When Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Lombards and Emperor of the Romans, died in January 814 CE, his co-emperor and only surviving son, Louis, hurried to the imperial capital at Aachen to claim his father’s titles.
Louis, known by the appellation the Pious due to his piety and to distinguish him from other Carolingians of the same name, was lucky in that he was the sole inheritor of his fathers realms. The Franks normally practised partible (divided) inheritance among male heirs rather than primogeniture, however, all Charlemagne’s sons, other than Louis, had already passed away. This left Louis the Pious as the only emperor in Western Europe. This concentration of power was not to last though, as Louis’ sons came of age they would muscle their way into their father’s powerbase and begin dismantling the Carolingian empire.
Louis: Charlemagne’s Successor
The virile Emperor Charlemagne had eighteen children. Among these five were legitimate sons. One died in infancy, three died only a few years before Charlemagne himself, and one outlived him by twenty-six years. His first son to reach adulthood, Pepin the Hunchback, was disinherited, revolted against his father, and was defeated and sent to a monastery. The other three that survived infancy were given royal titles across Charlemagne’s empire in preparation for their own ascent.
Charles the Younger was made Duke of Maine but died in 811 CE, Pepin was made King of Italy but died in 810 CE, and Louis, of whom we have already spoken, was made King of Aquitaine and, after the deaths of his brothers, was made co-emperor with his father in 813 CE positioning him for an uncontested succession. Charlemagne made sure to crown Louis as co-emperor himself, perhaps in an attempt to break the precedent set by his own coronation and to assert that imperial legitimacy would be bestowed by Carolingian, rather than Papal authority.
Louis the Pious & his Sons
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Louis, though thankful to his father, was also critical of him. He did not believe his father had gone far enough in expanding Christendom. Louis saw his imperial position as another of God’s vicegerents on earth, alongside the Pope. Once emperor, Louis began his religiously inspired imperial projects. A close friend, St Benedict of Aniane, was installed in a new monastery near the Palace at Aachen to act as an adviser in religious affairs, though quite quickly his influence spread to all matters of government.
Louis did not want to rule such a heterogenous empire composed of Saxons, Franks, Lombards, Burgundians etc., he wanted to rule God’s universal empire on earth. This unity would be hard to achieve in an empire with so many proudly diverse peoples and so Louis was limited when trying to standardize a currency and when issuing capitularies to try and eliminate some of the more radical regional disparities and bring his realms in-line with Salic law.
Louis’ main concern was that the territorial integrity of the empire be maintained rather than dissolving back into kingdoms and dukedoms. To this end, the imperial title needed to be inherited by one, rather than multiple sons, contravening the Frankish custom of partible inheritance. Louis had four sons by two wives and in 817 CE he was directly asked how he intended to divide his empire between them.
He essentially answered that Lothar, his eldest son, would be the only emperor, while his younger sons would receive dependent kingdoms within Lothar’s empire. This was offensive to much of the Frankish nobility, many of whom went on to support one of the disinherited brothers, Pepin and Louis II.
The already troubled situation was to be made more so by the death of Louis’ first wife, his remarriage, and his resultant son. Though only born in 823 CE Charles’ mother, Judith, would fight tooth and nail for her son’s inclusion in the inheritance of the empire. The inheritance plans of Louis the Pious would soon bring the Frankish Empire to civil war, while he was still alive.
The Civil Wars of Father and Sons
Early in the reign of Louis the Pious (817/818 CE), his eldest son, Lothar, was made king of Italy, with the eventual promise of the addition of the central belt of his father’s empire and the imperial title itself. The middle son, Pepin, was given the large southern Kingdom of Aquitaine, while his youngest son, Louis the German, was given the Duchy of Bavaria.
These realms would give the boys valuable experience of ruling while, in theory, maintaining loyalty among regional leadership in their father’s empire. However, with the birth of Charles the Bald in 823 CE matters were complicated. His mother and the nobles orbiting her family pushed for Charles’ inclusion. As a result, Louis began to seek territory to carve out from the lands of his other sons. Louis initially attempted to install Charles, while still a young boy, in Alemannia in 829 CE. However, these lands would primarily come at the cost of Lothar, the eldest son and future emperor.
Lothar, further enraged by the whisperings, hatched a plan with his two brothers to disinherit their half-brother and force their father to keep his initial territorial promises. They cast accusations upon the paternity of Charles, insisting his mother, Judith, had fathered him with another noble and that, therefore, Charles had no royal blood or claim to rule. While Lothar raised an army in Italy, his brothers, Pepin of Aquitaine and Louis the German, marched on Paris. They seized the royal court and captured their own father on his return from campaigning in the northwest.
While held by his two sons, the emperor proposed a new territorial arrangement, in which they would each receive a larger share at the expense of their absentee brother who was approaching with a large army. As the balance turned against Lothar, enough time elapsed to allow the nobles loyal to the emperor to rally forces to support him. The three rebellious sons were forced to release their father and return to their respective kingdoms.
Louis’ next attempt to find a realm for Charles was to come at the expense of Pepin. Louis had scolded Pepin at court in 832 CE, likely still in anger for the disloyalty of previous years. In anticipation of another revolt the emperor began to muster his forces in Aquitaine but, again working together, Louis the German invaded some of his father’s German territories forcing him to reorientate his armies eastward.
