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59: Charlemagne Junior
Chapter 1: The Sack of Paris
Charlemagne’s Francia was a brief experiment by an incredible conqueror who wanted to create a Christian Europe led by the Franks. His grandsons aimed to continue that dream, though each man’s conviction that he alone should rule ensured its failure. After the 843 Treaty of Verdun, the empire divided into three regnums, or areas of rule. Ludwig ruled the east, Lothar ruled the center and Charles le Chauve, in English, Charles the Bald, ruled the west. Historians refer to these respective regnums as East Francia, Lotharingia, and West Francia, though contemporaries did not refer to them as separate countries. Charles was not called “King of West Francia;” his official title was “King by the Grace of God,” and his regnum was called, “Charles’ Kingdom.” Likewise, Ludwig was only called “King of Germania” in West Francia. In his own kingdom he was “King of the Eastern Franks.” Many contemporaries did not believe the empire split into three different countries. They envisioned these lands as belonging to a single country known as the Frankish Empire, which was organized into three political structures. The Frankish Empire was meant to endure, while the regnums were temporary creations which lasted as long as their rulers. Despite this, the divisions between regnums will become permanent fixtures, whose borders impact Europe to this day, though they have shifted somewhat. The West Francia carved out in 843 was home to the Frankish ethnolinguistic group, and its territory forms the bulk of modern-day France. Meanwhile East Francia was then composed of Germans and forms a large part of modern-day Germany.
Now, let’s talk about the main character of today’s episode: Charles the Bald. Now you can ask the most obvious question: was he really bald? Honestly, we don’t know. It’s possible he went bald later in life. Some historians argue that Charles was actually incredibly hairy and writers called him ‘bald’ as a joke; kind of like how you call a big guy ‘Tiny’ or a three-legged dog ‘Lucky.’ In any case we are entering into an era of European history when so many figures share the same name that chroniclers give them nicknames to differentiate them. In this episode alone there are at least five major figures named Louis, all of which Charles is related to: his father, his half-brother, his nephew, his other nephew, and his son. Meanwhile Charles was named after his grandfather Charles, who was in turn named after his father Charles. Charles continued this tradition by naming one of his sons ‘Charles.’ Not to be confused with his nephew and future rival Charles, or his other nephew and future ruler of West Francia, Charles. The Franks were very uncreative with names to put it mildly. Hence, historians tell them apart by their nicknames, and to make things even easier I’m going to go the extra mile and use linguistic differences. Hence, why we’re calling Louis the German, “Ludwig,” his son “Ludwig the Younger,” and Lothar’s son Louis, “Louis of Italy.” With all of that housecleaning out of the way, let’s unravel the contentious, violent and glorious rule of Charles the Bald.
I’ve mentioned Charles before but only as a background figure and an existential threat to his half-brothers, who worried that their mutual father Louis the Pious would give some of their land to his new son. Charles is unique as he is the first medieval European king whose exact birthday is recorded. High infant mortality meant chroniclers did not usually record children’s births in the years they occurred. Charles was born on 13 June 823 east of the Rhine to Judith of Bavaria. His native language was German, though he was educated at court, where Frankish nobles also spoke Old French. Additionally, his tutors taught him Latin, so by the time he ended his education he could speak both the major languages of the Empire and the clerical/administrative language. His father Louis loved him and took him with him wherever he could. Through these experiences Charles learned how to pose and act as a king from an early age. When he was only three years old Charles attended the baptism of the Viking lord Harald Klak. At four years old Louis gave Charles the regnum of Alemannia. Louis took his six year old son to his regnum and had him participate in ceremonies introducing him as the new ruler. As a boy the young Charles was often called Carolus Junior, or Charles Junior, while his grandfather Charlemagne was Charles Senior. Charles carried this moniker throughout his life and fostered his connections to his legendary namesake.
In 829 Louis hired one of Europe’s greatest scholars, the monk and poet Walahfrid Strabo, as Charles’ personal tutor. Strabo’s teachings melded with Charles’ life experiences to make him a deeply pious man. Throughout his life Charles was constantly attacked by his brothers, but he always escaped from danger. Naturally, he attributed his success in the face of adversity to divine providence and the intervention of the saints. In 832 Louis took Aquitaine from his rebellious son Pippin and gave it to Charles, prompting the second major revolt of his reign. At just ten years old, Charles was captured by his brothers who exiled him to the monastery at Prüm. For the rest of his life, Charles held a grudge against his brothers who he claimed treated him as a criminal of high crimes.
