Coronation of Charlemagne the Great

Feature, Middle Ages

The Inauguration of Modern European Civilization

From time to time there appears on the world’s stage a great ruler who far outshines the greatest of many ages. Alexander the Great was one of them, Genghis Elian another, Napoleon yet another. They are a small and select band; to them belongs Charlemagne the Great.

In the third century A.D. there was a group of tribes of Teutonic origin, called the Franks, living in what are now North-west Germany and the Netherlands. By the fourth century, or a little later, they were divided into two main branches: the Salian Franks who lived around the estuary of the Rhine, and the Riparian Franks higher up the river. They were first the enemies and then the vassals of Rome and the decay of the Roman Empire gave them their day.

The man who made use of that day was Clovis, the descendant of a certain Clodio, who had led the Salian Franks into what is now France and established his capital in Tournai. Thirty years before he became king his tribe had sent warriors to join the vast horde that defeated the Huns.

Clovis united many of the Salian Franks under his rule, and conquered much of Gaul. He brought the Riparian Franks, who had spread up the Rhine as far as Alsace, under his authority, and when their king was murdered they recognized him as their king.

Clovis was baptized a Christian, and nominally the Franks ceased to be pagans. His sons continued his career of conquest, and soon Frankland was an extensive area lying on both sides of the Rhine. Like Anglo-Saxon England, it was divided into more or less independent kingdoms, but in spite of civil wars there was a certain brotherhood between them.

The union of these Frankish tribes under Clovis and his successors formed the great Frankish realm which soon was to influence so greatly the history of Europe. It was nearing the peak of its greatness when on the death of his father, Pepin the Short, in 768, Charlemagne shared the rule with his brother Carloman, and when Carloman died three years later, became sole ruler.

This division which Pepin instituted was aimed at allotting the two brothers separate spheres of influence. This, however, did not prevent the personal rivalry between them, which their father had foreseen, from coming into play, and only the conciliatory efforts of their mother, Queen Bertrada, warded off an outbreak of hostilities.

This state of affairs was unfortunate, for it threatened to undo all that the great work of Pepin had achieved for the Franks, no less than the secular headship of the Christian West, the spiritual headship of which was vested in the Pope.

At this point in time, Italian politics were in a greater state of embroilment than they had ever been before. The death of King Aistulf of Italy in 756 had been followed by a disputed succession, which was finally settled when Desiderius, Duke of Tuscany, was elected king. Desiderius’s policy was to avoid attracting the intervention of Pepin in the affairs of the Italian kingdom and its relations with the Papacy, at the same time that he cut the Papacy off from Frankish protection. He achieved a fair measure of success by the time that Carloman died and Charlemagne had become sole ruler of the Franks.

On the death of her husband, Carloman’s widow had fled with her disinherited children to Lombardy, and this event caused Desiderius to attempt an open act of opposition to Charlemagne. He brought considerable pressure on the Pope to crown Carlo-man’s children, which, in effect, was tantamount to proclaiming that Charlemagne was the usurper of Carloman’s crown.

Successive Popes had tried to resist the “protection” which Desiderius had energetically attempted to force upon them. They had been too weak to resist him altogether, but the Pope who had recently ascended the throne of St Peter was made of a very different mettle. Adrian I threatened to excommunicate Desiderius if he did not desist, and called upon Charlemagne to come with an army to his assistance.

It is quite clear that Desiderius had miscalculated Charlemagne’s strength and his own weakness, and when the Frankish armies arrived in his territories and besieged him in Pavia, after only a few months he surrendered and was deported to Francia.

In the meantime Charlemagne had journeyed to Rome, and there he made an arrangement with the Pope by which the latter received the territories of Tuscany, Spoleto and Benevento, while he declared himself to be “King of the Franks and Lombards and Patrician of the Romans”. This meant that Italy was to be a part of the Frankish realm, but a special part, for in his capacity of Patrician of the Romans, Charlemagne issued orders to the Pope and supervised the administration of all the Italian territories as far south as Rome. Thus the link which had formerly existed between Italy and the Byzantine Empire was broken.

Adrian and Charlemagne were in full accord in all this, and in spite of periodical contradictions and recriminations, the arrangement worked well.

It had been Charlemagne’s aim to rule all Italy, but this he never achieved. The Empire of the East maintained its hold over southern Italy and Sicily.

Though the conquest of Italy had been an important part of Charlemagne’s aims, it did not represent his most cherished wish. This was the conquest of the Saxons, the last pagan and independent tribe of inner Germany. Out of a reign of forty years he devoted thirty-two to achieving the subjugation of the Saxons, and while he was striving always to this end he was engaged in a series of campaigns and conquests elsewhere.

Motivated by a strange mixture of political insight, insatiable ambition and a sincere desire to protect and extend Christendom and civilization, he brought the whole of what is now France under his rule, made the Danes respect his arms, and forced the Bavarians and the Avars, farther to the east, to recognize him as their overlord. He also crossed the Pyrenees into Spain and pushed back the Moors behind the Ebro.

The measure of his energy can be taken when it is learned that while he was conducting these warlike activities, he personally administered his vast realm which stretched from the Elbe to beyond the Pyrenees and from the North Sea to the borders of Benevento, south of Rome. The Pope, even in ecclesiastical matters, as well as secular, bowed to his commands when their views in these matters conflicted.

