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July 31, 2021

58 – The Empire in Pieces

58 – The Empire in Pieces

Louis the Pious' sons each fight for what is theirs, tearing apart the Frankish world.


The year is 829. Louis, Emperor of the Franks has amended his will. He has taken territory from two sons of his first wife and given the territory of Alemannia to Charles, the only son of his second wife Judith of Bavaria. Simultaneously, he humiliated powerful aristocrats on his frontiers and seized their land. Louis did all this because he wanted to make Francia and the Carolingian dynasty stronger. A fourth son would help administer the empire’s vast territory. Alemannia was just beginning the process of Frankification and having a Carolingian king ruling over it would tie the region more closely to the empire. As per the nobles, Hugh of Tours and Matfrid of Orléans were overly powerful. Their supposed cowardice in the face of foreign wars was enough justification to remove these potential threats. Louis replaced Matfrid with Bernard of Septimania, a weaker noble who was dependent on the emperor for patronage. These strategic moves by emperor Louis appear reasonable, but as is so often the case good intentions lead to disaster. Louis’ sons Lothar and Ludwig refused to cede land to their half-brother. Moreover, when Louis disinherited nobles in West Francia and Italy it undermined Pepin and Lothar’s power. Louis may have been THE Emperor, but Lothar was co-emperor, while Pepin and Ludwig were kings in their own right. Their father gave them the right to administer their own lands, yet breached this understanding an assaulted their honor. Lothar cited all these grievances as he coordinated a rebellion against his father.

In early 830 Louis led an army to Brittany to put down a rebellion. During Lent, Lothar and Pepin launched a coup d’état in Aachen. They seized their mother-in-law and empress, Judith of Bavaria, and Bernard of Septimania. Lothar accused Judith of being a jezebel, deceiving and polluting her husband’s heart. He then slandered Bernard as a jackal who was desperate for power and claimed that Charles was the illegitimate son of their secret love affair. Finally, Lothar condemned his father for killing his nephew Bernard of Italy, and through his wicked actions, corrupting Francia. Lothar claimed that his father’s moral failings meant he had ceded his right to rule. With Aachen under their power the brothers led their armies into West Francia to cut off their father.

When Louis heard about his son’s rebellion he marched east, was surrounded by Pepin and Ludwig’s forces and taken hostage. Realizing his predicament, Louis pardoned the nobles he had dishonored and he offered Pepin and Ludwig more territory at Lothar’s expense. Satisfied, the two brothers accepted and then joined forces against their older brother. Lothar was stunned by his siblings’ about-face and called a general council at Nijmegen to settle the territorial issue. But an army from Austrasia loyal to Louis marched on the city. This, combined with Louis’ original army overawed his sons, who surrendered to their father without a fight, bowed before him and begged forgiveness for their rebellion.

The 830 rebellion shook Francia but Louis emerged from it as strong as ever. Most troops remained loyal to him. There was barely any bloodshed as the Frankish armies tried to intimidate each other into submission rather than actually fight. Louis regained his authority after a short time. He even treated the rebellious nobility kindly. As a show of force, Louis held trials for Hugh, Matfrid and their co-conspirators among the aristocracy at Aix-la-Chapelle, and condemned them to death, but commuted their sentences and restored their lands. Louis tacitly acknowledged he had treated his vassals too harshly and reconciled with them, while establishing his God-given right to rule as he saw fit. Emperor Louis emerged from the rebellion secure in his position, having survived a frightening challenge to his authority.

Yet, someone had to be punished for the revolt. Louis tonsured his most dangerous rival Wala, Charlemagne’s cousin, and exiled Hilduin the abbot of Saint-Denis. The most egregious punishment he saved for his eldest son. Lothar was stripped of his title of emperor and his territory in the heartland around Aachen. Instead, he was banished to northern Italy, where he ruled as a king of that small territory. Lothar’s former holdings in the north were divided between Pepin who ruled West Francia, Ludwig who ruled East Francia, and Charles who ruled Alemannia. Louis thought that this settlement would calm the empire and lead to lasting peace. He could not have been more wrong. Lothar, Pepin and Ludwig were far too ambitious to accept their shares of the empire.

