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History of the Christian Church, Volume IV: Mediaeval Christianity. A.D. 590-1073.
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§ 57. Founding of the Holy Roman Empire, a.d. 800. Charlemagne and Leo III


G. Sugenheim: Geschichte der Entstehung und Ausbildung des Kirchenstaates. Leipz. 1854.

F. Scharpff: Die Entstehung des kirchenstaats. Freib. i. B. 1860.

TH. D. Mock: De Donatione a Carolo Mag. sedi apostolicae anno 774 oblata. Munich 1861.

James Bryce: The Holy Roman Empire. Lond. & N. York (Macmillan & Co.) 6th ed. 1876, 8th ed. 1880. German translation by Arthur Winckler.

Heinrich von Sybel: Die Schenkungen der Karolinger an die Päpste. In Sybel’s “Hist. Zeitschrift,” Munchen & Leipz. 1880, pp. 46–85.

Comp. Baxmann: I. 307 sqq.; Vétault: Ch. III. pp. 113 sqq. (Charlemagne, patrice des Romains-Formation des états de l’église).


Charlemagne inherited the protectorate of the temporal dominions of the pope which had been wrested from the Lombards by Pepin, as the Lombards had wrested them from the Eastern emperor. When the Lombards again rebelled and the pope (Hadrian) again appealed to the transalpine monarch for help, Charles in the third year of his sole reign (774) came to the rescue, crossed the Alps with an army—a formidable undertaking in those days—subdued Italy with the exception of a small part of the South still belonging to the Greek empire, held a triumphal entry in Rome, and renewed and probably enlarged his father’s gift to the pope. The original documents have perished, and no contemporary authority vouches for the details; but the fact is undoubted. The gift rested only on the right of conquest. Henceforward he always styled himself “Rex Francorum et Longobardorum, et Patricius Romanorum.” His authority over the immediate territory of the Lombards in Northern Italy was as complete as that in France, but the precise nature of his authority over the pope’s dominion as Patrician of the Romans became after his death an apple of discord for centuries. Hadrian, to judge from his letters, considered himself as much an absolute sovereign in his dominion as Charles in his.

In 781 at Easter Charles revisited Rome with his son Pepin, who on that occasion was anointed by the pope “King for Italy” (“Rex in Italiam”). On a third visit., in 787, he spent a few days with his friend, Hadrian, in the interest of the patrimony of St. Peter. When Leo III. followed Hadrian (796) he immediately dispatched to Charles, as tokens of submission the keys and standards of the city, and the keys of the sepulchre of Peter.

A few years afterwards a terrible riot broke out in Rome in which the pope was assaulted and almost killed (799). He fled for help to Charles, then at Paderborn in Westphalia, and was promised assistance. The next year Charles again crossed the Alps and declared his intention to investigate the charges of certain unknown crimes against Leo, but no witness appeared to prove them. Leo publicly read a declaration of his own innocence, probably at the request of Charles, but with a protest that this declaration should not be taken for a precedent. Soon afterwards occurred the great event which marks an era in the ecclesiastical and political history of Europe.


The Coronation of Charles as Emperor.


While Charles was celebrating Christmas in St. Peter’s, in the year of our Lord 800, and kneeling in prayer before the altar, the pope, as under a sudden inspiration (but no doubt in consequence of a premeditated scheme), placed a golden crown upon his head, and the Roman people shouted three times: “To Charles Augustus, crowned by God, the great and pacific emperor of the Romans, life and victory!” Forthwith, after ancient custom, he was adored by the pope, and was styled henceforth (instead of Patrician) Emperor and Augustus.250250    Annales Laurissenses ad ann. 801: ”Ipsa die sacratissima natalis Domini cum Rex ad Missam ante confessionem b. Petri Apostoli ab oratione surgeret, Leo P. coronam capriti ejus imposuit, et a cuncto Romanorum populo acclamatum est:, Karolo Augusto, a Deo coronato, magno et pacifico Imperatori Romanorum, vita et victoria!’ Et post Laudes ab Apostolico more antiquorum principum adoratus est, atque, ablato Patricii nomine, Imperator et Augustus est appellatus.” Comp. Eginhard, Annal. ad ann. 800, and Vita Car., c. 28.

The new emperor presented to the pope a round table of silver with the picture of Constantinople, and many gifts of gold, and remained in Rome till Easter. The moment or manner of the coronation may have been unexpected by Charles (if we are to believe his word), but it is hardly conceivable that it was not the result of a previous arrangement between him and Leo. Alcuin seems to have aided the scheme. In his view the pope occupied the first, the emperor the second, the king the third degree in the scale of earthly dignities. He sent to Charles from Tours before his coronation a splendid Bible with the inscription: Ad splendorem imperialis potentiae.251251    But the date of the letter and the meaning of imperialis are not quite certain. See Rettberg, Kirchengesch. Deutschlands, I. 430, and Baxmann, Politik der Päpste, I. 313 sqq.

On his return to France Charles compelled all his subjects to take a new oath to him as “Caesar.” He assumed the full title “Serenssimus Augustus a Deo coronatus, magnus et pacificus imperator, Romanum gubernans imperium, qui et per misericordiam Dei rex Francorum et Longobardorum.”


Significance of the Act.


