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Career of Charlemagne, by Guizot, Francois P. G.

Life of Charlemagne

World History Center

Holy Roman Empire, The
Book: Chapter V: Empire And Policy Of Charles.
Author: Bryce, James
Date: 1901


Page Five

Part I.

The coronation of Charles is not only the central event of the Middle
Ages, it is also one of those very few events of which, taking them singly, it
may be said that if they had not happened, the history of the world would have
been different. In one sense indeed it has scarcely a parallel. The
assassins of Julius Caesar thought that they had saved Rome from monarchy, but
monarchy came inevitable in the next generation. The conversion of
Constantine changed the face of the world, but Christianity was spreading
fast, and its ultimate triumph was only a question of time. Had Columbus
never spread his sails, the secret of the western sea would yet have been
pierced by some later voyager: had Charles V broken his safe-conduct to
Luther, the voice silenced at Wittenberg would have been taken up by echoes
elsewhere. But if the Roman Empire had not been restored in the West in the
person of Charles, it would never have been restored at all, and the
inexhaustible train of consequences for good and for evil that followed could
not have been. Why this was so may be seen by examining the history of the
next two centuries. In that day, as through all the Dark and Middle Ages, two
forces were striving for the mastery. The one was the instinct of separation,
disorder, anarchy, caused by the ungoverned impulses and barbarous ignorance
of the great bulk of mankind; the other was that passionate longing of the
better minds for a formal unity of government, which had its historical basis
in the memories of the old Roman Empire, and its most constant expression in
the devotion to a visible and catholic Church. The former tendency, as
everything shews, was, in politics at least, the stronger, but the latter,
used and stimulated by an extraordinary genius like Charles, achieved in the
year 800 a victory whose results were never to be lost. When the hero was
gone, the returning wave of anarchy and barbarism swept up violent as ever,
yet it could not wholly obliterate the past: the Empire, maimed and shattered
though it was, had struck its roots too deep to be overthrown by force, and
when it perished at last, perished from inner decay. It was just because men
felt that no one less than Charles could have won such a triumph over the
evils of the time, by framing and establishing a gigantic scheme of
government, that the excitement and hope and joy which the coronation evoked
were so intense. Their best evidence is perhaps to be found not in the
records of that time itself, but in the cries of lamentation that broke forth
when the Empire began to dissolve towards the close of the ninth century, in
the marvellous legends which attached themselves to the name of Charles the
Emperor, a hero of whom any exploit was credible ^1, in the devout admiration
wherewith his German successors looked back to, and strove in all things to
imitate, their all but superhuman prototype.

[Footnote 1: Before the end of the tenth century we find the monk Benedict of
Soracte ascribing to Charles an expedition to Palestine, and other marvellous
exploits. The romance which passes under the name of Archbishop Turpin is
well known. All the best stories about Charles - and some of them are very
good - may be found in the book of the Monk of St. Gall. Many refer to his
dealings with the bishops, towards whom he is described as acting like a
good-humoured schoolmaster.]

As the event of A.D. 800 made an unparalleled impression on those who
lived at the time, so has it engaged the attention of men in succeeding ages,
has been viewed in the most opposite lights, and become the theme of
interminable controversies. It is better to look at it simply as it appeared
to the men who witnessed it. Here, as in so many other cases, may be seen the
errors into which jurists have been led by the want of historical feeling. In
rude and unsettled states of society men respect forms and obey facts, while
careless of rules and principles. In England, for example, in the eleventh
and twelfth centuries, it signified very little whether an aspirant to the
throne was next lawful heir, but it signified a great deal whether he had been
duly crowned and was supported by a strong party. Regarding the matter thus,
it is not hard to see why those who judged the actors of A.D. 800 as they
would have judged their contemporaries should have misunderstood the nature of
that which then came to pass. Baronius and Bellarmine, Spanheim and Conring,
are advocates bound to prove a thesis, and therefore believing it; nor does
either party find any lack of plausible arguments ^1. But civilian and
canonist alike proceed upon strict legal principles, and no such principles
can be found in the case, or applied to it. Neither the instances cited by
the Cardinal from the Old Testament of the power of priests to set up and pull
down princes, nor those which shew the earlier Emperors controlling the
bishops of Rome, really meet the question. Leo acted not as having alone the
right to transfer the crown; the practice of hereditary succession and the
theory of popular election would have equally excluded such a claim; he was
the spokesman of the popular will, which, identifying itself with the
sacerdotal power, hated the Easterns and was grateful to the Franks. Yet he
was also something more. The act, as it specially affected his interests, was
mainly his work, and without him would never have been brought about at all.
It was natural that a confusion of his secular functions as leader, and his
spiritual as consecrating priest, should lay the foundation of the right
claimed afterwards of raising and deposing monarchs at the will of Christ's
vicar. The Emperor was passive throughout; he did not, as in Lombardy, appear
as a conqueror, but was received by the Pope and the people as a friend and
ally. Rome no doubt became his capital, but it had already obeyed him as
Patrician, and the greatest fact that stood out to posterity from the whole
transaction was that the crown was bestowed, was at least imposed, by the
hands of the pontiff. He seemed the trustee and depositary of the imperial
authority ^2.

