13 Facts About Charlemagne

A representation of Charlemagne from the Cathedral of Moulins, France
A representation of Charlemagne from the Cathedral of Moulins, France
Vassil, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Between 768 and 814 CE, Charlemagne—also known as Karl or Charles the Great—ruled an empire that spanned most of Western Europe. After years of relentless warfare, he presided over present-day France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and other territories. The Carolingian Renaissance (a revival named for the dynasty founded by Charlemagne's grandfather) rose out of the bloodshed, with an accelerated artistic and literary output that both celebrated antiquity and pushed for a newly standardized Christian culture. Nevertheless, the might of this empire rested on Charlemagne alone, and after his death it quickly fell apart. Here are 13 facts about the first Holy Roman Emperor.

1. HIS FATHER WASN'T BORN A KING.

Charlemagne's father, Pepin III—often called Pepin the Short—was mayor of the palace (administrator of the royal court) before he was named the first King of the Franks. After a concerted campaign to become ruler, Pepin finally became king in 751, and three years later was officially anointed by the pope, who at the same time anointed Pepin's sons Carloman and Charles (the future Charlemagne) with the holy oil that demonstrated their special status. Pepin III served until 768.

2. HIS BROTHER DIED SOON AFTER BECOMING CO-KING.

After Pepin III died, Charlemagne shared power with his younger brother Carloman, with the two acting as joint kings. It wasn't a smoothly shared reign, however, as evidenced by a 769 episode in which Carloman seemed to undermine Charlemagne's authority by refusing to assist in quashing a revolt in Aquitane. Then, Carloman suddenly died in 771.

Exactly how Carloman perished so conveniently is mysterious. The most common account is that he died of a nosebleed, though what caused it is a matter of debate, with one historian proposing a peptic ulcer as the underlying issue. Whatever the cause, after his death Charlemagne concentrated all of Carloman’s land and power and became the sole King of the Franks.

3. HE IS CONSIDERED THE FATHER OF EUROPE.

As the King of the Franks, Charlemagne set out on an ambitious and bloody campaign to expand his territory. By the time of his death in 814, this kingdom included the majority of what is now considered Western, and some of Central, Europe. Not since the Roman Empire had this much of the continent been controlled by one ruler. Because of this (albeit fragile) unification, Charlemagne is sometimes called the father of Europe.

Over the centuries, the name Charlemagne became associated with European unification, whether through peaceful initiatives such as the European Union or war. For instance, Napoléon Bonaparte, who had his own dreams of empire, declared in 1806: "Je suis Charlemagne"—"I am Charlemagne."

4. BEING CROWNED EMPEROR MAY HAVE BEEN A SURPRISE.

Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor at Christmas mass in 800. Charlemagne had arrived in Rome a few weeks earlier at the request of the pope, but by many accounts, including that of his court scholar Einhard, he was not expecting his new role, and only realized what was happening when the pope put the imperial crown upon his head.

Since the crowning was advantageous to both parties, it's likely there was some partnership behind the event (it's also possible Einhard may have wanted his friend Charlemagne to appear more humble in his biography). Importantly, the coronation recognized Charlemagne as ruler of a Holy Roman Empire, which carried an associated ambition of outdoing the military and cultural achievements of the pagan Roman Empire. It also served to notify Charlemagne's enemies that his domination of Western Europe was sanctioned by the Church.

5. CHURCH MUSIC FLOURISHED DURING HIS REIGN.

Charlemagne loved church music, particularly the liturgical music of Rome. At his request, Pope Hadrian I sent monks from Rome to the court of Aachen to instruct his chapel's choir in 774. This event helped spark the spread of traditional Gregorian chant through the Frankish churches. In 789, Charlemagne also issued a decree to his empire's clergy, instructing them to learn (and sing properly) the Cantus Romanus, or Roman chant. Music schools were also founded under Charlemagne's reign, and monks transcribing music helped preserve the Gregorian chant into the present day.

6. MUCH OF WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT ANTIQUITY IS BECAUSE OF CHARLEMAGNE.

Charlemagne was a fierce proponent of Christianity, yet he had great respect for the culture of pagan antiquity. He also saw his empire as a direct successor to the glory of the Roman world. The scholars of the Carolingian Renaissance discovered and preserved as much of antiquity as possible, and its survival into the modern day is largely thanks to their efforts. On Frankish campaigns, soldiers would bring back ancient Latin literature alongside other loot. Carolingian monks meticulously copied these old texts into new volumes, helping preserve Cicero, Pliny the Younger, Ovid, and Ammianus Marcellinus. Even after Charlemagne’s reign, these European monasteries remained devoted to the preservation of Latin literature and knowledge.

