chapter twenty-four

The Reign of Charlemagne ushers in the Birth of the Holy Roman Empire Alliance

    Continuing with the twenty fourth chapter of this on-going mega-series THE HISTORY OF THE MASS AND HOLY MOTHER CHURCH we now deal with the late 8th Century and beginning of the 9th Century which ushered in officially the advent of the Holy Roman Empire with the coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor, a title conferred by Pope Leo III in 800.

    Both the previous Pope Stephen III and the previous Frankish King Pippin, father of Charlemagne (Charles), had passed away before 772 was "wet behind the ears." On February 9, 772 the electorate selected Pope Hadrian Ias the ninty fifth successor of Saint Peter. He came from noble Roman stock but was orphaned as a child, reared by his powerful uncle Theodotus who began grooming Hadrian for the papacy at an early age. As we saw in the last chapter, the Lombard king Desiderius had tried to coerce Charles into a union that would give the former more power and diminish the control of the Holy See by giving his own daughter to Charles in marriage. However Charles, loyal to the Pope, discovered the treacherous machinations and immediately disowned the Lombard woman. From that time on Charles became mortal enemies with the Lombards which would subsequently bond the Holy See and the Franks ever closer. In addition, Charles' brother Carloman who Pippin had left half the empire to, had died and his heirs took refuge with Desiderius, further infuriating Charles. During the late winter of 772 and early 773 Desiderius again marched on Rome, testing Hadrian's resolve and strength. The Pope was up to the task, meeting the Lombard ruler at the Tiber River and threatening excommunication if he came further. What Desiderius did not know is that Hadrian had appealed to Charles for assistance. In the fall of 773 Charles answered the pontiff's plea by descending on the Lombard capital of Pavia. After a lengthy campaign that lasted late into the spring of 774, the Frankish king finally captured the depleted Lombard kingdom. When Desiderius was felled in battle Charles proclaimed himself "king of the Lombards. On Easter Charles made a surprise visit to Hadrian at St. Peter's. The two agreed to implement the territorial promises decreed by Charles' father Pippin to the Apostle Peter and Pope Stephen II. Charles drew up a new decree or "instrument of donation" and signed it, reaffirming his father's pledge to protect papal lands as well as promising the Holy See that Rome would get at least 2/3 to 3/4 of Italian territories as part of the Church's kingdom. It was not only a reward to the Pope but also a signal to the world that the Church, perceived as becoming more influential, was now in full alignment with the Frankish kingdom which was rapidly expanding. Through the Church's cooperation, Charles knew he could not only conquer more territories, but also reform the Frankish Church bringing it more in line with the Latin rite for he had been raised in the faith and fervently wanted to spread Catholicism to all he conquered. He was a true warrior, ruthless in battle, but lenient in peace and negotiations, promoting Christian doctrine wherever he went, stressing the teaching of Latin, the copying of manuscripts through the monastic way, and upholding the rule of the law both for the growing Empire and for Holy Mother Church. It was a blend of tradition and innovation in an agenda that would become the basis for European civilization for the second millennium.

    Spurred on by his success in Italy and the full backing of the Pope, Charles embarked on the campaign to conquer and Christianize the Saxons. Though he was successful, the campaign dragged on for 30 years. In 778 after losing his trusted rear guard Roland while fighting in Spain, he turned his attention to Bavaria where he claimed that land in 791. This was followed by the conquests of Hungary and Austria by 796.

    Meanwhile in Rome, benefiting from the peaceful conditions which Charles ensured, Hadrian began building new churches as well as restoring and beautifying numerous sanctuaries in the eternal city. In addition he strengthened the walls of Rome and the banks of the Tiber in case of attack, including the round turret overlooking the Tiber which connected directly to the Vatican by way of tunnel which is today called "Hadrian's Tomb." Pope Hadrian also rebuilt four of the great Roman aqueducts. But he did not concentrate solely on temporal matters, for he was very devoted to fostering monastic institutions who would care for the poor and instituted church-run farms just outside the walls where food could be grown for distribution to the poor. One such farm was able to produce enough to feed over 100 people daily. In 787 Hadrian convened the 7th Ecumenical Council in Nicea, called Nicea II in which iconoclasm, the worship of images, was condemned. The council fathers laid out rules to govern this, allowing images and icons in churches but for the specific purpose of praying to them for intercession, not worship, and as memorials to the saints as reminders of the ideals they represent for all Catholics. Hadrian succumbed on Christmas day, 795 and Charles grieved greatly at the loss of this man he considered a brother. Charles had Masses said for the Pope throughout his kingdom and contracted to have a magnificent marble memorial slab sent to the Holy See on which was inscribed his inner feelings toward Hadrian. It can be seen today in the portico of St. Peter's Basilica.

