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June 25, 2021

56: Charlemagne’s Legacy

56: Charlemagne’s Legacy

What influence did Charlemagne have on Francia, Europe & the world?


Today we’ll talk about the end of Emperor Charles’ reign, his death and legacy. But before we do I want to wrap up a few loose ends which I didn’t get to cover before.

To start, let’s talk about Frankish relations with the Islamic world. We’ve already covered Spain, which was an area of constant conflict as Charles increased his holdings ever southward at the expense of Al-Andalus. But Charles was far more interested in conquering the open lands of Germany rather than fighting the militarized, fortified and rocky land of Spain. When the Moors weren’t fighting Frankish vassals on land their navies fought them around the Balearic Islands. At the time, the islands contained sparsely-populated Christian communities who were frequently ravaged by Muslim pirates and by the 8th century became tributaries of Al-Andalus. When Charles conquered Italy in 774 he gained control of expert navies and used them to fight against Islamic pirates. These victories encouraged the people of the Balearic Islands to send emissaries to the Franks, begging for help. In 798-799 the Franks incorporated the islands into their empire. This incorporation was probably in name only since maintaining a naval presence was expensive and there’s little record of Frankish rule into the 9th century but quite a bit of evidence of further Islamic raids. The Franks helped the Balearic Islands maintain independence from Islamic forces by defeating Moorish navies or at least threatening to attack any invasion force, but the Franks wouldn’t commit to defending the islands, which fell prey to routine pirate attacks.

Frankish retreat from the Balearics encouraged Al-Andalus to launch an assault on the large island of Corsica, which Charles took over when he conquered Italy. In 806, 807 and 810 the Moors launched a number of attacks against the Franks and were defeated each time. Their last attack was repulsed by Charles the Younger. Despite routine Frankish victories, pirates from Al-Andalus regularly attacked Mediterranean islands in search of slaves and booty.

In contrast to the contentious relations between the Franks and the Moors, the Franks and the Abbasid Caliphate maintained regular diplomatic missions and got along very well. The Franks and Abbasids were far enough away from each other that neither side bothered the other, while both empires fought against Al-Andalus and the Byzantines. Moreover, the Abbasids and the Carolingians were both usurpers, with Abul ‘Abbas as-Saffaḥ seizing power from the Umayyads in 750 while Pepin the Short overthrew the last Merovingian in 751. Thus, the Abbasids and Carolingians recognized each other as legitimate even as their rivals claimed they weren’t.

In 765, when Charles was still a prince, the Franks sent an embassy to Baghdad. In three years, Charles became king and the Frankish embassy returned with an Abbasid embassy bearing gifts, establishing formal relations between the two countries. These relations proved incredibly useful to Charles during his invasion of northeastern Spain. Remember, the Umayyad dynasty and their successors in Al-Andalus maintained Arab legal superiority over all conquered peoples while the Abbasids asserted racial equality. During the Islamic conquest of Spain in the early 8th century the invaders settled many Berbers in the northeast along Francia’s border. These Berbers were very unhappy with being treated unfairly and recognized the Abbasids as the legitimate rulers. When Charles invaded the northeast, many pro-Abbasid Berbers opened their gates to him in order to free themselves from their Umayyad overlords. Moreover, Charles engaged in regular trade with the Abbasids, exchanging slaves, timber and weapons for gold which fueled the Carolingian Renaissance while simultaneously supporting the Islamic golden age. It’s funny how so often history depicts Western Christianity and the Islamic world in conflict when during this period the two helped kickstart each other’s rapid economic and cultural development.

Around 797, Charles sent an embassy to the Caliphate, led by a man named Isaac the Jew, a prominent Jewish man from Narbonne. Isaac presented gifts to the Caliph, who gave gifts in return, including an elephant named Abul-Abbas, probably named after the first Abbasid Caliph. Isaac spent roughly a year travelling with the Caliph’s embassy and their elephant across northern Africa until they boarded a boat to Italy, where they met Charles and presented him with the elephant, which must have been quite a sight. Charles was very pleased with it and in 802 brought the elephant back to his palace at Aachen. Charles then sent another embassy that year, and a third in 807. The last embassy returned with gifts from the Caliph that included silk, perfume, a large tent of many colors, and a mechanical water-clock that chimed every hour. Additionally, travelers from one country could pass through the other, and Charles sent an embassy to Jerusalem with money to patronize the construction of the Church of St. Mary. In response the Patriarch of Jerusalem gave him keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the church built on the site where Jesus was crucified.

