Our sources for this particular post comes from The Two Lives of Charlemagne, written by Einhard, who personally knew Charlemagne, and Notker the Stammerer, who wrote a biography years later that mostly consisted of anecdotes and stories from the king's life. A more informative source has been Alessandro Barbera's biography, Charlemagne: Father of a Continent.
There are many things to say about Charlemagne--from his governmental reforms to his military prowess. He was not necessarily a military genius but a brilliant organizer of resources. Yet, expansion through force remains his most memorable legacy. We will touch briefly on his military career, but today we will focus on his and his father's ascension to power.
By the time of Charlemagne's reign, there was no questioning his authority. Yet he was only the second Carolingian king that had just recently usurped the Merovingian dynasty with the pope's blessing! Let's set the stage:
Gaul had been part of the Roman empire that had since crumbled under the weight of the barbarians. Out of the ashes grew smaller kingdoms, including the kingdom of the Franks. The Merovingian dynasty ruled the Franks who, in the eyes of the more sophisticated Roman and Byzantine worlds, were still nothing more than barbarians--or at least a primitive Christian kingdom. Many times, the Merovingian kings were selected by the Byzantine emperor. The emperor was considered the head of the church at this point, so, as part of Christendom, the Franks served the east. The former kingdom of Gaul would occasionally be united by a Merovingian king only to be split up again on his death and at the grasping fingertips of his heirs.
Charlemagne came from a powerful family who made a name for themselves as Mayors of the Palace. A small, administrative council, the Mayors of the Palace assisted the king in ruling, particularly in defense and military endeavors. Charlemagne's great-grandfather, Pepin of Herstal, was the first Mayor of the Palace to extend his rule into more than one of the splintered kingdoms. He continued to monopolize on the position, and by the time of Charlemagne's grandfather, Charles Martel, the Mayors, and in particular Pepin's line, had grown incredibly powerful while the king saw himself reduced to an empty title.
Charles Martel "served" under Childeric III, the last of the Merovingian kings. Of course, neither Martel nor Childeric knew that fact. However, Childeric must have been aware of his lack of power in his own kingdom. Charles Martel had become quite popular in the eyes of the Franks after beating back the Muslim incursion from Spain. He passed on his title and prestige to his sons, Pepin the Short and Carloman. When the latter left the court to pursue a monastic life, Pepin found himself as sole Mayor of the Palace and ruler of the Frankish kingdom in all but official title. In 754, Pepin received that title from Pope Stephen, as Einhard informs us. But why? Obviously the mayors wielded considerable power while Childeric was basically a non-entity. But what could have driven the pope to surpass an established line of kings to crown a new one? The answer lies in the insecurity of Rome and in a people called the Lombards.
Pepin the Short
After Rome fell, the pope saw all power drain out of Italy and east into the Byzantine empire. Even centuries after the collapse, Germanic tribes continued to threaten the great city, worse among these were the Lombards. At first the pope relied upon the Byzantine forces to protect Roman interests, yet continued internal struggles, distance, and a lack of resources resulted in lapse of protection that the popes relied upon. So they started looking elsewhere for the prayers to be answered. The powerful military on the rise in the old lands of Gaul would hardly have escaped the desperate gaze of the pope. In 739, Pope Gregory III wrote a letter not to the Merovingian king but to Charles Martel asking him to intervene on the papacy's behalf and eliminate the Lombard threat. Martel was unable to meet that request but his descendants believed that his military victories gave them the right to rule. When Pepin inherited his position as Mayor of the Palace, he wrote to Pope Zacharias to ask him, essentially, since he and his line did all the work and yielded the military power, shouldn't THEY have the right to rule? Zacharias returned the letter with his full agreement and in 751 Pepin declared himself king.
Zacharias's successor, Stephen, took the matter even further - literally and figuratively! Not only did he travel from Rome to the Frankish kingdom to crown Pepin (a highly symbolic gesture that no one failed to notice) but he also proclaimed that the Frankish kings were the new 'Particans of the Romans," or the protectors of the papal see. The line of Pepin and Charles Martel already had a pretty high opinion of themselves, but this decree from God's own mouth cemented their legacy, not just as the new Roman Empire but as the new Jerusalem. The Franks were, by all accounts and purposes, God's chosen people. Hadn't Charles Martel proven that with his defeat of the evil Arabs? Now the pope declared it so it must be true!
But there's something more to the story. One of the first things Pepin did as king was to take on the Lombards. Could there have been a deal behind the scenes? Or maybe not even behind the scenes! Zacharias and Pepin were in contact. Is it crazy to think that Pepin said, "Look, Pope, I'm pretty much already king. If you give me your blessing, I'll take a swing at the Lombards." Zacharias and later Stephen were in a desperate spot. They weren't getting sufficient help from Byzantium, who surely would have taken offense if they requested some petty Germanic king to fight the pope's battles for him. Yet, Pepin was probably straight wang hanging his longsword in front of the pope. Who would be able to resist?! Plus, Zacharias was consulted in the disposal of Childeric III who, according to Carolingian tradition, probably spent the remainder of his life shut up in a monastery--a policy that Charlemagne would come to really love.
An evil Lombard(i)
Pepin invaded the Lombards and lay siege to Pavia in 754, checked King Aistulf, but did not force submission. Ominous, huh? So of course Aistulf breaks the truce he agreed upon in 756 and shows up at the gates of Rome. Pope Stephen begged Pepin for assistance. Pepin obliged but once again failed to eliminate the threat, a folly that Charlemagne would not repeat--at least when it came to the Lombards. Pepin passed away in 768 but not before he placed the kingdom in the hands of his two sons: Charles (Le Magne) and Carloman (Who Died).
As we will soon see, this would not be the first time that the Carolingians benefited from the pope's desperation. In the next installment, we will look at Charlemagne's personal, military, and intellectual life and contributions--how he became emperor and the father of a continent. We will also be featuring a post from a guest contributor on how the internal strife of the Byzantine Empire left a vacuum that only Charlemagne could fill.
Charlemagne during his growth spurt
Keep your eyes peeled, History Fans. You never know when someone might be just desperate enough to hand you a crown and ordain all your decisions as infallible. I'm crossing my fingers!