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Article Published January 17, 2000

Charlemagne's Successors
By Xenia Stanford

The size of the empire built up by Charlemagne made it difficult to control. Even during Charlemagne's time the threat to the borders of the vast kingdom was ever-present and only prevented due to the personal agreements between King Charles the Great and those who owed him or feared him. After his death in 814 AD some of this loyalty was passed to his first successor but the internal conflicts caused more harm than the external threats.


Originally Charlemagne had determined that his three legitimate sons would divide rule of the empire after his death. In 806 his will awarded the following lands and titles: to Charles - co-Emperor of the Franks; to Pepin - King of Italy; and to Louis - King of Aquitaine (he had been regent there since 781). However, Pepin died in 810 and Charles in 811 leaving Louis as sole heir. Thus in 813 Louis as the only remaining legitimate son was named co-Emperor of an intact Francia.

Although he called Louis I his co-Emperor, Charlemagne retained control with Louis acting as a lesser or apprentice king until Charlemagne's death the following year. Then Louis was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 814 and began his lifelong struggle to keep the kingdom intact until his own death in 840.

Louis I acquired two appellations during his life. He was known as Louis "Le Débonnaire" ("the Gentle") and also as Louis "Le Pieux ("the Pious") (not to be confused with the later King of France, Louis IX who was called Saint Louis).

He was called pious for his continuation and improvement of his father's tithing, other church-related laws and papal support. However, his other nickname "the Gentle" certainly seems to have been a misnomer as he kept the throne intact through very bloodthirsty and devious ways.

One of his first acts after his father's death was to commit all of Charlemagne's daughters (who were all unmarried but lead licentious lives) to a nunnery. Next he sent Charlemagne's three illegitimate sons to monasteries. The Church may have considered this a "moral purge" as Louis the Pious termed it but in truth he undoubtedly was trying to prevent any rival claims to the throne.

However, early in his rule Louis I did have to quash a rebellion in Italy and in another in Bavaria in 817. Louis I is reputed to have dealt with these dissenters, especially Radbod of Bavaria, mercilessly and particularly cruelly to set an example.

Unfortunately Louis was to lose control of his kingdom not to strangers but to his own sons. Following the example of his own father, he named a co-Emperor before his death and willed lands and titles to his other sons.

In 817 he named his eldest son Lothaire (also spelled Lothair or Lothar) co-Emperor and King of Italy. To his two younger sons, he granted Aquitaine to Pepin and Bavaria to Louis Le Germanique ("the German"), who was also known as Louis of Bavaria or Louis II. (This numbered name is confusing since there were others who used the name Louis II. Therefore, I will use always use the name Louis "the German" in reference to the son of Louis I or Louis Le Pieux.)

This self-imposed division of the empire was short-lived as the birth of a fourth son started a family feud over rule of the various territories.


After his first wife Irmengard died, Louis I married Judith of Bavaria and had a son in 823 whom they named Charles (later known as Charles "the Bald"). Louis, of course, wished to entitle his latest son to similar lands and positions as his first three. However, this meant taking away some of what he had given to his older three in order to pass on something to their half-brother.

The older brothers would have none of it. The eldest especially caused a great deal of conflict since it seemed the father favoured the infant Charles over him. Tired of the battles with his oldest son, in 829 Louis I removed Lothaire's title as co-Emperor and banished him to Italy.

Lothaire's full brothers backed him and summoned an army against their father. The brothers won and reinstated Lothaire to his original position. Meanwhile they stripped their father of all his titles, kept him and Charles under house guard and sent their stepmother Judith to a nunnery.

Later Pepin and Louis "the German" unsure of their rights under their oldest brother's supremacy restored their father to the throne and his wife to his side. This time Louis I revoked all of Lothaire's titles and claims - including that of Italy giving them to young Charles instead. He also refused to allow Lothaire to set foot in the imperial court without express prior permission.

Emperor Louis did not revoke the positions of the two sons who returned him to the throne nor did he reward them for their late loyalty. Pepin of Aquitaine was the first to display his unhappiness with this obvious favouritism to the child Charles. Thus he revolted and was joined by his brother Louis of Bavaria ("the German") in 832. Emperor Louis declared Pepin, the instigator of this rebellion, devoid of all titles but since he could not enforce it, his two sons maintained their rule and revolt.

Lothaire once again joined forces with his brothers and they turned Emperor Louis's generals and even Pope Gregory IV against their father. The brothers triumphed sending the captured Louis I and Charles to prison and Judith to exile in Italy under Lothaire's watch.

The following year, the sons once again relented and returned their imprisoned and exiled family members. In 835 Louis I was re-crowned as Holy Roman Emperor with the original lands and titles restored to the three sons by his first marriage. It looked like the young Charles might remain disenfranchised until Pepin's death in 838. Then Louis I tried to name Charles as Pepin's successor in Aquitaine and the family truce was once again dissolved.

The first problem was Pepin I had willed his territory and title to his son. The court of Aquitaine defied Emperor Louis and honoured Pepin's wishes by crowning the son as Pepin II. The Pope and the older brothers did not recognize either Charles or Pepin II as the true ruler of Aquitaine.

Next Louis I turned over the eastern half of his empire to Lothaire and named his youngest as Charles II, the sole ruler of the western half. Thus he practically shut out Louis "the German" who needless to say was not amused.

The quarrels and strife continued for two more years until Louis I died in 840. Then a full-fledged civil war broke out among his survivors for control.


