The True History of Charlemagne
We write a lot about the emperor Charlemagne in the Trumpet. If you have been reading our articles for any length of time, you have probably run across this quote from Otto von Habsburg, son of the last Austrian emperor: “We possess a European symbol which belongs to all nations of Europe equally. This is the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, which embodies the tradition of Charlemagne.”
In our magazine, we emphasize how Charlemagne converted Europe to Catholicism with the sword. If you read most articles and books about Charlemagne today, however, they emphasize Charlemagne’s efforts in culture and education—not his bloody wars.
These days, Charlemagne receives little attention in history classes worldwide—especially outside of Europe.
I received an e-mail recently from someone who was questioning the apparent contradiction between modern accounts of Charlemagne and what we write in the Trumpet. Apart from our website and magazine, everything this person has read about Charlemagne highlights the cultural achievements of his reign—not the violence he used to forge his empire.
Perhaps some of you in our Trumpet audience have the same question.
So who was Charlemagne, really? The true history of Charlemagne is essential knowledge in order to understand Europe’s past, its present and its future. It also makes today’s European news events so much more significant. We must know this history, or we will be missing the important context we need to properly watch and pray.
If you’ve read about Charlemagne in our magazine and want to know more, this article is for you.
In A History of Christianity, Paul Johnson writes about Charlemagne’s empire: “It laid the foundations for the complementary concepts of Christendom and Europe. It projected, in broad outline, the directions which European institutions and culture would take. And it determined in embryo many of the aspects of the world we live in now. We are right to regard the total Christianity of the Carolingian age as one of the great formative phases of human history” (emphasis added throughout).
Consider the Europe that Charlemagne was born into. For hundreds of years before he was born, Europe was ruled by the Roman Empire, which did an outstanding job of assimilating the provinces it conquered. Under Rome, there was relative peace in Europe, or Pax Romana. That peace was underpinned by an incredible brutality, however—a fact that is often overlooked. When Caesar conquered the land that is France today in the Gallic Wars, about a million Gauls were killed and another million taken as slaves. If you consider how much smaller the population of Europe was at that time, that is a historic death toll.
Pax Romana came to an end when the Roman Empire crumbled during the a.d. 400s. Rome’s rule disintegrated, its legions retreated, and the western leg of the empire fell to Germanic kings. However, Roman culture, tradition, language and religion still survived in this area during the time known as the Dark Ages.
Without a single political power in charge, Europe was overrun by warring powers. In the a.d. 500s and 600s, a Germanic tribe called the Franks moved into the territory now known as France and established an empire. The eastern leg of the Roman Empire became the Byzantine Empire, headquartered at Constantinople.
Beginning in the early 700s, Islam began making inroads into Europe, pushing first against the Byzantine Empire and then coming in through Spain. Muslims tried to invade France in the 730s, but they were blocked by Charles Martel, or Charles the Hammer, the leader of the Franks at the time. Charles Martel’s grandson was Charlemagne.
“Frank” sounds a lot like “France,” but this tribe was Germanic. This is why both France and Germany claim Charlemagne.
Charlemagne the Man
Charlemagne was born around 740. His father was Pepin, king of the Franks. Recently, the Local wrote in “How Charlemagne Was the Original Fighter for European Unity”:
Along with his brother, Carloman, and encouraged by his father, Pepin, Charlemagne spent his adolescence and early adulthood involved in both military conquests expanding Frankish control and suppressing rebellions, until the death of Pepin in 768. At that point, Carloman and Charles became co-regents, ruling the Frankish kingdoms together, for three years until Carloman died. …
Charles would then spend the next few decades taking his forces down into the Iberian Peninsula and, closer to home, eastwards into the territory held by the Saxons.
In a series of bloody actions … nobles and local dignitaries were made to swear allegiance or be put to the sword.
Some chroniclers suggest that the sword was often used anyway.
Now, as the first “Holy Roman Emperor,” Charles or “Charlemagne” (“Charles the Great”) had the kind of unified control over the European continent that hadn’t been seen in more than three centuries.
The Local did a good job of emphasizing the bloody beginning of Charlemagne’s reign. However, for the rest of the article, it emphasized the positives: “When Charlemagne died in 814, he left a European continent more unified, more stable than it had been since the fall of Rome.”
In The Holy Roman Empire in Prophecy, we explain this apparent dichotomy:
To many, the image of an enlightened ruler promoting culture and education for all seems incompatible with a violent warrior converting thousands by the sword. But Charlemagne’s example teaches us an important lesson: Culture and peace do not always go together. Modern Europe may appear to be a cultured and sophisticated group of nations. But as history reveals, that does not mean it is immune to Charlemagne’s style of violence.
