Historians no longer speak dismissively of the ‘Dark Ages’, that deep trench between the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, and the emergence of the city-states of Italy and the coherent kingdoms of medieval Europe. Many discarded the notion long ago and wrote of the Carolingian Renaissance. Nevertheless, for the common reader, the centuries between the last days of Rome and, let us say, the Norman Conquest of England and the First Crusade some thirty years later do indeed remain shrouded in obscurity. How many figures of these centuries can we name? A few saints and popes, such as Gregory the Great (who reputedly remarked on seeing captive English boys, ‘non Angli sed Angeli’) and Hildebrand of Sovana, that other Pope Gregory who humiliated an emperor, whose name we probably forget, at Canossa – but that was a few years after 1066 and all that. Here we recall Arthur, who may never have existed, and Alfred who certainly did, though he may never have burned those cakes, and Ethelred the Unready, because of his nickname which we misunderstand, and Cnut, who did not believe that he could command the waves to withdraw. And that’s about it.
There is of course one other figure who looms large, larger indeed in the history of Europe (which was then all of Christendom) than any other: Charles, King of the Franks, a man of such stature that his designation, Carolus Magnus, was conflated into a single word: Charlemagne.