Charlemagne (742-814), which means Charles the Great, was King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor, rising to rule over much of Europe during his lifetime. The third ruler in the Carolingian Dynasty, he inherited his kingdom from his father, Pepin III, in 768 and gained complete control after the death of his brother Carloman in 771. In 800, he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in Rome. Charlemagne is credited with unifying the European identity, strengthening the control of the church, and establishing an intellectual and cultural revival known as the Carolingian Renaissance.
Little is known of the early years of Charlemagne's life. Most of what is known of this period of his life was recorded by Einhard, his servant and biographer, who does not mention a date of birth. The traditionally accepted date of his birth is 742, however there have been arguments made for him being born as late as 747.
Pepin III arranged for the Frankish kingdom to be split between his two sons. Charles was inherit the regions which Pepin III had inherited, the core of the Frankish kingdom, while his younger brother (Carloman) would control the territories that had been conquered by Pepin III. A similar arrangement of splitting the kingdom had been attempted with the previous generation, with Pepin III and his brother. Pepin III died on 24 September 768, and for a while the dual-kingship lasted. The three year period in which Charles and his brother ruled was marked with internal conflict. At the urging of his mother, Bertrada, Charles married Desiderata in 770, daughter of the Lombard king Desiderius. This alliance surrounded Carloman's territories between Charles and Lombardy, which led to a brief reconciliation between the brothers. Charles felt constrained by his alliances, and in a sudden move divorced his wife in 771 and married a Frankish woman named Hildegard. This was an insult to Desiderius and the threat of an alliance with Carloman to invade Charles' kingdom loomed. This threat was neutralized in December 771, when Carloman suddenly died at the age of 20. Carloman's former vassals and allies quickly proclaimed their allegiance to Charles, and he became the sole ruler over the Frankish kingdom.
Charlemagne, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Charles Martel, exerted greater control over the Frankish nobleman than the previous Merovingian Dynasty. This was done with an aggressive foreign policy that kept their armies active and focused on external threats. Charlemagne's first military campaign was against the Saxons in 772, a pagan Germanic tribe who had long resisted Christianization. This campaign was cut short after Charlemagne received word from Pope Hadrian that the Lombards were threatening the exarchate of Ravenna. The region had been captured by the Lombards previously, and returned to the church by Pepin in 756.In the spring of 773, Charlemagne led his army into northern Italy. Before engaging the Lombards, he split his army in two, giving command of the smaller army to his uncle, Bernhard. Desiderius' army encountered Charlemagne near Turin, and believed he had them trapped between his army and the mountains. As his army moved to engage, Bernhard's army had encircled the Lombards and attacked their rear. Charlemagne was able to maneuver his army out of the trap and began to head toward the Lombard capital of Pavia, which caused Desiderius to make a hasty retreat to defend it. The result was a siege lasting until the summer of 774. During the siege, Charlemagne made his first visit to Rome on Easter in which he reaffirmed his father's gift. Following the Lombard surrender at Pavia, Desiderius was exiled and Charlemagne was crowned King of the Lombards. He chose to spare the life of the Lombard defenders and allowed their noblemen to govern themselves in exchange for military support. In 775, he returned with his army to Saxony, destroying their religious infrastructure in an attempt to convert them. He initially met little resistance, however in 776 several Saxon chieftains led by Witikind revolted and attacked the Frankish garrisons. Charlemagne was forced to return to Saxony to put down the revolt. He realized that the Saxons strong tribal ties would require a larger Frankish presence to prevent frequent uprisings. In 777, he called the general assembly to meet in Paderborn, the Saxon capital. There he announced the annexation of Saxony into the Frankish kingdom, stripping the traditional leaders of their power and redistributing the land to those who accepted baptism and swore oaths of fealty. He also began construction of a palace in Paderborn, to further put the stamp of Frankish authority on the region.
- Collins, Roger (1991). Early Medieval Europe 300–1000. London: Macmillan. pp. 260–261. ISBN0-333-36824-X.