Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great, was ruler of the Franks for 47 years: 768-814 A.D. He served the last 14 years of his life as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Son of Pepin the Short and grandson of Charles Martel, he was an outstanding warrior and a fine orator, remembered for his intelligence and generosity. (1)
Before Charlemagne was crowned Emperor, there was a considerable amount of tension between the pope and Constantinople. Relations between them had been strained since the time of Justinian. In 753 AD pope Stephen III allied with Pepin the Short, the Frankish king, which insured the success of the Franks. This alliance with the Franks was important for the papacy. During the 8th century they were being threatened by Byzantine's rivals, the Lombards. Through military campaigns, the Lombard kings threatened to take over Rome and the papacy. For this reason, the papacy was in desperate need of protection. By the year 774 A.D. Charlemagne had succeeded his father as king of the Franks, and assumed kingship over the Lombards.
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Charlemagne was a successful warlord. He accomplished some military endeavor in nearly every year of his reign, which led to the expansion of his (Frankish) kingdom. One of the tactics he used to ensure the loyalty of his soldiers and government officials, was dispersing booty to them. Charlemagne was hailed as the "strong right arm of God" due to the fact that he often fought for Christianity, and through political order advanced it. He cherished the Church of St. Peter and the Apostle at Rome and would heap its treasury as well as send gifts to the popes. He had an especially close relationship with Pope Hadrian I. Charlemagne's desire was, first, to re-establish the authority of the city of Rome. It was obvious he greatly admired Rome, as even his palace featured Roman-inspired architecture and decoration. And secondly, Charlemagne sought to defend the Church of St. Peter. He used his authority to protect the ecclesiastical property and provide the church with support materially. This included the enforcement of the tithe, a 10% tax of income on all Christians to support the church.
In the year 800 A.D., Charlemagne had gone to Rome to help put the affairs of the church in order. On Christmas Day, in 800 A.D., while knelt in prayer in Saint Peter's, the pope crowned Charlemagne emperor by placing a gold crown on his head. This was the foundation of the Holy Roman Empire. To the Byzantines, this was outrageous. They felt that the pope had committed a serious breach of faith, as they looked on Charlemagne as a barbarian. This act proved how closely the church and the government were tied. For a short time, Charlemagne was able to restore the Western Roman Empire, while at the same time continuing to govern as king of the Franks and Lombards. Charlemagne believed that the government should work to benefit those it was serving and was continually working for reforms that would improve the lives of the people. He set up money standards to encourage commerce, urged better farming methods, and worked to encourage and spread education. (2)
Charlemagne himself crowned his youngest son, Louis (the only surviving child) as his successor in 813 A.D. at Aachen. The pope was not present at this coronation and had no role in it. The empire was passed on to Louis upon Charlemagne's death in 814 A.D. It was then that the empire suffered numerous attacks and was eventually divided.
Text copyright 1996-1999 by David W. Koeller. All rights reserved.