Originally published in Slingshot, issue 280, January 2012 / the magazine of the Society of Ancients
|Reliquary containing Charlemagne's scullcap, 1350 AD|
For all its grandeur and the lasting importance of some of its cultural legacies, the Carolingian Empire proved no more stable than its Merovingian predecessor did. By the later ninth century there were still Carolingian kings in Francia, but their effective power was confined to a limited block of territory around Paris. The eastern part of the empire would remain more cohesive. Here, one of Charlemagne’s grandsons, Louis the German, enjoyed an unusually long reign (843-876 AD). This part of the empire even survived the extinction of Louis’ line at the turn of the tenth century, when the region was brought under even tighter unity by Conrad, followed by the Saxon Henry, son of Otto, the first of the Ottonian emperors.
Louis the Pious (778 – 840 AD)
Louis (Chlodwig) the Pious was the only one of Charlemagne's three legitimate sons to survive infancy. According to Riché, Louis’ early deeds demonstrate that he was a refined, intelligent and energetic leader. However, as he grew older, he increasingly manifested volatile mood swings, alternating between brooding and resolve, especially after his second marriage. His reign of twenty-seven and a half years, which had started well, would end with little glory. He owed his nickname “the pious” to his being profoundly religious and to his support of Benedictine monasticism. At the age of three Louis was crowned King of Aquitaine by Pope Hadrian I, while his one-year older brother Pippin was crowned King of Italy. The boy-kings were immediately sent to their respective realms, since it was Charlemagne’s intention to see all his sons brought up as natives of their given territories, wearing the national costume of the region and ruling by the local customs.
At the age of 16, Louis the Pious married Ermengarde of Hesbaye, by whom he had three sons:
- Chlotar (795 - 855 AD)
- Pippin (797 - 838 AD)
- Louis the German (805 - 876 AD)
Charlemagne had constituted the sub-kingdom of Aquitaine in order to secure the border of his realm after his defeat at the hands of Basques in Roncevaux in 778 AD. Louis’ kingdom had to control the Spanish March (modern-day Catalonia and Aragon), which acted as a buffer state against the Moors. In 797, when Louis was 21 years old, the largest city of the Spanish March Barcelona, fell to the Franks. Its governor Zeid rebelled against the Umayyad authority in Córdoba and, failing, handed Barcelona to the Franks. The Umayyads, however, recaptured it in 799. As a reaction, Louis marched the entire army of his kingdom, including Gascons. Provençals and Goths over the Pyrenees and besieged the city for two years, wintering there from 800 to 801. Louis reconquered Barcelona in 801 AD and re-asserted Frankish authority over Pamplona and the Basques south of the Pyrenees in 813AD. At the age of 39, after having barely survived an accident on Holy Thursday before Easter in 817 AD, Louis began planning for his succession. Louis and his court had been crossing a wooden gallery from the cathedral to the palace in Aachen when the gallery collapsed, causing many casualties. Probably due to this near brush with death, Louis issued an Ordinatio Imperii, an imperial decree that laid out plans for an orderly succession only three months later.
In the Divisio Regnorum of 806 AD, which Charlemagne had drawn up in accordance with Frankish custom, it had been laid down that Louis was to share his inheritance with his brothers. As Charlemagne's other legitimate sons Pippin and Charles died in 810 and in 811 respectively, Louis alone remained to be crowned co-emperor by Pope Leo III with Charlemagne in 813 AD. On his father's death in 814 AD, he inherited the entire Frankish kingdom and all its possessions, with the sole exception of Italy. Italy remained within Louis' empire, but came under the direct rule of Pippin’s (formerly called Carloman) son Bernard, as specifically determined by Charlemagne.
Louis learned about his father Charlemagne’s death when he was in his royal villa of Doué-la-Fontaine in Anjou. Hurrying to Aachen, he crowned himself emperor and was proclaimed by the nobles with shouts of Vivat Imperator Ludovicus. In 816 AD Pope Stephen IV, who had succeeded Leo III, would visit Reims and crown Louis emperor again, thus corroborating the importance of the pope in imperial coronations.
