Charlemagne and the Franks
The Franks were a Germanic tribe in western Europe that began to conquer other tribes. Clovis was a Frankish king who united most of present day France and western Germany. Clovis converted to Christianity about 496 and forced his subjects to accept the faith.
Muslims had conquered Spain, and in 732 they crossed the Pyrenees Mountains and attempted to conquer France. Frankish ruler Charles Martel kept the Muslims from invading France, but if Martel had been defeated, the history of Europe might have been very different.
Charlemagne or 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. He expanded the kingdom of the Franks into Spain and Central Europe. Charlemagne’s goal was to unite all of the Germanic tribes into a single Christian kingdom. When the Lombards attacked the papal territory in 774, Charlemagne marched into Italy and defeated the Lombards, and rescued the Pope.
On Christmas Day, 800, Pope Leo III repaid Charlemagne for defeating the Lombards. As Charlemagne rose from prayer, Leo placed a crown on his head and proclaimed him “Augustus,” emperor of the “Holy Roman Empire.” The coronation united Christendom under Charlemagne’s rule, but it troubled him. If the Pope had the power to crown Charlemagne king, did the Pope 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. When 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 never learned how to read or write, but he wanted to recapture the glory of the Roman Empire. He set up schools throughout his empire and provided funds that allowed monks to copy the works of Greek and Roman authors. 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 was used to describe different Frankish and German lands for another ten centuries, but it could be argued that after Charlemagne, it wasn’t holy, it wasn’t Roman, and it certainly was not an empire. 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.