chapter twenty five

The Ripening of and Rips in the Holy Roman Empire in the first half of the Ninth Century

At the turn of the Ninth Century the Frankish Empire, or Carolingian Empire, or Holy Roman Empire consumed all of what is today France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Alsace-Lorraine and most of Italy. It was the most influential power in the world at that time. But, as we shall see, division, greed and royal family squabbling led to the unraveling of the magnificent empire Charlemagne had established.

With the death of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne in 814, and of Pope Saint Leo III on June 12 two years later the reigns were handed over to Charlemagne's son Louis and Leo's successor in the line of Peter - Pope Saint Stephen IV, born into a Roman aristocratic family and raised inside the Lateran under Pope Hadrian I. Stephen was selected as the 97th successor on June 22, 816. With his election he became the first pontiff to be elected since the Carolingian empire or Holy Roman Empire was established. Stephen's first act was to convince the Roman populace to swear allegiance to Louis, then sent envoys to Louis in France to announce this loyalty as well as requesting a meeting between the new Emperor and new Pope. In October 816 Stephen traveled to Rheims, France where he was welcomed with an elaborate celebration of the Mass and where Pope Stephen crowned Louis with the "crown of Constantine" as "King of the Franks" with his wife Ermengarda as "Queen of the Franks." The Holy Father bestowed the title "Louis the Pious" on the ruler. While it was the first anointing of a ruler by a pontiff, it was also spiritually refreshing for Louis' position which stated categorically that to excercise full imperial power it was necessary to have the full approval and cooperation of the Pope. During his stay in Rheims, Stephen worked out agreements with Louis to assure protection of the Papal States and the freedom of Papal Elections. He also sought an oath from the Emperor that would avoid internal insurrection or worse, rebellion, by anyone within the Church as had happened with his predecessor Leo III. With all in accord Stephen headed back to Rome, loaded down with many gifts including the deed to a royal villa outside of Treyes. Three months after returning to Rome Stephen passed on to his Heavenly reward on January 24, 817.

Immediately the next day the conclave elected another Roman-born, Lateran-educated man to succeed Stephen. He was Pope Saint Paschal I, practically a carbon-copy of Stephen and well-accepted by Louis who presented him the Islands of Corsica and Sardinia as lavish gifts. Paschal reciprocated by crowning Louis' son Lothair as co-emperor with the royal couple's blessing. During Paschal's pontificate he worked tirelessly to restore the catacombs, assigning excavating crews that recovered over 2,300 martyrs. In 822 Louis sent Archbishop Ebbo of Rheims, whom the King had chosen to evangelize the Danish people, to Rome so that Paschal could commission him. This the Pope did along with Halitgar of Cambria to Christianize the northern territories where Saint Ansgar, considered the "Apostle of the North" was already sowing fruits. We shall treat Ansgar in subsequent paragraphs.

Because of Paschal's close bond with the Franks, anti-Frankish factions arose in Rome and things came to a head shortly after Lothair's visit in 823 after Paschal had again anointed the co-emperor in an elaborate ceremony on Easter Sunday at the Vatican. In the late spring of 823 the rebels stole away in the night Lothair's chief notary Theodore and Leo the nomenclator, both of whom had been left behind to finish some business. They blinded them with hot irons, then beheaded the two agents right in the Lateran. Because of the place of death, they spread rumors throughout Rome that Paschal was responsible for this dastardly deed. Louis dispatched an investigating commission to Rome to clear things up and Paschal was eventually acquitted, but the distractions prevented him from accomplishing more as well as disintigrating his popularity with the people. In truth, Paschal suffered from being guilty before being proven innocent. Meanwhile, in the east iconoclasm reared its ugly head once more under the Armenian Byzantine Emperor Leo V but Paschal was impaired in assisting those seeking refuge because of his sticky situation with the murders. Because of this, his popularity dropped so much that a mighty roar of approval rose from the masses when his death was announced on February 11, 824. Many believe he died of a broken heart.

It took three months for the conclave to select Paschal's successor. When they did, they elected Pope Eugene II on May 11, 824. He, too, was a Roman and had been strongly endorsed by both Louis and Lothair. His first act was to pledge loyalty to the Sovereignity of the Holy Roman Empire. In return Louis sent his son to Rome to officially acknowledge Eugene's papacy and subsequently the two collectively published the 'Roman Constitution' on November 11, 824 which marked the apex of the Frankish influence on the papacy. The constitution not only righted any wrongs that had been done during Paschal's rule, but re-established a tradition that had been suspended in 769 at the Synod under Pope Stephen III. That tradition was that the lay people of Rome as well as the clergy would take part in papal elections provided they took an oath of loyalty to the Holy Roman Emperor. This constitution clearly stipulated that the sovereignity of the Emperor was higher than that of the Pope and many Italians began to feel resentment. However, due to Pope Eugene's convening a synod at the Lateran in November 826, much of this was ratified to reaffirm that in spiritual matters the Papacy was independant of the Frankish empire. The synod established numerous disciplinary canon reforms including the qualifications and duties of bishops, monastic arrangements, the matter of simony, the mandate of Sunday observance for Holy Mass and education of clerics. The latter gave rise to Eugene instituting the concept of seminaries which comes from the Latin "seminarium" which means "to seed." Eugene not only was responsible for beginning the seminary system, but also the origin of the present Roman Curia. One other issue that arose during his papacy was iconoclasm. As we mentioned a paragraph ago, Leo V had sought to suppress the veneration of images and his successor Emperor Michael II was just as intent but showed more reserve, going around Eugene straight to Louis. Louis studied the sides and declared that the findings of the Second Council of Nice were in error, subsequently censuring the Holy Father for covering up the error. But Pope Eugene II, adamant in upholding the Council Fathers of Nice II, would not budge and Louis, wisely, did not interfere further. It was another example of spiritual matters taking precedence over temporal matters regarding papal rule and how the Papacy would stand strong against any temporal power in religious matters.

