Story of Europe - H. E. Marshall

The Defeat of the Saracens—The Rise of the Carolingians—The Donation of Pepin

In the east Christian Constantinople had stood as a bulwark against the Arab invasion. But in spite of that the Mohammedans had made an entrance through the western gate of Europe, and it seemed as if nothing could now stay their conquering march. Yet stayed it was.

The kingdom of the Franks (see Chapter II) was the only one of the Teutonic kingdoms built upon the ruins of the Roman Empire which was to endure. But for many years after the reign of Clovis its history was one of turmoil and bloodshed. It was divided and redivided more than once. After a time the Merovingian kings lost their vigour and manliness. They became mere figureheads and are known as the Rois Fainéants  or Do Nothing kings.

Surrounded by luxury and pomp, they sat in their palaces, combing their long golden hair, indolently dreaming the time away, while all the business of state drifted more and more into the hands of the mayors of the palace. These mayors had been at first little more than the managers of the royal household; in time they became dukes, and at length kings in all but name.

Charles the Hammer

The greatest of the mayors was Charles the Hammer. It was he who now gathered all the strength of the Frankish kingdom to fight the Saracen foe, and roll back the dark menace of Mohammedanism from western Europe.

The battle in which the Franks and Saracens met is one of the memorable battles of the world. For it was not so much the Franks and Saracens who were arrayed against each other as Europe and Asia, Christianity and Mohammedanism. If the Franks were beaten, then all Europe was at the mercy of the Saracens. For behind the Franks there was no power to stop their march, nothing but still heathen Germany. It was true Constantinople held the gate of Europe in the east. But if the foe made an entry in the west would that shut gate avail?

Battle of Tours

The fight which now took place between these two great forces is often called the battle of Tours, but it was really fought nearer the town of Poitiers. Here the fair Teutons of the north, steel clad, heavily armed, and somewhat slow of movement, met the dark-faced, agile men of Asia. Mounted upon Arab coursers, the Saracens again and again dashed upon the solid wall of the Teutons. Again and again they were broken and scattered like waves upon a rocky coast. Yet, undismayed, they returned to the attack, and above the din of clashing steel there rose the shout, "Allah, Allah Akbar!"

The fortune of the day seemed uncertain. Then suddenly throughout the Saracen army the cry arose that the Christians were attacking from behind, and that the Saracen camp with all its rich booty was in danger. In a flash a great body of the Arab cavalry wheeled about, and dashed to save the treasure. Their greed cost them the day. With a shout the Franks charged, and before that mighty onslaught the Arabs fled like dust before the wind.

The sun went down upon the victory of the Franks. But how complete that victory was Charles the Hammer did not know until next morning, when he found the Arab camp empty and deserted. Nor did he at this time follow up his advantage. Seven years later, however, he again attacked the Saracens, and at length drove them out of France altogether. Hence his name—the Hammer.

By his victories over the Saracens Charles made a great name for himself, and the pope, now Gregory III, sent to him to implore aid against the Lombards, who still distressed Italy. But Charles was friendly with the Lombard king, Luitprand, and had no wish to fight against him. So, although he received the pope's messenger with all honour, and loaded him with gifts, he sent him back to Rome without any promise of help. Again the following year Gregory sent to Charles, abjuring him by the true and living God not to prefer the friendship of the Lombards to that of the prince of the Apostles. But again Charles failed to give the answer for which the pope craved, and soon afterwards he died.

Pepin and the Pope

Charles had been king of the Franks in all but name, and now his son Pepin, who ruled after him, made up his mind to be king in name as well as in fact. So he sent messengers to the pope, now Zacharias, to ask whether he who remained in his palace free from all peril, or he who had the cares and dangers of the kingdom on his shoulders, should have the title of king.

