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It's Good to Be the King, Better to Be the Emperor

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It’s Good to be the King, Better to be the Emperor

At the end of the year 1918, Europe witnessed incredible change to its political and social institutions across the board. Alliances between the countries of Europe plunged the continent into a world war that caused these massive changes to the European status quo of government. Over one thousand years earlier, the continent of Europe’s political and social institutions similarly endured a dramatic change due to an alliance. On Christmas Day 800 CE, King Charles the Great of the Franks (Charlemagne) and the pope of Rome, Pope Leo III, formed this monumental alliance when Pope Leo crowned Charlemagne Imperator Romanorum (emperor of the Romans). However, unlike the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance of the 1900s, the union of Pope Leo and Charlemagne was no formal treaty designed for the means of bailing the other out in some war to come, but simply two men seizing an opportunity to stand by each other for their own ambitions and for a chance at peace. Starting with the accomplishments of their predecessors and ending with the Christmas Day coronation, Charlemagne and Pope Leo created an alliance that brought some disadvantages to the two main protagonists involved, but still yielded more significant political profit for both men, and though Pope Leo stood more to gain from this pact, both men emerged as winners. To have a proper hold on the significance of Charlemagne’s coronation, one must understand the background of the events that took place on Christmas Day, in particular, the history of Charlemagne’s dynasty, the Carolingians. Though, most historians consider Charlemagne the father of modern Europe, it must be stated that he owes much of that title to his father and grandfather. Charles Martel, Charlemagne’s grandfather and the first Carolingian laid the foundations for Charlemagne’s eventually rise to power. Martel most famously gained notoriety for his family at the Battle of Poitiers, where he halted the Arab advance into Europe. Martel then began consolidating power for his family by conquering rival factions that were defecting from the current ruling family in Francia, the Merovingians.1 Martel’s son, Pippin the Short finished the consolidation of Carolingian power when in 751 CE, he asked Pope Zacharias whether it was right for Frankish kings to have no power. When the pope answered back that it was not right Pippin deposed the last Merovingian, making himself the new king of the Franks.2 This interaction between Pippin and Pope Zacharias signified the beginnings of good relations, and mutual interest between the papacy and the Frankish kingship, setting the stage for future events.
During Pippin the Short’s reign as king of the Franks, the papacy was also making moves to consolidate their own power. This started when Pope Zacharias’ presumably granted Pippin the Short permission to depose the last Merovingian king. With the Frankish king now in debt to the papacy, the pontiff was able to call on Pippin for aid against the Lombards who were threatening the Rome. This further cemented the good relations between the papacy and the Franks, which will eventually culminate with Charlemagne’s coronation. The Donation of Constantine also surfaced around this period. In what turns out to be a 8th century forgery of a 4th century document the papacy attempted to grant itself imperial powers separate from the Byzantine Empire, specifically defined by this quote. “And that the most sacred seat of Saint Peter shall be more gloriously exalted than our empire and earthly throne, we give it imperial power, the dignity of glory, vigor, and honor. And we ordain and decree that he (the pope) shall have supremacy as well over the four seats—Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Jerusalem—as also over all the churches of God in the whole world.”3 With the Donation of Constantine in hand popes were now able to justifiably wield power separate of the Byzantines. Pope Leo III would in turn use this power, despite its false pretenses for his own gain, when he crowns Charlemagne emperor. Due to the work of Charlemagne and Leo’s predecessor, these two men stood at an opportune time in history to take advantage of a series of events taking place in Northern Italy. Roman aristocrats attacked Pope Leo III in the year 799. They imprisoned him and made threats to blind Leo and tear out his tongue. Miraculously he escaped prison and made his way directly towards Charlemagne in search of protection.4 During the Carolingian control over the Frankish monarchy up to this time, the Franks seemingly had an unwritten agreement with Rome as the protectors of papal rule, and Charlemagne’s reign was no different. Charlemagne had amassed the largest European empire since the days of Roman dominance. In many cases, Charlemagne expanded his territory to conquer defensible positions so he could more adeptly secure the Frankish homeland, and undoubtedly, this meant he had to expand into Saxon territory.5 Common sense would also lead one to think that the driving force behind Charlemagne’s military expeditions was the need to plunder treasure to keep the Frankish aristocrats happy, and the aristocrats that did serve Charlemagne at the time had an “insatiable thirst for treasure.”6 The historical record however depicts Charlemagne conquering the Saxons in the name of Catholicism.7 Charlemagne did collect hordes of treasure during his conquests, but many times set loot to Rome.8 Charlemagne’s excursions into Saxon territory were predominately for ideological conquest, not treasure.9 He himself expresses this belief that he was a Christian warrior with this quote. “With the help of divine clemency, it is my duty to outwardly defend the Holy Church of Christ by arms from the various attacks of the pagans and the devastation of the infidels and inwardly to fortify her by spreading knowledge of the catholic faith.”10 In his mind and actions, Charlemagne was the perfect Christian king.
