“We do possess a European symbol which belongs to all nations equally. This is the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, which embodies the tradition of Charlemagne.” —Otto von Habsburg
By the early eighth century, Catholicism was well established as the most dominant religion in Western Europe. Despite its significant spiritual and cultural penetration, the Vatican was still a long way from uniting Europe politically and fulfilling its supreme ambition of resurrecting the Roman Empire. To do that, Rome would need a military and political partner.
Rome still had an alliance with Byzantium. But the Byzantines were under pressure from Islam and not in a position to be a Roman Catholic weapon. Rome needed a new partner.
Within a few decades, the Vatican had found its man. He was an exceptional military leader and an astute leader. He adored the legacy of ancient Rome and was enthusiastic about its restoration in Europe. Most importantly, he was an avid Roman Catholic.
His name was Charles. He would soon be called Charlemagne—Charles the Great.
Although he died well over a thousand years ago, the life and work of this eighth-century Frankish king are revered to this day. The Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire, created by Otto the Great in the late 10th century, is called the Crown of Charlemagne. Napoleon was hailed as “Charlemagne reborn.” Adolf Hitler was a faithful student of Charlemagne’s vision of Europe, and even built his famous Eagle’s Nest next to the mountain where, according to legend, Charlemagne is sleeping and will someday rise again. Out of adoration for the ancient monarch, European leaders, when deciding how to create a single currency, met in Aachen, Charlemagne’s capital. Each year, the city of Aachen awards one prominent individual for “distinguished service on behalf of European unification” with one of Europe’s most illustrious honors: the Charlemagne Prize.
Why the fascination with a long-dead emperor? Who was he? What was the true nature of his achievements? Most importantly, considering that contemporary European Union leaders want to emulate his accomplishment, how did Charlemagne unite the divided Continent?
A Political Alliance
Before Charlemagne’s emergence, Europe was fragmented. The territory that is now France, Germany and the Low Countries was split among many tribes. Much of Italy was occupied by the Lombards. Byzantium was recognized as the successor to the eastern region of the old Roman Empire.
In northwestern Europe, the region of France today, the Franks had been the first tribe to embrace Catholicism. The Franks first did so for political gain rather than for religious reasons. Mostly of Germanic origin, the Franks exploited the support of the Catholic Church to further their expansionist policies. Never one to miss an opportunity, the Vatican relied on Frankish rulers for protection. It was a union based on politics alone.
The seeds of Charlemagne’s relationship with the Catholic Church were sown by his grandfather, Charles Martel. The relationship essentially began in a.d. 732, after Martel defeated the Muslim armies of Abdul Rahman al-Ghafiqi that were attempting to invade Europe through Spain. Following Martel’s victory in the Battle of Tours-Poitiers, the Vatican hailed Charles as the savior of Christendom, despite the fact that he had seized land and money from the church. The Vatican saw Martel’s victory over the Muslims as an opportunity.
Charles Martel, despite his power as ruler of the Franks, was more of a tribal ruler than a king. That changed with his son Pepin. It is a fact long forgotten, but the Vatican was the indispensable power behind the rise of Charlemagne’s Frankish kingdom. Pepin became king after he wrote the pope and asked whether or not the Frankish King Childeric iii was truly the rightful king. The pope ruled that Childeric’s kingship was illegal, thereby giving Pepin the spiritual cover needed to imprison the man—in a monastery, no less.
In 751, with papal endorsement, Catholic bishops anointed Pepin king of the Franks in a ceremony copied from the coronations of kings David and Solomon. Three years later, the pope personally repeated the ceremony. For the first time in European history, the Roman Catholic Church claimed the authority to make kings. Later it would be emperors.
It is hard to overstate the impact of the relationship between the Vatican and the Frankish kingdom under Charlemagne and his forbearers. “Phrases like ‘revolutionary happenings,’ a ‘decisive moment in European history’ are easy to write, less easy to justify,” writes historian Donald Bullough in his book The Age of Charlemagne. “Yet the direct involvement of the bishop of Imperial Rome in a change of royal dynasty among a Germanic people, the association of a religious ceremony with the making of a king, and the unavoidable political consequences of a closer link between the papacy and the largest of the Romano-Germanic kingdoms, surely warrant such language even if the son and successor of Pepin had not turned out to be the man he was.”
By ordaining Pepin king of the Franks, the church had secured an ally. And under Pepin’s son Charlemagne, this alliance would forever ensure that Europe was a Catholic continent—through violence and war yet unprecedented in that land.
The Rise of Charlemagne
In 755, at the pope’s request, King Pepin led his Frankish army into Italy. Pepin quickly defeated the Lombards, and in the process secured Vatican territory and removed the Lombard threat against the pope. Pepin died soon after, and his empire was divided between his two sons, Charlemagne and Carloman. Three years later, Carloman died, leaving Charlemagne the sole king of the Franks.
