From Lecture by J. Orton Buck
April 1987

As it has been a number of years since anyone has given a paper on Charlemagne at one of our meetings, and since the society bears his name and our members claim descent from him, our interest in him and in what made him great should be of importance to the society and of interest to each of us here tonight. It seemed to me that the time had arrived for us to return to basics, as it were, and that I would address this topic: WHY CHARLES WAS THE GREAT. 

Charlemagne has become so much a part of history that not everyone know his name was really Charles. Even in his lifetime, the French form for the Latin, Carolus, was being linked with magne for the Latin, magnus. Charlemagne is the name, which for this man has been written into history. One word…Charlemagne. Other men in history have had “the great” added to their names, such as Alexander the Great, Gregory the Great, but never to form one word. 

There seems to me to be five qualities, which in the combination found in Charlemagne resulted in his greatness and his place in history. First, he was a man of vision; second, a man of decision; third, a man of action; fourth, a man of religious faith; and fifth, a man of the arts and learning. The scenes from his life, which I shall recall to you, this evening will serve, I trust, as illustrations of these five qualities, which have led to his greatness. 
During the final twelve years of his father Pepin’s life, Charlemagne was engaged in the war in the great Duchy of Aquitaine much of the time. Aquitaine, almost a fourth of the present area of France, comprised the area south of the Loire River and west of the Rhone River. The Aquitainians had been conquered by the Vandals, the Goths, the Saracens, and then by the Franks. However, they still thought of themselves as Romans. In Aquitaine, the survival of Roman civilization was almost greater then in Rome itself. Roman theatres, Roman baths, and Roman aqueducts still were in use in Bordeaux and other ancient cities of the province. During this long period of war, Charles learned more than the art of conquest. His later devotion to the art, architecture, language, and grad political conception of the Romans must have been a result of his experiences in Aquitaine. 
In 768, shortly after the Frankish kingdom had been divided between Charles and his brother, Carloman, after the death of their father Pepin, trouble in the form of armed rebellion flared up in Aquitaine. Charles had spent that winter at Aachen in the heart of his family’s ancestral territory. In the spring, he had moved westward with his court and household troops and by Easter was at Rouen, closer to Aquitaine. On the news of the revolt, Charles acted promptly, marching into Aquitaine with the troops at hand, counting on his brother, Carloman, for aid. By Pepin’s will Aquitaine had been divided between the two brothers. Carloman did take action when news of the revolt reached him. He moved westward with an army and the forces of the two brothers met near the northern border of Aquitaine where they discussed plans for joint action in quelling the revolt. Their meeting ended in disagreement. Carloman sulkily refused to cooperate and went home with his troops, washing his hands of the entire Aquitaine affair. This state of affairs was not entirely unwelcome to Charles, for it gave him an opportunity to test his mettle and placed on his brother the onus of desertion in time of war. If Charles single-handedly defeated the Aquitainians, his army would gain in self-confidence and he would be able to count on the support of many of his brother’s nobles who would consider Carloman’s action shameful. That was important to Charles, for even in the beginning of his reign, he thought of himself as the natural ruler of the entire kingdom. He was not at this time prepared to go to war with Carloman, but from the outset he tried to undermine his brother’s authority. Although he disliked his brother, it is possible to see him acting this way, honestly and without rancor, out of sincere conviction that the unity of the Frankish kingdom was inevitable and necessary. He could not help but see the weakness of his brother, and that Carloman lacked the personal strength to unite the country, which he, Charles, did have. Recognizing this truth was not vanity, but objectivity. 

Although his forces were small, and his mother and older advisers might have thought him reckless, Charles knew what he was about. He marched boldly into Aquitaine. Having fought there only a year before, he knew the duchy was exhausted from years of warfare. He knew also that he would have the powerful support of the Church against the instigator of the rebellion, a monk named Hunold who had broken his vows. The lower clergy would persuade the people to welcome the Franks as saviors; the bishops who held vast ecclesiastical estates would withhold their support of the rebel. Already at the beginning of his career, Charles had the vision to make use of an institution that was ultimately to become one of his strongest weapons. It is no paradox that he could make use of the Church, and at the same time believe sincerely in its divine mission. 

As he expected, the rebellion collapsed as soon as he made a show of force. Hunold fled before him and the war turned into a pursuit of the fugitive. Charles took this opportunity to look to the future. He marched to the border between Aquitaine and Vasconia (Gascony) where he put his soldiers to work building the fort at Frontiacum, which was to be used so much for the protection of Aquitainia as to intimidate the Duke of Vasconia. He was establishing a principal he would follow for the rest of his life; fortify his borders and use forts either for security or as jumping-off points for future conquests. Almost instinctively, he was making use of the old Roman imperial idea. He was an empire builder from the start. 

