The Carolingians initially were Mayors of the Palace under Merovingian kings in the sub-kingdom of Austrasia and later in the reunited Frankish realm.
When the Mayor of the Palace Charles Martel defeated an incursion from Islamic Spain at Poitiers in 732, it was clear that the Frankish kings had become weak beyond recall. All that was needed was a source of legitimacy for a change of dynasty, which was provided by the Pope in 751. Appeals from Pope Gregory III to Charles Martel for help against the Lombards had gone unheeded, but when Pope Stephen III travelled to meet Pepin III in 753-754, he procured Pepin’s promise of help and sealed the pack by formally anointing Pepin King of the Franks.
Pepin defeated the Lombards in 754 and 756. The Lombards would not stay defeated, and Pepin’s son Charles eventually had to conquer them and annex their kingdom (774). His conquest of the pagan Saxons (782-804) and expansion in other directions began to turn the Frankish Kingdom into a superstate. This gave Charles and the Pope ideas, especially when the Empress Irene assumed sole rule. This was the first time a woman ruled Romania in her own name. The Westerners were little disposed to regard a woman as a legitimate emperor as women could not rule in the law of the Salic Franks. So, on Christmas Day in the year 799, the Pope crowned Carolus Roman Emperor, taking for himself a role and an authority that he never had before. In taking the title from the Pope, Carolus (now “Charlemagne”) fatefully assumed both pretensions, to the Empire, and an obligation, to the Pope.
Charlemagne’s son, Louis (I) the Pious, faced a problem that ultimately had not existed for his father: multiple sons who, in the typical Germanic fashion, expected an equal division of the realm. That had been disastrous for Merovingian power, and Louis wished to introduce, if not the ideal primogeniture, at least a division that would leave his eldest son, the prospective Emperor Lothar, with the predominant share. This was not accepted in good grace, and Louis did not possess the kind of forceful personality that could have put fear into his younger sons. The death of Louis then set off a fraternal war that was especially desastrous as the Vikings were beginning to appear from the North.
The Frankish kingdom was then divided with the Treaty of Verdun in 843 in East, West and South among the sons of Louis the Pious, which were the kernels of later France and the Holy Roman Empire, each with different ruling dynasties.
The division was equal enough, Charles “the Bald” in the West (Francia Occidentalis), Louis “the German” in the East (Francia Orientalis), and Lothar in the Middle and South (Francia Media). Italy and Burgundy were prestigious possessions for Lothar, but they were not centers of Frankish power, and the northern area looks small between the compact realms of his brothers.
This turned out to be especially unfortunate when Lothar not only predeceased his brothers but also left behind multiple sons. Natural fragments were distributed between them. Louis, who now became the Emperor Louis II, received Italy. Charles got Burgundy, and Lothar got the rest, i.e. that precarious northern area, with which Lothar’s name was now permanently associated, as it became Lotharingia.
None of the sons of Lothar I managed to outlive their uncles. But the older men sparred even while the Emperor Louis II still lived, dividing Lorraine between them and depriving Louis of part of Burgundy. This reveals the relative strengh of the Western and Eastern Frankish kingdoms, and the ruthlessness of both Charles the Bald and Louis the German. When the Emperor Louis then died, Charles got to Rome, and so the Imperial crown, first.
Charles the Bald and Louis the German did not last long after the death of the Emperor Louis II. Germany was divided between three brothers, and the West Frankish kingdom, after the brief reign of Louis (II) the Stammerer, passed to his two young sons. Again, this was bad news for the strength and stability of the Frankish realm. Italy ended up in the hands of one of the German heirs, Charles the Fat, who attained the Imperial honor after a brief hiatus (877-881). Meanwhile, part of Burgundy had been detached by a son-in-law of the Emperor Louis II.
With the deaths of his brothers, Charles the Fat ended up with all of Germany and Italy. Then the deaths of his young cousins, from whom he had already extorted part of Lorraine, left no one but an even younger brother as the heir to the West Frankish kingdom. This Charles the Simple was later set aside, and Charles the Fat managed to reassemble the entire Empire of Charlemagne – except for Burgundy. This apparent triumph was in fact hollow. The now Emperor Charles III was nowhere near up to the task of holding off the Vikings was deposed as East Frankish king.
