Towards the end of St. Boniface's life, a great change took place in the government of the Franks. Pipin, who had succeeded his father, Charles Martel, as mayor of the palace, grew tired of being called a sergeant white he was really the master; and the French sent to ask the pope, whose name was Zacharias, whether the man who really had the kingly power ought not also to have the title of king. Zacharias, who had been greatly obliged to the Franks for helping him against his enemies the Lombards, answered them in the way that they seemed to wish and to expect; and accordingly they chose Pipin as their king. And while, according to the custom in such cases, Pipin was lifted up on a shield and displayed to the people, while he was anointed and crowned, the last of the poor old race of "do-nothing" kings was forced to let his long hair be shorn until he looked like a monk, and was then shut up in a monastery for the rest of his days.
Pipin afterwards went into Italy for the help of the pope, and bestowed on the Roman Church a large tract of country which he had taken from the Lombards. And this "donation" (as it was called) or gift, was the first land which the popes possessed in such a way that they were counted as the sovereigns of it.
Pipin died in 768, and was succeeded by his son Charles who is commonly called Charlemagne (or Charles the Great). Under Charles the connexion between the Franks and the Popes became still closer than before; and when Charles put down the Lombard kingdom in Italy (AD 774), the popes came in for part of the spoil.
But the most remarkable effect of this connexion was at a later time, when Pope Leo III had been attacked in a Roman street by some conspirators, who tried to blind him and to cut out his tongue. But they were not able to do their work thoroughly, and Leo recovered the use both of his tongue and of his eyes. He then went into Germany to ask Charles to help him against his enemies; and on his return to Rome he was followed by Charles. There, on Christmas Day, AD 800, when a vast congregation was assembled in the great church of St. Peter, the pope suddenly placed a golden crown on the king's head, while the people shouted, "Long life and victory to our emperor Charles!" So now, after a long time, an emperor was set up again in the West; and, although these new emperors were German, they all styled themselves Emperors of the Romans. The popes afterwards pretended that they had a right to bestow the empire as they liked, and that Leo had taken it from the Greeks, and given it to the Germans. But this was quite untrue. Charles seems to have made up his mind to be emperor, but he was very angry with the pope for giving him the crown by surprise, instead of letting him take his own way about it; and, if he had been left to himself, he would have taken care to manage the matter so that the pope should not appear to do anything more than to crown him in form after he had been chosen by the Roman people.
Charles was really a great man, although he had very serious faults, and did many blameable things. He carried his conquests so far that the Greeks had a proverb, "Have the Frank for thy friend, but not for thy neighbour,"-- meaning that the Franks were likely to try to make their neighbours' lands their own. He thought it his duty to spread the Christian faith by force, if it could not be done in a gentler way; and thus, when he had conquered the Saxons in Germany, he made them be baptized and pay tithes to the Church. But I need hardly say that people's belief is not to be forced in this way; and many of those who submitted to be baptized at the conqueror's command had no belief in the Gospel, and no understanding of it. There is a story told of some who came to be baptized over and over again for the sake of the white dresses which were given to them at their baptism; and when one of these had once got a dress which was coarser than usual, he declared that such a sack was fitter for a swineherd than for a warrior, and that he would have nothing to do with it or with the Christian religion. The Saxons gave Charles a great deal of trouble, for his war with them lasted no less than thirty-three years; and at one time he was so much provoked by their frequent revolts that he had the cruelty to put 4,500 Saxon prisoners to death.
But there are better things to be told of Charles. He took very great pains to restore learning, which had long been in a state of decay. He invited learned men from Italy and from England to settle in his kingdom; and of all these, the most famous was a Northumbrian named Alcuin. Alcuin gave him wise and good advice as to the best way of treating the Saxons in order to bring them to the faith; and when Charles was on his way to Rome, just before he was crowned as emperor, Alcuin presented him with a large Latin Bible, written expressly for his use; for we must remember that printing was not invented until more than six hundred years later, so that all books in Charles's days were "manuscript" (or written by hand). Some people have believed that an ancient manuscript Bible which is now to be seen in the great library at Paris is the very one which Alcuin gave to Charles.
We are told that when Charles found himself at a loss for help in educating his people, he said to Alcuin that he wished he might have twelve such learned clerks as Jerome and Augustine; and that Alcuin answered, "The maker of heaven and earth has had only two such, and are you so unreasonable as to wish for twelve?"
Alcuin was made master of the palace school, which moved about wherever the court was, and in which the pupils were Charles's own children and the sons of his chief nobles; and besides this, care was taken for the education of the clergy and of the people in general. Charles himself tried very hard to learn reading and writing when he was already in middle age; but although he became able to read, and used to keep little tablets under his pillow, in order that he might practise writing while lying awake in bed, he never was able to write easily. Many curious stories are told of the way in which he overlooked the service in his chapel, where he desired that everything should be done as well as possible. He would point with his finger or with his staff at any person whom he wished to read in chapel, and when he wished any one to stop he coughed; and it was expected that at these signals each person would begin or stop at once, although it might be in the middle of a sentence.
During this time the question of images, which I have already, mentioned (p 170), came up again in the Greek Church. A council was held in 787 at Nicaea, where the first general council had met in the time of Constantine, more than four centuries and a half before (PART I, Chap. xi.), and in this second Nicene council images were approved of. In the West, the popes were also for them; but they were condemned in a council at Frankfort, and a book was written against them in the name of Charles. It is supposed that this book was mostly the work of Alcuin, but that Charles, besides allowing it to go forth with his name and authority, had really himself had a share in making it.
Charles the Great died in the year 814. A short time before his death, he sent for his son Lewis, and in the great church at Aix-la-Chapelle, which was Charles's favourite place of abode, he took from the altar a golden crown, and with his own hands placed it on the head of Lewis. By this he meant to show that he did not believe the empire to depend on the pope's will, but considered it to be given to himself and his successors by God alone.