The second ruler in the relatively young Carolingian dynasty, Charlemagne would rise to power and fundamentally change the nature of the Frankish kingdom. His father, Pepin, established Carolingian rule after deposing the Merovingian kings and began a process of organizing the empire under a ruler with real power. Whereas the Merovingian kings were merely figureheads, Pepin began, and Charlemagne finished, establishing a fairly strong kingship.
Charlemagne the Warrior Emperor
Charlemagne began as a warrior and remained one for the rest of his life. When he came to power, he proceeded to undertake fifty-four military campaigns with a small force of Frankish soldiers. He was constantly expanding and pushing the borders of the Carolingian Franks outward. This reversed the pattern of Merovingian rule, during which the borders of the Frankish kingdom consistently shrank. In 773, the relationship between the Franks and the Catholic Church hit its peak, with the Pope requesting aid in pushing the Lombard occupiers out of Italy. Charlemagne succeeded and was crowned Emperor of the Roman Empire in 800.
At this time, Rome was barely a shadow of its former glory, and the Church very badly wanted to maintain the illusion of Roman power in order to protect its interests. Charlemagne took the role but did not act like a traditional Roman Emperor. He did not look like one and did not act like one. While in formal situations he did eventually adopt the trappings of an Emperor, in all other situations he dressed more casually and befitting of a Frankish warrior king.
Despite this he did see serious advantages to being a Roman Emperor. It solidified his position as ruler of the Franks, allowed him to consolidate his power there, gained him a new ally in the Roman Church, and established Frankish legitimacy as a force to be reckoned with. The Frankish kingdom was no longer a scattered assortment of warring factions. Charlemagne had created a central structure that allowed him to more easily control his territory and rule as a true Emperor would.
Charlemagne Rebuilds Europe
Charlemagne sent agents to conduct his business and keep his subjects in line. He never sent the agents to their home region to avoid the temptation they might feel to start a revolt against Charlemagne’s rule. Charlemagne controlled the Bishops, and spent much of the rest of his rule trying to undermine the Church and establish his control over it. Charlemagne would call Capitularies (meetings) at times for regional lords to express their concerns and ask for military help. In this way Charlemagne’s empire was actually fairly responsive to the needs of the nobles so as to quickly deal with issues that may rise.
Charlemagne also wanted to improve the education of the Franks, and “Romanize” them as much as possible. He enlisted the aid of Alcuin of York to serve as a sort of minister of education. The barbarian invasions that brought down Rome eliminated many of the people who spoke Latin, so scholars from England, Ireland, and Scotland were relied on to preserve and re-introduce ancient thought and customs. Under Charlemagne and Alcuin texts proliferated, Roman institutions were re-introduced and Latin became the official language of government, even though few spoke it. They standardized and “cleaned up” the old, confusing Merovingian script. Much of what we know from pre-Charlemagne was a result of this preservation.
It was in this way that Charlemagne rose to become a fearsome, intelligent, powerful Frankish king. He fought and manipulated his way to become a Roman Emperor and managed to create a Roman renaissance. He forged close ties, though they were sometimes stressed, with the Roman Church and set the stage for the intermingling of Church and State in subsequent European states. If it were not for Charlemagne, modern Europe would look much different today, and much of what we know of ancient Rome would have been lost or difficult to decipher.
1 Rutherford, David. “The Merovingians and Carolingians”. Development of Western Civilization 102. October 18th, 2006.