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The Medieval World


Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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A full understanding of the significance of Charlemagne's coronation can only be obtained after a careful study of the events which led up to this coronation.

It would seem logical to suppose that the significance would differ on the one hand if Pope Leo III had been the instigator or, on the other hand, if Charlemagne had been. Since information on the actual plotting of this event is so scanty, however, the main arguments are based on logical deduction more than on the contemporary documents themselves.

There appear to be few scholars today who uphold the view that Charlemagne was the instigator of the plot. Those who do, point out that the Pope would scarcely have performed this crucial act without Charlemagne's approval and foreknowledge.

Charlemagne had been for years Patrician of Rome, as had Pepin before him. He ruled over so much of the old Roman Empire and had extended his kingdom into areas of northern Europe where the Roman Empire had never been, that he must have felt it fitting to bear the title.

Fichtenau, supporting this position and basing his argument upon the Annals of Lorsch, states that the fathers of the Synod of 799 who were drawn together by Charlemagne for the purpose of clearing the Pope's reputation, together with the re-instated Pope, decided to nominate Charlemagne as Emperor.

The throne of the Byzantine Empire was at that moment vacant due to the presence of a woman and not a man as head of state. Charlemagne, according to the Annals, had no wish to reject this request and therefore accepted it.

  • H Fichtenau, The Carolingian Empire (Oxford, 1968), pp74-5.
  • Einhard's statement that Charlemagne would never have entered the Church on that day if he had known what was to happen is easy to explain, says Fichtenau, for it referred to the manner in which the coronation took place, not to the coronation itself.

    Charlemagne could have disliked the fact that the choir which gave the acclamation had consisted of Romans only and not of Franks. It was also a matter of etiquette among ancient Emperors, especially those of the east, to express their reluctance at receiving the title, for the man who did not seek power was the man ordained to have it.

  • Fichtenau, The Carolingian Empire, p74.
  • However, the Annals of Lorsch were not contemporary. Fichtenau accepts them on the faith that the author, Richbod, bishop of Trier and Abbot of Lorsch, was one of the most eminent prelates of the realm and therefore trustworthy and that he appeared to be basing himself on official minutes of the Synod. He offers no proof for either of these suppositions.

    Furthermore, Charlemagne's contemplation of marriage to the Empress Irene as a means of acquiring Byzantine recognition of his emperorship seems to indicate that he was not parcel with the Synod's belief that the Byzantine throne was vacant.

    It would seem more to the point to suggest that Charlemagne was placed in an awkward position by the coronation because it complicated his efforts to gain recognition by the Byzantines because they now looked upon him as a usurper.

    The evidence seems to point more heavily to the instigation of the Papacy. The development of the Papacy from the time of the collapse of the old Roman Empire laid the foundation for the establishment of a new one. By 800, the time was crucial and the Papacy grasped the initiative before it slipped away. It is largely in this sphere that much of the significance lies.

    By the early eighth century, western Christendom had become isolated with Moslems in the south, barbarians in the north and the ever-weakening Byzantines in the east. The Papacy had become a rallying point for those of faith in the future in the midst of the decay of the barbarian invasions.

  • C Dawson, The Making of Europe (New York, 1971), pp171-3.
  • At about this time Augustine, in his De Civitate Dei, drew up the ideals of a new age. He viewed history as the evolution of two principles, opposite to each other and embodied in two societies, the City of God and the City of the World, societies hostile to each other.

    The City of God lives according to the will of God but with no final revelation on earth. The City of the World lives according to pride, sensuality and dissipation of the spirit. The state, in so far as it is Christian, works for the ends of the City of God.

    This philosophy became important because it shaped the ideals of the Papacy and of Charlemagne, although, as is mentioned later, he appeared to misunderstand it.

    The Popes at that point in time were still subjects of the Byzantine Empire. Ever since the days of Constantine, they has accepted the cause of the Empire as identical to that of Christian religion. Even in the liturgy, the enemies of the Roman Empire were coupled with the enemies of the Catholic faith.

    But the Empire was shrinking. By the time of Pope Gregory I, the authority of the Imperial Government in Italy was small and the Papacy had become semi-independent, responsible for the safety of the Roman people.

    The outbreak of iconoclasm brought the break between the Papacy and the Byzantine Empire where the Pope himself, supported by the Lombards, drove out the imperial officials and excommunicated Emperor Leo III.

