The Christian’s Heritage!

This is the fourth in our series on defining moments in the history of the church. Previously, we have looked at the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Council of Nicea, and the Council of Chalcedon. In this installment we look at the Coronation of Charlemagne.

It is remarkable that a seemingly minor and distant event like the crowning of a secular king by the leader of the church in the Western part of Europe (Rome) would have long-term consequences for the church and culture in Europe.

Charlemagne, the oldest son of Pepin the Short, became king of the Franks in 768 following his father’s death. In establishing his authority in Italy, and later Spain and then northern Europe, Charlemagne was simply extending the power his father (Pepin) had exerted over the Franks when he was crowned their king in 750.

Pope* Zacharias anointed Pepin the Short, King of the Franks. In exchange Pepin supported the Pope against those hostile to Rome and its religious affairs. The church in Constantinople in particular was anxious to remain the predominant influence of Christianity in the then-known world. Pepin helped remove the last lingering ties between Rome and Constantinople, thereby freeing the church in the west to develop without obligation to the church in the east.

(The term “Pope” in the 7th/8th century did not carry the same connotation and authority as it does in the Roman Catholic Church today; that was only to emerge in about 1200 AD. Simply put, there were two ‘capitals’ of Christian influence: Rome because it had been the capital of the Roman Empire, and Constantinople because the capital of the empire had been shifted there. The word ‘Pope’ was derived from the Greek word ‘papas,’ which was applied to all senior ecclesiastical officials. However by 800 it was only being used for the bishop of Rome.)

Christianity developed essentially along an east/west axis, with Rome representing western influence and Constantinople eastern authority. But the expansion of the Gospel was being thwarted, amongst other reasons, by the rise of Islam, which was reaching towards Constantinople and beyond, particularly North Africa and Spain. The years of infighting in the church in North Africa had severely weakened it and left its people open to the radical monotheism of Islam.

Pepin donated to the papacy the lands of the Lombards in Northern Italy, whom he had conquered. More than this, he committed his successors to act as protectors of the papacy (as the church Bishop in Rome was being called) into the future.

Charlemagne continued his father’s policy towards the church in Rome and became its protector, completely removing the Lombards from power in Italy, and leading a military incursion into Muslim-occupied Spain. He also campaigned against the peoples to the east, Christianizing them upon penalty of death. Charlemagne continued what his grandfather and father had started. He fought against the Saracens, a generic name to describe Arabs, Berbers, Moors and Turks. He also fought the Saxons in northern Europe. His victories made him emperor over more land in Europe than almost any other leader for over 500 years.

Charlemagne’s power and political authority reached their height in 800 when he was crowned “Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire” by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day at Old St. Peter’s Basilica. The coronation of Charlemagne was the culmination of nearly 50 years of cooperation between the leader of the Franks and the church in Rome. Charlemagne’s coronation as Emperor was a strategic alliance between the leading and increasingly influential ecclesiastical figure of the western church, with that of the dominant ‘European’ political and military power.

The Pope had turned to a northern imperial household and formed a political alliance that was to endure for nearly 800 years. Charlemagne never considered himself a vassal or subservient to Rome. He saw himself responsible to God for the welfare of his people. However Charlemagne took the idea of Church–State co-operation, a legacy from Constantine, and bequeathed to succeeding generations a system that allowed Christendom to endure the difficult days that were yet to unfold. The linkage with Rome ensured that for the next 800 years all learning, politics, social organization, art, music, law and economics would be Christian, if not always gospel centered.

The events of history have far more import than we generally acknowledge!

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