The name Charlemagne is Latin for “Charles the Great,” who was king of the Franks from 771 to 814. He is considered one of the most powerful and dynamic kings in history, and he had a profound impact on European culture and on the Catholic Church. Charlemagne was crowned “Emperor of the Romans” by the Pope in the year 800. Despite the fact that the title was already held by another man, Charlemagne was considered the first Holy Roman Emperor, due to the Pope’s decree and support. The coronation of Charlemagne changed the course of history, and there were many other changes effected by Charlemagne, or Charles the Great.
Charlemagne was an idealist, driven by deep convictions and beliefs. He was impacted by the societal theories proposed in Augustine’s City of God and worked hard to unite church and state. His concern for education and the preservation of culture led to a series of drastic reforms that we know today as the Carolingian Renaissance. Charlemagne built up a library, employing monks to preserve many ancient texts, and he created a school for his own many children, compelling his nobles’ children to attend as well.
Charlemagne also proposed reforms in the church, made changes to the liturgy, and raised standards and requirements for monasteries and monks. His desire was to strengthen the church with his rule, both by inner reform and by expansion. He sent his armies to conquer other lands and forced the conversion of conquered people at sword-point. Forced conversion is a practice modern opinion sees as reprehensible, and rightly so. Any time church and state are combined, needless tragedy and persecution occurs, and Charlemagne was quite successful in combining church and state; as a result of his actions, the Holy Roman Empire held sway over millions of people during the Middle Ages. Not until the Protestant Reformation was the totalitarian power of the church finally broken.
There are several things we can learn from the life of Charlemagne. His will to act on principle and his strength as a leader are admirable. Because of him, both the church and European culture began to move in a new direction. He gave the commanders of his armies tracts of land that they and their soldiers lived and worked on—a system that later led to the feudal system and serfdom in Europe. In addition, his policy of growing the church with military force set a precedent for later religious wars, including the Crusades. Whether or not we agree with his decisions, Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, was influential, and he is an example of how one man can change history. And we know that the rise and fall of human kings is under God’s sovereign rule and according to the times and seasons that He lays out for humanity (see Daniel 2:21).