Legendary Leaders: Charlemagne


His name means Charles the Great — a fitting description for a brilliant military commander, visionary leader, and one of the most influential figures of the Early Middle Ages. Better known as Charlemagne, he ruled over a vast domain not seen since the Roman Empire and is often referred to as the “Father of Europe.”

At the time of his death in 814, Charlemagne’s staggering list of accomplishments included a cultural and intellectual revival and establishing administrative policies from which future nations were built. 

Here’s a mere sampling of his impressive highlight reel…

10. Common Currency

With the rapid expansion of new territories within his realm, Charlemagne recognized the need to simplify commerce by developing a standardized currency. He reformed the previous monetary system by establishing mints (mainly in modern-day France and Germany) to produce high-quality silver coinage called the livre carolingienne. 

The new structure divided a pound of pure silver into 20 sous, which were then subdivided into 240 deniers (pennies). The coins featured either Charlemagne’s image, name or insignia, thus carrying a value guaranteed by royal authority. By replacing a hodgepodge of gold coins in circulation from different regions, trade became much easier to manage, leading to a more stable and prosperous economy. 

9. Sibling Rivalry

Charlemagne and his younger brother, Carloman, became co-rulers of the Frankish Kingdom after the death of their father, King Pepin III (aka Pepin the Short) in 768. The arrangement didn’t sit well with either prince, resulting in a bitter power struggle to assume sole kingship. 

Carloman considered himself to be the rightful heir to the throne, based on claims that his sibling had been born out of wedlock. In other words, he called his brother a bastard and refused to play nice.

The acrimony threatened to destroy the Carolingian Dynasty founded by Charles the Hammer (their grandfather and Charlemagne’s namesake). However, the crisis came to an end in 771 with the mysterious death of Carloman, paving the way for Charlemagne’s historic reign. 

8. Family Man

Although Charlemagne zealously spread the Gospel throughout his life, he wasn’t exactly a model Christian himself. The monarch eventually fathered at least 18 children from five wives and several concubines.

As a means of strengthening his reach, he installed his sons as kings and military leaders. But not all of them remained loyal. His eldest son, Pepin the Hunchback, launched a failed rebellion against his father in 792, resulting in his exile to the monastery in Prüm. 

Charlemagne’s controlling nature included not allowing his daughters to marry. Historians have suggested this ban prevented any competing heirs from challenging his intended legacy or claims to the throne. 

7. Not Couture

Royal figures have a long-standing reputation for flaunting extravagant threads. For example, King Louis XIV of France took power dressing to new heights with a closet brimming with robes, wigs, and high heels resembling the set of RuPaul’s Drag Race. But Charlemagne took a different approach. Instead, he preferred simple clothing worn by the common masses, emphasizing function over fashion. 

A typical cloak of the period consisted of two heavy cloth panels, protecting from the cold weather outside or in his drafty palace at Aachen. Like most medieval warriors, Charlemagne always wore a sword, requiring free movement when slashing and bludgeoning his opponents in battle. 

6. Metal God

Christopher Lee was world-renowned for his portrayal of iconic roles, ranging from Dracula to Saruman, during a prolific career spanning nearly 70 years. He also released a pair of symphonic heavy metal concept albums based on another famous family member’s life: Charlemagne.

The Carandini family, Lee’s maternal ancestors, is one of the oldest clans in Europe, with roots dating back to the first century CE. And with bloodlines connected to the legendary emperor, they were granted the right to bear the coat of arms of the Holy Roman Empire by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in the 12th century.

In 2010, Lee recorded Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross, for which he received the “Spirit of Hammer” award at the Metal Hammer Golden Gods Awards ceremony. Three years later, he followed up with Charlemagne: The Omens of Death. The legendary actor can also be found starring in an accompanying video, The Bloody Verdict Of Verden.

Although Lee never tasted real blood in battle, he did serve in World War Two as an intelligence officer in the Royal Air Force. For his services to the arts, the London-born thespian was appointed Commander of the Venerable Order of Saint John, Commander of the Order of the British Empire and finally achieved knighthood in 2009. 

5. Role Model

Charlemagne’s unification of Europe and military prowess would later inspire Napoleon Bonaparte to attempt a similar feat. Let’s just say he came up short. Still, that didn’t stop the Corsican tyrant from trying. Repeatedly.

