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July 10, 2021

57: The First Louis

57: The First Louis

How will Louis the Pious rule the great empire left by his legendary father Charlemagne?


Fifty-seven episodes and we’ve finally reached our very first Louis. I consider that to be a fast pace given that when we first started the podcast France was mostly ice. Now, let’s talk about the name Louis for a moment, because you can learn a lot from a name. I say that this is the first ‘Louis’ but Charlemagne’s son and successor was actually named after the first Merovingian king Clovis. You might ask, “How do you get Louis from Clovis?” Well first, the English way of pronouncing ‘Clovis’ is probably not the original pronunciation which was probably pronounced more like ‘cLo-vEes,’ with the ‘CL’ coming out as one sound, while the ‘s’ at the end of the name was very soft. Linguists find that overwhelmingly over time hard sounds become softer as they are easier to pronounce. In this case, the Franks probably dropped the short, hard ‘C’ so ‘CL’ became ‘L.’ Then the end of ‘Clovis’ became the softer ‘uis.’ So the hard ‘Cl’ became the soft ‘L’ and the hard ‘vis’ became the soft ‘uis.’ Hence, Louis is the French version of the name Clovis, and all French kings until Louis XVIII are actually named after the first king of a united Francia, Clovis.

But wait there’s more! Because while the Frankish ‘Clovis’ became ‘Louis’ in Old French, it became ‘Ludwig’ in Old German. The German-speaking part of the empire similarly dropped the short, hard ‘c’ at the beginning. Then they added a ‘d’ in the middle, in keeping with the Latin iteration of the name [Chlodovech]. Finally, instead of replacing ‘vis’ with ‘uis’ as in Old French, the Germans replaced the ‘vis’ with ‘vig.’ Hence, the Frankish ‘Clovis’ became ‘Ludwig’ in German.

Now, you might be thinking, “Gary, this is pedantic, even for you.” True, but language is important. And through this name we can see how the Carolingian Empire is evolving and fragmenting. In the west, Old French was replacing Frankish while in the east it was Old German. Charlemagne’s son was born in the traditional Frankish kingdom before its incredible expansion, and so Charlemagne named him Louis. When Louis became Emperor of the Franks he had his own son, also named ‘Louis’ but since Louis the German spent most of his time in the eastern fringes, he was probably called Ludwig by his vassals.

Looking forward a little, the 843 Treaty of Verdun which divided up the Carolingian Empire was written in Old French and Old German. Charlemagne had created an incredible empire which was united through Frankish military organization and skillful administration. But culturally, it was a hodge-podge of different peoples, with the Franks in the west, Italians in the south, Germans in the east and smaller groups scattered throughout. Patronage of artists, architects and poets during the Carolingian Renaissance started the process of uniting the empire under one communal Frankish identity. However, even as people across the empire recognized they were Franks they simultaneously kept their ethno-linguistic identities. So, a person could be a German Frank or an Italian Frank. This semi-unity kept the empire together from below as nobles accepted the legitimacy of the Carolingian house and the Frankish Empire. But when the Carolingians launch their civil wars these cultural differences will became more important. Political divisions divided the empire between West Francia and East Francia. In 885 Charles the Fat tried to reunite the entire empire but regional differences were so deeply entrenched that only a great leader could have united these disparate peoples and he was not up to the task. There’s a lot in a name, and Louis means more than most, especially in France.

Alright, let’s get to Louis’ actual reign. Louis was born in 778 and made King of Aquitaine when he was 2 or 3 years old. When Louis turned 16 Charlemagne gave him four villas. It’s good to be the boss’ son. But these mansions were part of his father’s mission. He wanted each of his sons to grow up in a different region of the empire, ingratiate themselves with the nobles and most importantly, fight border wars. Louis fulfilled his father’s wishes and warred against Al-Andalus, taking Barcelona and putting down Basque revolts. In 806 Charlemagne issued his will and as the youngest surviving, legitimate son, Louis was getting the shaft. His eldest brother Charles was set to inherit the heartland and become Emperor, while his other brother Pepin would inherit the rich and religiously important northern Italy. But fate has a special place for the youngest brother, especially if he’s a Frank. In 810 Pepin died of disease while fighting in the swamps around Venice. Then in 811 Charles died of a stroke. After grieving his sons, the old and wearied Charlemagne made Louis co-emperor in 813, and decreed he would inherit the entire empire, save for Italy, which went to Pepin’s son Bernard.

