Charles the Fat

Dafato Team | May 20, 2024

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Charles the Fat (White Charles) (June 13, 839 - Donaueschingen, January 13, 888), also known as Charles III, was the Carolingian Emperor from 881 until his death. He was the youngest son of Louis the Germanic and Emma of Bavaria, and great-grandson of Charlemagne, being the last Carolingian to reign over a unified empire.

During his lifetime, Charles became the ruler of several kingdoms of Charlemagne's former empire. He received the lordship of Alemania in 876 after the division of East France, succeeding to the Italian throne after the abdication of his brother Carlomano, who had been incapacitated by a stroke. He was crowned emperor in 881 by Pope John VIII, succeeding his brother Louis III in Saxony and Bavaria a year later, reunifying East France. Upon the death of his cousin Carlomano II in 884, he inherited all of West France, reunifying the Carolingian Empire.

The empire did not last long. A coup d'état led by his nephew Arnulfo of Carinthia in November 887 deposed Charles in East France, Lotharingia, and Italy. He was forced into seclusion and died of natural causes in January 888. The empire quickly collapsed after his death, never being restored and splitting into five kingdoms.

Youth and Heritage

Charles was the youngest of the three sons of Louis the Germanic, first king of East France, and Emma of the house of Gelfo. An incident of demonic possession is recalled in his youth, in which he was said to be foaming at the mouth before being carried to the church altar. This greatly affected his father and himself. He was described as, "...a very Christian prince, God-fearing, wholeheartedly keeping His commandments, obeying the orders of the Church with great devotion, generous in almsgiving, ceaselessly practicing prayer and singing, always with the intention of celebrating the praises of God."

In 859, Charles was made Count of Brisgovia, a Germanic mark bordering southern Lotharingia. In 863, his rebellious older brother Carlomano revolted against his father. The following year, Louis the Younger followed Carlomano in the revolt and Charles joined him. Carlomano received dominion of the Duchy of Bavaria. In 865, the elder Louis was forced to divide his remaining lands among his heirs: the Duchy of Saxony (the Germania (Duchy of Swabia with Rethia) went to Charles. Lotharingia was divided between the two young men.

When in 875 Emperor Louis II, who was also king of Italy, died having agreed with Louis the Germanic that Carlomano would succeed him in Italy, Charles the Bald of western France invaded the peninsula and crowned himself king and emperor. Louis the Germanic sent first Charles and then Carlomano himself, with armies containing Italian forces under Berengarius of Friul, his cousin, into the Italian kingdom. These wars, however, were unsuccessful until the death of Charles the Bald in 877.

In 876, Louis the Germanic died and the inheritance was divided as planned after a conference at Ries, although Charles received less of his share of Lotharingia than planned. In his letters, Charles' reign in Germania is dated from his inheritance in 876.

Acquisition of Italy

The three brothers ruled cooperatively and avoided wars by dividing their patrimony: a rare occurrence in the early Middle Ages. In 877, Carlomano finally inherited Italy from his uncle, Charles the Bald. Louis divided Lotharingia and offered one third to Carlomano and one third to Charles. In 878, Carlomano returned his Lotharingia to Louis, who then divided it equally with Charles. In 879, Carlomano was incapacitated by a stroke and divided his domains among his brothers: Bavaria went to Louis and Italy to Charles. Charles dated his reign in Italy from this point, and from then on he spent most of his reign until 886 in his Italian kingdom.

In 880, Charles joined Louis III of France and Carlomano II, the joint kings of western France, in a failed siege of Bosco of Provence in Vienna from August to September. Provence, legally part of the Italian kingdom since 863, rebelled under Boson. In August 882, Charles sent Richard, Duke of Burgundy, Count of Autun, to take the city, which he finally did in September. After that, Boson was restricted to Vienna.

Imperial Coronation

On July 18, 880, Pope John VIII sent a letter to Guido II of Spoleto seeking peace, but the duke ignored it and invaded the Papal States. John responded by imploring Charles' help in his capacity as King of Italy and crowned Charles Emperor on February 12, 881.This was accompanied by hope for a revival of Western Euopa, but Charles did little to help Guido II. Papal letters from November were still urging action on Charles.