In 838 Pippin died and Charles became a man at 15. The following year Louis invited his sons Lothar and Charles to Worms for a redivision of the empire. He confined Ludwig to the east and carved out the rest of his land in two parts: West and Middle Francia. As the eldest son, Lothar got to pick which realm he wanted, and he chose the middle, which included the Frankish heartland around Aachen. Meanwhile Charles, who had German roots and spoke German as his first language, became king in the west. This might seem like an awkward fit, but Charles spoke Old French fluently. Moreover, he had travelled in the west and had nobles swear allegiance to him. Lothar was convinced that Middle Francia was clearly superior to West Francia, but Charles was happy with his new regnum. Charles viewed it as his father’s homeland, the home of the Franks since Clovis. Moreover, the West had old Roman roads, large cities like Paris, and substantial monasteries. Finally, Brittany and Spain were weaker than his own domains and were vulnerable to raids. Charles did not view West Francia as a consolation prize, but a regnum worthy of a king. There was one major downside though: his dead half-brother Pippin had a still-surviving son, also named Pippin II, who claimed the kingdom for his own and would remain a thorn in Charles’ side for over a decade.
Charles’ life wasn’t just fighting for survival against his half-brothers. As king one of his primary responsibilities was to produce heirs. As soon as his regnum was halfway secure he sought out a wife who would further his political ambitions. That lucky woman was Ermentrude of Orléans. As a noblewoman of middling stature Charles courted her so that he could win over the lesser nobility. On 13 December 842, Charles married Ermentrude in a ceremony at Quierzy-sur-Oise. While the marriage was for purely political reasons, the two fell in love with each other. Charles would always remain faithful to Ermentrude and take her council in matters of state. In turn, Ermentrude bore him 11 children, 9 of which reached adulthood. Their first child, a girl, was born just a year after their marriage, and which they named Judith in honor of the Empress-mother.
Charles was making friends everywhere. Aside from his queen, his most important ally was Hincmar who Charles would soon elevate to archbishop of Reims. For thirty years Hincmar loyally and energetically served Charles. Crucially, Hincmar was a man of similar vision. Just as Charles viewed the west as the rightful political heart of Francia, Hincmar believed it should also be its spiritual heart. Reims was where the first king of all the Franks, Clovis, was baptized by Saint Remigius. Louis the Pious was crowned Emperor there in 816. In addition to Reims, Saint-Denis was the burial place of kings, and there were other important churches and monasteries in the west, such as Saint Martin of Tours. Hincmar aggressively asserted the west’s role as the spiritual core of Francia, a project which naturally dove-tailed with King Charles’ political ambitions.
The western king was going to need all the help he could find, because during his reign he was constantly under threat from his brothers, rebellious nobles, the pretender Pippin II and Viking raids. Danish Vikings consistently monitored Frankish politics and the moment that a civil war broke out, or a powerful cabal of nobles staged a rebellion they boarded their longships and attacked. Often a Frankish king or powerful noble paid the Vikings to raid their neighbors, bringing in more northern warriors. By the 840s the Vikings established bases in Frisia, allowing them to reach more territory and strike more frequently. In 843 while the three kings of Francia were negotiating the Treaty of Verdun, Vikings attacked Nantes, killed the bishop and ravaged the west coast of Aquitaine.
In 844 Charles was busy down south trying to end Pippin II’s control over Aquitaine. He was done with the pretender and executed Bernard of Septimania as a warning to any who would join him. Charles then besieged Pippin II’s stronghold at Toulouse. Yet, even as the war seemed about to end, Pippin II’s brother Guillaume came upon an army of Charles unawares and killed many nobles and important clergy. This setback forced Charles to abandon the siege. Shortly thereafter, Vikings raided the city. It’s possible that these Vikings heard about the fight and descended on the city of their own volition, though some historians suspect Charles invited them to attack his enemies…and fellow countrymen. Desperate times. Charles then opened negotiations with his half-brothers to put down Pippin II. As usual, Ludwig supported his ally Charles against their mutual rival, the Emperor Lothar. Meanwhile, Lothar entered these talks and seemingly supported ousting Pippin II, but secretly he supported the pretender. Then the unthinkable happened.
In Spring 845 a Viking fleet sailed down the Seine. The chroniclers record 120 ships were led by the warlord Ragnar, who some historians believe must be Ragnar Lodbrok from the Icelandic sagas. Charles raised an army to defend the holy site of Saint-Denis and the great city of Paris. But the berserker warriors launched themselves at Charles’ forces and defeated a major contingent of the army, forcing them back and taking captives as they did. Ragnar then ordered that 111 of these captives be sacrificed to the All-Father Odin. They were hanged on an island in the Seine, to appease their deity and as a signal of what would happen to those who resisted.
