Europe Celebrates Charlemagne: The Father of Europe
This year marks 1,200 years since the death of Charlemagne. Europeans still look on him as a symbol of European unity. But is Charlemagne more than a symbol?
The major historical anniversary that will dominate headlines this year will be the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. But another anniversary will be celebrated among Europeans this year that will get less fanfare.
Jan. 28, 2014, will mark the 1,200th anniversary of the death of Charlemagne, the great Frankish emperor who ruled from 768 to 814. Various places in Europe will have displays honoring his accomplishments.
Why do Europeans still look back at this man who died over a millennium ago and invoke his memory and celebrate his achievements?
Who was Charlemagne?
Charlemagne is considered by many to be the “father of Europe.” It was through his leadership and conquests that a unified European identity began to coalesce that hadn’t existed since the Roman Empire fell in the fifth century. After Rome fell in 476, the center of geopolitical gravity in Europe moved east to Constantinople. After the western empire dissolved, Constantinople was seen as the unifying leader of Europe and the guardian of the Roman Church. But after the death of Justinian in 565, the eastern empire was too weak to maintain leadership of Europe.
As all this was occurring, a powerful kingdom was forming in central Europe—the kingdom of the Franks, led by a dynasty known as the Carolingians. Charlemagne inherited the crown of the Frankish kingdom in 768.
Charlemagne became the greatest of the Carolingian rulers, setting out on ambitious military campaigns that resulted in the conquest of much of continental Europe. The territory he united ultimately extended throughout modern-day France and Germany, parts of Spain, over half of the Italian peninsula, Austria, modern-day Poland, down into the Balkan Peninsula and portions of Greece.
But Charlemagne did not just create this empire for his personal glory. Charlemagne was also fiercely Catholic. The Roman Church, having lost its political protection with the weakening of Constantinople, was seeking a new political power to secure and protect its place in Europe. Pope Leo III recognized that the Frankish kingdom under Charlemagne could provide that protection.
One of the most significant events in European history occurred on Christmas Day in 800. Charlemagne was attending a Christmas mass when, at the end of the service, Pope Leo III placed an imperial crown on his head and declared him emperor. But not just any emperor! The pope crowned Charlemagne the imperial ruler of the Roman Empire—imperator Romanorum.
Charlemagne was now given imperial Roman titles such as “Caesar” and “Augustus” and was considered to be ruling over the renewal of the Roman Empire.
Though he ruled over a millennium ago, Charlemagne is still revered by many in Europe as a symbol of the ideal of European unity. Europhiles see Charlemagne as a symbol of European integration.Pope Leo III not only made the political statement that imperial authority is derived through the papacy, but also forged a complicated alliance with the imperial leader that would continue (in different forms) throughout history.
Charlemagne and various other European leaders would use the church as a political instrument to govern and maintain control over their subjects. The church, in turn, would receive protection from its enemies, have its prestigious and wealthy place in Europe maintained and be considered the source of authority. This “holy alliance” (as it has been called) continued through the rule of Otto the Great and the subsequent Holy Roman emperors who ruled from parts of Germany and Austria.
In addition to politically unifying Europe and forging this alliance with the Roman Church, Charlemagne is also credited with the “Carolingian Renaissance” (revival of classical and Christian learning and art) and establishing a common European currency.
What Charlemagne symbolizes to Europeans
Though he ruled over a millennium ago, Charlemagne is still revered by many in Europe as a symbol of the ideal of European unity. Europhiles see Charlemagne as a symbol of European integration. Since 1950, the city of Aachen (Charlemagne’s capital) has presented an annual award called the Charlemagne Prize to people who contribute to “an unforced, voluntary union of the European peoples.”
The Catholic Church also harkens back to Charlemagne as a symbol. On the 1,200th anniversary of Charlemagne’s coronation by Pope Leo III, Pope John Paul II wrote: “The great historical figure of the Emperor Charlemagne calls to mind the Christian roots of Europe. … In search of its identity, Europe cannot fail to consider making an energetic effort to recover the cultural heritage left by Charlemagne and preserved for over a millennium” (Dec. 14, 2000). Of course, when the pope talks about “Christian roots,” he means Catholic roots.
The accomplishments of Charlemagne must be understood in their greater historical and prophetic context. Charlemagne’s empire was just one of many attempts to revive the ancient Roman Empire. The Bible reveals that there would be 10 distinct revivals of the ancient Roman Empire (the “ten horns” of Daniel 7:7-8 and Revelation 13:1). Charlemagne’s empire was the fifth revival and was followed by Otto the Great, the Holy Roman Empire under the Hapsburg dynasty of Austria, Napoleon’s French empire, and then by Italy and Germany from Garibaldi to the Hitler-Mussolini axis that fell in 1945.
Prophecy reveals that there will be one final revival of the Roman Empire that will rise in Europe. The final revival will be made up of a union of 10 nations that will voluntarily cede their national sovereignty to a single leader—known prophetically as “the beast” (Revelation 17:12). This European leader will be closely allied with a miracle-working religious leader (Revelation 13:11-15). Together, they will deceive and control much of Europe and the world.
That final union is rising in Europe now. Though it is coming together slowly, it will take the world by storm when it fully rises.
To learn more about Europe’s dark past and prophetic future, read our article “What Is Babylon?”