After the death of Emperor Louis I “the Pious” in 840, Charlemagne’s Carolingian Empire in Europe was divided among Louis’ sons. Although the empire of the Franks had fractured, a grandson of Louis the Pious would unexpectedly reunite most pieces of the Carolingian Empire under one administration. Adding to the impressive achievement, the reunification was done almost entirely without bloodshed.
The protagonist of the Carolingian Empire’s reestablishment was an unassuming man named Charles III (r. 876-887), also known by the unfortunate epithet of Charles the Fat. He lived in a time of great rulers, with contemporaries such as King Alfred the Great in England and King Harald Finehair in Norway. While Alfred and Harald were both sublime leaders who earned their prestigious places in history through military grit and administrative skill, Charles the Fat was a different kind of leader—his unification of the fractured Carolingian Empire happened seemingly by pure luck.
Charles the Fat began his rise to power in 876, upon the death of his father, Louis the German. Charles was one of three sons who inherited land after his father’s death. He became king of Alemania (later renamed Swabia), Alsace and Rhaetia, ruling a large swath of land in lower Germany and along the Rhine. Charles’ brother, Louis the Younger, took control of northern Germany, most notably Saxony. Similarly, the Carolingian holdings in Italy were granted to another brother named Carloman.
Charles the Fat’s first major territorial expansion occurred in 879, when he took over control of the Carolingian lands in Italy after his brother became fatally ill. The pope at the time, John VIII, must have approved of the new king, for he granted Charles the title of Holy Roman Emperor in 881. A year later, in 882, Louis the Younger also died. As a result of the death, Charles the Fat inherited his late brother’s northern German lands. In around 3 years, Charles had grown from a relatively average king into an emperor who ruled Germany and northern Italy.
Nevertheless, the emperor’s good fortune continued. In 884, Carloman II of France met an inglorious end while hunting boar. As there were no other legitimate descendants of Charlemagne’s line currently fit to rule, it was agreed by June 885 that the French lands would also be ruled by Charles the Fat. In only 9 years, a monarch in lower Germany spread his influence to encompass much of Germany, Italy and France—and he did this by simply waiting for his relatives to die.
For most of his reign, Charles the Fat had to deal with persistent armies of Vikings. The Scandinavian raiders who had been ravaging Britain decided to take a sabbatical from their wars with the Anglo-Saxons and arrived in force around 879 to try their luck against the Franks. Many of the raiders would not return to Britain until about 892. While Frankish regional leaders won several military victories against the Vikings, Charles the Fat personally responded poorly to the invaders. For the most part, his favorite tactic against the Vikings was bribery. Payment of tribute did, indeed, have a role in persuading the Vikings to break off their siege of Paris (c. November 885 – November 886), but the king’s appeasement did little to instill confidence in his subjects.
The downfall of Charles the Fat came in 887. During that year, the emperor’s nephew, named Arnulf, revolted against Charles’ rule, claiming Germany as his own kingdom. Charles, who was likely suffering from illness at the time, was formally deposed in November 887. He did not last long after his power was usurped and died in early 888. The empire that he had rebuilt quickly crumbled into individual kingdoms shortly after his death. In the power vacuum, Arnulf kept Germany for himself. Count Rudolph laid claim to most of Burgundy. Count Odo in Paris became the king of France. The count of Friuli, named Berengar, seized northern Italy and Guy, the duke of Spoleto, claimed the Italian south.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Portrait of Charles the Fat painted by Louis-Félix Amiel (1802–1864), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Annals 893-896), translated by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge in their anthology, Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004.