Story of Europe - H. E. Marshall

The Reign of Charlemagne—The Beginning of the Holy Roman Empire

In A.D. 768 Charles the Great, or Charlemagne as he is usually called, succeeded his father Pepin. He was a great statesman and a great conqueror, one of his first conquests being that of the Lombards. As we have seen during the life of Pepin, the bonds between the Catholic king of the Franks and the pope had become very close. Indeed, the pope had come to regard the king of the Franks as a faithful son of the Church to whom he might turn for aid at all times.

Soon, therefore, after Charlemagne came to the throne, the pope, Adrian I, appealed to him for help against the Lombards. So across the Alps Charlemagne passed with a mighty army. In no long time the cities of Lombardy yielded to him, Pavia only holding out for six months. But that, too, fell, and Charlemagne entered in triumph into the capital of the Lombard kingdom. Desiderius, the last king of the Lombards, was taken prisoner, his head was shaved, and he was sent to France, there to end his days in a monastery.

Thus the rule of the Lombards in Italy, which had lasted for two hundred years, came to an end. But unlike his father, Charlemagne did not hand over all his conquests to the pope. He placed the crown of Lombardy on his own head, added the kingdom to his already great territory, and henceforth called himself king of the Franks and of Lombardy.

But greater than Charlemagne's conquest of the Lombards was his conquest of the Saxons. At this date a large part of what is now Germany was still pathless forest and swamp, inhabited by wild heathen Saxons. Now Charlemagne's great desire was to bring all German peoples into one Christian empire. He dreamt of a great Germanic empire in which the people would speak one language, worship one God, and obey one ruler. So he determined upon the conquest of the Saxons.

But to conquer the Saxons was no easy matter. Year by year, when spring came, with dogged determination Charlemagne set forth to attack them in their strongholds, and having, as he thought, subdued and converted them, he returned home. But year by year, with equally dogged determination, as soon as he was gone the Saxons rose in rebellion. They slew the priests and governors he had left among them, burned the churches he had built, and returned once more to the worship of their gloomy heathen gods.

For thirty years the struggle lasted. But not unlike the Mohammedans, Charlemagne was determined to convert the world, even at the sword's point if need be. So by thousands he slew the Saxons. By thousands he baptized them. He made cruel laws against those who clung to their heathen faith, or those who dared to return to it after they had been "converted" and baptized by force. He carried thousands of men, women, and children away from their homes, and planted colonies of them in France.

Thus, with the harshest and most cruel of methods, he forced the religion of love and brotherly kindness upon his fellow-men. And at length the Saxons submitted, and all Germany as far as the Elbe was added to Charlemagne's kingdom.

Charlemagne fought, too, with the pirate Danes of the north, with Slavs and Avars in the east, and with the Saracens of Spain. But although by these campaigns he added to his territory or his fame, none of his conquests were so important as those over the Lombards and the Saxons.

Missi Dominici

Besides being a great conqueror Charlemagne was also a great statesman. As a conqueror he was terrible, but once a people submitted to him he became a wise and tolerant ruler. He allowed the conquered peoples to a great extent to keep their own customs and laws, and often he appointed a native chief as their duke or ruler.

His greatest institution, perhaps, was that of the Missi Dominici or king's messengers. These king's messengers were officers whom he sent into all parts of his kingdom to see that the laws were kept and that no one suffered injustice, to listen to complaints, and generally to attend to all matters in connection with the state.

In spring each year Charlemagne held a great parliament, which, from the time of year, was called the Mayfield. To this the king's messengers came, bringing with them their reports. Thus, although Charlemagne's kingdom was so large that he could not himself visit every portion of it every year, through his messengers he learnt what was going on in each part of it, and could thus keep it under control.

Another of Charlemagne's great works was the institution of schools. When he came to the throne there was hardly a school throughout the length and breadth of his kingdom, and he himself could neither read nor write. But he knew how important a thing learning was, so he encouraged it in every way possible.

As there were no learned men among the Franks, Charlemagne sought them from other countries, offering them large rewards if they would come to teach his people. Many answered his call, but none among them helped him so much as the Englishman, Alcuin of York. He became master of the school which Charlemagne founded in his own palace, and of which Charlemagne himself was a pupil.

Besides this one in the palace many other schools were founded throughout the kingdom, in connection with the churches and monasteries. In these not only the sons of noblemen but the sons of freemen and others of lesser degree learned to read and write. Libraries also were founded, so that those who learned to love literature might not be utterly destitute of books to read. For in those days, one must remember, few private people could afford to possess books. They were all written by hand upon vellum or parchment, and were often beautifully decorated with coloured initials and pictures. Writing or copying a book was slow work, so there were comparatively few to be had, and they cost a great deal of money.

