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Charlemagne and His System of Government

Charlemagne’s reign and the system of government he developed were somewhat of a bridge or transition between Roman concepts and practices and those of Germanic tribes. Importantly, many elements of his system would become part of the foundation of the medieval system of government, military, organization, and jurisprudence.

When the young Charlemagne inherited his share of the Frankish lands in 771 he intended to further the achievements of his grandfather Charles Martel and his father Pepin the Short. In fact he was responsible for establishing the largest empire in Europe since the demise of the Western half of the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD (Roberts, 1996 p. 107). As a consequence of military success Charlemagne had to alter how his territories were governed due to his imperial expansion not to mention the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed the military campaigns of Charlemagne meant that large areas of Western Europe came under his own personnel rule and his variation of erstwhile Roman administrative practices and Germanic customs (Sebag Montefiore, 2009 p. 73).

In many respects expansion meant that Charlemagne had to put a more coherent system of government into place. His system of government was based around the imperial court in his new capital city of Aachen (Lenman, 2004 p.374). At the court Charlemagne relied upon aristocratic / military leaders as well as senior members of the clergy to ensure that all parts of his empire were run according to his wishes (Roberts, 1996 p. 110). As was usually the case in Medieval Western Europe the backbone of Charlemagne’s military strength had been his original Germanic subjects especially the aristocracy, which formed the nucleus of his heavy cavalry units (Marsh & Carrick, 2007 p.530).

There were practical reasons, which explain why Charlemagne’s system of government was based upon a mixture of Germanic customs and also Roman laws. Charlemagne was a man who viewed the establishment of a stable system of government as a means of controlling his diverse imperial territories during his own reign and in the reigns of his future successors (Roberts, 1996 p. 112). Ironically this system relied upon originally pagan Germanic practices and secular Roman laws as a means of strengthening Christianity, which in turn Charlemagne was determined to make the main ingredient in binding his empire together. Charlemagne hoped that the Christian religion would reinforce his subjects’ loyalty towards him as their king and later as the Holy Roman Emperor (March & Carrick, 2007 p. 531).

Charlemagne’s system of government made wide use of the Christian church and its most senior clergy, as these were the people that were well – educated. Charlemagne spread Christianity to the previously pagan parts of his new empire and then used senior clerics to effectively administer those areas (Sebag Montefiore, 2009 p. 73). The Roman Catholic Church were content to assist with Charlemagne’s system of government after all this powerful king’s conquest of Saxony and victories against the Lombards in Italy had spread Christianity and also strengthened the Papacy (Roberts, 1996 p. 110).


Lenman B, (2004) Chambers Dictionary of World History, Edinburgh

Marsh & W B & Carrick B, (2007) Great Stories From History, Icon Books UK & Totem Books USA

Roberts J.M, (1996) A History of Europe, Penguin, London

Sebag Montefiore S, (2009) Heroes – History’s Greatest Men and Women, Quercus, London

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