Post 31: Emperor of the West

Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire

I’d been looking forward to this book for a while, drawn to it by an attractive cover and by the chance to fill in some gaps in my knowledge between the end of the western Roman Empire and the middle ages proper. Written in 2010 by Hywel Williams, and published by Quercus, this book covers this period in detail and tackles issues in the development of culture, nationality and religion. There’s less said about Charlemagne the man than one might expect from the title. I’ve covered a few books about a single character on this blog and there have been a number of different styles: Alcibiades got a very straight biography, while John Hawkwood was used as a tool to tell a broader history, and Mark Antony received some sort of revisionist argument. Charlemagne doesn’t really get anything – the focus is instead on the big themes of his reign and those of his dynasty; the book would probably have been more accurately titled Empire of the West. It is centred on his reign and we do get a vague chronological order through his life but the nine chapters are separated by these topics.

That leads in nicely to the question of the level of this book … with all these grand subjects to contend with, how heavy going is it for the reader? In some ways it’s actually pretty well balanced. Readers looking for a military history or pacy narrative should look elsewhere, but the themes are introduced gently and build up to detailed and complex discussions (for a popular history book anyway). In other ways it is less well balanced, I did feel that this level of detail and the wide knowledge of the author backfired in places – off hand comparisons to the earlier Merovingian kings or later Ottonian emperors often left me feeling like I should have did a bit more background reading first. In other places the detail leads the book on unexpected excursions away from the Franks – lengthy sections on St Augustine or the politics of King Alfred’s Wessex were interesting and relevant, but still felt like they could have been trimmed. Amongst all this, the main man can get a bit lost and, for a while in the first half of the book, I did find myself wondering why exactly Charlemagne was quite that great given that his role in the book often seemed to be quite marginal.

I was also slightly off put by occasional bits of carelessness. The author would casually (and anachronistically?) refer to a ‘Spanish national identity’ under the Kingdom of Asturias while leaving a discussion on ‘nationality’ to the final pages; or referring to ‘romanisation’ when it is ambiguous whether this refers to Byzantium, ancient Rome or ecclesiastical Rome. These little dubious points in such a detailed book were slightly frustrating to find. Having said this, the explanations were clear (if not always concise) and having a huge level of detail without overwhelming the reader is certainly to be applauded.

Why was Charlemagne Important?

So after all that I should probably get to the main point; why was Charlemagne important? There’s a simple answer and a not so simple one to this. For the simple answer, his reign marked the beginning of relationships between states and the church that would dominate europe for hundreds of years, he oversaw a cultural and religious renaissance, and his empire and military campaigns were to define the political make-up of europe right up until today. In a not so simple answer, he seems to have been the right man at the right time and somewhat fortunate that actions elsewhere played into his hands – the scheming of popes, Byzantine iconoclasm, and the success of his Carolingian predecessors. These factors did not mean his success was a foregone conclusion, he was clearly an able and confident ruler, but without them his reign would not have been quite as notable.

Church and State

The most famous incident of Charlemagne’s life is certainly his crowning as ‘Emperor of the Romans’ by Pope Leo III. For himself and the Franks this obviously added more glory and legitimacy to their rule, but for the western church this was the culmination of many years of strife. For both ecclesiastical and secular parts of Europe, this act would go on to have long lasting consequences. On Christmas Day in 800 A.D. Leo III celebrated mass in the great church of St Peters and placed a crown on the head of Charlemagne, who was kneeling in the congregation. According to sources of the time, Charlemagne claimed not to know of the planned coronation and would have avoided the church if he had known – this has to be taken with a pinch of salt, the reluctant king is an old trope, but he was not the only beneficiary of the event. The background to the event was one of gang warfare in Rome and assaults and threats on the pope. Taking on the Franks as protectors was a shrewd political move by Leo, though one with long term effects to solve this short term problem. It set up the Frankish dynasty as legitimate rulers of multiple kingdoms and made them an officially Christianizing force in the region, and spelt the end for (even theoretical) Byzantine rule in the west. Before and after this momentous event, the church would play a huge role in the other highlights of his reign.

Cultural Renaissance

During Charlemagne’s reign literacy and artistic culture in his kingdom had a resurgence. Charlemagne himself may not have been of a particularly artistic mindset but he clearly understood the value of it for administration, diplomacy and demonstrating the power of his empire. Influential figures in his court like Alcuin of York helped to set up systems of writing and education in his lands – systems that began in courts and palaces but would soon shift to the monastic system that would last for the coming centuries. I’m not going to go into too much detail here, but Hywel Williams covers all sorts of areas here, including the spread of music and language – latin as a popular spoken language was starting to fall out of fashion and be replaced by the local romance variants. It’s fascinating stuff but unfortunately difficult to sum up in a few lines on a blog.

