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Pope (795-816) who crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor

Pope Leo III

Leo was a Roman, the son of Atyuppius and Elizabeth. At the time of his election he was Cardinal-Priest of St. Susanna, as well as chief of the pontifical treasury.


Leo was elected Pope on December 26, 795, the same day his predecessor, Hadrian I, was buried. Upon his election, he sent the keys of Saint Peter and the standard of the City of Rome to Charlemagne, indicating his choice of the Frankish king as protector of the city and the Holy See. Charlemagne, with his letters of congratulations, sent a fortune which Leo used to build churches and found charitable institutions. For his part, Leo would soon be glad he had the support of Charlemagne.

On April 25, 799, members of Pope Hadrian I's family hired thugs to attack Leo as he walked through the streets of Rome. They scarred his face and tried to tear out his tongue and eyes to render him unfit for the papacy, but were unsuccessful. Leo survived the attack and his assistants were able to rush him to the monastery of St. Erasmus, where he made a seemingly miraculous recovery. He then made his way to Paderborn (in present-day Germany), where he appealed to Charlemagne for assistance.

When Leo recovered, Charlemagne escorted him back to Rome. In 800 he conducted a trial of Leo and his accusers. None of Leo's accusers were willing to face him publicly, however, and Charlemagne subsequently declared Leo innocent of all charges. Leo's accusers, who could have been put to death for their actions, were exiled instead, at the request of Leo. On Christmas Day, perhaps as a gesture of thanks, Leo crowned Charlemagne emperor, marking the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire.

In 803, at the synod of Beccanceld, Leo condemned the appointing of laymen as superiors of monasteries. In 809, approached by the theologians of Charlemagne, he confirmed the dogmatic correctness of the Filioque clause introduced into the Nicene creed, although, in the interests of peace with the Greeks, he urged that the creed should not be chanted in the public liturgy. Other actions taken by Leo during his papacy included the making of Salzburg as the metropolitical city for Bavaria, the giving of Pola to Fortunatus in compensation for the loss of his See of Grado, the excommunication of Eadbert Praen for his seizure of the throne of Kent, withdrawal of the pallium which had been granted to Litchfield, and restoration of the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the See of Canterbury.

Pope Leo III died on June 12, 816. He was canonized in 1673.


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This page was last updated on December 26, 2018.