    The Pope found himself suddenly with a new menace, the Lombards, who soon started conquests aimed at capturing all Italy and although they probably would not have injured the Papal See but would have made it the main ecclesiastical seat of their kingdom, the Pope had no wish to give up the independence he had acquired and which he owned by virtue of his distance from the Empire.

    He had no desire to see a Lombard king in Rome, hence the Papal appeal to Charles Martel and later to Pepin and the subsequent conferring on the latter the title of Patrician of Rome.

    Papal policy now aimed basically at two things. The first was the practical consideration: to maintain its independence. For this it needed a strong protector who at one and the same time would prevent it losing its independence by conquest by some other enemy and yet who was not close enough to take away Papal independence itself.

    The second, the spiritual consideration: the spread of the word of God, the bringing about of the City of God or at least being instrumental in doing this, and the maintenance of Papal Primacy in this operation.

    The Carolingians fitted both these ideals. Charles Martel had brought about a unified and strong Frankish kingdom, powerful enough to protect the Papacy, distant enough not to remove her independence.

    Pepin promised to fulfil the second ideal when, together with Boniface, he undertook the reformation of the Church in his kingdom and also the protection of the Papacy from the Lombards.

    Charlemagne proved equal to both of them, firstly by creating a mighty empire and secondly by his promotion of Christianity with this Empire.

  • Dawson, The Making of Europe, p193.
  • The coronation was the climax towards which events were inevitably tending. The idea of a Roman Empire was still indispensable to the thoughts of the Church because the Empire was still seen as synonymous with Christian civilization while the rule of barbarians was identified with heathenism.

    For Charlemagne, he already ruled over a vast kingdom which the learned writers of his day would have called an "Empire".

  • M Deanesly, A History of Early Medieval Europe (London, 1969), pp377-8.
  • Every person in Europe, even those who could not read, could see plainly the old imperial buildings and knew them to be of great kings. Every clerk knew the word "Empire" and "Roman". The learned clerics in Charlemagne's court knew a great deal about the old Empire for they were re-copying the classical texts.

    Then again, it had been the function of a Christian Emperor to spread the faith among the heathens, to protect the faith from distortion by heretics and to protect the Church. Charlemagne had long shown himself Emperor in all this. He had proved himself Emperor beyond doubt. The coronation was a mere formality

  • Deanesly, History of Early Medieval Europe, p379.
  • Charlemagne had proved himself protector of the Church par excellence, so that Pope Hadrian was able to address him as the "new Constantine" and Alcuin called him the man on whom alone "has rested all the safety of the Church."

    In 799, Alcuin wrote in a letter of the three persons who had the highest power in the world: The Pope, the Emperor and Charlemagne, but the Pope was in distress, the Empire had fallen which left Charlemagne as the strongest and wisest of the three powers, whom Jesus had made protector and leader of Christianity.

    By 800, then, we find Charlemagne moving towards an inevitable monarchical protectorate over the Church as Emperor and the Church moving inevitably towards receiving him. It was merely a question of whether they would both move together, or who would move first.

    The crunch came in the fact that by 800 Charlemagne's protectorate over the Church had taken on the appearance of an overlordship. Pepin had left the Papacy free of Frankish interference and he had made no use of his title of "Patrician of the Romans".

    But after his victory over the Lombards, Charlemagne began to have permanent interests in Italy, making strong recommendations to the Pope even on how to rule his Church. He began to gain an exalted view of his authority as leader of God's people.

  • Fichtenau, The Carolingian Empire, p64.

  • RHC Davis, A History of Medieval Europe (London, 1974), p139.
  • His ideas were based on Scripture and Augustine's work rather than on the imperial Roman tradition. Fichtenau is of the opinion that he had without doubt read De Civitate Dei, Davis commenting that it was his favourite book.

    Whether or not that be totally true, he certainly was imbued with Augustine's ideas of the City of God and hence his aim was basically the same as that of the Papacy.

    But his understanding was not what Augustine meant, for he saw the City of God as the Christians on earth; the Byzantine and Roman Empires were the City of the World whereas his kingdom was the City of God and he was the ruler and guide of this people, the second Josiah and lawgiver.

  • Dawson, The Making of Europe, p190.
  • His advisers began calling him David and he took up the Gelasian two-sword theory but seeing himself as bearing both swords. His legislation governed every aspect of the Church as well as the state, laying down detailed rules for the conduct of the clergy.

    "On one occasion Charles even required a written answer from every parish priest as to the mode in which he administered baptism, the replies being forwarded by the bishops to Charles's palace for his personal inspection."

