Byzantine Age: Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire


While we are not embarking on a detailed study of the history of Western Europe, the events discussed today will have great influence on the chain of events leading to the Great Schism, one of the saddest days of the Church. How could this have happened, when Jesus prayed so eloquently that His Church be one.


Historical Background:

            All through the dark ages, the Popes of Rome were being attacked by various tribes. This had not ended with the Fall of Rome. And, through the centuries, the Popes had asked for, and often received, help from the Byzantine Emperors. The Bishop of Rome had always considered himself a subject of the Byzantine Emperor. But, in the days of Leo III, an iconoclast Emperor, the Byzantine Empire punished Rome for supporting icons by taking the province of Illyricum in the Balkans. From that time on, the Popes sought help closer to home.

            A new kingdom arose in Germany in the mid-700s– the Frankish Kingdom. Its ruler was Pepin the Short. When Pope Stephen II was threatened by the Lombards who were approaching from southern France and northern Italy, he asked Pepin to help. He crowned Pepin King of the Franks. Pepin defeated the Lombards and returned all the land taken to the Pope – the Donation of Pepin. The precedent was now set for the Pope to involve himself in the secular politics of Europe without the support or even involvement of the Byzantine Emperor or the Patriarch.



            Charles the Great, or Charlemagne, was the son of Pepin the Short. He was a great general who soon defeated the Lombards once and for all, took the Saxon territories in England, captured the Slavic tribes as far east as the Adriatic Sea, and marched south into Spain. He established an empire, with a common civilization and government, for the peoples of Europe – an empire continued by his descendants for almost 200 years.

            Unfortunately, just as the Pope inserted himself into secular affairs, Charlemagne had a deep interest in Church affairs. He considered himself the head of the Church, as Constantine had in the old Roman Empire. He found a different Liturgy in each area of his kingdom; after reviewing them all with the scholar Alcuin he imposed the use of the Roman rite that is used to this day in the Roman Catholic Church. He also began using a version of the creed from Spain which contained one extra word, “filioque”; the Holy Spirit was said to proceed from the Father “and the Son”. A small change, perhaps, but in a creed declared by the Ecumenical Councils to be final and unchangeable.

            Charlemagne initially did not intend to create a new Western Roman Empire. In fact, his daughter was to have married the Crown Prince of Constantinople. But, the Empress Irene, the Prince’s mother, dethroned her son and set up her own Empire, unrecognized by the West or most of the East. Thus, Charlemagne saw the seat of Emperor as vacant! He imagined himself the successor of the many illustrious emperors who had ruled both East and West – Constantine, Theodosius the Great, Justinian the Great. The coronation of Charlemagne in the year 800 by Pope Leo III as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire was a bold act, regarded by the East as a revolt of its western provinces and designed to cement the supremacy of the Pope in the west and establishing the precedent that Western kings must be approved by the Pope.

Quiz Questions:

            First review the quiz questions for the previous lessons of this unit. Have the students met all the objectives of the unit?

  1. Identify these people: Pepin the Short, Charlemagne, Empress Irene, Alcuin, Leo III
  2. Locate these kingdoms on the map: Lombard, Frankish, Byzantine, Illyricum.
  3. Identify these things: Donation of Pepin, Holy Roman Empire, filioque.
  4. List three events from this period of history that would be involved in the schism.