Charlemagne, Charles the Bald, Charles the Great, Holy Roman Emperor, Holy Roman Empire, King of the Lombards, Kingdom of East Francia, Kingdom of Lotharingia, Kingdom of West Francia, Lothair, Louis the Pious, Treaty of Verdun
Scholars generally concur, however, in relating an evolutionary process to the institutions and principles eventualy forming and constituting the empire, describing it as a gradual assumption of the imperial title and role of the emperor and the empire itself over the lands under its authority.
Let us delve deeper into the creation of the empire. First some background information leading to the rule of Charlemagne.
From the time of Roman Emperor Constantine I (r. 306–337), the Roman emperors had, with very few exceptions, taken on a role as promoters and defenders of Christianity. The reign of Constantine established a precedent for the position of the Christian emperor in the Church.
Roman Emperors considered themselves responsible to the gods for the spiritual health of their subjects, and after Constantine and his conversation to Christianity, the Emperors believed they had a duty to help the Church define and maintain orthodoxy. The emperor’s role was to enforce doctrine, root out heresy, and uphold ecclesiastical unity.
Both the title and connection between Emperor and Church continued in the Eastern Roman Empire throughout the medieval period (in exile during 1204–1261). The ecumenical councils of the 5th to 8th centuries were convoked by the Eastern Roman Emperors.
In Western Europe, the title of Emperor in the West lapsed after the death of Julius Nepos in 480, although the rulers of the barbarian kingdoms continued to recognize the authority of the Eastern Emperor, at least nominally, well into the 6th century.
While the reconquest of Justinian I had reestablished Byzantine presence in Italy, religious frictions existed with the Papacy who sought dominance over the Constantinople Church.
Toward the end of the 8th century the Papacy still recognised the ruler at Constantinople as the Roman Emperor, though Byzantine military support in Italy had increasingly waned, leading to the Papacy to look to the Franks and thier King for protection.
Charlemagne was the eldest son of Pepin I the Short, King of the Franks, and Bertrada of Laon, born before their canonical marriage. Charlemagne became king of the Franks in 768 following his father’s death, initially as co-ruler with his brother Carloman I, until the latter’s death in 771. As sole ruler, he continued his father’s policy towards the papacy and became its protector. He became King of the Lombards in 774, removing them from power in northern Italy and leading an incursion into Muslim Spain. He campaigned against the Saxons to his east, Christianising them upon penalty of death, leading to events such as the Massacre of Verden.
The Massacre of Verden was an event during the Saxon Wars where Charlemagne ordered the death of 4,500 Saxons in October 782. Charlemagne claimed suzerainty over Saxony and in 772 destroyed the Irminsul, an important object in Saxon paganism, during his intermittent thirty-year campaign to Christianize the Saxons. The massacre occurred in Verden in what is now Lower Saxony, Germany. The event is attested in contemporary Frankish sources, including the Royal Frankish Annals.
In 799, Pope Leo III had been assaulted by some of the Romans, who tried to put out his eyes and tear out his tongue. His enemies had accused Leo III of adultery and perjury. Leo escaped and fled to Charlemagne at Paderborn. Charlemagne ordered the Pope’s accusers to Paderborn, but no decision could be made. Charlemagne then had Leo escorted back to Rome. In November 800, Charlemagne, advised by scholar Alcuin, travelled to Rome, and on December 1 held a council there with representatives of both sides of the dispute. Leo III, on December 23, took an oath of purgation concerning the charges brought against him, and his opponents were exiled.
At Mass, on Christmas Day (December 25), when Charlemagne knelt at the altar to pray, the Pope crowned him Imperator Romanorum (“Emperor of the Romans”) in Saint Peter’s Basilica. In so doing, the Pope rejected the legitimacy of Roman Empress Irene of Constantinople.
By this time, the Eastern Emperor Constantine VI has been deposed in 797 and replaced as monarch by his mother, Irene. Under the pretext that a women cannot rule the empire, Pope Leo III declared the throne vacant and was used to justify crowning Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans (Imperator Romanorum), the successor of Constantine VI as Roman emperor under the concept of translatio imperii.
On his coins, the name and title used by Charlemagne is Karolus Imperator Augustus and in his documents, he used Imperator Augustus Romanum gubernans Imperium (“August Emperor, governing the Roman Empire”) and serenissimus Augustus a Deo coronatus, magnus pacificus Imperator Romanorum gubernans Imperium (“most serene Augustus crowned by God, great peaceful emperor governing the empire of the Romans”).
The Eastern Empire eventually relented to recognizing Charlemagne and his successors as emperors, but as “Frankish” and “German emperors”, and at no point did the Eastern or Byzantine Emperors referred to thier Western counterparts as Roman Emperors, a label they reserved for themselves.
Incidentally, the name, Byzantine Empire is a more a creation of modern historiography because the Eastern Emperor’s and it’s citizens and subject, simply refered to the Emperor as the Roman Emperor and themselves as citizens and subjects of the Roman Empire.
Charlemagne has been called the “Father of Europe” (Pater Europae), as he united most of Western Europe for the first time since the classical era of the Roman Empire and united parts of Europe that had never been under Frankish or Roman rule. His rule spurred the Carolingian Renaissance, a period of energetic cultural and intellectual activity within the Western Church.
The Empire that began with Charlemagne was inherited in tact by his son, known as Louis I Pious. After a civil war (840–843) following the death of Emperor Louis the Pious, his sons divided the Empire after the signing of the Treaty of Verdun. The Empire was divided into three autonomous kingdoms:
Lothair I received Middle Francia, the central portion of the empire, this region was eventually called the first state of Lotharingia. In the settlement, Lothair (who had been named co-emperor in 817) retained his title as emperor, but it conferred only nominal overlordship of his brothers’ lands. Later his domain became the Low Countries, Lorraine, Alsace, Burgundy, Provence, and the Kingdom of Italy (which covered the northern half of the Italian Peninsula). He also received the two imperial cities, Aachen and Rome.
Louis II, called the German, received the East Francia portion of the empire. He was guaranteed the kingship of all lands to the east of the Rhine (although not the Netherlands to the north of the Rhine) and to the north and east of Italy, plus the Rhineland west of the Rhine. All this land compiled the Kingdom of East Francia. It eventually became the High Medieval Kingdom of Germany, the largest component of the Holy Roman Empire.
Charles the Bald received the portion of the empire, all lands west of the Rhône, called West Francia. The Kingdom of West Francia later evolved to become the Kingdom of France.
The fourth son of Louis the Pious, Pepin II, was granted the Kingdom of Aquitaine, but only under the authority of his brother Charles the Bald.
With one king still recognised as emperor, Lothair I, but with little authority outside his own kingdom, the position and title of Emperor became considerably weakened. However, the unity of the empire and the hereditary right of the Carolingians continued to be acknowledged.
In 884, Charles II the Fat reunited all the Carolingian kingdoms for the last time, but he died in 888 and the empire immediately split up. With the only remaining legitimate male of the dynasty a child, Louis the Child, the nobility elected regional kings from outside the dynasty or, in the case of the eastern kingdom, an illegitimate Carolingian. The illegitimate line continued to rule in the east until 911. As mentioned previously, the Carolingian Empire came to its end with the death of the last Italian claimant, Berengar I, in 924.