Pepin donates Aistulf’s toys

“Concerning all the cities received, he [Pepin] issued a donation in writing for their possession by St Peter, the holy Roman church and all the apostolic see’s pontiffs forever; it is kept safe even till now in our holy church’s archive.”1.Book of the Popes, bk.94, ch.46, p.72. Thus did the eighth century church issue yet another claim to a spiritual authority so powerful and unique in the western world, that the greatest king of the age forgo his Lombard conquests, but rather donated the lands to the budding Papal States.

As we saw in last week’s post, this idea of granting land to the papacy was not a new one. The Lombard king Liutprand had done so several times earlier in the century (if you can call giving back land you conquered and then were paid dozens of pounds of gold to return a ‘donation’). Pepin’s donation was the culmination of decades of conflict between the Lombards, the weakening presence of the Byzantine empire in Italy, and the popes. The Lombards would launch various territorial incursions to grab what lands they could. The pope would then beg and plead and bribe to get some of it back, and the Byzantines, generally otherwise embroiled in the Iconoclast controversy far to the east, would not do much. But the general trend was of a gradual separation of the papacy from the eastern emperor, while the Lombards continued to expand their territorial holdings. To the north and across the Alps, the Franks looked on Italian affairs with a benign neglect, while wrestling with Muslim incursions, secession issues, and other family matters.

The Lombard King Aistulf had come to power in 749, and embarked upon a series of conquests without delay.

Meanwhile there took place in Rome and its subordinate cities a great persecution by Aistulf, king of the Lombards; the king’s mighty savagery was pressing… the holy pope immediately arranged for his own brother the holy deacon Paul, and the primicerius Ambrose, to take many gifts and go to the king of the Lombards, to negotiate peace and sign treaties. These individuals went to Aistulf and imparted the gifts to smooth the way for procuring this from him; they negotiated and signed a treaty with him, binding for a period of 40 years.2.Book of the Popes, bk.94, ch.4, p.54-55.

Here at last was an outrage sufficient to force the pope to meet whatever Frankish conditions they cared to impose in return for their aid. Pepin’s efforts to overthrow the weak Merovingian dynasty and make himself king had borne fruit in 751, when he was indeed proclaimed king. But no doubt he continued to face loyalist opposition, and he needed further dispensation and blessings than he had received. The pope had the moral authority to sanction such a transition, and thus was a match made. Early in 754 Pope Stephen II made the journey to see Pepin (he was met at the Alps by Pepin’s young son Charles), and during that winter and spring they discussed kingship and papal lands.

“That year Pope Stephen came to King Pepin at the villa called Quierzy advising the king that he defend the pope and the Roman Church against the aggression of the Lombards.”3.Royal Annals, revised, year 753, p.40. All well and good so far. “Pope Stephen confirmed Pepin as king by holy anointing and with him he anointed as kings his two sons.”4.Royal Annals, year 754, p.40. Thus the pope fulfills his end of the bargain. “King Pepin, on papal invitation, embarked on a campaign into Italy to seek justice for the blessed apostle Peter.”5.Royal Annals, year 755, p.40. Truly, you will probably never see as clear a quid pro quo in international politics as this. Pepin, anointed and with his lineage sanctioned, in 755 roared through Lombardy with his army.

After a battle in the mountain passes, Aistulf fell back before the Frankish forces, while Pepin “ravaged and burnt the lands of Italy until he had devastated all that region, pulled down all the Lombard strongholds and captured and taken in charge a great treasure  of gold and silver…”6.Chronicle of Fredegar, Continuations, ch.37, p.106. Faced with forces a little more formidable than the papal musters, Aistulf made a treaty with Pepin and Pope Stephen whereby he promised to return all of the papal lands he had taken to the pope. Pepin, who faced internal opposition to an extended Italian campaign, returned to the north. But once he was back across the mountains Aistulf immediately reneged on his agreement and marched on Rome. As 756 opened he had the city under siege.7.Book of the Popes, bk.94, ch.41, p.69.

