The Heirs of Charlemagne?

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History has seen many empires rise and fall, each with its own unique features and identity. Few have survived to this day. With most of these, there is a clear sense of both the empire’s origin and of a nation from the present day which is directly descended from that empire. Caesar’s dominion may have sprawled across three continents, but it was clearly derived from the martial fusion of Greek, Latin and Etruscan cultures which moulded the traditional Italian states, and to this day the Roman Empire is a historic pride of Italy. It might seem childish for a nation to ‘claim’ a historical figure as its own, but it is surprisingly common. Everybody knows that George Washington was American or that Henry VIII was English. However, some are not so clear-cut. The Carolingian empire is one of few to evade easy classifications. The most well-known of the Carolingian dynasty, Charles I, otherwise known as Charles the Great or Charlemagne, is often hailed as the father of Europe, but his children often squabble over his mantle. Today, he is claimed by France, Germany and the Low Countries, with no explicit victor.

Understanding how a nation views its history and legacy is crucial to understanding how it views itself today. Few figures have influenced Western Europe as much as Charlemagne; as expected he is claimed by both French and German historians. With that in mind, it is important to assess their arguments. 

The Carolingian Empire was established in 750 A.D., and encompassed an area in Western Europe that would only be reunited by Napoleon a millennium later. The first ruler in the Carolingian dynasty was Charles Martel, who cemented his place in history with his victory for Christian Europe against the Umayyad Caliphate at the Battle of Tours in 732. Whilst only being the mayor of the palace, it was he who truly held power, while Merovingian monarch was a mere figurehead. Charles Martel’s son, Pippin III, took power after his death and, with the support of Pope Zacharias, deposed the last of the Merovingians. He was then elected king by an assembly of Frankish nobles.

Charlemagne was the eldest son of Pippin III and, once his younger brother had died, inherited the crown of the Frankish Carolingian Empire for himself. He was renowned for his remarkable successes in warfare, through which he vastly expanded the size of his empire. To the north-east, he advanced against Germanic tribes such as the Saxons. To the east, in Central Europe, he conquered the Kingdom of Bavaria and the confederation of the Avars. To the south, in the Italian Peninsula, the Kingdom of Lombardy and the Duchy of Benevento fell before him. There were also other smaller military victories in Brittany and in the region of Barcelona. Yet Charlemagne was far from a simple warlord, for he was also known for the Carolingian Renaissance, which saw a greater emphasis placed on education and knowledge. During this period, schools were founded and scholars from all over Europe were invited to come to his court. He was also pious – to the point that one of the most controversial aspects of his legacy were the forced conversions of those he conquered from paganism to Christianity.

Once Charlemagne’s forty-seven year reign ended, and after the death of his sole surviving son and successor (Louis the Pious) in 840, his three legitimate grandsons contested the succession. After the Treaty of Verdun in 843, the Carolingian empire was divided into three new kingdoms. West Francia later developed into the Kingdom of France, Middle Francia disintegrated and was absorbed by other kingdoms and East Francia later became the precursor to the Holy Roman Empire, which would in turn, a thousand years later, unite to become Germany.

The ultimate break-up of the Carolingian Empire into its constituent parts invites the question as to whether the empire is part of the legacy of France or Germany. From an ethnic standpoint, the Franks were descended from Germanic tribes moving westwards into modern day France, rather than the Gauls who are traditionally considered as the original ancestors of France. Moreover, the heartland of the Franks was in Germany and the Low Countries, with Aachen, in modern Germany, serving as the capital of the empire. Charlemagne himself spoke old Frankish – a language of Germanic origins. Furthermore, Charlemagne was the first man to adopt the title of Holy Roman Emperor (he was crowned such on Christmas Day 800). This would be a title used by the rulers of the various German electorates, principalities and kingdoms until Napoleon. In this sense, the Carolingian dynasty may belong to the German tradition.

However, there is a much stronger case for linking the Carolingian Empire to France. France’s claim to genealogy stems partly from etymology; most obvious in the link from Franks to French. While Charlemagne was the first man crowned Holy Roman Emperor, the first figure to actually rule over ‘The Holy Roman Empire’ would be Otto I. The other cogent line of reasoning comes from examples in previous centuries of French rulers identifying themselves as descendants of the Franks, and specifically comparing themselves to the famous Caroligian Emperor. Charlemagne’s legendary sword, Joyeuse, became a national treasure and was used for coronations throughout French history. In addition, Napoleon also associated himself extensively with Charlemagne. Of all the historical references wielded by the French Emperor, Charlemagne is, if not one of the most important, then at least one of the most consistent. This was shown not only in his speeches and discourse, but also in his attempted founding of a new dynasty. As Emperor, Napoleon rejected the Bourbon fleur-de-lis and replaced it with bees in his symbolism of empire. This was a clear reference to the Carolingian dynasty, as bees and cicadas had been one of their known symbols for royalty. French rulers strengthened their claim to Charlemagne through their consistent emphasis on him as the founder of their nation.

This is contrasted by a seeming German rejection of the Carolingian dynasty and Charlemagne. German nationalists of the early 20th century were noted to renounce any ties with the Carolingian dynasty, instead proclaiming Widukind as a figurehead and hero. Widukind was a leader of the Saxons and the chief opponent to Charlemagne during the Saxon Wars from 777 to 785. They linked Charlemagne with the humiliation of French domination after the First World War (especially with the occupation of the Rhineland), by portraying Charlemagne as a French invader, whereas Widukind was seen as the leader of the heroic German resistance. The German language also depicts the Carolingian empire as French; the word for France is Frankreich – translated literally as ‘the Empire of the Franks’.

Between the two, perhaps it is France who has the most contiguous connection. Yet this is at best tenuous, as evidenced by the fact that one could argue that neither France nor Germany possesses the strongest claim; for the European Union and the Carolingian empire have an outstanding number of similarities. Both Union and empire have/had control or influence over large areas of Western Europe. Both are/were dominated by a Franco-German powerhouse. Both have/had their seat of power in the Low Countries with Brussels and Aachen respectively. Finally, both unified a multi-ethnic Europe. Yet it is of course entirely absurd to associate Charlemagne with an organisation founded eleven centuries after his death.

Charlemagne is a fascinating example of how we often view history through the prism of our own times. This entire dispute is largely an attempt to apply modern labels to an ancient people, and is ultimately fallacious. It is chronologically inconsistent to try and label the Carolingian Empire and its leaders as being connected to any nationality from today, for it existed at the origins of both the French and proto-German states. Charlemagne was a Frank, a people who defy easy classification. Following this reasoning, the Carolingian empire had neither linguistic nor cultural resemblance to anything today. Charlemagne was, and will forever remain, Frankish.

Roberts, A., 2015. Napoleon the Great. Penguin

Williams, H., 2011. Emperor of the West: Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire. Quercus Publishing

Wilson, P., 2016. The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe’s History. Allen Lane