The two empires enjoyed friendly relations based on mutual opposition to the Moors and Byzantines, and engaged in regular exchange of slaves for gold, fueling a period of remarkable prosperity for both. Moreover, friendly relations kept the two from fighting each other, although this broke down following Charles’ death, after which Abbasid navies regularly attacked Italy.

Now that we’ve covered the southern extremity of the Frankish Empire it’s time to turn to the far north. Charles’ continual conquests brought him into contact with a militaristic kingdom with a growing population known as Denmark. Moreover, the peninsula could not easily be invaded. Most of Denmark’s narrow neck was cut off by interconnected rivers while the east was covered in a series of massive earthwork fortifications known as the Danevirke. In 782 King Sigifrid sent a member of the royal family named Halfdan to meet Charles, establishing formal relations. Emperor Charles bolstered his northern navies during this period but historians aren’t sure if this was directed towards Denmark. The Franks and Danes nearly came to blows in 804 after Charles conquered northern Germania and the two countries bordered each other. Alarmed, King Gudfred asked for a meeting. Charles agreed but before the meeting could take place Gudfred feared treachery and didn’t show up. Charles then sent an embassy demanding Gudfred extradite some Germans who had fled into Denmark during the Saxon Wars, to which Gudfred refused.

In 807 tensions rose when Halfdan pledged fealty to Charles, turning against his king. Gudfred then decided to attack the Obdorites, a Slavic tribe and Frankish vassal on the northeastern border of Francia. After heavy fighting the Danes subjected a number of Obdorite tribes, which angered the Franks. Emperor Charles sent his son Charles the Younger to expel the Danes and return the land to the Frankish puppet king, which he did.

By 810 Emperor Charles was planning an invasion of Denmark when Gudfred surprised him with his own invasion. The chroniclers recount that 200 ships sailed west from Denmark and landed in Frisia where they forced the locals to pay tribute. Charles marched northwest to face the Danes and took his elephant with him to terrify his enemies, but as it turns out African elephants don’t do well in a northern European climate and he died on the way. Even without his war elephant, the Emperor still managed to scare off the Danes who fled back to their homeland. When Charles arrived in Frisia he found his enemies had already left and he also learned that Gudfred had been assassinated by his enemies at court. The king was quickly replaced by Hemming, a relative and possible son of Charles’ vassal Halfdan. Hemming was friendly with the Franks and concluded a peace treaty in 811 that reestablished the status quo ante bellum. Afterwards rival factions of nobles tore apart Denmark as they vied for the throne. These mini-civil wars meant that Charles’ thin northern border was secure.

Now that we’ve talked external affairs, let’s talk about domestic politics as the aging Emperor attempted to secure his legacy. By 804 Charles had finished his thirty-year long series of wars across Spain, Italy, Saxony and Pannonia. By this time he was in his late 50s or even 60s. From 804 until his death he spent possibly 2/3rds of his time at Aachen ordering the kingdom while his sons fought battles across the empire.

Speaking of sons, as Charles entered old age he became increasingly concerned with the inheritance of his realms. Charles had four legitimate sons who lived past infancy though the ravages of time claimed all but one. His only son by his first wife Himiltrude was Pepin the Hunchback. In 792 Pepin tried to overthrow his father, but he was captured, disinherited and sent to a monastery where he later died of the plague in 810.