Charlemagne has been made to appear by some of his biographers as a rather unlettered barbarian, although interested in fostering education and the arts. This is not the case. Even as a child, he must have been precocious. This is implied by Pepin sending him when he was a boy of eleven with his tutor, Abbot Furled, to meet the pope in Switzerland and accompany him to Ponthion on a visit to Pepin. It is quite probable that at this time he could speak Latin quite well, so he could greet the pope in his own language. Charles had been instructed as a boy by his tutor and his mother, Queen Bertrada. At the palace school during Charles’ youth, the seven liberal arts of the Romans of ancient times were still being taught: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, astronomy, and geometry. The last two subjects may have been somewhat neglected in Charles’ early training. In arithmetic, he was well-grounded and we find him later on trying to instill this knowledge into the heads of his unwilling stewards who were overseers of his vast estates, for it was the income from these which provided the funds for his civic projects and the maintenance of his various households. There were royal palaces at a number of places, including Frankfort, Worms and Paderborn, among which the royal household moved. It was only late in his life that he made Aachen his capital and principal residence. 

There is circumstantial evidence that Charles was highly musical. There was no pure music in his day. Secular music was the handmaiden of poetry, and formed accompaniment for the ballads and legendary history of the Franks. When Charles was fifteen, the Roman emperor at Constantinople sent Charles’ father, Pepin, an organ. This is mentioned in many annals, and it was the first to be seen in Frankland. Is accompaniment to the boys’ choirs as they sang the Gregorian chants were a delight at the court. There is no knowledge that Charles ever learned to play the instrument, but we do know that he took a lifelong interest in chanting and in training choirs in the proper singing of the psalms. 

Grammar was one of his favorite subjects, and for most of his life, he remained a pedant about it. The language of the people had already drifted so far from classical Latin that even the clergy had difficulty writing and speaking it. The vulgar tongue, which evolved into the French language, was emerging at this time. One of Charles’ first acts on ascending the throne was to order better instruction for the clergy, so that they would be able to conduct services properly in Latin, a language which by this time the common people could scarcely understand. In the final year of his reign, he at last recognized the vulgar tongue and, rescinding his earlier order, commanded that the services be conducted in the language of the people, lingua romana rustica. 

Charles also excelled at rhetoric. Throughout his life, he found fitting expression for his thoughts. He was able to speak freely, with ease and persuasion to ambassadors from foreign lands and to the national assemblies of his people. The fluency of a king was considered remarkable in his day. The refined oratory of the Romans-product of urbanity and republican institutions-had remained alien to the German character, and the eloquence of Charlemagne was recognized as exceptional. 

It was not until 794 that Charles settled on Aachen as his permanent residence. Prior to that, he had moved among the palaces, which he had on many estates. This afforded him the pleasure of hunting in different forests. He kept in touch closely with his subjects and could administer justice to them. In an age of poor roads, the best still being those that had been built by the Romans, it was easier to bring people to the source of supplies than bring the supplies to the people. Traveling around his domain, he soon became aware of the poor state of the roads. One of his first reforms was to launch a road-building program and he enforced the traditional law that those bordering on a road were responsible for its upkeep. Bridges were badly needed throughout the land, and he promoted their construction by private enterprise. Those who built them were given the right to charge tolls for their use. 

Hygiene was of first concern to Charles. He rode about his estates with his stewards, inspecting the pigsties, sheepfolds, and stables, insisting that they be kept clean and in repair. He inspected the manner in which lard, sausage, smoked and salted meats, wine, cheese, butter, beer, mead, honey, wax, flour, and other items were being prepared, and insisted on the greatest cleanliness. The same concern for hygiene, which made him so fond of swimming and hot baths, also prompted him to forbid the time-honored custom of treading grapes for wine with bare feet. 

By 780, on a visit to Pavia, the capital of his Lombard kingdom, Charles found such a backlog of cases being appealed to him that he issued an order similar to one he had issued a year before in Frankland. The order restricted the right of appeal to the king until a case had been through three previous trials. He found that the time, which he wished to devote to intellectual pursuits, was being consumed by litigation. It was the decade in his life between the ages of 40 and 50 which saw the marked burgeoning of his intellectual interests-education, theology, philosophy, astronomy, music, rhetoric, and poetry, which was to stimulate the Carolingian Renaissance. His own thirst for learning made him value education and induced him to search out men of learning to staff the schools he set up for boys of all classes. 