On 28 January 814 Charlemagne died. Louis was at his villa at Doué-la-Fontaine in the far west when he heard the news. After a month of travel he arrived at Aachen where he received a respectful, if cold welcome. The nobility universally recognized Louis as their emperor but that didn’t mean they liked him. He had spent nearly his entire life in the southwest and hardly any time at all at his father’s court. He spoke with a western accent, dressed like a western Frank; he was an outsider, and he knew it.

When he arrived Louis decided that if he wasn’t going to be loved then he had to be feared. He denounced Aachen as a den of sexual impiety and proclaimed that he would cleanse the empire, starting with a purge of the court. He started with his sisters who were among the chief powerbrokers at the palace. Charlemagne had kept his daughters from marrying to keep them from producing offspring which might rival his sons. Instead, he kept them at court where they became gatekeepers to the Emperor. Since they were forbidden to marry they carried on affairs with nobles. Louis denounced their infidelity as a sin and sent his sisters off to nunneries across the empire. Next, he sent guards to search nobles’ villas for prostitutes and had the noblemen publicly flogged for sexual impropriety. Louis expelled his father’s cousins Wala and Adalrad alongside other ‘morally suspect’ aristocrats and replaced them with loyalists. Among those loyalists, was a young serf named Ebbo, who he soon made the archbishop of Reims.

All this was done in the name of God. Like his ancestors Charles Martel, Pepin the Short and his own father, Louis understood the power of religion and used it to assert his authority over Aachen. Like his father, Louis claimed he was a moral ruler on a divine mission to uplift his people. Yet, even as he emulated Charlemagne, Louis had to denounce him and his subordinates as immoral so that he could act against them. Louis destroyed the Germanic pagan artifacts and texts his father had collected. He sponsored poets who criticized Charlemagne’s promiscuity, with one poet going so far as to depict him in purgatory with a beast gnawing on his genitals. His missi, the royal agents sent to the provinces, recorded widespread corruption wherever they went. Furthermore, Louis made a monastery for himself three miles from Aachen where he could spiritually retreat from the ‘wicked’ court.

It’s hard to know whether Louis truly believed his father’s court was a pit of vipers, or if he merely used these condemnations as pretext for seizing power. As in most cases with rulers, Louis probably said things that benefitted him and came to believe them later, especially as his priests and functionaries told him exactly what he wanted to hear in order to curry favor with him. Louis’ actions earned him the moniker ‘the Pious.’ However, Louis’ attempts to portray himself as a holy man and his father as a conqueror are hugely overblown. As Matthew Innes and Simon MacLean note, Louis warred against the Moors and Charlemagne was a deeply pious man. Both liked to hunt. Father and son were quite similar and Louis’ attempts to differentiate himself are mostly propaganda. The Carolingians were pretty good at lying. Much more than the wicked, awful, incompetent, completely irredeemable Merovingians.

Once Louis had done away with his enemies he set about securing the empire. In 815 he gave his 19 year-old son Lothar governorship of Bavaria, and his 17 year-old son Pepin governorship of Aquitaine. Again, it’s good to be the boss’ son. However, he did not crown either of them as kings to keep them from challenging his own power. Furthermore, Louis had the Pope recrown him Emperor at Reims in 816. All this was pageantry to show the nobles of Europe that he was the sole, legitimate leader of the entire Frankish realm. It was a way to cow his own vassals while also undermining his nephew Bernard, the King of Italy who claimed the right to rule as an autonomous monarch, albeit within a united Frankish empire. Louis refused to acknowledge Bernard’s legitimacy and summoned him to Aachen every year to pay homage.

On 9 April 817 Louis was nearly killed by an act of God while celebrating Holy Week. Louis led a procession from the chapel when the gallery collapsed beneath their feet. Louis survived, but this event had a deep impact on the emperor, who immediately set out a plan for dynastic succession. His son Lothar would become emperor of a united Frankish Empire and would receive a long strip of land that stretched from northern Germany into Italy. His second son Pepin would receive Aquitaine, while the youngest son Ludwig would get the east. Emperor Louis immediately elevated his sons from governors to kings of their respective regions, while Lothar became co-emperor. Furthermore, his decrees laid out a detailed succession plan in case any of the brothers died. But none of his meticulous plans are going to be particularly important, since whoever holds the reigns of power will assert it, regardless of Louis’ wishes.

