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Charlemagne’s Imperial Coronation

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Published: Thu, 18 May 2017

Charlemagne, the son of Pepin, was born in 742 A. D. He was king of the Franks and part of the Carolingian line until 768. On Christmas Day of the year 800 A.D. Charles was crowned by Pope Leo III as the Holy Roman Emperor and he remained emperor for fourteen years. The coronation took place at the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome and since then Charlemagne was called emperor and augustus [1] . Charlemagne’s coronation marked the beginning of the creation of the Holy Roman Empire. Bryce argues that, apart from the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire, his coronation marked also the importance of the Middle Ages; furthermore supports that if the ceremony had not taken place “the history of the world would have been different.” [2] Pope Leo took the decision to crown Charles because: a) Charlemagne rescued him, b) Roman rebels could only be encountered by an Emperor; c) the throne of the empire was empty and in the East the throne was encroached by Irene. Charlemagne, from his side, saw his coronation as the only solution given to the problem of protecting the papacy from the Eastern Empire. Moreover, it was his opportunity to become equal in prominence with the East emperor.

There are several accounts concerning the background of the coronation of Charlemagne. Going first, Einhard, was the Frankish court scholar and advisor, as well as Charles’s friend. His account of the events was written after Charlemagne died. According to Einhard, King Charles felt responsible to keep “the church of St. Peter… safe and protected” as well as “to restore the Church” after “the inhabitants of Rome had violently attacked Pope Leo, putting out his eyes and cutting off his tongue, and had forced him to flee to the King for help.” [3] Moreover, Einhard supports that the king was unaware of the coronation and that the events that took place were arranged only by the Pope. What Einhard in particularly says is that not only had the Pope planned the coronation all by himself, but also that Charlemagne did not desired to be an Imperial Emperor. However, it should be taken into consideration that Einhard’s work is modeled upon biographies of other imperial writers, especially Suetonius. Thus, he may have been trying to present Charlemagne as the great person who did have the qualifications to be an Emperor but did not want to be one. When a person did not want the power, but deserved it, he would take it anyway. Bearing in mind that Einhard wanted to be a Roman imperial writer, his work and what he supports have to viewed with caution and not taken into account as completely accurate. In addition, Einhard had a great respect for King Charles, so much, that it has possibly affected his writing.

The second account is the biography of Pope Leo III (Liber pontificalis) that provides a different presentation of the coronation in 800 A.D. This biography argues that Pope Leo arranged the coronation of Charles as an Imperial Emperor to reward him for “the defense that he gave and the love that he bore for the holy Roman Church and her Vicar…” [4] The problem that has to do with this source is the point of view it presents: The events presented in the bibliography are in favour of Pope Leo and that is possibly because clergymen involved with the papal court were responsible of collecting papal bibliographies.

The third source is a monastic chronicle, named the “Lorsch Annals”, supporting that the coronation was planned not only by the Pope, but the holy fathers as well. In addition, it is argued that there was an agreement between the Pope, the holy fathers and the people of Rome that Charlemagne should be crowned as Emperor.

Finally, the third source is the account from the Frankish Royal Annals, written by people connected to the Frankish court. In contrast with the other three sources, the Frankish Royal Annals are focusing on Charles and present Leo’s role as minimal. The source refers to how Charlemagne was admired and loved by all of the population and how much all wanted him to be an Imperial Emperor.

According to the historiography of this period, there are three possibilities: the coronation was desired and planned either by a) Pope Leo alone, b) by Charlemagne alone or c) by both Pope Leo and Charlemagne.