You can see this apparent contradiction throughout Europe’s history. Europe is arguably the most cultured continent in history, and also arguably the most violent and destructive. You can see both aspects of the human spirit there. Charlemagne did focus on learning, education and unifying Europe—but histories of his reign tend to rivet on those things and gloss over the blood and gore that made all of it possible.
This combination of brutality and culture was the hallmark of Charlemagne’s reign, and of the leaders of the Holy Roman Empire throughout the ages.
Charlemagne used two primary tactics for uniting Europe: force and religion.
Charlemagne the Warrior
Warfare History Network published a more balanced article on Charlemagne in its recent article about the “Frankish Disaster in Saxony,” telling the story of Charlemagne’s violent war on the Saxons in the late 700s. His own brother wrote, “Never was there a war more prolonged or crueler than this, nor one that required greater efforts on the part of the Frankish peoples.”
When Saxon leader Widukind led his men to rebel against Charlemagne’s rule and outsmarted his troops at the Battle of Suntel, Charlemagne exacted a terrible retribution on them: He had 4,500 Saxon prisoners executed. Tom Holland describes the general pattern of destruction in his book Millennium:
Warfare had long been the activity of choice among the Franks. Back in the days of Childeric, it had served to win them Gaul, after all. Leaders who failed to provide their followers with the spoils of pillage rarely endured for long. No sooner had winter thawed into spring than the Frankish people, dusting down their spears, would prepare to follow their king out on campaign. Charlemagne, whose hunger for booty was insatiable, had inherited to the full the appetites of a primordial line of warrior-chiefs.
Charlemagne was born a warrior, and he was good at it. Holland discusses Charlemagne’s view of himself as a new David, the head of a new chosen people with the sanction of God. Holland continues:
It was in the perfect consciousness of this that Charlemagne made the wastes of Saxony to flow with pagan blood; that he spread even among the barbarous Slavs who swarmed on the outer reaches of the world awful rumors of the wrath and terror of his name; that he returned every autumn from his campaigns with lumbering wagon trains of booty, spoils with which to strengthen the Christian order throughout his vast domains.
It’s no wonder that you don’t hear about this part of Charlemagne’s reign when European leaders glorify his history. Charlemagne wanted to spread Christianity across Europe, and he did it through warfare. Encyclopedia Britannica agrees: “The violent methods by which this missionary task was carried out had been unknown to the earlier Middle Ages, and the sanguinary [bloody] punishment meted out to those who broke canon law or continued to engage in pagan practices called forth criticism in Charles’s own circle.”
So even some of Charlemagne’s advisers questioned his methods, or at least the degree of bloodshed he inflicted. But without this brute force, Charlemagne would not have been able to unite Europe. His tactic was force, something today’s politicians don’t want to talk about.
Charlemagne the Catholic
The other pillar that Charlemagne used to hold his empire together was the Catholic Church. He used religion to unify the many peoples he conquered into one empire, whether they liked it or not. One reason for this is the influence of his father Pepin.
Pepin did not start out as king of the Franks, although he held a high position in the Frankish leadership. But Pepin wasn’t satisfied with that. He wrote a letter to the pope questioning whether Frankish King Childeric iii was the rightful king. The pope decided that Childeric was not and then declared Pepin king of the Franks instead. He was anointed by Catholic priests in 751 in a ceremony patterned after the coronation of Israelite kings David and Solomon. Three years later, the pope repeated the ceremony to make it even more official.
Donald Bullough wrote in The Age of Charlemagne:
Phrases like “revolutionary happenings,” “a decisive moment in European history” are easy to write, less easy to justify. Yet the direct involvement of the bishop of Imperial Rome in a change of royal dynasty among a Germanic people, the association of a religious ceremony with the making of a king, and the unavoidable political consequences of a closer link between the papacy and the largest of the Romano-Germanic kingdoms surely warranted such language, even if the son and successor of Pepin had not turned out to be the man he was.
Pepin was indebted to the pope for his kingship. This cemented a historic connection between the head of the Frankish kingdom and the pope. In 799, Pope Leo iii was kidnapped by conspirators and thrown into prison. After he was rescued, he fled to Charlemagne, who served as his protector from that point forward. Soon afterward, the pope crowned Charlemagne “the 73rd emperor of the fourth world empire,” referring to the Holy Roman Empire.
Charlemagne forcibly converted tens of thousands of Franks to Catholicism. There were strict laws throughout his domain enforcing Catholic worship. The penalty for worshiping any other way was death. (For comparison, the penalty for murder in Charlemagne’s kingdom was to pay compensation to the victim’s family—unless you killed a priest, a crime that received the death penalty.) All children had to be baptized before they were a year old. Unauthorized public meetings were outlawed. The only legal assemblies were government-sanctioned functions and church services.
