13 Facts About Charlemagne

A representation of Charlemagne from the Cathedral of Moulins, France
A representation of Charlemagne from the Cathedral of Moulins, France
Vassil, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Between 768 and 814 CE, Charlemagne—also known as Karl or Charles the Great—ruled an empire that spanned most of Western Europe. After years of relentless warfare, he presided over present-day France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and other territories. The Carolingian Renaissance (a revival named for the dynasty founded by Charlemagne's grandfather) rose out of the bloodshed, with an accelerated artistic and literary output that both celebrated antiquity and pushed for a newly standardized Christian culture. Nevertheless, the might of this empire rested on Charlemagne alone, and after his death it quickly fell apart. Here are 13 facts about the first Holy Roman Emperor.

1. HIS FATHER WASN'T BORN A KING.

Charlemagne's father, Pepin III—often called Pepin the Short—was mayor of the palace (administrator of the royal court) before he was named the first King of the Franks. After a concerted campaign to become ruler, Pepin finally became king in 751, and three years later was officially anointed by the pope, who at the same time anointed Pepin's sons Carloman and Charles (the future Charlemagne) with the holy oil that demonstrated their special status. Pepin III served until 768.

2. HIS BROTHER DIED SOON AFTER BECOMING CO-KING.

After Pepin III died, Charlemagne shared power with his younger brother Carloman, with the two acting as joint kings. It wasn't a smoothly shared reign, however, as evidenced by a 769 episode in which Carloman seemed to undermine Charlemagne's authority by refusing to assist in quashing a revolt in Aquitane. Then, Carloman suddenly died in 771.

Exactly how Carloman perished so conveniently is mysterious. The most common account is that he died of a nosebleed, though what caused it is a matter of debate, with one historian proposing a peptic ulcer as the underlying issue. Whatever the cause, after his death Charlemagne concentrated all of Carloman’s land and power and became the sole King of the Franks.

3. HE IS CONSIDERED THE FATHER OF EUROPE.

As the King of the Franks, Charlemagne set out on an ambitious and bloody campaign to expand his territory. By the time of his death in 814, this kingdom included the majority of what is now considered Western, and some of Central, Europe. Not since the Roman Empire had this much of the continent been controlled by one ruler. Because of this (albeit fragile) unification, Charlemagne is sometimes called the father of Europe.

Over the centuries, the name Charlemagne became associated with European unification, whether through peaceful initiatives such as the European Union or war. For instance, Napoléon Bonaparte, who had his own dreams of empire, declared in 1806: "Je suis Charlemagne"—"I am Charlemagne."

4. BEING CROWNED EMPEROR MAY HAVE BEEN A SURPRISE.

Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor at Christmas mass in 800. Charlemagne had arrived in Rome a few weeks earlier at the request of the pope, but by many accounts, including that of his court scholar Einhard, he was not expecting his new role, and only realized what was happening when the pope put the imperial crown upon his head.

Since the crowning was advantageous to both parties, it's likely there was some partnership behind the event (it's also possible Einhard may have wanted his friend Charlemagne to appear more humble in his biography). Importantly, the coronation recognized Charlemagne as ruler of a Holy Roman Empire, which carried an associated ambition of outdoing the military and cultural achievements of the pagan Roman Empire. It also served to notify Charlemagne's enemies that his domination of Western Europe was sanctioned by the Church.

5. CHURCH MUSIC FLOURISHED DURING HIS REIGN.

Charlemagne loved church music, particularly the liturgical music of Rome. At his request, Pope Hadrian I sent monks from Rome to the court of Aachen to instruct his chapel's choir in 774. This event helped spark the spread of traditional Gregorian chant through the Frankish churches. In 789, Charlemagne also issued a decree to his empire's clergy, instructing them to learn (and sing properly) the Cantus Romanus, or Roman chant. Music schools were also founded under Charlemagne's reign, and monks transcribing music helped preserve the Gregorian chant into the present day.