Long before Charlemagne, the Merovingians divided the Frankish empire into Neustria (Western territory) and Austrasia (Eastern territory). Neustria was roughly the equivalent of modern France and Austrasia was the equivalent of later Germany. Now what Charlemagne had joined together was once again wrest asunder by his grandsons.

Once united against their father and half-brother, Lothaire and Louis "the German" now struggled for control against each other and half-brother Charles II. When it looked like Lothaire was going to succeed in obtaining sole rule of a united kingdom, Louis "the German" joined forces with his former sibling archrival Charles II.

In 841 the two managed to defeat Lothaire at the Battle of Fontenot (Fontenoy). Charles II and Louis "the German" renewed their alliance in 842 under the Oath of Strasbourg and the following year forced Lothaire to sign the Treaty of Verdun.

Through this treaty, Charles II or Charles "the Bald" became Emperor of West Francia or "Francia Occidentalis" (roughly equivalent to modern France) and Louis "the German" was crowned King of East Francia or "Francia Orientalis" (now Germany and Austria).

However, they did not shut out Lothaire from sharing the rule. He was named Emperor of the "Middle Kingdom" which consisted of lands fought over by the other two kingdoms ever since. His territory, which included the Low Countries, ran from the North Sea through Lorraine and Alsace to Burgundy (Bourgogne) and Provence and over to most of Italy. This was a landmark decision in establishing the three major states which were to become France, Germany and Italy with the smaller lands that were to struggle for independence as their larger neighbours fought over them.


Although his brothers allowed him to retain the imperial title, by 855 Lothaire had enough of warring even against his own kin and abdicated to become a monk. Before he retired as Emperor of the "Middle Kingdom" he subdivided his lands among his sons. One son was given the eastern part of Italy and another who was called Louis II was granted the title of King of the West and the lands on the western portion of Italy nearest West Francia. Soon after this the Saracens invaded the eastern part of Italy and threatened Rome. Pope Gregory IV appealed to Louis II who stopped the spread of the Muslims and ruled this portion too until his death.

Another son, named Lothaire like his father, obtained a strip of land that he then called Lotharingia. His small kingdom lay in the oft-disputed territory between West and East Francia. This Lothaire, son of the retired monarch, died in 869 and Charles II rushed to annex Lotharingia before another heir could be named or before his brother Louis "the German" grabbed it. Meanwhile Pepin II, son of Pepin I, continued to try to rule Aquitaine even after the Treaty of Verdun gave his kingdom to Charles "the Bald". King Charles formally recognized Pepin's rule of Aquitaine but like the rest of his family, Pepin II showed no appreciation or loyalty in return. In 860 with the support of the nobles of Burgundy, Pepin II asked Louis "the German", ruler of East Francia, to invade West Francia with his help and depose Charles.

Of course, his uncle Louis took him up on his offer and waged war against his other uncle Charles II. Only after pressure from the Pope who supported Charles II or "the Bald" as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, did Louis "the German" and Pepin II cease and desist. Charles did not seem to take revenge or try to invade their territories until Pepin II died in 870. With this nephew was out of the way, Charles "the Bald" tried to seize control of his lands before anyone else could be named ruler but Louis "the German" was determined to get his fair share. Rather than fighting this time the two half-brothers reached agreement in 870 by The Treaty of Mersen, which divided the "Middle Kingdom" between West and East Francia. By this treaty the territories covered today by the Low Countries (e.g. Netherlands and Belgium) and Lorraine went to West Francia (France) and Alsace and the left bank of the Lower Rhine went to East Francia (Germany).

The rest of the Kingdom of Lothaire (equivalent to modern Italy) remained under Louis II, son of Lothaire I, until his death in 875.


With The Treaty of Mersun, Charles "the Bald" retained the imperial crown (Holy Roman Emperor) but one area remained a thorn in his side. The last stronghold was that of Louis II. When Louis II died in 875, Louis "the German" and Charles "the Bald" again struggled for control. Both were unsuccessful in the eastern part of Louis II's kingdom as the Muslims regained control. However, Charles won the former Empire of the West, the western portion of Italy, which had been given to Louis II in his father Lothaire I's original retirement disposition.

However, this latest victory, like the others, was not to spell peace. Both Charles "the Bald" and Louis "the German" were to wage continuing battles within their borders against their own heirs.

Louis "the German" fought off revolts by his sons: Carloman of Bavaria, Louis "the Younger" and Charles "the Fat". In 876 he died suddenly, likely a victim of patricide.

In 877 his half-brother Charles "the Bald" was murdered by poison with his own son (another Louis II) as a suspect. This Louis II continued his father's rule for two years before he too met his demise.


Beside the struggle among family, the brothers had faced other internal conflicts caused by the increasing power of manor lords. Their lifetimes saw a strengthening of feudalism at the expense of central control. The threats from external forces, especially the Viking Norsemen, necessitated the Edict of Mersun in 847 in which it was decreed that every man must have a feudal lord to serve and protect.

Thus the domain and power of the feudal lord were strengthened while they observed the weakening of the Carolingian kings who were constantly engaged in internal battles for control over their kin. While so engaged the Carolingians were distracted from the tide of invaders, such as the Muslims in the Kingdom of Lothaire, the Norsemen in West Francia and the Danes and Slavs in East Francia.

The nobles were fed up with the powerless but control hungry Carolingian kings and began electing fellow counts to the thrones of various regions of the former Kingdom of the Franks. Gradually the Carolingian dynasty lost rule: first in Italy, then in East Francia by 911 and finally in West Francia in 987.

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