The Papacy: Leo III and Charlemagne (795-861)

With the arrival of the seventh century came a new religion that exploded out of Arabia. Within a handful of decades, the followers of the Prophet Mohammad managed to conquer Damascus, defeat the Byzantine Emperor Heraclitus, and claim the surrounding lands of Syria, Palestine, Persia, Afghanistan, and Egypt before venturing westward up North Africa, into Spain, and tradition holds they made it as far as Tours across the Pyrenees before they were stopped by one man: the Frankish military leader Charles Martel “The Hammer.” Still, many of the holy sites which once dominated early Christianity soon faded away –three of the five key cities in early Christianity were now under the control of Islam, and all the great churches of North Africa rapidly disappeared save only for the Coptic community in Egypt.

At this time, the Italian peninsula was torn between shifting worlds –the rule of the Byzantine Emperor in the east, the growth of the Arabs in the south, and the increasing power of the Lombards in the north. Amidst this tumult, Charles Martel was viewed as a key ally. He was an administrator in the court of the Merovingians in Western Gaul. However it was truly Charles’s successor, Pepin the Short, who became the staunch ally and defender of the Papacy. As the Lombards expelled the last of the Byzantines from the West, Pepin led two expeditions and reclaimed those territories from the Lombards in the name of the Pope –his conquest rather controversially became known as the “Donation of Pepin.” Rome’s gaze turned westward. The relationship between Rome and Gaul grew ever-stronger, while relations between Constantinople and Rome collapsed amidst a dispute regarding iconoclasm (the east’s strict prohibition against “graven images”).

When Pepin died in 768 his kingdom fell to his two sons: Charles (or “Charlemagne,” Charles The Great) and Carloman, but Carloman died shortly thereafter in 771 leaving the whole kingdom to Charles. Thus Charles was now free to conquer the Lombards in his own fashion –and conquer he did. After dominating the Lombards, he then conquered the Saxons, then the Bavarians, followed by an invasion of Spain which spawned the epic chivalric ballad Chanson de Roland. At this point, he became the unrivaled military power of Europe.“Thus in little more than a generation, he had raised the Kingdom of the Franks from just one of many semitribal European states to a single political unit of vast extent, unparalleled since the days of imperial Rome” (John Julius Norwich, 55).

However, it was not all smooth sailing between pope and king. Charles was often tumultuous and difficult to tame. A conflict arose regarding the seventh ecumenical council which sought to finally settle Constantinople’s iconoclasm issue. Charles was furious that he was not invited and things came to a head when he marched on Rome intending to confront the Vicar of Christ himself, but when Charles arrived and attended Christmas Mass in December 800, Pope Leo III surprised everyone by laying the imperial crown upon Charles’s head, thus settling their dispute and spawning the Holy Roman Empire in one triumphant, momentous act. This act also significantly elevated the Papacy to the status of a benevolent dictator, capable of bestowing imperial rule upon whomever it pleased. Today, historians have continued to debate whether or not this was all in fact planned by Leo and Charlemagne in advance –Charles’s first biographer Einhrad suggests Charles would have rejected the idea, however, the union of pope and king carried significant benefits for both men. It is not a stretch to consider it was likely a pre-meditated ceremony.

The fact that there was an unpopular woman on the imperial seat in Constantinople –Empress Irene– allowed for Leo and Charles to further buttress their claim to western imperial rule. Interestingly enough, Charles made efforts to meet and possibly romantically court Empress Irene in Constantinople. At the time, she was deeply reviled by her people. She was a skeptic of eastern iconoclasm, and the Byzantine Empire was in a state of terminal decay, faced with shrinking resources. In turn, she welcomed Charlemagne to her court, a man who was viewed in the east as a vulgar, coarse, illiterate, warlord. For Irene, a husband would likely have saved her own political skin even though a union of this sort was considered entirely unacceptable to her subjects. Irene was soon deposed and exiled in 802 where she died less than a year later. We can only wonder what might have come from a marital union of east and west. What problems might have been solved if Charlemagne had actually married Irene?

In a summary, since much of this era was dominated by the military rule of Charlemagne, the following passage comes from John Julius Norwich and is a terse summary of the papal tenure of Pope Leo III: “Pope Leo III was an unremarkable man, it is one of the ironies of history that he should have been responsible for one of the most momentous acts ever performed by a pope. He had worked his way up through hierarchy from relatively humble beginnings, and he remained essentially a simple man, for whom the coronation of Charlemagne meant a simple division of responsibilities. The emperor would wield the sword; the pope would fight for the faith, protecting it and extending wherever possible, and would provide the spiritual guidance for his entire flock, the emperor included” (60).


For this reading I used John Julius Norwich’s 2011 single volume history of the papacy Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 2009 work of popular history, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.

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