In 832 Pepin refused his father’s summons to Aachen, possibly fearing that his Louis wanted to bring him there so he could safely disinherit him. Louis interpreted this refusal as a sign that Pepin was planning to rebel against him and he raised an army to march southwest. Pepin and his loyalists were backed into a corner in the far southwest of the realm as his father’s army approached. Louis issued a new will, disinheriting Pepin in favor of Charles, while restoring Lothar’s lands to him. Yet, none of the sons were interested in their father’s promises, and before Louis could capture Pepin, Ludwig took advantage of his father’s absence and invaded Alemannia. The stunned Louis turned about and led his armies northeast to defend his youngest son.

Since most correspondence from this period has been lost to time we can only guess what Lothar was doing. Some historians claim that he instigated the rebellions, as the discontented eldest son stirred his brothers to revolt against their father and half-brother. Thus, even as Louis was ready to forgive his eldest, Lothar would have none of it. In 833, Lothar amassed his forces and marched north through the Alps. Louis must have been outraged as he watched Pepin lead a rebellion in the west, Ludwig in the east and now Lothar was moving against the heartland. With no other option, Louis led his forces south to meet Lothar.

But Lothar had a secret weapon: the Pope. Perhaps Gregory IV was genuinely sympathetic to Lothar and his brothers’ desires for territory. Or, maybe he feared that the King of Italy would punish him if he did not support his claims. Or perhaps, Gregory IV genuinely wanted to reestablish peace and didn’t want to support any one side. Either way, Lothar brought the Pope along and used him for his ends. Lothar’s envoys told Louis to let the Pope mediate the conflict. Louis initially refused, fearing what the Pope might say. But after most of the Frankish bishops in his army reassured him of their loyalty he acquiesced. Gregory IV went to Louis and preached peace and reconciliation before returning to Lothar’s camp. The effect was immediate. With the three brothers converging on them, the Pope seemingly on Lothar’s side, and secret bribes and promises to the Emperor’s vassals, Louis’ men defected to his son. When only a fraction remained loyal, Louis dismissed them to prevent Franks from killing their kinsmen. This conflict was known as The Field of Lies, because through deceit and trickery, Louis’ sons betrayed their oaths of loyalty and captured their father.

The three sons immediately set about punishing their father. Lothar held his father captive at Soissons, his brother at Prum and Judith at Tortona. and asserted his dominance over the Frankish Empire as its rightful ruler. At Soissons, he had Louis’ childhood friend Ebbo bishop of Reims, preside over his father’s trial. There he forced his father to confess to a host of crimes, including: breaking his promises for division of the empire, blinding Bernard of Italy, organizing a campaign during Lent, trying people without due process and turning his sons against him rather than keeping peace. They accused him of leading his people to swear contradictory oaths, and accused him of being a bad son to his father Charlemagne by breaking an 813 oath to protect his close relatives. At the trial Louis threw down his sword in front of the altar. Then the presiding bishops deposed him and forbid him from ever taking up office again. Lothar rewarded Ebbo with the monastery of Saint Vaast and gave out gifts to those who had supported him.

Lothar’s blatant corruption and humiliation of his father disgusted Frankish nobles, Pepin and Ludwig. The two brothers realized that the manipulative and ruthless Lothar was their greatest threat. While Lothar had promised to split Alemannia with Ludwig he took the lion’s share. Pepin and Ludwig feared Lothar and decided that their father was the one man who could unite the Franks against him.

