When we last left the Carolingians, Pepin had usurped the Merovingian king with the help of a desperate pope. Pepin's jump from Mayor of the Palace to King of the Franks had some serious consequences, not least of all an obligation to protect Rome, a.k.a. fight the pope's battles for him.
Pepin died in 768, leaving his kingdom split, in the Germanic custom, between his two sons, Charles and Carloman. Pepin had expanded the kingdom significantly before handing it off to his sons, but instead of splitting the kingdom down traditional, territorial lines, he created new boundaries. Charles took over the more central kingdom that faced Germany and the Saxons while Carloman was given the more treacherous neighbors - the Lombards and the Arabs. There were rumors of animosity between the two brothers, or at least a coolness. Certainly there would have been competition and maybe a little resentment on the older Carloman's part. The harsh feelings came to an end in 771 when Carloman died suddenly.
Sensing an opportunity, the king of the Lombards, Desiderius, encouraged Carloman's widow to claim her husband's throne before Charles could act. This was significant on a couple levels. First, the Lombards were the continued enemy of the papacy, the defeat of whom was all but promised by Pepin when the pope gave him the crown. Much to the pope's annoyance, however, Charles had married Desiderius's daughter not long before. This tied Desiderius and the Lombards to the Frankish crown and thus to survival. Pope Adrian wrote to Charles to ask for help against the Lombards, who were threatening more than ever. Desiderius wanted anointing just like Pepin and Charles had been. This obviously put Charles in a tight pinch. Being ever the practical diplomat and ruthless, cold-hearted bastard, Charles ditched his Lombard wife, took up his sword and crushed The Lombard threat. The king quickly annexed his brother's lands into his own before anyone else could act. Interestingly, neither brother embarked on any type of military endeavor while they shared the
Charles's Italian campaign was incredibly destructive to the local population. Many farmers, peasants and entire families were forced to sell themselves into slavery in order to survive. This had a profound effect on Charlemagne, and it is one of many contradictory battles that raged on throughout his reign. As a Christian king, it was his duty to eliminate God's enemies--not only the surviving pagan religions but also any threat to Rome. Yet as a Christian, was he not supposed to show mercy? Charles seemed to struggle with this concept throughout his reign, something that his later medieval successors would simply ignore. There was no doubt in his mind that he was God's chosen king, the Franks the new Israelites, and every move completed through a religious paradigm, yet he often seemed at odds with his relationship with the universal church. For the most part, he was a brutal military leader, unafraid of stiff punishment for his enemies and relentless in both legislation and in war. However, these moments of understanding like with the suffering of the Italians, this weird form of compassion, brings Charlemagne out of a legendary status and paints him as a real, complex human being. The Italian catastrophe bothered him so much that he drafted some legislation that gave the Italian people their land back, forgave their debts, and ultimately made him a hero after destroying their property with his army.
Charles believed in a slow and steady takeover. The Frankish kingdom was based on Roman tradition, and the lines were blurred between secular and ecclesiastical offices. When conquering a kingdom or a people, Charles like to maintain the local administration by giving them the Frankish and Christian benefits of being part of their "empire." This helped quell most of the out crying that normally accompanied a takeover that ousted the local leaders. Under Charles, the local leaders were carefully incentivized until the position was vacated when the king would subtly install his more trustworthy Frankish vassals. This method, combined with the sheer number of troops and the masterful organization of the king, worked extremely well in almost every foreign occupation. . .except with the Saxons.
The most notorious of Charles's wars was the thirty-year struggle against the pagan Saxons who would just not fucking die! In the end, it appeared the king had adopted a patient plan to slowly suffocate the Saxons, though I'm sure that he did not intend for the violence to be so prolonged. The Franks chipped away, little by little, taking a fort here, losing a fort there. As they pushed the boundaries, they would set up fortifications--some would stand strong, others they'd lose in one of the many Saxon uprisings. Charles repeatedly pinned the Saxons down, forced them to be baptized and to sign peace agreements, only to have a new rebellion pop up a few years later. This infuriated Charles! If there were two things that guy hated, it was pagans and oath-breakers. The Saxons were both! In 782, he finally loses his shit after another insurgence and decapitates 4,500 Saxons. NO MERCY.
Charles takes a completely different approach with the Avars, or as they were more commonly and wrongly identified as, the Huns. These warriors ruled the Eastern Steppes, wreaking havoc on the Byzantine Empire who had been paying them off for years. Charles had had enough of the menace and blitzed into the Avar territory and annihilated the entire people. This was the second time the western Christian kingdom had shown up the east. These slights, not to mention the vastness of Frankish kingdom, did not go unnoticed in Rome or Byzantium.
