Charlemagne – a political Christmas

Today, it's my turn in the Historical Writers’ Forum Christmas Blog Hop, and I'll be chatting a bit about a figure who has intrigued me since my childhood: Charles, King of the Franks and – from 25th December 800 – Emperor of the Roman Empire.

As my new dual-timeline novel, Love Lost in Time, is set during the late 8th century, and features Charlemagne bestowing the title of earl to Bellon of Carcassonne, my choice of a Christmas theme for the blog hop was an easy one.

Later known as Charles the Great, or Charlemagne, he had by then conquered a vast area, covering modern-day France, Belgium, the Netherlands, northern Spain, western and southern Germany and Austria, Slovenia, Bohemia, Lombardy and southern parts of Italy. He brought with him new laws, structured administration – and Christianity.

For that reason, he is now regarded as the Father of Europe, the first to unite such a vast area since the
Roman Empire 800 years earlier. His ancestors rising from humble beginnings – his father, Pepin the Short, began his ’career’ as mayor but rose to become king – Charles had no qualms in aiming even higher. Even before he was eventually crowned emperor, he had begun to style himself as ’most serene’ and ’orthodox’ – which up until then were exclusively used by the Emperors of Byzantium.

Statue by
Johann Nepomuk Zwerger
In order to understand the reasons for Charles’ elevation to Holy Roman Emperor, we must look at the Church. The (western) Roman Church led by the Popes in Rome, and the (eastern) Church whose heads were the rulers of Constantinople. Their ’message’ differed, and these differences came to a head in 787. Charles’ daughter Rotrude had been betrothed to the son of the Empress Irene, the Emperor Constantine VI, but when the diplomatic mission arrived to collect the princess, Charles sent them packing and the marriage was postponed indefinitely. The reasons for this can be seen in Charles’ expansion into southern Italy, where the Empress was ruling over Sicily, Puglia and Calabria. She must have been alarmed at the advance of the Franks.

But that wasn't the only reason. The other was religious, and alarmed the Pope, Charles’ ally. In the Second Council at Nicaea, Irene changed the views that icons should still venerated, as a symbol of what – and who – they represented. Images should therefore be worshipped by all believers. Pope Hadrian I approved, but Charles – not content with the result, possibly due to poor translations from Greek to Latin – responded with a treatise, the Libri Carolini, repudiating the adoration of icons in 794.

When Irene fell out with her son and took the throne, the rift widened. Charles supported Constantine, but not to the full extent. But the damage in eastern-western relations was irreparable.

In the years leading up to AD800, Charles began to be regarded as the balance to the Byzantian power. He had a huge palatial complex built in Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle), now in north-west Germany close to the Belgian border to compete with the palaces in Rome and Constantinople. The new chapel held a mosaic of Christ the Pantocrator, below which stood an image of Charles’ throne. This linked Charles inextricably with God and the Church.

Charles’ throne at Aachen, (c) Wikimedia Commons

His followers began to describe him as King David, hinting at a bigger role than merely King of the Franks. The new Pope, Leo III, agreed, addressing him in similar manner, thereby safeguarding his own position. He had been abducted by nephews of Hadrian I who threatened to cut off his tongue and pull out his eyes – an Byzantine ’tradition’ to ensure you couldn't take up your position again, without actually killing you. But Leo escaped and sought Charles’ help, initially claiming he had been mutilated and ’miraculously healed’ by Saint Peter! When the plotters reached Charles to claim Leo, Charles had to make a choice. With Emperor Constantine blinded in exile, and a Pope seeking sanctuary, of the three most powerful men in Christendom, only Charles could decide. He ordered an inquiry into the accusations against Leo – fornication and corruption, but this turned out to be rather tricky, with there having been some truth in the rumours. Eventually, he decided to reinstate Leo (who now owed him big time!) and absolve him, and confirmed this in a council in Rome in early December 800. It was there, that it was decided to offer the imperial throne to Charles as the throne of Rome was vacant and the Empress Irene – a woman who had usurped her throne! – had no valid claim.

So it arrived that Charles, King of the Franks, was crowned Emperor on Christmas Day in the year 800. He kneeled in front of the Pope, who placed the imperial crown on Charles’ head. Leo anointed him with holy oil, then prostrated himself in front of the new ruler in the eastern act of proskynesis, signifying the Pope's submission to the new emperor. This gesture would cause many future emperors and popes huge headaches!

The Roman people were represented by the Vatican clergy, hailing Charles as their emperor and Augustus, adding a legal twist to the proceedings.

Following the procedure, Pope Leo III's coins were printed with Charles’ name and imperial title beside the Papal monogram and Saint Peter. This was a significant move that showed the emperor's superiority to the world. 

The astute politician that he was, Charles sought the approval of the Empress Irene, but his efforts were rebuffed. Only in 813, following Irene's removal and her successor's death, a Byzantine delegation visited Aachen and – reluctantly – acknowledged Charles’ title of imperator. However, he did not wish to be called Emperor of the ’Romans’ as that implied the Roman clergy, but preferred to call himself Emperor of the Roman Empire, keeping his strong link to the Franks as defenders of the Christian faith.

Charles decided to modify the title to ’the most serene Augustus, crowned by God, the great and peace-loving emperor and ruler of the Roman empire, as well as by the grace of God King of the Franks and of the Lombards’. His seal carried the wording ’renovatio Romani imperii’. With that, he hoped to put an end to the discussion.

But if Christendom had a leader, it was most certainly not the Pope and his Romans, but the head of the Roman Empire!

Oh, but what an incredible event to have witnessed! Imagine Rome on Christmas Day, the bishops gathered, the tension beneath the surface!

It's well worth delving into Charlemagne's history – his conquests against Pagan tribes were brutal, but his kingdom, and latterly empire, upheld a strict rule of law, of organised administration and of attempts at keeping the peace. A fascinating character. I'm sure I'll be returning to his reign in future novels.

I hope you've enjoyed this political Christmas! Tomorrow's posts will be by historical novelist, Lynn Bryant. Be sure to visit her blog for another historical Christmas treat!

(c) All images Wikimedia Commons.


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