7. CURRENCY WAS STANDARDIZED IN HIS EMPIRE.

As Charlemagne conquered Western Europe, he recognized the need for a standard currency. Instead of a variety of different gold coins, his government produced and disseminated silver coinage that could be traded across the empire—the first common currency on the continent since the Roman era. The currency’s system of dividing a Carolingian pound of pure silver into 240 pieces was so successful that France kept a basic version of it until the French Revolution.

8. HE DRESSED IN COMMON CLOTHES.

Charlemagne was an imposing figure, with a height estimated between 5 feet 10 inches and 6 feet 4 inches, which was quite a bit taller than the average male height at the time. Yet he wasn't showy in his style. According to Einhard, he dressed in the ordinary clothes of the Frankish people, with a blue cloak over his tunic, linen shirt, and long hose. The one bit of flash he always had was a sword, worn on a belt of gold or silver. To dress up for special occasions, he'd sport a jeweled sword.

He also was not fond of flamboyant dress in the people around him. An anecdotal tale from the 9th-century De Carolo Magno relates how he spent a whole day tormenting some courtiers who returned from a festival decked out in silk and ribbons. He made them go hunting with him without a chance to change their clothes, and immediately upon returning had them attending him into the night. The next morning he ordered them to return, dressed in their wrecked finery, and ridiculed them for demeaning themselves by wearing such impractical clothes.

9. HE HAD MANY WIVES AND CHILDREN.

Amidst all those years riding around Europe waging war, Charlemagne somehow found time to get married to five different women and have relationships with several concubines. He fathered around 18 children. If there was one soft spot in the emperor's heart, it was for his kids, as he supported the education of both his sons and daughters. He didn't allow any of his daughters to get married during his lifetime—not necessarily to protect them from rakes like him, but probably because these marriages would have raised the status of their husband’s families too much for his comfort.

10. HIS ONE MAJOR DEFEAT WAS IMMORTALIZED IN POETRY.

Charlemagne's first campaign to conquer Spain was a disaster, culminating in his only major military defeat. After his army entered the Iberian Peninsula in 778, having been promised an alliance by Sulaiman Ibn al-Arabi in Barcelona that could spread Christendom into the Muslim territory, they made quick progress into the south towards Zaragoza. There, things went wrong. The governor, Hussain Ibn al-Ansari, resisted the Franks, and after some negotiation, offered gold in exchange for a Frankish retreat. Charlemagne accepted and left, destroying the defensive walls of Pamplona on the way back so they could not be used as a base for attack against his men.

As they moved through the wooded Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees, Charlemagne's forces were ambushed, mostly by Basques who may have been angered by the wreckage of Pamplona or their ill treatment by Charlemagne’s soldiers. Unfamiliar with the mountainous landscape, the Frankish rear guard was overwhelmed, losing many lives, including the prefect of Breton, Roland. The bold Roland was immortalized and mythologized in the medieval epic poem The Song of Roland, one of the oldest surviving examples of French literature.

11. HIS NAME NOW MEANS "KING."

Charlemagne's given name (Karl in German) was bestowed by his parents in honor of his grandfather, Charles Martel, and derives from the German for "free man." While in German kerl is understood to mean "guy," elsewhere variants of the name karl have come to mean "king." From the Czech král to the Polish król to the Lithuanian karalius to the Latvian karalis, languages all over Europe have traces of his influence in their word for king. Charlemagne's notoriety also popularized the name Charles throughout much of Europe, where it remains common today.

12. HE ORDERED A MASSACRE THAT BECAME NAZI PROPAGANDA.

Over three decades, Charlemagne warred against the Saxons in today’s northwest Germany. Most notoriously, in 782 he is said to have ordered the execution of around 4500 Saxons. Under his rule, any members of the pagan Germanic tribe who didn't convert to Christianity were also put to death.

The massacre gained new historical prominence in the 20th century, after the Nazis built a stone monument in 1935—the Sachsenhain memorial—remembering its victims. Charlemagne was reframed as an enemy of traditional Germanic culture and an example of the evils of the Catholic Church. Some 4500 stones were erected at the site where the Saxons were believed to have been killed. This demonization of Charlemagne was brief, however, and by 1942 the Nazis were celebrating the 1200th anniversary of his birth as a symbol of German superiority. The units of French volunteers who served in the German Schutzstaffel (SS) during World War II were named the Charlemagne Regiment.

