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Christian History Home > 131 Christians > Rulers > Charlemagne

Christian ruler of a "holy" empire
posted 8/08/2008 12:56PM

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"Our task [as secular ruler] is externally, with God's help, to defend with our arms the holy Church of Christ against attacks by the heathen from any side and against devastation by the infidels."

Pepin III, King of the Franks, knelt with his sons to be anointed by Pope Stephen III in conscious imitation of the anointing of King David by the prophet Samuel. And like David's son Solomon, Pepin's son Charles would preside over a renowned cultural and religious flowering.

Expanding borders

Charles received his education from his mother and the monks of Saint Denis. He could speak and read Latin and his native Germanic tongue, but he never learned to write, though he tried to his entire life. He mastered the military and political arts close to his father's throne.



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When Pepin died in 768, Charles was in his mid-20s: vital, energetic, and at six feet three-and-a-half-inches tall, he towered over his subjects. When his brother, Carloman, died in 771, Charles was left as sole ruler of the Franks.

Charles's early reign was marked by incessant warfare, which expanded his control in all directions. His longest wars (772–785) were in an area just below modern Denmark, against the Saxons. As he conquered, he converted them to Christianity at the point of the sword.

Pope Hadrian then asked for his help in the south, calling on Charles to deliver him from the Lombards. Charles obliged and quickly compelled the Lombard king to retire to a monastery. He took the crown for himself in 774, and now ruled over much of what is modern Italy. During an Easter visit to Rome that year he was greeted by the pope with the words; "Behold another Constantine, who has risen in our times."

Charles's 778 campaign against the Spanish Moors did not go as well and he was forced to withdraw. (An unimportant defeat in the Pyrenees formed the theme of the heroic epic, The Song of Roland, one of the most widely read poems of the Middle Ages.) Charles was determined to establish a secure border south of the Pyrenees, and he finally did so in 801, when he captured Barcelona.

In the meantime, he had turned his attention to the southeast border of his lands and conquered and absorbed Bavaria. Looking southeast, he pushed farther east along the Danube River into the territory of the Avars. His defeat of these fierce warriors not only netted him 15 large wagons of gold and silver but highlighted his political and military superiority to the Byzantine Empire to the east.

New Roman emperor

His triumph culminated on Christmas 800, when in one of the best known scenes of the Middle Ages, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne "Emperor of the Romans."

Charles told his biographer that he attended the service unaware that the pope was going to do this, but modern historians discount this as overly modest. In addition to complex political reasons for wanting the caption, Charles had theological reasons. Charles was also a great student of Augustine, much taken with his idea of the City of God. He believed the church and state should be allied as forces in the unification of society.

Charles delineated the roles of state and church in a letter to Pope Leo: "Our task [as secular ruler] is externally, with God's help, to defend with our arms the holy Church of Christ against attacks by the heathen from any side and against devastation by the infidels and, internally, to strengthen the Church by the recognition of the Catholic faith. Your share, Most Holy Father, is to support our army with hands upraised to God, as did Moses in ancient days, so that the … name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified throughout the world."

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