Needless to say, that did not go over well at Pepin’s winter quarters. “When this was reported to King Pippin he was consumed with anger, and in fury once more summoned the entire  Frankish army…”8.Chronicle of Fredegar, Continuations, ch.38, p.107. That spring Pepin completely crushed any hope Aistulf may have had of remaining a significant power in Italy. Aistulf was soon reduced to a tributary ruler, and died within a year.9.Another of the suspiciously time deaths in the century.

The Liber Pontificalis records an interesting side note to all of this action. You have no doubt noted that the fourth power in Italy, the Byzantines, have been conspicuously absent in the battles and negotiations. By 756 the power of the eastern emperor had been severely degraded in Italy, and he had little to contribute. Nonetheless two imperial envoys arrived in Rome, seeking Pepin, and so Pope Stephen sent them on to Marseilles. They missed the king there, but followed him to Italy, where they finally caught up with him while he besieged Aistulf at Pavia. The envoys begged the king to “grant and concede the city of Ravenna and that exarchate’s other cities and walled towns, to imperial control.” However, Pepin had cast his lot with the pope, not the emperor, and the “God-worshipping gentle king stated there was absolutely no way at all that these cities could be alienated  from St Peter’s power and the ownership of the Roman church and the apostolic see’s pontiff.”10.Book of the Popes, bk.94, chs.44-45, p.71.

As a result of the two Frankish assaults Lombard power in Italy was crushed. But because of long-standing ties between the Lombards and his own magnates, Pepin chose to withdraw and to relinquish his gains to the papacy, rather than create a Frankish presence on the peninsula.11.Fredegar mentions that Aistulf appealed for mercy “through the Frankish bishops and magnates,” and that Pepin granted mercy due to “his nobles’ wishes.” This is what the church called a donation, as cited in the opening paragraph. It is, however, interesting to note that no other source uses this term.

The Royal Annals summarize the events of two years by stating that Pepin “conquered Ravenna with the Pentapolis and the whole exarchate and handed it over to St. Peter.”12.Royal Annals, year 756, p.42. (There were other, non-imperial cities as well.13.Book of the Popes, bk.94, ch.37, n.76, p.68.) Fredegar records that in 755, during the first Frankish expedition, Pepin “restored the Pope to his Apostolic See with his former powers unimpaired.”14.Chronicle of Fredegar, Continuations, ch.37, pp.106-107. Fredegar, while going into some detail about the second expedition, mentions nothing about the will of King Pepin or the disposition of conquered lands.

As with the lands re-granted to the pope earlier in the century, the evidence of a donation in the way that the church wished to characterize it is slim. It is true that Pepin handed over whatever lands he conquered from Aistulf over to Pope Stephen, but he was under considerable pressure from his nobility. No doubt he preferred to see the lands in the hands of his new ally, and that his new ally could also provide blessings was a good thing, but Pepin played the geopolitical game, not a theological one. Next week we’ll take a look at a document the church presented to the world in a further effort to proclaim itself the natural ruler of Italy. Too bad it turned out to be a forgery!

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Book of the Popes, bk.94, ch.46, p.72.
2. Book of the Popes, bk.94, ch.4, p.54-55.
3. Royal Annals, revised, year 753, p.40.
4. Royal Annals, year 754, p.40.
5. Royal Annals, year 755, p.40.
6. Chronicle of Fredegar, Continuations, ch.37, p.106.
7. Book of the Popes, bk.94, ch.41, p.69.
8. Chronicle of Fredegar, Continuations, ch.38, p.107.
9. Another of the suspiciously time deaths in the century.
10. Book of the Popes, bk.94, chs.44-45, p.71.
11. Fredegar mentions that Aistulf appealed for mercy “through the Frankish bishops and magnates,” and that Pepin granted mercy due to “his nobles’ wishes.”
12. Royal Annals, year 756, p.42.
13. Book of the Popes, bk.94, ch.37, n.76, p.68.
14. Chronicle of Fredegar, Continuations, ch.37, pp.106-107.

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