Charlemagne and leadership

Charlemagne was King of the Francs. He continues to be studied as a charismatic leader, even more than 1,200 years since his death and burial in the Aachen Cathedral, located in Western Germany. He may have been more Belgian than French, but under his rule, the Francs became a unified people and controlled the territory of modern France. Because of Charlemagne’s leadership qualities, his life continues to be studied by modern researchers.

Aachan Cathedral site of Charlemagne's remains.

Remains of Charlemagne are in the Aachan Cathedral, in Aachen Germany.

Charlemagne is known as Charles the Great, King of the Franks (Roi des Francs), and the Father of Europe. He was born in AD 742 and died in 814, at 71 years of age. After his father Pepin died, Charlemagne united much of western and central Europe during the Early Middle Ages.  He was educated to be fluent in Latin, but he also learned to speak in a vernacular French, when addressing his soldiers.  (French had begun to differentiate as a separate language from Latin during the Middle Ages.)

My interest in Charlemagne began in earnest when my husband and I had the occasion to twice visit Aachen, Germany, where Charlemagne’s remains are now confirmed to be buried, in the Aachen Cathedral.  When we were visiting the historic shrine, the myth about his remains being interred in the sanctuary was all that was known. But, in 2014, German archaeologists pretty much confirmed what legend told about Charlemagne being buried in the cathedral.  Of course, in the absence of DNA evidence, there is always the outlier chance that the scientifically studied remains could be those of somebody else. Nevertheless, the remains are probably Charlemagne’s because certain physical anomalies matched up with those described by his biographer, Einhard, who knew him during his life. (Einhard was a Frankish scholar and dedicated servant of Charlemagne.)

Although Charlemagne’s legacy about his many military campaigns and leadership challenges have been documented by hundreds of historians, “Charlemagne”, by Richard Winston, originally published in 1954, and republished in an electronic book in 2015, is an easy read. I am enjoying Winston’s excellent telling of Charlemagne’s life, because the narrative is a succinctly written legacy. 

While reading the Winston biography, I was struck by Charlemagne’s skillful leadership. He was able to pull off a series of successful military and diplomatic accomplishments during a time when tribal conflicts consumed the European continent. An overriding accomplishment that transcended Charlemagne’s life was his ability to unite people.  In fact, he often united people like the Lombards by employing good diplomacy; but he was certainly a respected military leader.

Charlemagne and Aachan Cathedral

Portrait of Charlemagne and the Aachan Cathedral.

Moreover, a history researcher named George Blay wrote a biographical essay titled, “The Leadership Role played by Charlemagne in the Expansion of the Frankish kingdom and the Church”. He described how Charlemagne possessed certain leadership skills that helped him to play a unique role in his (Middle Ages) generation and to “leave a mark in the history of the humankind”.

Blay highlighted Charlemagne’s leadership in his documented essay.

  1. Leadership in military campaigns:  He was a leader with a vision and he used the best available military strategies to ensure the territorial expansion of his kingdom. He also had a vision of why this expansion was needed. In fact, Charlemagne had a vision about how to create a unified Christian society.  He was particularly determined to convert the Saxons to become Christians.
  2. Leadership in diplomacy: He had confidence in his ability to influence people. He established formal relationships with powerful emperors and received foreign envoys from Byzantine (Constantinople), Persia, Jerusalem and others.  Also, he entered into peaceful negotiations, and trade agreements with political leaders and with the Pope.
  3. Communications leadership: Charlemagne was conscious of the power of communication and made every effort to ensure that he was accessible to those people who he ruled. As a leader, he was a good communicator, and listener who governed through the use of people who had influence over the people in his kingdom.  He communicated both orally, and in writing.  He learned how to communicate in several languages.
  4. Christian leadership: He became a friend and ally of the Pope. He was not only a diplomatic ally of the Church, but he was genuinely religious. Winston described Charlemagne’s visit to Rome whereby he saw the grave site of St. Peter.
  5. Leadership in education and learning: During Charlemagne’s reign, he stimulated and revived learning, and advocated for an expansion of literacy among the clergy and the citizenry.

Blay concluded that Charlemagne was a “charismatic leader”, who seriously and effectively influenced his people through his personal charm and an idealized vision for his kingdom. His vision appealed to people, especially to his advisers and the nobles who were dedicated to help him realize his goals. Although Charlemagne was a flawed person, his strengths overcame his weaknesses. For example, he married several women, even divorced his first wife, and had mistresses, while he faithfully practiced his Christianity. His financial skills were also lacking because he was unable to establish a sustainable system to fund his empire.

In my opinion, studying Charlemagne’s life and his leadership skills (including his weaknesses and failures) allow modern leaders the opportunity to learn from the past.

Charlemagne’s reforms in education, art and the church were notable because he sparked an intellectual renaissance and thereby created a magnificent legacy.  “He stands out as a model for all who aspire to be great leaders”, wrote Blay.

Find Blay’s essay at this link:

Juliana L'Heureux

About Juliana L'Heureux

Juliana L’Heureux is a free lance writer who publishes news, blogs and articles about Franco-Americans and the French culture. She has written about the culture in weekly and bi-weekly articles, for the past 27 years.