With that said, Charlemagne’s faith alone could have lead him to seeing advantages in protecting Pope Leo in the short term, but by also being named emperor he would be the protector of the Catholic faith for the long term. Besides his faith, Charlemagne also saw political advantages into becoming emperor. Though his biographer, Einhard stated Charlemagne had no desire to be emperor, most other documents refute that, and believe that at the council at Paderborn between the Pope and Charles that Charlemagne and Leo agreed to anoint the former emperor once he made it to Rome.11 Charlemagne had grown tired of dealing with the Saxons constant rebelling, and needed a new way of subduing them besides force. The view in non-Roman Europe of the title emperor described someone who ruled over many different many people’s, so Charlemagne believed that changing his title could solve his Saxon problem.12 Becoming emperor obviously benefitted Charles, but Pope Leo definitely profited more from their agreement. With the protection of Charlemagne, Leo now had the strongest military in Europe as his defender, and he was able to avoid mutilation. He also regained his position of power, and did not have to give up the papacy. Now Leo was in a position to consolidate his power even more to prevent future uprisings. With the “power” given to him by The Donation of Constantine, he crowned Charlemagne emperor, giving him and the papal seat itself the last word on who could be emperor from this time on. Simple put the popes were now religious leaders and king makers. Not only did Leo create the image of himself as king maker, and more important than Charlemagne, he believed that crowning Charles as emperor would finally subdue the Lombards and other Northern Italian tribes. For the belief of the time was that only emperors could rule over Romans.13 This now formal alliance between the pope and Charles stemmed from both of them seeing advantage in their union, and is predominately an agreement with gains for both men, but there were some underlying disadvantages. For one, as with any alliance, their fates were not connected. One could not remain as powerful without the other. They were indebted to each other, and now were obligated to come to the others aid no matter what, for their own sake. Also by being, crowned emperor of the Romans Charlemagne could have possibly made an enemy of the Byzantine Empire who still saw Rome as their possession. Charlemagne was in fact thought of as a usurper by the Byzantine court.14 I for one believe that if it were not for the turmoil in Byzantium at the time, the aristocrats of Constantinople would have made a bigger deal out of this insult made by the West. Starting with Charles, the Carolingian rise, and The Donation of Constantine, Europe was set on a direct path to the Christmas Day coronation of Charlemagne as Emperor of the Romans. The work in the years leading up to the coronation coupled with the shrewd political skills of both Charlemagne and Pope Leo III changed the face of European politics for the rest of the Medieval Ages. From now on, the monarchies of Europe would now be accountable to the papal seat in Rome. For the two men most responsible for this change, Charlemagne and Leo, their lives benefitted greatly, but also came at a price. Charlemagne now had complete consolidation of his empire, and the prestige of the title of emperor. Leo on the other hand not only saved himself from deposition as pope and mutilation, but also with his political skills gained immense new power for the papacy. Though Charles and Leo now had to be responsible for the others well being, the benefits greatly outweighed any potential costs, and created new order for the rest of the Medieval Ages.

Notes 1. Joanna Story, Charlemagne: Empire and Society, (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2005), 10. 2. Ibid., 25. 3. Barbara Rosenhein, Reading the Middle Ages: The Donation of Constantine, (North York, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2010), 175. 4. Story., 64. 5. Henry Mayr-Harting, “Charlemagne, the Saxons, and the Imperial Coronation of 800,” The English Historical Review 111, no. 444 (1996), 1114. 6. Story., 96. 7. Ibid., 95. 8. Ibid., 95. 9. Mayr-Harting., 1126. 10. Pierre Riche, The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), 119. 11. Story., 66. 12. Mayr-Harting., 1120. 13. Ibid., 1122. 14. Ibid., 1118-1119.


Mayr-Harting, Henry. “Charlemagne, the Saxons, and the Imperial Coronation of 800.” The English Historical Review 111, No. 444 (Nov. 1996), 1113-1133.

Riche, Pierre. The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

Rosenhein, Barbara H. Reading the Middle Ages: The Donation of Constantine. North York, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2010.

Story, Joanna. Charlemagne: Empire and Society. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2005.

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