Ragnar and his Vikings arrived in Paris on Easter Sunday. Charles’ army was battered and he abandoned the city to its fate. The Northmen stormed the meager defenses and ravaged the city. Charles then did the only thing he could: he offered them tribute if they would leave. The western king paid 7,000 pounds of silver, the largest tribute of his entire reign. The Viking ships left Paris loaded down with plunder, though the warriors still pillaged a few towns and monasteries as they sailed back up the Seine. The Sack of Paris was one of the most dramatic episodes of Charles’ entire reign. It signaled just how powerful the Northmen were becoming and how they had learned to take advantage of Frankish divisions. Half a century earlier Charles’ grandfather, Charlemagne, invaded Saxony, burnt sacred trees and massacred Germanic pagans while forcing Christianity upon them. Now, 111 men swung from gallows in the heart of Francia to appease Odin.
Considering how much of a catastrophe this was, you might be surprised to learn Charles’ position markedly improved after this event. Years before the Viking attack on Paris the Carolingian monarchs had overrun many Viking forts in Frisia. Hence, the Sack of Paris was an act of revenge. Charles established a new understanding with the Vikings, acknowledging their rights to hold certain lands, which were almost entirely in northern Lotharingia, the land of his rival half-brother. Moreover, 7,000 pounds of silver was a lot for the Northmen and they decided that it was pointless to try to squeeze any more money out of Charles, and largely left his kingdom alone for the rest of the 840s. Instead, they ravaged Charles’ enemies in Lotharingia, Brittany and Aquitaine. Tied up with the Vikings, Lothar had to make peace with Charles. Meanwhile Pippin II’s inability to defend his realm caused his popularity to plummet. His position collapsed in the winter of 847-848 when Vikings besieged Bordeaux. Pippin II lost the city, at which point Charles arrived and repulsed the raiders. By Spring Pippin II was a fugitive, who was eventually captured in 852 and tonsured. Charles was now the undisputed master of all of Western Francia. Thus, as dramatic as the attack on Paris was, the Vikings did far more damage to Charles’ enemies than to him.
Now you might say, “what about the economic cost? 7,000 pounds of silver is a lot of money, it’s almost as much as it costs to go to college in America.” Well, Francia’s economy actually improved throughout the 840s, and Charles’ mints produced even more high-quality coinage throughout his reign. The economic fundamentals of West Francia were strong: there was a gradually-rising population, water-mills were widespread, roads were well-maintained for the time, and productivity was on the rise. Viking tribute was an expenditure that Charles could afford, and which was often less expensive than meeting them in battle. The Vikings were a short-term crisis and Charles had survived.
Chapter 2: Francia versus Germania
Carolingian politics was an ever-shifting game, where alliances were based on mutual advantage rather than long-term ideology. From 840-onward Charles and Ludwig were close allies as both feared that the Emperor Lothar would invade their lands and claim rulership over the whole empire. Charles’ position was especially tenuous due to Pippin II’s control of the southwest, and Lothar’s not-so-secret support for him. But by 852 Pippin was in a monastery and Charles’ regnum was strong. He had four young boys: Louis the Stammerer, Charles called ‘the Child,’ Lothar the Lame and Carloman. The first two sons Louis and Charles the Child were the heirs apparent while Lothar and Carloman were sent to monasteries where they could shore up support for King Charles’ house. With West Francia firmly under Charles’ control the Vikings in Frisia were both his and Lothar’s greatest threat. By 852 Lothar began a rapprochement with his younger half-brother. The once-troublesome Emperor was 57 years old, in poor health and more concerned with securing his legacy than expanding his power. Lothar worried that upon his death Ludwig would deprive his three sons of their rightful inheritance, so he entered talks with Charles who agreed to guarantee his sons’ territory. That year the two longtime rivals campaigned together against the Northmen, ravaging many forts, though they did not entirely dislodge the Danish invaders.
