A Short History of Europe: From Charlemagne to the Treaty of Europe

BOOK: A Short History of Europe: From Charlemagne to the Treaty of Europe
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‘Europe was created by history.’
Margaret Thatcher

What is Europe? Firstly, of course, it is a continent made up of countless disparate peoples, races and nations, and governed by different ideas, philosophies, religions and attitudes. Nonetheless, it has a common thread of history running through it, stitching the lands and peoples of its past and present together into one fabric. This narrative
is welded together by the continent’s great institutions, such as the Church of Rome, the Holy Roman Empire, the European Union, individual monarchies, trade organisations and social movements. At times they have prevented anarchy from destroying the achievements of the many great men and women the continent has produced. At other times, of course, it is these very institutions that have been
at the heart of the war and strife that have threatened to reduce Europe to ruin on numerous occasions.

Europe, however, is also an idea. From almost the beginning of time, men have harboured aspirations to make this vast territory one. The Romans came close and a few centuries later, the foundations for a great European state were laid with the creation of the Holy Roman Empire - an empire
different to any other in that it enjoyed the approval of God, through the Church in Rome. Napoleon overreached himself in attempting to create a European-wide Empire - as did Adolf Hitler. Now, however, Europe is as close as it ever has been to being one entity. The European Union is an ever-expanding club of which everyone in Europe wants to be a member, although, as the recent rejection of the
European Constitution by the French and the Dutch, demonstrates, we Europeans still cling to our national independence.

Gordon Kerr is a writer and editor who has worked in bookselling, publishing, journalism and the wine trade.

In memory of

William Kerr

Helen Kerr

and Dennis Baker

‘I grew up in Europe, where the history comes from’

– Eddie Izzard

Contents

Introduction

The End of Darkness

Charlemagne: Father of Europe
;
Invaders: Vikings, Magyars and Ottoman Turks
;
The Byzantine Empire
;
Western Europe: The Tenth and Eleventh Centuries
;
Religion
;
Feudalism
;
Feeding a Growing Population
;
Church Reform and the Investiture Dispute

Crusades, Plagues and Heresies

The Crusades
;
Kings and Kingdoms
;
Gothic Art
;
Heresies and Social Unrest
;
The
Black Death

Rebirth

From Crisis to Renaissance in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries
;
From Feudalism to the Modern State
;
The Western Schism
;
The Renaissance
;
The High Renaissance
;
The Age of Discovery
;
Charles V

Reformation Europe

Religious Revolt
;
The Counter-Reformation
;
The Wars of Religion
;
The Thirty Years’ War
;
Absolute Monarchs
;
Louis XIV and French Expansionism
;
Great Britain’s
Two Revolutions
;
Baroque Culture and Science

Breaking Free

The Age of Enlightenment
;
Thinkers of the Enlightenment
;
Enlightened Despots
;
The War of the Austrian Succession
;
Revolutions: America and France
;
Napoleon Bonaparte
;
The Congress of Vienna

Towards a Modern Europe

Europe in 1800
;
Revolution and Rebellion
;
A New Europe
;
A Shift in Population
;
The Industrial Revolution
;
Changing Politics

The Descent into Madness

Imperialism
;
The First World War
;
The Russian Revolution
;
The Treaty of Versailles: Redrawing the Map of Europe
;
Nationality and Conciliation
;
Hitler, Mussolini and the Rise of Dictatorships
;
Nazi Germany
;
The Second World War

Towards a United Europe

Post-War Europe
;
Decolonisation
;
Eastern Europe
;
A Common Market
;
The Birth of the European Union
;
The West Prospers
and the East Stagnates
;
A New Attitude
;
The 1970s: Economic Chaos and Social Unrest
;
The European Union: Expansion
;
Coming in from the Cold: The Fall of the Berlin Wall
;
The Balkans Erupt
;
Europe in the Twenty-First Century

Further Reading

Introduction

What is Europe?

Firstly, of course, it is a continent. A continent made up of countless disparate peoples, races and countries. A continent of different ideas, philosophies, religions and attitudes and just as each individual country is many things and not one, so, too, is the continent of Europe.

Nonetheless, it has a common thread of history that runs through it, stitching the
lands of its past and present together into one fabric. Great institutions such as the Church of Rome, the Holy Roman Empire, the individual monarchies, trade organisations and social movements that have existed during its history have welded it together and sometimes prevented anarchy from destroying the achievements of the many great men and women that Europe has produced. At other times, of course,
these very institutions have been at the heart of the war and strife that have threatened to reduce the continent of Europe to ruin. The wars of the twentieth century, for instance, founded on imperial aspiration and national and racial prejudice, left a continent ravaged by death, its inhabitants horrified by man’s potential for evil.

Perhaps Europe is also an attitude, a quest for improvement
and achievement. From the countries of the continent, ships sailed on great voyages of discovery, opening up the world for exploration and settlement. Alongside the terrible exploitation that often accompanied the ensuing imperialism, much that was good was also achieved and the world became a bigger place. In the fields of science and the arts, Europe and Europeans have been at the heart of innovation,
creativity and discovery. Great Europeans such as Copernicus, Newton, Leonardo and Shakespeare have illuminated the world’s learning and enhanced the lives of everyone on the planet.