Pope Leo III was not that much wanted in the Church and from the start of his papacy he had to encounter several issues. In addition his relationship with nobility was nearly terrible. He definitely needed protection – an emperor-provided protection. Inside Leo’s head things were simple: the Frankish King Charles had to be crowned as Imperial Emperor in order to protect and restore the pope’s position and prestige in Rome. Moreover, the Pope saw in Charles personality a strong believer of Christianity, who could protect and defend Christianity [5] . The Pope’s decision of crowing Charlemagne was also influenced by the fact that Irene encroached the Eastern throne in 797. In addition to that, Leo desired to gain freedom from the restraints of the Eastern Empire, and therefore, freedom to achieve his political goals. An emperor-provided protection in the West would possibly make the Church keep its secular authority. Most of Latin Christendom was outside imperial control and, also, by the middle of the eighth century, Rome and the lands of central Italy that were controlled by the Roman Church were no longer part of the Byzantine Empire. [6] Moreover, the Lombard kingdom seemed to be a threat for papacy and the East seemed unable to protect it. Thus, a different relationship was formed between the Carolingian rulers of the Franks and the papacy. The Carolingians were needed for military reasons and to prevent the Byzantines from intervening in Italy. The coronation initiated the process of liberation from the Byzantines. Thus, Leo’s need for safety, in addition to the personality of Charles, and Irene’s usurpation of the throne, may have made the Pope crown Charles as the Imperial Emperor.

The “Lorsch Annals” give us a description of Charlemagne’s assembly of December 800. The discussion here is not the settling of the problems of Pope Leo. It is discussion about the problems in Rome and how the empire should be restored. Therefore it can be said that Pope Leo “hid” himself behind the problems of the Empire’s restoration, when, in fact, it was himself he was trying to protect. The “Lorsh Annals” description is as follows: “Since there was no longer an emperor in the land of the Greeks and they all were under the domination of a woman, it seemed to Pope Leo and to all the fathers who sat in the assembly, as well as to the whole Christian people, that they should give the name of emperor to king of the Franks, to Charles, who occupied Rome, where the Caesars had customarily resided, and also Italy, Gaul, and Germany. Because Almighty God had consented to place these lands under his authority, it seemed right, according to the desire of the whole Christian people, that Charles should also bear the imperial title.” [7] 

Despite the fact that Charlemagne had imperial objectives, the coronation’s organisation seems to have been arranged mainly by the Pope. Einhard supports that King Charles expressed unwillingness upon this decision of Leo. Charlemagne reacted negatively not because he did not want the Imperial title, but because he believed that he should not be crowded as emperor by a humiliated Pope. It was more of a prestige issue. However, little doubt remains that he was not aware of the coronation. Evidence can be found in Riché’s book, where a court poet mentions King Charles as “head of the world and summit of Europe, the new Augustus who reigns in a New Rome.” [8] 

The last thing to be mentioned is the tension between the West and the East caused by the coronation. Einhard describes this tension: “Once he (Charlemagne) had accepted the title, he endured with great patience the jealousy of the so-called Roman Emperors, who were most indignant at what had happened. He overcame their hostility only by the sheer strength of his personality, which was much more forceful than theirs. He was forever sending messengers to them, and in his dispatches he called them his brothers.” [9] Charlemagne always tried to have a balanced relationship with the East, since he believed in the equality between the former and the West. His attempts, however, had no response.

In conclusion, the three reasons mentioned for the coronation of Charlemagne by Leo are all true in a way. The papacy was certainly reluctant to lose its power to the East and therefore saw Charlemagne as its protector. Therefore, the relationship that was formed between the Carolingians and the Pope marked the collapse of partnership between the East and the West Empire. Einhard describes the tension that the coronation caused between the East and Charlemagne: “Once he had accepted the title, he endured with great patience the jealousy of the so-called Roman Emperors, who were most indignant at what had happened. He overcame their hostility only by the sheer strength of his personality, which was much more forceful than theirs. He was forever sending messengers to them, and in his dispatches he called them his brothers.” [10] There is little doubt that Charlemagne did not look forward to his coronation and the Imperial title. He, however, tried to support the idea of equality between the West and the East. The most significant aspect, though, of the coronation of Charlemagne comes from the restoration of the Roman Church. On the one hand the restoration strengthened the relationship between Church and secular power in the West. On the other hand, it made worse the relationship between the East and West Empire. Monica Fleener [11] argues that the coronation of Charlemagne in 800 A.D. marked the formation of Western Unity. She supports that this is because when Pope Leo sought help from Charlemagne, in order to cope with the problems he had in Italy, Charlemagne responded positively. In addition, that respond, meant the separation of the West and the East, the Roman and the Byzantium Empire. And it was exactly the separation of the West and the North that led to the construction of Europe. The coronation of Charles thus indicated the beginning of Europe.


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