In 1806, Napoleon even went as far as declaring “Je suis Charlemagne” (“I am Charlemagne”) and used the famous painting, “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” as a propaganda tool. He instructed French artist Jacques-Louis David to depict the pint-sized general calmly riding on back of a ‘fiery steed’ with his name carved above two other Alps-conquering heroes: Hannibal and Charlemagne. 

Not surprisingly, Hitler tried the same trick as part of his “Make Germany Great Again” campaign. The Nazis ballyhooed an elaborate celebration for Charlemagne’s 1,200th birthday and renamed a SS division in his honor. 

4. A Rare Defeat and A Sad Song

A crafty opportunist, Charlemagne looked to exploit simmering political instability in northern Iberia. His armies easily ravaged Pamplona and Barcelona in the fall of 778 before meeting unexpected resistance by Muslim forces at the city of Zaragossa. Following a month-long siege, the Franks accepted a substantial amount of gold and several hostages to vacate the city. 

But while attempting to cross the Pyrenees on the journey back home, they were ambushed by a large guerrilla force of Basques along a narrow stretch called the Roncevaux Pass. The attackers utilized their extensive knowledge of the local terrain to annihilate the Frankish rearguard with a steady barrage of javelins and arrows. The Basques also managed to plunder the baggage carts loaded with loot. Several high-ranking officials and nobles were killed, including Charlemagne’s alleged nephew, Roland, the Prefect of the March of Brittany.

The King of the Franks later exacted his revenge by creating the Marca Hispanica, which served as a buffer province on the Iberian Peninsula between his empire and the Muslim-controlled south. The Battle of Roncevaux Pass would be commemorated in a highly-romanticized epic poem, Song of Roland, one of French literature’s oldest surviving works.

3. Repent or Die

Beginning in 772, the heavily-wooded hinterlands of northwest Germany served as a blood-soaked battleground for a series of clashes known as the Saxon Wars. Forces under Charlemagne would spend the better part of three decades fighting their long-time pagan nemesis before eventually crushing the final Saxon uprising. 

The back-and-forth feud produced an especially brutal incident known as the Massacre of Verden. In October 782, the Frankish King ordered the execution of 4,500 Saxons for refusing to convert to Christianity. The Royal Frankish Annals, a historical record written in Latin, states:

When he heard this, the Lord King Charles rushed to the place with all the Franks that he could gather on short notice and advanced to where the Aller flows into the Weser. Then all the Saxons came together again, submitted to the authority of the Lord King, and surrendered the evildoers who were chiefly responsible for this revolt to be put to death—four thousand and five hundred of them. This sentence was carried out.

Over the years, scholars have long debated the veracity regarding the total number of victims in the mass killing. However, noted author and historian Alessandro Barbero, asserts that Charlemagne’s vengeance may have been inspired by the Bible in order “to act like a true King of Israel.”

2. Crowning Achievement

On December 25, 800 CE, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as Imperator Romanorum (“Emperor of the Romans”) at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The lavish coronation restored the hallowed title in the West for the first time since the fifth century.

The pact proved mutually beneficial to both parties: Leo received added muscle to protect him from attacks by rival factions (a mob had recently tried to rip out his tongue and eyes), while the Frankish monarch now had the church’s blessing to continue his domination on the continent. 

Additionally, Charlemagne’s new bejeweled crown served to diminish the rule of Empress Irene I of the Byzantine Empire (aka Eastern Roman Empire). The Pope had rejected a female monarch’s legitimacy and admonished her for deposing and torturing the rightful heir, Constantine VI, who also happened to be her son. 

It should be noted that the term “Holy Roman Empire” wasn’t officially circulated until 1254. After being named emperor, Charlemagne provided the majority of the territory, which eventually became several autonomous multi-ethnic domains before dissolving in 1806.

1. Luck of the Frankish 

Charlemagne sparked a cultural renewal known as the Carolingian Renaissance, the ramifications of which helped shape and modernize western civilization. As one of his most enduring legacies, he actively sought to promote education, the arts, and literature by financing academic centers throughout Europe. 

To help facilitate this, he turned to Ireland. After all, Celtic monks owned a reputation for skillfully (and painstakingly) transcribing classical and Christian texts in Latin, such as the illuminated masterpiece, Book of Kells. Numerous Irish scholars were widely recruited, serving in monastic schools established by Charlemagne. 

Thanks to their combined efforts, the preservation of ancient manuscripts and Roman antiquities might otherwise have been lost. Moreover, these Hibernian intellectuals — the first of many literary giants to come — provided the stepping stones for the Italian Renaissance to flourish centuries later.

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