6. MUCH OF WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT ANTIQUITY IS BECAUSE OF CHARLEMAGNE.

Charlemagne was a fierce proponent of Christianity, yet he had great respect for the culture of pagan antiquity. He also saw his empire as a direct successor to the glory of the Roman world. The scholars of the Carolingian Renaissance discovered and preserved as much of antiquity as possible, and its survival into the modern day is largely thanks to their efforts. On Frankish campaigns, soldiers would bring back ancient Latin literature alongside other loot. Carolingian monks meticulously copied these old texts into new volumes, helping preserve Cicero, Pliny the Younger, Ovid, and Ammianus Marcellinus. Even after Charlemagne’s reign, these European monasteries remained devoted to the preservation of Latin literature and knowledge.

7. CURRENCY WAS STANDARDIZED IN HIS EMPIRE.

As Charlemagne conquered Western Europe, he recognized the need for a standard currency. Instead of a variety of different gold coins, his government produced and disseminated silver coinage that could be traded across the empire—the first common currency on the continent since the Roman era. The currency’s system of dividing a Carolingian pound of pure silver into 240 pieces was so successful that France kept a basic version of it until the French Revolution.

8. HE DRESSED IN COMMON CLOTHES.

Charlemagne was an imposing figure, with a height estimated between 5 feet 10 inches and 6 feet 4 inches, which was quite a bit taller than the average male height at the time. Yet he wasn't showy in his style. According to Einhard, he dressed in the ordinary clothes of the Frankish people, with a blue cloak over his tunic, linen shirt, and long hose. The one bit of flash he always had was a sword, worn on a belt of gold or silver. To dress up for special occasions, he'd sport a jeweled sword.

He also was not fond of flamboyant dress in the people around him. An anecdotal tale from the 9th-century De Carolo Magno relates how he spent a whole day tormenting some courtiers who returned from a festival decked out in silk and ribbons. He made them go hunting with him without a chance to change their clothes, and immediately upon returning had them attending him into the night. The next morning he ordered them to return, dressed in their wrecked finery, and ridiculed them for demeaning themselves by wearing such impractical clothes.

9. HE HAD MANY WIVES AND CHILDREN.

Amidst all those years riding around Europe waging war, Charlemagne somehow found time to get married to five different women and have relationships with several concubines. He fathered around 18 children. If there was one soft spot in the emperor's heart, it was for his kids, as he supported the education of both his sons and daughters. He didn't allow any of his daughters to get married during his lifetime—not necessarily to protect them from rakes like him, but probably because these marriages would have raised the status of their husband’s families too much for his comfort.

10. HIS ONE MAJOR DEFEAT WAS IMMORTALIZED IN POETRY.

Charlemagne's first campaign to conquer Spain was a disaster, culminating in his only major military defeat. After his army entered the Iberian Peninsula in 778, having been promised an alliance by Sulaiman Ibn al-Arabi in Barcelona that could spread Christendom into the Muslim territory, they made quick progress into the south towards Zaragoza. There, things went wrong. The governor, Hussain Ibn al-Ansari, resisted the Franks, and after some negotiation, offered gold in exchange for a Frankish retreat. Charlemagne accepted and left, destroying the defensive walls of Pamplona on the way back so they could not be used as a base for attack against his men.

As they moved through the wooded Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees, Charlemagne's forces were ambushed, mostly by Basques who may have been angered by the wreckage of Pamplona or their ill treatment by Charlemagne’s soldiers. Unfamiliar with the mountainous landscape, the Frankish rear guard was overwhelmed, losing many lives, including the prefect of Breton, Roland. The bold Roland was immortalized and mythologized in the medieval epic poem The Song of Roland, one of the oldest surviving examples of French literature.

11. HIS NAME NOW MEANS "KING."

Charlemagne's given name (Karl in German) was bestowed by his parents in honor of his grandfather, Charles Martel, and derives from the German for "free man." While in German kerl is understood to mean "guy," elsewhere variants of the name karl have come to mean "king." From the Czech král to the Polish król to the Lithuanian karalius to the Latvian karalis, languages all over Europe have traces of his influence in their word for king. Charlemagne's notoriety also popularized the name Charles throughout much of Europe, where it remains common today.

