The legacy of Charlemagne: how the king of the Franks continues to cast a shadow over Europe

Charlemagne, who ruled over an empire which spanned over more than a dozen of Europe’s modern states, is often invoked as a unifying symbol of Europe – but how appropriate is this? Nicholas Jubber, author of new book Epic Continent, investigates…

An oil portrait of Charlemagne (c747–814), King of the Franks, by 15th/16th-century artist Albrecht Durer. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Every year since 1950, a prize has been presented in the German city of Aachen. Known as ‘the Charlemagne Prize’, it is given to an individual deemed to have made an outstanding contribution to European unity. Winston Churchill was an early recipient; more recently, the prize has been won by Tony Blair, Pope Francis and Emmanuel Macron. According to the late German chancellor Helmut Kohl, the Charlemagne Prize is “the most important honour Europe can bestow”. But aside from massaging the egos of political high-fliers, the prize plays a subtler role: reminding us of the legacy of Charlemagne, the eighth/ninth-century Frankish ruler who is cited by the City of Aachen, the prize’s sponsor, as the ‘Founder of Western Culture’.

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Charlemagne (c747–814) was the ruler of a vast territory that later came to be known as the Holy Roman Empire. Becoming king of the Franks in 771, Charlemagne had a significant impact on theshape and character of medieval Europe. He embarked on several military campaigns across the continent, from Saxony in modern-day Germany to northern Italy and northern Spain, extending the Frankish kingdom and converting conquered territories to Christianity. These swathes of territory became known as the Carolingian empire, and Charlemagne is often remembered as a great military leader, empire-builder and politician.

The Charlemagne Prize’s inaugural winner – politician and philosopher Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi – used his acceptance speech in 1950 to call for what has been termed a ‘Union Charlemagne’: that is, “the renewal of the Empire of Charlemagne as a confederacy of free nations… to transform Europe from a battlefield of recurring world wars to a peaceful and blooming worldly empire of free people!” This is the concept of European unification – which Coudenhove-Kalergi himself championed as founder of the Pan-Europa Movement, and which was formalised in 1951 (the year after his speech) with the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community, paving the way for the development of the European Union.

‘Union Charlemagne’

Charlemagne ruled over an empire spanning the territories of more than a dozen of Europe’s modern states, from the Netherlands to northern Italy, from Spain to the Czech Republic. But I would argue the ‘Union Charlemagne’ is based on a shaky premise.

Suppressing the tribes of Saxony, Charlemagne put thousands to the sword (including the beheading of 4,500 rebels at Verden), and uprisings by the Basques and Thuringians were ruthlessly crushed. He was also a relentless opportunist: when Pope Leo III was set upon by hoodlums working for a rival in Rome in 799 (a particularly vicious attack – they tried to pull out his tongue by the roots and stab him in the eyes), Pope Leo made his way to Paderborn, where Charlemagne was residing,and appealed for his protection. Charlemagne’s help came at a cost: he sent Leo back under the protection of his own officials and followed him to Rome a year later, where the Pope’s opponents were exiled, but in return Charlemagnewas crowned ‘Emperor of the Romans’. It was a controversial accolade, especially from the point of view of the rival imperial leadership in Constantinople. But it represented a significant consolidation of Charlemagne’s power and prestige.

A 19th-century depiction of Saxony submitting to Charlemagne. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
A 19th-century depiction of the tribes Saxony submitting to Charlemagne. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

An enduring pan-European symbol

Charlemagne has been credited as the founder of a unified European culture, combining a militant Christian ethos with the recovery of classical knowledge. Scholars flourished at his court, producing liturgical manuscripts, reviving the art of illuminated texts and contemplating Aristotle’s philosophy, paving the way for European rationality. This has been called the ‘Carolingian Renaissance’, an important stepping-stone for the intellectual flourishing of later periods, such as the 12th century and the Renaissance. It was also a period of intense diplomatic activity, with a proposed marriage (and ensuing diplomatic wranglings) between Charlemagne’s son and a daughter of Offa, King of the Mercians; and a glamorous exchange of gifts between Charlemagne’s court and the Caliph of Baghdad (including an automatic clock with falling balls of brass and, according to the Carolingian chronicler Einhard, an elephant).

The extent of Charlemagne’s reach can be measured by his enduring status, which I discovered on a recent journey to Sicily. There, I interviewed puppeteers who perform tales about Charlemagne and his paladins (his leading knights) in the opera dei pupi (puppet operas). Fashioned out of wood and jute, with a thick beard and the fleur-de-lis shimmering on his crown, Charlemagne stalks the stage, issuing orders to his knights, resolving their disputes and sending them out to battle against the Saracens. But why, I asked the puppeteers, were these tales of Frankish knights and their ruler popular in Sicily? “Because Charlemagne was Holy Roman Emperor,” said the puppeteer Giuseppe Grasso, who runs a theatre in the eastern Sicilian city of Acireale. “He was a king not only of the French but all of Europe.”

It is in France and Germany, however, that Charlemagne’s impact has been most deeply felt. In Paris, his bronze statue towers over the square in front of Notre-Dame Cathedral: a horse-riding, fork-bearded giant flanked by his leading paladins. The statue was designed in the late 1860s by Louis Rochet, during a period of heightened tension between France and the emerging nation of united Germany. According to Charles Rochet, brother of the sculptor, “The idea of the statue was conceived by my brother to take back from the Germans this historical figure they had tried to steal from us”.

