Index Previous Page Next Page

Charles the Great: Christmas Day 800

The wanderings of the Northmen began while the greatest of the barbarian kings was ruling the Franks -- Charles the Great, or Charlemagne (768-814). It was his destiny to make a new Europe out of the barbarian chaos.

Charlemagne was a fine general, "majestic in form, tireless in action." He fought more than fifty campaigns. He was invited by the Pope to fight the Lombards in North Italy, and his son was crowned King of Italy. He fought against the Moors in North Spain, and the famous Song of Roland tells of the exploits of himself and his knights.

But most of his wars were east of the Rhine. The most terrible of these was against the Saxon pagans, 4,000 of whom were butchered in a single day, and later the Saxons were forcibly converted. Just as Caesar brought Gaul within the bounds of the Roman Empire, so Charlemagne, after much fighting, brought Germany within the bounds of a new Christian empire.

All these varied peoples and lands Charles tried to weld into a great empire. He was equally great as soldier and as ruler in Church and State. He revived learning by building schools, collecting books, and inviting scholars like Alcuin from York to live at his capital. And like Henry II of England later, he sent itinerant or travelling justices all over his empire to carry out his plans of government.

His empire covered the greater part of western Europe. He became "the most imposing person between the fall of Rome and the fifteenth century." The chief event of his life was his visit to Rome, when the Pope, Leo III, crowned him in the great church of St. Peter on Christmas Day 800. A great historian (Hodgkin) thus describes the famous scene:

"At last the fullness of time was come, and Charles, attended probably by all his Frankish courtiers, and by the citizens of Rome, went to pay his devotions on the morning of Christmas Day in the great church of St. Peter. They mount up from the banks of the Tiber by the long colonnade which stretches all the way from the castle of St. Angelo to the threshold of St. Peter's. They ascend the thirty five steps to the platform, on which the Pope and all the great officers of his household stand waiting to receive them. Charles himself,

'In shape and gesture proudly eminent,'

with his yellow locks tinged with grey, and with some furrows ploughed in his cheeks by the toil of twenty Saxon campaigns, towers above the swarthy shaven clerics who surround the Pope.

"All the Roman hearts are gladdened by seeing that he wears the Roman dress -- the long tunic with the scarf thrown over it, and the low shoes of a Roman noble instead of the high laced-up boots of a Germanic chieftain. They pass on; between the pillars of the central nave are hung (as it is feast day) costly veils of purple embroidered with gold, and at the farther end of the church a gigantic cross shaped candelabrum, hanging from the silver-plated framework of the triumphal arch, with its 1,370 candles, lights up the gloom of the December morning.

"Charles rose from his knees; the Pope approached him, and, lifting high his hands, placed on the head of the giant king a golden crown.

"Then all the Romans burst into a loud and joyful cry: 'To Carolus Augustus, crowned by God, mighty and pacific emperor, be life and victory!' Once more an emperor of the Romans had been acclaimed in Rome, the first of that long line of Germanic emperors, the last of whom laid down the imperial diadem in the lifetime of our grandfathers at the bidding of the son of a Corsican attorney, Napoleon."

And so, on that famous Christmas Day, more than a thousand years ago, another Roman Empire began, this time Christian and under the guardianship of both Pope and emperor. It is known in history as the Holy Roman Empire.

Fortunately we know a good deal about Charlemagne, because his chaplain wrote his life. Though Charles did much for education, his chaplain says that he never learnt to write. "A human touch shows us the old warrior toiling to master writing, keeping the tablets under his pillow, and practising at odd moments, though his fingers had grown too stiff ever to succeed."