In early 834 Ludwig led an army into northern Francia to restore his father. As he did, the nobility revolted against Lothar who retreated south. Frankish forces spilled each other’s blood for the first time as Lothar led a fighting retreat into Burgundy. [Sidenote: Ebbo fled with Lothar but gout crippled him and he hid with a Parisian hermit. Louis’ men found him and tried him. This time Ebbo prostrated himself before the bishops of Francia and admitted to lying and spreading false accusations against Lothar. He was found guilty, his titles were revoked and he was imprisoned at the Abbey of Fulda.] Lothar successfully retreated to Italy where he prepared for war. Louis sent envoys to his son asking for peace but Lothar refused to entreat with him. In 836 Louis reinstated Pepin, Ludwig and Charles, while ceding Italy to his eldest. Ironically, many of Louis’ enemies died that year through no work of his own when plague struck Italy. The leading rebels Wala, Hugh of Tours and Matfrid of Orléans, died, though Lothar recovered from his illness.

The second rebellion of Louis’ reign opened up Francia to raids from the north. Vikings from Denmark sailed up the rivers of Frisia, plundering, conquering and even claiming it as their own. With the Frankish Empire nominally stable, Louis led an army north and successfully repelled the Vikings and made treaties with friendly Danes. The Vikings were probing Francia, searching for any weakness and struck when news of internal political turmoil distracted the Frankish leaders. Under Charlemagne the Danes were mostly an annoyance; under Louis they were a credible threat to northlands. As Louis’ sons tore apart the empire they became a terror that would haunt Europe.

Just as Louis pushed back the Vikings and established peace, tragedy struck. In 838 Pepin died. Upon hearing of his son’s death, Louis decided to bequeath West Francia to his beloved son Charles, the only one who never betrayed him…if only because he was so young. Charles was only 15 at the time, and you can only get involved in so many conspiracies before you’ve had your first kiss. Louis’ new will troubled the other brothers since he had already promised Charles Alemannia and Burgundy; with West Francia Charles was set to inherit roughly half of the Frankish Empire. Moreover, the nobles of Aquitaine did not want to submit to a foreign king and instead elected Pepin’s son, Pepin II as their ruler. But Louis refused to listen to his vassals. The furious Louis amassed an army and marched southwest. As he did, the jealous Ludwig invaded Alemannia. The third major rebellion of Louis’ reign had begun.

In a shocking turn of events, Louis’ most troublesome son Lothar united with his father. The King of Italy joined Louis and they confined Ludwig to Bavaria. Then Louis turned to the West, overthrew Pepin II and installed Charles as King of West Francia in 840. Louis reinstated Lothar, allotting him the central and northern German territory while Ludwig was confined to Bavaria.

With the third rebellion over, Louis retreated to an island near his palace at Ingelheim to rest. The aging emperor, either 61 or 62, fell gravely ill. As one of his last acts, Louis decreed Lothar would become Emperor of the Franks. On the 20th of June 840 Louis died laughing. He had spent the past ten years warring against his sons and was overthrown twice.

Louis was a competent administrator. Under him the Carolingian Renaissance continued and reached all new heights. Frankish culture blossomed and spread, architects built monumental buildings and he spread Salic law across Europe. But Louis could not control his ambitious sons, and consistently angered them by drawing and redrawing their inheritance while simultaneously interfering in their realms. He ignored his vassals’ legitimate grievances and turned friends into enemies. His political ineptitude drained the Frankish Empire even as the Danes made inroads in Frisia.

His death sparked a civil war that tore apart Francia as no other conflict had since the Merovingian period. When Lothar heard of his father’s death, he claimed authority over the whole empire and demanded more land from his brothers. Charles and Ludwig refused, so Lothar cut a deal with Pepin II. Lothar would overthrow Charles and put Pepin II on the throne of West Francia in exchange for his support.

