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James Danchus

History 1560

The Carolingian Kings and the Papacy

The Carolingian dynasty reached heights of power that had not been seen in

Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire. Leaders such as Pepin of Heristal,

Charlemagne, Pepin the Short, Charles Martel gradually constructed a vast and far

reaching empire. But their dealings with the Roman papacy proved to be quite the

struggle for power, even for an empire so large. While the King of the Franks derived his

power from man, the pope derived his power from God. This idea of divine precedence

ignited a tense relationship between the Frankish kingdom and the Vatican. The origin of

the Carolingians and their ascension to power was not quite complete until Pepin the

Short had gotten anointed king by Pope Zacharius’ hand. The pope would call Pepin’s

forces into action to dispose of threats to papal lands in Italy. Even the all powerful

Charlemagne was given his title by a pope, although it was more of an act of symbolism

than an actual coronation. Does this mean that the leaders of the Frankish lands were

granted their power by the pope? There were many struggles for power between the

papacy and the Carolingian kings.

The situation began when the Carolingians initially took power. The previous

dynasty, called the Merovingian’s, ruled as kings until the title eventually became

meaningless within the realm. The office of “mayor of the palace” had become

increasingly more important and began to be passed down from inheritance just like the

throne. Eventually, a man named Pepin of Heristal came into office and had a son by the

name of Charles Martel. Both of the mayors were great leaders especially in the case of
Charles who was a fierce military commander and helped expand the Frankish empire

through military conquest (Hollister 100-101).

It wasn’t until Charles’ son, Pepin the Short came into power that he received

recognition for being the leader of the Franks. In an effort to establish diplomatic

relations with the Pepin, Pope Zacharius I reached out to him. Pepin asked the pope a

simple “hypothetical” question regarding whether or not the true ruler and runner of the

empire should get the title of king. Zacharius replied by stating that Pepin should be

anointed king of the Franks and that he would personally do the honors. A few years later,

a new pope by the name of Stephen II anointed Pepin the king of the Franks, thus

deposing the Merovingian dynasty. The reason why the pope did this was to help solidify

their own position in Italy against threatening forces. As a condition of the coronation,

Stephen asked Pepin to help purge the Lombards from the Italian peninsula. Pepin

obliged and did as the pope asked. This is where the perception of Franco subservience to

the papacy is initially formulated. Pepin was not king until the pope decided to make him

king, then he had Pepin’s forces go into Italy and do the pope’s militaristic dirty work.

Pepin knew how this would look. So instead of simply handing the land over to the pope,

he made it very clear that the land was his through conquest and he decided to give it to

the church. The play for leverage between both King Pepin the Short and Pope Stephen II

was subtle, and it was definitely there (Notes 7/18).

Although Pepin and his predecessors made great strides during their time in

control, none of them assumed the amount of power of Pepin’s son, Charlemagne.

Charles “The Great” had an empire that rivaled the size of the Roman Empire. In 800 AD

pope Leo III anointed Charlemagne as “Emperor of the Romans”, thus giving him a title
the adequately portrayed his status. The idea of Charlemagne being “promoted” by the

pope gave the image that the Frankish king was subservient to him and the holy church.

But Charlemagne’s power was too vast for him not to be in total control of the situation.

The papacy could not realistically rival the power of Charlemagne. Charlemagne was

keeping the Vatican appeased by giving them this honor and working with the church

rather against it. Evidence of this can be found in the naming of Charlemagne’s son,

Louis, as heir to the throne. Rather than have the pope do the coronation, as was the case

with him and his father, Charlemagne anointed Louis himself. By doing this he was

saying “I bequeath my power to you” dispelling any notions that Louis would get his

power from the pope (Hollister 107-110).

The Carolingians constructed one of the largest kingdoms in the history of

Medieval Europe. Pepin of Heristal, Charles Martel, Pepin the Short and especially

Charlemagne all had their part in the construction of the kingdom. The papacy tried to

solidify power over the Carolingians through moral dominance but it didn’t work. The

result of this was rocky political union which began when Pope Zacharius anointed Pepin

the Short and persuaded him to eliminate the Lombards. Even Emperor Charlemagne was

anointed by a pope’s hand. But Charlemagne had all the power and simply used the

coronation as a way of comforting the Vatican. There were many struggles for power

between the papacy and the Carolingian kings. If these conflicts teach us anything, it is

that political power is not always won on the battlefield. It can also be won in the

political arena and even through the smallest of gestures.