Eugene's pontificate was marked with a burning desire to evangelize to the pagans throughout the known world. In 826 he commissioned St. Ansgar to preach throughout Denmark and Scandinavia with a handful of devoted companions. The King of Denmark, King Harold had been exiled from his country and sought shelter in Louis' court. Louis gave Harold an offer he couldn't refuse. If Harold would agree to be baptized along with his family and entire court of 400 attendants, Louis would reinstate the Danish King as rightful heir to the throne of Denmark. Harold agreed and after being received into the Church, escorted Ansgar and his companions back to Denmark with military protection provided by Louis. Ansgar, only 25 at the time, was appointed Archbishop of Hamburg as well as the ambassador to the Holy Roman Empire for both Denmark and Sweden, not to mention the papal legate to these peoples. Because of his work in Denmark, the Swedish King Bjorn invited Ansgar into his country where Ansgar built the first Catholic church in Scandinavia. For 40 more years he would labor in God's vinyard, dodging the fierce Vikings while effecting countless conversions. Before the fruits of this mission could be manifested, Eugene died on August 27, 827.

Eugene's successor was Pope Valentine, the one hundredth successor in the line of Peter chosen chiefly by the Roman lay nobility on September 1, 827. Unfortunately, this beloved Roman-born Pope known for his goodness, piety and charity and who had been personally groomed by Paschal I, lived less than a month passing on the same year on September 16th. Valentine's successor lived considerably longer, nearly 17 full years to be exact. Four days after Valentine's death, the electorate selected Pope Gregory IV, a cardinal from San Marco in Rome. Approval of his election was delayed a few months because of troubles within the Carolingian line of the Franks. Louis was now getting on in age and his three sons were all vying for the top spot. Though it seemed Lothair was the natural heir, Louis' other two sons Pepin IV and Louis the German plotted against their father and convinced Lothair to join them. Lothair made a pilgrimage to Rome to solicit the support of the Pope and Gregory IV agreed, accompanying the co-emperor back to France by way of the Alps. When they reached France, Gregory strove to promote peace and to explain his position that the Holy Roman Empire would be stronger under Lothair and his brothers than the aged and ailing Louis. The Frankish bishops didn't agree and they strongly reminded the Pope of his loyalty oath and if he persisted they, the bishops, would have him deposed and excommunicated. But Gregory stood strong, reminding them that the authority of the direct successors to Peter were supreme and that in his role as Pope he had to care more for the soul - their spiritual welfare, than their bodies - their temporal welfare. No matter how hard he tried he could not stem the rebellion and during the summer of 833 the armies of Lothair, Pepin and Louis the younger engaged in battle with Louis' legions. As the fighting intensified Lothair dispatched Gregory to Louis' camp under the guise of negotiating which the peace-loving pontiff felt was the best course, but unbeknownst to the Pope, Lothair was setting Gregory up for a fall. Louis, too, was duped and both were forced to unconditionally surrender to Lothair and his troops. Gregory was sent packing back to Rome humiliated and betrayed. From that day on the Pope regretted getting involved in anyway, peaceful as his intentions were, in this "field of lies" as he called the battlefield in France. The following spring Louis was able to regain his position of power and three years later, putting past discretions behind, opted to reconcile with Rome by making a pilgrimage to the Pope's quarters not only to reopen relations but to fully detach himself from his blood sons because of the blood they had shed. By this time blood was running so thick that blood brothers had turned on each other fighting for full control. This so disturbed Louis that he died on June 20, 840. Despite Louis' death, Gregory, ever the pacifist, continued to try to mediate among the warring brothers but to little avail though some believe he was instrumental in helping bring about the Treaty of Verdun in 843 which split the Frankish kingdom into three sections among Charlemagne's three warring grandsons. Just as 844 dawned God took Gregory home on January 11, 844. The Empire was now divided in three, cracks were appearing in Charlemagne's once-invincible fortress of land and pact he had forged. In the next issue we will cover the next twenty five years beginning with the struggles of Pope Sergius II and Pope Saint Leo IV. Two popes who were on a totally different axis philosophy-wise. As we shall see, it was Leo who would rescue Rome from the jaws of the Saracen sword in the next installment.