The four members of this dysfunctional family each amassed their armies. Lothar linked up with Pepin II in southwest Francia while Charles and Ludwig met around the Rhineland. By all accounts, these were the largest armed assemblies in Carolingian history. Contemporary annals claim that each side had 150,000 soldiers. While this is no doubt exaggerated, even if both sides had one-fifth that number, it was still roughly 30,000 for each side, a staggering figure given the time. These two sides met at Fontenoy on 25 June, 841. What followed was one of the greatest tragedies of the Carolingian period. One of the main primary sources for the time, The Annals of Fulda, claims, “there was such slaughter on both sides that no one can recall a greater loss among the Frankish people in the present age.” Poets, who so often heralded great battles, mourned that Christians slaughtered each other en masse, and brother slew brother. Most condemnation is heaped on Lothar, who refused entreaties for peace. Yet, there are accounts that after Charles and Ludwig defeated him their armies slaughtered hostages.

Both sides were devastated by the fighting, though Charles and Ludwig emerged the stronger, while Lothar fled to Aachen. In desperation, Lothar appealed to the Saxon Stellinga, a middle caste of free peasants who had lost rights to the nobility after Charlemagne imposed a more feudal system upon them. Yet, Ludwig arrived in Saxony and with the help of the nobility, squashed this uprising. But events in the east drew Ludwig away and Lothar raised another army and marched westward to attack Charles, hoping that while he could not beat both brothers he could pick them off one at a time. Charles fell back to Paris and defended the Seine from Lothar’s crossing. While Charles defended his capital, Lothar’s army decimated the countryside. Lothar’s army was completely unlike the disciplined Frankish corps that his grandfather Charlemagne commanded. Instead, it was a conglomeration of vassals of different identities, among them Thuringians, Saxons, Alemans and more. These disparate peoples were less obedient to Lothar and, like any mercenary army, expected plunder. The Annals of Saint Bertin record that when they reached Le Mans they, “ravaged everything with such acts of devastation, burning, rape, sacrilege and blasphemy that [Lothar] could not even restrain his men from damaging those whom he was planning to visit. He lost no time in carrying off whatever treasures he could find deposited in churches or their strong rooms for safe-keeping.”

Lothar’s campaign of pillage, rape and plunder hurt the people of West Francia, but he did not unseat his half-brother, and in 842 he returned to Aachen. Charles and Ludwig decided that something must be done about their warmongering elder brother. They raised their armies and met at Strasbourg. There the two swore oaths of brotherhood and loyalty to each other and their vassals swore not to support either of the brothers if they launched a war against the other. The text of the kings’ primary oaths, called the Oaths of Strasbourg, still exists and is notable because it is the first still-surviving use of Old French and Old German.

Charles and Ludwig sent envoys to Lothar calling for peace but he refused to meet them and moved to a castrum, or fortified base, at Koblenz. The two younger brothers moved so fast that they caught Lothar off-guard. Lothar fled from his brother’s sudden fury back to Aachen which he ransacked of all its valuables, depleting the great treasuries and religious sites. The would-be emperor fled with his men who he desperately paid by hacking apart the great silverworks into pieces. Yet, his vassals understood Lothar’s dire straits and many deserted him. Lothar led whatever men remained to him and marched south to Lyon, while his brothers assimilated his dissidents into their armies. Realizing his plight, Lothar sued for peace. Charles and Ludwig recognized that further fighting would deplete their armies and resources and so the three brothers agreed to meet at Metz that October to discuss dividing up the empire.

In August 843 the three brothers signed one of the most pivotal documents in medieval European history: the Treaty of Verdun. Charles received West Francia, which today includes northern Spain, and 2/3rds of modern France (minus Brittany) with the eastern 1/3rdof modern France outside his kingdom. Ludwig received East Francia, which is all the Carolingian lands east of the Rhine river, which today is mainly Germany and parts of Austria. Finally, Lothar ruled over Lotharingia, all the lands in between the West and East Francia, which today would be the modern Netherlands in the north, most of Belgium east of the coast, Luxembourg, most of what is today Eastern France, Switzerland and northern Italy. Finally, Lothar was granted the title of Emperor, though this was stripped of any real power and only had symbolic influence. Some historians have referred to the Treaty of Verdun as “Europe’s birth certificate,” which is quite a stretch, but it did lay the foundations for two of Europe’s most influential countries: France and Germany. West Francia contained French-speaking people and formed the core of France. East Francia was filled with Germanic speakers, and this territory became a series of German entities, first the Holy Roman Empire, then numerous states such as Prussia and Austria, and eventually Germany.

