*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
In the vacuum created by the crash of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, a number of tribal kings from diverse regions fought for control of Europe. The slow rise of the Catholic Church as a political entity in the intervening time, however, came to a head on December 25, 800 when Charles I, King of the Franks, was named the first head of the Holy Roman Empire. Taking the name Charlemagne — “Charles the Great” — at a ceremony in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, he became more than just the official ruler of vast territories in central and western Europe, he took on a spiritual role that would lead to trouble down the line.
The structure of the Carolingian Empire, founded by Charlemagne’s grandfather Charles Martel in the 730s, did not have the hereditary lines of succession most people associate with European monarchy. Charles Martel had acted as more of a governor, maintaining supreme executive power while pointedly refusing to be known as a king. When his two sons stepped up to lead the Frankish peoples in 741, they shared the title of Maior Domus (Mayor of the Palace) upon election by the people, a tradition which forced two (or more) people to fill one role unless one opted to step down.
Pepin the Short, Charlemagne’s father, appealed to Pope Zachary for a ruling on the nature of his title. Though Childeric III was technically the king — installed by Pepin and his brother, Carloman — he had no real authority over the Franks. The Pope elevated Pepin to the position of “true king,” as it was he who made executive decisions for the realm in reality. When the Lombards took more land in Italy and began to threaten Rome in 754, Pepin led his armies in to rescue his beloved Catholic Church, sealing the royal legacy for his sons Carolus (Charlemagne) and Carloman by forcing Pope Stephen II to anoint and confirm them the proper heirs as “payment” for the use of his soldiers.
In 768, Pepin died in Paris. Once again, the Frankish kingdom would have two rulers as it had the generation before. Without rules for the ascent of one to the central leadership role, the brothers loosely separated the territory and set about securing their respective inheritances. When Carloman died three years later, Charlemagne claimed his lands just before launching an assault on the Lombards. (King Desiderius of Lombardy was quite unhappy his daughter had been sent back to Milan less than a year after Charlemagne married her.)
For the next 30 years, Charlemagne pushed the borders of his kingdom out in all directions, conquering rulers to the east and south in Germany and Italy before capturing parts of Spain from the Moors — a conflict that would rage throughout his reign. By the year 800, he had subjected tribes from modern Denmark south to central Italy and west to the Pyrenees Mountains on the western border of France. It was now that Pope Leo III needed him most of all.
Unlike the bishops of Rome who had come before him, Leo had not been born into the noble class of Roman society. When the vast classical empire disintegrated, the Italian landscape came under the control of regional dukes — Venice, Frisia and Benevento, for example. Unsatisfied with the low heritage of Leo, not to mention his penchant for adultery, wealthy Romans ensured he was deposed after nearly being killed by a mob in April 799.
Understanding the military might and tactical strengths of Charlemagne, Leo made a shrewd decision: he would escape from his captors and make his way to Charlemagne’s capital at Paderborn. Once there, he appealed to the king for help in restoring him to his rightful title, drawing the Frankish leader into a dispute with connections as far east as Constantinople. After a council in Germany and a march to Rome for another meeting between the Pope and his accusers, Charlemagne saw to it Leo returned to his role as the head of the Catholic Church.
On December 25, 800 — two days after Leo claimed his innocence and regained the papacy — Charlemagne walked to the altar at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Getting down on his knees and praying briefly, he arose with a crown upon his head and a new title: Imperator Romanus (“Emperor of the Romans”). Though Leo had infuriated the Eastern Roman leadership, he knew he had chosen the right person for the title — none of the Byzantine armies of Empress Irene could match those of Charlemagne. The primacy of the Pope had been secured. (This fact, along with the deep ties between church and state, would be a major sticking point 700 years later during the Reformation.)
Ruling until his death in 814, Charlemagne is known for his influence in reforming the Catholic Church and political customs of western Europe, even going so far as to encourage the development of a more uniform system for writing in the monasteries spread across the continent. A symbol for the efficacy of central royal power and the quest for unity, he remained a popular figure in medieval lore for hundreds of years. Public fascination with his legacy has led to a familiar image seen even today: the King of Hearts in a deck of playing cards was designed in his honor.
Also On This Day:
1066 – William the Conqueror is proclaimed King of England at Westminster Abbey
1100 – Baldwin of Boulogne is named the first King of Jerusalem at the Church of the Nativity
1926 – Emperor Taisho of Japan dies, succeeded by his son Prince Hirohito, taking the title Emperor Showa
1989 – The Romanian Revolution ends when Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, he the former President and she the former First-Deputy Prime Minister of the Communist government, are put on trial and killed
1991 – Mikhail Gorbachev, President of the Soviet Union, resigns; the USSR is dissolved the next day