See also: The Primitive Church.
By the time of Christ, the Roman Empire had conquered Europe from the Black Sea to the Atlantic. In AD 395 its territories were divided between a western realm, based in the city of Rome, and an eastern or Byzantine realm, based in Constantinople, with two emperors sharing power. The Western Empire collapsed in the year 476. Its colonies in Western Europe were abandoned and Roman government in the Italian peninsula itself was overthrown by the Visigoths. The Eastern Empire retrenched in Greece, Asia Minor, the Balkans, and the Levant. In the West, Christian kingdoms were founded in Britain, in the vast Frankish lands that became Germany and France, and in the Iberian peninsula. The conversion of Europe to Christianity coincided with these developments.
Christian church polity during the first millennium was organized around the office of bishop. The title comes from the Greek word, epískopos, meaning “overseer.” Bishops ordained parish priests or presbyters and governed the churches within their individual jurisdictions, which we now call dioceses.
The order of bishops was a peerage not a hierarchy. All bishops were co-equal, every diocese sovereign.1 Writing in the third century, Cyprian of Carthage described the episcopal system as it existed in the early church. “For none of us makes himself a bishop of bishops,” he reported, “or by a tyrannical terror compels his colleagues to a necessity of obedience; since every bishop, according to the license of his own liberty and power, hath his own freedom, and can no more be judged by another, than he himself can judge another.”2 Cyprian’s testimony is confirmed by contemporary writers.3 In later centuries, national or regional churches made up of multiple dioceses would appoint an archbishop or patriarch to represent that church, with appropriate precedence and duties, but no power of command over his fellow bishops.
The Bishop of Rome, called pope or patriarch, had none of the special authority claimed by his medieval successors. In a dispute with Constantinople at the turn of the seventh century, Pope Gregory I of Rome wrote, “I confidently say that whosoever calls himself universal bishop, or desires to be so called, does in his elation forerun Antichrist, because he proudly places himself before others.”4 The government of bishops was therefore local in the individual and universal in the corporate body.
The church was multipolar. This allowed it to integrate with the culture and institutions of state in diverse realms without being divided. The creation of archbishoprics, papacies, and patriarchates was a reflection of political boundaries, not ecclesiastical hierarchy. Multiple dioceses within a realm ruled by the same king were grouped together as distinct national churches. An empire consisting of multiple nations would have multiple national churches represented by patriarchs.
In the Byzantine East the emperor was both head of state and supreme head of the church. It was his privilege to appoint the Patriarch of Constantinople and to call episcopal councils. The Western Empire had been governed according to the same arrangement. Both pre-Christian and Christian emperors held the title pontifex maximus: high priest.5 The double-headed eagle portrayed in Roman heraldry symbolized the emperor’s dual authority.
Royal supremacy was the norm in Western Europe during the first millennium. In the ninth century the Bishop of Rome put himself under the protection of the Frankish kings. On Christmas Day in the year 800, Charlemagne was crowned Western Roman Emperor. He was the first man to hold that title in over three hundred years. The arrangement did not restore the territories of the old empire. The new Holy Roman Empire was no more or less than the Frankish kingdom. Although Charlemagne and his successors rarely controlled the city of Rome itself, they possessed the traditional rights of the Roman emperors vis-à-vis the Church of Rome. As John Marion Riddle writes, Charlemagne was “head of the church in name and practice.” The Bishop of Rome “prostrated himself before the new emperor” at his coronation. “High-church appointments Charlemagne made himself, and he called church councils.” Official documents referred to him as rex et sacerdotus: king and priest.6 Royal oversight of the church had a corollary in aristocratic oversight at the local level. Charlemagne and his successors oversaw the spread of Christianity in Germany through the model of the eigenkirche, or proprietary church. These were parish churches founded by the lord of a village. The lord retained certain rights in the appointment of clergy and the administration of parish resources.7
