• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Three’s a Crowd: How the Papacy Sought a Germanic Godfather


Charles Martel’s martial help was sought by Pope Gregory III, who in AD 739 sent an embassy to the ruler bearing many precious gifts including keys to the tomb of St Peter and a link from his chains while begging Charles to defend Rome (and the Church) from the onslaught of the Lombards.[1] Charles sent Grimo (abbot of Corbie) and Sigibert of St Denis to Rome, but the Continuation of Fredegar does not relate what answer Charles gave. It was undoubtedly negative though as Charles had received Lombard support against the Arabs and probably felt as though he had good cause to call on it again.


In AD 750, Burchard (bishop of Wurzbug) and Fulrad (abbot of St Denis) were sent to Rome with a request that Pope Zacharias answer a politically loaded twofold question. First, was it right that the King of the Franks should wield no power? Second, should the one who did wield power be called King?


The Royal Frankish Annals credit the Pope for choosing his answer wisely and asserting that it would be better to call him King who had the royal power and that the Pope “by virtue of his apostolic authority commanded Pippin to be made King.” No doubt the Pope felt emboldened by a synod in AD 747 that had confirmed that the Frankish Church would continue in its orthodox faith and persist in its subjection to the Church of St Peter.

In AD 753, the drama deepened. The Exarchate had fallen into Lombard hands 751-2 and a panicked Stephen II appealed to Pippin through a Frankish pilgrim. Pippin commissioned Droctegang, abbot of Jumieges, to take stock of the situation and assure the Pope of his willingness to help. The Bishop of Metz and Duke Autchar were assigned as papal escorts for the crossing of the Alps. Pippin then sent Charles (only roughly six years old) with leading magnates to bring the Pope to his residence in Ponthion (in the modern-day Marne).


The result was the Donation of Pippin, an oral promise to restore papal territories seized by the Lombards, which was given written form at Quierzy in April, 754. Interestingly, the Vita Stephani insists that Pippin granted both the Exarchate and the Roman duchy to the Papacy. Even more exaggeratedly, the Vita Hadriani recorded that Charlemagne not only confirmed this grant but pledged the whole peninsula of Italy.


Yet what Charlemagne and Louis “confirmed” was probably not the original promise of Pippin but the charter of donation of the cities of the Exarchate and Pentapolis and the provinces of Emilia and Narnia, which Fulrad delivered to Rome after Pippin’s second campaign in Italy (756). In return, the Pope reanointed Pippin king and his two sons and each was accorded the title patricius (the highest secular post the Pope could bestow).


Whether Pippin gave any thought to the Byzantine sovereignty of the Exarchate is moot. In all likelihood his actions (in passing over the Eastern Romans) were not motivated by malice. Instead they were ignored, first, because the lands been won by conquest (by both Lombards and Franks) and, second, there was at the very least a notional unity between the western Roman state (symbolised by Papacy) and the Eastern Roman Empire.[2] The Roman curia provided the legal and historical justification for the fait accompli by producing the spurious document known as the Donation of Constantine (exposed as a forgery by Valla in 1439).[3]



By AD 794, the Franks were certainly confident enough to condemn iconoclasm (associated with the Eastern Roman state) along with the Adoptionism (formulated by the Spanish bishop Felix of Urgel) they were convened to condemn.[4] By then the Lombard kingdom had been vanquished by Charlemagne for two decades. Indeed, so successful had the Franks become in Italy that the Pope was forced to renounce pretensions to jurisdiction over Spoleto and Tuscany. Moreover, Frankish interests continued to collide with those of Constantinople around the Duchy of Benevento, as well as the provinces of Venetia and Dalmatia.[5]


These clashes might have been resolved by marriage. In the years leading up to 787, the betrothal of Charlemagne’s daughter Rotrud and Constantine VI looking like a striking possibility. But, in the end, the Empress Irene broke the betrothal and Stephen III ultimately dismissed its imperial overlord as an impotent and reluctant protector, deciding to crown Charles as “Emperor” in the church of St Peter according to Roman/Byzantine usage, with adoration by the Pope and the acclamation of the people. It’s difficult to see this imperial title as anything more than a bold attempt by the Papacy to cock a snook at Byzantium and to define the nebulous relationship that had not quite yet fully evolved between the Frankish kingdom and the Papacy.

As an interesting postscript, it’s important to note that in charters Charlemagne was styled as follows: Carolus gratia Dei rex, vir inluster; Carolus gratia dei rex francorum et langobardorum atque patricius romanorum; Carolus serenissimus augustus. In other words, as far as the Roman people or Roman state was concerned he was a patrician; the sort of role the Roman Emperor handed to the kings of peoples who happened to be squatting on territory the state was not inclined to repossess. His status as “augustus” was decoupled from the Roman name and became a sort of disembodied office related more to the fact of his power than any form of historical legitimacy.


This is amusing mainly because his official title ensured he could play with the following ambiguity: Carolus serenissimus augustus a Deo coronatus magnus et pacificus imperator Romanum gubernans imperium, qui et per misericordiam Dei rex Francorum et Langobarum. Basically, this man governed the Roman Empire, a word which on a spectrum of good will could range from being little more than a caretaker to the Roman Emperor himself. P. Classen has forcefully argued, however, that this ambiguity has less to do with politics in Constantinople than in Rome. In his view, it was designed to include the Italy, the Papacy and the Romans within the Frankish realm without re-centring the Carolingian Empire around them.


[1] The son of a Syrian, Gregory III would be the last pope to seek the Byzantine Exarch’s ratification of his election. His opposition to iconoclasm prompted Italian leaders (such as the Duke of Naples) to turn against imperial orders, the first sign that local secular interests were unafraid to pick fights with powers that were ultimately fighting over ecclesiastical matters.

[2] It cannot, however, be said that Pippin was not aware of the issue. He was met by a Byzantine legate during his second campaign in Italy who demanded that the Exarchate be returned to Constantinople but Pippin thought only of the Papacy.

[3] Perhaps the oddest element of the document is that it’s not certain for whom it was intended. According to it, Constantine gave Pope Silvester Italy and the West “so that the papal crown may not be despised… we ordain by our pragmatic constitution that they will be governed by [the Pope].”

[4] The synod’s views are made clear in the Libri Carolini of Theodulf of Orleans.

[5] Desiderius’ son Adalgis even took refuge with the Eastern Romans in order to regain his father’s kingdom. Most of these tensions were resolved in AD 810, however, when peace was negotiated. Charlemagne first came to terms with Nikephoros when he returned Venice to Constantinople. The peace was later ratified by the envoys of Michael in 812.

[6] P. Classen, “Romanum gubernans imperium,” DA 9 (1951), 103-21.

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