Sacred Kingship and the Carolingians

By the eighth century, a decisive and irrevocable change had come over the European continent: it had become a German entity and had fallen out of the sphere of the Mediterranean powers (by this time, consisting of only Byzantium). As the Western Roman Empire fell, Germanic tribes settled down and carved out little kingdoms for themselves in the old provincial territories. Examples of these are the kingdoms of Lombardy, Burgundy, Vandalic Africa, Saxony, Anglo-Saxon England, Ostrogothic Italy, Visigothic Spain and finally Frankish Gaul. Slowly, from the fifth century to the eighth, Europe gradually shifted from a Romanized civilization to a Germanic one. The advent of the Germans brought new ideas about kingship to the fore, as well as new conceptions of how the divine power was exercised on earth. These ideas are best exemplified by the most successful of the Germanic dynasties of the early Middle Ages, especially the Carolingians, who more than any other dynasty created the concept of Christian sacred kingship that was later adopted by the Ottonians and the House of Wessex.

The first Germanic kingdom to rise to any sort of dominance in Europe was that of the Franks. The first Christian king of the Franks, Clovis (r. 481-511) extended Frankish hegemony over most of Gaul and established the power of the Merovingian dynasty over the Franks until the coup of the Carolingians in 751. The reign of the greatest of the Carolingians, Charlemagne, ushers in what may be considered the high water mark of sacerdotal kingship in the Middle Ages. It was during this period that sacerdotal kingship went from a tradition implicitly taken for granted to a doctrine to be consciously defended, and a general historical rule is that by the time cultural traditions have to be defined and defended they are on their way out anyhow. Shortly after the extinction of the Carolingians (in 987 in the west, 911 in the east), new movements and philosophies would emerge within the Church that would challenge the idea of Christian theocratic monarchy that had been prevalent in Europe for almost seven centuries by the time of the Gregorian reforms.

Charles the Great, in many ways, is the archetypal Christian king. He was seen as such during his lifetime, and after his death his reign was always looked back on fondly as a period of peaceful coexistence between Church and State. The image of Charlemagne as a pious, yet victorious, Christian monarch was especially popular in the late Middle Ages when the Church and State were torn asunder and the future of the Holy Roman Empire was in serious jeopardy.

As with other alleged “Golden Ages”, the Carolingian period was not the blissful millennium of peaceful Church and State relations that later medieval historians and poets liked to imagine. The first Carolingian of significance, Charles Martel (d. 741), was notorious for pilfering Church lands and granting vacant bishoprics to the most loyal members of his retinue, much to the chagrin of the Frankish clergy, especially since he always made certain that it was the richest bishoprics that were given away [1]. Charlemagne’s domination of the Church was not so blatant, and while the acts of Martel were condemned by the contemporary clergy, most of the acts of Charlemagne received clerical approbation. Charlemagne managed to keep a tight reign on the Frankish clergy through the well established policy of royal consent or veto (whereby an episcopal appointee would be presented to the king for his approval or disapproval) and still win the admiration of the Frankish clergy and laity alike [2]. Clerical biographers, such as Einhard and Alcuin, tended to praise the virtue of Charlemagne while ignoring the less noble aspects of the Carolingian court, just as Eusebius had done with Constantine and his family so many centuries earlier.

For instance, Charles’ donations to the poor are recorded in great length while his practice of Frankish polygamy and concubinage are only mentioned in passing, and his massacre of 4,500 Saxon prisoners in a single day is passed over entirely, saying only that he “sent his counts to wreak vengeance" [3].

When Charles was crowned Roman emperor by the Pope in the year 800, his kingship took on a much more sacral identity than had any previous Frankish king before him. The coronation of Charlemagne as Roman emperor was seen by contemporaries as falling directly in line with the imperial tradition of ancient Rome; thus, Charles is crowned as “Imperator and Augustus,” as Einhard tells us [4]. This is the beginning of the medieval notion of the translatio imperii, the idea that the imperial authority, the highest secular power in Christendom, had been “transferred” from the Byzantines to the Germans by the Pope.

Though it is undeniable that Charlemagne was truly a devout a pious Catholic (“he cherished with the greatest fervor and devotion the principles of the Christian religion”, says Einhard [5]), the bestowal of divine imperium from the hands of the Pope gave him new incentive to portray his power as sanctioned by God. Thus began what may have been the most intensive and effective propaganda campaign of the Middle Ages, with the goal of establishing the Carolingians as the God-ordained rulers of the new Roman Empire. Charlemagne carried out this project by assembling at his court a vast array of scholars and intellectuals from around Europe, partly to consolidate and legitimize the authority he claimed, partly out of a genuine love of learning and scholarship.

