Who Was Charlemagne and Why Is He Called the ‘Father of Europe?’ (2024)

Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great, was the founder of the Carolingian Empire, and was best known for uniting Western Europe for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire. He is, most certainly, still politically relevant today.

The King of the Franks has often been referred to as the “father of Europe,” and in France and Germany he is celebrated as an iconic figure. The royal families of Europe claimed descendance from him until the 20th century, and the Empire he created in central Europe lasted until 1806.

He took the earlier work of Charles Martel in saving the west from invaders and Clovis in unifying France and hiscourt became the centre for a renaissance of learning that ensured the survival of many classical Latin texts, as well as generating much that was new and distinctive.

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Born to power

Charlemagne was born under the name of Carolus sometime in the 740s AD, the grandson of Charles “the hammer” Martel, the man who had repelled a series of Islamic invasions and ruled as de facto monarch until his death in 741.

Martel’s son Pepin the Short became the first truly recognised King of Charles’Carolingiandynasty, and when he died in 768 the throne of the already impressively large Frankish kingdom passed to his two sons Carolus and Carloman.

Who Was Charlemagne and Why Is He Called the ‘Father of Europe?’ (2)

Charlemagne at dinner; detail of a miniature from BL Royal MS 15 E vi, f. 155r (the “Talbot Shrewsbury Book”). Held at the British Library. Image Credit: Public Domain

Dividing the kingdom (too big to govern solo by Early Middle Age standards) between brothers was common Frankish practice and, predictably, it never ended well.

Carloman and Carolus were only kept from open hostility by their despairing mother Bertreda, and – like many of history’s great figures – Carolus enjoyed a huge slice of luck when his brother died in 771 just as Bertreda’s influence was beginning to be overcome by their bitter rivalry.

Now recognised by the Pope as sole ruler, Carolus became one of the most powerful men in Europe overnight, but he was unable to rest on his laurels for long.

Carolingian Kings and the Papacy

Much of the power of the Carolingian Kings rested on their close relationship with the Pope. It was he, in fact, who had elevated Pepin from Mayor to King, and this divinely ordained power was an important political as well as religious aspect of Charlemagne’s reign.

Who Was Charlemagne and Why Is He Called the ‘Father of Europe?’ (3)

Charlemagne receiving the submission of Widukind at Paderborn in 785, by Ary Scheffer (1795–1858). Image Credit: Public Domain

In 772, just as he consolidated his kingship, Pope Adrian I was attacked by the northern Italian Kingdom of the Lombards, and Carolus rushed across the Alps to help him, crushing his enemies in battle and then launching a two-year siege of Pavia before heading south and receiving the Pope’s adulation.

A thousand years later, Napoleon would compare himself to Charlemagne after making the same move, and David’s famous painting of him on horseback bears the nameKarolus Magnusinscribed on a rock in the foreground.

Charlemagne then had himself crowned with the famous Iron Crown of Lombardy, and became master of Italy as well as France, Germany and the Low Countries.

The warrior king

He was truly a warrior king in a way that is almost unmatched before or since, spending almost the entirety of his thirty-year reign at war.

His style was to ride at the head of his men surrounded by his heavily-armouredSpoilabodyguards, brandishing his famous swordJoyeuse. Given his record as a commander, this alone must have been a huge morale blow for his enemies.

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The Italian campaign was followed by near-constant conquests in Saxony, Spainand as far afield as Hungary and Slovakia, as his armies crushed the Avars, brutal nomadic invaders from the east.

Tribute flooded in from across Europe, and the serenity brought to its heart by the war zones becoming further and further away allowed a flowering of art and culture, particularly in Charlemagne’s capital of Aachen.

With the Avars now Frankish vassals and all other states up to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the north-west enjoying good if slightly terrified relations with Charlemagne, Europe was far more of a collection of interdependent states than it had been for many centuries. This was no small thing.

It meant that the horizons of its small squabbling kingdoms expanded beyond simple survival for the first time since the fall of Rome, and their shared Christian faith meant that learning was shared and encouraged between kingdoms. It is no coincidence that European federalists today salute Charlemagne as their inspiration.

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Holy Roman Emperor

His greatest accomplishment was yet to come. In 799 another squabble in Rome lead to the new Pope, Leo, taking refuge with the Frankish King and demanding his restoration.

When this was achieved Charlemagne was unexpectedly crowned Holy Roman Emperor in an elaborate ceremony where the Pope declared that the Western Roman Empire, which had fallen in 476, had never really died but was waiting for the right man to restore it to its former glory.