This new entente between Charles and Lothar infuriated Ludwig, who accused the two of violating the Oaths of Strasbourg which prohibited secret coordination with Lothar. From then on Ludwig became Charles’ mortal enemy and plotted his destruction at every turn. His opportunity came less than a year later. Charles accused one of his nobles, Gauzbert of Maine, of conspiring with the Bretons and executed him. While the aristocracy usually deferred to the king, they expected their lord to respect their rights and exercise leniency towards them. Killing a noble was a dangerous decision, even for a king as it could incite rebellion. Ludwig heard about Gauzbert’s execution and sent his son, also named Ludwig [because the Carolingians really weren’t creative with names] to Aquitaine to stir up rebellion. To Ludwig the Younger’s surprise, no aristocrats except Gauzbert’s family rose up in revolt, so strong was Charles’ hold on West Francia. Such a pitiful showing forced Ludwig the Younger to flee back eastward, but the failed revolt revealed Ludwig’s schemes against Charles. From then-on, Charles openly worked against Ludwig, courting nobles along the border to defect to him. He even encouraged the Bulgars and Slavs to attack Ludwig’s eastern frontiers.
In 855 Emperor Lothar fell ill. Recognizing his time had come he retired to the monastery at Prüm and passed away. His three sons divided up the kingdom. Louis II took Italy and the title of Emperor, Lothar II took the northlands while Charles took Provence and the lower Loire valley; which is why historians refer to him as Charles of Provence, and which we will do from hereon out. The Emperor Lothar’s death guaranteed conflict across the Carolingian world. While the Emperor lived there was a balance of power between West, Middle and East Francia. After Lothar died his sons inherited three relatively weak kingdoms which their uncles longed to conquer. Meanwhile, the title of ‘emperor’ was much less meaningful after it passed to Louis II. Louis II was young and did not command the same respect his uncles did. Moreover, he only ruled over the northern half of Italy. The Byzantines openly mocked his imperial title, as they joked he was the ‘Emperor of Italy.’ Louis II angrily replied that he was Emperor of the entire Carolingian Empire, which was one united realm. But Louis II fooled no one. His grandfather Louis the Pious’ idea of one united empire, ruled harmoniously by different rulers had already failed in his time. Charles, Ludwig and future powerful Carolingians claimed that the empire was one in order to justify their conquest and rule over more territory, but even at the time the Carolingians must have realized that Charlemagne’s empire was not one indivisible country; certainly, the mighty kings of West and East Francia did not pay homage to their nephew and petty Emperor in Italy. Instead, the uncle-kings tried to rule over their nephews, with Ludwig allying with Louis II in Italy while Charles allied with Lothar II in the middle-north.
Crisis in Denmark led to disaster across Francia. In 854, King Horik II died and the northern peninsula devolved into warring cabals of nobles vying for the throne. Noble Vikings needed wealth to hire and support their troops if they wanted to conquer Denmark, so in the mid-850s many warlords travelled along Europe’s coasts to plunder the Carolingian Empire. At the same time Pippin II, who had escaped from the monastery, led a revolt along the Loire valley, diverting Charles’ attention. While Charles was putting down rebellion Vikings built a base at Jeufosse, 60 km from Paris. Charles campaigned along the Seine and slaughtered many Danes, but the base at Jeufosse remained and coastal raids increased. On 28 December 854 Vikings raided Paris, then again the following summer. Constant raiding turned the Frankish nobility against Charles, who they viewed as incapable of stopping the Northmen, and many aristocrats sided with Pippin II. Charles campaigned with all the energy of his grandfather Charlemagne, albeit with less resources. He would put down a revolt, race to meet Viking warbands, fight against the Bretons on his borders, pay off other raiders and still find time to pass laws regulating his kingdom. By 858 Pippin II was on the back-foot and Charles linked up his forces with Lothar II. That autumn the two kings besieged a Viking castrum at Oissel, near Rouen. The Vikings held out and while there Charles fell gravely ill. When news spread that Charles might die all hell broke loose.
Immediately Ludwig amassed his forces and invaded Charles’ lands. Pippin II launched another rebellion and Vikings pillaged at will. West Francia was falling apart. Its king was ill, shadowed by enemies and his heirs were still children. Yet, Charles was not dismayed. He had endured constant persecution since childhood from his brothers, survived and grew more powerful. These experiences taught him to remain calm in a crisis and convinced him that God was on his side. Charles abandoned the north and fled to Burgundy to gather support. As he did, Ludwig marched on Reims and demanded that the archbishop Hincmar crown him King of West Francia. But Hincmar refused, shocking Ludwig. Hincmar went even further and demanded that Ludwig’s Germans leave West Francia which was not their land. Now Ludwig was in a bind: he couldn’t kill or abuse a popular archbishop without angering both the church and the nobility, who expected a king to respect their privilege. Likewise, he wanted the Western Franks to recognize him as their rightful lord, and not as a foreign, Germanic invader. Ludwig tried to assuage the Franks and sent part of his German army back east. Meanwhile Charles had recovered his physical strength and led an army of Franks and Viking mercenaries northward. When the two sides encountered each other Ludwig realized his forces were smaller and he retreated without a fight.
