Christmas Day, Rome, 800 AD

In the great basilica of St. Peter’s, Rome, Pope Leo III celebrated mass. It was meant to be like any other Christmas mass that celebrated the birth of Christ, except on this particular glorious day, an additional ceremony was performed. Pope Leo III, on this day, 25th December, 800 AD, boldly placed a crown on Charlemagne, the king of the Franks and announced him to the congregation, as Augustus et Imperator (Majestic Emperor).

What Leo did was quite frankly unprecedented. But why did he do it? If Leo could speak to us today he might say he did it for his own protection and the protection of the Catholic faith? Whatever the reason, the repercussions of this act would be felt around the corridors of the papal office, the streets of Rome, western Europe and across in the east with the Byzantines. 

When Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne ‘Majestc Emperor’ it was done with no explicit connection between the Roman Empire (Byzantium) and that of what Charlemagne carved out in his great victories across western Europe. However, some may disagree and point out that the coronation itself was indeed a culmination of Charlemagne’s reign and success as a military commander. He was western Christendom’s savior and protector, so why not recognise him with the highest of honors. He had surpassed being just a mere king. So as, Charles I (Charlemagne) knelt praying, Pope Leo III placed upon his head a magnificent jewel-encrusted crown. Some reports claim that Charlemagne was angered rather than flattered by Leo’s gesture. Other reports claim that he was taken by surprise, but many historians believe that this was not the case. How could anyone fail to notice a beautiful crown sitting near or on the altar just a few feet away? Maybe he was in shock or maybe he was worried about the trouble it would undoubtedly stir amongst the Byzantines?

If you asked the Byzantines about the whole affair, their reaction to Pope Leo’s actions on Christmas morning was of dismay. The Byzantines considered Charlemagne (and his successors) to be pretenders to a throne that did not belong to them. Constantinople tried its best to pretend that this so called new German Empire (Holy Roman Empire) did not exist. But when co operation between the two stifled they reluctantly admitted that, as a German monarch Charlemagne was an emperor, but not Roman. (The Byzantines would accept Charlemagne’s “personal” title of Emperor in 812, but were not willing to extend that same courtesy to his successors.) The Byzantines also insisted that they alone were the only true heirs of the Caesars. The Franks for their part (in years still to come), acted like a “spoilt younger sibling”. They viewed the Byzantines in the east as somewhat effeminate and not worthy of being called Roman.This was arguably due to the fact of their own insecurity and jealousy of the Byzantine’s greater legitimacy? This pattern would continue for over six hundred years and Constantinople would never ever recognise the Holy Roman Empire as its equal.

Charlemagne, at first, it seems went into “damage control”. He offered his hand in marriage to Byzantine Empress Irene, in an attempt to reunite the two halves of the empire. Unfortunately, negotiations to this diplomatic union were quickly extinguished by a new usurper, Nicephorus I.  The new court in Constantinople made it absolutely clear that it would be a cold day in hell before their empire was handed over to a barbarian. Charlemagne, to his credit did his absolute best during the next twelve years (leading to his acceptance as ‘Emperor’ in 812 AD) to convince the Byzantines that he was not trespassing on their titles or claims to be the heirs of the Caesars. Even when the Byzantines found themselves in all sorts of bother, in defeat at the hands of the Bulgars, at Verbitza, in Bulgaria, where they were massacred (including the Emperor Nicephorus I ), Charlemagne was still willing to be fair and reasonable in the terms he sought for his own recognition as Emperor. He eventually, to some degree, won them over with Emperor Michael I Rhangabe.

Background to the day’s coronation

Lets pause here for a moment, as we trace back to the events that shaped Christmas day, 800AD. What we do know about the events that led to Charlemagne coronation? It all began when Pope Leo III found himself in grave danger from threats within the church. Having won the election to become Pope, he was immediately subjected to taunts and abuse from the previous pope’s family and friends (Hadrian I 772-95 AD) about his suitability and breeding for high office. Leo wasn’t a Roman, and that didn’t sit well with members of Rome’s nobility. In short, they expected the office of the Pope to pass to one of them. As it was that did not happen.Therefore, it didn’t take long for Hadrian’s ancentors to plot against Leo’s demise. In a bloody attack in April 799 on the streets of Rome, Leo was almost beaten to death and an attempt was made to mutilate him.

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As luck would have it, he was saved by friends, who helped him escape Rome to Charlemagne’s court in Paderborn. The king of the Franks was unfortunately unable to resolve Leo’s troubles at the time. He was busy conquering lands in the north and converting barbarians to Christianity.

