Charlemagne and his successors saw themselves as “sacred kings,” the divinely chosen rulers of a Christian empire, responsible to God for its spiritual as well as secular welfare. The pope was, to them, nothing more than their chief spiritual advisor. So long as church and state were united, and seen as two aspects of a single Christian society, the possibility of religious and political conflict between pope and emperor was all too real.
Western Europe in the eighth century was dominated by what historians call the “Carolingian Renaissance.” Not to be confused with the later fifteenth and sixteenth-century Renaissance, the eighth-century variety got its name from the ruling dynasty of France, the Carolingians. At first they were the hereditary mayors of the French royal palace, enjoying real power under the figurehead monarchy of the Merovingians. The most famous of the Carolingian mayors was Charles Martel (690–741)—Charles “the Hammer,” so named for his decisive military victory over the Spanish Muslim armies. It is often forgotten that for much of the medieval period, Spain was Islamic. A Muslim army from Africa had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar in 711, and by 718 had conquered almost the whole of Christian Spain. The Muslims then pushed on into France. However, in 732 at Tours (or possibly, Poitiers), they were met by a French Catholic army. Here, Charles Martel crushed the Muslim forces, which permanently halted the Western progress of the Islamic Empire. The French drove the Muslims back into Spain, and there they stayed for the next 700 years, until they were finally expelled back into North Africa in 1492. Martel had saved Europe for Christianity.
Martel also gave strong support to the Christianizing of pagan Germany. This was undertaken by a veritable flood of English missionary monks, the most famous of whom was Boniface (680–754). For the next three hundred years, the monasteries in this area were the life-giving centers of Christian religion and culture in Germany.
This alliance between the Carolingians and the papacy in evangelizing Germany grew stronger after Martel’s death in 741 and the accession of his sons Carloman and Pepin to power. Martel had placed Carloman and Pepin in a monastery in their youth, where monks had raised them to have a genuine concern for the welfare of the church. Now that they shared the throne of France, they invited Boniface to help them reform her church. Since Boniface acted as the pope’s representative, these reforms strengthened the bond between France and the papacy. Carloman became a monk after Boniface’s reforms were completed, leaving his brother Pepin as sole ruler of France.
Yet in theory, Pepin was still only the mayor of the palace, the chief servant of Childeric III, last of the feeble Merovingian kings. The fires of ambition danced in Pepin’s heart; he felt that he, the real ruler of France, should wear its royal crown. So Pepin obtained the support of pope Zacharias, and in 751 deposed Childeric. Then Boniface, again acting in the pope’s name, crowned Pepin king of France—the first of the great Carolingian royal dynasty. This was the first time a pope had claimed that his apostolic authority involved the right to sanction the dethroning of one king and his replacement by another. Pepin rewarded the pope by invading the Lombard kingdom of Italy in 756, which had been threatening Rome. Pepin gave all the Lombard cities he had captured to the pope. This action, known as “the donation of Pepin,” created a large H-shaped set of papal territories across western-central and north-eastern Italy—the “papal states.” The popes from then on would be secular rulers as much as spiritual leaders.
When Pepin died in 768, his two sons Charles and Carloman succeeded him as joint rulers of France. Carloman died in 771, leaving Charles as sole ruler. He reigned for the next forty-three years (771–814), and created the first great Western empire since the fall of Rome in 410. He is called “Charles the Great” or Charlemagne (from the Latin magnus, “great”).