While tension grew between the Roman Church and Byzantium, Charlemagne continued the tradition of close associations with the pope that his father had forged. In 795, Pope Leo III was elected and consecrated to the ire of some church officials who accused of him of embezzlement, among other charges [source: Barbero and Cameron]. In 799, a band of armed men likely commissioned by the pope's church adversaries attacked Leo during a public procession to render him unfit for the papacy. Echoing Empress Irene's blinding of her son, the men attempted to gouge out Leo's eyes and rip out his tongue, according to the Byzantine custom for removing someone from office by force [source: Barbero and Cameron].
The pope managed to escape the assault and pled for relief and protection from Charlemagne. The king acquiesced and traveled to Rome in 800 to oversee the trial between Pope Leo and his adversaries and acquit the embattled pope. While in Rome, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as emperor of the Roman Empire during a Christmas Day Mass.
Scholars disagree about whether Charlemagne had prior knowledge of the coronation. His contemporary biographer, Einhard, claimed that it surprised and angered Charlemagne. Accepting such a weighty title without first objecting would have violated political etiquette [source: Story]. But Einhard may have omitted those details intentionally to retouch Charlemagne's image for posterity. Either way, that deceitfully simple act of the pope placing a crown on Charlemagne's bowed head resonated throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.
Many historians recognize that moment as the informal beginning of the Holy Roman Empire. The coronation bound together Church and state in an unprecedented way by asserting the authority of the pope to bestow the imperial title and granting church officials protection under the Frankish empire. For Charlemagne, the event unified the scattered Frankish lands through strict oaths of loyalty to the crown and equalized his political stature with the Byzantine emperor. He also used his greater administrative authority to enact legal system reforms to extend justice for the poor [source: Becher and Bachrach].
Charlemagne's rule marked a cultural climax in the early Middle Ages, and history has revered him as a mighty warrior and kindly sovereign. Though his Frankish empire wouldn't endure his death in 814, Charlemagne's imperial title introduced a new legitimate stronghold in western Europe. That unification heralded the rise of the Holy Roman Empire that would endure more than 1,000 years after his epic coronation.