply a barbarian warrior of great energy. He believed he could promote Christianity in the form familiar to him by killing some of those who had never heard of it and compelling the others to be baptized. His ambitions and ideals were those of a barbarian chieftain. But in an age in which savage cruelty and reckless treachery were not uncommon, even at the Court of the Roman Emperor, which claimed to be the centre of civilized life, Charles the Great was exceptional in attracting faithful supporters and in exciting admiration for the power of his personality."