|The French Royal Tombs |
in the former Abbey Church of Saint Denis
For those who think linearly—and most people interested in history do—I owe an apology regarding my postings on Charlemagne. In the first place I should have kept them together and not interspersed them among the postings on clericalism that I had been doing before I went to Prague—though I have to say those postings got much more attention than these on Charlemagne. In the second place, I should have posted them in a different order—and begun with this one which explains how Charlemagne got to be king (and emperor) in the first place as neither did he nor his father come from the French royal line but where members of a family of hereditary civil servants. After explaining the ascension of his family to the throne, I should have posted the entry on the Carolingian Reformation: Roots of the Reformation VIII: Reformation or Reformations, and then Roots of the Reformation XI: Crown Control of the Church, but as Pontius Pilate used to say: Quod scripsi, scripsi.
We think of the Popes as having governed the Church continuously from Peter down to the present day but history tells us a very different story. There were times that the popes had great influence over the Church, even times when it did make its power felt beyond Rome and the towns and cities of central Italy and there were times where the bishop of Rome had now power and little influence beyond his own diocese. For example, at the time of Pope St Gregory the Great (590-604) papal influence (“power” is too strong a word for papal authority at the time) was felt in England and much of what is today France as well as throughout Italy. On the other hand, a century later, that influence was waning and the pope was little more than a name that was mentioned in the prayers of the Mass. Of course just that mention was not insignificant as he reminded people that Peter’s successor still governed the Church at Rome and Peter’s mystique was strong throughout the Church. In practical matters however, the Pope was pretty powerless. There were no papal writs authorizing the consecration of bishops; such decisions were entirely local. Bishops were pretty much supreme in their dioceses except where a strong Archbishop could—usually with royal backing—convince the bishops of his province to conform to his ideas. Bishops were chosen by the clergy of their dioceses—usually with the confirmation and blessing of the King or the local nobility.
In the eighth century papal power received an important boost due to a dynastic change in France. The Kings of the Franks were sacred persons—heirs of the great Clovis who had converted to Christianity in 496 and brought his people with him. Saint Remi had anointed Clovis with a heaven-sent chrism (or so the story goes) and thus he and his line, the Merovingian Kings of the Franks, were a God-chosen line to govern. As time passed, however, the Merovingians began to enjoy the kingship too much and allowed their prime ministers, the “Mayors of the Palace” to assume actual power. This office, like the kingship, became hereditary in the Pippinid family. The power and esteem of the Pippinds soon matched that of the royal house. In fact, because they were actually the holders of power, the popularity of the mayors of the palace exceeded that of the kings and when Mayor of the Palace Charles Martel drove the Muslim armies back across the Pyrenees after the Battle of Tours in 732, thus guaranteeing the independence of the French and the survival of the Christian faith, the Mayors of the Palace established themselves as the de facto rulers of France and the populace saw that the Merovingian Kings were redundant.
This provided too strong a temptation for the Mayors of the Palace and Charles Martel’s son, Pepin the Short. He was determined to take the crown for himself. Of course, Pepin needed some legitimacy to take the throne and not be seen as a mere usurper. Enter the pope. Pepin petitioned Pope Zachary asking whether a king who had no power was king at all? The answer came back that the one who held the power, not necessarily the one who had the lineage, was true king. This is a revolutionary doctrine and has implications for modern politics. On the pope’s word, Pepin deposed Childeric III, the last of the Merovingian kings. Childeric and his son were forced into the monastic life, ending the dynasty. Zachary’s successor, Stephen II, came to France and anointed and crowed Pepin in the royal necropolis at the Abbey Church of Saint Denis just north of Paris. Anointing and coronation in the burial church of the Frankish royalty gave Pepin a share in the legitimacy which had heretofore belonged to the Merovingian kings. Stephen also conferred on Pepin the title “Patrician (a nobleman) of the Romans” giving him a tie to Rome and its imperial heritage.
Of course the popes had some political motives for sponsoring a change of dynasty. History will show you that popes act from political expediency far more than from theological purism. Their own power in Italy was being challenged by the Lombards, a Germanic tribe who had invaded northern Italy and were threatening Rome. The popes looked to the new dynasty to protect papal power in Italy; Pepin’s son, Charlemagne (Carolus Magnus, Charles the Great) defeated the Lombards in 774 and absorbed them into the empire he was building.
Charlemagne would not only defend the papacy from the Lombards but would again become involved in defending a pope from the Roman nobility. The old and noble families of Rome were appalled when in 795 a commoner was chosen pope as Leo III. The nobility had seen that this office belonged by right to one of them. The nobility charged the pope with adultery and perjury. In 799, a gang of thugs, at the behest of the nobility, kidnapped Leo, and when the nobility declared him deposed, attempted to blind him and to cut out his tongue. He escaped them and fled to Paderborn where Charlemagne met him. Charlemagne investigated the charges against Leo. He then returned Leo to Rome for a formal hearing where the pope cleared himself by an oath and Charlemagne reinstated him. (Today we would never accept a person’s word, even a pope’s, that he was innocent but those were far more generous times. Or may just more naive. ) Two days later, on Christmas day 800, Leo, in turn, then crowned Charlemagne as Emperor of the Romans.
Charlemagne had a clear understanding of the role of the Pope and the Role of the Emperor. The Emperor was to protect the Church and manage its external affairs—which in Charlemagne’s eyes also meant to appoint bishops and other prelates. The Pope’s duty was to define the doctrines that united Christianity and to pray for the Emperor and the army whose task it was to protect the Church.