After the decline and fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, western and central Europe was in disarray.
It was around this time that Franks rose to prominence and consolidated their power mainly in modern-day France. Franks reached the zenith of their power during the reign of Charlemagne the Great. Charlemagne considerably expanded the Frankish realms and effectively transformed them into an empire.
He espoused the cause of Christianity, so his conquests were also viewed favorably by the church. He ultimately created the Carolingian Empire and largely shaped the geo-political future of the region for many centuries.
Who was Charlemagne?
Charlemagne was a Frankish ruler who first ruled as the King of Franks, then also as the King of Lombards in Italy, and finally as the Emperor of Romans. Charlemagne was descended from the famous Frank leader Charles Martel and was the son of the Frankish king, Pepin the Short. He became the King of Franks in 768.
Charlemagne and Lombard Italy
Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, one tribe after another had annexed Italy. When Charlemagne became king, Italy was ruled by the Lombards. The Lombard ruler at the time ran into a dispute with the Pope. Charlemagne favored the Pope and invaded Italy when the Lombard king Desiderius refused to settle the issue.
He then proceeded to firmly establish his authority over northern Italy and was crowned the King of the Lombards in 774. His actions would establish the basis of future incursions from France and Germany into Italy for the purpose of subduing its cities and towns.
Charlemagne and Christianization of Saxons
Germanic Saxons were a powerful coalition of barbarian tribes living close to the Frankish realms. Charlemagne waged a long and often bloody war against these tribes.
The aim of this was both to bring the Saxons into the fold of Christianity and to extend his sphere of influence.
Charlemagne succeeded in both aims by warring with the Saxons for nearly 30 years. In the end, most of the Saxons had been forcefully converted to Christianity and their pagan customs obliterated. Charlemagne also went on to subdue Bavaria, and fight the Slav and Avar.
The Anglo Saxons used a shield formation as a tactic on the battlefield
Coronation as Emperor of the Romans
Charlemagne was seen as a protector of the Church and the Papacy, while also fighting many wars under the pretext of expanding the influence of Christianity. So he enjoyed excellent relations with the Pope.
In 779, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as the Emperor of the Romans. In doing so, the Pope rejected the claim of the Byzantine Empress to this title, legitimizing Charlemagne as the true successor of the Romans in Western Europe. This would effectively make Charlemagne the heir to the rich Roman legacy.
The black eagle was widely used as a medieval coat of arms
Death and Legacy
Charlemagne died in 813 after being ill for some time. He was 72 at the time and had won countless battles and wars, subdued several territories, ruled many kingdoms, and effectively reshaped Western and Central Europe. His legacy would continue to shape Europe for many centuries, affecting its culture and history even down to modern times.