A Reluctant Icon: Charlemagne (Hangin’ with the Carolingians part 1)

[In the next few weeks, I will be publishing a series of articles under the heading: “Hangin’ with the Carolingians.” The Carolingian dynasty, which encompassed nearly two centuries (AD 686-840), is a fascinating era. This series will begin with a discussion on the high point of the period, the crowning of Charlemagne as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire on Christmas Day, AD 800.]


Can a fallen empire be reborn? The answer is tricky. During the Mesopotamian Bronze Age, several proto-empires passed in and out of world power – the most notable being the Egyptians and the Assyrians/Babylonians. From the Iron Age forward, however, many empires came and went without ever having come again.

The Greeks. The Romans.

The Mongols, Goths, Scandinavians, Ottomans, Spanish, British; each ended up losing its majority control of the Western world.

The Romans probably came closest to resurrection, but theirs turned out to be nor more than a temporary resurgence. The glory days of the great Roman Empire came to an end late in the fifth century. The Church in Rome survived, however, and managed to maintain its role as the recognized center of Christian faith on and around the Italian peninsula. The Christian movement as a whole, on the other hand, was riding a wave of inconsistency. Christianity had splintered into many forms with no unified faith system in Europe.

The eighth century saw new hope emerging among the Romans. The time had come for a comeback. It was now or never. The Roman Catholic Church believed it still represented true orthodoxy. They were the Church with a capital C. Their leadership came straight from God and they continued to follow in the footsteps of St. Peter, who had followed in the footsteps of Jesus.

If the Roman Empire was ever to be reborn, it would need a strong leader commissioned from Rome itself. Would the new leader be a pope, an emperor, a king, or would it be someone else? The papacy believed they had the answer. If Rome was ever to return to glory, matters of state would be matters of the Church, first and foremost. God would appoint the leader of the people; and He would do so through the Church.


Perhaps the most famous painting of Charlemagne, by Albrecht Dürer (c. AD 1512)

Charles the Great, or Charlemagne (AD 742-814), emerged as the obvious choice to lead the new empire. Charlemagne was the grandson of the Frankish leader Charles Martel (AD 686-741), who led Christians in defeat of the Muslims in the famous Battle of Tours (France) in AD 732. It is from these two men that the great Carolingian dynasty took its name.

Charlemagne was an impressive man in several regards. He was an intimidatingly tall man with a fighter’s build. His height was even more impressive when one considers his father’s nickname – Pepin the Short. Charlemagne was a horseman and a warrior. He was, in nearly every way, the ideal medieval man.

This does not mean he was perfect, however. Nearly all of his medieval biographers mention a few of his vices. The one discussed most often was propensity for divorce. Charlemagne allegedly had nine different wives, along with several concubines, and seemed to have no hesitations about dismissing a wife for political gain or in favor of a newer model.

When Charlemagne gained the Frankish throne in AD 771, Europeans quickly noticed his unparalleled leadership abilities. What developed was an historic reign that lasted nearly 50 years. The Teutonic peoples had always admired the power structure of the Roman Empire. With Charlemagne, they finally had a leader who could garner the respect of all Europeans, including the Romans, which could propel the Franks to ascendency on the continent.

G.P.R. James, in his well-known History of Charlemagne (1847), describes Charlemagne:

No man was ever more trusted and loved by his people, more respected and feared by other kings, more esteemed in his lifetime, or more regretted at his death.

Charlemagne was a conqueror. According to Schaff, “Since Julius Caesar, history had seen no conqueror or statesman of such commanding genius and success” (4:239).  He increased the boundaries of his territories throughout Europe, from East to West and from the Baltic to the Adriatic. Once a new land came under Frankish control, Charlemagne immediately established jurisdiction and order.

Like Constantine I, Charlemagne’s conquests were accompanied by the banner of Christendom. Among his paternal roots were renowned Christian rulers who were ardent supporters of the Church and Christian missionaries (see more about his lineage below). Charlemagne’s rule always displayed a commitment to the Church, its leaders, and its advancement. He conquered for the empire and for the cross. Here we see, quite disappointingly I might add, a renewal of the Constantinian-style of conversion and a precursor to the Crusader mentality.

The cruelty of the early part of his reign is perhaps the darkest stain on Charlemagne’s history. The great Christian mission historian Latourette described the early conquests of Charlemagne as “the most naked used of armed force for the spread of the faith which Christianity had yet seen.” In fact, several annals exist which record his commission of mass beheadings of those who did not immediately succumb to Christian baptism. This was especially true among the Saxons.

Thankfully, Charlemagne was finally convinced missionaries and bishops were more effective at evoking about true Christian conversion. In the later part of his reign, Charlemagne was an authentic Christian leader. This legacy was clearly passed on to his son Louis the Pious, who will be the subject of a later article. Louis was one of the most genuine Christian leaders and churchmen of the first millennium AD.


In this depiction, Charlemagne appears to be kneeling at the alter more naturally as if he were praying.