By November 799, Charlemagne was finally in a position to help. He sent Leo back to Rome with Frankish escorts, with an eye on sorting out all the alleged charges brought against Leo, at a time in the near future that suited him. Charlemagne, like his father was a great protector of the church and he promised Leo that he would come to his aid in due course.

Charlemagne did eventually come to the aid of Leo, arriving in Rome, in August 800 AD. But it wasn’t until early December that Charlemagne opened up proceedings for a tribunal to eventually restore some dignity back to the papal office. Officially, Charlemagne had no right or jurisdiction to hold the tribunal, technically only an emperor had the right to pass judgement over Leo’s embarrassing situation, but the closest emperor was all the way in Constantinople. Nevertheless, when no opponents of Leo came forward to accuse him of wrongdoing, the matter seemed resolved. Following this, as we already know, what Leo did next on Christmas day was extraordinary.

There is a question that has dogged historians for centuries,  why didn’t Leo ask the legitimate Emperor in Constantinople for help? No one truly has the definitive answer to this question, but Leo would probably have argued that, why should he look to Constantinople (which was so far away from Rome) for help, when the King of the Franks was within easy reach. With the political split between East and West occurring also a long time ago, it was maybe time for Popes like Leo (in Rome), to finally assert their own authoritarian claims, henceforth, Leo’s bold decision to crown Charlemagne emperor on Christmas day. To add fuel to the fire, a little matter of a vacant throne in Constantinople, according to Leo (and Charlemagne), may have also been a reason for Charlemagne surprise coronation. Across in the East a woman sat on the throne called Irene. Tradition had always seen a male heir rule the empire, but with no living male heir, did Pope Leo see fit to create one of his own, in Charlemagne? To the Byzantines this argument would have been utter nonsense and ridiculous. Regardless of her poor record as Empress, Irene was still the legitimate ruler in Constantinople in Byzantine eyes.

Charlemagne’s legacy

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Not since the final days of Romulus Augustulus, before he was overthrown by Odoacer and the western imperial regalia sent back to Constantinople, would a new emperor reappear in the west. In short, the re- emergence of a new emperor in the west, would change the political, social and religious landscape of Europe. In one swift act Charlemagne lay claim to govern and preside over much of western Europe and but also bring into his protection the papal territories.

Charlemagne was a man that took seriously his new imperial role and history shows that he even went as far as exchanging ambassadors with the caliphate in Baghdad. In his new role he set up an impressive imperial court at Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) and gathered many of the best teachers, poets and philosophers in western Europe to his court. He would also seek out and summons the most gifted philosophers of Italy and as far as Ireland, who studied Greek and still knew of the days of old, however dim, of Roman traditions. He was furthermore, a great patron of the arts and education. For an illiterate emperor, he undertook lessons in Latin and some Greek, but more importantly he took the task to educate his sons with the best the west had to offer in teachers.

It was through his sons that he hoped to leave a ‘holy’ empire, however, it did not survive long after him.(His sons would partition his territories into smaller kingdoms). But what he did succeed in doing was to help protect, guide and ‘create’ a stronger Roman Catholic Church, whose Frankish fingerprints are still felt through to this day. Interestingly, it can be argued that, after his Christmas day coronation, Charlemagne’s influence inadvertently helped engineer the split or schism between the Eastern and Western churches? Dreams of a unified Europe with one emperor and one Church would be lost forever. As a result, East and West would go their own way. We are left with ‘two’ empires, two churches, two holy seas, a Roman and Orthodox view of Christianity. Yet given all the debate and controversy, the king of the Franks was a formidable conqueror, who fully deserves the title granted to him- Charles the Great (Charlemagne).

The header image is a miniature showing Pope Leo III crowning Charlemagne emperor on Christmas Day, 800 AD; from Chroniques de France ou de Saint-Denis, vol. 1, second quarter of the 14th century.  The b/w image of the statue of Charlemagne is found in St. John’s church, Mustair (Grisons), circa 9th century. 

Notes and Further Reading

Lars Brownworth, Lost to the West, Crown, 2009.

David Bentley Hart, The Story of Christianity, Quercus, 2007.

Friedrich Heer, The Holy Roman Empire, Phoenix Press, 1968.

John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Apogee, Viking, 1991.

John Julius Norwich, The Popes: A History, Chattos & Windus, 2011.

Hywell Williams, Emperor of the West, Quercus, 2010.