Charles quickly moved to pacify his nobles. He pardoned most of the rebels and restored their offices, only punishing the rebel leaders. He paid Viking warriors to fight off their fellows. Charles campaigned relentlessly for two years until by 860 he was firmly in control of West Francia. Pippin II and the Vikings still caused trouble but Charles controlled the majority of his land. By then he was ready to face his half-brother. The two decided to negotiate a peace, though Charles so distrusted Ludwig that they met on a boat in the middle of the Rhine River, preventing any sneak attacks from soldiers hiding in the brush. Negotiations failed and the two met again at Koblenz. There, Ludwig was forced to admit guilt and he conceded Charles’ right to bestow offices on his nobles. Abandoned by Ludwig, the aristocracy on the border acknowledged Charles as their rightful lord.
Chapter 3: Legacy
By 860 the tide had turned in Charles’ favor and against his primary rival. Ludwig retreated east with his tail between his legs after his failed western invasion. As he arrived home he faced a serious rebellion from his eldest son Karlmann. Karlmann ruled the far-eastern fringes where he defended Ludwig’s regnum from foreign invasion. As the general of the border armies Karlmann replaced some of his father’s commander with his own chosen men. Perhaps Karlmann was simply removing Ludwig’s incompetent yes-men and replacing them with intelligent commanders and planned no treachery. Or maybe Karlmann was replacing intelligent commanders with his incompetent yes-men as a means of gaining power. Or perhaps nobody was intelligent and Karlmann was replacing his father’s group of toadies with his own. We’ll never know who was right and who was wrong but either way Ludwig feared his son was gaining too much power and ordered him to strip these new commanders of their positions and give them back to his chosen men. Karlmann was outraged that after successfully defending the empire his father, who had just failed to invade the West, would tell him how to do his job. Karlmann launched a rebellion and seized much of Bavaria. Negotiations between father and son broke down and in 863 Ludwig led his forces and defeated Karlmann. While Ludwig reestablished his power in his regnum many nobles fled westward where Charles welcomed them, bolstering his own forces.
Meanwhile, Charles was mopping up Pippin II’s long-rebellion. In 864 Pippin II and his Viking mercenaries led a desperate attack on Toulouse, which failed and he was captured. Charles imprisoned him in Senlis, where he died that same year, probably assassinated so that he couldn’t cause any more trouble. Meanwhile, Charles pressed his advantage in Brittany and gained more territory there than any previous Carolingian monarch.
864 was a brilliant year for Charles. That year he passed a series of laws compiled in the Edict of Pîtres, whose legacy would ripple throughout medieval Francia. Charles massively reformed West Francia’s monetary system. Before 864, coins were often less than 50% silver, whereas afterward coins were more than 90% silver. He added to the number of mints until there were 100 making tens of millions of coins. Moreover, his minters produced more smaller coins, particularly half-pennies. West Francia’s rural economy was thriving while the urban-based economy grew much more slowly, so micro-transactions between peasants became far more important. The crown jewel of these reforms was the Monnaie de Paris. This mint, made in 864 is still in operation. It has the honor of being the oldest still-running mint in the world and the oldest still-existing institution in France. Finally, Charles gave nobles the power to levy more taxes on the peasants, transitioning taxing privileges from the central state to the local aristocracy. These long-lasting economic reforms gave West Francia a strong, flexible medieval economy that allowed for rural growth while empowering Charles to continue the Carolingian Renaissance through funding monumental projects and patronizing churches.
Aside from monetary reform, the Edict of Pîtres addressed the Viking threat. Charles ordered that any man who could afford a horse serve in the cavalry. This gave Francia a large, mobile force of mounted warriors to respond to rapid threats. This emphasis on cavalry transitioned West Francia away from slow-moving infantry-based armies and towards smaller bands of horse-mounted soldiers. Charles also ordered that every town on a river have a fortified bridge. Most towns couldn’t afford fortifications, so this order was more of an ideal than a realistic plan. However, the Franks did make one fortified bridge on the Seine, the Pont-de-l’Arche, and one on the Loire. These military reforms discouraged raiders to the point that no Viking attacks went down the Seine during the last decade of Charles’ reign. Instead, most Danish marauders went to England where they established their own area of control known as the Danelaw.
The reforms initiated by the Edict of Pîtres transitioned West Francia towards a localized, rural, medieval system. The rural economy thrived and small-scale local defenses centered around cavalry units empowered regional lords to resist Viking raiders. Finally, the central state still exercised enough control over the regnum that Charles could more effectively raise large-scale armies and pay off those Vikings he did not want to face in open warfare.