Louis vigorously prosecuted the ecclesiastical renewal initiated by Charlemagne in 813 AD and a series of synods held in Aachen between 813 and 818 AD legislated against the most flagrant ecclesiastical abuses and irregularities. He also improved his own administration and appointed magistri to attend to the needs of merchants, Jews and other groups in his empire. With Charlemagne buried, he quickly enacted a "moral purge", in which he sent all of his unmarried sisters to nunneries, preferring to forgo their diplomatic use as political brides to the entanglements that powerful brothers-in-law might bring. In 815 AD, Louis had already given his two eldest sons Chlotar and Pippin a share in the government, when he had sent them to govern Bavaria and Aquitaine respectively, though without the royal titles. Now, he proceeded to divide the empire among his three sons and his nephew Bernard of Italy. Instead of treating his sons equally in status and land, he elevated his first-born son Chlotar above his younger brothers and gave him the largest part of the Empire as his share.
Chlotar was crowned co-emperor in Aachen by his father. He was promised the succession to most of the Frankish dominions and would be the overlord of his brothers and cousin. Bernard, the son of Charlemagne's son Pippin of Italy, was confirmed as King of Italy, a title he had been allowed to inherit from his father by Charlemagne. Pippin was proclaimed King of Aquitaine, his territory including Gascony, the march around Toulouse, and the counties of Carcassonne, Autun, Avallon and Nevers. Louis, the youngest son, was proclaimed King of Bavaria and the neighbouring marches. If one of the subordinate kings died, he was to be succeeded by his sons. If he died childless, Chlotar would inherit his kingdom. In the event of Chlotar dying without sons, one of Louis the Pious' younger sons would be chosen to replace him by "the people". Above all, the Empire would not be divided: the Emperor would rule supreme over the subordinate kings, whose obedience to him was mandatory. With this settlement, Louis tried to combine his sense for the Empire's unity, supported by the clergy, for whom Christianity alone could hold the empire together, while at the same time providing positions for all of his sons.
The Revolt of Bernard of Italy
The ordinatio imperii of Aachen had left Bernard of Italy in an uncertain and subordinate position as king of Italy, and he began plotting to declare independence upon hearing of it. Louis immediately directed his army towards Italy, and proceeded to Chalon-sur-Saône. Intimidated by the emperor's swift action, Bernard met his uncle at Chalon and surrendered. He was taken to Aachen, where he was tried and condemned to death for treason. However, Louis had the sentence commuted to blinding, which was duly carried out. Unfortunately, Bernard did not survive the ordeal, dying after two days of agony. The fate of his nephew deeply marked Louis's conscience for the rest of his life.
To eliminate the risk that Charlemagne’s bastard sons might likewise rebel and claim some part of the empire, Louis had his half-brothers Drogo, Hugh and Theoderic tonsured and interned in a monastery. He convoked assemblies across Neustria and Austrasia, where he exacted oaths from his nobles to respect his decisions. In order to conciliate as many factions as possible, in 821 AD Louis recalled Adalhard and Wala from exile, which was part of a wider amnesty that also included others that had fallen from grace because of the rebellion of Bernard of Italy. Adalhard was made abbot of Corbie and Wala replaced Benedict of Aniane, who had died earlier that year, as a court adviser. Likewise, he conferred the vacant see of Metz to his tonsured half-brother Drogo.
In 822 AD, as a deeply religious man and in the hope of securing heavenly blessings for his empire, Louis took a dramatic decision the following year. At a general assembly at his palace of Attigny in the French Ardennes, he performed penance for causing Bernard's death, the tonsuring of his half-brothers and the exile of Adalhard and Wala. This act of contrition had the effect of greatly reducing his prestige as a Frankish ruler, for he also recited a list of minor offences about which no secular ruler of the time would have ever taken any notice.
At the start of Louis's reign, the many tribes – Danes, Obotrites, Slovenes, Bretons and Basques – which inhabited his frontier lands were still in awe of the Frankish emperor's power and dared not stir up any trouble. In 816 AD, however, the Sorbs rebelled and were quickly followed by Slavomir, chief of the Obotrites, who was captured and abandoned by his own people, being replaced by Ceadrag in 818 AD. Soon, Ceadrag too, had turned against the Franks and allied with the Danes, who were to become the greatest menace of the Franks before long.
A greater Slavic menace was gathering on the southeast. There, the duke of Pannonia was harassing the border at the Drava and Sava rivers. The margrave of Friuli was sent out against him, but he died on campaign and the Slovenes invaded his March in 820 AD. In 821 AD, an alliance was made with the duke of Dalmatia and Pannonia was brought to heel. In 824 AD several Slav tribes in the northwestern parts of Bulgaria acknowledged Louis's suzerainty and after Louis was reluctant to settle the matter peacefully with the Bulgarian ruler, the Bulgarians attacked the Franks in Pannonia and occupied their lands in 827 AD.