The battle for ‘ownership’ of Charlemagne has swung between France and Germany. Napoleon had himself painted with Charlemagne’s name on a rock beneath him; and he declared “I am Charlemagne” to papal envoys. Many German leaders have also sought to associate themselves with Charlemagne: Hitler had the imperial crown taken to Nuremberg and a regiment of French Wehrmacht volunteers was named the ‘Charlemagne Division’. But, for all the attempts of nationalists to claim him, it is Charlemagne’s ambiguous identity that has made him a fitting figure for the pan-Europeans. He may have come from a Germanic tribe, but they were the progenitors of the French, and his royal symbol, the oriflamme, which was later attributed to Charlemagne, became the symbol of French kingship. He can’t be fully ‘owned’ by either nation, because he was a ruler from a period of tribal networking and feudal allegiances, rather than demarcated borders and the nation-state.

An early 19th-century painting of Napoleon Bonaparte, who often attempted to use Charlemagne's legacy; he declared “I am Charlemagne” to papal envoys. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
An early 19th-century painting of Napoleon Bonaparte, who often attempted to use Charlemagne’s legacy; he declared “I am Charlemagne” to papal envoys. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Epic tales

In an epic poem written in the early ninth century, Charlemagne and Pope Leo, the emperor is described as the “beacon of Europe”, a hero for the continent. This hagiographic poem records the events leading up to his installation as the ‘Emperor of the Romans’, celebrating Charlemagne as keeper of the peace and wielder of justice. This is the Charlemagne celebrated over the centuries: the chivalric ruler and symbol of European unification.

Another version of Charlemagne appears in the 11th-century French epic, the Song of Roland. Here, Charlemagne is the great warrior king and “Moor-slayer”, whose nephew Roland is killed in a battle against the Saracens. After Roland’s death, Charlemagne returns to the battle-site and takes revenge against the Saracens, crushing their army and personally dispatching their king. In the course of the poem he is visited by the Angel Gabriel; attends Mass in Aachen; and presides over festivities – a paragon of the church militant.

The Song of Roland became an iconic medieval epic, translated into numerous languages, including Castilian, Dutch, Norse and German, and it was supposedly recited by crusaders on their way to the Holy Land. It represents a medieval version of ‘fake news’, re-imagining a historical incident to aggrandise the participants. Historically, Roland was killed by an ambush of the Vascones (the mountain tribespeople identified with the Basques) and Charlemagne was nowhere near the expedition. However, the epic reflects a broader idea embedded in the chronicles: the triumph of the west against Islam, and Charlemagne’s position as the all-powerful European sovereign, marshalling a polyglot pan-European army comprising Franks, Normans, Bretons, Flemings, Frisians, Danes, West Germans and Bavarians.

A bronze sculpture of Charlemagne in the Place du Parvis, Notre Dame. (Photo by Independent Picture Service/UIG via Getty Images)
A bronze sculpture of Charlemagne in the Place du Parvis, Notre Dame. (Photo by Independent Picture Service/UIG via Getty Images)

After Roland’s death, the poem dramatises the domination of the state apparatus. Charlemagne, no longer dependent on charismatic-but-querulous warriors, launches victory through the machinery of his well-oiled army: “An hundred thousand and more put on their mail. / For their equipment they’ve all that heart could crave, / Swift running steeds and weapons well arrayed.” The Saracen army is shattered, their emir personally dispatched by Charlemagne, and northern Spain added to his empire. For medieval Europeans, these tales continued to resonate all through the centuries of crusade and wars with the Ottoman Turks, re-told by the Renaissance poet Ariosto and re-imagined in the opera dei pupi; while statues of the hero Roland were installed by the Hanseatic League in Northern Germany and in 15th-century Dubrovnik.

European identity has its roots in epic tales: the Homeric epics about Troy were told around the continent, reimagined by bards as far as Scandinavia and Iceland, and medieval kings in France and England claimed Trojan ancestry to bolster their prestige. The interconnectedness of European culture is revealed in many British epic tales, such as Beowulf, written down in Anglo-Saxon England but set in Denmark and Sweden, with digressions into Germany: these tales, predating concepts of nation states, expose the tangled roots on which our modern nationhood rests.

The Song of Roland fits this pattern: a tale written down in France, set mostly in Spain, ending in what is now Germany, involving knights from many other nations. Travelling around Europe over the past couple of years, I learned about its enduring power. Not only is its narrative recalled in the Sicilian puppet operas, it also inspires an annual Basque demonstration at Roncesvalles, where songs are chanted and speeches delivered. “We defeated Charlemagne,” one demonstrator told me, raising a banner with the battle date 778 emblazoned on the cloth. One of the speech-givers, Dr Aitor Pescador, described Charlemagne as “a foreign, imperialist, centralising power”, articulating the long-sustained resistance towards Charlemagne’s unifying impulse.

This is a reminder that debates about separation and unification have a longstanding heritage in Europe. And this is where Charlemagne’s legacy remains at its strongest. He was important for the concept of Europe and the development of a unifying culture, hinging aggressive evangelising Christianity to the recovery of our classical heritage.

He was important as the earliest of the Holy Roman Emperors (although some quibble over the terminology). His own dynasty disintegrated, but the idea survived, emulated by succeeding Holy Roman Emperors as well as conquerors like Napoleon. But most importantly, Charlemagne established north-western Europe, the region around France and Germany, as the heart of European power. This was a seismic geopolitical shift: Aachen and Paderborn became the ‘new Rome’, and what had once been the barbarian hinterland became the new heart of European politics. This is Charlemagne’s most significant legacy, outliving the collapse of kingdoms and empires and enduring to this day.

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Nicholas Jubber’s new book, Epic Continent: Adventures in the Great Stories of Europe, is out now, published by John Murray.