12. HE ORDERED A MASSACRE THAT BECAME NAZI PROPAGANDA.

Over three decades, Charlemagne warred against the Saxons in today’s northwest Germany. Most notoriously, in 782 he is said to have ordered the execution of around 4500 Saxons. Under his rule, any members of the pagan Germanic tribe who didn't convert to Christianity were also put to death.

The massacre gained new historical prominence in the 20th century, after the Nazis built a stone monument in 1935—the Sachsenhain memorial—remembering its victims. Charlemagne was reframed as an enemy of traditional Germanic culture and an example of the evils of the Catholic Church. Some 4500 stones were erected at the site where the Saxons were believed to have been killed. This demonization of Charlemagne was brief, however, and by 1942 the Nazis were celebrating the 1200th anniversary of his birth as a symbol of German superiority. The units of French volunteers who served in the German Schutzstaffel (SS) during World War II were named the Charlemagne Regiment.

13. THE EMPIRE FELL AFTER HIM.

Charlemagne died in 814, and his empire didn’t live on much longer. All of the strength of his government radiated from his reputation and the threat of war if he was not obeyed. The Frankish tradition was to divide power equally among male heirs, and although Charlemagne's only surviving legitimate son was Louis the Pious, he died in 840. The empire was soon separated between Louis's three sons. These three kingdoms continued to break down until the deposition of Charles III in 887, at which point most of the Carolingian power was gone. Not a century after his death, Charlemagne’s empire was no more.

16 Things You Might Not Know About William Shakespeare

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Despite his many contributions to English literature, surprisingly little is known about William Shakespeare’s life. For the past four centuries, historians have had the difficult task of piecing together the Bard's biography with only a handful of old legal documents. Here's what we do know about the celebrated actor, poet, and playwright, who was born on this day in 1564.

1. Shakespeare's writing was likely influenced by his father's legal troubles.

When Shakespeare was about 5 years old, his father, John—a glovemaker—was accused of illegal money-lending and wool-dealing by Crown informers. The ordeal plunged the elder Shakespeare into legal troubles that would plague him for the next decade. "William grew to adulthood in a household where his father had fallen in social and economic rank," historian Glyn Parry told The Guardian. Parry argued that the experience likely shaped Shakespeare's attitudes toward power, class, and the monarchy—major themes in his future works.

2. Shakespeare got married because of an unexpected pregnancy.

Shakespeare was 18 when he learned that Anne Hathaway, 26, was pregnant with his first child. The couple quickly decided to marry in November 1582 and greeted daughter Susanna in May 1583. Two years later, they had twins Judith and Hamnet. Unfortunately, Shakespeare has no living direct descendants: Hamnet died at age 11, probably a victim of some disease; Judith outlived her three children; and Susanna had one daughter, Elizabeth, who was childless.

3. Nobody knows what Shakespeare did between 1585 and 1592.

After the birth of his twins, Shakespeare fell off the map for seven years. One unsubstantiated theory (and there are many) suggests that he supported his family by working as a lawyer or legal clerk. Indeed, Shakespeare's plays show an impressive grasp of legal knowledge. "No dramatist of the time … used legal phrases with Shakespeare's readiness and exactness," wrote 19th-century literary critic Richard Grant White. (High praise considering that Shakespeare once wrote, "Let's kill all the lawyers.")

4. Shakespeare was, first and foremost, an actor.

An engraving of Shakespeare by E Scriven, after Humphrey's drawing known as the 'Chandos portrait,' circa 1590.
An engraving of Shakespeare by E Scriven, after Humphrey's drawing known as the 'Chandos portrait,' circa 1590.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Shakespeare became an actor at a time when the job was considered downright unsavory. "[A]ctors were already marked as undesirables by England's vagrancy laws, which mandated that traveling troupes had to find aristocratic patronage," John Paul Rollert wrote in The Atlantic. "Rogue players ran the risk of being flogged, branded, and finally hanged." Little is known of Shakespeare's acting chops, but it's believed Shakespeare favored playing "kingly parts," including the ghost in his own Hamlet.