Empire Building

The kingdom passed down to Charlemagne by his Carolingian ancestors, and the Merovingian kings before them, wasn’t exactly a backwater. It stretched across much of what would later become northern France and Germany, neighboured by the Lombards in Italy, the Saxons, Bavarians and the Kingdom of Aquitaine. Previous rulers were often more than competent and successful in their own right, but that success was often hampered by the policy of dividing the kingdom among a number of successors – leading to civil wars and infighting. While Charlemagne was initially to divide the kingdom with brothers and cousins, he quickly mopped them up and had a stable base to expand from. Acquitane was incorporated into the Empire, then the Lombards defeated in Italy. Alongside this there were campaigns in Spain and pushing east into Saxony or Bavaria. Balancing these threats and conflicts would have been no easy task, and it was not always particularly successful (the wars in Spain are probably best known for the Song of Roland and the defeat at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass) but on the whole he would triumph and greatly expand the lands of his empire.

This wasn’t just expansion however, there was a religious element to it as well that foreshadows the later crusades. His wars with the Saxons spanned thirty years and ended in brutal massacres and forced conversions – one legal code issued by Charlemagne stated “If any one of the race of the Saxons hereafter concealed among them shall have wished to hide himself unbaptized, and shall have scorned to come to baptism and shall have wished to remain a pagan, let him be punished by death.”. The wars with the pagan Avars and Slavs weren’t quite as controversial but did feature missionaries and the conversion of the opponents as much as prominently as they did expansion and conquest.

Political and Economic Reform

The significance of his reign strays beyond this too. The Frankish had not been sitting idly where economic and legal reform was concerned but Charlemagne would pursue it enthusiastically, with a great emphasis on written laws and codes. A chain of command with Counts and envoys (missi dominici), and a variety of assemblies of different make ups would allow both the ruler to check up on his subordinates but also the ruled to make themselves heard. There’s a great deal of interesting material on this in the book – again, it varies too much to be easily summarized here but it covers the tactics of marriage, inheritance, dissent and other activities for the well off Frank.


Some of the grander long term political consequences of his reign wouldn’t be felt until much later. It had been planned to the Empire to be divided among three of his sons (but probably kept the rule of the eldest), but this was thwarted when two of them died late in his reign. This division would instead occur later on between the sons of his son Louis The Pious. Of these, Charles the Bald would take Western Francia (which would later before France), Louis would take Eastern Francia (which looks a lot like the later Holy Roman Empire) and Lothar would have Lotharingia (a strip down from the Netherlands to Italy). These start to form the borders of what seems to be modern european nations – but while Charlemagne would later be used to promote nationalist interests in these states, it seems difficult to really pick apart his empire in this way. As much as the Franks may have preferred to appear as a single cohesive state there were certainly ethnic divisions, but they did not amount to these later nation states that they would become. Even a group like the Lombards who seemed to have took part in a coherent ‘invasion of Italy’ would have been descended from various germanic tribes and movement of peoples – Gepids, Suevi, Bulgars and even Roman provincials from Noricum. The process of unifying these cultures is certainly one that Charlemagne and his descendants took part in, perhaps to make them easier to manage, but it’s really difficult to pin down when and how exactly modern Europe was formed (I’m currently listening to the Ashwell brothers’ History of Italian Unfication podcast and they stress this point nearly a millennium later). Williams seems to consider the matter to be slightly more settled post-Charlemagne that I would, but that doesn’t make his discussion on this topic any less fascinating.


All in all, it’s a very interesting book and though the format is not not all that accessible or direct, it is at a good level for a popular audience with clear explanations of just about everything in the era. The discussions of the themes could have been more open and things do tend to stick to a single interpretation or path (other than the crowning by the pope, which would be too big and controversial to streamline like that). This lack of expansion in some places or lack of directness in others can make it a mildly frustrating read in places, but ultimately these are minor points and the huge scope of the book more than balances this out. Charlemagne is a brilliant subject and, though one might give him slightly more or less credit for directly influencing some of his legacy, Europe would not be the same without him. There are quite a few good books on this fundamental period in the growth of medieval society (Chris Wickham’s Inheritance of Rome or Tom Holland’s Millenium spring to mind) but for a more Carolingian twist, this is a great read.



On a note of admin – apologies for the lack of posts recently, I have been moving into a new house so I’ve struggled to find the time to sit down and write anything. I should hopefully have quite a few other posts coming up in the next few weeks.

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