25 December 2017

Charlemagne – Holy Roman Emperor

Christmas Day crowning for the Pope’s supporter

Charlemagne is crowned Holy Roman Emperor
Charlemagne is crowned Holy Roman Emperor
Charlemagne, the King of the Franks and the Lombards, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on this day in 800 in the old St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

He was the first recognised emperor in Western Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier and has been referred to as the ‘father of Europe’ because he united most of Europe for the first time since the days of the Roman Empire, including parts that had never been under Roman rule.

Charlemagne was the son of Pepin the Short and became King of the Franks when his father died in 768, initially as co-ruler with his brother Carloman I. When Carloman died suddenly in unexplained circumstances it left Charlemagne as the sole, undisputed ruler of the Frankish Kingdom.

He continued his father’s policy towards the papacy and became its protector, removing the Lombards in power from northern Italy and leading an incursion into Muslim Spain. He also campaigned against the Saxons, making them become Christians or face the death penalty.

Charlemagne was Holy Roman  Emperor for 14 years
Charlemagne was Holy Roman
Emperor for 14 years
In 799, Pope Leo III was violently mistreated by the Romans and fled to the protection of Charlemagne in Germany.

Charlemagne escorted him back to Rome and, rather than letting him be tried for his alleged crimes, had him swear an oath of innocence on December 23.

Two days later Charlemagne attended the Christmas Day mass in St Peter’s and as he knelt at the altar to pray, the Pope placed a jewelled crown upon his head, declaring him to be Emperor of the Romans.

Some historians say that Charlemagne was ignorant of the Pope’s intentions and did not want a coronation.

Others say Charlemagne was well aware the coronation was going to take place and could not have missed seeing the bejewelled crown waiting on the altar when he knelt in front of it to pray.

In crowning Charlemagne, Pope Leo III effectively ignored the reign of the Empress Irene of Constantinople. Since 727 the papacy had been in conflict over a number of issues with Irene’s predecessors in Constantinople. Relations between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire were to remain difficult, leading to an eventual split in the 11th century.

In 813 Charlemagne crowned his son, Louis the Pious, as co-emperor. The following year he fell ill with pleurisy and died on 21 January 1814. He was buried that same day in Aachen Cathedral.

The last Holy Roman Emperor to be crowned by the Pope was Charles V in 1530. The final Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, abdicated in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars, which led to the final dissolution of the Empire.

The crown of Charlemagne
The crown of Charlemagne
Travel tip:

After Charlemagne had successfully besieged the city of Pavia in 773, he is said to have had himself crowned with the Iron Crown of Lombardy in 774. This crown was famously placed by Napoleon on his own head in the Duomo in Milan in 1805. The crown is a circlet of gold with a central iron band, which according to legend was beaten out of a nail from Christ’s cross. The crown is kept in a Chapel in the Cathedral of Saint John in Monza, a city to the north east of Milan, which is famous nowadays for its Grand Prix racing circuit.

St Peter's Basilica in Rome
St Peter's Basilica in Rome
Travel tip:

Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman emperor in the old St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This stood from the fourth to the 16th centuries where the present-day Basilica stands in Vatican City. The old Basilica was built where the crucifixion and burial of Saint Peter took place by order of Emperor Constantine I in 318 and it took about 30 years to complete.


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