The concept of kingship that comes out in writings of the Carolingian era is that of earthly kingship as a mirror of heavenly kingship, and vice versa. As society of the medieval world was dizzyingly hierarchical, so too did the Carolingians fit God into the social hierarchy. The Carolingian ruler, though as Holy Roman Emperor was owed the obedience of all Christian peoples, was himself subject to the Emperor of heaven. He was a “lieutenant of a greater power to whom he had to render the strictest account" [6]. Heaven was depicted as a “large fortress”, and God the Father was the “highest and true Emperor" [7]. Thus the Carolingian kingdom was seen to be a kind of holy reflection of the kingdom of heaven. God the Father, looking into the mirror, would see the reflection of the Carolingian Emperor, his earthly parallel. An elaboration of this ideology is provided by the Irish scholar Hibernicus, who was among one of Charlemange’s intellectual retinue: “There is only one who enthroned in the realm of the air, the thunderer. It is proper that under him, one only be the ruler on earth, in merit an example to all men" [8].

This view of the Christian monarch has been seen before, in the court of Byzantium, where God’s one emperor was said to rule all Christians (nominally, at least) in the name of God and with the authority and blessing of the Church. Charlemagne was conscious of the rivalry that his imperial title would provoke with the Byzantines and therefore did all in his power to portray an image of splendor and imperial glory greater than what the Byzantines could muster. For example, he obtained the official nomen of “David” from Alcuin, perhaps in conscious imitation of the long standing Byzantine tradition of referring to the emperor as “the other David" [9]. He also mimicked the hallowed practice of Byzantine emperors of summoning a Church council, which he did at Frankfort in 794 to deal with the Iconoclasm controversy. However, the council ended up on what became the wrong side of the debate, condemning the use of images (in keeping with German tradition that generally frowned on the use of pictorial representations of the divine). This embarrassing deviation from orthodoxy was quietly forgotten after the controversy was over and the Pope had come out in favor of images [10].

Though he consciously copied the Byzantines in many things, such as his style of architecture, for example [11], he was careful to avoid some of the more ostentatious displays of Byzantine power, particularly the pomp and ceremony of the court at Constantinople. “Charles did not observe in his court the stiff dignity and ceremonious distance that became an emperor….he behaved naturally and revealed his true self' [12]. Nevertheless, there was always room for a little gloss, as the Bishop Notker of St. Gall (c. 884) would later write of Charles and his family: “The king was standing by a bright window, radiant like the rising sun, clad in gems and gold”, and his family surrounded him “as if it were the chivalry of heaven" [13]. It was proper for the earthly ruler of God’s kingdom to be the shining center of his realm; contemporaries praised Charles and said that his named radiated as far as the stars [14]. He thus set himself up as a true competitor to the claims of the Byzantine emperor, and a competitor of no small consideration at that. The kingdoms of Europe, therefore, had to decide between acknowledging the Byzantine emperor as the true ruler over all Christians or praying for the well being of the Frankish emperor at Aix-la-Chapelle [15]. This was the dilemma that many central European kingdoms fell into, such as those of Italy and the Balkans. Power struggles between east and west for the Balkans would be a bone of controversy for centuries to come.

How was it exactly that Charles went about creating his image? He largely modeled it on the examples of the great Christian monarchs of old, men such as Constantine, Theodosius, and within his own cultural tradition, Clovis. Like other Christian rulers before him, he went to considerable expense to fund the building of Churches and establishment of monasteries. Einhard mentions this as among one of Charles’ chief concerns:

"But, above all, sacred edifices were the object of his care throughout his whole kingdom; and whenever he found them falling to ruin from age, he commanded the priests and fathers who had charge of them to repair them, and made sure by commissioners that his instructions were obeyed" [16].

The church that received the greatest patronage was the Church of St. Peter in Rome, into which Einhard says:

"He…heaped its treasury with a vast wealth of gold, silver, and precious stones. He sent great and countless gifts to the popes, and throughout his whole reign the wish that he had nearest his heart was to re-establish the ancient authority of the city of Rome under his care and by his influence, and to defend and protect the Church of St. Peter, and to beautify and enrich it out of his own store above all other churches" [17].
Like wise King Solomon, the good Christian king must be a builder of sacred edifices. Whatever else may be said about Charlemagne, it cannot be denied that he excelled at this. It is possible that he might even have built or repaired more churches than his grandfather, Charles Martel, had plundered!

On the personal level, he was sincerely pious and generous, always desiring knowledge and always willing to give to the poor and needy [18]. His love of wisdom, which prompted him to assemble the greatest body of scholars then known in Europe, carried over into his private life. He was very fond of reading stories of the lives of the saints, and Einhard mentions that he had a proclivity towards St. Augustine: “The subjects of the readings were the stories and deeds of olden time: he was fond, too, of St. Augustine’s books, especially of the one entitled ‘The City of God.’”[19] Thus it was that in his works and his personal piety (not to mention his military triumphs, with which this essay is not concerned), Charlemagne set the standard for what a Christian king of the high Middle Ages should be, just as Constantine had set a standard for the early Middle Ages.