The kings of England exercised the same powers as the Byzantine and Frankish kings. In England as late as the twelfth century, writes Roger Wickson, the official language “used at a bishop’s consecration stated that he was elected by our pious lord the king of the English, with the consent of the clergy and people.” The latter participated publicly in the process. “Once a bishop was elected he appeared before the king. He was now one of the king’s greatest tenants and had to perform homage to the king in the same way as any great lay magnate.” It was the king who invested him “with the ring and staff, the symbols of his spiritual office.” Thereafter he would be consecrated by bishops of the English church.8
The special status accorded to the institution of monarchy in the Christian social order relates to the universal kingship of Jesus Christ. The risen Christ is revealed in Scripture as a universal emperor who delegates authority to earthly governments. He is described in the First Epistle to Timothy as “the King of kings and Lord of lords,”9 and in Revelation as “the ruler of the kings of the earth.”10 Human monarchies partake of the divine monarchy, reflecting it and symbolizing it. Through the institution of monarchy, the human social order is made to reflect the divine order. This is the context of Psalm 82, wherein God addresses the kings and authorities of the world, telling them, “I have said, Ye are gods…But ye shall die like men.”11
A mystical illustration of this doctrine can be found in Arthurian legend. The story of the Holy Grail was first recorded in the twelfth century, in the chivalric romance, Perceval, le Conte du Graal, by Chrétien de Troyes. It was expanded upon by subsequent poets over the following century. The legend tells of a young knight who happens upon the castle of a dying king. The king has suffered a dolorous blow to the thigh, or groin. The wound will not heal. Neither is it limited to his person. Like an extension of the king’s body, the kingdom itself is dying. Once-fertile countryside has become a wasteland. The fields are fallow. The forest is bare. The rivers have run dry. At the castle the knight is shown a procession of mysterious objects: a lance that bleeds from the point; a pair of candelabra; and a shining dish or chalice, the Grail. That night he dreams of the land brought back to rich and verdant life. In the morning he finds the castle empty and in ruins. He later learns that he could have healed the king and the kingdom if only he had thought to ask the meaning of the Grail. Though the young knight embarks on a quest to recover the lost treasure, his fate is unknown. Chrétien died before he could finish the story. The Grail legend suggests that some nourishing grace passes from God to a people through the institution of monarchy.12
Of course, the relationship between king and clergy was reciprocal. The king invested the bishop with his crozier and the bishop crowned the king. This reciprocity was present in all dimensions of society. The historian Norman Cantor described it as “the interpenetration of ecclesia and mundus”.13 The modern preference for the separation of church and state, whether de facto or de jure, would have been alien to previous generations, including the early Christians and the Protestant Reformers. Church, state, and society were a single unit. The church was not defined as a hierarchy of the clergy set apart from the laity. It was, as the apostles taught, the corporate body of all baptized Christians. The monarch and the nobility were representatives of the laity in the government of the church at the archdiocesan and parish levels respectively.
This wholistic model of society was the status quo in Europe until the eleventh century. In the 1050s an ambitious cabal formed within the Roman Church centered around Pope Gregory VII. The papal party sought a radical reorganization of the universal Church, placing the Pope of Rome in an exalted position above all bishops and kings. To this end Gregory issued the Dictates papae in 1075.The document claimed twenty-seven new powers and privileges for the pope: to be called universal bishop, to teach infallibly, to make laws, to judge all important questions of doctrine, to depose any other bishop, to depose emperors and absolve subjects from their fealty to the state, to have princes kiss his feet, to preside over General Synods, and, significantly, to use the Imperial Roman insignia.
It is impossible to overstate the scandal of the Gregorian Reforms. The Gregorian Papacy had no basis or precedence in the thousand year history of Christianity. The usurpations of the Dictates papae were exponentially more outrageous than the claims of ecumenical primacy that Pope Gregory I condemned as a sign of Antichrist. When the Protestant Reformers denounced the pope as Antichrist, they did so using a predecessor’s own words. Nor did these enormities go unremarked at the time. The first assertions of papal supremacy had caused the Great Schism of 1054 at which the churches of the East severed communion with Rome. The codification of papal supremacy two decades later provoked a centuries-long civil war in Italy.
To be clear: the universal ruler of the Church is Jesus Christ. No one bishop can claim to govern on His behalf or to sit on His throne in absentia because Christ is not absent. The risen Christ sits upon his throne now.
