This Week in History

Coronation of a Reluctant Emperor, December 25, 800

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The “Arm Reliquary,” kept in the treasury of the cathedral built by Charles the Great and the site of his tomb in Aachen. The reliquary contains the ulna and radius bones of Charles’ right arm. King Louis XI of France commissioned the reliquary in 1481.

[Charlemagne] was more than a conqueror; he was a great organizer and reformer. He divided his realm into counties, each with a comes (Latin for companion), or “count,” to rule it. To keep an eye on his subordinates, the king himself throughout his life made trips to all parts of his realm, arriving with little or no warning. He also sent out emissaries, called missi dominici, to travel a regular circuit and report to him on the state of his provinces and the needs of his subjects. These royal legates, who traveled in pairs—one a count, the other a bishop—were appointed for a year’s duty over a certain number of counties. Complaints against a local count or his administrators were brought before the emissaries, and they would send the complaints up to the king.

Among the reports brought back to Charles by his missi dominici were letters from provincial bishops. Because Charles saw how badly these letters were written, he began to fear that his clergy did not have enough Latin to understand the Scriptures. He thus established schools in every monastery and cathedral for the perfect teaching of the Latin tongue. The English scholar, Alcuin, who headed the school in Charles’s palace, called the “palace school,” was commanded to staff and oversee these many schools. Scholars from the British monasteries were brought over to Charles’s kingdom to train new teachers. Thus Charles brought the Anglo-Saxon renaissance of learning to the continent.

A silver coin from between 812-814, displaying the bust of Charles the Great. The inscription reads: CAROLVS IMPAUG, with the latter a contraction of IMP[ERATOR] AUG[USTUS]: “Charles, Emperor, Augustus”

We today owe the care and preservation of virtually all of the classical authors to Charles the Great. He financed the copying of all the classical works, “almost worn out by the carelessness of our ancestors,” he said. Charles devoted much attention to religious books, and his desire was to have the entire body of Frankish epic poetry written down and copied out for future generations. But this library of pagan poetry was later destroyed by Charles’s son, King Louis.

Charles faced other enemies besides the Saxons and the Muslims in Spain. When a duke in Bavaria rebelled, Charles had to force him to submit fully to his rule. The Lombards, too, briefly revolted, only to be subdued by the king. Then, in 791, he had to deal with a pagan tribe, the Avars, whom he also defeated.

File:Karl der Große in der Chronik des Ekkehard von Aura.jpg

A representation of Charles the Great from a manuscript of the Chronicle of Ekkehard, from around 1112-1113

In the last years of his reign, Charles had once again to defend the pope. Leo III, who had become pope in 795, faced powerful enemies in Rome. Four years later, Leo fled Rome, seeking protection from Charles. The king was determined to seat the pope once more in his own city; so, in late 800, Charles and his troops crossed the Alps and headed swiftly to Rome. There he held a synod, reestablished Leo on the papal throne, and executed or imprisoned the pope’s enemies.

A few days after proclaiming the pope’s innocence, Charles— with the royal and papal courtiers—thronged St. Peter’s for the festival of Christmas. When Mass was ended, Charles remained kneeling at the altar. Leo advanced with a crown.

He placed it on the bowed head of the king and cried,“God grant life and victory to Charles, Augustus, crowned by God, great and pacific Emperor of the Romans.”All present joined in the cry, Vivat! Then all there—Frankish nobles, Lombards, Roman senators and citizens, Italian clergy, even the pope himself— knelt before Charles and saluted him with the reverence paid to the ancient emperors.

A medieval depiction o the crowning of Charles the Great

Charles later said that the pope crowned him emperor without his prior consent and that he would never have entered St. Peter’s on that day if he had known what the pope had planned to do. But Charles did not refuse the crown. In return for the ceremony of coronation, Charles confirmed papal control of central Italy.

Charles made all his subjects swear allegiance to him a second time, not as king of the Franks and Lombards, but as emperor of the Romans. The clergy warned the people that they were not merely promising obedience to Charles, but to God and his law. The new empire thus was to be a close union of Church and state. From then on, this empire was to be the embodiment of “Christendom,” a Christian society.


Music for the Death of the Emperor

This 9th century piece from the Frankish lands, Planctus de Obitu Karoli (“Lament for the Death of Charles”), bemoans the death of Charles the Great, 14 years after his imperial coronation. Click “Show More” for the words (in Latin and English).