On Christmas day, AD 800, a strange series of events culminated in Rome during the Christ-mass. As Charlemagne knelt to pray, Pope Leo III approached, placed a crown on his head, and proclaimed him: “Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.”

Some of Charlemagne’s biographers, including Eginhard (AD 770-840), argue these events took the Frankish king by surprise and that he was not altogether convinced that this was a role he wanted. But was the usually unflappable Charlemagne truly duped into being given this title? Probably not. It seems clear, however, that he was somewhat reluctant about being crowned by the pope.

The following account comes from Schaff, as adapted from his compilations of early medieval biographies of Charlemagne.

“While Charles was celebrating Christmas in St. Peter’s in the year of our Lord 800, and kneeling in prayer before the altar, the pope, as under a sudden inspiration (but no doubt in consequence of a premeditated scheme), placed a golden crown upon his head, and the Roman people shouted three times: “To Charles Augustus, crowned by God, the great and pacific emperor of the Romans, life and victory!”

Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 4:251

Whether or not Charlemagne was surprised by these events is up for debate. Leo III, however, most certainly planned this day carefully. One can imagine the Pope appealing to the Carolingian legacy of supporting the Church and the providence that had prepared Charlemagne for this day. Then again, perhaps the cunning Charlemagne had imperial intentions all along. Whatever the case may be; Charlemagne accepted the role. He soon began to preface his imperial communications with the phrase,  “Charles, by the will of God, Roman Emperor.”When all was said and done, Charles was definitely in charge.

Charlemagne's royal signature - signum KARLVS caroli gloriosissimi regis - Signed Charles The Most Glorious King

For more, see Curtis, Lang, and Peterson, The 100 Most Important Events in Christian History, 64-66. You can get a taste here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/2006/issue89/13.46.html


Roman Christianity became firmly entrenched in Frankish society long before Charlemagne. In AD 496, Clovis I, ruler of the Franks, converted to Christianity at the behest of his wife, Chlotilde. Clovis and Chlotilde were opposed to Arianism, which set them against many other German kings and set up the Franks for cordiality with the papacy. Much like Constantine, Clovis utilized the Christian faith to motivate the people for political and military gains. After his death in AD 511, the Merovingian rule emerged and many atrocities were perpetrated throughout their lands. As a result, the Franks lost a great deal of their power on the world scene and much that had been gained for the Christian faith deteriorated.

It was not until the late seventh and early eighth centuries that the Christian faith began to make a major resurgence in the Frankish lands. Pepin II of Heristal, who was Charlemagne’s great-grandfather, served as mayor of the palace from AD 687-714. He was the true founder of the Carolingian dynasty and he was successful in reclaiming both land and power for the Franks. He also encouraged the work of Christian missionaries throughout Frankish territories.

Charles Martel

Despite instability and confusion in Pepin’s old age which clouded the succession issue, his rule eventually passed to his son, Charles Martel. As has already been mentioned, Martel was finally able to halt the Muslim occupation of Europe, which had begun around AD 711, at the Battle of Tours in 732.

Charles Martel’s son Pepin the Short, who was the father of Charlemagne, ascended to the throne in AD 741. In 751, Pepin deposed the last of the Merovingian rulers. What followed was very significant in setting the stage for the Holy Roman Empire.

Pepin the Short

First, Pepin was officially crowned King of the Franks with the approval of the papacy and Christian nobility. Pepin had the crown placed on his head by none other than St. Boniface (AD 680-754), the famous Benedictine bishop and missionary who remains the patron saint of Germany.

Second, when Pope Stephen II called on the Franks to help battle the Lombards, Pepin answered. The Franks invaded the Italian peninsula, defeated the Lombards, and captured northern Italy.

Third, Pepin eventually gave the captured lands back to Rome. This reinstituted papal authority and the papal states throughout Italy, from Ravenna in the north to Rome.

When Pepin the Short died, the kingdom of France was split between his two sons Charles and Carloman. Charles ruled the North; Carloman the South. When Carloman died in AD 771, Charles seized rule of the South as well, ignoring the protests of his brother’s sons who believed they were the rightful heirs. Thus began the full reign of Charlemagne.

NEXT UP: Hangin’ with the Carolingians Pt. 2 – Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire

8 thoughts on “A Reluctant Icon: Charlemagne (Hangin’ with the Carolingians part 1)

  1. Eric, your doxolgies open new vistas for understanding the history, growth and development of our great faith. Thank you for volunteering your time and much effort to broaden the Christian lives of us followers.


  2. Always a pleasure to read your stuff, Eric. Carolus Magnus is the hero of a number of later figures, including a number of Spanish conquestadores and even Bonaparte himself. Alcuin of York was Chuck’s wise guy-we owe this rascal a few things for his preservation of some things ancient and the “Carolingian script,” a much easier Latin to read than Carolus’ own. Reminded me again of how dark the “Dark Ages” were-NOT!
    All God’s best Doc-

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