Europe and the Church, Part 7: Charlemagne, Father of Modern Europe

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Europe and the Church, Part 7

Charlemagne, Father of Modern Europe

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He may have been crowned over 1,200 years ago, but Charlemagne still inspires people. The people of his capital city of Aachen, the spiritual and political capital of Western Europe 1,200 years ago, each year present the Charlemagne Prize to the person who has contributed the most to the fulfillment of the present-day goal of European unity. This coveted award was named after the man who is considered the founder of Western culture.

Readers of the British newsmagazine The Economist see his name every week at the end of the European news section. “Our weekly column on the European Union is named after one of the continent’s early unifiers: Charlemagne, born in 742 and crowned first Holy Roman Emperor in 800,” states the magazine’s Web site.

This column about the development of the EU’s “ever closer union” illustrates the link between Charlemagne’s medieval empire and today’s EU.

Charlemagne is a towering figure in European history. Crowned by the pope on Dec. 25 in the year 800, his dream of a united Catholic Europe, a revival of the Roman Empire, still inspires millions of Europeans today.

After Justinian

Following the death of the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian in 565 (see part 6 of this series in the November 2008 issue), the reunited empire again fell apart. For a brief moment, the “two legs” of West and East had been brought together once again under the leadership of one emperor, but after his death “the imperial restoration” crumbled.

The Eastern Empire, ruled from Constantinople, continued to decay until 1453 when it fell to the invading Turks, one of the monumental events that led to the creation of our modern world.

In the West, the empire fragmented into warring kingdoms and tribes. Eventually, a powerful kingdom rose in the West, the kingdom of the Franks, ruled by the Merovingian kings. Founded by Chlodio in A.D. 427, their most famous monarch was Clovis (481-511), who was baptized a Catholic on Christmas Day in 496 along with 3,000 of his warriors.

Clovis’s baptism makes him the first Catholic king of the dynasty. The distinctive mark of authority of these dynastic kings was long hair, from which they believed they received their great power.

In 751 the dynasty was overthrown in a palace coup that was inspired by the pope. Replacing the last of the Merovingians, Childeric III, was Pepin the Short, the first monarch of the Carolingian dynasty.

Pope Stephen II (752-757) later commanded that the last Merovingian king’s long hair be ritually shorn. He then ended his days in a monastery. However, the bloodline of the Merovingians survived through marriage, in the line of the dukes of Hapsburg-Lorraine. The Hapsburgs ruled Austria for centuries until 1918 and remain a powerful European family to this day.

The Carolingian dynasty

The name of the new dynasty derived from Pepin’s father, Charles (Carolus) Martel, who had served his king as mayor of the palace before Pepin. Charles was known as “The Hammer” for his defeat of the Saracens at the Battle of Tours in October 732. This famous battle stopped the advancing Muslims from conquering the whole of Europe after their subjugation of most of Spain. In celebration of the Frankish victory, the bakers of nearby Paris created the croissant , shaped like the Islamic symbol of the crescent moon.

Thanks to this victory, the Franks were seen as the greatest power in the West and the saviors of Western civilization against Islam. The papacy was deeply grateful, long since having given up on the decaying power of Constantinople to the East. The Catholic Church now looked to the Carolingians as their protector.

The next threat to the Catholic Church came from the Germanic Lombards who were occupying much of Italy and wanted the rest, including the temporal Papal States ruled from Rome. When the Lombards threatened Rome, Pope Stephen II crossed the Alps seeking Pepin’s winter camp to request assistance. He personally anointed and crowned Pepin as king and blessed his sons and heirs, thereby establishing a close relationship between church and state that was to continue after Pepin.

Pepin responded positively to the pope’s request and defeated the Lombards, granting the conquered territory to the pope as a gift that became known as the “Donation of Pepin.”

Following Pepin’s death in 768, his sons Carloman and Charles succeeded to the throne. In 771 Carloman died under mysterious circumstances, and Charles became sole ruler.

At age 27, Charles was a commanding figure. He was at least a foot above average height at 7 feet, stately and dignified, warmhearted and charitable. He spoke a form of Old High German. He was well known for his zeal and devotion to the Roman Catholic Church. His goal was to reestablish the political unity of Western Europe, an area that had been largely fragmented and divided since the fall of the Western Empire.

During the following three decades, Charles the Great (Charlemagne) fought 18 campaigns against the last remaining stronghold of paganism, the German Saxons. In 804 the defeated tribes of Saxons were forcibly Christianized and incorporated into Charlemagne’s empire.

During his long reign, Charlemagne conducted 53 military expeditions in wars against 12 different nations, thereby uniting by conquest most of Western Europe.