  • Dawson, The Making of Europe, p191.

  • CW Previte-Orton, The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History, Vol 1 (Cambridge, 1953) p312.
  • Dawson describes Charlemagne's style of rule as more like that of a Moslem king than a Roman officer. His claims to direct authority over the Church and his interference in matters of dogma could hardly have been pleasing to the traditional authority of the Papacy.

    He regarded the Pope as his Chaplain, saying that it was the king's business to govern and defend the Church while it was the Pope's duty to pray for it. "On their mutual relations Charles had no doubt: the priesthood were to pray, the kingship was to rule."

    The Pope had therefore escaped the Byzantine and near-Lombard overlordship merely to be taken over by the Carolingian.

  • Davis, A History of Medieval Europe, p147.
  • Pope Hadrian I appeared tactful and strong in his dealings with Charlemagne, succeeding in his control of things so that his independence did not suffer nor did he lose Charlemagne's friendship. He gave to Charlemagne honour, but no power, making him welcome in Rome as Patrician but not allowing him to sleep the night in the city.

  • P Hughes, A History of the Church , Vol 2 (London, 1961), p144.

  • Deanesly, History of Early Medieval Europe, p380.
  • When Leo III was elected in 795, the new Pope was not quite as astute as Hadrian. He immediately officially informed Charlemagne of his election, sending him the keys of St. Peter's shrine and the banners of the city.

    The Romans swore an oath of loyalty to Charlemagne which gave to him the right of government. Charlemagne thereupon sent a letter of good advice to Leo, calling him to live according to the canons, destroy simony and wipe out heresy, a letter more fitting of an overlord than of a protector.

    Leo complied with these instructions, acting rather like one of Charlemagne's metropolitans, and called a council in 798 to deal with the adoptionist heresy.

  • Davis, A History of Medieval Europe, p148.
  • For the Papacy then, Charlemagne had become, as Davis puts it, both benefactor and menace. He had brought order, justice and protection to Italy, but claimed to be the ruler of western Christendom, regardless of the Pope's claims to this. The Pope could not dispose with his protection but there was danger in accepting his patronage.

    In his philosophical thinking, Leo III showed signs of seeing himself as Charlemagne's equal. He had his new reception hall in the Lateran Palace decorated with mosaics showing the contemporary view of relations between spiritual and temporal powers. In this Charlemagne was depicted as a warrior, the Pope as Priest, but both equal and divine in origin.

    Events moved to a head in 799 when Leo's enemies tried to get rid of the Pope and he fled to Paderborn to seek Charlemagne's aid. Charges of immorality, adultery and perjury were brought against him and Alcuin felt that these charges were too serious to be overlooked and that Charlemagne was the best person to settle the matter.

    In November 800, Charlemagne presided over the Synod to consider the matter and, when insufficient evidence was forthcoming, Leo took an oath that he had not committed the crimes charged against him. However, despite this claim that his oath was voluntary, the city knew that Charlemagne had demanded it. Thus Charlemagne was publicly appearing as an overlord.

    Shortly after, on Christmas day, as Charlemagne knelt in prayer before mass, the Pope crowned him and the Roman choir gave him the official acclamation as the Pope adored, a ceremony clearly copied from the Byzantine rite of imperial coronation.

    Charlemagne was henceforth Emperor and within a few months was using this imperial title at the head of his acts. He accepted the coronation even though, as Einhard said, he would not have gone into the Church had he known what was to have taken place.

    The coronation was therefore a crucial act. Charlemagne was obviously ready for emperorship, having it already in practice if not in name and was already in the process of negotiating the title with the Byzantines.

    The Papacy, with its century-old policy of maintaining independence and papal primacy, was losing both to Charlemagne's overlordship. If the Church did not absorb the kingdom, then the kingdom would absorb the Church. It is here that the full significance lies.

  • Deanesly, History of Early Medieval Europe, p385.
  • The papal action in crowning the emperor re-established the superiority of the Pope. The act was due to Papal initiative. It also gained for the Papacy an advantage for the future. The Emperor had no other claim to the title; what the Pope had given, he could always take away again as would be shown in future ages. The Emperor had become an instrument of the Pope.

  • S Painter, A History of the Middle Ages (London, 1966), p80.
  • This undoubtedly was foremost in the eyes of both the Pope and Charlemagne. Painter argues that it made no difference to Charlemagne where the institution came from, for he was the unquestioned master of his vast kingdom.