As emperor, Charles set about building a palace in Sélestat in Alsace. He modeled it after the Palace in Aachen that was built by Charlemagne, whom he consciously sought to emulate, as indicated by the Gesta Karoli Magni of Notker the Stutterer. Since Aachen was located in his brother's kingdom, it was necessary for Charles to build a new palace for his court in his power base in western Germany. Sélestat was also more centrally located than Aachen.

In February 882, Charles called a diet in Ravenna. The duke, emperor, and pope made peace, and Guido and his uncle, Guido of Camerino, promised to return the papal lands. In a March letter to Charles, John stated that the vows were not fulfilled. In 883, Guido, now Duke of Spoleto, was accused of treason at an imperial synod held in Nonantula in late May. He returned to Spoleto and made an alliance with the Saracens. Charles sent Berengarius against Guido of Spoleto. Berengarius was initially successful until an epidemic of disease, which raged throughout Italy, affected the emperor and his entourage, as well as Berengarius' army, forcing him to retreat.

In 883, Charles signed a treaty with Giovanni II Participazio, Doge of Venice, granting that any murderer of a doge who fled into the territory of the Empire would be fined 100 pounds of gold and banished.

Reign in East France

In the early 880s, the remnants of the Great Pagan Army, defeated by Alfred the Great at the Battle of Ethandun in 878, began to settle in the Low Countries. Charles' brother Louis the Younger opposed them with some success, but he died after a short campaign on January 20, 882, leaving his throne to Charles, who reunited the entire Frankish kingdom in the east.

After returning from Italy, Charles held an assembly at Worms for the purpose of dealing with the Vikings. Armies from all over Eastern France were assembled in the summer under Arnulfo, Duke of Carinthia, and Henry, Count of Saxony. The chief camp of the Vikings was then besieged at Asselt. Charles then opened negotiations with the Viking chieftains Godofroy and Siguefroy. Godofroy accepted Christianity and became a vassal of Charles. He was married to Gisela, daughter of Lothar II of Lotharingia. Siguefredo was bribed. Despite the insinuations of some modern historians, no contemporary accounts have criticized Charles' actions during this campaign. In 885, fearing Godefroy and his brother-in-law, Hugo, Duke of Alsace, Charles arranged a conference at Spijk, near Lobith, where the Viking leader fell into his trap. Godefroy was executed, and Hugo was blinded and sent to Prüm.

From 882 to 884, the Guilherminian War encompassed the Mark of Pannonia (later, Mark of Austria). Arnulfo of Carinthia, Charles' illegitimate nephew, allied with the rebel Engelschalk II against Aribo of Austria, appointed by Charles mangrave of the region. Svatopluk I, ruler of Great Moravia, agreed to help Aribo and in 884 at Kaumberg took an oath of allegiance to Charles. Although the emperor lost his Wilhelminer family vassals and his relationship with his nephew was broken, he gained powerful new allies in the dux of Moravia and other Slavic dukes of the region.

Reign in West France

When Carlomano II of western France died on December 12, 884, the nobles of the kingdom invited Charles to take over the reign. Charles gladly accepted, being the third kingdom to "fall into his lap." According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Charles succeeded to all of Carlomano's kingdom except Brittany, but this does not seem to have been true. It is likely that Carles was crowned by Geilo, bishop of Langres, as rex in Gallia on May 20, 885 at Grand in Vosges in southern Lorraine. Although Geilo even developed a special seal for the Western Franks, Charles' rule in the West was always very remote and left most of the day-to-day business to the high nobility.

