Still, there have been moments in history that are so important to the future of that country that the monarch not only defies the faith he or she is supposed to uphold, but downright changes the faith. These linchpin monarchs are often remembered fondly after their deaths, though at the time they are often criticized and earn many enemies. Four such individuals from Classical times deserve our notice, for they changed the course of history as we know it. A further six will be mentioned in brief for the respective influence they had on our current state of religious affairs in Europe.
Ashoka the Great, Emperor of India
I start this simple study with a non-Western monarch both for chronological reasons and to emphasize that this phenomena is not unique to Europe. Indeed, many monarchs throughout history have changed their state religions, but India is the second-largest country to do so and also the earliest known case. Ashoka was of the Maurya dynasty and ruled an area encompassing much of modern-day India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.
Ashoka began his rule as an mean-spirited emperor intent on conquering the sub-continent of India from its current thralldom. But when he conquered the region of Kalinga on the northeast coast of modern-day India near Bangladesh, he converted to Buddhism. Legend has it that when he saw the ruins of capital of Kalinga, he stated:
What have I done? If this is a victory, what's a defeat then? Is this a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is it gallantry or a rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women? Do I do it to widen the empire and for prosperity or to destroy the other's kingdom and splendor? One has lost her husband, someone else a father, someone a child, someone an unborn infant.... What's this debris of the corpses? Are these marks of victory or defeat? Are these vultures, crows, eagles the messengers of death or evil?Ashoka was heartbroken over the ruin his conquest caused and angry that his Hinduistic ways had led him to this destruction. He decided to rule his new empire as a kindly and wise emperor from that moment onward. He adopted the Buddhist principals of the quasi-democratic Kalingas and made it the state religion around 260 BCE. Within ten years, Buddhist policy had spread outward from his empire, reaching as far west as Rome and as far east as Japan. Buddhism was established in Sri Lanka during this time, and remains a Buddhist state to this day.
Ashoka's conversion was helped by the strength of India's military and political power in the region. Following the Kalinga war, none, including Greeks from Iran and the growing Chinese Empire, could question the wisdom or power of Ashoka. His policies were deemed wise and good and convinced even Greeks living in Persia to eagerly convert from their pantheistic ways. Though India eventually turned away from Buddhism over the centuries, other countries including Nepal, Thailand, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka still look to Ashoka as one of their guides in how to properly run a Buddhist country.
Ming, Emperor of the Middle Kingdom (China)
Buddhism took hold in other countries too during this time. From India, Buddhism spread outward to China during the time of the Eastern Han Dynasty. It was during the reign of Ming that Buddhism took hold over the monarchy. Ming sent a delegation to the Indian Empire in 67 CE to ask for teachers of Buddhism, and the group returned with two, as well as an image of Gautama Buddha and his book of sutras. Ming then ordered the construction of the White Horse Temple in Luoyang, the capital.
|White Horse Temple|
While it is thought that Ming converted to Buddhism during this time, he never gave up the strong Confucian undertones of the Han government and continued his wars of conquest in the west. Within 100 years, China was firmly a Buddhist country with temples and statuary scattered across the Middle Kingdom. It remained the dominant religion in China for nearly 700 years before being almost utterly wiped out during the Tang dynasty by Emperor Wuzong in 845 CE. Before it was destroyed, though, it passed to Korea and Japan where it remains a dominant religion today.
Tiridates III, King of Armenia
Christianity gets a lot of hype for its religious conversions, but it took more than 200 years for a single country to convert to the religion. That country is traditionally believed to be Armenia, a sometimes tributary state of Parthian Persia located in the Caucasus Mountains north of Turkey. Tiridates began his rule as a deposed monarch, attempted to retake his native Armenian throne with the help of Rome. Tiridates was raised and educated in Rome during his minority and this allowed him to get the help he needed to retake Armenia from the Parthians.
|The Baptism of Tiridates III by Gregory|
Constantine I the Great, Emperor of Rome
Despite the progress made by Armenia toward establishing Christian states in Europe, it took a much larger entity to convince the western world that Christianity was the way of the future. The Empire of Rome during the fourth century was vast. It encompassed directly and through tributaries everything from Britain, France and Spain in the west, to the lower half of Germany in the north, as far east as Afghanistan, and as far south as Sudan. Thus when Constantine I, a pious pantheist of Brito-Roman stock, allowed Christianity in the state that technically executed Christ, the world skipped a beat. Yet the legends of Constantine do him more justice than in truth.
First and most importantly, the 313 CE Edict of Milan, perhaps the most important legal document regarding Christianity during Roman times, did not make Christianity legal—it made all religions legal. It's specific Christian proviso was that it also restored property to disenfranchised Christians who had lost property during the reign of Diocletian.
Secondly, Constantine was never a true Christian during his reign. His mother, a Briton named Helena, was already a Christian when Constantine was born and it is likely that she influenced him into becoming a Christian throughout his life. His conversion only became public in 312 during his war with Licinius. At this time, he believed that his success was due to the Christian God. From this time forward, Constantine established and rebuilt churches throughout the empire and added Christians to his bureaucracy. But Christianity was not yet the state religion. Constantine still was the head of the Roman religion and continued to patronize temples of Apollo, Diana, and Heracles.