The papal party defended its innovations with two arguments, neither credible. The first appealed to a document called the Donation of Constantine, which purported to be an Imperial Roman decree, by which the Emperor Constantine had given the empire over to the papacy in the fourth century. On the authority of this document Gregory VII had claimed the right to depose emperors and to bear the imperial insignia. The Donation of Constantine is now universally acknowledged to be a forgery. Its provenance was disputed from the time of its appearance in the Middle Ages. It was proven to be a forgery—and a rather crude one at that—in the fifteenth century by Italian priest and humanist Lorenzo Valla who undertook a philological study of the text. In the sixteenth century Cardinal Caesar Baronius acknowledged the fraud on behalf of the Roman Church in his official Annales Ecclesiastici.
The second argument of the papal party appealed vaguely to Scripture. To this day the papal system in the Roman Church rests upon a post hoc ergo propter hoc reading of one verse from the Gospel According to Matthew. Christ addresses the disciple Simon Peter: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”14 The papal party argued that because Christ showed special affection for Peter among his disciples, and because unsubstantiated legend identified Peter as the first Bishop of Rome, all subsequent Bishops of Rome should be entitled to extraordinary powers that Christ specifically did not bestow upon Peter at the Great Commission of his disciples to evangelize the nations of the world.15
A succinct and thorough debunking of the Petrine defense of the papacy was written by Walter Herbert Stowe, an Anglican clergyman of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. Stowe observed that:
(1) There is no evidence in Scripture or anywhere else that Christ conferred these powers upon St. Peter; (2) there is no evidence that St. Peter claimed them for himself or his successors; (3) there is strong contrary evidence that St. Peter erred in an important matter of faith in Antioch, the eating together and social intercourse of Jewish and Gentile Christians affecting the whole future of the Church and the Christian Religion, and this lapse was so serious that St. Paul withstood him to the face; (4) he did not preside at the first Council of the Church in Jerusalem and did not hand down the decision of the Council; (5) he was Bishop of Antioch before he was bishop anywhere else, and, if the papal claims are in any way true, the Bishop of Antioch has a better right to hold them; (6) that St. Peter was ever in Rome is disputed, and the most that can be said for it is that it is an interesting historical problem; (7) there is no evidence whatsoever that he conferred such powers upon his successors-to-be in the See of Rome; (8) there was no primitive acceptance of such claims, and there never has been universal acceptance in any later age.16
To the extent that the papacy was successful in consolidating power and support for its claims across a wide swath of Christendom during the three centuries that followed the Gregorian Reforms, that success accrued from an audacious gambit by Pope Urban II: the launching of the Crusades. In 1095, a mere two decades after the invention of the Gregorian papacy, Urban tested the still-hypothetical powers of his office. He announced a general absolution of sin to anyone who would take up arms against the Islamic Turks of the Seljuq Empire. Urban must have been pleased with the result. The initial response to his appeal was comical and tragic, but no less impressive for that. The following year tens of thousands of untrained and insufficiently armed civilians, including women and children, sparsely reinforced by professional soldiers, advanced upon the armies of Islam. This peasant’s crusade was destroyed almost to a man at the Siege of Xerigordos and the Battle of Civetot in Asia Minor. The few survivors converted to Islam in exchange for their lives.17 Urban’s appeal had been heard by cannier men than these, however. An alliance of noblemen enticed by the treasure-houses of the Orient18 raised a formidable army of knights and infantrymen. It advanced not only through Asia Minor but all the way to Jerusalem. By the summer of 1099 the crusaders had captured the holy city from the Fatimid Caliphate. A Christian kingdom was established in Jerusalem.
Urban died shortly before the news would have reached him, but his immediate successors could bask in the knowledge that the papacy had sent an unmistakable warning to its enemies. Those enemies were not the Turks or Fatimids, but the Christian kings of Europe. A mere word from the pope had mobilized a small but fanatical segment of European society, drawn from all classes, to war. A king who defended the traditional ecclesiastical order against the papacy might well find civil war stoked in his own realm by the same means. Protestant kings at the time of the Reformation faced precisely this form of terrorism from the papacy and its partisans.
