Middle Ages Lessons
Charlemagne and the Franks
In 486, a warrior named Clovis defeated the Romans and established a kingdom centered in Paris. Clovis was a Frank, one of the many Germanic tribes that lived in Western Europe in the fifth century. Clovis worshipped pagan gods, in fact, his people believed Clovis to be the descendent of Wotan, the most powerful of the Frankish gods. In 496, Clovis and his soldiers fought another Germanic tribe. As the battle turned against Clovis, the Frankish king vowed to devote his life to Christianity if the Franks won the battle. After their unlikely victory, Clovis and 3000 of his soldiers were baptized by a Catholic bishop. Clovis and his soldiers established the power of the Franks and Christianity throughout their realm.
Islamic warriors crossed the Pyrenees Mountains in 732 and attempted to conquer the Franks. A Frankish general named Charles Martel defeated the Muslim army. This victory is considered the beginning of the reqonquista. The reconquista was the Christian reconquest of Europe after the invasion of the Moors.
Charlemagne, a name that means Charles the Great, was Charles Martel's grandson and the greatest of the Frankish kings. In an era when most men were little more than five feet tall, Charlemagne stood six feet, four inches. Charlemagne expanded the kingdom of the Franks into Spain and Central Europe. Although Charlemagne never learned to read or write, he wanted to recapture the glory of the Roman Empire. The Frankish king set up schools throughout his empire and provided funds that allowed monks to copy the works of Greek and Roman authors.
Charlemagne's goal was to unite all of the Germanic tribes into a single Christian kingdom. In 799, Charlemagne's armies rescued Pope Leo III from an attack. On Christmas Day, 800, the pope repaid the king for his assistance. As Charlemagne rose from prayer, Leo placed a crown on Charlemagne's head and proclaimed him "Augustus," emperor of the "Holy Roman Empire." The coronation united Christendom under Charlemagne's rule, but it also troubled the newly crowned emperor. Charlemagne was not prepared for his coronation and may not have wanted to be crowned by the Pope. If the Pope had the power to crown Charlemagne king, the Pope might also have the right to remove the crown. When Charlemagne named his son as his successor, he presided over the ceremony himself and did not invite the Pope. Many years later, as Napoleon was about to be crowned Emperor of France in 1804, he took the crown from Pope Pius VII and set it on his head himself.
Charlemagne's empire crumbled soon after his death, and the promise of returning the glory of Rome to Western Europe soon faded. The term Holy Roman Empire would be used to describe different Frankish and German lands for another ten centuries, but the empire never attained Charlemagne's promise of uniting Christendom into one kingdom. In 1806, Napoleon prepared to oust Francis II from his title as Holy Roman Emperor, so Francis renounced his title and decreed himself emperor of Austria. The Holy Roman Empire then ceased to exist after having been a part of Europe for more than a millennium.
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