Both in peace and war Charlemagne was the greatest figure of his times. His fame and power far surpassed that of the emperor. Either in war or peace he had dealings and with all the chief rulers of Europe. It is said that he even sent embassies to the great caliph of Bagdad, or Harun Alraschid, or Harun the Just, who is best known to Europe through the "Arabian Nights." He little deserved his surname, being in truth a cruel tyrant caring nothing for the happiness of his people. He was constantly at war with the Empire, but he received the embassies of the "Christian dog" with at least outward politeness and sent him rich gifts, among them an elephant, the first ever seen in the land of the Franks.

Charlemagne ruled in Italy as the emperors had never done since the days of Justinian. And as years went on the idea that Italy owed any fealty to the emperor faded more and more from the minds of the people, while, at the same time, an enmity between pope and emperor grew.

Iconoclasts and the Eastern Empire

Quarrels had arisen between the Church of the East and the Church of the West. The eastern bishops condemned the use of images, and wished to have them abolished; the pope upheld their use and denounced the emperor as a heretic, because it was he who instigated the bishops. Those who wished to banish images from the churches were called Iconoclasts, or image-breakers.

The war between the Iconoclasts and the Catholics waged fiercely. Then there came a revolution in Constantinople. The beautiful bad Empress Irene caused her son the Emperor Constantine VI to be blinded, and herself usurped the throne. But although the people cheered her and acclaimed her Augusta, as she drove through the streets in her gilded chariot, there were many who were filled with anger because a woman sat upon the throne of the Cęsars.

Among these was the pope, and even although Irene had restored the use of images in the churches, his wrath against her was not appeased. He became more unwilling than ever to acknowledge any allegiance to the Empire, and at length he took a step which wiped away the last pretence of it.

About this time documents, which are called the False Decretals, and the Constitutium Constantini, or the Donation of Constantine, became known to the public. They have been proved to be forgeries, but upon them much of the power of the popes was founded. For, by the Donation of Constantine, it was said that Constantine the Great had given to Pope Silvester and his successors the sovereignty of all Italy when he built his new capital on the Bosphorus. This he had done, it was said, out of gratitude to the Church, because on being baptized he had been cured of leprosy. By this Donation the popes were clearly freed from all overlordship of the emperors, who had of late proved themselves but poor champions of Italy, and the way was left open for the popes to choose a stronger staff to lean upon.

Coronation of Charlemagne

Toward the end of the year 800 Charlemagne paid a visit to Rome, and on Christmas Day, with a gorgeous train of knights and nobles, he went to the Church of St. Peter to hear mass. The great church, already five centuries old, was filled to overflowing. Beneath the light of numberless candles, gold and gems gleamed and glittered, priests in rich robes moved silently hither and thither, and the sound of sweet singing rose and fell.

Mass was over. But the king still knelt on the steps of the altar, and a breathless silence held the great congregation. Then, as the king rose from his knees, Pope Leo III came towards him holding a golden crown high in his hands, and placed it upon the monarch's head.

"To Charles Augustus, crowned by God, mighty and pacific Emperor, be life and victory," he cried.

The crowd took up the words, and three times the great building rang with acclamations. Then came an outburst of song, and in chant after chant the voices of the choristers rose, beseeching God and His angels, and all the holy martyrs, to bless and aid the new-crowned emperor.

The Holy Roman Empire

Thus began the Holy Roman Empire which was to endure for a thousand years and be shattered at length by an upstart Corsican soldier.

Was Charlemagne surprised and not altogether pleased to find this great title thus suddenly thrust upon him? Who can say? "Had I known what Leo was about to do," he said later, "I would never have entered St. Peter's on that Christmas morning." Yet for many years his thought had turned to some such title. Perhaps, however, he wished to take it at his own time, and of his own free will, and not to have it thrust upon him by an officious pope. Perhaps he saw that this act conferred more power upon the pope than honour upon the emperor, and that the time might come (as come it did) when no king of the Germans would dare to take the title of emperor until the crown had been placed upon his head by the bishop of Rome.

When the news of this coronation reached Constantinople there was great wrath, and Charlemagne's right to take the title of Augustus was denied. But Charlemagne did his best to soothe the wrath. He tried to arrange marriages between his own family and the Empress Irene, and thus again unite the Empires of the East and West. But these efforts came to nothing, and less than two years after Charlemagne was crowned emperor Irene was deposed and soon after died.