The first victorious years gave way to centuries of defeat for the crusaders. By the fourteenth century almost every territorial gain had been lost. Jerusalem was surrendered to Islamic forces under Saladin in 1187. The city of Acre was surrendered in 1291 marking the end of the Crusades in the Holy Land. At one point the beleaguered crusaders attacked the Byzantine Empire instead of the Sultanate, looting the Christian city of Constantinople to enrich the coffers of Rome and Venice. The weakened Byzantine Empire was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453.
Even during the period of the Crusades when the papacy was at its most powerful, and commanded its widest allegiance from European princes, the legitimacy of the institution was never universally accepted.
In 1066 the Normans under William the Conqueror invaded England. William carried a commission from Pope Alexander II. But this was a decade before the Gregorian Reforms. William’s stated objectives were in direct opposition to the later Dictatus. Harold J. Berman writes, “William asserted that the king…has the power to determine whether or not a pope should be acknowledged in Normandy and England; that the king makes canon law through church synods; and the king has a veto power over ecclesiastical penalties imposed on his barons and officials.”19 As kings, William and his sons “successfully opposed papal claims to supremacy over the church in their dominions” following the Gregorian Reforms.20
In the twelfth century, during the de facto reign of King Stephen, amidst a civil war between his factions and those of Empress Matilda, the papal party gained significant ground in the Church of England. But Matilda’s son King Henry II reasserted royal supremacy and the traditional independence of the Church of England. This was not without difficulty, however. The reforms had introduced factions into the church. Those loyal to the pope became, in the words of Howard Bloom, “virtual foreign agents.”21 Thomas Becket, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of Henry II, belonged to the papal party. He wanted the clergy exempt from English civil law, specifically criminal prosecution. In 1164 Henry II issued the Constitutions of Clarendon, which restored many of the king’s rights in the church. A bitter political feud between monarch and archbishop ensued. Becket excommunicated clergy and nobility who sided with the king. The conflict culminated in the assassination of Thomas Becket by four aggrieved knights. Afterward the king negotiated a settlement with the Church of Rome that left the larger questions of autonomy and supremacy unsettled. Nor would these questions be settled during the subsequent reign of the Plantagenet dynasty. But there can be no doubt that the king was representing tradition while Becket and the pope were the revolutionaries. As Berman asks, rhetorically, if “the reign of Stephen was the period when the Papal Revolution finally asserted itself in England, should not Henry II’s claim to the customs of his grandfather be considered counterrevolutionary?”22
The papacy became a diplomatic vector that each monarch negotiated with or against depending upon the exigencies of his reign. The French sons of Henry II thought little of their English inheritance. Richard tried unsuccessfully to sell the kingdom to the Holy Roman Emperor to fund a crusade. His brother John, in a position of political crisis, gave the kingdom to the pope in 1213, receiving it back as a fiefdom. This act represented the only formal historical union between England and the Church of Rome. It earned John his role as villain in the Robin Hood legends. The act was also formally annulled, in a process that gives insight into the Church of England in the Middle Ages.
John’s successors Edward I and Edward II refused to pay tribute money to the pope. King Edward III, who took the throne in 1327, resumed the policy of royal supremacy championed by Henry II. During his reign in 1365, the arrangement between John and the papacy was finally adjudicated in Parliament, where it was declared void. The reason the act had not been valid, Parliament decided, was that it had been done without the assent of the bishops.23 The bishops (and thus the Church) of England had a right to autonomy dating back to the foundation of the episcopal system as described by Cyprian of Carthage. It was beyond John’s power as a Christian prince to subordinate them to another bishop.