During the previous Merovingian period, enough of the old Roman schools had survived to supply education for the laymen who would staff the government offices. That system finally broke down during the civil disturbances and the Saracen invasions of the early eighth century. Even the ecclesiastical schools in the monasteries were in a bad way. Of course, the most important school established by Charles was the Palace School at Aachen, where sons of his chief nobles, as well as boys from humbler backgrounds, were educated. It was this school which was presided over by the Alcuin, an Englishman whom Charles had met at Parma in Italy when Alcuin was on his way back to England from Rome with the pallium he had come to get from the pope for a new archbishop of Canterbury. Charles had persuaded him to join his staff and preside over his school. At the beginning of Alcuin’s activity, he saw that a prime need was to educate teachers. His training program for teachers was so successful that after fifteen years it was possible to propose universal education. The priests in the towns were to operate schools open for all parents to enroll their children, with no fee to be exacted. Although the Carolingian school system suffered severely in the disorders that followed Charles’ reign, it is important to remember that the aim and ideal had been set for all time. 

Alcuin assisted Charles in building the library he was assembling and was able to bring from England books, which were not available in Frankland. 

Charles understood and could speak Greek. In his last years, he set to work with the help of Syrians and Greeks correcting the Vulgate text of the Gospels. He was a profound theologian, one of the intellectuals of his age. Alcuin addresses him as “the father of the world whom Good has illuminated with the light of knowledge.” As a theologian, he took a middle position in the controversy over iconoclasm, which was rending the Eastern Church and Western Church in the eighth century. He introduced the Filoque clause into the service books used in Frankland, a century or more before its use was adopted at Rome. In the Adoptionist dispute, which was besetting the Western Church, he took an active role, calling a council of bishops at Frankfort. He spoke convincingly before the assemblage, defending the traditional view that Christ was the “only begotten Son of the Father” rather than an adopted son. 

Charles was passionately interested in astronomy, and sought a deeper knowledge of it than any of his contemporaries were capable of giving him. 

Although his contemporaries sincerely testified that Charles was a peer of the best minds of the time, many historians have considered him great in practical affairs, but wholly incapable of the literary productions bearing his name, and have assumed them to have been written by others such as Bishop Theodulf or even Alcuin. However, the opening words of the Caroline Books clearly state the work is his, and the style used in composition is not that of the others, but bears the stamp of his personality. The man whose favorite book was the difficult “City of God” by Augustine and who delivered a lengthy address on the theological question of Adoptionism was certainly capable of writing a book on Iconoclasm. He no doubt worked with those around him whose minds were stimulating to him in formulating his ideas, but the actual work of composition is almost certainly his. 

Throughout his life, Charles maintained an intimate relationship with the Church. In a way, the meeting of Charles as boy with Pope Stephen II foreshadows the dramatic ceremony at St. Peter’s in Rome nearly fifty years later, when another Pope, Leo III, placed on his white head a crown and hailed him Emperor of the Romans. This relationship with the Church and with the Holy See colored all his political and intellectual attitudes. It is not assuming too much to see that the early meeting of the impressionable boy with the supreme head of the Church was partly responsible for his later theological bent, his keen interest in Church affairs, and the missionary zeal he manifested throughout his entire reign. His mother and Abbot Fulrad gave him thorough instructions in the Catholic faith that in later life made him a Christian king. He exhibited a personal devotion to God in his daily way of life, being in the habit of attending Mass daily even when traveling or on military campaigns. He built the beautiful octagonal church still standing at Aachen (with some Gothic additions), using architects he had brought from Byzantium. He daily heard and took part in chanting the psalms in the daily offices there, and the chair, which he sat, is still preserved in the balcony. 

In closing, I would like to read for you the account of Charlemagne’s coronation from Richard Winston’s biography of him.* From the facts he presents taken from the records of the times, I find his conclusions of interest and at variance with the conclusions that have been drawn by other biographers. 
Pepin…had been ordered to return from the Beneventan front so that he would be present in Rome on Christmas Day-ostensibly for the anointment of his elder brother Charles as king. Final preparations were made for the event at which the …pope would preside. There can be little doubt that Charles himself had a hand in organizing the ceremony, which then unfolded with the smoothness of a well-rehearsed play. 
On that Christmas Day, the first of the new century, the great nave and the four vast side aisles of St. Peter’s basilica were filled with a motley throng of Romans, Franks, Bavarians, Lombards, Septimanian Goths, Pyrenean Basques and even Anglo-Saxons and Greeks. Close to the altar were Charles’ daughters and sons (except Louis) and Charles himself-for the second time in his life wearing the long Roman tunic and cloak, bound with a golden belt, and Roman sandals studded with jewels. On the altar before him, glittering with the light from thousands of candles, reposed a magnificent golden crown. Silken hangings, golden censers and solid-silver candelabra reminded all of the wagonloads of treasure that Charles’ men had brought back from the Ring of Avars. And in the reminder was implicit the dignity he had attained to: that of greatest lord in the Western world, converter of the pagan, tamer of the barbarian. 

