The Legend and Life of Charlemagne

Life of Charlemagne

Charlemagne was a historical figure, a king that emerge from the Dark Ages in Western Europe, giving rise to early feudal period. However, the small numbers of historical records that survived, was enough began to pull him into the legend of a warrior king.

Here, we looked into his character as both historical and legendary king, before I would give historical background on his life.


Charlemagne, the Legend
Historical Charlemagne




Charlemagne, the Legend

King of the Franks. Charlemagne, which means Charles the Great (Carolus Magnus in Latin), was mainly known as Charles I. Charlemagne was both a historical and legendary figure. There are several areas in which the legend contradict with the historical Charlemagne. Even historical account may exaggerate Charlemagne’s achievement, which the Chanson de Roland and other epics certainly did.

He is the son of Pepin III, or Pepin the Short. In the legend, no mention of his brother, which is Carloman in history, and his sister was unnamed in Chanson de Roland, but Einhard, Charles’ biographer, called her Gisela.

As to his children, only his son Louis was mentioned in the legend.

According to the legend, from his sister’s first husband, who is also unnamed, she was mother of the hero, Roland. When her husband died, she married again, to Ganelon, the chief villain in the Chanson de Roland, because he sought the hero’s death. Ganelon and Charlemagne’s sister became parents of Baldwin. This differed from the historical account given by Einhard, who listed Charlemagne’s sister, Gisela, who took the vow to become a nun, so she didn’t have any husbands, let alone two sons, one from each husband.

Judging by the Einhard’s account, Charlemagne didn’t become the Holy Roman Empire, until he received this title at the hand of Pope Leo III on Christmas Day of AD 800. But the legend, particularly the Chanson de Roland, often referred to him as emperor, during Charlemagne’s campaign in Spain, which took place in AD 778.

Although, Einhard mentioned briefly what happened with Roland in Rencesvals (Roncesvalles), the biographer made no mention of the Archbishop Turpin of Reim or other members of the Twelve Peers. There was also no mention that Roland was the king’s nephew. To read more about the historical background of this battle, see Song of Roland, Historical Background.

During Ganelon’s emissary to Marsile, in the Chanson de Roland, the Saracen king thought that Charlemagne was turning over 200 years old, which is of course, exaggeration of the poet. The real Charlemagne would have only being 36 in age at the time of Spanish expedition.

The legend mentioned Charlemagne being a fair and kind ruler, which may have some truths. At other time, Charlemagne was shown to be indecisive, particularly in regarding to sending emissary to Marsile and during the trial of Ganelon.

Like the historical king, Charlemagne was very religious, and the religion being Christiantiy. Several times, Charlemagne had visions, and angelic visitations from St Gabriel on behalf of God. When he captured Saragossa, he gave the people a choice of converting to Christianity or risk being put to death, either by hanging or burning. Historically, the real Charlemagne gave the similar condition to the pagan Saxons in 775–777 expedition.

The legend, showed him as a very powerful warrior. His sword was called Joiuse and his shield he received from the town Viterbo. Charlemagne won his horse, Tencendur, when he defeated and killed Malpalin of Narbonne at the ford.

In the battle against Baligant, he killed King Canabeus, Baligant’s brother, and later he killed the old emir himself.

Related Information

Carolus Magnus (Latin),
Charles le Grand (French),
Karl der Grosse (German)
– Charles the Great.

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Historical Charlemagne

Charlemagne (AD c. 742 – AD 814) was the son of Pepin III, who was also known as Pepin the Short. He was the brother of Carolman and Gisela.

Originally, Pepin was a Mayor of the Palace for the dynasty known as the Merovingians. The Mayor of Palace was an office that exercised great power, sometime to the point where the mayors had more powers than the kings. Pepin was no different. Pepin crowned himself as king of the Franks in AD 751. Pepin started a new dynasty, known as the Carolingians.

At Pepin’s death in AD 768, the kingdom was divided into two for Charles (Charlemagne) and Carolman, but rivalry between two brothers escalated into conflict, and only ended at Carolman’s death in 771. Thus, Charles became the sole ruler of the Franks.

Though, Charlemagne was often seen as wise and fair ruler, the truth of matter can be seen in his handling of his rivalry between him and his brother, and later with him against Carolman’s sons. They were never seen again, when he captured the Lombard city of Pavia. He clearly had royal ambition, especially when he became king of Lombardy.

Charlemagne became involved in a series of campaigns or wars, to expand his kingdom. He fought in the war against the pagan kingdom of Saxony (772-777). When he finally received their surrender, he forced the Saxons to become Christians or else they were put to the sword.

In 778, he entered to Spain, apparently to help a Moorish king to end the uprising. But he failed to capture Saragossa, and returned to France. But his rearguard was ambushed at Rencesvals (Roncesvalles). They were attacked by Gascons and Basques, not Saracens. Einhard only listed among the dead: Anselm, Count Palatine; Eggihard, the King’s steward; and Roland, Lord of the March of Brittany.

Charles had to quell a rebellion among the Saxons, where he executed over 4000 Saxons as example in 782. There was sporadic rebellions over 22 years.

Not even his cousin was safe. Charles overthrew Duke Tassilo of Bavaria, the same cousin who aid Charles against Carolman. He conquered other German kingdoms, and annexed them into his growing empires. Charles had also fought against the Slavs, Avars (Huns) and Danes.

One of his sons, Pepin, plotted against Charles, during his campaign against the Avars. When this conspiracy was uncovered, he forced his son to take up a monastery life.

It was Charles who helped the Roman church to break away completely from those church of the eastern Byzantine Empire. As a result, when he went to Rome, Pope Leo III crowned him as the Holy Roman Emperor. It wasn’t until 812, when Michael I recognised Charles as Emperor of the West.

With Louis being his only surviving son, he named him as co-ruler in late 813. At Aachen, Charles died at the age of 72, in 814.

Related Information
The Life of Charlemagne was written by Einhard (c. 833).

The Life of Charlemagne was written by the Monk of Saint Gall (c. 883).

The History of the Franks was written by Gregory of Tour.

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Charlemagne, the Legend  |  Historical Charlemagne