In anger the emperor disinherited Pepin of Aquitaine, handing it to Charles, as well as some of Louis the German’s territories, thus increasing the realms of the so far neutral Lothar. However, Lothar was as eager as his brothers to undermine his father and so marched north again to face his father, whose armies dissolved before him. The defeated emperor was deposed (833 CE) and he and his son Charles were disempowered while the three brothers again sought to divide the empire between themselves.
While they were originally offended by Louis the Pious’ attempts at nullifying the Frankish tradition of partible inheritance, the Frankish aristocracy was also horrified at the disgraceful treatment of the emperor by his sons. Many of them turned on Emperor Lothar and orchestrated it so that Louis was reinstated as emperor in 834 CE.
The aging Louis the Pious now clearly favored Charles, perhaps because he had not led an army against his father, and sought to establish him as a leading force in the empire. In 837 CE he gifted all of Burgundy, Alemannia, and much of Bavaria to Charles, and when Pepin died in 838 CE he bestowed the kingship of Aquitaine on his favorite son as well. Obviously, this did not go down well. Louis the German revolted against the partial loss of his territories while the Aquitanian nobles elected Pepin’s son, conveniently known as Pepin II, as their king.
The emperor was only able to quash these uprisings with the aid of his normally adverse son, Lothar. In return for Lothar’s aid, the Frankish realms were to be mostly divided between Charles and Lothar with a portion for Louis the German, on the death of their father, with Pepin II being forced out. Louis the Pious expired not long after this was agreed, in the summer of 840 CE, leaving sons that would no doubt continue the precedent of internecine warfare.
The Civil Wars of the Brothers
Upon hearing of his fathers death and that he was to receive the imperial title, though not all the imperial lands, Lothar immediately began raising armies to crush his brothers. Of course, Louis the German and Charles the Bald now had common cause to defend their interests against their eldest brother and so united, defeating Lothar at the Battle of Fontenay, 841 CE.
This latest bout of civil war was settled by the Treaty of Verdun, 843 CE, which split the Frankish Empire into three parts. Charles took the western third, mostly corresponding to the bulk of modern France while Louis took the eastern third, mostly corresponding to the bulk of modern Germany, hence his nickname “the German.”
In between these two sat Lothars realm. It included the Frankish holdings in Italy and a stretch of land from the Mediterranean to the North sea, roughly along the valleys of the Rhone and Rhine rivers. Lothar was also, as the eldest, allowed to keep the title of emperor. This division set in place an uneasy truce with Lothar wedged between his two cautious brothers and no single brother being powerful enough to overwhelm the other two.
By this point, the brothers were realizing that the empire once again had external threats. Many of the Frankish realms were coming under attack from Viking Northmen who would often prove as difficult to confront as catching smoke. Once an army had reached a known location of a Viking encampment they were gone, raiding elsewhere in Francia.
The brothers met regularly, to discuss mutual defense, as well as ensure good relations. Lothar had already named his eldest son, again a Louis, King of Italy when he died in 855 CE. On his passing his other two sons came into their inheritance, with Louis becoming emperor as well. Here began the generational fracturing of the once vast Carolingian realms and so a deluge of Louis, Charles, Pepins, and Lothars entered the narrative. The situation would become increasingly complex with each new death.
Who were the Successors of Charlemagne?
With Lothar’s middle kingdom now divided between his three sons at the Treaty of Prum 855 CE, the balance of power tipped back in favor of Louis the German. Louis, with the encouragement of many of the magnates of West Francia, sought to invade Charles the Bald’s lands.
Though the aristocracy supported him the clergy did not and he was forced to retreat. Charles, probably trying to save face, decided to pick a fight with his nephew, the youngest son of Lothar, also a Charles, and invaded Provence in southern France. He was unsuccessful.
Charles of Provence, however, died in 863 CE and his brothers divided his kingdom. Then in 869 CE the middle son of Lothar died, also a Lothar, and his uncles Charles and Louis the German divided his kingdom. Emperor Louis began to form a closer alliance with his uncle and namesake, Louis the German, and with no sons of his own, it seemed his lands and titles would pass to his cousins in the east on his death. However, when he died in 875 CE, his other uncle, Charles the Bald was able to make haste to Pavia and have himself crowned emperor by the Pope.
Charles lasted barely two years as emperor. His brother Louis the German died in 876 CE and so his quarrel would now be with his German nephews, whose inheritance and titles he had usurped. Fortunately for the young brothers, their elderly uncle died in 877 CE with his holdings quickly passing to his grandsons through their short lived father and the process of fragmentation began again.The imperial title meanwhile found its way to Charles the Fat, the youngest of Louis the German’s sons and the last Carolingian to rule a united empire as sole emperor when he briefly united the Frankish realms between 884 and 887 CE when he was deposed. He died the following year.
After the death of Charlemagne the politics of the empire, and of the Carolingian family, became increasingly complex. It seems to have been a continuous procession of territorial adjustments, inheritance disputes, court intrigue, shifting alliances, and familial betrayals. All while the key players maintained the same handful of names. Louis the Pious’ had farsighted plans of doing away with partible inheritance in favour of primogeniture to secure the stability and integrity of the empire. However, the Frankish tradition of dividing inherited lands was too strong and, combined with the martial tendencies of the magnate and ruling class, meant that the empire was thrust into decades of civil war between fathers and sons, brothers and half-brothers, nephews and uncles.
Ultimately, after the deposition of Charles the Fat, great-grandson of Charlemagne, the empire continued on its course of division with each generation, gradually collapsing. It took a whole new dynasty in the latter half of the tenth century to revive the concept of the Holy Roman Empire.