Fall of the Carolingian Empire

Carolingian Empire Map
The Carolingian Empire covered much of the Western and Central Europe but it collapsed in less than hundred years after the death of Charlemagne in 814. Several factors led to the fall of the Carolingian Empire. The division of Frankish lands among the male members of the Carolingian dynasty was a major factor.

Decline of the Carolingian Empire

The Carolingians extended their rule over most Western and Central Europe in less than one half of a century and became regarded as the renewers of the Roman Empire after the Imperial coronation of Charlemagne in 800. The Carolingian Empire achieved its greatest territorial extent during the reign of Charlemagne (768-814) who added Lombardy, Saxony, Danubian Plain and Spanish March to the Realm of the Franks. However, Charlemagne’s empire started to decline already under his successor Louis the Pious (814-840) and collapsed by the end of the 9th century.

Division of Frankish Lands among the Members of the Carolingian Dynasty

Several factors contributed to the fall of the Carolingian Empire but the division of Frankish lands among male members of the Carolingian dynasty was one of the main causes for its downfall because it led to fragmentation of Charlemagne’s empire. In fact, the creation of the Carolingian Empire was in some extent a result of a fortunate coincidence. The first Carolingian King of the Franks, Pepin the Short (751-768) was sole ruler because his brother Carloman renounced his position as Mayor of the Palace and went into monastery in 747. Charlemagne and his successor Louis the Pious, on the other hand, ruled the entire Carolingian Empire because of premature death of their brothers and co-rulers.

Dynastic Rivalry after Charlemagne’s Death

The danger of the custom of the Carolingian rulers to divide Frankish lands among the members of the Carolingian dynasty, typically legitimate male descendants that led to the weakening of the Imperial authority and territorial fragmentation became obvious already during the rule of Louis the Pious. He had to deal with several rebellions of his three sons Pepin of Aquitaine, Louis the German and Lothair I when he tried to include his youngest son from his second marriage, Louis the Bald into the inheritance in 823.

Civil War and Division of the Carolingian Empire with the Treaty of Verdun in 843

The dispute between Louis and his sons was settled by 835 but on his death in 840, broke out a civil war between the three surviving sons Louis the German, Charles the Bald and Lothair I. The latter claimed the entire Carolingian Empire but Louis the German and Charles the Bald allied themselves against their brother and forced him to accept the division of the empire into three parts with the Treaty of Verdun in 843. Louis the Bald gained the western part of the empire west of the Rhone River that came to be known as West Francia, Louis the German got the lands east of the Rhine River or East Francia, while Lothair I was granted the Imperial title and the lands between the Rhine and Rhone Rivers (Lotharingia or Lorraine) and Italy.

Rise of Power of the Local Leaders

Louis the German and Charles the Bald divided Lothair’s kingdom among themselves after all his sons died without legitimate male descendants. However, the fragmentation of the Carolingian Empire continued as each Carolingian ruler further partitioned his lands among the male descendants, while the local leaders increased their power and independence from the Carolingian kings to the extent that they were able to depose the last Carolingian ruler of the entire Charlemagne’s empire, Charles the Fat in 887.

Weakness of the System of Oaths of Loyalty and Absence of Strong Central Institutions

Rise of power of the local lords and absence of strong central institutions played a major role in the fall of the Carolingian Empire as well. Charlemagne’s rule based on a system of oaths of loyalty and his personal charisma. As a successful military leader, Charlemagne was highly respected by the warrior caste. His successors had neither his charisma nor the ability or perhaps the interest to limit the power of the local leaders and were not able to gain the level of respect that enabled Charlemagne to maintain the empire’s unity. The weakness of Charlemagne’s system of oaths of loyalty became obvious already during the rule of Louis the Pious when started the formation regional loyalties that reached their height with the civil war after Louis’ death and division of the empire with the Treaty of Verdun enabling the local leaders to break their oath of loyalty to the Carolingians.

External Threats and Inability of the Carolingian Kings to Repulse the Invaders

At the same time the Charlemagne’s empire was splitting into East and West Francia that became the precursors of Germany and France, respectively, both royal houses failed to produce a continuous line of kings that would be able to limit the power of the local leaders and repulse the external pressures – the Vikings in the north and west, the Muslim Saracens in the south and the Magyars on the east. Charles the Fat who briefly reunited the Charlemagne’s empire paid the Vikings to withdraw from France which diminished his prestige in West Francia and contributed to his deposition in East Francia. After his death few weeks later, the West Franks elected as king Odo, Count of Paris who was not member of the Carolingian dynasty, while Italy went to Count Berengar of Friuli, Lower Burgundy to Louis the Blind, Upper Burgundy to Rudolf I of the Elder House of Welf and Aquitaine to Ranulf II, Count of Poitou.

Death of Charles the Fat

Death of Charles the Fat in 888 is traditionally viewed as the fall of the Carolingian Empire although he was deposed in East Francia one year earlier, while Charlemagne’s empire was de facto dead with its division with the Treaty of Verdun in 843. The Carolingian rule in East Francia came to an end in 911 when Louis the Child died without a male heir, while the Western branch of the Carolingian dynasty ruled intermittently until 987 when the last Carolingian King of West Francia, Louis V died without issue.

Impact of the Fall of the Carolingian Empire

The fall of the Carolingian Empire led to formation of two independent political units – West Francia that became the Kingdom of France and East Francia, the precursor of Germany. The central part of the Carolingian Empire – Lotharingia or Lorraine lacked the ethnic, linguistic and economic unity of the West and East Francia and remained the contested territory between France and Germany until the 20th century.