Charlemagne was born on April 2, 747 or 748 and died on January 28, 814 in Aachen. Charlemagne took over the title and reign as King of the Franks after the death of his father Pippin the Younger, in 768. At first he ruled together with his brother Karlmann. After his death in 771 he took over the sole reign.
Charlemagne succeeded in securing his power in the Frankish Empire and considerably expanded it in a series of outward campaigns. The Saxon wars, which lasted from 772 to 804, were particularly costly and bitterly fought. Their goal was the subjugation and forced Christianization of the Saxons. Charles also intervened in Italy and conquered the Lombardy Empire in 774.
The Frankish Empire rose to become the new great power alongside Byzantium and the Abbasid Caliphate. It encompassed the core part of early medieval Latin Christendom and was the most important state structure in the West since the fall of Western Rome.
From 786 he had a new palace with a chapel built in Aachen. He took the fled Pope Leo III with him and confirmed to him the rule of the Papal States. After his election, the Pope had sent Charles the keys from Peter’s grave and the banner of the city of Rome, thus acknowledging his patronage of Rome.
Charles gave Leo military support and had him returned to Rome at the end of 799. In the late summer of 800, Charles went to Italy himself and arrived in Rome in late November. There, on Christmas Day, December 25, 800, Charlemagne was crowned Emperor by the Pope in St. Peter’s Basilica. This marked the beginning of an extremely powerful development for the entire later Middle Ages: the transfer of Roman rule to the Franks (translatio imperii).
The Roman empire in the West, where the last emperor had been deposed in Italy in 476, was renewed by the coronation of Charlemagne. In this context, aspects of salvation history played an important role; the Roman Empire was considered the last world empire in history. Now a new “Roman Empire” existed, which was based on the claim to power of the ancient Roman emperors.
Charlemagne in San Luigi dei Francesi (Rome)
Charlemagne’s importance lies less in his pious life than in his political and historical effectiveness. His married life corresponded more to the loose customs of the Frankish nobility than to the norms of Christian doctrine. His brutal campaign against the Saxons, which lasted 30 years, deserves only with some difficulty the title of missionary work or Christianization.
His efforts for order and peace in the empire founded the state church. He promoted education with the help of the church schools he founded. He wanted to improve people’s behaviour by intensifying pastoral care.
So that the clergy in the parishes could earn their living, the parish tithe was introduced. With his policy he laid the foundations of the Christian Occident on which it is still buildable today. His policy created lasting space for the Church and thus also for faith in Europe.
Charlemagne and the scholars gathered at his court pursued the cultivation of the underdeveloped regions in the north and east of the empire. They had churches and monasteries built and brought relics into the country.
Charlemagne changed the rather casual lifestyle of his young years and personally took care of the spread of the faith, questions of liturgy and ordered the introduction of bells. It was on Charles’ initiative that the Carolingian minuscule, a simplified spelling of the Latin letters that is the basis of our writing today, was introduced.
The historical significance of his outstanding personality is reflected in legends and later representations. They depict Charlemagne as a man of enormous stature and with supernatural powers.
Legends tell of confession and forgiveness of sins through a banner handed down by an angel, as well as of his consecration and the handing over of relics by the Emperor of Byzantium. Particularly valuable in this context was the crown of thorns of Christ and the lost glove with the flowers of the cross wood, which reached the rider with a ray of sunlight. In a dream he was asked by James the Elder to help against the Moors, then called on James for help and the walls of Pamplona collapsed.
Charles ended his industrious life in Aachen, where he was buried in 814 in a Roman marble sarcophagus in his palace chapel, today the Aachen Cathedral.
At the instigation of Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa, the canonisation of Charlemagne by the Archbishop of Cologne took place in Aachen in 1165. Since 1176, veneration as a Blessed has been tolerated: it is officially permitted, not recognised, and he is therefore not listed in the Martyrologium Romanum.
In 1215 his remains were transferred by Emperor Frederick II to the magnificent Karlsschrein made by Aachen goldsmiths. The relics also came to Osnabrück.
Charlemagne is the patron saint of Aachen, as well as teachers, commercial brokers and tin casters.