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How Charlemagne beat medieval Europe into submission

Charlemagne by Casper Johann Nepomuk Scheuren, 1852Charlemagne by Casper Johann Nepomuk Scheuren, 1852 CREDIT: BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY

How do you write a detailed biography of someone who lived more than 1,200 years ago? Someone, that is, for whom you have almost no personal correspondence, no diaries, no chatty memoirs by friends – and of course, no reports in newspapers, as people would not get round to inventing those for another 800 years.

Well, it helps if the person you are biographising was an important ruler, and it helps a lot if he was Charlemagne, by far the most important European ruler to emerge after the end of the Roman Empire.

Powerful people always leave a paper trail – or, in this case, a parchment trail. And it’s surely no exaggeration to say that Charlemagne became, in his lifetime (748-814) one of the two or three most powerful men in the world.

He was born to rule: his family had been hereditary senior ministers to the Frankish kings, but had managed to edge the last of those kings off the throne, taking his place. The kingdom included much of northern and eastern France, plus a slice of the German lands, up to the Rhine; more French land was conquered during Charlemagne’s teenage years. All this was then inherited by him and his younger brother, who conveniently died a few years later. So, at the age of 23, Charlemagne automatically became the dominant ruler in Europe. But he didn’t stop there. Within a few years he had added northern Italy to his portfolio, by defeating the kings of Lombardy. 

Then there was a big expedition into Muslim Spanish territory, beyond the Pyrenees (which ended badly, ambushed by Basques on the return journey – this was the episode commemorated much later in the Song of Roland). Over several decades he campaigned against the Saxons, a large group of warlike tribes in the German lands, eventually forcing a kind of political submission out of them. And, by the end, Bavaria, Austria and even western Hungary had fallen into his hands.

Charlemagne’s political horizons were broader than that. He received envoys from Muslim rulers in both Spain and Baghdad: the latter sent him an elephant, called Abul Abbas, which he took on some of his military campaigns.     MORE