The Royal Who Inspired the Most Evil Rulers in History, King Charlemagne

Pop quiz: What do Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf
Hitler have in common? While their lifetimes were six decades apart,
they were both bloodthirsty tyrants who set their sights on controlling Europe. But did you know that they were inspired by
a much earlier ruler? That ruler was Charlemagne. Also known as Charles the Great and even “The
Father of Europe” to some, Charlemagne was one of the most prolific conquerors of Western
and Central Europe. He ruled the Franks, then the Lombards, and
also pretty much anything he set his sights upon. But as we’ve asked of Alexander the Great
before, just how great a conqueror was Charlemagne- especially since he had a grand total of zero
instagram followers? Unlike a lot of iconic rulers, not a great
deal was definitively recorded about Charlemagne’s early years. Nobody knows exactly where or even when Charlemagne
was born. Modern historians speculate that he could
have been born in what is now Aachen in modern Germany, or Liege in Belgium, sometime during
the 740s. Not exactly born to humble beginnings, he
was the grandson of legendary statesman Charles Martel, also known as “The Hammer” for
his skills as a military leader and a warrior. He was one of two children to Frankish King
Pepin the Short and Frankish Queen Bertrada of Laon, making him the heir to the impressive
Carolingian Dynasty from birth. While he was born Carolus, like many other
rulers – such as Caesar and Caligula – he became synonymous with his moniker. A name that would soon inspire either love
or fear all across Europe. Charlemagne’s resume truly began around
768 A.D., with the death of his father. This passed the kingdom to him and his younger
brother, Carloman. However, there was friction between the two
brothers from the outset. This was only deepened when the two of them
were forced to quell a rebellion during the brief bit of anarchy after King Pepin’s
death. While Charlemagne handled the rebellion well
for such a new ruler, Carloman’s fumbling of the conflict often actively undermined
his brother’s efforts. By the end of the brief war, Charlemagne had
destroyed the rebellion. Carloman, however, had taken a major reputational
hit. He’d become a liability for the Carolingian
dynasty. The rift between the two royal brothers eventually
got so bad that their mother, Queen Bertrada, had to step in. However, Bertrada wasn’t an impartial figure
here – she strongly favoured Charlemagne’s control over the kingdom, giving him diplomatic
assistance in gaining a foothold over Carloman. During this period of brotherly feuding, Charlemagne
was also consolidating power across the region with a political marriage to Desiderata, one
of the daughters of Desiderius, King of the Lombards. This effectively fused the Franks and the
Lombards for a time, further cutting Carloman out of the picture. Sadly for him, what Carloman is perhaps best
known for is dying abruptly in 771 A.D. from what historians believe was a severe nosebleed. This prevented a civil war from breaking out
among the Carolingians. It also allowed Charlemagne to fully consolidate
his power over the Franks and curry favour with the Pope, beginning what is arguably
his true reign. The Carolingians were devout Roman Catholics,
and a great deal of their influence came from their relationship with the Pope. It was also Charlemagne’s faith that set
the tone for many of his bloody conquests across Europe. He faced one of his first challenges as sole
king in 772 A.D., when his ally – Pope Adrian – was under attack from the Lombards. Charlemagne’s political marriage to Desiderata
had fallen through a year earlier with his brother’s death, and along with it, their
political alliance. However, Charlemagne wasn’t the kind of
ruler who’d take an attack on his allies sitting down. Problems he couldn’t solve with diplomacy
or political strategy, he’d happily solve with the sword. And this isn’t just a metaphor, either. Charlemagne, from the very beginning, was
a hands-on, battle-ready warrior-king. Charlemagne lead from the front, surrounded
by heavily armoured bodyguards, wielding Joyeuse – his iconic sword. The sword’s name translates directly to
“joyous” from its original French, but joyous would be the last thing his enemies
would feel as they saw Charlemagne charging towards them. Even in the early days of his rule, his record
of military victory was so impressive that even his presence would strike terror into
the hearts of his foes. Charlemagne headed off the Lombards in the
