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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: June 2014

4 - Inventing the Carolingian empire: politics and government, 800–840



Very early in the year 814, having endured a winter of fevers and pains in his side, Charlemagne took to his deathbed. Abstaining from food, as he was accustomed to do when sick, the sixty-five-year-old ruler tried to fight off his illness armed with ‘nothing more than an occasional drink’. A week later, on 28 January at 9 o'clock in the morning, he died. Charlemagne's friend and biographer Einhard tells us that without delay, the emperor's body was washed and prepared for burial. Later that same day he was placed in a late antique imperial sarcophagus obtained from Italy and interred under the west entrance of the church in his principal palace at Aachen while all present wept. To judge by a lavish lament written shortly afterwards by a monk from the Italian monastery of Bobbio, their tears were shared by mourners across the empire: ‘Francia has endured awful wounds / But never has suffered such great sorrow as now / Alas for miserable me.’

The hyperbole used to describe his people's grief should probably be taken with a pinch of salt, and serves as an index of how quickly after his death Charlemagne passed into the realms of mythical greatness. Nonetheless, people taking stock of his final achievements in the immediate aftermath of his death would probably have been inclined to dwell on three major landmarks. One was Charlemagne's most famous act, his coronation as emperor on Christmas Day 800 in Rome. This resonant event seems in retrospect to represent the high-point of his reign, setting the seal on the territory he had acquired, reinforcing his alliance with the papacy and opening a new imperial epoch in European history. Another was the winding down of the wars of expansion in the early years of the ninth century, drawing to a successful close the annual cycles of war and aggression that had characterised Frankish politics since the age of Charles Martel. Thirdly and finally, shortly before his final illness Charlemagne bequeathed the Frankish empire, secured, stabilised and ennobled by the lustre of Rome, to his last surviving son Louis (‘the Pious’) with the consent of all the leading men.

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