While 864 was a high-point of Charles’ reign he also suffered a terrible tragedy that year. His son Charles the Child was practicing sword-fighting when he was hit in the head by his sparring partner, suffering debilitating brain-damage. Two years later he died. As awful as this was, it guaranteed that Louis the Stammerer would inherit all of West Francia, preventing a chaotic and violent division of the kingdom. Charles’ tonsured son Carloman was none-too-happy about being left out of the inheritance; after Charles the Child’s death Carloman was determined to be a king, and later left his abbey to claim a kingdom. But Carloman failed and West Francia prepared for Louis to become its sole monarch.
In this narrative of Charles’ reign I have highlighted his fierce determination in the face of centuries-long trends. The western king gloriously defied assaults from Northmen while ending revolts by local aristocrats in a world where central-power was decreasing and these threats grew. Yet, history is not merely le longue durée; so often events turn upon the trivial. During the 860s the single most important prospect facing the divided regnums of the Carolingian Empire was Lothar II’s messed up love-life. Sorry Lothar II, I would hate for people twelve-hundred years later to make fun of me for my failed romances, but here we are.
Lothar II had an interesting love-life to say the least. During this period love was not a personal affair but a political arrangement because marriage links tied together noble families and offspring inherited most of the important political offices. In 855 Lothar II married Theutberga daughter of the Count of Arles. But Lothar II never loved Theutberga, and she never produced any male heirs. Their marriage was in trouble from the beginning as the same year that Lothar II married Theutberga, Lothar II took a minor noblewoman named Waldrada as his mistress, who almost immediately bore him a son. Lothar II bemoaned his marriage to Theutberga and decide to annul it in 858 on the pretext that his wife had incestuous relations with her brother Hubert before the wedding. Outraged, Hubert led Frankish aristocrats to defend the queen’s honor and forced Lothar II to hold a trial. There, Theutberga submitted to an ordeal of water. This test meant that Theutberga’s champion had to reach his hand into a pot of boiling water to retrieve a stone. If the champion’s hand came out relatively unscathed it was proof that God was on their side, whereas if it was horribly wounded then it was proof that God was against them. The queen’s champion retrieved the stone without suffering grievous injury and the nobility took it as a sign that God favored Theutberga and so Lothar II had to reinstate her as queen.
Lothar II decided that if God would not give him what he wanted then perhaps the church would. In 860 he ordered his bishops to condone the divorce. These bishops forced Theutberga to confess to incest, sodomy and abortion. In 863 at a council of Metz, the northern bishops confirmed the divorce and Lothar II put aside his wife and married his mistress Waldrada, in the process legitimizing their son as the rightful heir to his kingdom. In response, Theutberga and her brother fled Lotharingia and took refuge in West Francia. That was when Hincmar got involved. Either the Archbishop of Reims was truly moved by Christian piety to defend a wronged woman. Or, as the ever-faithful servant of Charles he understood that delegitimizing Waldrada’s son meant that Lothar II would have no heir and his patron could claim territory in the Frankish heartland. Hincmar wrote a long treatise on the marriage wherein he concluded that Christian marriage was insoluble, and thus the divorce was illegitimate unless it could be proven that Theutberga had indeed committed abominable sexual crimes.
In 863 Pope Nicholas decided to get involved and he summoned the northern bishops who ruled on the issue. What followed utterly shocked the Carolingian world. Nicholas condemned the accusations against Theutberga as fraudulent and excommunicated the northern bishops and Waldrada while threatening to excommunicate Lothar II unless he reinstated the rightful queen. Now Emperor Louis II of Italy decided to act. Louis II feared that if his brother Lothar II died without an heir then Charles and Ludwig would swallow up the north, leaving him at the mercy of such powerful lords. Louis II amassed an army and besieged Rome. But Nicholas held to his judgement and Louis II fell ill with a fever and retreated.
Charles and Ludwig were stunned and ecstatic that the Catholic Church turned against their nephew and delegitimized his son. In 865 the two kings met inside Lotharingia and forced Lothar II to take back Theutberga. Caught between his two uncles, Lothar II admitted defeat. He took back his queen and even surrendered some land to Charles and Ludwig. Two years later the Western and Eastern kings agreed that when Lothar II died heirless they would divide up his lands.