[Footnote 1: Baronius, Ann., ad ann. 800; Bellarminus, De translatione imperii
Romani adversus Illyricum; Spanhemius, De ficta translatione imperii;
Conringius, De imperio Romano Germanico.]

[Footnote 2: See especially Greenwood, Cathedra Petri, vol. iii. p. 109.]

The best way of shewing the thoughts and motives of those concerned in
the transaction is to transcribe the narratives of three contemporary, or
almost contemporary annalists, two of them German and one Italian. The Annals
of Lauresheim say: -

`And because the name of Emperor had now ceased among the Greeks, and
their Empire was possessed by a woman, it then seemed both to Leo the Pope
himself, and to all the holy fathers who were present in the selfsame council,
as well as to the rest of the Christian people, that they ought to take to be
Emperor Charles king of the Franks, who held Rome herself, where the Caesars
had always been wont to sit, and all the other regions which he ruled through
Italy and Gaul and Germany; and inasmuch as God had given all these lands into
his hand, it seemed right that with the help of God and at the prayer of the
whole Christian people he should have the name of Emperor also. Whose
petition king Charles willed not to refuse, but submitting himself with all
humility to God, and at the prayer of the priests and of the whole Christian
people, on the day of the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ he took on himself
the name of Emperor, being consecrated by the lord Pope Leo ^1.'

[Footnote 1: Ann. Lauresb., ap. Pertz, M. G. H. i.]

Very similar in substance is the account of the Chronicle of Moissac (ad
ann. 801): -

`Now when the king upon the most holy day of the Lord's birth was rising
to the mass after praying before the confession of the blessed Peter the
Apostle, Leo the Pope, with the consent of all the bishops and priests and of
the senate of the Franks and likewise of the Romans, set a golden crown upon
his head, the Roman people also shouting aloud. And when the people had made
an end of chanting the Laudes, he was adored by the Pope after the manner of
the emperors of old. For this also was done by the will of God. For while
the said Emperor abode at Rome certain men were brought unto him, who said
that the name of Emperor had ceased among the Greeks, and that among them the
Empire was held by a woman called Irene, who had by guile laid hold on her son
the Emperor, and put out his eyes, and taken the Empire to herself, as it is
written of Athaliah in the Book of the Kings; which when Leo the Pope and all
the assembly of the bishops and priests and abbots heard, and the senate of
the Franks and all the elders of the Romans, they took counsel with the rest
of the Christian people, that they should name Charles king of the Franks to
be Emperor, seeing that he held Rome the mother of empire where the Caesars
and Emperors were always used to sit; and that the heathen might not mock the
Christians if the name of Emperor should have ceased among the Christians ^1.'

[Footnote 1: Apud Pertz, M. G. H. i.]

These two accounts are both from a German source: that which follows is
Roman, written probably within some fifty or sixty years of the event. It is
taken from the Life of Leo III in the Vitae Pontificum Romanorum, compiled by
Anastasius the papal librarian.

`After these things came the day of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ,
and all men were again gathered together in the aforesaid basilica of the
blessed Peter the Apostle: and then the gracious and venerable pontiff did
with his own hands crown Charles with a very precious crown. Then all the
faithful people of Rome, seeing the defence that he gave and the love that he
bare to the holy Roman Church and her Vicar, did by the will of God and of the
blessed Peter, the keeper of the keys of the kingdom of heaven, cry with one
accord with a loud voice, `To Charles, the most pious Augustus, crowned of
God, the great and peace-giving Emperor, be life and victory.' While he,
before the holy confession of the blessed Peter the Apostle, was invoking
divers saints, it was proclaimed thrice, and he was chosen by all to be
Emperor of the Romans. Thereon the most holy pontiff anointed Charles with
holy oil, and likewise his most excellent son to be king, upon the very day of
the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ; and when the mass was finished, then after
the mass the most serene lord Emperor offered gifts ^1.'

