[St. Pachomius Library]

Charles I (Charlemagne), Emperor of the West

VIII/IX Centuries
The elder son of Pepin III the Short and Bertrada, Charlemagne was born c. 742, before his parents were married. Despite his doubtful legitimacy, he was with his younger brother Carloman, appointed heir to the Kingdom of the Franks and anointed heir to the Empire in 754 by Pope Stephen II/III. When Pepin died in 768, Carloman inherited the larger share and the better land in the kingdom. The two brothers maintained a bitter peace until Carloman's death three years later left Charlemagne the sole King of the Franks. For the next 28 years, Charlemagne waged wars of conquest and united most of the lands of Western Europe. His initial raid on Spain to turn back the Muslims was not successful, and a Basque attack on the rear of his army inspired The Song of Roland. By 801, Charlemagne had established a province in Spain, but after that date, he began to defend, rather than to expand, his kingdom.

His government was loosely centralized and relied upon the loyalty of local nobles. Charlemagne sent his officials, two by two, one lay, one clergy, on yearly trips through the kingdom. These missi dominici (sent by the ruler), were responsible for hearing legal cases and spreading the king's law, as well as establishing schools for all children. At the time of Charlemagne's death in 814, the system was beginning to break down as corruption flourished and local magnates began to assume more power.

In 800 on Christmas Day, Leo III crowned Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor in gratitude for the king's having rescued him and saved Rome. The Frankish Royal Annals record that one of the king's advisers suggested the coronation to the pope; however, Einhard, his biographer and a scholar at his court, reports that the coronation surprised and angered the king. Scholars attribute the anger to the fact that Charlemagne considered the pope to be one of his subjects.

Charlemagne was a learned man who knew Latin and Greek. He frequently studied Augustine's City of God, and his court was home to several leading scholars, including Alcuin of York. Scholars at his court developed Carolingian miniscule, a script that is the basis for modern printing and cursive.

The king was also active in the affairs of the church. In 794, he convoked a synod in Frankfurt to discuss flood relief, adoptionism, and icons. To fight adoptionism, the participants at the synod drew on the arguments of the Council of Toledo (589) to use the phrase filioque in the creed to combat Arianism. The promulgation of this phrase may have defeated adoptionism, but it also contributed to the schism between Rome and Constantinople in 1054. He wished to repudiate the decisions of the Second Council of Nicaea (787) because he considered the issues surrounding icons theologically irrelevant and because he hoped to establish the Frankish church as the equal of the churches in Rome and Constantinople.

Charlemagne was buried at Aix-la-Chapelle, or Aachen. Antipope Pascal III "canonized" him at the request of Frederick Barbarossa in 1165, and the familiar golden statue is his reliquary. Legend says that Charlemagne rests now, armed, at Oldenburg in Hesse, where he awaits the coming battle with the anti-Christ.

Karen Rae Keck


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