Chapter 4: Charles the Great
Medieval marriages were usually happy only by coincidence as politicking aristocrats tried to fall in love only after they committed their lives to each other. Lothar II and Theutberga’s marriage was one of the unhappiest in Carolingian history. Lothar II cheated on his queen during their entire life together, and he spent nearly a decade falsely accusing her of crimes against God and nature. Theutberga eventually triumphed and was glad that the Catholic Church acquitted her of all wrong-doing, but she was done being Lothar II’s queen. In 869 she told her husband that she would accept a divorce. Lothar II leapt at the opportunity to finally rid himself of his wife and ensure his bastard son’s legitimacy. He corresponded with the new Pope Adrian II, who replied that he might accept the dissolution of their marriage. That summer Lothar traveled south to meet the Pope but along the way he caught a fever and died. After eleven years of trying, he was finally freed from his unhappy marriage.
News of Lothar II’s death spread rapidly throughout the Carolingian world but only one monarch was free to act upon the news. Emperor Louis II was then occupied fighting against the Emirate of Bari, an Islamic government that had conquered the southern half of Italy. Meanwhile, Ludwig was grievously ill. Ludwig’s three sons all believed their father could die at any moment and so they set about securing the loyalties of their vassals and prepared to war for their inheritance in East Francia. With his only rivals detained, Charles was free to march on Lotharingia. He met no resistance as he entered Metz. There, at Saint Stephen’s church, Hincmar crowned him King of Lotharingia on 9 September 869. Furthermore, Hincmar dismissed Louis II’s claim to emperorship since he only held on to most of northern Italy and was therefore unworthy of such a title. Instead, Hincmar claimed that Charles was the rightful emperor of the Franks. Hincmar claimed that Charles was a direct descendant of Clovis I, first King of all the Franks, who was anointed by Saint Remigius, thus combining the right of blood to rule with the favor of God. Hincmar declared that Charles would lead a new, united Frankish Empire, undoing the divisions wrought after the death of Louis the Pious. From that moment Charles claimed the titles of Emperor and Augustus. The boy who had been hunted his whole life now styled himself as Charlemagne’s successor. From childhood his compatriots had called him Carolus Junior; at forty-six years old the nickname became a reality as he claimed he would restore his grandfather’s legacy. Charles spent that Christmas at the imperial palace at Aachen.
But there is ever sorrow amidst triumph. On 9 October, a month to the day after Charles’ imperial coronation, his beloved wife of 27 years’ died. Ermenetrude had mothered 11 children and was among his most loyal and wisest councilors. Much like the death of Charles’ second son, Ermenetrude’s passing was both tragedy and opportunity. Charles immediately pursued a marriage with Richilde of Provence. Archbishop Hincmar no doubt understood his emperor’s aims, but he was dismayed that Charles pursued a new wife so quickly. Hincmar forced Charles to wait three months to mourn the deceased queen, then on 22 January 870 he officiated Charles and Richilde’s wedding. Richilde was the sister of Boso of Provence, the most powerful man in the region, and her aunt was Theutberga, former queen of Lotharingia. Furthermore, Richilde’s family controlled the main pass from Lotharingia into Italy, thus securing Charles’ newly-won territory from the petty emperor.
Everything was working in Charles favor. Oh wait…do you hear that? That’s the sound of the other shoe dropping. Despite all odds, the 65 year-old Ludwig recovered and he was insane with rage. His younger half-brother betrayed their promise to divide up Lotharingia and he had declared himself Emperor of the Franks, aka his superior! Ludwig amassed all the forces he could muster and marched on Frankfurt. Charles knew he could not meet Ludwig in open war and retreated westward to assemble his own armies. After some posturing the two half-brothers met at Meersen and signed the Treaty of Meersen. Ludwig got the lion’s share of the Frankish heartland. But Charles acquired some northeastern territory between the Meuse and Moselle rivers, and he gained most of the Kingdom of Provence. Meanwhile the petty Emperor Louis II only got a small chunk of Provence but was otherwise left out in the cold. Fifteen years earlier when Lothar I died the Carolingian Empire was divided into five kingdoms: West Francia, Lotharingia, East Francia, Provence and Italy. After the Treaty of Meersen West Francia and East Francia absorbed Provence and Lotharingia, leaving two great kingdoms and the middling kingdom south of the Alps.
For the moment, Charles’ had failed to reunite the Carolingian Empire. For the next five years he lived a mostly sedentary life, issuing edicts, sponsoring building projects, and overseeing the last glorious years of the Carolingian Renaissance in the west. Meanwhile he groomed his son Louis the Stammerer to succeed him.