    A day later the college of cardinals swiftly elected a successor, choosing another Roman Pope Saint Leo III. Leo's first act was to inform Charles of his election and continue the rapport built up by his predecessor by sending the Frankish king the keys of Peter's tomb and the banner of Rome. One of Leo's trials during his pontificate was the opposition of Hadrian's nephew Paschalis whom the latter had advanced to chief notary. The nepotism turned some against Paschalis, while others sided with him in their quest for control. One of these was Campulus, the papal purse-keeper or treasurer, so to speak. Things got so vicious that on April 25, 799 during a papal procession enroute to say Mass, Leo was violently attacked by a gang organized by Paschalis and Campulus in an attempt to slay the Pope and take over control of the Vatican. Through the grace of God Leo was spared of any serious harm though they threatened to cut off his tongue and gouge his eyes. However those friendly to the Pope rescued him and stole him away to Charles in Paderborn who received him warmly. But Leo was still not out of the woods for his accusers presented their case at the court of Charles accusing the Pope, though falsely, of adultery and perjury. These were charges that had always been taken very seriously in Frankish circles and Charles was baffled as to what to do, but the king's advisor the holy English-born Saint Alcuin argued on Leo's behalf, reminding Charles that no earthly power could judge the Apostolic See. Charles, still not sure what to do, had Leo escorted safely back to Rome with full protection. In November Charles himself returned to Rome where he was given an imperial-like reception similar to what the Roman Emperors had been used to in earlier times. While there Charles investigated further and announced formally that the charges were false. With that Leo was acquitted and his accusers sentenced to death. However, in a saintly act similar to our own Holy Father Pope John Paul II's forgiveness of his would-be assassin, Leo asked for mercy, begging they be exiled rather than be executed. Charles relented and Paschalis, Campulus and the other rascals were forever silenced, sent into exile never to be heard from again. This was on December 23rd, 800. Two days later an event would take place that would enconce the Holy Roman Empire for centuries to come.

    On Christmas Day just as Leo was beginning to celebrate the Mass before an overflowing congregation, he approached Charles who had been praying at the tomb of St. Peter. The king knelt before the Holy Father who placed an imperial crown on Charles' head proclaiming his royalty to all. The massive throngs spontaneously began to applaud wildly and acclaimed him Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The "Peace King" was now the Pacifying Emperor. They shouted out Carolus Magnus which means in Latin "Charles the Great" which in French is "Charlemagne" - the name he would have forevermore. It was the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire, though it would not officially be called that until the 11th Century, but it was the final foundation stone that would strengthen Rome's influence throughout Europe. The Pope had hoped to restore the Roman Western Empire which had deteriorated with the rise of the Eastern Byzantine Empire. Now, with the Byzantine Empire on the downslide, St. Leo felt this was the rebirth of the Western Empire. But Charlemagne knew no boundaries and preferred Holy Roman Emperor to the plain "Roman Emperor" because he felt his mission as ruler was a holy cause. Charlemagne enhanced the culture of the regions he conquered, assembling scholars from all over Europe and delagated administration of the empire to well over 200 royal adminstrators he called "counts." He issued hundreds of decrees which were called "capitularies" which covered a wide spectrum of judicial, military, and ecclesiastical matters. Many believe because of his new title and the drive to pacify the nations he had conquered and his desire to share culture and the True Faith and rule justly over all his subjects that he lost the quest to conquer more lands. That and the mellowing of age confirms that after 800 Charlemagne did not expand his territories. He was already concerned about defending his lands from the new threat from the north, the Vikings who had begun even before the turn of the 9th Century to ravage the coastal areas and river valleys of his northern regions. After 800 Charlemagne ordered his troops on the defense to guard against raids by the Vikings.

    Pope Leo III strove to compliment all the achievements of Charlemagne by following the ideals of his predecessor in refurbishing the Roman churches that had been neglected for so long. Though Leo was a very efficient administrator of papal affairs, he garnered many enemies. Perhaps it was his manner, perhaps it was the strong ties to royalty; whatever it was, it haunted the pontiff throughout his papacy. Leo kept up a strong relationship with the Church on English soil, reinstating King Eardulf of Northumbria to the throne there as well as settling disputes that had arisen between the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.

    In 813, Charlemagne at the age of 71 designated that his only surviving son Louis become the Holy Roman Emperor, personally crowning him shortly before his own death in 814. Throughout all of the medieval times, Charlemagne would always be known as the most influential ruler of Europe. When he died Charlemagne left a legacy that would never be matched for during the reign of his successor son Louis fuedal strive would force the division of the empire and lead to the dissolution of the Frankish kingdom, ending the Carolingian line and open the door for the Germanic influence to enter into the equation as we shall see in the next installment. As for Pope Leo III he passed on two years after Charlemagne, dying on June 12, 816.