The act of coronation was on the part of the pope a final declaration of independence and self-emancipation against the Greek emperor, as the legal ruler of Rome. Charles seems to have felt this, and hence he proposed to unite the two empires by marrying Irene, who had put her son to death and usurped the Greek crown (797). But the same rebellion had been virtually committed before by the pope in sending the keys of the city to Pepin, and by the French king in accepting this token of temporal sovereignty. Public opinion justified the act on the principle that might makes right. The Greek emperor, being unable to maintain his power in Italy and to defend his own subjects, first against the Lombards and then against the Franks, had virtually forfeited his claim.

For the West the event was the re-establishment, on a Teutonic basis, of the old Roman empire, which henceforth, together with the papacy, controlled the history of the middle ages. The pope and the emperor represented the highest dignity and power in church and state. But the pope was the greater and more enduring power of the two. He continued, down to the Reformation, the spiritual ruler of all Europe, and is to this day the ruler of an empire much vaster than that of ancient Rome. He is, in the striking language of Hobbes, “the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.”


The Relation of the Pope and the Emperor.


What was the legal and actual relation between these two sovereignties, and the limits of jurisdiction of each? This was the struggle of centuries. It involved many problems which could only be settled in the course of events. It was easy enough to distinguish the two in theory by, confining the pope to spiritual, and the emperor to temporal affairs. But on the theocratic theory of the union of church and state the two will and must come into frequent conflict.

The pope, by voluntarily conferring the imperial crown upon Charles, might claim that the empire was his gift, and that the right of crowning implied the right of discrowning. And this right was exercised by popes at a later period, who wielded the secular as well as the spiritual sword and absolved nations of their oath of allegiance. A mosaic picture in the triclinium of Leo III. in the Lateran (from the ninth century) represents St. Peter in glory, bestowing upon Leo kneeling at his right hand the priestly stole, and upon Charles kneeling at his left, the standard of Rome.252252    The picture is reproduced in the works of Vétault and Stacke above quoted. This is the mediaeval hierarchical theory, which derives all power from God through Peter as the head of the church. Gregory VII. compared the church to the sun, the state to the moon who derives her light from the sun. The popes will always maintain the principle of the absolute supremacy of the church over the state, and support or oppose a government—whether it be an empire or a kingdom or a republic—according to the degree of its subserviency to the interests of the hierarchy. The papal Syllabus of 1864 expresses the genuine spirit of the system in irreconcilable conflict with the spirit of modern history and civilization. The Vatican Palace is the richest museum of classical and mediaeval curiosities, and the pope himself, the infallible oracle of two hundred millions of souls, is by far the greatest curiosity in it.

On the other hand Charles, although devotedly attached to the church and the pope, was too absolute a monarch to recognize a sovereignty within his sovereignty. He derived his idea of the theocracy from the Old Testament, and the relation between Moses and Aaron. He understood and exercised his imperial dignity pretty much in the same way as Constantine the Great and Theodosius the Great had done in the Byzantine empire, which was caesaro-papal in principle and practice, and so is its successor, the Russian empire. Charles believed that he was the divinely appointed protector of the church and the regulator of all her external and to some extent also the internal affairs. He called the synods of his empire without asking the pope. He presided at the Council of Frankfort (794), which legislated on matters of doctrine and discipline, condemned the Adoption heresy, agreeably to the pope, and rejected the image worship against the decision of the second oecumenical Council of Nicaea (787) and the declared views of several popes.253253    Milman (II. 497): “The Council of Frankfort displays most fully the power assumed by Charlemagne over the hierarchy as well as the nobility of the realm, the mingled character, the all-embracing comprehensiveness of his legislation. The assembly at Frankfort was at once a Diet or Parliament of the realm and an ecclesiastical Council. It took cognizance alternately of matters purely ecclesiastical and of matters as clearly, secular. Charlemagne was present and presided in the Council of Frankfort. The canons as well as the other statutes were issued chiefly in his name.” He appointed bishops and abbots as well as counts, and if a vacancy in the papacy, had occurred during the remainder of his life, he would probably have filled it as well as the ordinary bishoprics. The first act after his coronation was to summon and condemn to death for treason those who had attempted to depose the pope. He thus acted as judge in the case. A Council at Mayence in 813 called him in an official document “the pious ruler of the holy church.”254254    Sanctae Ecclesiae tam pium ac devotum in servitio Dei rectorem. Also, in his own language, Devotus Ecclesiae defensor atque adjutor in omnibus apostolicae sedis. Rettberg I. 425, 439 sqq.

Charles regarded the royal and imperial dignity as the hereditary possession of his house and people, and crowned his son, Louis the Pious, at Aix-la-Chapelle in 813, without consulting the pope or the Romans.255255   55 Ann. Einhardi, ad. ann. 813 (in Migne’s Patrol. Tom. 104, p. 478): Evocatum ad se apud Aquasgrani filium suum Illudovicum Aquitaniae regem, coronam illi imposuit et imperialis nominis sibi consortem fecit.’ When Stephen IV. visited Louis in 816, he bestowed on him simply spiritual consecration. In the same manner Louis appointed his son Lothair emperor who was afterwards crowned by the pope in Rome (823). He himself as a Teuton represented both France and Germany. But with the political separation of the two countries under his successors, the imperial dignity was attached to the German crown. Hence also the designation: the holy German Roman empire.



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