The High Mass proceeded. Charles knelt in prayer. Was he weary, worried, elated or proud? We cannot know, and it would be impertinent to try to guess the thoughts of such a man at such a moment. H e rose to his feet. Leo III stepped forward, lifted the golden crown from the altar, and placed it on his head. The basilica rang as the Romans shouted: “Carolo Augusto, a Deo coronato, magno et pacifico imperatori Romanorum, vita et victoria!” (“Long life and victory to Charles Augustus, crowned by God the great and pacific Emperor of the Romans!”) 

Three times the roared the acclamation. 

Pope Leo fell at Charles’ feet and kissed the hem of his cloak, as was the custom at the Byzantine court. 
After a lapse of three and a quarter centuries there was once more a Roman emperor in the West. 
Then young Charles was crowned and anointed king of, so to speak, Old Frankland, this act sanctifying the appointment his father had made some ten years before. 

There is no mention in our texts of the part, if any, played by the Franks, Lombards, Bavarians, Saxons, and other “barbarians” who were present in St. Peter’s that day. The Romans hailed Charles; the Romans chose an Emperor of the Romans and did so in the prescribed legal form. For the acclamation was the essence of the ceremony; the coronation by the pope was no more than the cue. Roman senators participated in that acclamation! For the Roman Senate still existed, although its functions had been so reduced that it was really no more than the municipal government of Rome. 

Nor was the idea of an emperor so strange to the Romans. Until recently, they had been living under the rule of a Roman emperor, although his residence was Constantinople and his actual power in Rome was negligible. Now, according to the theory that had been zealously popularized by Frankish and papal propagandists, the throne at Constantinople was vacant (since the person nominally in possession of it was a mere woman). What was more logical, then, than for the Romans to reassert their ancient rights and make themselves an emperor? And how flattering this was to the Romans’ pride! Accepting the crown of empire at their hands was by far the most inspired step Charles could have taken to reconcile the Romans to Frankish rule and to their pro-Frankish pope whom they had tried to depose. 

Perhaps this-that the day was uniquely a Roman holiday-provides a clue to the mystery surrounding the coronation of Charles. For his biographer Einhard records that Charles “so disliked the title of Emperor and Augustus that he affirmed he would not have entered the church that day, even though it was so high a church festival, if he had known what the pope intended to do.” This startling statement has been subjected to endless examination and interpretation. If Charles actually said it-and Einhard is not always trustworthy-what could he possibly have meant? Had he intended to crown himself, and did Leo forestall him and place the crown on his head in order to magnify the papacy? The interpretation fall because it accepts one part of Einhard’s statement and rejects the other-namely, that Charles “disliked the title.” Moreover, the words of acclamation, “crowned by God,” imply the mediation of the pope. 

Was Charles in fact unwilling to accept the imperial crown, and had the pope outwitted him, creating an emperor because only an emperor could legally judge the conspirators of the antipapal party? This “surprise theory,” which is based directly on Einhard’s words, has been accepted by many historians. It has been worked out in innumerable variations, with the most refined subtleties of reasoning, the most careful collation of sources. Yet it seems hardly tenable in the light of all the evidence that at least a year of planning went into the preparation of that Christmas Day ceremony. Was there, then, no meaning at all to the allusions to imperial dignity in the letters and poems of Alcuin, Theodulf, and Angilbert? No meaning to Leo’s long stay at Paderborn the year before? And if the coronation by Leo was unexpected, how is it that Alcuin in his letters showed no surprise? 

