"By the sword and the cross," Charlemagne became master of Western Europe. It was falling into decay when Charlemagne became joint king of the Franks in 768. Except in the monasteries, people had all but forgotten education and the arts. Boldly Charlemagne conquered barbarians and kings alike. By restoring the roots of learning and order, he preserved many political rights and revived culture.
Charlemagne's grandfather was Charles Martel, the warrior who crushed the Saracens. Charlemagne was the elder son of Bertrade and Pepin the Short, first "mayor of the palace" to become king of the Franks. Although schools had almost disappeared in the 8th century, historians believe that Bertrade gave young Charles some education and that he learned to read. His devotion to the church became the great driving force of his remarkable life.
Charlemagne was tall, powerful, and tireless. His secretary, Eginhard, wrote that Charlemagne had fair hair and a "face laughing and merry . . . his appearance was always stately, regal and dignified." He had a ready wit, but could be stern. His tastes were simple and moderate. He delighted in hunting, riding, and swimming. He wore the Frankish dress: linen shirt and breeches, a silk-fringed tunic, hose wrapped with bands, and, in winter, a tight coat of otter or marten skins. Over all these garments "he flung a blue cloak, and he always had a majestic sword about him."
Charlemagne's character was contradictory. In an age when the usual penalty for defeat was death, Charlemagne several times spared the lives of his defeated foes; yet in 782 at Verden, after a Saxon uprising, he ordered 4,500 Saxons beheaded. He compelled the clergy and nobles to reform, bu...
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...er schools, opening them to peasant boys as well as nobles. Charlemagne never stopped studying. He brought an English monk, Alcuin, and other scholars to his court. He learned to read Latin and some Greek but apparently did not master writing. At meals, instead of having jesters perform, he listened to men reading from learned works.
To revive church music, Charlemagne had monks sent from Rome to train his Frankish singers. To restore some appreciation of art, he brought valuable pieces from Italy. An impressive monument to his religious devotion is the cathedral at Aachen, which he built and where he was buried.
At Charlemagne's death in 1814 only one of his three sons, Louis, was living. Louis's weak rule brought on the rise of civil wars and revolts. After his death his three quarreling sons split the empire between them by the Partition of Verdun in 1843.
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