Then on 12 August 875, Louis II of Italy died, leaving behind no male heirs. When Louis II died Charles and Ludwig decided to meet to rationally discuss the division of- just kidding, war. As soon as news reached him, Charles marched on Italy. In response, Ludwig invaded West Francia, hoping to force the western king back. But Louis the Stammerer and his loyal vassals managed to repulse Ludwig who retreated back east. On 25 December 875 Pope John VIII crowned Charles Emperor in Rome, 75 years to the day after Charlemagne’s coronation. Later at Pavia, Charles took up the Iron Crown of the Lombards and became King of Italy. Three kingdoms were now two, and Charles controlled the majority of the Carolingian Empire.
Ludwig was simultaneously angry and afraid. He knew that time was against him and he had to take the offensive against his half-brother before it was too late. The eastern king drew up plans for invasion and steeled himself for a cataclysmic war to decide Europe’s fate. As he prepared to face destiny, Ludwig fell ill. On 28 August 876 he died at Frankfurt at the age of 70. As historian Janet Nelson notes, “For the first time in [Charles’] life no big brother loomed over him.” He had outlasted and outwitted them all.
In the aftermath of Ludwig’s death East Francia fell into chaos. Ludwig’s three sons each claimed a part of the kingdom. In response, Charles marched east to claim the final piece of the Carolingian Empire and reunify Frankish Europe. Ludwig the Younger sent messengers to his uncle but Charles refused any settlement. Charles’ forces chased Ludwig until they arrived at Andernach in what is today southwest Germany. Charles planned a surprise attack against Ludwig’s forces for 8 October, the feast day of Saint-Denis his patron saint. But the eastern prince learned of the plans, and that night a heavy rain soaked the field. The smaller Germanic forces, comprised mainly of infantry, assembled to meet Charles’ cavalry-heavy army. The West Franks charged but their horses stumbled slowly across the muddy terrain. The battle was a disaster, and Ludwig the Younger’s army killed many of Charles’ sworn men before forcing them to retreat. Charles then tried to sow division amongst the three eastern princes, but these rivals put aside their differences and agreed to peacefully divide up their father’s realm. Charles had nearly seized the whole Carolingian Empire but then it had slipped from his grasp.
Charles was still emperor of the greatest realm in Europe. Yet, he was growing old, and a lifetime of fighting his brothers, nephews, Vikings, Bretons and rebellious nobles finally caught up to him. On 6 October 877 Charles passed away.
Charles was one of the most energetic and intelligent kings of his age. He was highly educated and modeled himself on the Roman Emperors and lawgivers Theodosius and Justinian. His edicts, especially the Edict of Pîtres, helped transition Western Francia from a large imperial government to a more flexible, responsive organization that fostered rural growth and empowered local nobles to resist Viking raids. He was a devout king who carried a book of private prayers wherever he went. Charles took an active role in theology, most notably in 853 when he and Hincmar led empire-wide synods to counter Gottshcalk’s teachings on predestination.
Charles was a just man who treated his nobles with respect, even those who fought against him. He was a patron of the arts who oversaw the last great period of the Carolingian Renaissance in the west. He was a good husband who, in an era of habitual infidelity, remained singularly devoted to Ermenetrude and then his second wife Richilde. He had a good sense of humor; he enjoyed joking with his subjects and didn’t mind being the occasional butt of a joke. At one feast Charles got very intoxicated and sat across from a famous Irish monk, confusingly-named John the Scot. Apparently even in the 9th century there were ‘drunk Irish’ jokes and Charles decided to poke fun at his guest. He asked John, “What separates an Irishman from a drunk?” but before Charles could get out the punchline, John replied, “only this table,” which Charles took with good humor. This good humor, kindness and devotion inspired love from his subjects.
Charles the Bald was easily one of the greatest Carolingian monarchs. He faced every trial with vigor and intelligence and his actions had a long-lasting impact on West Francia. But none of his successors equaled the challenges of their time. Charles’ reign was not a revival of Charlemagne’s Empire, but its last glorious moment in the west before its slow, gradual decline.
The Annals of Saint Bertin, Translated and annotated by Janet L Nelson, 1991.
The Annals of Fulda, Translated and annotated by Timothey Reuter, 1992.
Kelly DeVries and Robert D. Smith, Weapons and Warfare: An Illustrated History of their Impact, 2007.
Matthew Innes and Simon MacLean, The Carolingian World, 2011.
Janet L. Nelson, Charles the Bald, 1992.
Outro: This might be my dumbest observation ever, but in German ‘Charles’ is ‘Karl.’ Since Charlemagne was ‘Karl Senior’ Charles the Bald would be Karl Junior. And if he opened a fast food restaurant it would be Carl’s Junior.