Although West France (the future France) was much less threatened by the Vikings than the Low Countries, it was hit hard nonetheless. In 885, a huge fleet led by Siguefredo sailed up the Seine for the first time in years and besieged Paris. Siguefredo demanded a bribe again, but this time Charles refused. He was in Italy at the time and Eudo, count of Paris, stole some men across enemy lines to seek his help. Charles sent Henry of Saxony to Paris. In 886, when disease began to spread through Paris, Eudo himself went to Charles for support. Charles brought a large army and surrounded Rollo's army and set up camp in Montmartre. However, Charles had no intention of fighting. He sent the attackers down to the Seine to devastate Burgundy, which was in revolt. When the Vikings withdrew from France the following spring, he gave them the 700 pounds of silver promised.

Charles issued a series of letters to western Frankish recipients during his stay in Paris during and after the siege. He recognized the rights and privileges granted by his predecessors to recipients of the Mark of Spain and Provence, but especially in Neustria, where he had contact with Nantes, when the Breton duke Alano I was known to be powerful in the county of Nantes. It is likely that Charles granted Alano the right to be titled rex; as emperor he would have this prerogative and Alano's use of the title seems legitimate. A document dated between 897 and 900 makes reference to the soul of Karolus, in whose name Alano had ordered prayers to be said at the monastery of Redon. This was probably Charles the Fat.

Succession Problems

Charles, childless from his marriage to Ricarda, tried to have an illegitimate child with an unknown concubine, Bernard, recognized as his heir in 885, but met opposition from several bishops. He had the support of Pope Hadrian III, whom he invited to an assembly at Worms in October 885, but who died en route, just after crossing the Po River. Hadrian was going to depose the obstructing bishops, as Charles doubted that he could do it alone and legitimize Bernardo. Based on the discouraging attitude of the Mainz continuation chronicler of the Annales Fuldenses, the chief opponent of Charles in the matter was probably Liutberto, archbishop of Mainz. Since Charles had gathered the "bishops and counts of Gaul" as well as the pope to meet him at Worms, it seems likely that he was planning to make Bernard king of Lotharingia. Notker the Stutterer, who considered Bernard as a possible heir, writes in his Actions of Charlemagne:

I will not tell you this until I see your little son Bernardo with a sword strapped to his thigh.

Perhaps Notker was waiting for Bernardo's kingship when Prüm was avenged.

After the failure of this first attempt, Charles began to try again. He had the term proles (offspring) inserted in his letters as it had not been in previous years, probably because he wished to legitimize Bernardo. In early 886, Charles met the new Pope Stephen V and probably negotiated the recognition of his son as heir. An assembly was planned for April and May of the next year in Waiblingen. Pope Stephen cancelled his planned attendance on April 30, 887. However, in Waiblingen, Berengarius, who after a brief dispute with Liutvardo lost the emperor's favor, arrived in early May 887, made peace with the emperor, and compensated for his actions the previous year by large offerings.

Charles probably abandoned his plans for Bernardo and instead adopted Louis of Provence as his son at an assembly in Kirchen in May. It is possible, however, that the agreement with Louis was designed only to generate support for Bernardo's sub-reign in Lotharingia. In June or July, Berengarius arrived in Kirchen, probably wishing to be declared Charles' heir; he may indeed have been so called in Italy, where he was acclaimed (or made) king immediately after Charles' deposition. Eudo, count of Paris, may have had a similar goal in visiting Charles in Kirchen. On the other hand, the presence of these magnates at these two great assemblies may have been only necessary to confirm Charles' illegitimate son as his heir (Waiblingen), a plan that failed when the pope refused to attend.

Deposition, death and legacy

With Charles increasingly seen as cowardly and incompetent, things came to a head in late 887. In the summer of that year, having given up plans for his son's succession, Charles received Eudo and Berengarius, marquis of Friul, a relative of his. into his court. He may have accepted neither one, nor both, as his heir in their respective kingdoms. His inner circle then began to crumble. First, he accused his wife Ricarda of having an affair with his chief minister and arch-chancellor, Liutvardo, Bishop of Vercelli. She proved his innocence in a trial by fire and left him for the monastic life. He then turned against Liutvardo, who was hated by all, and removed him from office, appointing Liutberto, Archbishop of Mainz, in his place.

