A 19th-century vision of Charlemagne (742-814) by Casper Scheuren CREDIT: Bridgeman Art Library

On this day in history: Charlemagne crowned Holy Roman Emperor

History of Italy

The year 800 AD witnessed a historic and pivotal moment in European history as Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day. This event marked the revival of imperial authority in Western Europe and had profound implications for the political, religious, and cultural landscape of the continent.

Born around 742 AD, Charlemagne was the eldest son of Pepin the Short, the King of the Franks. In 768, upon his father’s death, Charlemagne and his brother Carloman inherited the Frankish kingdom. However, conflicts arose between the two brothers, and after Carloman’s death in 771, Charlemagne emerged as the sole ruler of the Carolingian Empire.

Charlemagne was a skilled military leader and a shrewd statesman. His reign is characterised by a series of military campaigns that expanded the Frankish kingdom significantly. Through conquests in present-day France, Germany, Italy, and beyond, Charlemagne laid the foundation for what would later be known as the Holy Roman Empire.

The Alliance with the Papacy

As Charlemagne’s power grew, so did his relationship with the Papacy. Pope Adrian I sought Charlemagne’s protection against the threat of Lombard aggression in Italy.

In 774, Charlemagne responded to the Pope’s plea by leading an expedition into Italy, defeating the Lombards, and securing the Papal territories. This marked the beginning of a close alliance between the Carolingian dynasty and the Papacy.

In 799, a new crisis emerged when Pope Leo III sought Charlemagne’s assistance against rebellious factions in Rome.

In a dramatic turn of events, Leo III was attacked in Rome, prompting him to flee to Charlemagne’s court in Frankia. Realising the need for a strong alliance with the Papacy, Charlemagne journeyed to Rome in 800 to address the situation.

Charlemagne’s coronation

On Christmas Day of 800 AD, during a solemn ceremony at the old St. Peter’s Basilica, Charlemagne knelt in prayer. As he rose, Pope Leo III placed a golden crown on his head, proclaiming him “Emperor of the Romans.”

Charlemagne’s coronation as Holy Roman Emperor had far-reaching implications for the political, religious, and cultural landscape of medieval Europe. The title “Holy Roman Emperor” conveyed both secular and sacred authority, symbolising the fusion of Roman imperial tradition and Christian ideals.

This event marked the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire, a political entity that endured for over a millennium until its dissolution in 1806.

The Holy Roman Empire was a unique political structure in which the Pope played a crucial role in legitimising the authority of the emperor. This intertwining of religious and political power shaped the medieval understanding of the ruler’s divine right to govern.

Charlemagne’s Legacy and Impact

Charlemagne’s legacy extends beyond his military conquests and political achievements. His reign also witnessed a revival of learning and culture, often referred to as the Carolingian Renaissance. Charlemagne himself was a patron of education, promoting the preservation and copying of classical manuscripts. The establishment of schools and scriptoria contributed to the intellectual and cultural revival.

The Carolingian Renaissance laid the groundwork for the medieval educational system, preserving and transmitting classical knowledge to future generations. The Holy Roman Empire, although facing challenges and evolving over time, left an indelible mark on European history.

In conclusion, Charlemagne’s coronation as Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 800 AD marked a defining moment in European history. This event not only solidified the alliance between the Carolingian dynasty and the Papacy but also laid the foundation for the Holy Roman Empire, a political entity that would shape the course of European history for centuries to come.

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