When the Lombards again threatened Rome and the papacy in 772, Charles received an urgent appeal for help from Pope Adrian I. Defeating the Lombards in 774, Charles became master of Italy. Charles took the title Rex Francorum et Longobardorum atque Patricius Romanorum (“King of the Franks and Lombards and Patrician of the Romans”). The Iron Crown of the Lombards became one of the great symbols of Europe and was to be used by many European sovereigns, including Napoleon over a thousand years later.

Charles had now united Italy for the first time in centuries. He donated even more territory to the papacy. The monarchy of the Franks and the papacy were now partners in the defense of Western civilization!

“What Charles was not prepared to do was yield to the pope any degree of political preeminence. He had responded as a dutiful son to the [pope’s] appeal. He had invested an enormous amount of energy and time in disposing once and for all Rome’s enemies. But he was determined to set his own agenda. He would not be dictated to by the pope, no matter what spiritual arm-twisting the latter might try to use.

“In this nascent Christian empire claims were already being made, and questions posed, about the balance of spiritual and temporal power. On the one side was the authority claimed by Hadrian and succeeding popes to dictate, in the name of God, even to kings and emperors. On the other was the divine sanction that Charlemagne and his heirs asserted as men exercising rule under God in all the affairs of their subjects…The first round of this contest, which was destined to run for centuries, was clearly won by Charles” (Derek Wilson, Charlemagne , 2006, p. 42).

Charlemagne’s relationship with the papacy was clearly an uneven one and set the tone for centuries, thereby fulfilling the prophecy of Revelation 17:1-2 Revelation 17:1-2 1 And there came one of the seven angels which had the seven vials, and talked with me, saying to me, Come here; I will show to you the judgment of the great whore that sits on many waters: 2 With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication.
American King James Version×
: “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters [the false church], with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication…”

Unlike a marriage, where a husband and wife give themselves to each other in a committed and lasting relationship, fornication is based on each partner trying to get, seeking his or her own advantage! So it has been in the relationship between church and state in Europe for most of the last 2,000 years.

Emperor of the Romans

In 795 Pope Leo III was given protection by Charlemagne after accusations of adultery, perjury and simony (attempting to buy one’s way into religious office) were made against him. In November 800 Charlemagne presided over the trial in Rome. After swearing his innocence on a copy of the Gospels, Pope Leo was cleared and reinstated on Dec. 23.

On the same day an emissary of the caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid, arrived in Rome carrying keys to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The keys were presented to Charlemagne, thereby symbolizing the caliph’s recognition of him as the protector of the Christian holy places in the Holy Land, now under the caliph’s rulership.

Remaining in Rome, the king of the Franks attended a nativity service on Christmas Day, two days later. The central event of the Middle Ages was about to take place! As Charles knelt before the altar in worship, there was a hush throughout the church. As the king rose from prayer, the pope turned suddenly and placed a golden crown on his head, proclaiming him Imperator Romanorum , “Emperor of the Romans.”

More than three centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, the West once again had its own emperor!

The idea of a united Western and Catholic Roman Empire had been revived. Once again, a Roman Caesar reigned, only this time he was of Germanic origin! The foundation of the medieval Holy Roman Empire had been laid. Charlemagne was a German inspired by the spirit of ancient Rome. A close relationship between Germany’s leaders and the papacy had begun and would continue down to modern times.

Edward Gibbon, looking down the long corridor of history, insisted: ” Europe dates a new era from [Charlemagne’s] restoration of the Western empire” (quoted by Derek Wilson, p. 82).

Charlemagne’s empire was the second of the “seven mountains on which the woman sits” (Revelation 17:9 Revelation 17:9And here is the mind which has wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sits.
American King James Version×
). Because he was crowned by the pope, the people saw him as having been crowned by God. The implication was that the pope had the authority to give power and to take it away. This was to lead to much conflict between church and state throughout Western Europe in the centuries that followed. For a while following the coronation of Charlemagne, the two were joint sovereigns of the world!

In 803 Charlemagne had the words “Renovatio Romani Imperii” (“Renewal of the Roman Empire”) stamped on his official seal. Charlemagne began organizing his empire on the Roman model, setting a precedent for future European monarchs down to the 20th century.

In 812 he received recognition from the Eastern Roman Emperor Michael I. The two halves of the empire were equal. However, the relationship between East and West was never to be the same again (see sidebar “ The Making of Emperor and Empire “).

But the power of Charlemagne’s empire was not to last. On Jan. 28, 814, Charlemagne died at the age of 71. He was succeeded by his weak and ineffectual son Louis, who reigned until 840. Following Louis’s death, the empire was racked by civil war as Louis’s three sons fought among themselves. The Treaty of Verdun in 843 divided the empire into three parts, and Western Europe fell into warring feudal states.

The second imperial restoration had fallen! More were to follow. WNP