But in his role as the most powerful ruler in Europe, Charlemagne was bound to find himself in conflict with the Empire of the East, and the Empire in the East still had a tremendous influence on men’s minds, even if its physical power was of little or no account.

The tradition of the old Roman Empire was still strong in the memory of the people and particularly among the educated classes. The law and daily customs all recalled it; men read Virgil as well as St Augustine, and since the coming of Christianity, Rome, now represented in Constantinople, had always been the accepted protector of Christendom. In the eyes of the Emperor in the East, the Franks and their ruler were upstarts, claiming, but nothing more, the status of supreme authority in the West. The time was fast approaching, however, when the Old Rome, the see of St Peter, was to put the seal on the upstart’s claims and make the claims reality.

On Christmas Day, 795, Pope Adrian I died. The new Pope was Leo III, a Roman, and much disliked by the former Pope’s family, though they were Roman also. Unlike Adrian, Leo was a weak man, and he showed his weakness at once by sending to Charlemagne the banner of Rome, promising fidelity, and requesting Frankish envoys to come to Rome to receive the homage of the Romans.

This infuriated his enemies, and on 25 April, 799, Leo was seized and tortured so brutally that he almost lost sight and speech, and was saved from death only by the arrival of Charlemagne’s envoys. He took refuge with Charlemagne, and was escorted back to Rome under the Frankish king’s protection. There his enemies were brought to trial and exiled to Francia, while Charlemagne, hoping to arrange a peaceful settlement between the papist and anti-papist factions, himself travelled to Rome.

There Leo performed an act which took Charlemagne entirely by surprise, and at the same time installed him as the protector of Christendom in form at least.

While Charlemagne was attending mass in St Peter’s on Christmas Day, 800, and while he was kneeling in his place of honour near the altar, Leo suddenly placed a golden crown on his head, and the Roman nobles chanted the traditional recognition: “To Charlemagne, Augustus, crowned by God, the great peace-bringing Emperor of the Romans, life and victory.” The Pope then performed the customary adoration due to the Emperors, and later crowned Charles the Younger, the eldest of Charlemagne’s sons, king.

The Patrician of the Romans had become the Emperor; a new Roman Empire had been founded in the West.

Whatever Charlemagne felt in his secret heart, he expressed displeasure at what Leo had done, and he was indeed assailed by a number of genuine misgivings about his position. He was a traditionalist, and tradition had formulated several necessary stages in the making of an Emperor. He had to be elected by the Senate and acclaimed by the people, and if there was an Emperor in the East, the Emperor in the West had to be recognized by the Eastern Emperor as a co-ruler. The first two could be said to have been fulfilled by the acclamations in St Peter’s, but the third, which was imperative, would probably never be accorded, and without it his legal position as Emperor could be challenged. The legal authorities, however, argued that as a woman had usurped the Eastern throne, that throne was vacant.

This may have satisfied form, but it was not entirely satisfactory as a solution to a man who believed that authority must be based on the indisputable legality of processes and positions. It was to determine his right to the imperial throne in the West that for the rest of his life he sought an arrangement with the East. When, at the beginning, the successor of the Empress Irene refused his recognition, Charlemagne did not hesitate to attack Venice, the only dependency of Constantinople in North Italy. Following upon its submission to him in 805, he laid claim to Dalmatia, which also recognized the authority of the East. But within a short time a Greek fleet won back both Venice and Dalmatia for the East.

Charlemagne in reply sent his son Pepin to re-conquer Venice. Its towns were sacked, its rulers, the Doges, were seized. Though the Byzantine fleet commanded the Adriatic, the East decided to negotiate, and Charlemagne offered to renounce his claims to Venice, Dalmatia and Istria in return for recognition. In 812, the Emperor Michael saluted him as co-ruler of the Empires of the East and West.

Unfortunately, Charlemagne was now seventy and approaching the end of his life. He died on 28 January, 814, in his palace at Aachen, and was buried in the great church nearby.

Possessing more creative genius than his father Pepin, he believed that his role as King and Emperor was not only to give his realms peace and good government, but to bring to new life the civilization which, together with religion and culture, had disappeared during the Dark Ages.

In every department of administration and war, in law and judgment he personally maintained control. He gathered round him a circle of learned men, the elite of scholars from every part of Europe. From Northumbria came Alcuin, an eminent teacher, from Orleans came Theodulf, the best writer of Latin verse of the day, from the Maingau came Einhard, the best prose writer, from Friuli, in northern Italy, came the grammarian Paul the Deacon, who wrote an outstanding history of his own people.

In the field of education, his first concern was to produce literate and, if possible, learned priests and monks. This, to the highest degree which his resources allowed, he succeeded in doing.

But the greatest effect of his efforts on the future came through his conquests and their very limits. In his Empire, the unity of the Western church became an established and effective fact. His concept of the State ruled by God, which he took direct from St Augustine’s De Civitate Dei, which he put into practice in Rome, provided the model for later papacies. Mediterranean Italy and Italy beyond the Alps were linked together. The union of all the Frankish tribes made possible the later withdrawal of the German-speaking Franks to form united Germany.

His reign, with all that he performed during it, with the laws he gave and the civilization which he brought to it set the stage of Europe for all the great changes which the future was to bring.