13. THE EMPIRE FELL AFTER HIM.

Charlemagne died in 814, and his empire didn’t live on much longer. All of the strength of his government radiated from his reputation and the threat of war if he was not obeyed. The Frankish tradition was to divide power equally among male heirs, and although Charlemagne's only surviving legitimate son was Louis the Pious, he died in 840. The empire was soon separated between Louis's three sons. These three kingdoms continued to break down until the deposition of Charles III in 887, at which point most of the Carolingian power was gone. Not a century after his death, Charlemagne’s empire was no more.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

9 Unsung Heroes of the Underground Railroad

An illustration depicting fugitives along the Underground Railroad in Maryland, taken from William Still's 1872 book The Underground Railroad.
An illustration depicting fugitives along the Underground Railroad in Maryland, taken from William Still's 1872 book The Underground Railroad.
Philadelphia, Porter & Coates, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Considering that the massive network of hidden paths and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad stretched from the Deep South all the way to Canada, it makes sense that hundreds of people were involved in its operation. Some, like Harriet Tubman, were “conductors,” who led the rescue missions, while others—John Brown, for example—were “station masters,” hosting fugitives in their homes and arranging safe passage to freedom. Here are nine other valorous heroes who risked life and limb to help people on their way to liberty.

1. William Still

A sketch of William Still from Wilbur Henry Siebert and Albert Bushnell Hart's 1898 book The Underground Railroad From Slavery to Freedom.Macmillan, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Born to formerly enslaved parents in New Jersey in 1821, William Still moved to Philadelphia at age 23 and took up the abolitionist mantle in more ways than one. He taught himself to read and write, got a job as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, and advanced through the organization until he was named chairman of its new Vigilance Committee in the early 1850s. In that position, Still oversaw the region’s network of safe houses—his own house among them—and raised money to finance key rescue missions, including a few of Harriet Tubman’s.

It’s estimated that Still ferried about 800 people to freedom during his tenure; one of them was his brother Peter. But there’s another reason he’s often referred to as “the Father of the Underground Railroad.” Still documented the stories of more than 600 escapees and published them all in a groundbreaking volume called The Underground Railroad in 1872, making him the only Black person ever to write and self-publish a firsthand account of activity on the Underground Railroad. He hoped that the “extraordinary determination and endeavor” exhibited in the harrowing narratives would inspire Black Americans to continue the struggle for civil rights.

“The race must not forget the rock from whence they were hewn, nor the pit from whence they were digged,” he wrote in the introduction. “Like other races, this newly emancipated people will need all the knowledge of their past condition which they can get.”

2. John P. Parker

Parker's house in Ripley, Ohio.Nyttend, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When John P. Parker was 8 years old, a merchant separated him from his enslaved mother in Norfolk, Virginia, and sold him to a doctor in Mobile, Alabama. There, Parker apprenticed at an iron foundry—and learned to read and write, with the help of the doctor’s children. At age 18, he persuaded one of the doctor’s patients to purchase him and let him gradually buy back his freedom with his foundry earnings. The plan worked, and Parker left for Ripley, Ohio, where he built a house, started a family, and patented a few popular mechanical parts for tobacco machines during a successful career as a foundryman.

Through it all, Parker made regular excursions across the Ohio River to spirit fugitives from Kentucky back to Ripley’s safe houses (one belonged to John Rankin, a prominent white abolitionist who lived less than a mile from Parker). Parker’s rescue missions were especially dangerous, partially because bounty hunters looking for fugitives knew who he was, and partially because Parker himself was dauntless. Once, an enslaver suspected a married couple would attempt to escape, so he took their baby and put him to sleep in his room. Parker snuck into the room, carefully plucked the child from the bed—where the enslaver also lay sleeping—and dashed back through the house. The enslaver awoke and tore after him, firing his pistol, but Parker and the family managed to escape across the river.

Parker recounted these rescues to journalist Frank M. Gregg during a series of interviews in the 1880s, but the manuscript sat forgotten in Duke University’s archives until historian Stuart Seeley Sprague unearthed it and published it in 1996.

