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Charlemagne (Charles the Great or Charles I) (shärˈləmān) [O.Fr.,=Charles the great], 742?–814, emperor of the West (800–814), Carolingian king of the Franks (768–814).

King of the Franks

Elder son of Pepin the Short and a grandson of Charles Martel, Charlemagne shared with his brother Carloman in the succession to his father's kingdom. At Carloman's death (771), young Charlemagne annexed his brother's lands, disinheriting Carloman's two young sons, who fled with their mother to the court of Desiderius, king of the Lombards. When Desiderius conquered part of the papal lands and attempted to force Pope Adrian I to recognize Carloman's sons, Charlemagne intervened (773) on the side of the pope and defeated the Lombards. At Rome, Charlemagne was received by Adrian as patrician of the Romans (a title he had received with his father in 754), and he confirmed his father's donation to the Holy See. Shortly afterward he took Pavia, the Lombard capital, and assumed the iron crown of the Lombard kings of Italy.

In 778 he invaded Spain, hoping to take advantage of civil war among the Muslim rulers of that kingdom, but was repulsed at Zaragoza. In later campaigns conducted by local counts, Barcelona was captured (801) and a frontier established beyond the Pyrenees. Charlemagne's struggle with the pagan Saxons, whose greatest leader was Widukind, lasted from 772 until 804. By dint of forced conversions, wholesale massacres, and the transportation of thousands of Saxons to the interior of the Frankish kingdom, Charlemagne made his domination over Saxony complete. In 788 he annexed the semi-independent duchy of Bavaria, after deposing its duke, Tassilo. He also warred successfully against the Avars and the Slavs, establishing a frontier south of the Danube.

Emperor of the West

In 799 the new pope, Leo III, threatened with deposition by the Romans, appealed to Charlemagne. Charlemagne hastened to Rome to support Leo, and on Christmas Day, 800, was crowned emperor by the pope. His coronation legitimized Charlemagne's rule over the former Roman empire in W Europe and finalized the split between the Byzantine and Roman empires. After years of negotiation and war, Charlemagne received recognition from the Byzantine emperor Michael I in 812; in return Charlemagne renounced his claims to Istria, Venice, and Dalmatia, which he had held briefly. The end of Charlemagne's reign was troubled by the raids of Norse and Danes (see Norsemen), so Charlemagne took vigorous measures for the construction of a fleet, which his successors neglected. His land frontiers he had already protected by the creation of marches. In 813, Charlemagne designated his son Louis I as co-emperor and his successor and crowned him at Aachen.

Achievements of His Reign

In his government Charlemagne continued and systematized the administrative machinery of his predecessors. He permitted conquered peoples to retain their own laws, which he codified when possible, and he issued many capitularies (gathered in the Monumenta Germaniae historica). A noteworthy achievement was the creation of a system by which he could supervise his administrators in even the most distant lands; his missi dominici were personal representatives with wide powers who regularly inspected their assigned districts. He strove to educate the clergy and exercised more direct control over the appointment of bishops and he acted as arbiter in theological disputes by summoning councils, notably that at Frankfurt (794), where adoptionism was rejected and some of the decrees of the Second Council of Nicaea (see Nicaea, Second Council of) were condemned. He stimulated foreign trade and entertained friendly relations with England and with Harun ar-Rashid. In 813, Charlemagne designated his son Louis I as co-emperor and his successor and crowned him at Aachen.

Charlemagne's court at Aachen was the center of an intellectual renaissance. The palace school, under the leadership of Alcuin, became famous; numerous schools for children of all classes were also established throughout the empire during Charlemagne's reign. The preservation of classical literature was aided by his initiatives. Prominent figures of the Carolingian renaissance included Paul the Deacon and Einhard.

Character and Influence

In his daily life Charlemagne affected the simple manners of his Frankish forebears, wore Frankish clothes, and led a frugal existence. He was beatified after his death and in some churches has been honored as a saint. Surrounded by his legendary 12 paladins, he became the central figure of a cycle of romance. At first, legend pictured him as the champion of Christendom; later he appeared as a vacillating old man, almost a comic figure. His characterization in the Chanson de Roland (see Roland) has impressed itself indelibly on the imagination of the Western world. The vogue of the Charlemagne epic ebbed somewhat after the Renaissance but was revived again in the 19th cent. by Victor Hugo and other members of the Romantic school. Charlemagne's creation (or re-creation) of an empire was the basis of the theory of the Holy Roman Empire; it was his example that Napoleon I had in mind when he tried to assume his succession in 1804.


Einhard wrote a contemporary biography of Charlemagne. See also H. Fichtenau, The Carolingian Empire (1949, tr. 1957); D. Bullough, The Age of Charlemagne (1966); J. Boussard, The Civilization of Charlemagne (tr. 1968); R. McKitterick, Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity (2008). For the literary aspect, see J. L. Weston, The Romance Cycle of Charlemagne and His Peers (1901).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(Latin, Carolus Magnus). Born Apr. 2, 742; died Jan. 28, 814, in Aachen. Became king of the Franks in 768 and emperor in 800. The Carolingian dynasty is named after Charlemagne.

After the death of Pep in the Short (768), Charlemagne began to rule part of the Frankish state (his brother Carloman held the other part). In 771 he became the sole ruler of the reunified state. Charlemagne expanded the boundaries of his kingdom through numerous campaigns (against the Lombards in 773–74 and 776–77 against the Bavarian duke Tassilo in 788; intermittently against the Saxons from 772 to 804; against the Arabs in Spain in 778–79 and 796–810 against the Avars from 791 to 799; and against the western Slavic tribes from 789 to 806). He was crowned emperor in Rome in 800 by Pope Leo III. Charlemagne’s empire included various tribes and nationalities at different levels of social development. He undertook a number of measures to strengthen his borders (including the formation of marches) and strove to centralize power in the empire. The royal court became the center of state life.

Charlemagne attempted to organize systematic control over the counts (in whose hands local military and administrative power was concentrated) by means of “state envoys” (missi dominici). In order to bring the vast state under a single set of laws, he published numerous capitularies. He saw the Catholic Church as a source of support for the royal power: he awarded high posts and various privileges to its representatives, intervened in the appointment of bishops, and encouraged the compulsory conversion of conquered peoples. The feudalization of Frankish society was promoted by his internal policies: the establishment of the feudal land dependence of the peasantry, the growth of large-scale land ownership, and the increasing independence of the land-owning aristocracy. Charlemagne’s distribution of deeds of immunity to the aristocracy created, in spite of his own aspirations, the social and economic prerequisites of feudal fragmentation. The empire of the Franks disintegrated under Charlemagne’s successors. An upsurge in culture, the Carolingian Renaissance, was evident under Charlemagne.


Halphen, L. Charlemagne et V Empire Carolingien. Paris, 1947.
Calmette, J. Charlemagne. Paris, 1951.
Serejski, M. H. Karol Wielki na tie swoich czśsow. [Warsaw] 1959.
Karl der Grosse …, vol. 1. Dusseldorf, 1965.
Tessier, G. Charlemagne. Paris, 1967.
Epperlein, S. Karl der Grosse. Berlin, 1971.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


(742–814) established the Carolingian empire. [Fr. Hist.: NCE, 507]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


?742--814 ad, king of the Franks (768--814) and, as Charles I, Holy Roman Emperor (800--814). He conquered the Lombards (774), the Saxons (772--804), and the Avars (791--799). He instituted many judicial and ecclesiastical reforms, and promoted commerce and agriculture throughout his empire, which extended from the Ebro to the Elbe. Under Alcuin his court at Aachen became the centre of a revival of learning
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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