On the far southern edge of his great realm, Louis had to control the Lombard princes of Benevento whom Charlemagne had never subjugated. On the southwestern frontier, problems commenced early when, in 815 AD the duke of Gascony revolted. He was defeated and replaced. In 820 AD an assembly at Quierzy-sur-Oise decided to send an expedition against the Cordoban caliphate, but the counts in charge of the army were slow in acting and the expedition came to naught.
|Frankish cavalry, Stuttgart Psalter|
The First Civil War (830 AD)
In 818 AD, as Louis was returning from a campaign to Brittany, he was greeted by news of the death of his wife, Ermengarde. Louis had been close to his wife, who had been actively involved in policymaking. It was rumoured that she had played a part in her nephew's death (Bernard of Italy) and Louis himself believed her own death was divine retribution for that event. It took many months for his courtiers and advisors to convince him to remarry. Eventually he married Judith, daughter of Count Welf, the owner of vast domains in Bavaria and Alemannia in 820 AD. The fabled beauty and intelligence of the new empress made Judith soon become virtually all-powerful. She readily persuaded her devoted husband to confer offices and privileges on many of her relations.
After four years of marriage and the birth of a daughter, Judith produced a son, the later Charles the Bald. Between the three sons of his first wife Ermengarde and their ambitious stepmother, strife became inevitable. The birth of Charles the Bald damaged the Partition of Aachen, as Louis's attempts to provide for his fourth son met with stiff resistance from his older sons, and the last two decades of his reign were marked by civil war. At Worms in 829 AD, Louis gave Charles Alemannia, including the home territories of the Welf family: Rhaetia, Alsace and part of Burgundy with the title of king or duke (historians differ on this), thus enraging his son and co-emperor Chlotar, whose promised share was thereby diminished. Louis ordered Chlotar to return to Italy and consigned his court adviser Wala for the second time to political exile at Corbie Abbey. With Wala gone, Louis’ godson Bernard of Septimania was made chamberlain at Louis’ court.
An insurrection by the emperor’s elder sons was soon at hand. With the urging of the vengeful Wala and the cooperation of his brothers, Chlotar accused Judith and Bernard of Septimania of adultery, sorcery and even attempted assassination. The charge of sorcery was a serious one, especially in a period in which magic found growing numbers of practitioners among both the common people and the nobility. A revolt erupted at 830 AD. Pippin of Aquitaine and Louis „the German“ of Bavaria moved to “liberate” the emperor form the almighty influence of Judith and Bernard of Septimania. The imperial chamberlain fled to Barcelona, while Judith withdrew to a monastery in Laon. Louis’ eldest son Chlothar returned form Italy and reversed the decisions taken at Worms and proceeded to rule in his father’s name. Bernard’s followers were deposed, his brother Heribert was blinded, and Judith and her brothers were incarcerated in monasteries in Aquitaine. Louis and his youngest son Charles were held under house arrest at St. Denis and monks, who were to make him get used to monastic life and urge him to take it up himself, supervised the boy.
With the help of the monk Guntbald, however, Louis was able to communicate secretly with his younger sons Pippin and Louis the German. He promised them to increase their shares of the inheritance, prompting them to shift loyalties in favour of their father. At a general council in Nijmegen, near the German lands of the supporters of Louis the Pious, Chlotar was forced to liberate and reinstate the old emperor. Chlotar was pardoned, but disgraced and banished to Italy. His various partisans were consigned to monastic imprisonment.
Judith was obliged to purge herself by a solemn oath and Wala was now indefinitely banished to a monastery on the shores of Lake Geneva. Louis annulled his former testamentary provisions in a new Divisio Regni and rewarded Pippin and Louis the German for their change of heart. The emperor planned to divide the empire into roughly equal kingdoms under Pippin, Louis the German and the young Charles, while Chlotar retained the Italian lands he already possessed. Until the death of the emperor, the kings would owe absolute obedience to their father. Thereafter the kingdoms would be completely independent. The kings were to remain content with defending their respective borders and protecting the church. The unity of the empire and the imperial title had no bearing on the revised partitions.
|Seal of Louis the German|
The Second Civil War (833 AD)
However, Pippin and Louis the German continued to vie for greater power and influence. Still at large, Bernard of Septimania induced Pippin to revolt, which led the emperor to take Pippin’s kingdom and confer it to Judith’s son Charles. Meanwhile Louis the German had attacked Alemannia and had been put down by his father. Chlothar now joined his two brothers against his father and led a massive coalition against Louis the Pious, including Pope Gregory IV, who had been induced to support the cause of family agreement and imperial unity.