    Charlemagne's later attempt to alter the ceremony by having his son Louis take the crown from the altar and place it on his own head seems to contradict this belief. But even this attempt failed, for the ceremony soon returned to its original formulation as the Pope's creation implying Papal coronation.

  • Deanesly, History of Early Medieval Europe, p385.
  • The coronation succeeded too in regularising the Pope's outward position in the Church, created by Charlemagne's action as judge over him. In the words of Deanesly, it justified in retrospect Charlemagne's judgement over the Pope.

    Charlemagne had now been given an official place in the Church and was now protector of the Church, not because he was conqueror, but because this office had been laid on him by the Church.

    As has been said earlier, the Empire was seen as indispensable to the Church. The imperial title had at last been revived, which for the Church meant the end of centuries of barbarism and a return to civilised order. But it was not a renovation but a new creation.

    Unlike the earlier empire, here was one created by the Church and as such subordinated to the Church. It had taken the initiative away from Charlemagne, thus preventing him from building up the Empire on his own conception.

    Because the coronation was a Papal creation, it completed the union between the Frankish monarchy and the Church which Pepin and Boniface had begun. The supremacy of the monarchy which had come so close to overshadowing the Papacy in an overlordship was now made a partnership of the Papacy.

    It made Charlemagne officially the new David, thus able to lead the Christian people towards the City of God, and, of course, gave official sanction to the Pope's pro-Frankish policy which had so nearly brought about his death.

    The two-sword theory was again firmly re-established in its original sense, with the Pope as Priest and Charlemagne as Emperor, both equal in function.

    However, with one commissioned with the rule of men's souls and the other with the rule of men's bodies, the limits to their authorities would be bound to overlap and bring difficulties for the future. The state had officially been brought into the Church and the Church into the state and clashes were bound to follow.

  • Previte-Orton, The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History, p315.
  • The coronation put Charlemagne into an awkward situation. He had been negotiating the Emperorship with the east. He would wish to be Emperor in legal form, not as a "barbaric usurper of another's title." The illegality and method of the coronation therefore must have displeased him.

    Three things were important for imperial election: election by the Senate, acceptance by the people and recognition as co-regent in the event of there still being a reigning Emperor.

    For the first two, the Roman choir could have sufficed and the Annals of Lorsch indicate that the third was of no importance to the Romans who did not recognise Irene as Empress. But for Charlemagne this was not so and for the rest of his reign he was engaged in negotiation and warlike measures to obtain the recognition of his emperorship from the east.

    In 800, while Irene was still on the throne, the problem was not so great and marriage to her could have solved it as well as providing him with a far greater empire. But with her removed, his position was disputed and hence placed Charlemagne's empire technically in a state of war until 814.

    And yet it would be wrong to say that the title was not useful to Charlemagne for although his Frankish kingdom was an empire in its own right, his Roman one encompassed far more, being of a more universal nature and covering practically all of western Christianity.

    Church and Empire were now almost one and the same thing. His title moreover confirmed his protectorate over the Papacy. His universal authority was now officially sanctioned by Roman law and tradition. He could also use the coronation as a diplomatic lever in his negotiations with the east.

  • Dawson, The Making of Europe, p192.

  • H Pirenne, A History of Europe from the Invasions to the XVI Century (London, 1958), pp88-9.
  • The coronation also meant that the political alliance of the Papacy was no longer divided between the lawful authority of the Byzantine's and the de facto power of Charlemagne. The Church now enjoyed peace, authority, influence and prestige which it had not had since the time of Gregory because it was now subject to the Zeal and vigilance of Charlemagne.

    He saw to the material needs of the clergy, their moral condition and their apostolate, granted donations to sees and monasteries and placed them under the supervision of men appointed by himself. He also urged the improvement of education of the clergy and revived the studies of scripture and the classics.

    The coronation made no difference to Charlemagne's lifestyle and government. The title could neither strengthen nor weaken him and did not increase his political authority. He made little attempt to copy the ways of the Byzantines or Roman Emperors, except perhaps in his palace at Achen.

    His dress, manners and political ideas remained Frankish. In 806 he still divided his empire among his sons in the way of Frankish tradition, thus contributing directly to the downfall of the Empire.

    While Charlemagne was on the throne things were seemingly in a healthy state. Yet with him gone, chaos ensued as the Papacy, in its strength, claimed power to make or unmake the Emperor or, in its weakness, was used by others for this purpose.

    For, whichever way one looks at it, the Empire owed itself now to the Papacy.

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