Still, Constantine increasingly saw himself as the head of Christianity in Europe following his conversion. He summoned the Council of Nicaea in 325 which established the Nicaean Creed and decided against the Arianist interpretation of divinity. He was only baptized on his deathbed and it was not by a Catholic but Arian bishop that he received his last rights.
It would take another sixty years and a few pagan emperors until Christianity was accepted as the prime church of Rome. Another great emperor, Theodosius I, was responsible for finally establishing Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire, and it is through Theodosius that the Byzantine Empire, Russia, Bulgaria, and the Catholic countries of the world claim their right to supremacy.
Clovis I, King of the Franks
It didn't take long for Christianity to spread outward from Rome into its periphery. Gaul, ruled by the Germanic Franks, was the first to convert. Clovis ruled a kingdom in the early sixth century that spanned from Germany to the English Channel, and it was luck that he converted to the correct form of Christianity. The region he occupied had until recently been controlled by Rome and the Gauls that lived there, the Gallic Celts, had sided with the Arians in the Christianity debate. Lucky for Clovis (and history) that he married a Trinitarian Christian princess from Burgundy named Clotilde.
|Clovis Receiving Divine Help During the Battle of Tolbiac|
His conversion may well have been political, since many of the locals in his new kingdom were Christians. The divine origins of his conversion—invoking Christ in a battle to defeat his enemy—is most probably apocryphal. Regardless, Clovis was baptized publicly at Rheims on Christmas near the end of the fifth century. His Roman subjects felt comforted that the king had chosen Trinitarian Christianity despite the prevalence of Arian Christianity among the other Germanic and Celtic groups. For the remainder of his reign, Clovis fought to control and unify all of Gaul under his dynasty and under his religion. He achieved this at the First Council of Orléans soon before his death. While the Merovingians divided their realm time and again, it was never ruled by a German pagan again.
England's First Christian King
There is no solid first Christian king of England, or indeed the British Isles. During the time that Christianity was spreading through the British Isles, there were numerous kingdoms and chiefdoms and all accepted Christianity separately. Traditionally, the first Christian monarch of Britain was Lucius who wrote a letter to Pope Eleuterus in the second century asking to be converted. It is thought that England continued to be Christians for 100 years until Diocletian suppressed the religion, after which it was revived by Constantine, who was born in York. Today, the very existence of Lucius is very much in question and his conversion to Christianity is doubtful.
|Æthelbert, King of Kent|
Æthelberht influenced his neighbor, Sæberht of Sussex, to convert as well, but attempting to convert both kingdoms proved difficult. Firstly, the local kinglets were hesitant to give up their pagan past even while accepting Christian doctrine into their lands. Secondly, the Britons did not like the sudden intrusion of Rome back into their lives after nearly 200 years of absence. During the time Rome had forgotten them, new and different traditions had developed which contradicted the Catholic teachings. Without the support of the Britons, it was almost impossible for Æthelberht to declare the state religion Catholism. This problem was very apparent at his death, as numerous pagan kings ruled Kent and the other English kinglets for the next hundred years.
The northern Scandinavian countries each had to find Christianity on their own, often through waylaid missionaries or captured monks. Harald Bluetooth, King of Denmark and Norway, was the first Viking to convert to Christianity. His grandson, Canute the Great, became a champion of Christianity and spread it to all corners of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Orkneys and Shetland Islands, and beyond. Meanwhile, Vladimir the Great, Grand Prince of Kiev and a descendant of Vikings himself, became the first Kievan Rus' leader to convert to Christianity. Though he was a Catholic, Russia eventually converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in order to claim succession from Rome after the Byzantine Empire fell. Finally, Mieszko I, Duke of the Poles, became the first Polish monarch to accept Christianity, and through him Poland became the northeastern extent of Catholicism in Europe.
All of these people helped establish the religious order we have today. But why, you may ask, are no Muslim or Hindu monarchs listed here? For a very simple reason: most Muslims didn't convert to Islam, they were conquered and replaced. Islam began with its first monarch: Muhammed. The Prophet then established the Caliphate which replaced virtually every monarchy it came into contact with. Conversion was an option, but retaining the throne was not. When the Caliphate finally fell, only Muslims were left in the power vacuum. On the other hand, Hinduism is not technically a religion but a mixture of religions, all native to India. Leaders in India were already Hindu when Buddhism and Islam came along, and so there was nothing in Hinduism to convert to. Finally, Judaism is only the state religion in Israel, but in ancient times it was also an established religion, just like Hinduism, of the migratory Hebrews. When they settled down, they remained Jewish (though many of their leaders adopted pagan practices as well).
The importance placed on these monarchs is obvious: virtually all of them are "the Great". But this title doesn't have to denote religious greatness. The importance of the individuals, though, is in establishing a religious tradition often upheld by their dynasty for multiple generations in a way that has a lasting effect on their domain. Sure China and India aren't Buddhist anymore but Buddhism is still a central aspect of their histories and is still present in their archaeology. More importantly, if it hadn't been for these monarchs converting to their religions, other countries in their peripheries would not have converted, many of which remain Buddhist or Christian today. Thus the power one monarch has in converting can be seen in the religions of the world today, from Catholic Peru to Buddhist Cambodia. Religion is an important part of people's lives, and the primary reason people are aware of their religion today is through a monarch converting to it many hundreds of years ago.