[Footnote 1: Vitae Pontif. in Mur. S. R. I. Anastasius in reporting the shout
of people omits the word `Romanorum,' which the other annalists insert after

In these three accounts there is no serious discrepancy as to the facts,
although the Italian priest, as is natural, heightens the importance of the
part played by the Pope, while the Germans are too anxious to rationalize the
event, talking of a synod of the clergy, a consultation of the people, and a
formal request to Charles, which the silence of Eginhard, as well as the other
circumstances of the case, forbid us to accept as literally true. Similarly
Anastasius passes over the adoration rendered by the Pope to the Emperor, upon
which most of the Frankish records insist in a way which puts it beyond doubt.
But the impression which the three narratives leave is essentially the same.
They all shew how little the transaction can be made to wear a strictly legal
character. The Frankish king does not of his own might seize the crown, but
rather receives it as coming naturally to him, as the legitimate consequence
of the authority he already enjoyed. The Pope bestows the crown, not in
virtue of any right of his own as head of the Church: he is merely the
instrument of God's providence, which has unmistakeably pointed out Charles as
the proper person to defend and lead the Christian commonwealth. The Roman
people do not formally elect and appoint, but by their applause accept the
chief who is presented to them. The act is conceived of as directly ordered
by the Divine Providence which has brought about a state of things that admits
of but one issue, an issue which king, priest, and people have only to
recognize and obey; their personal ambitions, passions, intrigues, sinking and
vanishing in reverential awe at what seems the immediate interposition of
Heaven. And as the result is desired by all parties alike, they do not think
of inquiring into one another's rights, but take their momentary harmony to be
natural and necessary, never dreaming of the difficulties and conflicts which
were to arise out of what seemed then so simple. And it was just because
everything was thus left undetermined, resting not on express stipulation but
rather on a sort of mutual understanding, a sympathy of beliefs and wishes
which augured no evil, that the event admitted of being afterwards represented
in so many different lights. Four centuries later, when Papacy and Empire had
been forced into the mortal struggle by which the fate of both was decided,
three distinct theories regarding the coronation of Charles will be found
advocated by three different parties, all of them plausible, all of them to
some extent misleading. The Swabian Emperors held the crown to have been won
by their great predecessor as the prize of conquest, and drew the conclusion
that the citizens and bishop of Rome had no rights as against themselves. The
patriotic party among the Romans, appealing to the early history of the
Empire, declared that by nothing but the voice of their senate and people
could an Emperor be lawfully created, he being only their chief magistrate,
the temporary depositary of their authority. The Popes pointed to the
indisputable fact that Leo imposed the crown, and argued that as God's earthly
vicar it was then his, and must always continue to be their right to give to
whomsoever they would an office which was created to be the handmaid of their
own. Of these three it was the last view that eventually prevailed, yet to an
impartial eye it cannot claim, any more than do the two others, to contain the
whole truth. Charles did not conquer, nor the Pope give, nor the people
elect. As the act was unprecedented, so was it illegal; it was a revolt of
the ancient Western capital against a daughter who had become a mistress; an
exercise of the sacred right of insurrection, justified by the weakness and
wickedness of the Byzantine princes, hallowed to the eyes of the world by the
sanction of Christ's representative, but founded upon no law, nor competent to
create any for the future.