One final thing must be said about the Carolingians: the mature development of the sacerdotal kingship doctrine during their heyday (c.768-843). It is during this age that idea of sacerdotal monarchy first develops as a doctrine. Hitherto, it had been an ancestral custom among the Christian peoples of Europe, something simply taken for granted without much reflection. Beginning in Carolingian times, and climaxing during the Investiture Controversy, sacerdotal monarchy starts to develop as a doctrine, complete with its own lines of argumentation and apologists.

Essential to this development was an emphasis on the ecclesiastical or priestly function of the king. This had been common in Byzantium for centuries, but the crowning of Charlemagne by the pope gave a new impetus to the development of this doctrine in the west. It was already a part of Frankish kingship for the king to supervise the bishops of his realm, since looking to the common weal involved both ensuring an orderly temporal governance as well as an orderly spiritual one. Part of the king’s duty was to protect the Church, and as has been noted in the section on coronations, this was often explicitly stated as the king’s duty in his coronation oath. Charlemagne and his successors viewed this prerogative in quasi-episcopal terms. Alcuin saw Charlemagne’s care over the condition of the Church as a truly priestly function. By caring for the Church, Charles was “preaching” the sermon of a godly life lived in accordance with the Gospels. Thus he makes his famous statement: “He [Charles] is a king in his power, a priest in his sermon”[20[.

Alcuin, following earlier tradition, does not ascribe any sort of ordinary priesthood to Charles as a man, but rather implies a kind of priestly character to the office of the king. The king is a priest insofar as he had a concern and authority over the Church similar to what a bishop exercises in the spiritual realm. Notker, writing a generation after Charlemagne and following this line of thought, referred to him as the “bishop of bishops” [21]. This phrase is noteworthy. Not only is Charles seen as possessing some kind of priestly dignity (as demonstrated by Notker’s choice of the word episcopus, predicated of the king), but by saying that the king is the bishop of, or over, the other bishops, the episcopus episcoporum. This implies not only a sacral authority, but one that is in some sense greater, or at least more unique, than the one exercised by the ordinary episcopacy. This view of Charlemagne gave his reign a kind of millennial optimism, for the God-anointed emperor was both temporal lord and clarifier of divine law. This comes partially from Charles’ identity as sacral king, partially from a typical inability of Germanic custom to distinguish between secular and spiritual laws [22]. This view of Charlemagne would later be applied to the office of the Holy Roman Emperor, and the concept of the sacramental nature of the office pushed even further. But this would not be done until the waning days of the Holy Roman Empire, in the late Middle Ages, when sacral monarchy had long since died out in practice.

What was the enduring legacy of the Carolingians? For the first time, they established a strong authority among the Germanic peoples. When the papacy gave divine sanction to this authority, Charles and his successors consciously played up the image of the Holy Roman Emperor as theocratic monarch, and thus the seeds of the doctrine of sacerdotal kingship were first formally expressed. Charlemagne as a person became a figure of legendary significance in European history. Otto I modeled his state on the Carolingian model, and the coronation of Charles by the pope would be exploited on both sides during the Investiture Controversy. The Song of Roland presents Charlemagne as an ancient and royal patriarch:

Of fairest France there sits the king austere.
White locks are his and silver is his beard,
His body noble, his countenance severe:
If any seek him, no need to say, ‘Lo, here!’ [23]

He is depicted as living “two hundred years and more”, being a kind of quasi-eternal priest-king figure; in one scene, as Ganelon departs to go to the Muslims, Charlemagne makes the sign of the cross over him and absolves him of his sins! [24]

In any case, his impact on France and all of Europe was immense; all future Christian kings would look back on him in some way or another as an exemplar. “Charles the law-giver, Charles the protector of local rights and charters, Charles as an ancestor of the Hapsburgs, and Charles even as a saint: these conceptions show how much of…the destiny of the German people turned upon his influence and achievements" [25].


1 John J. Gallagher, Church and State in Germany Under Otto the Great (University Press: Brookland, D.C., 1938), 57
2 Ibid.
3 Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, 8, 33; (also Gallagher, 38)
4 Ibid., 30
5 Ibid., 26
6 Heinrich Fichtenau, The Carolingian Empire, In “Studies in Medieval History”, vol. 9. Translated by Peter Munz, ed. Geoffrey Barraclough. (Basil Blackwell: Oxford, 1963), 56
7 Ibid., 47-48
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid., 71
10 Ibid., 68
11 Ibid. 68-69
12 Ibid., 28
13 One this one occasion, Notker says that when his attendants entered the room and saw Charles in such splendor, they spontaneously prostrated themselves before him on the floor! The picture of medieval Franks performing a Greek proskynesis is awkward and amusing, and such prostrations are not recorded elsewhere. Ibid., 51
14 Ibid.
15 Ibid., 62.

16 Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, 17

17Ibid., 27


19Ibid., 24

20Fichtenau, 58


22In the Germanic legals systems, “the boundary between sin and crime was indistinct.” Richard Abels, Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England (Longman: London & New York, 1998), 265

23The Song of Roland, 8:21-24

24Ibid., 41:3, 26:3-5

25Ibid., xi.