Charlemagne (Charles the Great; from Latin, Carolus Magnus; 742 or 747 – 28 January 814) was the King of the Franks (768–814) who conquered Italy and took the Iron Crown of Lombardy in 774 and, on a visit to Rome in 800, was crowned imperator Romanorum ("Emperor of the Romans") by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day, presaging the revival of the Roman imperial tradition in the West in the form of the Holy Roman Empire. By his foreign conquests and internal reforms, Charlemagne helped define Western Europe and the Middle Ages. His rule is also associated with the Carolingian Renaissance, a revival of the arts and education in the West.
The son of King Pippin the Short and Bertrada of Laon, his original name in the Frankish language was never recorded, but early instances of his name in Latin read "Carolos" or "Karol's". He succeeded his father and co-ruled with his brother Carloman until the latter's death in 771. Charlemagne continued the policy of his father towards the papacy and became its protector, removing the Lombards from power in Italy, and waging war on the Saracens who menaced his realm from Spain. It was during one of these campaigns that he experienced the worst defeat of his life at Roncesvalles (778). He also campaigned against the peoples to his east, especially the Saxons, and after a protracted war subjected them to his rule. By converting them to Christianity, he integrated them into his realm and thus paved the way for the later Ottonian Dynasty.
Today regarded as the founding father of both France and Germany and sometimes as the Father of Europe, as he was the first ruler of a united Western Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire.
The Carolingian dynasty, to which Charlemagne belonged, was a Frankish dynasty which succeeded the Merovingians (see below), The Carolingians ruled over Gaul, western Germany, the Alps, and northern Italy from the mid-eighth century to the end of the tenth century. They rose to power gradually over a long period of time, in the shadow of the Merovingian kings. As early as 687, Pepin of Heristal became mayor of the palace and held all Neustria in his sway. His natural son, Charles Martel (685-741), mayor of the palace to Thierry IV(Merovingen), strengthened his power base and won fame by repulsing the Arabs at Poitiers in 732. Pepin III the Short, Martel's son and father of Charlemagne, worked to consolidate the family's acquisitions, first alongside his brother Carloman, and later alone after his elder brother's abdication in 747. Pepin then united Austrasia and Neustria to become the first Frankish king of the Carolingian line (elected in Soissons in 751). Anointed by St,. Boniface, Pepin assisted Pope Stephen II against the Lombards; from them he wrested the Exarchate of Ravennna and the Pentaplois, which he donated to the Church. His son Charles, or Charlemagne (Great Charles), (742-814) was the true founder of the Carolingian Empire. He was successively King of the Franks, King of the Lombards, then Emperor of the West. Charlemagne initially shared power with his brother Carloman, but when Carloman died in 771, Charlemagne inherited a disparate collection of land holdings where his authority had yet to be firmly established. Still, at his death, in 814, what he left behind was a remarkably well organized and administered empire that stretched from the River Elbe to the Pyrenees. Charlemagne's heir, Louis I the Pious (778-840) proved incapable of maintaining unity owing to the quarrels of his sons. In 843 the Treaty of Verdun formalized the breakup of the Empire: defeated at Fontenoy in 841, son Lothair retained possession only of Italy and Lotharingia (Lorraine), a strip of land running from Provence to Frisia; his brother Louis II, received all of Germany, while Charles the Bald (823-877), the youngest son and born of a second marriage, was allotted Francia occidentalis (western France). Two attempts to restore the empire, one led by Charles the Bald in 875 and another by his nephew, Charles the Fat in 885, both proved fruitless. Although art and culture continued to flourish, an inexorable decline had begun, accentuated by internal rifts and the foreign threats of the Viking invasions. Thereafter each parcel of the former empire followed its separate destiny; and others would afterward take up the legacy.
The Merovingian dynasty, which preceded the Carolingians, was made up of descendants of the Salian Franks and takes its name from Merovech, the ancestor of Clovis the Great (Clovis the Riparian). The power of the first Merovingians was limited originally to the Kingdoms of Cambrai, ruled by Clodio and Tournai which was ruled by Childeric. Clovis the Riparian, son of Childeric, soon extended his authority to all of Gaul. His conversion to Christianity, under the influence of his wife, the Burgundian princess, Clotilda, paved the way for the Gallo-Roman population to recognize and accept him as king. Divided among Clovis' 4 sons, who continued to expand its borders, the kingdom was united once again under Clotaire I. His sons in turn subdivided the legacy, but two of them, Chilperic I, King of Neustria, wedded to Fredegund and Sigibert I, King of Austrasia, married to Brunhild, embarked on a long and savage conflict that lasted until Clotaire II ascended the throne. His son, Dagobert I, reigned until 639. Dagobert's royal treasurer, St. Eligius, established numerous religious houses and charitable institutions in his diocese of Noyon. Around this time the mayors of the palace, who represented the interests of important landowners and royal officials, began to wield increasing power. Mayors of the palace exerted total control over the last Merovingian rulers, impoverished and debauched figureheads known as "rois inineants" (do-nothing-kings), who were gradually supplanted by the Carolingian mayors. The much vaunted Trojan origins of the Franks is a legend that dates back to the 7th century; it was developed by the chroniclers of the Capetian era to enhance the French monarchy's prestige.