Coronation of Pépin the Short

Pépin’s coronation marked the first time a European dynasty was given formal religious sanction.

Summary of Event

The Franks Franks conquered much of France under the leadership of Clovis, who founded the dynasty of kings known as the Merovingians Merovingians . They continued to rule during the seventh and eighth centuries, assisted by officials called mayors of the palace. Because of periods of minorities, dwindling royal resources, and the physical deterioration of the dynasty, the mayors of the palace eventually became the actual power behind the throne, although they were careful to cloak their actions behind the formal prerogative of the Merovingian kings, who were held in quasi-sacred respect by the Frankish people. In time, the mayoral power became concentrated in the Arnulfing family. In 750, Pépin the Short, mayor of the palace and son of Charles Martel (mayor of the palace before Pépin), sent two messengers to Pope Zacharias Zacharias (pope) to inquire whether it was right that a ruler with no power should continue to be called “king.” The pope replied that it was better for the man who actually possessed power to be the legal ruler, and he authorized Pépin to assume the title. Historians have debated whether this was a spontaneous interchange or the enactment of a carefully choreographed script. The Merovingians were so established as a dynasty that nothing less than the pope’s explicit approval could have sanctioned their removal. As a result, Childeric III Childeric III and his son, the last remaining Merovingians, were sent to a monastery in November, 751, and Childeric was ritually shorn of his long hair, long a symbol of kingship in Frankish eyes. Pépin thus became king of the Franks. This new dynasty of Arnulfing rulers later became known as the Carolingians Carolingians , after the most illustrious representative of the line: Charlemagne, son of Pépin. [kw]Coronation of Pépin the Short (754)
[kw]Pépin the Short, Coronation of (754)
Pépin III the Short (Frankish mayor)
France;754: Coronation of Pépin the Short[0670]
Government and politics;754: Coronation of Pépin the Short[0670]
Religion;754: Coronation of Pépin the Short[0670]
Pépin the Short
Stephen II
Childeric III

Meanwhile, the Lombards Lombards under King Aistulf Aistulf (Lombard king) had conquered Ravenna, expelled the emperor’s viceroy, and directed their armies toward Rome. Pope Stephen II Stephen II (pope) dispatched messengers to Pépin requesting an escort for the pope to visit the Frankish kingdom in person. Pépin agreed to cooperate. The emperor in Constantinople likewise dispatched an envoy to the pope, insisting that he negotiate with Aistulf the Lombard. Stephen did stop briefly in Pavia to confer with Aistulf, but he proceeded to the meeting with Pépin at Ponthion on January 6, 754. The pope’s biographer later reported that Pépin prostrated himself on the ground and then held the bridle of the papal horse. He vowed to reconquer papal territories that had been taken by the Lombards. At the monastery of Saint-Denis, the pope anointed Pépin and his wife and sons, and bestowed on him the title “Patrician of the Romans.” Stephen also prohibited, under pain of excommunication, the choice of a king other than from the line of Pépin. With the papal-Frankish alliance firmly concluded, Pépin entered Italy, defeated Aistulf, and, in 756, gave to the pope all the territories of the exarchate around Ravenna, which had formerly been the possession of the emperor. This bequest has come to be known as the Donation of Pépin Donation of Pépin .

Pépin’s coronation ceremony.

(R. H. Pease)

Traditionally, the pope had regarded the emperor in Constantinople as his secular counterpart and protector. This was true even after the Lombard invasion disturbed the imperial hold over much of Italy. During the eighth century, however, the Iconoclastic Controversy Iconoclastic Controversy in the Byzantine Empire alienated the Papacy and made the popes conscious of the distinctly Western foundation of the spiritual culture over which they presided. Therefore, the popes began to look across the mountains toward the Frankish kingdom for their secular sponsors.

Controversy over the significance of Pépin’s coronation continued for centuries. Papal theorists contended that by appealing to Zacharias for an opinion, Pépin was actually acknowledging papal superiority over kingship; by accepting the unction from Stephen II, Pépin recognized the right of the pontiff to create kings. By accepting the Donation of Pépin, the pope was merely receiving back his own land from a loyal son of the Church. Supporters of the emperor in Constantinople challenged the right of the pope to create kings or bestow titles because this was solely the prerogative of the emperor. Furthermore, they maintained that the Donation of Pépin was illegal because the exarchate around Ravenna had belonged to the emperor. Pépin’s successors, on the other hand, pointed out that the pope came to France as a suppliant seeking aid against the Lombards, and that Pépin was in no way dependent on the pope. They said that by defeating Aistulf and bestowing land, Pépin was actually patronizing the pope. He never used the title of patrician conferred by the pope, nor did he return to Rome after 756. Church-state relationship[church state relationship];European


No matter how the event is interpreted, Pépin’s coronation resulted in an intimate relationship between kings and popes. The ambiguities implicit in this relationship were the cause of papal-imperial tensions for the remainder of the medieval period. In a concrete way, the episode raised the question of ultimate sovereignty, creating a precedent for the coronations of Charlemagne and of Otto the Great.

Further Reading

  • Bachrach, Bernard S. Early Carolingian Warfare: Prelude to Empire. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. A history of the art and science of military campaigns at the time of Pépin. Extensive bibliography and index.
  • Barraclough, Geoffrey. The Medieval Papacy. London: Thames & Hudson, 1968. Barraclough views the coronation of Pépin as an incident in the centuries-old East-West tension. The Donation of Pépin established the Papacy as a temporal power.
  • Ganshof, François Louis. The Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy. Translated by Janet Sondheimer. London: Longman, 1971. Somewhat old-fashioned and underestimates the importance of religious issues, but still a helpful basic source.
  • Herrin, Judith. The Formation of Christendom. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987. Describes the evolution of a distinctively Western idea of a Christian commonwealth which underlay the coronations of both Pépin and Charlemagne.
  • McKitterick, Rosamond. The Frankish Kings and Culture in the Early Middle Ages. Aldershot, England: Variorum, 1995. Essays on the period by the leading late twentieth century historian of the Carolingians.
  • Moreira, Isabel. Dreams, Visions, and Spiritual Authority in Merovingian Gaul. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. A look at the religious aspects of the early Christian church before and during the time of Pépin. Extensive bibliography and index.
  • Nelson, Janet. “Kingship and Empire in the Carolingian World.” In Carolingian Culture: Education and Innovation, edited by Rosamond McKitterick. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Scholarly look at the significance of coronation rituals and the royal prerogatives that emanated from them.
  • Riché, Pierre. The Carolingians. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993. Very detailed, reliable, and reflective account of the origins of the Carolingian dynasty. Compares the political skill of Pépin in displacing the Merovingians to his less accomplished ancestors.
  • Scherman, Katherine. The Birth of France: Warriors, Bishops, and Long-Haired Kings. New York: Random House, 1987. Written for the general reader, and good on the nature of the Merovingian Dynasty and its decline and fall.
  • Schutz, Herbert. The Germanic Realms in Pre-Carolingian Central Europe, 400-750. New York: P. Lang, 2000. Sets the context of the Germanic influence on the Carolingian realm.
  • Wood, Ian N., ed. Franks and Alamanni in the Merovingian Period: An Ethnographic Perspective. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 1999. Surveys the Church history—through the tenth century—of the Germanic peoples and the Franks. Includes a bibliography and index.