As the Roman Empire slowly collapsed, western Europe was ripped apart by warring tribes such as the Huns, the Goths, the Vandals, the Lombards, the Saxons and the Franks. But under the rule of Charlemagne, the Franks conquered an empire that covered much of western and central Europe. Charlemagne’s reign revived some of the political and cultural glories of the former Roman Empire and he is regarded as the most influential king in Europe in the Middle Ages.
Charlemagne (Charles the Great) was born in Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) in ad 748. He was the son of Pepin the Short, who had become the king of the Franks in 751. Pepin was a Christian and fought many battles to support the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. When Pepin died in 768, Charlemagne and his brother, Carloman, jointly inherited their father’s titles and lands. After Carloman died in 771, Charlemagne became the sole king of the Franks. His territories covered most of present-day France and Switzerland and part of Germany.
The following year Charlemagne invaded Italy to help the Pope fight the Lombards. The grateful Pope appointed him King of the Lombards and Protector of Rome. In 775 Charlemagne began a campaign to defeat the Saxons of northern Germany and convert them to Christianity. Three years later he fought the Muslim Arabs in Spain, although for once this campaign was unsuccessful. In the 780s Charlemagne conquered the Czechs and Slovaks, and in the 790s he defeated and conquered the pagan Avar Empire in Hungary and Austria.
Charlemagne’s achievements in extending the frontiers of Christian Europe were formally recognized in the year 800. On Christmas Day in St Peter’s Church in Rome, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans.
Charlemagne was not just a great warrior; he wanted to encourage the arts and learning. He built schools and churches, and invited the cleverest scholars in Europe to visit his court. Charlemagne had several palaces and cathedrals built, and they were all richly decorated by Frankish artists. He also made a number of reforms to government. Charlemagne commanded that the same coins were used throughout his lands, and unified the laws of his empire.
Charlemagne died in 814 and was buried in Aachen. His empire lasted until 843 when it was split by his grandsons into three parts. But his rule had a lasting influence on European life. He had united the Christian lands of western Europe and firmly established the power of the Roman Catholic Church.