Last week France’s maddeningly young president Emmanuel Macron became the “first and only honorary canon” of the Basilica of St John Lateran while on a trip to meet the Holy Father in Rome. The title dates back to the 15th century but many French presidents, including François Mitterrand and François Hollande, have declined the honour, in consideration of the Republic’s often difficult relationship with Catholicism.
Macron, however, seemed to be revelling in his Rome experience, and the symbolism of the French leader meeting the Pope at a time when Europe unity seems endangered. It follows a speech he made in April when he said he wanted to “repair the bond” between Church and state, and that “I am neither the inventor nor the promoter of a state religion which substitutes divine transcendence with a Republican creed.”
A visit by the French ruler to the Eternal City cannot fail to be symbolic, for this is how European history arguably begins. In the 780s the king of the Franks arrived in Rome having crushed the ferocious Germanic tribe the Lombards. Charlemagne, whose forebear Clovis had three centuries earlier embraced Catholicism, was greeted by the Romans as their saviour and imperator, or emperor. Outside the old St Peter’s Basilica, he got down from his white stallion and ascended the stairs on his knees, stopping to kiss each step, before embracing the Pope.
Fourteen years later an even more momentous event took place when Charlemagne again arrived in Rome and, apparently without the king’s prior knowledge, the Holy Father placed a crown on his head, proclaiming him “the great and peace-giving Emperor”. “From that moment modern history begins,” wrote the Victorian academic Sir James Bryce.
Charlemagne’s rule marked the start of the great pact between the Catholic Church and Europe’s emerging states, the twin pillars of Western society that in the 11th century would be formalised. Many see this development as the seedbed of secularism (in the more neutral sense).
Those who long for a French-dominated continent have always been obsessed with Charlemagne, the Frankish father of Europe. Napoleon paid a reverential visit to his home in Aachen and when, in 1805, he had himself crowned king of Italy in Milan, one of the delegates proclaimed: “You have regenerated the empire of the Franks and this throne of Charlemagne’s, which has been buried under 10 centuries of ruins.”
With his expansionist policy, Napoleon had to some extent recreated the Carolingian Empire, which extended over not just France, but also western Germany, the Low Countries and northern Italy. Indeed, Charlemagne is considered the founding father not just of France but of Germany, too. (Like most of the Frankish nobility of northern France, he still spoke a Germanic language.)
In addition to his military victories, Charlemagne also helped to build a new Western culture through the education system and enforced Catholic marriage rules. After his grandfather Charles Martel defeated the Arabs at Tours in 732, a word was coined by a Latin chronicler – Europeans. Later Anglo-Saxon chroniclers began talking of a new concept: Kristintumr, or Christendom.
Charlemagne’s realm did not last, and in 842 his two grandsons, after prolonged conflict over their patrimony, signed the Treaty of Verdun, dividing it forever. Charles the Bald of West Francia swore his oath in the Romance dialect and Louis the German of East Francia made his in Germanic.
Yet Charlemagne’s empire is still visible on maps charting economic performance: it’s the region christened the “Blue Banana”, where the majority of the continent’s top industry, financial centres, technological hubs, universities and wealth are concentrated, almost exactly corresponds with Charlemagne’s realm – with the exception of southern England. This is also, of course, the beating heart of the “European project”.
Distant history usually provides only the most tenuous or facetious comparisons, but Charlemagne’s former empire has enjoyed something of an echo following the brutal three-part conflict between his descendants from 1870 to 1945. It is no coincidence that the award presented to those individuals promoting European unity is called the Charlemagne Prize and is given out in the city he made his home – Aachen or Aix-la-Chapelle, depending on whether you hail from West or East Francia. This year’s winner is none other than President Macron, for his “vision of a new Europe and the re-establishment of the European project”.
A highly intelligent man with an eye for symbolism, Macron knows that he walks in Charlemagne’s footsteps, as the now senior partner in a Paris-Berlin axis troubled by Saxons to the north-west, Magyars to the east and Lombards to the south. I suspect that, had Pope Francis placed a crown on the president’s head and proclaimed him emperor, he would not have complained – and it would probably suit him.
Ed West’s Saxons vs Vikings: Alfred the Great and England in the Dark Ages is published by Skyhorse