It is an interesting and somewhat perplexing question, how far the
coronation scene, an act as imposing in its circumstances as it was momentous
in its results, was prearranged among the parties. Eginhard tells us that
Charles was accustomed to declare that he would not, even on so high a
festival, have entered the church had he known of the Pope's intention. Even
if the monarch had uttered, the secretary would hardly have recorded a
falsehood long after the motive that might have prompted it had disappeared.
Of the existence of that motive which has been most commonly assumed, a fear
of the discontent of the Franks who might think their liberties endangered,
little or no proof can be brought from the records of the time, wherein the
nation is represented as exulting in the new dignity of their chief as an
accession of grandeur to themselves. Nor can we suppose that Charles's
disavowal was meant to soothe the offended pride of the Byzantine princes,
from whom he had nothing to fear, and who were none the more likely to
recognize his dignity, if they should believe it to be not of his own seeking.
Yet it is hard to suppose the whole affair a surprise; for it was the goal
towards which the policy of the Frankish kings had for many years pointed, and
Charles himself, in sending before him to Rome many of the spiritual and
temporal magnates of his realm, in summoning thither his son Pipin from the
war against the Lombards of Benevento, had shewn that he expected some more
than ordinary result from this journey to the imperial city. Alcuin moreover,
Alcuin of York, the prime minister of Charles in matters religious and
literary, appears from one of his extant letters to have sent as a Christmas
gift to his royal pupil a carefully corrected and superbly adorned copy of the
Scriptures, with the words 'ad splendorem imperialis potentiae.' This has
commonly been taken for conclusive evidence that the plan had been settled
beforehand, and such it would be were there not some reasons for giving the
letter an earlier date, and looking upon the word 'imperialis' as a mere
magniloquent flourish ^1. More weight is therefore to be laid upon the
arguments supplied by the nature of the case itself. The Pope, whatever his
confidence in the sympathy of the people, would never have ventured on so
momentous a step until previous conferences had assured him of the feelings of
the king, nor could an act for which the assembly were evidently prepared have
been kept a secret. Nevertheless, the declaration of Charles himself can
neither be evaded nor set down to mere dissimulation. It is more just to him,
and on the whole more reasonable, to suppose that Leo, having satisfied
himself of the wishes of the Roman clergy and people as well as of the
Frankish magnates, resolved to seize an occasion and place so eminently
favourable to his long-cherished plan, while Charles, carried away by the
enthusiasm of the moment and seeing in the pontiff the prophet and instrument
of the divine will, accepted a dignity which he might have wished to receive
at some later time or in some other way. If, therefore, any positive
conclusion be adopted, it would seem to be that Charles, although he had
probably given a more or less vague consent to the project, was surprised and
disconcerted by a sudden fulfilment which interrupted his own carefully
studied designs. And although a deed which changed the history of the world
was in any case no accident, it may well have worn to the Frankish and Roman
spectators the air of a surprise. For there were no preparations apparent in
the church; the king was not, like his Teutonic successors in the aftertime,
led in procession to the pontifical throne: suddenly, at the very moment when
he rose from the sacred hollow where he had knelt among the everburning lamps
before the holiest of Christian relics - the body of the prince of the
Apostles - the hands of that Apostle's representative placed upon his head the
crown of glory and poured upon him the oil of sanctification. There was
something in this to thrill the beholders with the awe of a divine presence,
and make them hail him whom that presence seemed almost visibly to consecrate,
the 'pious and peace-giving Emperor, crowned of God.'

[Footnote 1: Lorentz, Leben Alcuins. And cf. Dollinger, Das Kaiserthum Karls
des Grossen und seiner Nachfolger.]

The reluctance of Charles to assume the imperial title is ascribed by
Eginhard to a fear of the jealous hostility of the Easterns, who could not
only deny his claim to it, but might disturb by their intrigues his dominions
in Italy. Accepting this statement, the problem remains, how is this
reluctance to be reconciled with those acts of his which clearly shew him
aiming at the Roman crown? An ingenious and probable, if not certain
solution, is suggested by a recent historian ^1, who argues from a minute
examination of the previous policy of Charles, that while it was the great
object of his reign to obtain the crown of the world, he foresaw at the same
time the opposition of the Eastern Court, and the want of legality from which
his title would in consequence suffer. He was therefore bent on getting from
the Byzantines, if possible, a transference of their crown; if not, at least a
recognition of his own: and he appears to have hoped to win this by the
negotiations which had been for some time kept on foot with the Empress Irene.
Just at this moment came the coronation by Pope Leo, interrupting these
deep-laid schemes, irritating the Eastern Court, and forcing Charles into the
position of a rival who could not with dignity adopt a soothing or submissive
tone. Nevertheless, he seems not even then to have abandoned the hope of
obtaining a peaceful recognition. Irene's crimes did not prevent him, if we
may credit Theophanes, from seeking her hand in marriage. And when the
project of thus uniting the East and West in a single Empire, baffled for a
time by the opposition of her minister Aetius, was rendered impossible by her
subsequent dethronement and exile, he did not abandon the policy of
conciliation until a surly acquiescence in rather than admission of his
dignity had been won from the Byzantine sovereigns Michael and Nicephorus ^2.

[Footnote 1: See a very learned and interesting tract entitled Das Kaiserthum
Karls des Grossen und seiner Nachfolger, by Dr. v. Dollinger.]

[Footnote 2: Their ambassadors at last saluted him by the desired title
`Laudes ei dixerunt imperatorem eum et basileum appellantes.' Eginh. Ann., ad
ann. 812.]