That year, with her first cousin once removed, Ermengarde of Provence, daughter of Emperor Louis II and wife of Boson of Provence, brought her son Louis the Blind for protection. Charles confirmed Louis in Provence (he may even have adopted him) and allowed them to live at his court. He probably intended to make Louis heir to the entire kingdom and empire. On November 11, he called an assembly in Frankfurt. While there he received word that an ambitious nephew, Arnulfo of Carinthia, had fomented a general rebellion and was marching into Germany with an army of Bavarians and Slavs. The following week saw the collapse of all his support in East France. The last to abandon him were his loyal Alamans, although the men of Lotharingia never formally accepted his deposition. By November 17, Charles was out of power, although the exact course of events is unknown. Apart from rebuking his lack of faith, he did little to prevent Arnulfo's move - he had recently been ill - but assured that Bernardo would be entrusted to him and possibly to Louis as well. He asked for some property in Swabia to live out his days and so received Naudingen (Donaueschingen). There he died six weeks later, on January 13, 888.

The Empire collapsed, never to be restored. According to Regino of Prüm, each part of the kingdom elected a "king" from its own "bowels"-the bowels being the regions within the kingdom. It is likely that Arnulfo desired the entire empire, but the only part he received beyond East France was Lotharingia. The French elected Eudo, despite initially opposing Guido III of Spoleto, who also opposed Arnulfo in Lotharingia. Guido sought kingship in Italy after his failures in France, although Berengarius had already been crowned. Louis was crowned in Provence, as Charles intended, and he sought Arnulfo's support and obtained it, probably through entreaties to him. Eudo would eventually submit to Arnulfo's supremacy as well. In Upper Burgundy, one Rodolfo, duke of the region, was elected king in a distinctly non-Carolingian creation, probably the result of his failure to succeed throughout Lotharingia. In Aquitaine, Ranulphus II declared himself king and took over the guardianship of the young Charles the Simple, the Carolingian heir to the West, refusing to recognize Eudo's election.

It is not known whether these elections were a response to Charles' deposition of the Franks or to his death. Only those of Arnulphus and Berengarius can certainly be placed before his death. Only the magnates of the East ever formally deposed him. He was buried with honor at Reichenau after his death and the Annales Fuldenses praise his piety and kindness. In fact, contemporary opinion of Charles is consistently kinder than later historiography, although it is a modern suggestion that his lack of apparent successes is the excusable result.

Charles was the subject of a Latin prose work, the Visio Karoli Grossi, designed to champion the cause of Louis the Blind and warn the Carolingians that their continued rule was not right if they did not have "divine" (i.e., ecclesiastical) favor.


  1. Charles the Fat
  2. Carlos, o Gordo
  3. ^ This is the term preferred by scholars for the early phase of what became the Holy Roman Empire of the high Middle Ages and the early modern period. He is numbered as "Charles III" in the lists on German monarchs but was not counted as king of France (despite briefly ruling over West Francia) by Charles V when he adopted his regnal number.[1]
  4. Reuter, 72.
  5. a b AF, 875 (p.77 and n8).
  6. MacLean, 70.
  7. Chris Wickham (1981), Early Medieval Italy: Central Power and Local Society, 400–1000 (Macmillan), 169.
  8. Το ψευδώνυμο "ο Παχύς" είναι επινόηση του 12ου αιώνα. Η πραγματική περιφέρεια σώματος του Καρόλου είναι άγνωστη.
  9. MacLean, 2
  10. Airlie, 129
  11. Reuter, 72
  12. AF, 875 (σ.77 και Σημείωση 8)
  13. Charles III Архивная копия от 7 мая 2019 на Wayback Machine // Britannica (англ.)
  14. Смирнов Ф. А. Каролинги // Энциклопедический словарь Брокгауза и Ефрона : в 86 т. (82 т. и 4 доп.). — СПб., 1890—1907.
  15. После смерти Карла Лысого титул императора оставался вакантным в течение четырех лет.

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