This past Saturday was April 2nd, and that date happens to be the birthday of everyone’s favorite grampa, good ole Chucky, er, Charles, that is. Not just any ole Charles, but Charles the Great…aka Karl der Grosse, Carolus Magnus, that’s right: Charlemagne.
And by “grampa” I of course mean 40th great grandpa (that’s “great-great-great-great-great”…and so on 40 times!) And by “everyone’s” I actually mean merely the ancestor of 90% of Europeans and 70% of Americans!
He’s not called “Father of Europe” for no reason, folks.
Yup. On April 2, 742 CE Bertrade, wife of powerful military and political leader called Pepin III of Herstal – known as “Le Bref”, or, “The Short” – gave birth to a healthy baby boy. They named him Charles after Pepin’s father, Charles III of Herstal – known as Martel, or, “The Hammer”. It was the baby Charles’ grandfather Charles the Hammer who had forcefully capitalized on the political maneuverings and triumph of his own father Pepin II of Herstal in securing command and control of the three mini-kingdoms that together made the Frankish kingdom.
That senior Pepin of Herstal had lived long enough to witness and perhaps even see to the demise of the authority of the Merovingian kings of the Franks and their constantly feuding states of Austrasia, Neustria and Burgundy. Pepin was Mayor of the Palace of the Kings of Austrasia, which between 630 and 700 CE had had 10 men called “King”, at least six of whom died before their 30th birthday, and almost all of whom had been elevated to that status before their 5th birthday. Pepin, in the role of managing the affairs of the royal household effectively managed the actual operations of the kingdom.
By the time he died in 714 his son Charles already had proven himself an effective and well-liked leader and strategist in the military forces of the three frequently competing kingdoms. And it was this Charles who used disciplined training of his army that retook the position his father had secured after decades of patience following three years of civil war and his only combat defeat. Charles Martel would go on to lead the Frankish army to victories on all its frontiers, most notably in what’s now southern France at the Battle of Tours in 732 when they defeated the forces of the Islamic Caliphate, killing more than 10,000 of the enemy, including the opposing commander, Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, and therefore prevented the Islamic forces from advancing further into Europe beyond Spain (which remained under Muslim control for 700 years.) He received the nickname Martel “Hammer” from this victory, which helped solidify the strength of the unified Frankish realm inherited by his son, Pepin III when he died in 741.
Pepin III maintained the boundaries of the realm, fought back the Islamic invaders again, and carried on Christianizing into what’s now Germany. And it was he who sought and received the blessing of the Pope in Rome to formally depose the King of Austrasia for whom he worked (Chilperic III) achieving formally what his father and grandfather had worked for and be officially named King of the Franks.
That son of his, born April 2, 742, the Charles we know as Charlemagne, inherited the title of King of the Franks, but would own, enforce and extend the position’s authority to a more complex level of organization, transforming the region in the process.
He would forge an even tighter relationship with the Church in Rome, securing funds to help build schools and monasteries and libraries from Switzerland to Germany to France, which would create a unified domain that stretched from Rome in the south through the areas that are now France, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg. He unified various warring tribes, enabled commerce’s flow, addressed literacy and health (unique for that era), and to pull it off, he cut not only the heads off 4500 rebelling Saxons, but also deals with the Church, such as the one granting them legal immunity in exchange for resources.
His tireless synthesis of the elements and kinds of authority (political, military, economic, cultural) literally created a nation-state of a kind not seen there for hundreds of years. Acknowledging this vast power, the single most powerful entity and controlling force of Europe at the time — the Catholic Church of Rome — invented a title, crowning him Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800, essentially sanctifying him and him alone as the torch-bearer of the legacy of the Roman empire. (The genius part of that proto-media-stunt was that they actually simultaneously shored up the final and real predominance of the Church’s authority by being the ones to declare him as the inheritor of the glory that was Rome.)
Charlemagne’s grandsons would go on to mess it up, and it is no coincidence at all that the center of this dominion has been the crux of fighting for centuries. And from it sprang the Europe we know …and more than a dozen children from his loins!
From genealogical information, mathematical models, and more it is said with confidence that he is the ancestor of practically everyone in Europe today, and by logical extension, of probably 70% of Americans (those of us with European ancestry).
The past is absolutely never what any of us could or would choose. His actions, like the very acts committed by our parents that led any of us to BE at all, had nothing to do with us, literally. So he consolidated an empire in central Europe through wily deal making with the Catholic Church, lucid appraisal of resources, life requirements and the cold-blooded and efficient institutionalized mass murder codified as war. Doesn’t matter what the heck your or my opinion of him is was or will be, he’s your multi-great-grandfather.
His birthday was last weekend, and he – and the world we know, effectively – turned 1,269 years old. In case this seem irrelevant to you, consider it in context of France, Britain’s and the United States’ military actions in Libya lately, 1200 years after Grampa Chuckles’ death.