The relationship between the Carolingian Empire and the Catholic Church was one of mutual benefit and political expediency: the papacy gave spiritual legitimacy to the the rule of the Frankish kings, while the kings in turn provided the Church with military protection and might. Together, the Carolingian rulers and the Catholic Church strove for the political and religious unification of western Europe.

Establishing the Carolingian Dynasty

Portrait of Pepin the Short

In 754, Pepin the Short, the son of Charles Martel, was made king of the Franks by Pope Boniface, establishing what would become the Carolingian dynasty and empire. In quid pro quo fashion, Pepin helped the papacy establish the Papal States around Rome, and freed Rome from the Byzantine Empire's control. The political merger of the Frankish kingdom and the papacy opened the door for the so-called Carolingian Renaissance -- the cultural revival and spiritual unification of western Europe.

Charlemagne, Defender of Western Christendom

Portrait of Charlemagne

The ascendancy of Charles the Great, better known as Charlemagne, in 771 marked the advent of the Carolingian Empire. At this time the Catholic Church was struggling against the Lombards in southern France, the Frankish kingdom was in political and spiritual disarray, and northern Europe was largely pagan. Charlemagne conquered and Christianized the pagan north, subdued the Lombards and brought order to the Frankish kingdom. Ultimately, Charlemagne sought to recreate a Christianized western empire in the tradition of the Romans, according to The Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies. To this end, he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800 by Pope Leo III.

Charlemagne and the Church

Religious statue

With Charlemagne's help, the Catholic Church was able to consolidate its power and unify its practices in the new western empire. According to the New Advent website, Charlemagne was deeply dedicated to the Roman Catholic Church, and regarded himself, in his own words, as the "devoted defender and humble helper of the Holy Church." In tandem with the Church, Charlemagne sought to elevate the status of Rome as a spiritual center, and pledged to be the protector of Jerusalem, the holiest city of Christendom. He also helped to facilitate the standardization of Church practices, including the establishment of Gregorian chant as the main body of the Church's musical liturgy.

Church and State

Charlemagne paved the way for the development of what would become modern Europe, and was a key unifier of church and state. His well-organized and highly effective government bureaucracy provided not only civil structure, but also supported and enhanced the authority of the Church, as he ran the empire through a system of lay and ecclesiastical governors. Charlemagne's close relationship to the Catholic Church -- his support of the papacy, his advocacy of education for priests and monastic learning, his insistence on tithes for the support of the clergy and church institutions, his passion for church music, and his conquest and conversion of European pagans -- made him and the Carolingian Empire pivotal to the development of western Christendom.