This lesson will explore the rule of Charlemagne and his exercise of the divine right of kings. It will highlight his reign as Holy Roman Emperor, focusing on his military conquests and his cultural reforms.
Introduction to Charlemagne
Throughout history, many characters have been celebrated as larger than life. There's Samson of the Bible, Joan of Arc of France, King Henry VIII of England, and of course, the star of our lesson, Charlemagne of the Holy Roman Empire, whose name actually means 'Charles the Great.'
Born around the year 742, he began as Frankish King, then became the first Holy Roman Emperor. He was a man of influence and power, who pulled a continent from chaos, and resurrected the concept of a king's divine right to rule.
Before we get to the details of his accomplishments, let's bring some of his humanity to light by listening to the physical description given of him by one of his contemporaries. He was 'broad and strong in the form of his body and exceptionally tall without, however, exceeding an appropriate measure. His appearance was impressive whether he was sitting or standing.'
Map showing the military conquests of Charlemagne
Now that we have a picture of him in our mind's eye, let's explore his accomplishments by breaking them down into his military conquests, his divine right to rule, and his cultural advancements.
To recount his military conquests, we first need to understand that much of Western Europe had been in chaos since the 5th century fall of Rome. As king of the Franks, of modern-day France, Charlemagne went to work bringing the Germanic tribes of Western Europe under his rule and the blanket of Christianity. He did this by conquering the Lombards of modern-day Italy, the Avars of Austria and Hungary, the areas of Bavaria, the Germanic Saxons, and many others.
Although most of Charlemagne's rule was filled with military campaigns, his dealings with the Saxons really highlight his ruthlessness and his determination to rule supreme. Against them, he waged a three decade long campaign, devastating their people. In fact, at the 782 Massacre of Verden, it is believed that he ordered the slaughter of some 4,500 Saxons. Those who survived his tyranny were eventually forced to be baptized into Christianity or face death.
This leads us to his zealous faith. As a ruler, he was obviously extreme in his desire to unite his lands under the Christian faith. Not only did he kill those who refused to comply, he ardently supported the church. He did this not only through the giving of money and lands, he also took it upon himself to protect the Papacy, or the office of the Pope. For example, when Pope Leo III found himself actually attacked in the streets of Rome, Charlemagne rode upon the city and restored order. When Pope Leo III regained his power, he awarded Charlemagne with the crown of Holy Roman Emperor. This famous crowning occurred on Christmas day in the year 800 CE.
Divine Right of Kings
Pope Leo III gave Charlemagne the crown of Holy Roman Emperor
With this, we come to Charlemagne and the divine right of kings. As a ruler, Charlemagne's word was pretty much law. He had the final say in legislative and judicial matters, as well as social and military rule. In other words, he stood on his own as large and very in charge. However, when the Pope crowned him emperor, Charlemagne's power went from being seen as earthly to being endorsed by God himself, which brings us to the concept of the divine right of kings.
The Divine Right of Kings is a political and religious ideology, which recognizes a monarch as free from earthly authority, since his right to rule has come directly from God. For this reason, a king is not subject to the people, the nobility or any other earthly institution. Shoring up matters even more for the king, the doctrine holds that any attempt to remove a king from the throne or to restrict his power is in direct violation of God's will. Talk about a powerful endorsement! The origins of the theory are rooted in the medieval idea that God had bestowed earthly power to the king, just as He has given spiritual power and authority to the Pope.
Making this doctrine even more powerful for Charlemagne, we need to remember he was not only a king; he was made emperor by the Pope himself! Not only had God willed him to be a king, but God's mouth piece - the Pope - had made him emperor! Now, who would dare argue with that? Giving Charlemagne even more validity, the Bible was also used (or misconstrued, depending on your point of view) to push this doctrine, specifically Romans 13:1-2 which reads,
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
In other words, it'd be a really, really bad idea to go up against King Charlemagne, let alone Emperor Charlemagne! To do so would be to contradict the will of God.
This standardized form of writing developed during the Carolingian Renaissance
Using this position of power, Charlemagne continued to unify the empire through cultural reform. Believing literacy could help in the process, he brought scholars to his realm to encourage education. Also, his rule saw the formation of monastic schools throughout the empire. With this emphasis on education, came a flowering of culture, known as the Carolingian Renaissance, a period of renewed emphasis on scholarship and learning. During this period the Carolingian minuscule, or a standardized form of writing, came into being. This form of writing would set the groundwork for the modern European printed alphabet, yet another success attributed to Charlemagne.
When we stop to consider all this man did in terms of conquest, rule, and culture, it's no wonder he was a legend in his own time - and almost seen as a god after his death. Perhaps nothing drives this point home more, than the 11th century Song of Roland, an epic, yet rather fictional, poem highlighting the rule of Charlemagne. In it Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, was elevated to near god status, as a man beyond mortal wisdom. In short, a Medieval Superman, or perhaps villain, depending on which side of the fence you stand.
Born around the year 742, Charlemagne began as a Frankish king, but rose to the heights of Holy Roman Emperor. He was a man of influence and power, who used military conquest, his divine right to rule, and cultural reform to pull a continent from chaos.
In order to unify Europe under his rule, much of his rule was spent at war, reigning in the scattered lands of Western Europe. Using his position of Holy Roman Emperor, he ruled under the divine right of kings, a political ideology that recognizes a monarch as free from any earthly authority. With such power, Charlemagne not only waged war, he enacted social reform, bringing education and the Carolingian Renaissance to his people and forever changing the face of Europe.
When you have finished the lesson, you should be able to:
- Describe Charlemagne's ascension to power in central Europe
- Define the Divine Right of Kings
- Identify the Carolingian Renaissance and its reforms