Alps, a notoriously difficult terrain. However, in his mind, the best defence was
a good offence. It wasn’t enough to just repel the enemies
in their attack – after securing a decisive victory in the Alps, Charlemagne launched
a brutal siege on the Lombardy region of Pavia. The Carolingian Army outnumbered the Lombard
forces four to one. Using Charlemagne’s clever flanking techniques,
they were able to surround fortified Pavia, cutting off supply lines. After ten months of siege, Lombardy King Desiderius
finally surrendered to Charlemagne and his forces. This gave everyone’s favourite up-and-coming-French
conqueror dominion over modern day Northern Italy, and more. In a particularly Game of Thrones move, he
even had himself crowned with the legendary Iron Crown of Lombardy. But King Charlemagne was far from done on
his debut European tour. Charlemagne had an eye towards expanding his
kingdom, and uniting the Germanic people of Europe under two things: Christianity, and
himself. His next conquest was against the nomadic
Avars, a diverse group that populated areas ranging from modern Austria to Turkey. Charlemagne’s brutal onslaught left the
Avars in disarray, and even when he briefly suspended his campaign against the Avars to
fight the Saxons, they fell into civil war. The remnants were practically handed to Charlemagne’s
forces, and integrated into his ever-growing empire. The Saxons were one of Charlemagne’s most
consistent foes. He took issue with their Pagan belief system,
and intended to enact his tried-and-tested method of “conquer and convert.” However, his war against the Saxons ended
up being horrifically protracted – taking over thirty years in total, and involving
numerous bloody battles. These were known as The Saxon Wars, and they
took up a good portion of Charlemagne’s time as king. The Saxons largely inhabited North-Western
Europe, and there was always tension along the borders of Saxony and Charlemagne’s
Frankish territory. Some historians suggest that Charlemagne’s
motivation for fully igniting conflict with the Saxons was more than just religious, too. They suggest that he may, in fact, have been
playing the long game – usurping former Roman territory to gain more Papal favour,
and increase his chances of being declared emperor of the west. Whether this was truly on Charlemagne’s
mind at the time, we may never know. But what we do know is that his campaign into
Saxony, while fought over a long period of time, was particularly ruthless. Charlemagne, hoping to provoke his enemies
and make a point, destroyed a Saxon Irminsul – a kind of holy pillar of great religious
importance to the pagans in Saxony. Charlemagne’s point was clear: It’s either
my way, or destruction. There was no middle ground. And over those thirty years, the Frankish
ruler was true to his ominous words. In response to his sacrilege, the Saxons attempted
to burn Christian churches. The retribution from Charlemagne was swift
and brutal. He performed raids on Saxon territories in
774 A.D., and – according to the Royal Frankish Annals – said in 775 A.D. that he would
“wage war on the perfidious and treaty-breaking people of the Saxons and to persevere with
this until they had either been overcome and subjected to the Christian religion or totally
exterminated.” Again, being a frightening man of his word,
Charlemagne crossed the Rhine and raided Saxon territories three times that very year, leaving
death and destruction in his wake. Conflict was only escalating over time, leaving
thousands dead on both sides. In the year 777 A.D., it seemed Charlemagne
was only getting bolder in his subjugation of the people of Saxony. To demonstrate his power and confidence in
his ability to win the war, he travelled to Paderborn – a settlement in the heart of
Saxony – to deliver a general assembly on his intentions. As always, Charlemagne was straightforward
in his messaging: The Saxon people could accept Baptism under Catholicism, or they could choose
death. It was up to them. Tit-for-tat skirmishes would continue in the
following years – different settlements would be captured by the Franks and Saxons,
and often recaptured not long after – but things became noticeably bloodier in the 780s. The year 782 A.D. brought with it the Battle
of Süntel, a Saxon rebellion in the Weser Uplands of Lower Saxony. It was quelled by a detachment of Frankish
troops on Charlemagne’s behalf. However, the event that made this battle famous
actually occurred afterwards, with the arrival of Charlemagne himself. In retribution for Saxon defiance, he offered