5. Shakespeare may have participated in organized crime.

In the 1590s, many of London's theaters operated as shady fronts for organized crime. (The Lord Mayor of London decried the theater—and specifically plans for the new Swan Theatre, where Shakespeare may have briefly worked—as a meeting spot for "thieves, horse-stealers, whoremongers, cozeners, conny-catching persons, practisers of treason, and such other like.") In 1596, Swan Theater owner Francis Langley accused William Gardiner and his stepson William Wayte of making death threats. Soon after, Wayte retaliated with the same accusations against Langley and—for some reason—William Shakespeare. This has led historian Mike Dash to suggest that Shakespeare may have been involved in some unspoken criminal activity.

6. Shakespeare was a matchmaker (and a marital peace-maker).

It may be no surprise that the author of Romeo and Juliet had a penchant for bringing lovers together: He once helped arrange the marriage of his landlord's daughter. The only reason we know this, however, is because the marriage had a rocky start. When a dispute over the dowry boiled over, Shakespeare had to go to court to act as a character witness for his landlord, whom he called a "very honest fellow." The transcript is the only record of Shakespeare speaking.

7. The first printed reference to Shakespeare as a playwright was an insult.

The first mention of William Shakespeare as a playwright appeared in 1592, when the dramatist Robert Greene (or possibly Henry Chettle) called him an "upstart Crow [who] … supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you." (In other words: A jack-of-all-trades, and a master of none.) Future reviewers would offer kinder words; in 1598, the critic Francis Meres called him "mellifluous and honey-tongued."

8. Shakespeare likely helped steal a theater, piece by piece.

In 1596, the Theatre in Shoreditch—where Shakespeare cut his teeth as an actor—went dark. The lease for the property on which it was built had expired, and Shakespeare's acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, were forced to take their show elsewhere. Two years later, the former owners hatched a crazy plan to take their playhouse back. One winter night in 1598, a group armed themselves with swords and axes, snuck into the theater, and began dismantling the playhouse piece by piece—although it would take more than one night to demolish it. While there's no evidence that Shakespeare joined the crew, he certainly knew about the raid. Eventually, parts of the playhouse would go into the construction of a new theater just south of the River Thames. Its new name? The Globe.

9. Only one handwritten script of Shakespeare's exists.

Five examples of the autograph of English playwright William Shakespeare, circa 1610.
Five examples of the autograph of William Shakespeare, circa 1610.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Anyone interested in studying the Bard's cramped handwriting has only one reliable place to look—the original draft of the Book of Sir Thomas More, a politically-charged play that targeted, in-part, xenophobia in England. Written mainly by dramatist Anthony Munday, the play was completed with the help of four fellow playwrights. One of them, presumed to be Shakespeare, helped write a stirring monologue in which the lead character asks an anti-immigrant mob to imagine themselves as refugees.

Say now the king …
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour?

The play, by the way, would not be performed. Censors believed it could start a riot.

10. Shakespeare might have experimented with drugs.

Shakespeare might have had some, well, experience with drugs. According to analyses by South African scientists, a handful of 400-year-old clay tobacco pipes excavated from the playwright's Stratford garden contained potential evidence of cannabis (although the study authors noted that "Unequivocal evidence for Cannabis has not been obtained"). Other pipes nearby contained remnants of cocaine and hallucinogens. (There's no evidence that any of these pipes belonged to Shakespeare, but it does indicate that "narcotics were accessible" at the time, the Telegraph reports.)

11. Shakespeare may have been a tax cheat.

In the late 16th century, English residents had to pay a tax on personal wealth called a lay subsidy. In 1597, Shakespeare was supposed to pay a tax of five shillings. The following year, he was supposed to pay a larger tax of 13 shillings and 4 pence. Documents show that the Bard never paid the piper. (His reasons are a matter of speculation, but it could have been a clerical error because he'd already moved away from the parish.)

12. Shakespeare was a grain hoarder.

According to the UK Parliament, between 1604 and 1914 over 5200 enclosure bills were enacted, which restricted the use of vital, publicly-used farmland. Ensuing riots in 1607, called the Midland Revolts, coincided with a period of devastating food shortages. It appears that Shakespeare responded to the situation by hoarding grain. According to the Los Angeles Times, he "purchased and stored grain, malt and barley for resale at inflated prices to his neighbors and local tradesmen."