Charlemagne also helped unify the Catholic Church itself. The Holy Roman Empire in Prophecy states:
Prior to Charlemagne, in each of the various regions of Europe, the local Catholic Church celebrated Sunday services with its own local customs. When Charlemagne arrived, he made it policy to use the liturgy from Rome. Throughout his empire, the Sunday service was observed in the same way it was at Rome. Now that Western Europe was united under one empire, the emperor could ensure that “Christianity” was practiced uniformly.
Under the pope’s direction, Charlemagne streamlined the observance of Catholicism throughout Europe, ensuring it was looking to Rome. He also relied on the church to regulate the lives of his subjects. “Bishops, abbots, priests and monks were the king’s chief agents,” writes Johnson. “Royal officials were selected from among the higher clergy, and Charlemagne and his successors expanded and developed the use of church councils as legislative and executive organs. … Through the church, the Carolingian age legislated in enormous detail on every aspect of conduct, especially on economic, family and sexual relationships” [A History of Christianity].
Charlemagne used church officials in his government administration. Appointing priests to positions of power instead of noblemen prevented the possibility of noblemen passing their power on to their children and creating a dynasty that could overthrow him. Priests were not yet required to be celibate—but it was much harder to pass a religious title on to your children than a secular one. Charlemagne would have been very aware of this risk, since that was exactly how his father became king. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church benefited from having positions of power throughout the empire.
Charlemagne also patronized the arts and used the church to establish a common culture in Europe. In The Coronation of Charlemagne, Robert Folz wrote: “His thirst for knowledge was tremendous; he was curious to know and understand everything. His political genius likewise enabled him to see the need for promoting culture if his kingdom was to acquire the splendor and prestige of the ancient world.”
Charlemagne used Catholic priests as the chief educators in his empire. He improved the education of the clergy so they could instruct the general public and establish schools to increase literacy rates. Johnson writes: “His aim, especially in the last decades of his life, was enormously to expand the literate manpower of empire, to create a clergy capable not only of evangelizing the new Christians he had brought under his rule, but of deepening the knowledge of Christianity everywhere.”
Christianity tied the empire together, creating a common culture and religion that everyone could look to.
Charlemagne and Today
Studying how Charlemagne ruled and unified Europe tells us a lot about the path that Europe will walk down again in the very near future. It’s no coincidence that news sites like the Local are writing articles about an emperor who died more than a millennium ago.
The Bible indicates that there is a deep connection between the European empire that is rising now and the tradition of Charlemagne. Revelation 17 describes seven successive resurrections of the Holy Roman Empire. Each of the seven resurrections follows in the footsteps of the last. Charlemagne’s Frankish Kingdom was the second resurrection of this empire.
The chapter also reveals that this seven-headed beast is ridden by a woman, which is the biblical symbol for a church. This is not a righteous woman; she is “drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (verse 6). This is exactly the church-state relationship we saw in Charlemagne’s kingdom. The pope crowned Charlemagne as holy Roman emperor. Charlemagne used the church to unite his empire. He used the sword to wipe out religious dissidents and establish Catholicism as the religion of the empire.
This same church-state relationship was evident in the following four resurrections of the Holy Roman Empire that have come and gone. (Read our booklets Daniel Unlocks Revelation and Who or What Is the Prophetic Beast? to understand more about this history.) Revelation 17 shows us that this pattern will continue one last time in the seventh resurrection.
Verse 10 says, “And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come ….” Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry wrote in “The Holy Roman Empire Goes Public—Big Time!” in the October 2018 Trumpet:
This verse is key to understanding the timing of the next resurrection of the Holy Roman Empire. God says that after five are fallen, He would send someone to explain this prophecy. This was Herbert W. Armstrong. Mr. Armstrong came on the scene as Adolf Hitler was leading the sixth resurrection of the Holy Roman Empire, which is the “one is” in verse 10. When the meaning of Revelation 17 was revealed, during the time of the sixth resurrection, the seventh resurrection had “not yet come.”
Today, however, the revival of that empire is happening!
And remarkably, as they are reviving it, Europeans are doing something they have never done since the vile and murderous sixth head: They are publicizing the Holy Roman Empire! They don’t publicize what Adolf Hitler did; too many people remember that bloody history. Instead they cloak it in the tradition of Charlemagne.
If you have not read it yet, I strongly encourage you to read that article by Mr. Flurry. In it, he explained why romanticizing the history of Charlemagne is so dangerous—and where that kind of picking and choosing from history will soon lead. He also showed how short time is and how essential it is to understand the true history of the Holy Roman Empire.
To gain a more detailed understanding of Charlemagne, read Chapter 3 of The Holy Roman Empire in Prophecy.