Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Blessed Charlemagne, Emperor

[Blessed Charlemagne]Article

Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, son of king Pepin, was born in 742; and crowned king of France in 768; but his youngest brother Carloman reigned in Austrasia till his death, in 771. Charlemagne vanquished Hunauld, duke of Aquitain, and conquered the French Gothia or Landguedoc; subdued Lombardy; conferred on Pope Adrian the exarchite of Ravenna, the duchy of Spoletto and many other dominions; took Pavia, (which had been honoured with the residence of twenty kings,) and was crowned king of Lombardy in 774. The emir Abderamene in Spain, having shaken off the yoke of the caliph of the Saracens, in 736, and established his kingdom at Cordova, and other emirs in Spain setting up independency, Charlemagne, in 778, marched as far as the Ebro and Saragossa, conquered Barcelona, Gironne, and many other places, and returned triumphant. His cousin Roland, who followed him with the rear of his army, in his return was set upon in the Pyrenean mountains by a troop of Gascon robbers, and slain; and is the famous hero of numberless old French romances and songs. The Saxons having in the king’s absence plundered his dominions upon the Rhine, he flew to the Weser, and compelled them to make satisfaction. Thence he went to Rome and had his infant sons crowned kings, Pepin of Lombardy, and Lewis of Aquitain. The great revolt of the Saxons, in 782, called him again on that side. When they were vanquished, and sued for pardon, he declared he would no more take their oaths which they had so often broken, unless they became Christians. Witikind embraced the condition, was baptized with his chief followers in 785, and being created duke of part of Saxony, remained ever after faithful in his religion and allegiance. From him are descended, either directly or by intermarriages, many dukes of Bavaria, and the present houses of Saxony, Brandenburg, etc., as may be seen in the German genealogists. Some other Saxons afterwards revolted, and were vanquished and punished in 794, 798, etc., so that, through their repeated treachery and rebellions, this Saxon war continued at intervals for the space of thirty-three years. Thassillon, duke of Bavaria, for treasonable practices, was attacked by Charlemagne in 788, vanquished, and obliged to put on a monk’s cowl to save his life: from which time Bavaria was annexed to Charlemagne’s dominions. To punish the Abares for their inroads, he crossed the Inns into their territories, sacked Vienna, and marched to the mouth of the Raad upon the Danube. In 794, he assisted at the great council of Francfort, held in his royal palace there. He restored Leo III at Rome, quelled the seditions there, and was crowned by him on Christmas-day, in 800, emperor of Rome and of the West: in which quality he was afterwards solemnly acknowledged by Nicephorus, emperor of Constantinople. Thus was the western empire restored, which had been extinct in Momylus Agustulus in the fifth century. In 805, Charlemagne quelled and conquered the Sclavonians. The Danube, the Teisse, and the Oder on the East, and the Ebro and the ocean on the West, were the boundaries of his vast dominions. France, Germany, Dacia, Dalmatia, Istria, Italy, and part of Pannonia and Spain, obeyed his laws. It was then customary for kings not to reside in great cities, but to pass the summer often in progresses or campaigns, and the winter at some country palace. King Pepin resided at Herstal, now Jopin, in the territory of Liege, and sometimes at Quiercy on the Oise: Charlemagne often at Francfort or Aix-la-Chapelle, which were country seats; for those towns were then inconsiderable places: though the latter had been founded by Serenus Granus in 124, under Adrian. It owes its greatness to the church built there by Charlemagne.

This prince was not less worthy of our admiration in the quality of a legislator than in that of a conqueror; and in the midst of his marches and victories, he gave the utmost attention to the wise government of his dominions, and to every thing that could promote the happiness of his people, the exaltation of the church, and the advancement of piety and every branch of sacred and useful learning. What pains he took for the reformation of monasteries, and for the sake of uniformity introducing in them the rule of Saint Bennet, appears from his transactions, and several ecclesiastical assemblies in 789. His zeal for the devout observance of the rites of the church is expressed in his book to Alcuin on that subject, and in his encyclical epistle on the rites of baptism, and in various works which he commissioned Alcuin and others to compile. For the reformation of manners, especially of the clergy, he procured many synods to be held, in which degrees were framed, which are called his Capitula. His Capitulars, divided into many chapters, are of the same nature. The best edition of these Capitulars is given by Baluzius, with dissertations, in 1677, two vols. folio. The Carolin Books are a theological work, (adopted by this prince, who speaks in the first person,) compiled in four books, against a falsified copy of the second council of Nice, sent by certain Iconoclasts from Constantinople, on which see F. Daniel and Ceillier.

There never was a truly great man, who was not a lover and encourager of learning, as of the highest improvement of the human mind. Charlemagne, by most munificent largesses invited learned men over from foreign parts, as Alcuin, Peter of Pisa, Paul the deacon, etc. He found no greater pleasure than in conversing with them, instituted an academy in his own palace, and great schools at Paris, Tours, etc. assisted at literary disputations, was an excellent historian, and had Saint Austin’s book, “On the City of God,” laid every night under his pillow to read if he awaked. Yet Eginhard assures us, that whatever pains he took, he could never learn to write, because he was old when he first applied himself to it. He was skilled in astronomy, arithmetic, music, and every branch of the mathematics: understood the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac, also the Sclavonian, and several other living languages, so as never to want an interpreter to converse with ambassadors of neighbouring nations. He meditated assiduously on the scriptures, assisted at the divine office, even that of midnight if possible; had good books read to him at table, and took but one meal a day, which he was obliged to anticipate before the hour of evening on fasting days, that all his officers and servants might dine before midnight. He was very abstemious, had a paternal care of the poor in all his dominions, and honoured good men, especially among the clergy. Charlemagne died January the 28th, in 814, seventy-two years old, and was buried at Aix-la-Chapelle. The incontinence, into which he fell in his youth, he expiated by sincere repentance, so that several churches in Germany and France honour him among the saints. In the university of Paris, the most constant nation of the Germans (which was originally called the English nation, in 1250, when the distinction of nations in the faculty of arts was there established,) take Charlemagne for their patron, but only keep his festival since the year 1480, which is now common to the other three nations of French, Picards, and Normans, since 1661.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Blessed Charlemagne, Emperor”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 28 January 2013. Web. 28 December 2014. <>