Who Was Charlemagne and Why Is He Called the ‘Father of Europe?’ (6)

‘The imperial coronation of Charles the Great’. Image Credit: Public Domain

There is some historical debate about whether Charlemagne wanted or was expecting this coronation or not, but the important thing is that he accepted the Imperial Title and became the heir of a line of Emperors dating back to Augustus. For the remaining fourteen years of his life it truly was as if the golden days of the Roman Empire had returned.

Death and legacy

On 28 January 814 Charlemagne, which means Charles the Great, died in Aachen, aged about 70. His legacy would last for generations. Though the power of the Holy Roman Empire declined over the following centuries and the title lost its prestige, it was not dissolved until Napoleon, (somehwhat ironically) broke it up just roughly 1,000 years later in 1806.

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The French General took huge inspiration from Charlemagne, and his legacy was honoured greatly in Napoleon’s own coronations as King of the Lombards and Emperor of the French.

Most importantly, however, the European-wide influence of Charlemagne’s empire started a long process by which that insignificant bit of land at the western end of Eurasia came to dominate world history as its tiny kingdoms got a brief glimpse of glory.

Who Was Charlemagne and Why Is He Called the ‘Father of Europe?’ (2024)

FAQs

Who Was Charlemagne and Why Is He Called the ‘Father of Europe?’? ›

Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great, was the founder of the Carolingian Empire, and was best known for uniting Western Europe for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire. He is, most certainly, still politically relevant today.

Why was Charlemagne called the father of Europe? ›

Charlemagne's profound impact on the Middle Ages and influence on the territory he ruled has led him to be called the "Father of Europe" by many historians. He is seen as a founding figure by multiple European states and a number of historical royal houses of Europe trace their lineage back to him.

Why was Charlemagne called the father of Europe brainly? ›

Explanation: Charlemagne is called the Father of Modern Europe because of his significant contributions to the political, religious, and cultural development of the continent during the medieval period.

Why was Charlemagne called the father of Europe quizlet? ›

Called the "Father of Europe" (Pater Europae),[1] Charlemagne's empire united most of Western Europe for the first time since the Roman Empire.

Was Charlemagne the first king of Europe? ›

A new emperor

Charlemagne's devotion to Christianity—and his protection of the popes—was recognized on Christmas Day 800, when Pope Leo III crowned him Emperor of the Romans at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. He was the first emperor to rule Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire.

Who was Charlemagne and why was he important? ›

Charlemagne was crowned “emperor of the Romans” by Pope Leo III in 800 CE, thus restoring the Roman Empire in the West for the first time since its dissolution in the 5th century. Charlemagne was selected for a variety of reasons, not least of which was his long-standing protectorate over the papacy.

Why is Charlemagne the father of feudalism? ›

They have Charlemagne to thank for this system because it was he who conceived this idea to try to organize his kingdom and by dividing his power gain more control over his vast empire.

How did Charlemagne get his nickname? ›

In Latin, he was called Carolus Magnus (Charles the Great), hence Charlemagne in French. Here is a coin on which you can read “Carolus”. Actually, Charlemagne is the nickname. It's the French version of his German name Karl der Große (Grosse), meaning Karl the Great, via Medieval Latin Carolus Magnus.

How was Europe before Charlemagne? ›

Europe before Charlemagne was a number of small kingdoms and states. It was extremely divided and constantly at war. With Charlemagne's rule came a large empire, all the citizens united for the first time in centuries, and war steadily on the decline in comparison to before.

Why did Charlemagne's empire fall? ›

In this lecture, Professor Freedman discusses the crisis and decline of Charlemagne's empire. Increasingly faced with external threats – particularly the Viking invasions – the Carolingian Empire ultimately collapsed from internal causes, because its rulers were unable effectively to manage such a large empire.

Did Charlemagne have blue eyes? ›

In his classical garb, Charles stood out among the locals like a visiting deity, which in a sense he was. His fair skin, golden hair, piercing blue eyes, and great height marked him as a man of the cold, gloomy northern realms.

How many wives did Charlemagne have? ›

Charlemagne had four wives but he also relationships with several other women as well. Some historians refer to these other women as 'concubines.

How did Charlemagne change the world? ›

Charlemagne is known for his many reforms, including the economy, education, and government administration. Charlemagne's rule spurred the Carolingian Renaissance, a period of energetic cultural and intellectual activity within the Western church.

Who is the father of modern Europe? ›

Charlemagne, Father of Europe.

How did Charlemagne change Europe? ›

Charlemagne was determined to improve education and religion and bring Europe out of turmoil; to do this he launched a thirty-year military campaign of conquests that united Europe and spread Christianity. First he conquered the Lombards in Italy, supporting Pope Adrian I.

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