If Europe is the sum of its disparate parts, it is also the culmination of millennia of history. But it was as it emerged from the Dark Ages that it began to become the entity we know now. Charlemagne took the first
steps on the road and, within a few decades of his death, the great powers of the continent began to form when the Treaty of Verdun was signed in 843. By this treaty, the three sons of Louis the Pious, who had succeeded Charlemagne in 814, divided the Carolingian Empire between them. For the first time, the kingdom of France became a distinct state (known as West Francia) with Charles the Bald
as monarch; Lothair became king of Middle Francia, comprising the Low Countries, Lorraine, Alsace, Burgundy, Provence and the kingdom of Italy; East Francia, now Germany and other regions to the east, was to be ruled by Louis the German.

Perhaps above all, however, Europe is an idea. From almost the beginning of its recorded history, men have harboured aspirations to make this vast territory
one. The Romans came close and, eight centuries later, Charlemagne laid the foundations for a great European state when he brought into being the Holy Roman Empire – an empire different to any other in that, through the Church in Rome, it enjoyed the approval of God. In later attempts, Napoleon overreached himself, as did Adolf Hitler.

Today Europe is as close as it ever has been to the dream
of unity. The European Union, begun as a common market of six countries in 1957 with the signing of the Treaty of Rome, is an ever-expanding club which every state in Europe wants to join. The new nations of the east, risen from the ashes of communism and eager to share in the wealth of the continent, are especially anxious to become members.

As Europe moves painfully ever closer to a greater
degree of union, it is a good time to examine the events, people and thinking that have brought it to this point.

The End of Darkness

Charlemagne: Father of Europe

On Christmas Day 800, as Charlemagne (747–814), King of the Franks, knelt in prayer in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Pope Leo III (Pope 795–816) placed a crown on his head, hailing him as
Imperator Romanorum
(‘Emperor of the Romans’). Charlemagne would later claim that the coronation was unexpected, although he was almost certainly being disingenuous
in doing so. Unexpected or not, this coronation marked a defining moment in the history of Europe.

In one sense, Leo was simply rewarding the 53-year-old Frankish monarch for coming to his aid. A few years previously, the Pope, unpopular with the Roman nobility, had been set upon by rivals during a papal procession and had come close to having his eyes and tongue cut out. Following his narrow
escape, he turned to Charlemagne for help. Charlemagne had obliged, travelling to Rome and restoring Leo to the papal throne.

It is likely, however, that Leo had other things on his mind when he placed the bejewelled crown on the king’s blond locks. For a start, he was ensuring that he and his successors would enjoy the continued protection of the Franks. However, he was also filling the imperial
vacancy created by events in Byzantium from where, since the fall of the Roman Empire, the Roman Emperor had traditionally come. The ongoing ‘Iconoclasm Crisis’ and the instability of Empress Irene (ruled as Empress Consort, regent and Empress 775–802) had led Leo to sever his links with the Byzantines and to consider the position of emperor vacant.

Thus, the Franks were now established as the
great power of Europe, but how had they achieved this position of supremacy?

The rise of Frankish power can be traced back to 751 when the Lombards, in pursuit of their ambitions to rule the whole of Italy, conquered Ravenna, the Italian seat of the Byzantine Exarch, or governor. The Pope at the time, Stephen II (Pope from 752 to 757), asked the Franks, then the only Catholic people outside Italy,
for help. Pepin the Short (ruled 751–68), Charlemagne’s father, obliged the papacy, just as his son later would, and drove the Lombards from Ravenna. Pepin already held high office in Frankish circles – Mayor of the Palace or
majordomo
and Duke of the Franks – but his reward from a grateful Pope would elevate him still further. Stephen announced his recognition of Pepin as King of the Franks,
at the expense of the weak Childeric III (ruled 743–51), the last king of the previous ruling dynasty, the Merovingians. The Carolingian dynasty – named after its greatest member, Charlemagne – had begun and the King of the Franks would henceforth be chosen by God, in the shape of his representative on earth, the Pope.

On Pepin’s death in 768, his kingdom was split between his two sons, Charlemagne
and Carloman (ruled 751–71) as was customary under the rule of partible inheritance employed by the Franks. When Carloman died in 771 – of a severe nosebleed, according to some sources – Charlemagne was left as sole monarch and he began the creation of the greatest Frankish state of the Middle Ages, uniting the two halves of the kingdom of his forebears. These were Neustria (generally speaking,
most of modern-day France) and Austrasia (eastern France, western Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands). Charlemagne was not satisfied with these territories, however, and, during his reign, he fought some 53 campaigns in order to extend his vast realm. South of the Alps, he conquered the kingdom of the Lombards; he added Saxony in 774; Bavaria in 788; Carinthia in 799; the March
of Brittany in 786 and, in 797, the Marca Hispanica, a buffer zone at the edge of his southern province of Septimania, designed to keep the Umayyad Moors of the Iberian Peninsula at bay.

He travelled incessantly and his government was itinerant. Nonetheless, he established an effective system of governance for all the disparate nations of his empire. The top echelon was occupied by a network
of some 300
comitates
or Counties, each of which was headed by an imperial lieutenant or Count. These officials were often supervised by local bishops and royal legates, known as
Missi Dominici
, who toured the realm to ensure that the royal will was being followed. Charlemagne was careful, at the same time, to ensure that local customs were respected and, in reality, local leaders retained much
of their power. The important people of the realm – officials, bishops and the rich – swore oaths of loyalty at annual assemblies which took place at Aachen. A new elite, international class emerged, basking in royal favour and often united in marriage.

BOOK: A Short History of Europe: From Charlemagne to the Treaty of Europe
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