3. and 4. Harriet Bell Hayden and Lewis Hayden

A portrait of Lewis Hayden from William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper The Liberator.The Liberator, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Born enslaved in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1812, Lewis Hayden watched enslavers tear apart his family not once, but twice. First, his siblings were sold to a different enslaver; and later, his wife and son were bought by Kentucky senator Henry Clay [PDF] and sold somewhere in the Deep South. Hayden never saw them again. In the early 1840s, he married an enslaved woman named Harriet Bell, adopted her son, and soon began plotting their escape.

With the help of Calvin Fairbank, a minister, and Delia Webster, a teacher, the Haydens fled their enslaver’s estate and eventually arrived safely in Canada. By 1846, they had returned to the U.S. and settled in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, where they opened a clothing store. Before long, Lewis and Harriet had joined the Boston Vigilance Committee and turned their home into a boarding house, which became a highly trafficked stop on the Underground Railroad.

A drawing of Harriet Bell Hayden from her obituary in The Cleveland Gazette.The Cleveland Gazette, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Though slavery had been illegal in Massachusetts since 1783, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 stated that enslaved people who had escaped to free states could still be found and returned to their enslavers in the South. The Haydens fearlessly protected hundreds of people from bounty hunters who tried to do just that. Ellen and William Craft, for example, had garnered widespread attention for their risky escape from slavery in Georgia, which involved Ellen impersonating a white man and William posing as her Black servant. When bounty hunters pursued them to the Haydens’ house, Lewis announced that he’d readily blow up the whole property with the two kegs of gunpowder he kept inside if they tried to kidnap the Crafts. The bounty hunters didn’t chance it, and left empty-handed.

Lewis also helped recruit Black soldiers for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry—one of the Union’s first all-Black military units—and was even elected to the Massachusetts General Assembly in 1873. When he died in 1889, Boston’s city council praised him as “one of the pioneers in the freeing of this country from the curse of slavery.” Harriet, who died in 1893, donated her entire estate to Harvard Medical School for the purpose of establishing a scholarship for Black students, which still exists today.

5. Henrietta Bowers Duterte

A photo of Henrietta Bowers Duterte with one of her children.Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1852, Henrietta Bowers, a 35-year-old tailor, married a Haitian-American undertaker named Francis A. Duterte. They both came from well-respected Philadelphia families, and Francis’s mortuary was successful; in other words, it should have been a long, happy union. But by the end of that decade, Henrietta was alone: Her children had all died young, and Francis had also passed away suddenly. Instead of handing the mortuary business over to a man—which would have been expected at the time—Henrietta took it over and, in addition to running the mortuary, turned it into an especially clandestine stop on the Underground Railroad.

Not only did Henrietta use funeral processions as opportunities to help disguised fugitives slip unnoticed through the city, but she also sometimes smuggled them out of Philadelphia in actual coffins. The mortuary continued to be lucrative, and Henrietta funneled the profits into organizations that served Philadelphia’s Black community, like the First Colored Church and Stephen Smith’s Philadelphia Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons. In 1866, she helped arrange the Freedman’s Aid Society Fair to support formerly enslaved people in Tennessee.

6. David Ruggles

A political cartoon depicting a slave owner raging against Ruggles and two other abolitionists who had helped one of his servants escape.Edward Williams Clay, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

David Ruggles, born free in Norwich, Connecticut, in 1810, moved to New York City at age 17 and opened a grocery shop, which he staffed with emancipated Black Americans. Before long, Ruggles pivoted to lending and selling abolitionist books, pamphlets, and newspapers, too, making him the nation’s first Black bookstore owner. In 1835, Ruggles and other local abolitionists founded the New York Vigilance Committee, an interracial organization which, like the one in Philadelphia, helped people escape from slavery. Not only did he provide legal aid to Black Americans targeted by bounty hunters, but he also housed many fugitives in his own home on Lispenard Street.

One of these temporary guests was Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery and arrived in New York penniless and famished in 1838. He was rescued, he explained in his 1845 autobiography, “by the humane hand of Mr. David Ruggles, whose vigilance, kindness, and perseverance, I shall never forget.” Douglass wrote to his fiancée, Anna, who joined him within a few days, and Ruggles even arranged a marriage ceremony in the house. Soon after the wedding, Ruggles gave the couple $5 and booked their passage on a steamship to New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Throughout his years as an Underground Railroad station master, Ruggles distributed countless anti-slavery publications and advocated for “practical abolitionism,” or the idea that each person should actively take part in emancipating Black Americans. He wasn’t without enemies: twice his shop was burned down, and he was physically attacked on several occasions. By his late twenties, Ruggles’s health was failing, and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child encouraged him to come live with the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, a self-sufficient community in Florence, Massachusetts, that championed equal rights for all. There, Ruggles regained some of his strength through hydrotherapy, and he eventually opened his own hydrotherapy hospital, where Douglass often visited him. When he died at age 39, it was Douglass who wrote his obituary.

