How Charlemagne, the King of the Franks, Came to Bear the Title of Emperor and Tried to Revive the Old Ideal of World-Empire
T HE battle of Poitiers had saved Europe from the Mohammedans. But the enemy within—the hopeless disorder which had followed the disappearance of the Roman police officer—that enemy remained. It is true that the new converts of the Christian faith in Northern Europe felt a deep respect for the mighty Bishop of Rome. But that poor bishop did not feel any too safe when he looked toward the distant mountains. Heaven knew what fresh hordes of barbarians were ready to cross the Alps and begin a new attack on Rome. It was necessary—very necessary—for the spiritual head of the world to find an ally with a strong sword and a powerful fist who was willing to defend His Holiness in case of danger.
And so the Popes, who were not only very holy but also very practical, cast about for a friend, and presently they made overtures to the most promising of the Germanic tribes who had occupied north-western Europe after the fall of Rome. They were called the Franks. One of their earliest kings, called Merovech, had helped the Romans in the battle of the Catalaunian fields in the year 451 when they defeated the Huns. His descendants, the Merovingians, had continued to take little bits of imperial territory until the year 486 when king Clovis (the old French word for "Louis") felt himself strong enough to beat the Romans in the open. But his descendants were weak men who left the affairs of state to their Prime minister, the "Major Domus" or Master of the Palace.
Pepin the Short, the son of the famous Charles Martel, who succeeded his father as Master of the Palace, hardly knew how to handle the situation. His royal master was a devout theologian, without any interest in politics. Pepin asked the Pope for advice. The Pope who was a practical person answered that the "power in the state belonged to him who was actually possessed of it." Pepin took the hint. He persuaded Childeric, the last of the Merovingians to become a monk and then made himself king with the approval of the other Germanic chieftains. But this did not satisfy the shrewd Pepin. He wanted to be something more than a barbarian chieftain. He staged an elaborate ceremony at which Boniface, the great missionary of the European northwest, anointed him and made him a "King by the grace of God." It was easy to slip those words, "Dei gratia," into the coronation service. It took almost fifteen hundred years to get them out again.
Pepin was sincerely grateful for this kindness on the part of the church. He made two expeditions to Italy to defend the Pope against his enemies. He took Ravenna and several other cities away from the Longobards and presented them to His Holiness, who incorporated these new domains into the so-called Papal State, which remained an independent country until half a century ago.
After Pepin's death, the relations between Rome and Aix-la-Chapelle or Nymwegen or Ingelheim, (the Frankish Kings did not have one official residence, but travelled from place to place with all their ministers and court officers,) became more and more cordial. Finally the Pope and the King took a step which was to influence the history of Europe in a most profound way.
Charles, commonly known as Carolus Magnus or Charlemagne, succeeded Pepin in the year 768. He had conquered the land of the Saxons in eastern Germany and had built towns and monasteries all over the greater part of northern Europe. At the request of certain enemies of Abd-ar-Rahman, he had invaded Spain to fight the Moors. But in the Pyrenees he had been attacked by the wild Basques and had been forced to retire. It was upon this occasion that Roland, the great Margrave of Breton, showed what a Frankish chieftain of those early days meant when he promised to be faithful to his King, and gave his life and that of his trusted followers to safeguard the retreat of the royal army.
During the last ten years of the eighth century, however, Charles was obliged to devote himself exclusively to affairs of the South. The Pope, Leo III, had been attacked by a band of Roman rowdies and had been left for dead in the street. Some kind people had bandaged his wounds and had helped him to escape to the camp of Charles, where he asked for help. An army of Franks soon restored quiet and carried Leo back to the Lateran Palace which ever since the days of Constantine, had been the home of the Pope. That was in December of the year 799. On Christmas day of the next year, Charlemagne, who was staying in Rome, attended the service in the ancient church of St. Peter. When he arose from prayer, the Pope placed a crown upon his head, called him Emperor of the Romans and hailed him once more with the title of "Augustus" which had not been heard for hundreds of years.
Once more Northern Europe was part of a Roman Empire, but the dignity was held by a German chieftain who could read just a little and never learned to write. But he could fight and for a short while there was order and even the rival emperor in Constantinople sent a letter of approval to his "dear Brother."
Unfortunately this splendid old man died in the year 814. His sons and his grandsons at once began to fight for the largest share of the imperial inheritance. Twice the Carolingian lands were divided, by the treaties of Verdun in the year 843 and by the treaty of Mersen-on-the-Meuse in the year 870. The latter treaty divided the entire Frankish Kingdom into two parts. Charles the Bold received the western half. It contained the old Roman province called Gaul where the language of the people had become thoroughly romanized. The Franks soon learned to speak this language and this accounts for the strange fact that a purely Germanic land like France should speak a Latin tongue.
The other grandson got the eastern part, the land which the Romans had called Germania. Those inhospitable regions had never been part of the old Empire. Augustus had tried to conquer this "far east," but his legions had been annihilated in the Teutoburg Wood in the year 9 and the people had never been influenced by the higher Roman civilisation. They spoke the popular Germanic tongue. The Teuton word for "people" was "thiot." The Christian missionaries therefore called the German language the "lingua theotisca" or the "lingua teutisca," the "popular dialect" and this word "teutisca" was changed into "Deutsch" which accounts for the name "Deutschland."
As for the famous Imperial Crown, it very soon slipped off the heads of the Carolingian successors and rolled back onto the Italian plain, where it became a sort of plaything of a number of little potentates who stole the crown from each other amidst much bloodshed and wore it (with or without the permission of the Pope) until it was the turn of some more ambitious neighbour. The Pope, once more sorely beset by his enemies, sent north for help. He did not appeal to the ruler of the west-Frankish kingdom, this time. His messengers crossed the Alps and addressed themselves to Otto, a Saxon Prince who was recognised as the greatest chieftain of the different Germanic tribes.
Otto, who shared his people's affection for the blue skies and the gay and beautiful people of the Italian peninsula, hastened to the rescue. In return for his services, the Pope, Leo VIII, made Otto "Emperor," and the eastern half of Charles' old kingdom was henceforth known as the "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation."
This strange political creation managed to live to the ripe old age of eight hundred and thirty-nine years. In the year 1801, (during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson,) it was most unceremoniously relegated to the historical scrapheap. The brutal fellow who destroyed the old Germanic Empire was the son of a Corsican notary-public who had made a brilliant career in the service of the French Republic. He was ruler of Europe by the grace of his famous Guard Regiments, but he desired to be something more. He sent to Rome for the Pope and the Pope came and stood by while General Napoleon placed the imperial crown upon his own head and proclaimed himself heir to the tradition of Charlemagne. For history is like life. The more things change, the more they remain the same.