Himiltrude died in the 780s, and after an aborted relationship with Lombard princess Desiderata, Charles married the 12 or 13 year-old Hildegard in 771, who bore him their first child the following year. Charles had three sons with Hildegard who survived into adulthood: Charles known as ‘the Younger,’ Pepin and Louis. In 806, Charles’ sister Gisela convinced him to make a public will dividing administration of the empire. I say ‘administration’ because Charles wanted his empire to remain a single, unified polity just with different regional leaders who could fight against its enemies. In the 806 will, each brother was set to inherit the lands they had been administering. As the oldest brother and King of the Franks with his father since 800, Charles the Younger would inherit almost the entire northern half of the empire and would be the leader of the Franks. Pepin, King of Italy since 781, was set to inherit the wealthy northern half of Italy and Bavaria. Finally, the youngest brother Louis, who was King of Aquitania since 781, was granted the southern half of modern-day France and northeastern Spain. Under this system when the emperor died his son Charles would become the sole King of the Franks and rule the empire from Aachen while his younger brothers administered their own regions. Charles sent this succession plan to the Pope who confirmed it, and the various stipulations it contained, including one that stated that no brother could mutilate, torture or kill a male relative without lawful trial, a measure intended to prevent Merovingian-style infighting.

Yet, this tripartite division never occurred. On 8 July 810 Pepin died after trying to conquer Venice, leaving behind his 13-year-old son, Bernard, who Emperor Charles allowed to inherit Italy in his father’s place. On the 4 December 811 Charles the Younger had a stroke and died heirless. Louis remained the only surviving legitimate child. That year Emperor Charles issued a new will regarding the passing of personal possessions but did not mention the division of his empire. Perhaps he was struck with grief because over the next two years there is no mention of what would happen to Francia when he inevitably passed. Moreover, Charles was routinely sick with pleurisy, an inflammation of tissue around the lungs, and was often confined to his bed. His weakness meant he was far less active and the aging emperor regularly complained that his subjects didn’t sufficiently obey his orders. Another reason why Charles probably hesitated to name Louis as his sole successor was due to Louis’ unpopularity at court. Louis spent most of his time in the traditional Frankish heartland west of the Rhine and was virtually unknown at Aachen.

As Charles neared his death, he decided he had to solidify the country’s future. On 11 September 813 he called a general assembly at Aachen and made Louis coruler of the entire empire, who would inherit everything but the Kingdom of Italy which had passed to Bernard. He crowned Louis Emperor of the Romans, without mentioning the Pope as he claimed the sole ability to pass on the title.

That winter Charles fell ill with fever and complained of consistent pain in his side. On 28 January 814, he breathed his last and died, having lived 65 to 71 years. He had been King of the Franks for 46 years, King of the Lombards for 40, and Emperor of the Romans for 14. Caretakers placed his body in an antique, imported Roman sarcophagus. His will stated he would be buried at the royal necropolis at Saint-Denis alongside his father and the Merovingian kings of Francia, but his daughters ignored the order and interred him at the Cathedral in Aachen where he remains to this day.

Contemporaries understood that Charles had been a monumentally important figure. Even in life, at least one poet referred to him as “The Father of Europe,” a moniker many historians still give him this day. Charles emerged during a time when the European kingdoms viewed themselves as pale imitators of a glorious Roman past and where Christianity was on the run as Islamic forces invaded from the south while pagans threatened from the east. His reign was the beginning of a whole new era, one wherein a new European polity finally competed with the glory of Rome, artistically, culturally and militarily. Moreover, it was a great Christian empire, which, through conquest and assimilation, had converted millions. It combined the glory of Rome with the purpose of a unified proselytizing religion. Under Charles the Franks built monuments, charted the heavens and ordered the world. His reign sponsored an expansion of literacy, art, culture, science, theology, architecture and military conquest that was unprecedented in post-Roman European history. No other political figure had such a transformative impact upon Europe since Augustus 800 years before. Likewise, no political figure would alter Europe to the same extent until Napoleon Bonaparte, 1,000 years later.

It is here that Charles becomes Charlemagne and passes from history to legend. Just as Rome’s shadow hung over early medieval Europe, future rulers claimed Charlemagne’s legacy while writers waxed poetic about the lost golden age of such a great ruler.




Encyclopedia Britannica

Matthew Innes and Simon MacLean, The Carolingian World, 2011.

Rosamond McKitterick, Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity, 2008.