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Charlemagne King of Franks and Emperor of Rome he was also known as Charles the Great.

Many know of these names but not many actually know why he was known as ‘The Great’. Charlemagne’s birth is still as there are many sources that contradict established dates, but what is known is that Charlemagne was born to Pepin the Short (King of the Franks) who reigned from 761-768 A.D. and Betrada of Laon and assumed his position as a ‘joint’ ruler with his brother Carloman after the death of Pepin the Short. A joint rule was unusual during this era and the responsibilities that came with ruling was made further difficult due to his father’s plans to establish an Empire were already in progress. The death of Pepin left his lands split between Carloman and Charlemagne, in particular Aquitaine was an arena on contention, and Aquitaine was victim to an uprising in which Charlemagne and Carloman moved to quell. In this Carloman instead of aiding his brother tried to undermine his power in an attempt to claim sole rulership of the Kingdom and instead lost standing among the Frankish nobles. After Carloman’s death Charlemagne had become sole ruler of all the territories. This time is when Charlemagne became ‘great’.

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After the death of his brother Charlemagne was aggressive in his conquest of the surrounding lands, within 20-25 years Charlemagne had doubled the size of his Empire, now the Carolingian Empire. Charlemagne had first taken over the Lombard lands from Desiderius claiming he was an oath-breaker. Desiderius took over a number of papal cities and headed towards Rome; Charlemagne being a supporter of the Roman rule would use this to attack Desiderius and take his lands and in 774 A.D. claimed victory over the Lombard Kingdom. With his victory over the Lombard Kingdom Charlemagne could now focus on defeating his long-time enemies the Saxons who had been a thorn in his side since 773 A.D. Charlemagne had also annexed Bavaria, Bohemia, Austria, Croatia and Moravia. Charlemagne also led Campaigns through Hispania against the Hispanic Muslims, Northeast against the Hun and other Slavic countries. Charlemagne’s successes led Pope Leo III to crowning Charlemagne as ‘Imperator Romanorum’ (Emperor of Romans) in 799A.D.

The Frankish king Charlemagne was a devout Catholic who maintained a close relationship with the papacy throughout his life. In 772, when Pope Adrian I was threatened by invaders, the king rushed to Rome to provide assistance. Shown here, the pope asks Charlemagne for help at a meeting near Rome.

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This had made Charlemagne not only King of the Franks but also Emperor of Rome. The Carolingian Empire was vast and many different cultures and religions existed within it, the difficulty of ruling such a large diversity of peoples was arguably the toughest task set before Charlemagne. One aspect in which made Charlemagne ‘Great’ was in his administration of his Empire, unlike the previous Kings and Emperors Charlemagne did not impose upon his newly acquired vassals from conquered enemies a fixed system, in other words the people were not forced to follow his system of administration, instead Charlemagne created a new system to cater for the people. This system of rule was adopted by later Kingdoms and Empires due to its success. This included the abolishment of monetary exchange being done with gold and instead replaced with a currency based on weight and worth, the use of Livres (Deniers). Though this was drafted by his father Charlemagne brought it to existence.

 

The use of agents or royal officials was absolutely necessary to rule any large Empire or Kingdom and Charlemagne was no exception, just like all other rulers he had to assign tasks to his agents to run his Empire as a local administration for the further reaches in which Charlemagne could not directly control. Unlike other rulers Charlemagne, if you study his politics was very unique and unlike any before established system. Charlemagne used to assign the same task to several different officials; the idea behind this was as complex as it was simple. The aim for this was to avoid any one official gaining too much power, therefore reducing the chances of rebellion but also to increase the chances of the set task being completed. Charlemagne also used this structure to promote flexibility, local initiative and cultural service based on repetition; of course such a system came with its problems. This system also created disorganisation, confusion in which was the best path to take to complete the task and inevitably conflict between officials, but this new system proved once again that Charlemagne was clever and innovative as much more tasks got completed.

 

A major responsibility of a King, which is as ancient as kingship itself was the duty to protect their people and to administer justice, this was something that Charlemagne took very personally and strongly believed in Justice. Charlemagne had once again changed this procedure slightly, in which he tasked three agents with particular roles; The Count, The Bishop and, The ‘Missus’.

The Count was in charge of basic law and order which included jail maintenance, controlling bandits and knowing the law.

The Bishop was in charge of trials that were of religious context, trying of clerics and, spiritual penance for any crime committed.

The Missus was essentially a judge who would supervise judicial matters, whilst attending other tasks.

This new system also proved effective and court was very well organised.

 

Charlemagne would clearly be challenged as not all would agree with his new system of governance as it reduced power of many influential nobles, but also it was seen as intrusive by the common populace. Another aspect of which made Charlemagne great was evident in his ways of quelling dissent and revolt. A prime example would be to use the revolt of Hrodgaud in 775-6 A.D. which was the revolt of an Italian Duke. Duke Hrodgaud was unhappy with his position and decided to revolt against his new King as Italy had just recently been conquered, originally Charlemagne allowed many of the influential Lombard families to retain control of their lands, so long as they pay their taxes and swear fealty to Charlemagne. Charlemagne believed this would reduce the chances of revolt, in which he was mostly correct. Charlemagne was quick to respond to the revolt and crushed it but instead of killing the revolt heads which was standard of the day, Charlemagne relinquished their power and replaced them with Carolingian agents. This was arguably a show of Charlemagne’s compassion and righteousness. Though Charlemagne was fair in judgement and looked for ways to resolve conflict without further bloodshed, this did not mean he was ‘soft’ Charlemagne was quick to put an end to direct violent conflict, by this I mean the incidents that are nothing but an aim to kill Charlemagne or his people. The most notorious example of this was the events that had happened in Verden in which Charlemagne had beheaded 4500 Saxons in one day. This is another firm aspect of which made him ‘Great’ the fact that he could be compassionate which was largely unusual but at the same time extremely brutal which was the usual standard if needs be.

 

Charlemagne built on Frankish, Roman and Christian traditions and often called himself King of the Franks opposed to Emperor but it cannot be denied that Charlemagne was an innovative and intelligent ruler; he introduced new systems which would later be used in ruling and in some areas still in use today. Charlemagne was opportunistic, yes but he was also compassionate and strong. Charlemagne was as brutal as any other ruler but also as caring and protective as a ruler could be. Charlemagne’s expansion was swift but Charlemagne was able to capitalise and prioritise in his rule to create a reasonably stable Empire even though it was so vast. Charlemagne had succeeded where many other rulers would arguably, likely fail; his successes are arguably what made him ‘great’.

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