Faced at a meeting on the plains of Rothfeld near Colmar in Alsace by a coalition of his sons, the pope and a part of the Frankish clergy, Louis realised he could do little. After a few days of negotiations, more and more parties deserted the emperor and went over to his sons. When the majority had abandoned him, Louis ordered the ones who had remained with him to go over to his sons as well, stating that he did not want anyone to lose life and limb on his account. This locale and event has gone down history as the “Field of Lies”, or Lügenfeld in German, or Campus Mendacii, ubi plurimorum fidelitas exstincta est (“the field of lies, where the fidelity of most has ceased to exist”). Chlotar separated his father from Judith, whom the pope took back to Italy, and then interned him at the monastery of St. Médard in Soissons. Louis’s youngest son Charles was sent for safekeeping to the monastery of Prüm in the German Eifel.
Chlothar convoked an assembly in October 833 AD at Compiègne and from there Chlothar and his clerical followers went to St. Médard to admonish Louis to save his soul by a renewed act of penance. Under constraint, Louis the Pious abased himself before all and avowed to whatever was demanded. In a word, he confessed to every felony unworthy of a Christian king and “spontaneously” renounced his imperial dignity. The bishops, under the leadership of Ebbo of Reims, then imposed on him a debilitating sentence of perpetual penance, for which Chlothar rewarded Ebbo with the Abbey of St. Vaast.
However, many felt that Chlothar had wrongfully exploited and debased his demoralised father and soon enough discord erupted in the camp of the victors. When Pippin and Louis the German realised that Chlothar intended to seize the whole empire and make them his inferiors, they were greatly distressed. Others, who also saw their positions threatened, began to quarrel as well. Because everyone sought his own interest, public affairs were sorely neglected, and the common people became angry when they saw this.
Once again, Bernard of Septimania prompted Pippin to revolt. Louis the German and Louis the Pious, who had regained his liberty and authority in 834 AD, joined their coalition. Chlothar besieged and captured Chalon, where he seized and executed several nobles, including a brother and sister of Bernard of Septimania, but faced with overwhelming odds, he had to acknowledge defeat. His father allowed him to return to Italy, provided he promised to stay there. All of a sudden, the followers of Louis the Pious had returned to him. The emperor returned to Aachen, where Judith rejoined him upon her return from Italy. In early 835 AD, Louis travelled to Metz and was crowned emperor again by his half-brother Bishop Drogo before 44 bishops and other church dignitaries. Ebbo of Reims was deposed.
|Document written in the Carolingian miniscule, Abbey of Corbie, France|
In 837 AD, at the behest of Judith, the emperor conferred all the lands extending from Frisia to the Meuse river to his youngest son Charles (the Bald), who, being 13 years old now, had become of age. At the death of Pippin of Aquitaine a year later, the emperor ignored the claims of Pippin’s two heirs, and instead turned the “vacant” kingdom to Charles. Understandably, this lead to bitter resentment with both Pippin’s heirs and their supporters among the Aquitainian nobility, and Louis the German promptly rose anew in revolt. As a result, the emperor redivided his realm again, giving all of the young king of Bavaria's lands, save Bavaria itself, to Charles. Pippin’s nobles, however, elected Pippin’s son Pippin II, and when the emperor threatened invasion, the third great civil war of his reign broke out.
TheThird Civil War (839 AD)
In the spring of 839, Louis the German invaded Swabia, while Pippin II and his Gascon subjects fought all the way to the Loire. At the same time, the Danes returned to ravage the Frisian coast, sacking Dorestad for a second time. Louis the Pious mustered a massive force and marched against them. They fled, but it would not be the last time they harried the northern coasts. Louis the Pious ordered the construction of a North Sea fleet and the sending of missi dominici into Frisia to establish Frankish sovereignty there.
Chlotar, for the first time in a long while, allied with his father and pledged support at Worms in exchange for a redivision of the inheritance. By a final placitum issued there, Louis gave Bavaria to Louis the German and disinherited Pepin II, leaving the entire remainder of the empire to be divided roughly into an eastern part and a western part. Chlotar was given the choice of which partition he would inherit and chose the eastern part, including Italy, leaving the west for Charles.
