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Thursday, November 6, 2014
Charlemagne: The Catholic Father of Europe

“One key — probably the most important one — to Charlemagne’s political thought is Augustine’s City of God, which, next to the Bible, was his favorite book. In reflecting on the temporal and heavenly realms, the patriarch took issue with ascetics who urged withdrawal from fallen human society in pursuit of an attainable holiness. He pointed out that perfection is impossible in this world, where divine and satanic forces are locked in constant conflict. The only sinless society will be that which gathers around the throne of God at the end of time. The moral for the leaders of both Church and state was not withdrawal, or even the establishment of monasteries as gateways to perfection, but earnest engagement in the battle against the forces of evil" (Derek Wilson, Charlemagne (New York: Doubleday, 2006), Page: 128.

Charlemagne (c. 742 – 814), the First Christian Western Emperor in nearly 300 years and the Father of Europe, exemplified the knightly aestheticism. Born the son of Pepin the Short, Charles I, who would later be universally known as Charlemagne, served as the King of Franks from 768, King of Italy from 774, and Emperor from 800 until his death in 814.

Born in c. 742 to Pepin the Short, son of Charles Martel, Charlemagne was born in an era after the Christianization of the Franks.  His father would be proclaimed as the first King of the Carolingian Dynasty.  Charlemagne, like his father, would serve as a strong defender of the Papacy.  Upon the death of Pepin the Short, Charlemagne reigned alongside with his brother, Carloman I, from 768 – 771.  Tragically his younger brother died in 771, leaving Charlemagne as the sole ruler of the Franks.

The life of Charlemagne is far richer than a mere historical account of battles won and territories conquered.  The story of Charlemagne is a story of a true Christian king who sought the reign of Christ the King.  While at times Charlemagne would over step his authority and impose upon the spiritual realm, which remains distinct but in union with the temporal realm, his policies worked toward a deepening of the spiritual life.

Charlemagne sought to root out all paganism from his vast empire.  He wielded the power to discipline clerics, control ecclesial property, and define doctrine.  From 809 – 810, Charlemagne called a local council in Aachen that called for the Filioque to be added to the Creed.  While Pope Leo III approved the doctrine of the Filioque, he opposed the inclusion of it in the Creed that was set at the First Council of Constantinople in 381.  The Sovereign Pontiff responded by having the original Creed cast in large metal shields to be displayed in St. Peter’s Basilica. Pope Damasus originally approved the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, and the Council of Chalcedon affirmed that the Council was ecumenical in 451.

Like a true knight, Charles the Great maintained the long established traditions of his fathers. While Charlemagne engaged in reforms of the Frankish government, he retained their traditional practices.   As a Carolingian king, he possessed not only the right to rule and command but also held supreme judicial authority, the ability to lead the army, and the duty to protect the poor and the Church.  And like a great and holy knight, Charlemagne protected the poor, the weak, and the needy of his vast empire.

Charlemagne’s impact on music cannot be forgotten.  As strong proponent of ecclesial music, chant flourished under his rule.

"Charlemagne's interest in church music and solicitude for its propagation and adequate performance throughout his empire, have never been equaled by any civil ruler either before or since his time. He not only caused liturgical music to flourish in his own time throughout his vast domain, but he laid the foundations for musical culture which are still potent today” (Otten, Joseph. "Charlemagne and Church Music." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908).

A knight is acutely aware of his vocation.  He is a cultured soldier in the army of God who understands and appreciates the cultural heritage of his forefathers.  In a becoming fashion, Charlemagne possessed a love for literature.  Among his most favorite books were the Holy Scriptures and the works of St. Augustine.  In response for his commitment to holy literature, Charlemagne founded a court library.  Despite the long and painstaking process of composing a text by hand, Charlemagne still distributed copies.  And in imitation of the practice of the monks, Charlemagne would often take his meals while a subject would read a book to him.

As the true knight will defend the poor, the weak, and the needy, and whereas the knight will fight at all times to promote truth and defend the honor of God, Charlemagne fought long to spread the Gospel throughout the world.  A knight will not flee from adversity but will press on to the win the prize.  Charlemagne was no different when he defeated the Lombards in Pavia.  And despite 30 years of continuous campaigns against the Saxons, Charlemagne persisted in battle.  The Saxons were told to convert to Christianity from Paganism or suffer death.  In 785 their leader, Wittekind, converted.

Yet despite the many victories, there were defeats.  In 777 AD, Charlemagne suffered a death against the Moors of Spain.  While in battle his great paladin, Roland, was slain.  The episode is recounted in the legendary Song of Roland, the oldest surviving major French work of literature:

But Rollant feels he's no more time to seek;
Looking to Spain, he lies on a sharp peak,
And with one hand upon his breast he beats:
"Mea Culpa!  God, by Thy Virtues clean
Me from my sins, the mortal and the mean, 
Which from the hour that I was born have been
Until this day, when life is ended here!"
Holds out his glove towards God, as he speaks
Angels descend from heaven on that scene.

After years of defending the rights of the papacy and seeking the conversion of pagans and heretics, Charlemagne was crowned as the first Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day of the year 800 AD.  Like the Benedictio Novi Militis of the Roman Pontifical for the liturgical dubbing of a knight, the coronation of a king is a sacramental.

Charlemagne’s final years of life were spent in attendance at daily Mass.  In the Year of our Lord 814, Charlemagne passed from this world to the next.

The First Holy Roman Emperor was buried in Aachen’s Cathedral, in which is still presently contained his mortal remains.  The Cathedral was originally built as Charlemagne’s palace chapel.  For nearly 600 years from 936 – 1531 AD, kings were anointed and crowned at the main altar of Aachen’s Cathedral.   Within the Cathedral is contained the four holy relics collected by Charlemagne: The cloak of our Lady, the swaddling clothes of the Infant Jesus, the loin clothes worn by Jesus Christ during His Crucifixion, and the cloth on which rested the head of St. John the Baptist after his martyrdom.  These relics are displayed only every seven years for the public.

At his death, Charlemagne left a vast empire; many had believed under Charlemagne the Western world would reunite for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire.  However, upon his death, the Kingdom was divided amongst his sons.  After civil war and feuds, the vast empire of Charles the Great split into several feudal states.

With the death of Charlemagne, the knightly ideal did not die and neither did the support of the Church.  Bishop Richard Williamson identifies the coronation of Charlemagne as the start of a 1,000 year period of prosperity and growth for the Holy Church – up until the French Revolution.  Charlemagne, the Father of Europe, had fought paganism, defended the rights of the Sovereign Pontiff, upheld orthodox doctrine, and embodied chivalry.  May all men embody the virtue and chivalry of Charlemagne.


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