The Coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor

The Coronation of Charlemagne, by assistants of Raphael, c. 1516–1517

Historical Context

In the tapestry of European history, the late 8th century represents a period of profound transformation and consolidation. Following the decline and eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Europe entered an era marked by political fragmentation, with numerous tribal kingdoms and principalities vying for dominance over the remnants of Roman territories. It was within this context of disarray and the vacuum of centralized power that Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great, ascended to prominence, ultimately shaping the destiny of the continent.

Charlemagne inherited the throne of the Frankish Kingdom in 768, a realm that had been steadily expanding under the rule of his father, Pepin the Short, and grandfather, Charles Martel. At the time of his ascension, Europe was a mosaic of diverse cultures and political entities, including the Lombards in Italy, the Moors in Spain, the Saxons in what is now Germany, and the Avars and Slavs in Eastern Europe. Charlemagne embarked on a series of military campaigns that not only aimed to secure and expand his territories but also to consolidate his rule over these varied peoples.

His military conquests were vast and effective, extending the Frankish domain to encompass much of Western and Central Europe. Notable among these campaigns were his wars against the Lombards in Italy, which secured the Papal States and deepened the alliance with the papacy; his extensive campaigns against the Saxons to the north, which were marked by both fierce combat and efforts to convert the populace to Christianity; and his interventions in Spain against the Muslims, which established a Christian foothold in the region of Catalonia.

However, Charlemagne’s impact extended far beyond the battlefield. His reign was characterized by a concerted effort to centralize governance and reform the administrative structures of his empire. He instituted a system of counts and delegated authority to local rulers, while also establishing missi dominici, royal emissaries sent to oversee and report on the provinces. This system aimed to ensure loyalty to the crown and efficient governance throughout his realm.

Charlemagne’s vision for his empire was not merely territorial or political; it was also cultural and intellectual. The Carolingian Renaissance, a term coined to describe the period of cultural flourishing during and after his reign, saw an unprecedented revival of learning, art, and architecture. Charlemagne was a patron of scholars and invited the brightest minds of his time, such as Alcuin of York, to his court. He established schools, promoted the standardization of Latin as the language of scholarship and administration, and sponsored the copying and preservation of classical texts. This intellectual revival contributed to the preservation of knowledge that could have been lost and laid the foundational stones for the development of Western European culture and scholarship.

The Coronation

The coronation of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day in the year 800 at St. Peter’s Basilica was an event that resonated deeply through the corridors of history, setting the stage for the medieval European order. This act was laden with symbolism, marking the revival of the Western Roman Empire in the West with Charlemagne at its helm, an echo of the ancient emperors but now imbued with Christian legitimacy. It was a deliberate move by Pope Leo III, not just recognizing Charlemagne’s power but elevating it to a sacred status, intertwining the spiritual and the temporal in a way that would define the Middle Ages.

Charlemagne receiving the submission of Widukind at Paderborn in 785, painted c. 1840 by Ary Scheffer.

This moment was not merely about the acknowledgment of Charlemagne’s might as a ruler but also a strategic bolstering of the alliance between the Carolingian dynasty and the papacy. The pope, in crowning Charlemagne, was securing the support of a powerful protector, while Charlemagne received a divine sanction for his rule, a mutual exchange that underscored the ceremony. This interdependence between the church and the Frankish monarchy underscored the central role of Christianity in the governance of the realm, setting a precedent for the relationship between the church and state that would dominate European politics for centuries.

Yet, the coronation also sparked immediate questions about the balance of power. By placing the crown on Charlemagne’s head, Pope Leo III seemed to assert the authority of the papacy to confer kingship, a gesture that suggested the pope’s superiority in the hierarchy of power. This act foreshadowed the ongoing struggles between the church and secular leaders over the extent of their respective authorities, a theme that would recur throughout the Middle Ages.

Beyond the political and religious implications, Charlemagne’s coronation had significant cultural and intellectual ramifications. It reinforced the Carolingian Renaissance, a revival of learning and the arts that Charlemagne had championed, now with the added prestige of the imperial title. This movement towards cultural revival and intellectual flourishing drew upon the legacy of the Roman Empire, blending it with Christian values to create a rich tapestry of medieval European culture. The Carolingian Renaissance laid the groundwork for future developments in literature, philosophy, and science, embedding the legacy of Charlemagne’s coronation deep within the foundation of Western civilization.


One of the most profound consequences of Charlemagne’s coronation was the strengthening of the authority of the papacy. By bestowing the imperial title upon Charlemagne, Pope Leo III demonstrated the Church’s ability to confer legitimacy and authority upon secular rulers. This act underscored the close relationship between the Church and the state, elevating the papacy to a position of unparalleled influence in matters of governance and diplomacy. The pope’s role as the arbiter of imperial coronations conferred upon him a level of political clout that would shape the balance of power in medieval Europe.

Furthermore, Charlemagne’s coronation provided him with a powerful tool for consolidating his authority and governing his vast empire effectively. The title of Holy Roman Emperor conferred upon him a divine mandate to rule, imbuing his reign with legitimacy and prestige. This legitimacy helped Charlemagne to unite disparate regions under his rule, quell internal rebellions, and project power beyond the borders of his empire. Charlemagne’s status as Emperor also facilitated diplomatic relations with other rulers, as they sought to secure his favor and recognition.

The establishment of the Holy Roman Empire under Charlemagne’s rule had profound implications for the future of Europe. It set a precedent for the close symbiosis between temporal and spiritual authority, which would continue to shape the politics and governance of the medieval period. The concept of a Christian empire governed by a divinely appointed ruler became deeply ingrained in European political thought, influencing the development of monarchies and the theory of the divine right of kings.

Moreover, Charlemagne’s empire provided a model for centralized governance and territorial administration that would influence the formation of modern nation-states in Europe. The administrative structures and legal frameworks established by Charlemagne laid the groundwork for the emergence of stronger, more centralized governments in the centuries that followed, contributing to the consolidation of power and the emergence of national identities across Europe.