Pepin repays a favor, part 1

In November of the year 751 Pepin le Bref successfully completed a coup against the royal Merovingian family of Francia, a family that had ruled as kings for three centuries. Pepin did so in part with the support of Pope Zacharias, who sided with the Frank when Pepin sent emissaries to Rome in 749 to ask the famous question, who should be king, the one in name only, or the one who actually wields power? Once Zacharias answered in favor of Pepin, the Mayor of the Palace “was chosen king by all the Franks, consecrated by the bishops and received the homage of the great men.”1.Fredegar, Continuations, ch.33, p.102. Pepin was anointed and crowned by the foremost Christian in the land, the English monk and bishop Boniface.

Only a year later the papacy was in a jam. The Lombard king Aistulf was on the move, and had taken several cities that were under the ostensible jurisdiction of the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople, and the papacy. Pope Stephen II recognized that he would need to keep all of his options open, and he appealed for help to Emperor Constantine V (later known as “the dung-named”, but that’s another story). In June of 752 Stephen also sent a messenger to Pepin, asking him to send an ambassador who could then escort the pope to the king’s presence.

Constantine’s envoys got to Rome first, and advised Stephen to convince Aistulf to curb his aggressive urges, but they told Stephen not to expect any material help from the east. Pepin’s men then arrived in October of 753, and no doubt told Stephen that Pepin was otherwise engaged in combat with the Saxons that year. They escorted Stephen to the city of Pavia and King Aistulf, who refused to budge. He did allow Stephen to proceed north, and sometime early that winter Stephen became the first pope to ever cross the Alps.

Pepin, who knew of his coming, sent his young son Charles to greet the holy father. Finally, on January 6 in the year 754, pope and king met at Ponthiou.2.Edward Peters, ed., Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, pp.311-312, in his extensive n.1 that starts on page 308. Paul’s history actual ends at Liutprand’s death, so Peters outlines events of the years and decades after that.3.Royal Frankish Annals, p.180, n.2 for the year 755. Stephen and Pepin proceeded to St. Denis outside of Paris, where the pope spent the rest of the winter. The Lombard situation occupied he and King Pepin’s time and conversation. Pepin had his own reasons to mistrust the Lombards.

Pepin had learned that his half-brother Grifo had been killed late in 753 on the way to Lombardy, and the assumption was that he was going there to foment another challenge to Pepin’s position. Whatever Grifo’s motives, Pepin was glad to be rid of him, and probably wasn’t surprised at his intended destination. It was in this context that Stephen produced the document known as the Donation of Constantine, which purported to prove the papacy’s claim to the lands in question.4.Dutton, Carolingian Civilization, pp.12-14.

There was another visitor who made his way north that spring. “Carloman, brother of the king and already a monk, also came on the order of his abbot to oppose the request the Roman pontiff was making of his brother. But it is believed that he did this unwillingly and only because he dared not slight the orders of his abbot nor did the abbot dare to defy the command of the Lombard king who had ordered him to do this.”5.Royal Annals, year 753, p.753. Carloman had resided for some years at Monte Cassino (one of his fellow monks was a previous Lombard ruler, Aistulf’s brother Ratchis), a monastery in Benevento, a Lombard province southeast of Rome. Aistulf had pressured the abbot to send Carloman as a voice opposed to Stephen’s request. The Annals and the Liber Pontificalis both portray Carloman as forced into the task, but it is possible that the older brother truly wished to see Pepin relinquish the lands to the Byzantine Emperor. There is some evidence that Carloman believed his son Drogo would rule in his stead when he had withdrawn to the monastic life in 747, but Pepin seized control over all the Frankish lands, and then had himself proclaimed king. There was clearly bad blood between the brothers.

On April Pepin gathered his optimates and put the question of support for the pope to them. When they grudingly agreed to proceed (more on that next post), on April 14 Pepin pledged to return the lands and towns in question to the papacy, but, notably, not to the Emperor in Constantinople. Pepin put this pledge in writing, which thereafter has been known as the Donation of Pepin. That business concluded, Pope Stephen then consecrated Pepin, his wife Bertrada, and his children Charles and Carloman. Further, he forbade the Franks to consider anyone other than a Peppinid for the royal office.

He also named Pepin and his children patricians of Rome, perhaps in a further effort to bind them to Rome’s fortunes. Whether or not this had any effect on Pepin’s feeling of obligation to the papacy is a tempestuous topic in the ivory tower.

Pepin, however, was not eager to get involved in a prolonged Italian campaign, and preferred to settle the issue through diplomacy. During 754 he sent several embassies to the Lombard king, but all were rebuffed. “The christian Pepin king of the Franks… sent his envoys to Aistulf the criminal king of the Lombards to negotiate for peace treaties and the restoration of the rights of ownership that the State of God’s holy church possessed; again a second and third time he besought him, as the blessed pope advised, and promised him many gifts if only he would peacefully restore property to its owners. Yet the pressure of sin made Aistulf put off complying.”6.Liber Pontificalis, 94: Stephen II, c.31, p.66. Davis’s n.66 also reference the Annals of Metz, which state that Pepin offered Aistulf 12,000 solidi as a last resort. Even after Pepin was on the march, the pope continued to send appeals to Aistulf.

That winter, finally convinced of Aistulf’s obstinance, King Pepin prepared for war.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Fredegar, Continuations, ch.33, p.102.
2. Edward Peters, ed., Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, pp.311-312, in his extensive n.1 that starts on page 308. Paul’s history actual ends at Liutprand’s death, so Peters outlines events of the years and decades after that.
3. Royal Frankish Annals, p.180, n.2 for the year 755.
4. Dutton, Carolingian Civilization, pp.12-14.
5. Royal Annals, year 753, p.753.
6. Liber Pontificalis, 94: Stephen II, c.31, p.66. Davis’s n.66 also reference the Annals of Metz, which state that Pepin offered Aistulf 12,000 solidi as a last resort. Even after Pepin was on the march, the pope continued to send appeals to Aistulf.

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