Last week France’s maddeningly young president Emmanuel Macron became the “first and only honorary canon” of the Basilica of St John Lateran while on a trip to meet the Holy Father in Rome. The title dates back to the 15th century but many French presidents, including François Mitterrand and François Hollande, have declined the honour, in consideration of the Republic’s often difficult relationship with Catholicism.

Macron, however, seemed to be revelling in his Rome experience, and the symbolism of the French leader meeting the Pope at a time when Europe unity seems endangered. It follows a speech he made in April when he said he wanted to “repair the bond” between Church and state, and that “I am neither the inventor nor the promoter of a state religion which substitutes divine transcendence with a Republican creed.”

A visit by the French ruler to the Eternal City cannot fail to be symbolic, for this is how European history arguably begins. In the 780s the king of the Franks arrived in Rome having crushed the ferocious Germanic tribe the Lombards. Charlemagne, whose forebear Clovis had three centuries earlier embraced Catholicism, was greeted by the Romans as their saviour and imperator, or emperor. Outside the old St Peter’s Basilica, he got down from his white stallion and ascended the stairs on his knees, stopping to kiss each step, before embracing the Pope.

Fourteen years later an even more momentous event took place when Charlemagne again arrived in Rome and, apparently without the king’s prior knowledge, the Holy Father placed a crown on his head, proclaiming him “the great and peace-giving Emperor”. “From that moment modern history begins,” wrote the Victorian academic Sir James Bryce.

Charlemagne’s rule marked the start of the great pact between the Catholic Church and Europe’s emerging states, the twin pillars of Western society that in the 11th century would be formalised. Many see this development as the seedbed of secularism (in the more neutral sense).

Those who long for a French-dominated continent have always been obsessed with Charlemagne, the Frankish father of Europe. Napoleon paid a reverential visit to his home in Aachen and when, in 1805, he had himself crowned king of Italy in Milan, one of the delegates proclaimed: “You have regenerated the empire of the Franks and this throne of Charlemagne’s, which has been buried under 10 centuries of ruins.”

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