When the people of western Europe awoke on this day, December 26, 800, they had an emperor again. On Christmas Day, as King Charles of France knelt in prayer before the altar of the church of St. Peter's in Rome, Pope Leo III suddenly placed a golden crown on his head.
The Roman people shouted three times, "To Charles Augustus, crowned by God, the great and pacific emperor of the Romans, life and victory!" Charles was reverenced by the pope and called Emperor and Augustus, after the manner of the leaders of ancient Rome.
What led up to this dramatic event? Three hundred years and more had passed since the collapse of the Roman Empire in western Europe. Many elements were at work. For one thing, the popes owed the Franks a great debt for their preservation in recent years. Charles Martel had turned back the Muslim invasion of Europe and Peppin had subdued the Lombards. Another reason for the pope to crown Charles was to show Rome's independence from the Greek Empire in Constantinople. Since the days of Constantine in the fourth century, the eastern part of the Roman Empire had increased in authority and power. In Charles, King of the Franks, the pope had found a new Constantine to head a revived western empire.
To be sure, Charles was an empire-builder. He had become master of the French kingdom in 768 and used his military might to forcibly bring the German tribes under his authority, forcing them to accept baptism and become Christians. His cruelty has been blamed for the Viking invasions which troubled Europe for over a century. His dominion stretched from the Baltic Sea to the British Channel to Rome itself. Charles worked diligently to provide a good, unified organization for his vast empire.
When King Charles returned to France after being crowned emperor, he forced his subjects to take an oath to him as Caesar. He re-established the Roman Empire on a Teutonic base.
The coronation of Charles sparked much debate during the middle ages. At issue was what relationship of church to state. Did the act of crowning the emperor show the pope's superior authority as giver of the empire to King Charles? Charles didn't think so. He continued to rule as the divinely appointed protector of the church, appointing bishops as well as counts to office.
He was not only the first, but possibly the greatest of the emperors from the eighth through the nineteenth century. He restored education, improved law, supported the church, backed Alcuin's attempts to produce an accurate Bible and in many other ways did much that was good. In France, his name was blended with his greatness, and he is known as Charlemagne.
- Based on an earlier Christian History Institute story.
- Bell, Mrs. Arthur. Saints in Christian Art. London: George Bell, 1901 - 1904. Source of the image.
- Einhard and Nokter the Stammerer. Two Lives of Charlemagne. Penguin, 1969.
- Winston, Richard. Charlemagne; from the hammer to the cross. New York: Vintage, 1954.
- Various encyclopedia articles.
Last updated July, 2007