The Germans elected an illegitimate nephew of Charles, Arnulf of Carthinthia, as the East Frankish king. The West Frankish nobility elected a non-Carolingian, Odo of Paris. This is the family that would soon become the long lasting Capetian house of France. Feeling for the Carolingian house, however, was still strong, and although the West Franks turned to Odo’s family again before the end of the Carolingian period, he was followed by the last son of Louis the Stammerer, Charles (III) the Simple.
Meanwhile, Burgundy and Italy spun off to more local Carolingian in-laws, among whom the title of Emperor was passed around for a time. After Berengar I the title simply lapsed. There was thus an Imperial interregnum from 922 to 962.
Charles the Simple’s most famous and important deed was to cede some land, which became Normandy, to the Norse chieftan Rollo in 911. This was also about the time that the last Carolingian in Germany, Louis the Child, died, and the Germans turned to Conrad of Franconian. That was the end of the Carolingians in East Francia. The nobility of Lorraine decided to uphold Carolingian legitimacy by attaching themselves to the Western kingdom; but soon it looked like West Francia would follow the East, when Charles, as much over his head as his cousin Charles the Fat had been, was deposed and Robert of Paris, Odo’s brother, was elected. Robert was followed by his son-in-law, Rudolf of Burgundy, but then the West Franks turned to the Carolingians again, bringing Louis IV back from exile in England (“outre mer”).
This started to look like Carolingians getting established again, since one of Louis’s son, Charles, even became the ruler of the new “duchy” of Lorraine (no longer a separate kindom, and in fact now divided; the Carolingians got Lower Lorraine). But these were not strong rulers, and the monarchy itself was becoming weaker and weaker.
When Louis V died, Charles of Lorraine was ignored, and the West Frankish throne, which one may as well call “France” at this point, passed permanently to the house of Paris. It had little land and little effective power any longer attached to it. The Carolingians of Lorraine did not last much longer than the royal lines, though their blood continued in their in-laws among the local nobility, most importantly the house of Alsace, which succeeded to the Duchy of Lorraine and the County of Flanders.
- Arnulf of Metz
- Pippin of Landen, (580-640), or Pippin I, the Elder* 628-639
- Pippin of Herstal, (640-714), or Pippin II* 687-714
- Charles Martel, (690-724), * 714-741
- Carloman, (716-754), * 741-747
- Pippin III, (714-768), the Short* 747-751
When Pippin III became king, the Carolingians succeeded the Merovingian dynasty:
- Pippin the Short, (714-768), 751-768
- Carloman 768-771
- Charlemagne, (742-814), 771-814
- Louis the Pious, (AD 778-840), 814-840
|West Franks (eventually France)||Lotharingia||East Franks (to become the Holy Roman Empire)|
|Names marked (*) are Robertians and (**) are from the house of Boso — both were distantly related to the Carolingians.
Charles the Bald, (823-877), 843-877 Emp. 875Louis the Stammerer, (846-879), 877-879
Carloman, King of the West Franks, (died 884), 879-884 (South)
Charles the Fat 884-887 Germany 876-887 Emp. 881
Odo, Count of Paris, (died 866), * 888-898
Charles the Simple, (879-929), 898-922
Robert, (865-923), * 922-923
Rudolph, Duke of Burgundy** 923-936
Louis IV, (914-984), 936-954
Louis V, the Indolent 986-987
After this, the Capetian dynasty ruled France.
|Lothar 795-855, Emperor 817-855Louis II, (825-875), 825-875, Emperor 855-875
Lothar II 835-869
Zwentibold 870/1-900 son of Arnulf of Carinthia by a concubine
Louis II had only daughters, one of whom, Ermengard, married Boso of Provence, thus providing the family connection for Rudolph of Burgundy’s claim to the throne.
|Louis the German, (804-876), 843-876Carloman (830-880) (Bavaria)
Louis III 876-882(North)
Charles the Fat 876-887 (South, then all) Emp. 881
Arnulf of Carinthia 887-899 Emp. 896
Louis the Child, (893-911), 899-911
After this, Conrad of Franconia ruled from 911-918, and was followed by the Saxon (Ottonian) kings, which is commonly considered the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire.