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"Our task [as secular ruler] is externally, with God's help, to defend with our arms the holy Church of Christ against attacks by the heathen from any side and against devastation by the infidels."

Pepin III, King of the Franks, knelt with his sons to be anointed by Pope Stephen III in conscious imitation of the anointing of King David by the prophet Samuel. And like David's son Solomon, Pepin's son Charles would preside over a renowned cultural and religious flowering.

Expanding borders

Charles received his education from his mother and the monks of Saint Denis. He could speak and read Latin and his native Germanic tongue, but he never learned to write, though he tried to his entire life. He mastered the military and political arts close to his father's throne.



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When Pepin died in 768, Charles was in his mid-20s: vital, energetic, and at six feet three-and-a-half-inches tall, he towered over his subjects. When his brother, Carloman, died in 771, Charles was left as sole ruler of the Franks.

Charles's early reign was marked by incessant warfare, which expanded his control in all directions. His longest wars (772–785) were in an area just below modern Denmark, against the Saxons. As he conquered, he converted them to Christianity at the point of the sword.

Pope Hadrian then asked for his help in the south, calling on Charles to deliver him from the Lombards. Charles obliged and quickly compelled the Lombard king to retire to a monastery. He took the crown for himself in 774, and now ruled over much of what is modern Italy. During an Easter visit to Rome that year he was greeted by the pope with the words; "Behold another Constantine, who has risen in our times."

Charles's 778 campaign against the Spanish Moors did not go as well and he was forced to withdraw. (An unimportant defeat in the Pyrenees formed the theme of the heroic epic, The Song of Roland, one of the most widely read poems of the Middle Ages.) Charles was determined to establish a secure border south of the Pyrenees, and he finally did so in 801, when he captured Barcelona.

In the meantime, he had turned his attention to the southeast border of his lands and conquered and absorbed Bavaria. Looking southeast, he pushed farther east along the Danube River into the territory of the Avars. His defeat of these fierce warriors not only netted him 15 large wagons of gold and silver but highlighted his political and military superiority to the Byzantine Empire to the east.

New Roman emperor

His triumph culminated on Christmas 800, when in one of the best known scenes of the Middle Ages, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne "Emperor of the Romans."

Charles told his biographer that he attended the service unaware that the pope was going to do this, but modern historians discount this as overly modest. In addition to complex political reasons for wanting the caption, Charles had theological reasons. Charles was also a great student of Augustine, much taken with his idea of the City of God. He believed the church and state should be allied as forces in the unification of society.

Charles delineated the roles of state and church in a letter to Pope Leo: "Our task [as secular ruler] is externally, with God's help, to defend with our arms the holy Church of Christ against attacks by the heathen from any side and against devastation by the infidels and, internally, to strengthen the Church by the recognition of the Catholic faith. Your share, Most Holy Father, is to support our army with hands upraised to God, as did Moses in ancient days, so that the … name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified throughout the world."

Charles, then, believed the caption, "Emperor of the Romans," made him the successor of the Roman emperors. (Never mind that the Byzantine emperors had thought the same of themselves for centuries!)

Defender of the Church

Charles took seriously his mission to "internally strengthen the church." Indeed, within his kingdom he was far more influential in church affairs than was the pope.

Charles appointed and deposed bishops, directed a revision of the text of the Bible, instituted changes to the liturgy, set rules for life in the monasteries, and sent investigators to dismiss priests with insufficient learning or piety. He had his deacon, Paul, publish a collection of homilies for use throughout the kingdom, instructing him to "peruse the writings of the Catholic fathers and, as in a flowery meadow, pick the choicest blooms and weave a single garland of all that can be put to use."

Charles also took an active interest in the two main religious controversies of his era, adoptionism (which held that Jesus was not "God from God" but was adopted as God's son during his lifetime) and iconoclasm (which condemns icons as idolatry). In his reforms, Charles showed that, like Constantine, he believed he was overlord of the church.

Education was also carefully tended. The partially illiterate Charles believed that success in his political and religious reforms depended on learning: "although doing right is better than knowledge, knowledge comes before doing." Charles was a patron of scholars, creating a school for his many children in the palace and accumulating an impressive library. The only copy of many classical texts we have today came from the pens of monks he set to work. He required each cathedral and monastery to set up a school and compelled the children of nobles to attend (who might otherwise have considered this beneath them).

Charles's government helped set the feudal system deeply in place. His armies were made of nobles, bound to him by oaths and granted tracts of land to support themselves and their soldiers. He published his laws in "capitularies," and sent them throughout the realm by missi dominici, pairs of inspectors who made sure his orders were obeyed in castles and churches.

This energetic political, cultural, and religious reform, is today known as the Carolingian Renaissance and is one reason Charles was given the appellation, "Great," in Latin, Charlemagne.