Importantly, Louis did not mention Bernard in the inheritance and instead assumed the right to pass on Italy to his eldest son Lothar. Bernard was furious and so he marched north to negotiate with his uncle. In response, Louis sent an armed retinue to seize his nephew at Châlons, claiming that Bernard had crossed the Alps to start a rebellion against him. They took Bernard to Aix-la-Chapelle, tried him and condemned him to death. As a show of mercy, Louis commuted the sentence from death to blinding. Louis’ men gouged out Bernard’s eyes, but they pressed too deep. After two days of excruciating pain, Bernard died. Meanwhile, one of his courtiers, the great poet Theodulf whose poems I read in the Carolingian Renaissance episode, was imprisoned and died shortly thereafter.

By 818 things were looking good for Emperor Louis. He asserted his authority over his vassals and successfully tonsured his rivals without incurring rebellion. He retook Italy from his nephew. Meanwhile he put down revolts by his northeastern Slavic vassals and his Basque vassals, and aided the Sardinians in their defense against Islamic invasion.

Things took a somber turn when on 3 October 818 Louis’ wife Irminigard died. After a short grieving period, Louis went out shopping for a politically-suitable marriage. The following year Louis married Judith of Bavaria, an aristocrat with extensive connections in Alemannia, a Germanic region just north of the Alps. Louis used her connections to further Frankify the region, and the first Frankish counts appear there around this time. In exchange, Judith and her brothers became powerful members at court.

Louis was feeling so powerful in 822 that he welcomed back some of the nobles he had originally purged, including his father’s cousins Wala, Adalhard and his illegitimate half-brothers back to court. Finally, Louis travelled to Attigny to perform public penance for Bernard’s death, alongside his other sins. This public ritual emulated the Roman Emperor Theodosius’ penance in 390, as Louis sought to right the wrongs of his realm. But Louis planted a seed of discord that would grow to divide the empire. In 823 Judith gave birth a son, Charles. Charles’ half-brothers eyed him suspiciously, worried that their father might cut into their inheritance to accommodate him.

However, the infant Charles wasn’t yet a problem, and Louis’ reign was still secure. For the next few years Louis engaged in a number of wars, most of them successful. He and his generals scored victories against the Bretons, Al-Andalus and rebellious Slavs. On the Danish frontier, Louis organized numerous invasions of southern Denmark to put his ally Harald Klak on the throne and even made him co-ruler in 823. However, by 827 Klak was exiled, leading to new wars. The last in these string of victories was Corsica, where Frankish Italians, led by Boniface II of Tuscany, successfully attacked Islamic forces and established a fortress in the south which became a town, today known as Bonifacio.

By 828, fate turned against Louis. The Bulgars ravaged the Pannonian frontier, while an army from Al-Andalus pillaged the countryside around Barcelona and Girona. Louis blamed nobles’ cowardice for both invasions. In the west, he accused two counts, Hugh of Tours and Matfrid of Orléans, of purposefully delaying sending reinforcements until the Spanish Muslims had already left. Louis stripped Hugh and Matfrid of their titles and redistributed their lands. This was a mistake. Firstly, these two were remarkably powerful lords; Hugh was part of a prestigious Alsatian family whose daughter had married Lothar. Matfrid was a gatekeeper to the Emperor and possibly the second most-powerful person in the empire. To make things worse, Louis was interfering in the affairs of his children. Louis set up his sons as kings across the empire, to rule as they wished, with their own governments, while he ruled the heartland. By deposing his sons’ vassals, he humiliated them and undermined their authority. This disastrous year ended with famines and natural disasters, the combination of which forced Louis to convene councils to divine God’s will and try to turn his wrath away from the Franks.

In 829 Louis made what was probably his worst mistake. Without consulting his sons, he amended his will. He took land from Lothar and Ludwig to create the subkingdom of Alemannia. This series of outrages was too much for Louis’ sons who united in rebellion against their father. Numerous aristocrats and bishops allied with the brothers, since they had scores to settle after watching their family members lose their lands, titles and endure public humiliation at the Emperor’s hands.

Next time, we’ll begin the first of many civil wars that will tear apart the Frankish Empire.


Outro: In case you hadn’t guessed, Lothar wasn’t an original name either. Just as we got Louis from Clovis, Clothar became Lothar. I’ll try to be less pedantic in the next ep. No promises.



Encyclopedia Britannica

Matthew Innes and Simon MacLean, The Carolingian World, 2011.

Royal Frankish Annals