Charlemagne was probably born in Aachen, Germany. The dates of his birth vary from 742 to either 747 or 748. In 768 he inherited the kingdom of the Franks with his brother (who died a few years later leaving Charlemagne sole ruler). At the time Europe was in turmoil with the Frankish kingdom beginning to fracture, the Saxons causing problems in the north and in Italy, the Lombards had invaded and were pressing on towards Rome and the Papal States.
Known for his piety as much as his brutality, in 770 Charlemagne began a 30 year military campaign to unify Europe and kill non-Christians. In 773 he was invited by Pope Hadrian I to help defeat the Lombards; Charlemagne subsequently entered Italy. Initially he tried to bargain with the Lombard king Desiderius for him to return lands taken from the Papacy but when this was refused Charlemagne went to war.
A brilliant military strategist and organiser, Charlemagne soon removed the Lombard threat.
On Christmas Day in 800, while Charlemagne knelt in prayer in Saint Peter's in Rome, Pope Leo III took a golden crown from the altar and placed it on the bowed head of the king. Charlemagne is said to have been surprised by the coronation, declaring that he would not have come into the church had he known the pope's plan. However, most historians agree that the pope would not have dared to act without Charlemagne's knowledge.
The coronation was the foundation of the Holy Roman Empire and although Charlemagne did not use the title, he is considered the first Holy Roman Emperor.
At Charlemagne's death in 814 only one of his three sons, Louis, was living. His weak rule led to the breakup of the Empire.
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