At first an annoyance, Charles and the Franks had grown into a serious threat in the Byzantine Empire's eyes. Charles had expanded the kingdom to include all of France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Austria; Germany up to the Elbe, northern and central Italy; Istria, Bohemia, Slovenia, Hungary up to Danube and even parts of Spain! Sheesh! This put CHARLES IN CHARGE of basically all of Christendom except for the Eternal City (which was relying on the Franks for protection) and Byzantium (which was limping along and growing continuously powerless).
The competition between east and west began with Pope Gregory III's letter to Charles Martel asking for assistance. The papacy was not receiving the help it needed from what was technically the superior emperor. Pope Zacharias followed suit by sending his famous desperate letter to Pepin, saying that, as military leader, he had the right to rule. At some point Rome broke away from all practical submission to Byzantium. Yet the eastern empire still nominally ruled the Christian realm, something the Franks began to resent. They didn't like the stupid sounding Greek language and couldn't understand why they couldn't just speak Latin like everybody else! This resentment was amplified by a major controversy that was raging through the Byzantine Empire. A debate had begun over icons. Was praying to icons considered idolatry? The empire was split down the middle and violence erupted between those who thought it was okay and those who considered it wrong to use the icons. Western Christianity did not utilize icons and thus considered the debate a waste of time and the violence that ensued a blemish and embarrassment to Christianity. Empress Irene was sitting on the throne as regent for her young son, Constantine VI. Mother and child took stances on opposite sides of the icon debate which resulted in Irene poking out her son's eyes, as well as cutting out his tongue. This embarrassment, coupled with the impressive power being showcased under Charles, was enough to drive the pope to switch alliances. But then something happened to the pope that gave him no choice, and once again, history was moved by ANOTHER pope in sheer desperation.
In 799, Pope Leo, successor to the more friendly Adrian, found himself in some hot water. Some pretty hefty charges were brought against him, including perjury and fornication. The pope was sleazin' around! In true Byzantine tradition, the Roman citizens attempted to poke out his eyes and cut out his tongue. This was considered the best insurance against somebody ever taking office again. If they can't see or speak, who the hell would pay any attention to them? Not a bad policy! Leo escaped with his pants around his ankles and ran to the only real protector left to him - Charles. And the door was finally opened for our dear Charlemagne. Both Leo and Constantine VI had been attacked by their own people; both the mighty Byzantine Empire and the infallible pope had been shaken, embarrassed, and plunged deep in sin. Meanwhile, the unstoppable Frankish machine churned onward and Charles saw his opportunity. He rescued Leo, marched him back to Rome, held a ridiculous trial in which the pope was found to be above reproach, and set him back in his comfy office. However, the gesture was not lost on anyone. The pope, the head of the church, had come to the King of the Franks for help. The King of the Franks in turn gave a ruling that put the pope back in his place. Thus a battle for power had begun.
In November of 800, Charlemagne showed up outside of Rome. Leo walked twice as far out of the city to greet him--again, people noticed and understood the symbolism. And on Christmas Day, Charlemagne was crowned Emperor. The symbolism continued at the coronation, much to Charles's dismay. Leo had beaten Charles to the punch, and, seeing no way out of it, Charles had to kneel and allow Leo to crown him. After all his hard work, saving Leo, defeating the Lombards, and basically starting Europe, Charles STILL place himself beneath the pope. You might be thinking to yourself, "But a Church lovin' yahoo like Charles surely didn't mind being one step below the pope!" You'd be wrong! And this is how we know: When his only surviving heir, Louis the Pious, was crowned as emperor, Charles made certain that it was he and not the pope who placed the crown on his son, a very symbolic move that was to be repeated a thousand years later by another French bad-ass, NAPOLEON BLOWMYBONEAPART!
Charles did not just see himself as head of the church, but as protector and ruler of Christians on Earth. Why else would God have blessed him with victory after victory? The ambiguity of the relationship between the pope and king continued on for centuries. If only our boy Chuck had reached the crown before the ol' sex crazed Pope Leo!
So far we have seen how the Carolingians achieved the Frankish crown, how Pepin pushed himself into global relevance, and how Charlemagne created the new powerhouse in the West. In our next installment, we will look closer at the emperor's personal life, the bizarre and tangled web of his heirs, and how he created through his policies a new Europe. We are also very excited to announce a new post coming about Byzantine and the battle of the iconography by a person who actually knows what he's talking about!
Until next time, History Fans. Keep your hands to yourself!