his classic ultimatum to the rebel forces: Conversion, or destruction. Historians estimate that as many as four-thousand-five-hundred
beheadings occurred that day, for the rebels who refused to give in to Charlemagne’s
demands. This event is known by most as the Massacre
of Verden. The impact of this act of brutality echoed
over a thousand years later, when even Nazi Germany declared Charlemagne “Karl The Slaughterer”
for his cruelty during the massacre. However, Adolf Hitler – who, as mentioned
before, was an admirer of Charlemagne – changed the official line on this with the help of
propagandist Joseph Goebbels. It goes without saying, being admired by Adolf
Hitler is never a positive thing. This level of brutality, however, didn’t
extend to Charlemagne’s personal life. On his own terms, he was more of a lover than
a fighter. Throughout his life, he had at least four
wives (that we know of) and sired many children. He was also, despite being a brutal ruler,
apparently a doting father who cared deeply for his children. He appointed his sons to positions of power
in his kingdom, and didn’t allow his daughters to be rushed into marriage. One of Charlemagne’s contemporaries – Einhard,
his official biographer – even offered a description of what Charlemagne looked like. In his definitive piece, “Life of Charles
the Great”, published after Charlemagne’s death, Einhard wrote that he was : “broad
and strong in the form of his body and exceptionally tall without, however, exceeding an appropriate
measure…His appearance was impressive whether he was sitting or standing despite having
a neck that was fat and too short, and a large belly.” The strange and interesting reign of Charlemagne
rose to another level in the final years of the 700s. If this isn’t clear enough by now, Charlemagne
and his Carolingian kingdom were one of the world’s staunchest supporters of the Catholic
Church. He paid his dividends to the Church through
land, funding, and even fighting their battles for them. And eventually, this devotion paid off. In 799 A.D., a rebellion in Rome left Pope
Leo III embattled and in danger – of losing power, and of death. Supporters of Pope Adrian, who’d remained
neutral in the conflict between Charlemagne and the Byzantines, hadn’t taken kindly
to Pope Leo’s unambiguous support of Charlemagne’s ventures. Rebels against Leo intended to mutilate him
by removing his eyes and tongue, which would disqualify him as Pope. Leo fled to the Alps, where Charlemagne gave
him sanctuary until the rebellion could be resolved. When Pope Leo was reinstalled, he rewarded
Charlemagne handsomely – crowning him Emperor of Rome in December of the year 800 A.D. And thus, the Carolingian Holy Roman Empire
was born. Despite his reputation as a ruthless conqueror
and religious zealot, the territories under his reign did undergo several improvements
thanks to his governance. He established standardised weights, customs
dues, and measurements that facilitated the flow of commerce and economic reform. Charlemagne encouraged scholarship and intellectualism,
inviting scholars to his court to share findings and information. He also improved literacy and established
libraries of classic works. A new writing system, the Carolingian Miniscule,
was introduced – laying the groundwork for the modern European alphabet. Historians refer to this period of art, writing,
and intellectualism as the Carolingian Renaissance. However, all stories must come to an end. On the 28th of December, 814 A.D., Charlemagne
passed away in his seventies, situated in his possible birth town of Aachen. After his death, his empire was succeeded
by his son, Louis the Pious. The cultural legacy of Charlemagne and the
Carolingian Renaissance persisted long after his death. While the Holy Roman Empire experienced decay,
thanks to Charlemagne’s successors’ lacking his extraordinary leadership skills, it wasn’t
fully dissolved until almost a thousand years later. It was one of Charlemagne’s own admirers,
the infamous Napoleon, that finally destroyed Charlemagne’s empire in the process of making
his own. Charlemagne really knew how to attract a certain
kind of fan. Here at The Infographics Show, we don’t
plan on taking over your country, but we do plan on taking over your watch history. Hungry for more details on some of history’s
most diabolical dictators? Check out our videos on Genghis Khan and Julius
Caesar. Your choice is simple: click one, or face
the consequences!

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