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Charlemagne (Charles the Great)
Frankish King

Charlemagne, king of the Franks and the Holy Roman Empire, conducted almost continuous military operations for more than four decades to extend his rule over most of western and central Europe. Rightfully known as a “light in the Dark Ages,” Charlemagne is the most influential military leader of the Middle Ages because his armies dominated the battlefield and their victories led to uniting Germanic, Roman, and Christian cultures into what became the cornerstone of European civilization.

Born the son of Pepin the Short on April 2, 742, at Aachen, in present-day Germany, near the Dutch and Belgian borders, Charlemagne entered a family already striving to control their own region and subjugate their neighbors. Through force in 754, Pepin became the king of the Franks – present-day France, Belgium, and Switzerland and parts of Holland and Germany – and immediately began military efforts to acquire territory south of the Loire River and to provide support to the pope in Rome against the Lombards of northern Italy. Charlemagne accompanied his father during these expeditions and acquired his military education.

Pepin dies in 768, leaving his empire to his sons Charlemagne and Carloman. This duel kingship had little chance of success, but before any great difficulty occurred, Carloman died in 771, making Charlemagne the sole leader. Charlemagne had married the daughter of the Lombard king Desiderius in 770 to maintain an alliance with the former enemy of the Franks. On the death of his brother, Charlemagne sent his wife back to her father and began his empire expansion with an offensive against the Lombards. By 774, Charlemagne had defeated his father-in-law and assimilated the Lombard lands of northern Italy into the Frankish Empire.

Charlemagne based much of his expansionism on his father’s promise to Rome to protect papal interests. Although religion provided an excuse, acquiring land and broadening borders proved to be a much stronger motivation to Charlemagne than any divine direction. Even before his armies defeated the Lombards, Charlemagne turned his might against the pagan Saxons who occupied what today is northern Germany. It required eighteen campaigns and more than thirty years before the Franks totally defeated the Saxons in 804. More than a fourth of the Saxon population died in the protracted wars from Charlemagne’s postwar policy that the defeated people either accept Christianity or be executed.

Infantry armed with axes and spears and protected by shields and leather vests composed the bulk of the Frankish army. During Charlemagne’s reign, some of these foot soldiers formed the beginnings of the medieval mounted knights and fought from horseback with long swords that were superior to other countries’ weapons of the period. Charlemagne did not maintain his army full-time; rather, he called his soldiers from their farms and towns on a seasonal basis, usually in the spring, to conduct campaigns lasting three to six months. He required all physically able free men to serve without pay and to provide their own weapons as well as three months of supplies. Their compensation was booty at the close of each campaign. Charlemagne supplemented his men’s rations with a herd of cattle that followed the army.

Charlemagne organized one of the better intelligence networks of the period, sending out spies and scouts to determine enemy locations and capabilities. To confuse opponents, he often divided his army into two columns and united the force only at the time of attack. Battles usually began with a charge of cavalry followed by massed infantry. Once a fight began, little maneuver occurred. Charlemagne’s forces were victorious because of their superior numbers and individual abilities.

While fighting the Saxons, Charlemagne also conducted campaigns to expand his empire into current southwest France and southern Germany. He invaded what is today Hungary and Bosnia as well and defeated the Avars, an Asiatic nation related to the Huns. In 778, Charlemagne invaded Spain, and although his efforts against the Moors to capture the entire country proved unsuccessful, he occupied a northern portion that became known as the Spanish March. As the Franks withdrew from Spain, Charlemagne’s rear guard, commanded by his nephew Roland, fell to the Christian Basques. The epic medieval poem The Song of Roland immortalized the battle.

Charlemagne now controlled the bulk of western and central Europe and led the strongest army in the Western world. On Christmas Day, 800, Charlemagne knelt to pray in Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica, and Pope Leo III placed a crown on his head, declaring him the emperor of the restored Holy Roman Empire.

Actually, the new Roman Empire that Charlemagne ruled differed greatly from that of the past. The new empire was only about half as large, and Charlemagne, of course, was Teutonic rather than Roman. In his entire life, the new emperor of Rome visited the city on only four occasions, preferring to rule from Aachen and to spend much of his time campaigning in the field.

From 800 forward, Charlemagne ceased expanding his borders, concentrating instead on threats from the Vikings and Danes in the north and the Byzantine Greeks and the Mediterranean Arabs in the south. No major battles occurred, however, and Charlemagne lived out his last years fairly peacefully as he focused on domestic and cultural matters. He died at age seventy-one of pleurisy, on January 28, 814, and was buried in Aachen.

Charlemagne continually exhibited his leadership and capability as a military commander. He also provided the greatest leadership of the Middle Ages in developing rules of law, in the copying of books and manuscripts, in spreading the Christian doctrine, and in the teaching of Latin. Although his actions encouraged the religious wars that bloodied Europe and Asia for centuries in the future and his empire survived only thirty years after his death, Charlemagne is largely responsible for the fusion of Christian, Germanic, and Roman cultures that yielded what would become European civilization.