In Italy the papacy faced a more proximate and embarrassing opponent: the Holy Roman Emperor. The successors of Charlemagne had continued to exercise royal supremacy over the Church of Rome. Now the papacy was overturning the arrangement: asserting episcopal supremacy over the empire including the Frankish lands themselves. The controversy led to five decades of open warfare between imperial and papal factions. In 1122 the papacy won concessions from Henry V, the last emperor of the Salian dynasty, who renounced his right to invest bishops with ring and crozier. The emperors of the subsequent Hohenstaufen dynasty in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries proved more formidable. Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and Pope Alexander III denounced one another, with the emperor recognizing a succession of challengers to the papacy. Although they were later reconciled by treaty, their successors continued to struggle. Barbarossa’s grandson, Frederick II became emperor in 1220. He faced unrelenting opposition from Pope Innocent IV. The pope excommunicated Frederick II as a heretic, a “friend of Babylon’s sultan,” with “Saracen customs,” “provided with a harem guarded by eunuchs,” declared him deposed, fomented civil war by encouraging a rival landgrave to seize the throne,and ordered Frederick’s supporters massacred under the flag of truce at Viterbo. Throughout all of this Frederick II maintained power. He advanced an early Renaissance in art, law, and science. He led a crusade to Jerusalem, while excommunicated, recapturing the city and briefly holding it, making him the last Christian King of Jerusalem to set foot in that realm. The emperor’s English contemporary and admirer Matthew Paris described him as Stupor mundi, “the Wonder of the World.” The nineteenth century Oxford historian Edward A. Freeman wrote that, “in mere genius, in mere accomplishments, Frederick was surely the greatest prince that ever wore a crown.”24 The Reformed theologian Paul Schaff described him as “the most conspicuous political figure of his own age and the most cosmopolitan of the Middle Ages. He was warrior, legislator, statesman, man of letters.”25
Frederick II died in 1150, unreconciled with the pope but conciliatory toward the church, with last rites performed by his loyal Archbishop of Palermo. Upon hearing news of the emperor’s death, Innocent IV responded with characteristic pettiness, “heaven and hell rejoiced of it.”26 While Frederick was able to keep the Holy Roman Empire together during his lifetime it proved impossible to elect a successor. Upon his death the empire fell into a period of long interregnums and aborted restorations until the eve of the Protestant Reformation when the ambitious Habsburg family accepted the title however the papacy chose to define it.
The Hohenstaufen were not forgotten in later centuries. Regional conflicts between city states that were loyal to the emperor and those that were loyal to the papacy continued through the period of the Renaissance in Italy. The imperial faction were called Ghibellines, the papal faction were called Guelphs. The poet Dante Alighieri was famously exiled from Florence at the turn of the fourteenth century for his Ghibelline sympathies. In Germany the memory of the Hohenstaufen transcended history, becoming part of an earlier myth.
The king in the mountain is one of the great archetypal myths: a king who presided over a past golden age is said to have retreated with his warriors into a mountain cave where he waits, sleeping but not dead, one day to return. It is most famously associated with King Arthur at Avalon. After the death of Frederick II rumor spread in Italy that he had not died but gone to sleep in Mount Etna, and in Germany that he had gone to sleep in Kyffhäuser Mountain. During the sixteenth century the identity of the sleeping king was gradually transferred from Frederick II to his grandfather Frederick Barbarossa.27 Professor D.L. Ashliman has catalogued a number of related myths in his bibliography of folktexts at the University of Pittsburgh.The most famous account comes from the Deutsche Sagen by the Brothers Grimm:
Many legends are in circulation dealing with [Emperor Frederick Barbarossa]. They say that he is not dead, but that he shall live until the Day of Judgment, and also that no legitimate emperor shall rise up after him. Until that time he will remain hidden in Kyffhäuser Mountain. When he appears he will hang his shield on a dead tree, and leaves will sprout from the tree, and then better times will be at hand. From time to time he speaks to those who find their way into the mountain, and from time to time he makes appearances outside the mountain. Generally he just sits there on a bench at a round stone table, asleep with his head in his hands. He constantly nods his head and blinks his eyes. His beard has grown very long, according to some it has grown through the stone table, according to others it has grown around the table. They say that it must grow around the circumference three times before he awakens. At the present time it has grown around the table twice.
In the year 1669 a peasant from the village of Reblingen who was hauling grain to Nordhausen was taken into the mountain by a little dwarf. He was told to empty out his grain and allowed to fill his sacks with gold in its place. He saw the emperor sitting there entirely motionless.