13. The Globe Theatre burned down during a performance of one of Shakespeare's plays.

An 1647 engraving by Hollar of Shakespeare's Globe theatre.
An 1647 engraving by Hollar of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
Rischgitz, Getty Images

On June 29, 1613, a prop cannon caused a fire at the Globe Theatre during a performance of Henry VIII. Sparks landed on the thatched roof and flames quickly spread. "It kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very ground," a witness Sir Henry Wotton claimed. According to The Telegraph, "the only reported injury was a man whose flaming breeches were eventually put out using a handy bottle of ale."

14. Shakespeare laid a curse upon his own grave.

When Shakespeare died in 1616, grave-robbing was extremely common. To ensure he'd rest through eternity peacefully, the Bard is believed to have penned this curse, which appears on his gravestone.

Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To digg the dust Encloased heare:
Bleste be [the] man [that] spares these stones,
And curst be he [that] moves my bones.

Unfortunately, somebody apparently ignored the dead man's foreboding words. In 2016, researchers scanned the grave with ground-penetrating radar and discovered that grave robbers might have stolen Shakespeare's skull.

15. Shakespeare's legacy has killed a lot of trees.

And we're not just talking about the millions of copies of books that have been printed with Shakespeare's name on them. In 1762, an anonymous magazine writer claimed that a drunken Shakespeare, after an evening out on the town, once spent the night sleeping under a crabtree in Bidford-upon-Avon. The story is probably a legend, but that never stopped souvenir-hungry Shakespeare lovers from flocking to the famed crabtree and picking it to pieces. By 1824, the tree was nothing but a stump and had to be uprooted.

16. Shakespeare's legacy lived on thanks to two fellow actors.

The cover of a 1623 collection of Shakespeare's works.
Rischgitz, Getty Images

Shortly after Shakespeare died, two of his longtime friends and colleagues—John Heminge and Henry Condell—edited Shakespeare's plays and collected them in a 1623 book titled Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. That same book, now called the First Folio, helped preserve Shakespeare's work for the coming generations and is widely considered one of the most significant books printed in English.

The Time the U.S. Government Planned to Nuke Alaska

iStock.com/mesut zengin
iStock.com/mesut zengin

In the 1950s, the idea of harnessing nuclear power was a bit of a public relations disaster. The world at large knew nuclear bombs only as tools of mass death and destruction. But if the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)—later the Department of Energy—had its way, nuclear explosions would have been reinvented as peacetime assets to humanity.

As proof of concept, the AEC planned to nuke Alaska.

Atlas Obscura details the plot, which reads almost as farce. In the late 1950s, the AEC was developing Project Plowshare, a plan to repurpose thermonuclear weapons to change the literal face of the Earth. Imagine blasting through mountains to create railways or widening the Panama Canal. The instantaneous landscape shifts caused by such weapons were economically attractive—saving on labor costs—and might also provide access to natural resources like oil. The excavation and fracking potential seemed limitless.

In 1958, the AEC and physicist Edward Teller proposed the first step in this bold new direction: Project Chariot. The plan was to detonate a 1-megaton H-bomb near Cape Thompson in Alaska along with several other, smaller explosions to create a crater 1000 feet in diameter and 110 feet deep. The resulting deepwater harbor would facilitate mineral mining and fishing access. The U.S. government rhapsodized about the idea in the media, claiming the then-contemporary weapons had low fallout and would create a port that would be nothing but a net gain for Alaskans.

Residents, however, met these plans with a degree of skepticism. The Inuit population who lived nearby and would have to cope with the radioactive consequences of such a scheme voiced their opposition to the idea. They pointed to earlier test blasts that showed radioactivity showering the vicinity. In 1954, a blast in the Bikini Atoll had a nuclear fallout of 7000 square miles in the Pacific Ocean. Owing to such tests, the Inuit were already demonstrating heightened radioactivity levels. So were the caribou they ingested. The notion of a “clean” nuclear bomb was something no one wanted to test with their own life.

Project Chariot never materialized, and the idea of wielding nuclear power to replace manual labor was laid to rest by 1977.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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