7. and 8. Harriet Forten Purvis and Robert Purvis

A daguerroeotype of Robert Purvis from the 1840s.Boston Public Library, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Robert Purvis, the son of a white man and a free Black woman, was active in practically all facets of Philadelphia’s anti-slavery movement from the 1830s through the Civil War. He helped found and lead the Vigilant Association of Philadelphia and its Vigilance Committee, which offered boarding, clothing, medical attention, legal counsel, and northern passage to fugitives; and he also worked alongside prominent abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison to establish the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 and the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society a few years later.

Since women weren’t originally allowed to be members of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Robert’s wife, Harriet Forten Purvis, joined Lucretia Mott and other activists in forming the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in December 1833. Harriet, like Mott, would go on to become a leader in the suffrage movement, too.

Robert and Harriet had both come from extremely successful and respected Philadelphia families, and they used their influence—and financial resources—to assist escapees in any way they could. Their house on Lombard Street became a well-traversed thoroughfare for fugitives heading north.

“He was President of the ‘Underground Railroad,’ and throughout that long period of peril his house was a well-known station where his horses and carriages and his personal attendance were ever at the service of the travelers upon that road,” read Robert's 1898 obituary in The New York Times.

A portrait of Harriet Forten Purvis circa 1874. ExplorePAhistory.com // Public Domain

The couple’s high-profile work sometimes made them a target for those who opposed the upward mobility of Black Americans. In August 1842, a parade celebrating the eighth anniversary of the end of slavery in the British West Indies devolved into violence when an Irish mob—resenting their own low position in society—attacked the revelers and began looting and setting fire to Black-owned buildings along the street. The rioters planned to progress to the Purvises' house, where Robert stood armed and waiting, but a Catholic priest reportedly diverted them.

After that, Robert and Harriet moved their family to a farmhouse in Byberry, a northeastern neighborhood of Philadelphia, and promptly turned their new estate into another station on the Underground Railroad. Robert approximated that between 1831 and 1861, he had helped emancipate about one person per day (though it’s possible that this calculation included his broader work with various anti-slavery organizations).

9. Samuel D. Burris

A sketch of Samuel D. Burris from William Still's book The Underground Railroad.Delaware Historical & Cultural Affairs, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Samuel D. Burris worked tirelessly during the 1840s to lead fugitives through his home state of Delaware and into Philadelphia, where he lived with his wife and children. Though Burris was a free man, he could be imprisoned and sold into slavery if caught helping fugitives in Delaware—and in 1847, he was.

Officials apprehended Burris when he was trying to smuggle a woman named Maria Matthews onto a steamship. Since they set his bail at $5000 (more than $157,000 today), he was forced to spend months in jail while awaiting trial. “They uphold and applaud those slave traffickers, and those inhuman and unmerciful leeches, in their soul-damning conduct, by making the colored people legal subjects for their bloody principles to feast on,” he wrote from his cell, in a letter that was later published in William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator.

On November 2, 1847, Burris was convicted, fined $500, and sentenced to 10 more months in prison. After that, he’d be sold into slavery for 14 years. While Burris was serving his 10-month sentence, a group of Philadelphia abolitionists amassed $500 and sent a Quaker named Isaac Flint to pose as a trader and purchase Burris at the auction. Luckily, Flint ended up being the highest bidder (though according to William Still’s account in The Underground Railroad, luck had little to do with it: Flint savvily bought off a Baltimore trader who had tried to top his bid).

“[Burris] was not by any means aware of the fact that he had fallen into the hands of friends, but, on the contrary, evidently labored under the impression that his freedom was gone,” Still wrote. “The joyful news was whispered in the ear of Burris that all was right; that he had been bought with abolition gold to save him from going south.”

As Delaware State University historian Robin Krawitz told CNN, Burris continued helping fugitives after his release, and angry Delawarians actually petitioned the government to discipline him more severely. After officials enacted legislation that recommended public whipping as punishment for anyone caught a second time, Burris halted his operations in Delaware. Instead, he moved to San Francisco, where he raised funds to help newly freed people establish themselves.