The Carolingian Dynasty ruled the Franks, a Germanic tribe, in Western Europe for about 200 years, from AD 751 to 987. Unlike modern nations in which an election or a sudden coup d'état marks clear boundaries between rulers or administrations, during the Middle Ages it often took years (even two or three generations) for one family or dynasty to decline and another to come to the fore. While the end of one dynasty is ruling by title, the beginnings of another might have been ruling in actuality. The Carolingian Dynasty takes its name from the personal name Charles, since many of the kings in the dynasty bore that name, most notably Charlemagne.
The Franks had been the major power in Gaul since the 6th century, ruled by the Merovingians. Over time, as Merovingian power diminished, wealthy and influential local leaders emerged. By the beginning of the 8th century, the Merovingians were rulers in name only. Pepin (the first member of the Carolingian Dynasty) emerged as the “virtual ruler” even though there was still a Merovingian king on the throne. Pepin’s son, Charles Martel, defeated an Arab invasion at Tours, France, in 732, further consolidating the power of the family. In 751 Charles’ son Pepin the Short was crowned king of the Franks by the Pope, officially ending the Merovingian Dynasty. Pepin the Short, with the Pope’s approval, confined the remaining Merovingian rivals to a monastery.
On Christmas Day in 800, Pepin the Short’s son Charles (who would become known as Charles the Great or Charlemagne) was crowned Emperor of the Roman Empire by Pope Leo III, thus cementing the tie between the papacy and the Carolingian Dynasty. Under Charlemagne peace and political unity blanketed a great deal of Western Europe and provided an opportunity for the church to flourish.
Prior to Charlemagne, the Carolingian rulers demonstrated no real piety and often saw the church as simply a means of promoting Frankish interests. Perhaps for this reason, they did support missionary work and church reforms. While it is most likely that Charlemagne saw Christianity as a way to further his own power as well, he also demonstrated a genuine concern for the advance and development of Christianity. He convened numerous synods to help settle theological and church disputes. By accepting his crown from the Pope, he acknowledged and enhanced the Pope’s authority, and that event gave rise to the Holy Roman Empire. Charlemagne conducted two successful campaigns against the Lombards and then returned some of the conquered territory in Northern Italy to the Pope. He also supported the Pope financially, with the stated expectation that the Pope would support him with prayers and otherwise allow him to rule as he saw fit.
Charlemagne divided his land into dioceses and increased the number of bishops. He insisted that the bishops have authority in the churches, not the local wealthy land owners and sponsors. Although he was barely literate, he sought to improve the education of the clergy by bringing in scholars from around the world. He increased the number of archbishops and built churches. He sought to enforce the sanctity of marriage (though he had not been faithful to his own wife!).
Charlemagne strengthened the Carolingian Dynasty when he conquered Saxon territory in Northern Europe and demanded that those he conquered be baptized. He encouraged missionary work among them and moved some of them to the Rhineland so that they would be surrounded by Christians who would aid in their assimilation. Eventually, the Saxons did become largely Christian. Treatment of non-Christians by the Carolingians was not nearly as brutal as it had been under the Merovingians.
In summary, under Charlemagne the church in Western Europe flourished, and Christianity spread to people who had not been exposed to it before. Power began to shift from the Eastern Roman Empire to Western Europe and then to the Pope. This shift would dominate world affairs for more than a thousand years to come.
Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious ruled with his father and then became sole Emperor after Charlemagne’s death in 814. Louis was not as energetic as his father and was more interested in the ascetic lifestyle. Upon his death, the realm was divided among his three sons. Internal strife resulted, and the decline of the Carolingian Dynasty followed. With that decline, the power of the Pope over the Holy Roman Empire increased. The bishops in Western Europe increasingly looked to the Pope for protection from the archbishops who had been strengthened but also held in check by Carolingian rulers. By the end of the 9th century, there was a power vacuum in Western Europe with Scandinavian invaders threatening. It is interesting to note that the Scandinavians resisted conversion to Christianity because they saw it as submission to Carolingian power. With the Carolingians weakened, this barrier was removed, and by 950 Scandinavia had been thoroughly Christianized.
It is impossible to know just how many people (if any) came to a genuine faith in Christ due to the efforts of the Carolingian Dynasty. Certainly Charlemagne’s use of force to spread Christianity is deplorable to modern Christians. Nevertheless, his efforts did bring Christianity into new territories and helped shift the balance of power to the West. In His providence God used Western dominance to help spread the truth of the gospel to the ends of the earth.