The rise of the Mayors of the Palace pushed the do-nothing (Roi fainéant) Merovingian kings out of the power arena. And according to Charlemagne’s historian Einhard, the last Merovingian king Childeric III was a little more than a peasant by the end of his reign. Childeric’s standard of living had fallen so low that even when he had the title of King of the Franks, he had to be content with a “single country seat that brought him but a very small income. There was a dwelling house upon this, and a small number of servants attached to it, sufficient to perform the necessary offices.” This later led to the rise of Charlemagne to power. He is recorded on the Bible Timeline Chart with World History at the beginning of the 8th century AD.
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On the other hand, Charles Martel, as well as his sons Pepin the Younger and Carloman continued to rule over the vast Frankish domain. Charles Martel divided the Frankish territories between his sons, with Neustria as the domain of Pepin the Short and Carloman as ruler of Austrasia. In 747 AD, Carloman abandoned the role of the Mayor of the Palace, traveled to Rome, and had himself consecrated as a monk. His abdication made Charlemagne’s father, Pepin the Short, the sole ruler of the Frankish lands after he deposed the last of the do-nothing Merovingian kings, Childeric III.
Pepin was not of Merovingian blood, and he needed to legitimize his rule, so he sent envoys to Pope Zachary as a way to request (subtlety) for a justification for the removal of the legitimate Merovingian king. Zachary happily complied with this request as he needed Pepin as an ally against the Lombard king Aistulf who had chipped away some lands previously owned by the Pope in Italy. Zachary sanctioned Pepin’s rule as king of the Franks while Pepin had Childeric tonsured (the shaving of the hair at the crown), had him consecrated as a monk, and sent him to a monastery where he died three or five years later.
Pope Zachary anointed Pepin as king of the Franks in the city of Soissons. When the pope died, his successor Pope Stephen II also appointed Pepin’s sons, Charles and Carloman, as heirs to the Frankish realm. Stephen’s approval of Pepin and his sons’ rule accomplished two purposes: first was to reinforce the Papal-Frankish alliance against the Lombards of Italy and second was to tie Pepin, as well as his descendants, to the idea that they were the rightful Christian kings. Pepin kept his end of the bargain and drove out Aistulf from the papal lands in Italy; in addition, he appointed a minor Lombard nobleman called Desiderius as a puppet ruler of the land. Pope Stephen II also presented a document to Pepin called the “Donation of Constantine” which claimed that Emperor Constantine donated the city of Rome and the surrounding lands to the papacy after Pope Sylvester cured the emperor of leprosy. (The document, in all likelihood, was a forgery, but Pepin conveniently ignored this possibility since both of them benefited from the arrangement.)
Accession as King
Charles (later Emperor Charlemagne) and his brother Carloman acceded the throne when their father died of dropsy in 768 AD. They got rid of the Neustrasian-Austrasian borders and divided their domain from north to south: Charles received the northern portion while his brother ruled the southern part of the Frankish territories. Charles married the daughter of Desiderius but cast her aside after a year of marriage which greatly angered her father. He then sought peace with the Franks’ eastern neighbors by marrying a Swabian lady, which for Desiderius, seemed like adding insult to injury. The Lombard king sought an alliance with Carloman to get rid of Charles, but the southern Frankish king died while they prepared for war against his brother.
Wars and European Expansion
Charlemagne doubled the Frankish territory during his 46-year reign. He and his brother Carloman picked up where their father had left off in the war against Aquitaine and defeated the Aquitanian rebel leader Hunald in 769 AD. The Franks acquired Aquitaine in the same year followed by a campaign against the Lombards—but this time, without his brother who died in 771 AD. The campaign against the Lombards was at the request of the newly-elected Pope Adrian (just like Pope Stephen before him). Charlemagne marched south past the Italian Alps to besiege his former father-in-law Desiderius. Charlemagne’s troops defeated the Lombards in 773 AD and drove the Lombard king’s heir, Adalgis, away from Italy in the same year. He restored the former Lombard lands to the Pope and installed his son, Pepin (formerly Carloman), as king of Italy.
Charlemagne and his troops also subdued the Saxons, their fierce neighbors in the northern frontier, who frequently raided the Frankish border towns. The Franks accused the Saxons of murder, theft, and arson (although the Franks also committed these crimes against the Saxons), but the fact that the Saxons practiced paganism made them the perfect heathen targets for hostilities and conversion by the Christian Franks. The border raids between the two people became a full-blown war in 772 AD. It went on for as long as thirty-two years before the Saxons submitted completely to Charlemagne, who then forced them to convert to Christianity. Like many kings before him, Charlemagne practiced a resettlement program to break the captives’ identity and resettled many Saxons between Gaul and Germany.
Charlemagne won the wars he waged against the Franks’ northern and eastern neighbors, but nothing could have prepared him for that one ill-advised expedition to Al-Andalus (Umayyad Spain) which stained his war record. In 778 AD, envoys sent by a rebel from the newly-formed Umayyad emirate named Sulayman al-Arabi approached Charlemagne and requested him to invade Al-Andalus to get rid of the Umayyad emir Abd al-Rahman. This emir was the sole survivor of a massacre staged by the new Abbasid caliph. He ousted the province’s governor after he arrived in Al-Andalus. Unbeknownst to Charlemagne, al-Arabi had changed his mind while the king and his troops crossed the Pyrenees, and refused to let the Frankish troops enter the city the minute they arrived outside the gates. Charlemagne and his army were forced to camp outside the city for some weeks until he decided that this expedition was useless and commanded his troops to return to Frankish land. He attacked the Vascones (Basques) who lived in the Pyrenees region in his anger and humiliation, but the survivors retaliated and massacred the tail of Charlemagne’s army in the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778 AD. Many of the Franks’ most important noblemen, such as the king’s steward Eggihard and Roland of Brittany (immortalized in the Song of Roland), marched in the rear and were killed by the Vascones. The Frankish king never ventured south again after the disastrous end of his Al-Andalus adventure.