A good many students of the question have considered Alcuin the moving spirit behind Charles’ assumption of the imperial title, and a few have even held the preposterous theory that the pope plotted with Alcuin and other Frankish nobles behind Charles’ back. Others have dismissed Einhard’s statement on the ground that it was a mere phrase of modesty, akin to the convention in the early Middle Ages that required a bishop to run away from the people who elected him and to hide, protesting his unworthiness for the office. Or that, it might be added, requires a presidential candidate in the United States to disclaim any such aspiration. 
The question can never be definitely settled. Possibly Einhard put those words into Charles’ mouth because he was troubled by the “Roman holiday” aspect of the coronation. Einhard was one of the few native Franks among Charles’ intellectual circle, and it is noteworthy that in his biography he consistently pictures Charles as a German Volkskonig-a king embodying the spirit of the Franks, close to his people , dressing in the Frankish national costume, concerned with the Frankish language and songs, taking a simple direct, paternal interest in his people. Einhard does not like to think of his master as a remote, autocratic, awe-inspiring Roman emperor living hemmed in by ceremony, inaccessible to the common people. And it is possible that this feeling of his was shared by a good many Franks. For the King of the Franks to rule over a Frankish empire was one thing; quite another for him suddenly to become Roman Emperor. There was no love lost between Franks and Romans. What now if the new emperor decided to rule his old kingdom from Rome? From being the masters of Europe the Franks would become subject to absentee rule. And would not their king himself ultimately be corrupted by Roman “timidity, avarice, luxury, lying, viciousness”? Were they always to kiss the king’s knee, or even his foot, instead of standing before him? 

In fact Charles was quite aware that the Franks felt uneasy about his new title. He carefully continued to style himself “King of Franks and Lombards,” although these titles might well be considered as contained within the supreme office of emperor. He never again donned Roman dress. And after this visit he never again set foot in Rome. 

Whatever the explanation for Einhard’s amazing statement that Charles did not desire the imperial title, the surprise theory is certainly disposed of by Charles’ actions immediately after the coronation. For he showed his pleasure by raining gifts on the churches of Rome: a silver table, golden vases, a golden chandelier weighing fifty pounds, set with precious stones, golden chalices, a cross set with sapphires, an altar, a paten of gold weighing twenty-two pounds, and so on; the list in the “Life of Leo III” takes up two pages. He distributed three thousand pounds of silver among the poor of Rome. It does not seem likely that he produced these gifts on the spur of the moment. They had been brought over the Alps from Frankland for an occasion of more importance than the anointment of his son Charles. 

The significance of his anointment of young Charles, incidentally, has been overlooked by many commentators. Charles himself had already made this son a king. If he now sought confirmation of that appointment in the form of ceremony performed by the pope, he obviously had no objection to the pope’s taking so important a role. Papal anointment was entirely in accord with Charles’ religious ideas and with the tradition that had been established by his father half a century before. How, then, can it be thought that Charles was unwilling to have the pope give him the imperial crown? He had nothing to fear from Leo, who was completely at his mercy. 
Let us assume, then, that Einhard was either mistaken or deliberately falsifying the record and that Charles never said he did not want the imperial crown. It is a fair assumption, on the evidence, that he did want it, that it represented the culmination of his ambitions and that he willingly accepted the burdens and responsibilities of the title-although perhaps with misgivings and a humility which increasing in him as he approached old age. 
I leave you with these thoughts about our ancestor, Charles, who as The Great. 

Charlemagne, according to his contemporaries, stood about 6’4” in height. Swimming, riding, and hunting-his favorite sports-hardened and toughened the muscles on his robust frame. His hair was fair. His nose was rather long. His eyes were large and lively, his voice high-pitched. He did not wear a long, flowing beard as he has been portrayed in later centuries. It is often said that there are no contemporary portraits of Charlemagne; however, I have with me this evening a replica of a seal, which is in the French Archives in Paris on a document signed by Charles with his familiar monogram Karolus. Around the profile bust of Charlemagne are the words, “XPE Protégé Carolum Rege Francor…Christ Protects Charles, King of the Franks. You are welcome to come up to take a look at it. 
I thank you. 

*Charlemagne from the Hammer to the Cross by Richard Winston, The Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1954 
A member since 6 December 1967, J. Orton Buck is Honorary President General having served from January 1, 1972 to April 11, 1982. He held office in the following societies: Governor General, Hereditary Order of Descendants of Colonial Governors; Secretary, Saint Nicholas Society of the City of New York; Secretary and Treasurer, Society of Colonial Wars in the State of New York and Registrar, Order of Three Crusades 1096-1192 and Registrar, National Society of Americans of Royal Descent.
He is a member of the Society of the Cincinnati in the State of South Carolina, Texas Society of the Order of Founders and Patriots, Colonial Order of the Acorn, Baronial Order of the Magna Charta, Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York, Society of Colonial Wars in the State of New jersey and the New England Society in the City of New York.

A graduate of the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts, Mr. Buck is a member of AAID.