In 774, with the Frankish kingdom firmly consolidated, Charlemagne made a brief trip to Italy to aid the pope. After safeguarding the Vatican, Charlemagne and his army set off to conquer Europe. He spent the next 25 years pursuing his goal of subjugating the tribes of Europe and forging Europe into a united Catholic continent.
“The first three decades of Charlemagne’s reign were dominated by military campaigns,” Encyclopedia Britannica explains, “which were prompted by a variety of factors: the need to defend his realm against external foes and internal separatists, a desire for conquest and booty, a keen sense of opportunities offered by changing power relationships, and an urge to spread Christianity” (emphasis added throughout).
One by one the tribes of Europe fell to Charlemagne and his Catholic hammer. But one tribe held out against the Catholic crusaders. Situated in north-central Europe, the Saxons clung to their faith and refused to acquiesce to Charlemagne as he tried to impose Roman Catholicism.
Charlemagne was enraged. His determination to convert the Saxons to Catholicism intensified. For years the Saxons resisted, fighting the Catholic armies whenever and wherever possible. In one conflict, Charlemagne executed 4,500 Saxon prisoners. But his barbarism only strengthened the Saxons’ fortitude.
During Charlemagne’s reign, tens of thousands of Saxons were forced to be baptized into the Catholic faith. Strict laws enforcing Catholic worship were enacted throughout Charlemagne’s European empire. The penalty for cremating someone, the old pagan way, was death. In contrast, the penalty for murder was to pay compensation to the man’s family—provided, of course, the murdered man wasn’t a priest. All children had to be baptized before they were a year old. Unauthorized public meetings were outlawed—making it illegal to keep the Sabbath on Saturday.
Over the course of more than 30 years, many thousands of Saxons were executed for their religious beliefs. It took at least 18 conquests, but Charles finally prevailed: The Saxon people were forced to either convert to Catholicism and subject themselves to Charlemagne and the pope, or be killed.
As emperor of the “Holy” Roman Empire, Charles considered it his duty to spread the Christian faith employing whatever instruments necessary. Encyclopedia Britannica says, “The violent methods by which this missionary task was carried out had been unknown to the earlier Middle Ages, and the sanguinary [bloody] punishment meted out to those who broke canon law or continued to engage in pagan practices called forth criticism in Charles’s own circle” (15th edition). The scale of violence Charlemagne used to enforce Catholicism on his subjects was simply unknown in earlier empires. His empire may have had distinct ties to the ancient Romans, but it was certainly not “holy,” even if there was a great church guiding it.
Is this the legacy to which modern Europe aspires?
The Vatican’s Ally
In 774, at the request of Pope Adrian i, Charlemagne entered northern Italy and conquered the Lombard Kingdom. In 799, Pope Leo iii was kidnapped, brutally beaten and thrown into prison by a band of conspirators. After being rescued by two Frankish clerics, he fled to Charlemagne, who escorted him back to Rome. On December 23, 800, with the military backing of Charles and his Frankish troops, the pope was exonerated of all wrongdoing and reinstated to his ecclesiastic office.
Just a few days later, in Rome, while Charlemagne was kneeling in prayer during a Christmas celebration inside old St. Peter’s Church, the pope placed a crown on his head, pronouncing him “the 73rd emperor of the fourth world empire.”
Notice: This Catholic pope recognized Rome as the “fourth world empire.” (We will discuss the biblical significance of this fact in Chapter 9.)
“After the Empress Irene had her son Constantine vi blinded in 797, both easterners and westerners regarded the imperial throne as vacant,” states The Mainstream of Civilization. “Why not, they asked, resurrect the Roman Empire with Charles [Charlemagne] as emperor?” Charlemagne’s empire was nothing new: It was a resurrection of what had gone before—just as the Bible prophesied.
But Charlemagne’s coronation also contained the seeds of a dispute that would plague the Holy Roman Empire for centuries to come. Who was the ultimate authority? Was it the pope, “God’s representative on Earth”? Or was it the king, the one with the armies? Charlemagne knew that the pope’s seal of approval gave him his legitimacy. But he didn’t want to owe his crown to the pope alone. That made him subservient and dependent. The pope gained the upper hand early in this struggle by placing the crown on Charlemagne’s head, asserting himself as the king’s superior. But the king did not approve. When Charlemagne’s son was made emperor, Charlemagne himself did the crowning.
The Bible describes this great false church as a whore—a prostitute (Revelation 17:1-5). She gives herself to others in exchange for benefits. Even the historians see this. Paul Johnson writes that the Roman church formed an “unseemly marriage between church and state.” He asks, “[D]id the empire surrender to Christianity, or did Christianity prostitute itself to the empire?” (A History of Christianity).