Charlemagne led his troops to besiege Brittany and wrested the territory from the Bretons in 786 AD. He ordered his troops to march south into Italy and seized the Duchy of Benevento from its duke in 787 AD. He also commanded the Bretons and the Beneventans to send hostages for peace to Aachen (the Frankish capital), as well as a hefty annual tribute.
Liutperga, daughter of King Desiderius of Lombardy and wife of Duke Tassilo III of Bavaria, convinced her husband to avenge her deposed father and challenge the authority of Charlemagne, his overlord. Tassilo made a treaty with the Avars and enlisted their help against the Frankish king. However, the Duke immediately surrendered when Charlemagne responded to this threat by leading his large army into Bavaria. Charlemagne also took some Bavarians, which included Tassilo’s son Theodo, to his court in Aachen as hostages for peace.
He also subdued the Veleti Slavs (Welatabians) who harassed the Frankish allies, the Obodrites, as well as campaigned against the Avars in Pannonia starting in 791 AD. Pepin of Italy led the campaigns against the Avars until the Franks subdued them after seven years of war. The Avars submitted to Charlemagne and converted to Christianity afterward. Charlemagne also subdued the Bohemians in 806 and the Linonians in 808. However, another formidable enemy, the Danes, started to become serious threats around this time. The Danes started out as pirates led by King Godfred. They sailed south and terrorized the Frankish coast for much of the 9th century. These marauders had planned to attack Frankish territories, but Godfred’s untimely death before they could reach Aachen in 810 AD postponed this raid.
Enemies surrounded the Frankish Empire during much of Charlemagne’s reign, but Alfonso II of Galicia and Asturias recognized him as an ally against the Muslim Emirate of Cordoba. Charlemagne and the Abbasid caliph Harun Al-Rashid—two of the richest and most powerful men at that time—also established an amicable diplomatic relationship. The diplomatic relationship between the two empires was so good that Harun sent Charlemagne exotic gifts through his ambassadors, including a water clock and an elephant. The Byzantine rulers Irene, Nicephorus, Michael, and Leo eyed him with wariness and simmered with resentment for taking away the role of Holy Roman Emperor. This did not stop them from actively pursuing an alliance with the powerful Frankish king.
Carolingian Revival and Legacy
Charlemagne was a man of great ambition, and although his reign was far from peaceful, he restored relative stability to Europe. This allowed learning, culture, and religion to flourish in his court. The Carolingian revival did not start during Charlemagne’s rule, but his grandfather Charles Martel made contacts with surrounding kingdoms and exposed his court to the leading intellectuals of his time. This likely made an impression to the young prince. The presence of the intellectuals planted a seed in Charlemagne’s life. While he was a warrior at heart, he embraced the scholarly life by learning and reading Latin.
He had read and greatly admired St. Augustine’s the City of God, and invited Anglo-Saxon and Italian scholars to learn and work in his court. The revival spilled over to the Carolingian coinage, art (especially manuscript illustration), architecture, liturgical texts, and sermons. He also implemented educational reforms in grammar, reading, and training of scribes. One of his most important legacies to the Western world was the development of the Carolingian minuscule which was a script that became a standard in writing the Latin text. The development of the Carolingian minuscule revolutionized manuscript writing, and the standardization of the letters made it easy for priests, government officials, and scholars to read many Medieval texts.
Charlemagne divided his kingdom between his three eldest sons in 806 AD. Two of them died between 810 and 811 AD which left only Louis the Pious of Aquitaine alive at this point. He crowned Louis as the next emperor in 813 AD, but the old emperor fell ill in the same year. He died of pleurisy on January, 814 AD and was buried on the same day in the Aachen Cathedral.
Picture By Stolichanin – Europe_plain_rivers.pngThe map is made according to:”World Atlas”, part 3: Europe in Middle Ages, Larrouse, Paris, 2002, O. RenieAtlas “History of Bulgaria”, Sofia, 1988, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, V. Kamburova”World Atlas”, N. Ostrovski, Rome, 1992, p.55Атлас “История на средните векове”, Sofia, 1982, G. Gavrilov”History in maps”, Johannes Herder, Berlin, 1999, p. 20″European Historical Globus”, R. Rusev, 2006, p.117, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37384682
Bradbury, Jim. The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare. London: Routledge, 2004.
Einhard. “Einhard: The Life of Charlemagne.” Internet History Sourcebooks. Accessed August 30, 2016. http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/einhard.asp.
MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. New York: Viking, 2010.
Thatcher, Oliver J., and Edgar Holmes McNeal. “A Source Book for Mediæval History; Selected Documents Illustrating the History of Europe in the Middle Age.” Internet Archive. Accessed August 30, 2016. https://archive.org/stream/asourcebookform03mcnegoog#page/n8/mode/2up.
Treadgold, Warren. Renaissances before the Renaissance: Cultural Revivals of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1984.
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