When Charlemagne was born on 2 April, 748, there was no reason to think that he would ever be king of the Franks, much less an emperor. Charlemagne’s family, the Carolingians, were not yet the Franks’ ruling dynasty. The Merovingian dynasty still ruled, as had been the case for more than two centuries.
Charlemagne’s grandfather Charles Martel, and then his father Pepin, had become de facto rulers among the Franks; they took over the actual operations of the Frankish government and edged the Merovingian kings into irrelevance. Charles Martel led the Franks in battle against Arab raiders in 732, winning a victory that burnished the Carolingians’ reputation for effective leadership.
In 751, when Charlemagne was about three years old, his father Pepin deposed the last Merovingian king and became the sole king of the Franks: rex Francorum. He did so with papal approval. Pope Zachary approved the deposing; pope’s successor, Stephen II, then anointed Pepin as king in 754. The pope anointed Pepin in Francia itself, specifically at St. Denis near Paris; it was the first-ever papal visit north of the Alps.
Neighbors All Around
Charlemagne and the Franks had many neighbors with whom to contend. To the Franks’ southwest was the Iberian peninsula, with its small Christian kingdoms in the mountainous north, and Al-Andalus, as its Arabic-speaking rulers called it, comprising the rest.
Al-Andalus was well on its way to becoming predominantly Muslim, and predominantly Arab-speaking, part of Europe, ruled by, if not always controlled by, the emir of Córdoba. Al-Andalus was also wealthier and more urbanized than Charlemagne’s own lands.
To the Franks’ northwest was Brittany; rural, Celtic speaking, and hard to control, notwithstanding Charlemagne’s claims to be its overlord.
To the northeast, Frankish rule extended beyond the Rhine River, but not by much; beyond the Frankish toehold on the east bank of the Rhine were various pagan and Germanic tribes whom the Carolingians called the Saxons—it is not entirely clear what the Saxons would have called themselves at this point. Beyond the Saxons were still more pagans, including the Danes and a multitude of Slavic tribes.
This is a transcript from the video series Charlemagne: Father of Europe. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Charlemagne’s Fights with his Neighbors
Farther south, between the Rhine and Danube Rivers, Frankish rule included Bavaria, but to the east of Bavaria, in what is today Hungary, was the Avar Empire. The Avars were most likely the descendants of central Asian nomads, and they had ruled this area around the Danube Rover since the 6th century.
Italy and the Italian peninsula were politically fractured. Northern Italy was seat of the Lombard Kingdom. The Lombards, like the Franks, were a Germanic people; they had ruled northern Italy for almost two hundred years. Central Italy was papal territory, seat of the recently emerged Republic of Saint Peter. Southern Italy was more-or-less under the control of the Byzantine Empire, although local dukes such as the Duke of Benevento sometimes enjoyed something close to independence.
That is a long list of neighbors, but they all have one thing in common: aside from the papal-ruled Republic of St. Peter, Charlemagne fought them all; each and every one of them.
Charlemagne’s Grooming by Pepin
Charlemagne’s father, Pepin, had groomed Charlemagne for rulership during Charlemagne’s youth. When Pope Stephen traveled to Francia for the purpose of anointing Pepin as king in 754, Pepin sent Charlemagne, who was then about six years old, to meet the pope en route and to escort him for the rest of his journey. During the anointing ceremony, the pope anointed not only Pepin, but also Pepin’s wife, and their two sons, Charlemagne and Carloman.
When Charlemagne was thirteen, his father took him on his first military campaign; thereafter, Charlemagne commonly participated in his father’s campaigns.
In the early 760s, while Charlemagne was in his teens, Pepin put a monastery and some unnamed counties under Charlemagne’s jurisdiction, and also had Charlemagne confirm a charter. These experiences prepared Charlemagne for what he would have to do one day as a king.
Charlemagne’s brother Carloman was about three years younger than Charlemagne. Pepin groomed Carloman for future rulership in exactly the same way that he groomed Charlemagne. In keeping with Frankish practice, Pepin intended to divide his kingdom equally between his two sons, each of whom would be a king. And when the time came, Pepin followed through on that intention.
In 768, Pepin sensed correctly that he did not have long to live, and he arranged for each of his sons to marry a Frankish woman with an aristocratic background. Charlemagne’s wife, his first one, was Himiltrud.
Kingdoms of Charlemagne and Carloman
When Pepin died in 768, Charlemagne and Carloman received their kingdoms.
Charlemagne’s consisted of a long but skinny, crescent-shaped arc of land beginning in Aquitaine, in southwestern France, stretching up along the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean and English Channel, and then into the Rhine River Valley. Carloman’s kingdom was a large, solid blob contiguous with Charlemagne’s kingdom.
Under the Merovingians, the partitioning of a kingdom often touched off wars between disgruntled heirs. In 768 and the years immediately afterward, history looked as though it was going to repeat itself; Charlemagne and Carloman did not like each other.
Common Questions about How the Carolingians Dynasty Came to Rule the Franks’ Kingdom
Charlemagne’s grandfather and father had both effectively become the rulers of the Franks’ Kingdom even if it wasn’t official. However, when Charlemagne was three years old, his father Pepin got rid of his last competitor, and the Carolingians became the ruling dynasty among the Franks.
When the Pope traveled to Francia, Pepin sent his six-year-old son, Charlemagne, to meet the Pope en route and escort him. When Charlemagne was thirteen, his father took him on his first military campaign; thereafter, Charlemagne commonly participated in his father’s campaigns. In the early 760s, while Charlemagne was in his teens, Pepin put a monastery and some unnamed counties under Charlemagne’s jurisdiction, and also had Charlemagne confirm a charter. These experiences prepared Charlemagne for what he would have to do one day as a king.
After Pepin’s death, the kingdom was divided between the two heirs of the Carolingian dynasty: Charlamagne and Carloman. However, Charlemagne and Carolaman didn’t like each other. The partitioning of a kingdom often touched off wars between disgruntled heirs, and in 768 and the years immediately afterward, history looked as though it was going to repeat itself.