With the rise of Charlemagne, this harlot left the employ of the Byzantine Empire and instead served the Franks. She gave Pepin and Charlemagne legitimacy as kings, and supplied them an efficient system of administration. Without her backing, they couldn’t have united Western Europe in a new Roman Empire. What did she get in return? Converts, for one. Political power for another. But the reign of Charlemagne also cemented Rome’s position as head of the “Christian” world.
Creating a Catholic Continent
Prior to Charlemagne, in each of the various regions of Europe, the local Catholic Church celebrated Sunday services with its own local customs. When Charlemagne arrived, he made it policy to use the liturgy from Rome. Throughout his empire, the Sunday service was observed in the same way it was at Rome. Now that Western Europe was united under one empire, the emperor could ensure that “Christianity” was practiced uniformly.
Under the pope’s direction, Charlemagne streamlined the observance of Catholicism throughout Europe, ensuring it was looking to Rome. He also relied on the church to regulate the lives of his subjects. “Bishops, abbots, priests and monks were the king’s chief agents,” wrote Johnson. “Royal officials were selected from among the higher clergy, and Charlemagne and his successors expanded and developed the use of church councils as legislative and executive organs. … Through the church, the Carolingian age legislated in enormous detail on every aspect of conduct, especially on economic, family and sexual relationships” (ibid).
Despite Charlemagne’s wars and violence, his reign was not one of brutality and barbarism alone. Historians speak of the “Carolingian Renaissance”—a revival of arts and learning that took place under Charlemagne. “His thirst for knowledge was tremendous; he was curious to know and understand everything,” wrote Robert Folz in The Coronation of Charlemagne. “His political genius likewise enabled him to see the need for promoting culture if his kingdom was to acquire the splendor and prestige of the ancient world.”
The culture, politics and educational systems endorsed and promoted by Charlemagne, however, were distinctly Catholic creations.
The emperor exhorted the Catholic clergy to become better educated. He then instructed them to teach the general population and raise up schools throughout the empire. He encouraged and patronized liberal arts education, bringing in Catholic teachers from Italy, Ireland and England.
“His aim,” Johnson explained, “especially in the last decades of his life, was enormously to expand the literate manpower of empire, to create a clergy capable not only of evangelizing the new Christians he had brought under his rule, but of deepening the knowledge of Christianity everywhere” (op cit).
To many, the image of an enlightened ruler promoting culture and education for all seems incompatible with a violent warrior converting thousands by the sword. But Charlemagne’s example teaches us an important lesson: Culture and peace do not always go together. Modern Europe may appear to be a cultured and sophisticated group of nations. But as history reveals, that does not mean it is immune to Charlemagne’s style of violence.
In fact, part of the reason Charlemagne worked so hard on education was because of his conquests. He needed trained clergymen to teach his new subjects the Catholic religion. All the new churches needed new books, which required more experts.
Charlemagne also reformed Europe’s currency, minting standardized silver coins all over his empire. His coins helped spur trade, but most importantly, they gave Europe a sense of unity. “[H]is portrait coinage,” writes historian Joanna Story, “sent an impressive and influential message of imperial status and power throughout the Frankish world—and beyond” (Charlemagne: Empire and Society). Indeed it did: Charlemagne’s coins replaced crude locally made coins that bore the name of a local ruler. They were deliberately modeled after Roman coinage, bearing a portrait of the emperor for the first time since the fall of Rome.
Much like the euro today, Charlemagne’s common currency was a tool for uniting the Continent.
‘The Spirit of Charlemagne’
In December 1978, then French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt held a summit in Aachen, the main seat of Charlemagne’s authority, to hash out the details of the European Monetary System, the precursor to the euro. “The symbolism was heavily underlined in both France and Germany,” wrote Bernard Connolly in The Rotten Heart of Europe. “The two leaders paid a special visit to the throne of Charlemagne and a special service was held in the cathedral; at the end of the summit, Giscard remarked that: ‘Perhaps when we discussed monetary problems, the spirit of Charlemagne brooded over us.’”
This is the spirit European leaders wish to recapture: one that used currency to unify and control a squabbling bunch of nations while it increased its power abroad by torturing people to conversion.
Even Catholic historians recognize the centrality of Catholicism to Charlemagne’s legacy. The Catholic Encyclopedia, for example, says the heritage Charlemagne left was essentially “the idea of a Europe welded together out of various races under the spiritual influence of one Catholic faith and one vicar of Christ ….”
Paul Johnson summarizes Charlemagne’s empire this way: “It laid the foundations for the complementary concepts of Christendom and Europe. It projected, in broad outline, the directions which European institutions and culture would take. And it determined in embryo many of the aspects of the world we live in now. We are right to regard the total Christianity of the Carolingian age as one of the great formative phases of human history” (op cit).
It remains a mystery to most people today, but when political and religious leaders talk about reviving the spirit of Charlemagne, this is what they are talking about: a single empire united under one leader and one church. The question is, how far are Europe’s leaders willing to go to resurrect the legacy of Charlemagne?