In addition, a dwarf led a shepherd into the mountain who had once played a tune on his flute that had pleased the emperor. The emperor stood up and asked: “Are ravens still flying around the mountain?” When the shepherd answered “yes,” the Kaiser responded: “Then I must sleep for another hundred years.”28
A monument to Barbarossa was erected in the Kyffhäuser range in the 1890s. It depicts him awakening. On a plinth above him stands an equestrian statue of Emperor Wilhelm I, connecting the legend to German unification under the Prussian monarchy in the nineteenth century. Artist Bruno Schmitz successfully captured the metaphysical subtext of the story recorded by the Grimms. As the head of a Protestant national church, Wilhelm was the first king of the German Reich since the Hohenstaufen to stand in correct alignment with the ecclesiastical order. That “no legitimate emperor” would rise up after the Hohenstaufen was a repudiation of the Habsburgs who ruled as Roman Catholics during the period when the legend told to the Grimms likely originated. In the symbolism of the monument Wilhelm represents the waking Barbarossa, or vice versa.
The Protestant Reformation was a reaction to the encroachment of the papacy against the traditional Christian order in both its political and theological dimensions. Because this encroachment first impacted the political order we find the earliest antecedents of the Protestant Reformation in Medieval opposition to the Gregorian Reforms. What had been the status quo throughout Christendom before roughly AD 1080 was defended by arms through the thirteenth century and maintained in open protest thereafter.
- Johann Karl Ludwig Gieseler; Francis Cunningham (trans.), Text-book of Ecclesiastical History. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, and Blanchard, 1836; 1:153-155.
- William Cathcart, The Papal System: From Its Origin to the Present Time. Aurora: The Menace Publishing Company, 1872; 61.
- Cathcart, 1872; 61-70.
- Cathcart, 1872; 69.
- Alan Cameron, “The Imperial Pontifex.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology Vol. 103 (2007); 341-384.
- John Marion Riddle, A History of the Middle Ages, 300-1500. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008; 200.
- George William Outram Addleshaw, The Development of the Parochial System from Charlemagne (768-814) to Urban II (1088-1099). London: St. Anthony’s Press, 1954; 4-5.
- Roger Wickson, Kings and Bishops in Medieval England, 1066-1216. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015; xxiii-xxiv.
- KJV, 1 Timothy 6:15.
- KJV, Revelation 1:5.
- KJV, Psalm 82:6-7.
- Nigel Bryant (trans.), The Complete Story of the Grail: Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval and its Continuations. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2015.
- Norman F. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages. New York: Harper Collins, 1993; 395.
- KJV, Matthew 16:18.
- KJV, Matthew 28:16-20.
- Walter Herbert Stowe, The Essence of Anglo-Catholicism. New York: Morehouse-Gorham Co., 1932; 15.
- Steven Runciman, The First Crusade. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951, 1980; 58-61.
- Martin Hall; Jonathan Phillips, Caffaro, Genoa and the Twelfth-Century Crusades. London and New York: Routledge, 2013; 9-10.
- Harold J. Berman, Law and Revolution, the Formation of the Western Legal Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983; 255.
- Berman, 255.
- Howard Bloom, The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995; 120.
- Berman, 258.
- Thomas Erskine May, A Treatise on the Law, Proceedings, and Usage of Parliament. Eleventh Edition. London: William Clowes and Sons, Ltd., 1906; 3.
- Edward A. Freeman, Historical Essays. London: Macmillan and Company, 1896; 293.
- Philip Schaff, The History of the Christian Church, Volume V Part 1: The Middle Ages. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1923; 196.
- Schaff, 299.
- Norbert Kamp, “Federico II di Svevia, imperatore, re di Sicilia e di Gerusalemme, re dei Romani”. Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani Vol. 45 (1995). https://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/federico-ii-di-svevia-imperatore-re-di-sicilia-e-di-gerusalemme-re-dei-romani_(Dizionario-Biografico)/
- Jacob Grimm; Wilhelm Grimm, Deutsche Sagen. Munich: Winkler, 1965; 49-50. Translation: D. L. Ashliman, “Sleeping Hero Legends,” Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts. (1999) University of Pittsburgh. https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/sleep.html. See also: Juleigh Howard-Hobson, “The Mountain Kings.” Counter-Currents (August 16, 2011) https://counter-currents.com/2011/08/the-mountain-kings/