The Treaty of Verdun also signaled the breakup of the Carolingian Empire, though this was not evident at the time. In theory, these three states were all part of a unified Frankish country ruled by the descendants of Pepin the Short. But in practice they were all separate countries who warred against each other for dominance, and whose people drifted apart linguistically and culturally. Lothar and his descendants claimed to rule over a united empire and it did briefly reunite under Charles the Fat, but the forces pulling it apart were stronger than those which held it together. Thus, the treaty divided West from East and set up a battleground between the two, whose territories formed their own countries or were absorbed into France or Germany.

The civil wars launched by Louis’ sons devastated Europe. For the first time in roughly a century, Franks spilled Frankish blood on a grand scale. They broke apart the empire. They ransacked each others’ lands, destroyed villages, slaughtered innocents, plundered churches, monasteries and palaces. Yet, of all these things the absolute worst was that their constant wars left their borders open to raids from Vikings in the north and Muslim pirates in the south. The Annals of Saint Bertin record major assaults into Francia nearly every single year since Louis’ death until they end in 882. In 841 the annals read: “Danish pirates sailed down the Channel and attacked Rouen, plundered the town with pillage, fire and sword, slaughtered or took captive the monks and the rest of the population, and laid waste all the monasteries and other places along the banks of the Seine, or else took large payments and left them thoroughly terrified.”

In 842: “A fleet of Northmen made a surprise attack at dawn on the emporium called Quentovic, plundered it and laid it waste, capturing or massacring the inhabitants of both sexes. They left nothing in it except for those buildings which they were paid to spare. Moorish pirates sailed up the Rhone to near Arles, ravaging everything on their route, and got away again completely unscathed, their ships loaded with booty.”

And in 843: “Northmen pirates attacked Nantes, slew the bishop and many clergy and lay people of both sexes, and sacked the city. Then they attacked the western parts of Aquitaine to devastate them too. Finally they landed on a certain island, brought their households over from the mainland and decided to winter there in something like a permanent settlement.”

Charlemagne dealt with occasional Viking raids which he scared off and he even put vassals in positions of power in Denmark. His son Louis fought the Danes and planned an invasion. Then Louis’ sons reversed all these gains. They slew each other, depleting their armies and exposing the empire to continual raiding and even piece-meal invasion. In this manner, Charlemagne’s grandsons destabilized the empire he had spent his life creating.

In the following episodes we’ll focus on West Francia. I debated following all the kingdoms, since they were still ruled by Franks. Moreover, it’s only in hindsight that we can see that the Treaty of Verdun ended the Carolingian Empire. Much like how the Roman Empire continued on well past 476 as an idea and a series of traditions, so too did the Carolingian Empire exist in peoples’ minds even after it was divided. Yet, the empire did fail. Charlemagne’s dream of a vast Frankish, Christian Europe crumbled. While the Franks influenced the peoples of Lotharingia and Germany, these lands developed their own histories and cultures. This podcast will leave the political and cultural development outside West Francia, though this won’t be the last we hear of them. All those oaths of brotherhood that Ludwig swore were a bad joke. Lothar and Ludwig’s ambitions remain unsated and Charles will have to hold on to his kingdom while fighting against his two brothers, the claimant Pepin II, and raids from Danish Vikings Muslim pirates.


The Annals of Saint Bertin, Translated and annotated by Janet L Nelson, 1991.

The Annals of Fulda, Translated and annotated by Timothey Reuter, 1992.

Matthew Innes and Simon MacLean, The Carolingian World, 2011

Janet L. Nelson, ‘Violence in the Carolingian world and the ritualization of ninth-century warfare,’ in: Violence and Society in the Early Medieval West, ed. Guy Halsall (Woodbridge, 1998) 90-107.