Already it would seem as if the pope was regarded as a lawgiver to princes, and Zacharias replied as Pepin had desired he should. "By the authority of the Apostle Peter" he bade the Franks acknowledge for their king he who possessed the royal power. So the last Merovingian king was shorn of his flowing locks, the sign of his sovereignty, and sent to end his days in a convent, and Pepin became the first Carolingian king of the Franks.

The accession of Pepin was not merely the beginning of a new dynasty. It was the beginning of new claims both for king and priest, it was an exalting both of Church and state. Formerly when the Franks had chosen a chief, standing upon his shield he was raised shoulder high by his warriors, who acclaimed him king and ruler. Now with solemn ceremony, surrounded by bishops and priests, Pepin was led to the great church at Soissons. There, kneeling upon the steps of the altar, he was crowned and anointed by Boniface, the Apostle of the Germans. He was the chosen now of God and of the Church, and kingship took a new and holy character.

Pepin, King by the Grace of God

Here we have the beginning of "kings by the Grace of God," and of that "divine right" which in days to come was to bring in its train such grievous woes and cause such desperate struggles between kings and peoples.

The pope already looked upon Pepin's crown as the gift of the Church. And the gifts of the Church were not given without expectation of return. So very soon Pepin was called upon to show his gratitude. For the year after his coronation a new Lombard king and a new pope ruled in Italy, and, disregarding the peace which had been made by King Luitprand, King Aistulph renewed the attacks on Rome and on Ravenna. The pope, Stephen II, then sent piteous appeals for help to Pepin, and as he did not yield to them immediately, he resolved to make an appeal in person.

Midwinter although it was, he hastened across the Alps, braving "frost and snow, many waters and rushing torrents," as he himself writes. But in spite of hardships and dangers he reached France in safety, and followed by his priests he went at once to greet the king. Clad in a coarse woollen robe, and with ashes sprinkled on his head, he bowed himself before Pepin, imploring his help. Nor would he rise until his prayer was granted.

Pepin promised the aid for which the pope begged, and in return the pope once more crowned Pepin, and anointed both his queen and her children. Then, under pain of excommunication, he forbade the Franks ever to choose a king save from this family "thus consecrated upon the intercession of the holy Apostles by the hands of their vicar the sovereign pontiff."

The new coronation over, the pope gave to Pepin and his sons the title of patrician of Rome. It was a title created by Constantine the Great, and could be conferred only by an emperor, so in giving it to Pepin and his sons Stephen usurped the authority of the emperor. But as the emperor showed himself more and more incapable of protecting Rome, and more and more indifferent to its fate, both pope and people had begun to forget that they owed any allegiance to him, and this usurpation was only one among many signs that Italy was no longer truly a part of the Empire.

Shortly after his second coronation Pepin set out to redeem his promise to Stephen. In two campaigns he conquered the Lombards king, Aistulph, and forced him to give up Ravenna and the other parts of Italy which he had lately seized.

The Donation of Pepin

Italy, and especially Ravenna, were still in theory part of the Empire. But Pepin considered that these provinces were now his by right of conquest, and that he could do with them as he pleased. And so much of a phantom had the right of the emperor become that he caused a deed of gift to be written out, bestowing the conquered lands not upon the emperor but upon St. Peter and his successors, the sovereign pontiffs, for all time.

The pope well knew the value of the gift. With solemn ceremony the keys of the conquered cities, together with the deed of gift, were laid upon the tomb of St. Peter in Rome. Then they were locked up by the pope among his most precious treasures.

This presentation of lands to the pope is called the Donation of Pepin. By it the Papal States were founded, and the pope, from being little more than a priestly farmer, became a ruling prince, and took his place among the sovereigns of Europe. Thus king and pope helped to make each other great. But there seems little question that the pope was the greater gainer. The king had only received the Church's sanction to hold the kingdom which he, in fact, already had; the pope had gained possession of a kingdom which without Pepin's aid he could never have hoped to win. Yet in the long run by thus entering the ranks of temporal rulers the Church was to lose as a spiritual institution and power for good.