Few names resonate in Europe like that of Charlemagne. Ruler of one of the largest land empires in the continent’s history, he was already feted as pater Europae (‘father of Europe’) in his lifetime. Within a few decades of his death in January 814, he was well on his way to becoming an iconic figure.
In European memory, Charlemagne was truly a man for all seasons. He was held up by his early biographer Einhard as a model emperor and by the late ninth century a rich forest of legend had begun to spring up around him. In the 12th and 13th centuries he was considered (rather implausibly) to have been Europe’s first crusader, a daring conqueror of the Holy Land. And the process of creative repurposing did not stop there. In the 20th century, Charlemagne’s name was exploited for nationalist purposes in both France and Germany. More recently, he has become a poster boy of the European project: since 1950 the annual Charlemagne Prize has been awarded to individuals who have dedicated themselves to European integration.
While the myth has at times obscured the man, there can be no doubt that Charlemagne was an impressive figure in his lifetime. Born (probably) in early 748, he inherited his father’s Frankish realm in 768. At the time, this encompassed most of modern France as well as