I‘m not religious, but I love celebrations. Instead of Christmas, I dedicate my tree to Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne.
Charlemagne, Charles the Great, Karl der Große, Carolus Magnus, Charlie, was born in 742, 747 or 748 CE and died in 814. He was a conqueror, but also a supporter of the arts. And on December 25, 800 CE, he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor.
Charlemagne was a Frank, born to Pepin the Short and Bertrada of Laon. Pepin was the first Carolingian king (a neat trick, since the name comes from “Charlemagne” but such is history), so Charlemagne’s dynasty was very young when he ascended to the throne in 768. At the time, primogeniture (oldest son inherits everything) was not yet the custom, and so Charlegmane co-ruled with his brother, Carloman. Who knows that the two of them would have achieved together (or perhaps not achieved due to infighting), but Carloman died in 771, leaving Charlemagne sole ruler.
That Carloman died under mysterious circumstances, and that the brothers had a history of not liking each other, suggests that the two probably would not have achieved greatness together.
Besides king of the Franks, Charlemagne was a protector of the Papacy, a defender of the faith. After defeating the Lombards, another Germanic tribe settled in Italy, Charlemagne became king of the Italians, as well. He sent forces into Muslim Spain and forcibly Christianized the peoples of Eastern Europe. He united most of Western Europe, a unity not seen since the fall of the Roman Empire in the late 400s.
In light of this, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor.
But Charlemagne did more than fight and conquer. He supported the arts and learning, leading the Carolingian Renaissance (just one reason you should instantly disregard anyone who says “Dark Ages”). He consulted with scholars such as Alcuin of York. A new type of handwriting was invented (Carolingian Miniscule) which allowed writers to get more words onto a page, and for the first time spaces were inserted between words. He also founded (and funded) schools, paving the way for the rise of universities. He allowed his daughters to attend school, though it’s not clear if that was normal for noble women.
Let me clarify that last point: paved the way for medieval universities that led to universities as we know them. There were universities in the ancient world, and many scholars debate the first “real” university, much as they debate the first “real” novel. It really depends on one’s own definition. Regardless, I think funding schools and encouraging education is a good thing for any ruler to do.
Many old manuscripts were copied under Charlemagne, preventing them from being lost.
He also created an organizational system for the lands he conquered, form of which is still used in the USA: He subdivided his territories into Duchies (ruled by dukes) and counties (ruled by counts). Duchies tended to be on the frontiers, counties the more stable interior. States in the U.S., of course, are subdivided into counties.
What intrigues me is that Charlemagne conquered everything he could, yet he was willing to cooperate. He listened to his advisors. He worked with English King Offa to create a new European monetary system. He spoke several languages, though he couldn’t write.
As with most of my medieval heroes, Charlemagne has his problematic aspects, but there’s much about him I respect.
Parts of this post originally appeared on Mirous Worlds