The emperor quickly subjugated Aquitaine and had Charles recognised by the nobles and clergy at Clermont in 840 AD. Then, he rushed into Bavaria and forced Louis the German into the Ostmark. The empire now settled as he had declared it at Worms, he returned in July to Frankfurt am Main, where he disbanded the army. The final civil war of his reign was over. After his victorious campaigns, Louis fell ill and died in 840 AD at the palatium of Ingelheim, near Mainz. His surviving sons soon revived their disputes and plunged the realm into another civil war.
The Fourth Civil War (840-843 AD) and the Treaty of Verdun
When the elder Louis died in 840 and Chlothar claimed the whole Empire, Louis allied with his now sixteen-year old half-brother, Charles the Bald, and defeated Chlothar, who had allied with his late brother’s son and nephew Pippin II of Aquitaine, at the Battle of Fontenay in June 841. A year later, in June 842, the three brothers met on an island in the Saône to negotiate a peace, and each appointed forty representatives to arrange the boundaries of their respective kingdoms. This arrangement has become known as the Treaty of Verdun, which was concluded in August 843. It split the Frankish realm into three parts, which were to become the kernels of modern-day France and Germany, with Burgundy and the Low Countries between them. The dispute over the kingship of Aquitaine was not fully settled until 860.
|Treaty of Verdun|
The period of 840-888 AD is mostly no longer regarded as part of the high period of the Carolingian Empire, but rather as the birth pangs of the nascent kingdoms of Germany and France, with Frankfurt am Main and Sélestat in Alsace as the chief seats of the new kingdoms. For contemporary sources, however, the Treaty of Verdun was neither a disintegration of the empire, nor an acknowledgement of proto-national sentiments. Such divisions had been the norm in Frankish politics and culture for centuries. The frontiers between the new realms were planned very precisely to provide an agreeable division of royal resources between the brothers and did not correspond to linguistic or cultural boundaries. Moreover, the Treaty of Verdun was superseded several times before the ninth C. was out. All these divisions were effectively provisional and their contemporary significance was purely dynastic.
Louis the German received the bulk of the lands lying east of the Rhine (Eastern Francia), together with a district around Speyer, Worms and Mainz on the left bank of the river. Louis’ territories included Bavaria, Thuringia, Franconia and Saxony and Louis may truly be called the founder of the German kingdom. His attempts to maintain the unity of the Frankish Empire, however, would prove to be futile. Chlotar would be the last emperor of a united Frankish Empire, until he died in 855 AD. With the exception of the short period of 885-888 AD, after the Treaty of Verdun, Charlemagne’s empire would never be united under one ruler again.
There were endless power struggles between the surviving sons and family members of Louis the Pious. When Louis the German finally died in 876 AD and Charles the Bald in 888 AD, the final split of the former Frankish Empire into a proto-French and proto-German kingdom became a fact. The real turning point of the fortunes of the Carolingian Empire, however, had already come in 875 AD. Between 875 and 885 AD no fewer than eight reigning Carolingians died, at the end of which only one man (Charles the Fat) was left standing.
In 880 AD Louis the Younger, Charles the Fat, Louis III and Carloman II had joined forces against the non-Carolingian usurper and self-made king of Provence Count Boso. Recognising that none of them had a legitimate heir, the four swore oaths to guarantee their future successions to each other’s kingdoms, settling an array of territorial disputes. Contemporary authors were full of optimism for the future of Frankish Empire and its ruling dynasty. Louis III won important victories over the Vikings and Charles the Fat acquired the imperial title from the pope in 881 AD. However, fate intervened before any of the remaining Carolingians had a chance to procreate a legitimate heir.
In 887 AD Charles the Fat was deposed in a palace coup by Arnulf of Carinthia, an illegitimate son of Charles’ late brother Carloman II, and died in 888 AD. In the western part of the former empire, the Carolingian Dynasty formally came to an end when Louis V (the Sluggard) was succeeded by Hugh of Capet, Count of Paris and founder of the Capetian Dynasty, in 987 AD, which would rule France until 1325 AD. The Capetian Dynasty would be succeeded by that of the Valois. Finally, the Bourbons took over in 1589 until Louis XVI was dethroned by the French Revolution in 1789.
The eastern branch of the Carolingians died out with Louis IV (the Child), who was first succeeded by Conrad I from 911 AD to 918 AD and then by Henri I, son of Otto I, Duke of Saxony and father of King Otto I the Great. He established the new German royal dynasty of the Ottonians, who would stay in power until 1024 AD. This dynasty would be followed by the Salians, the Hohenstaufen and the Habsburgs. These dynasties ruled the so-called Holy Roman Empire, which would continue to exist until Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte officially abolished it in 1806 AD.
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