Granted lordship over Alemannia in 876 by the divisio regnorum (division) of Louis the German's kingdom, he succeeded in Italy upon the abdication of his older brother Carloman, incapacitated by a stroke. Crowned Emperor in 881 by Pope John VIII, his succession to the territories of his brother Louis the Younger the following year reunited the entire Kingdom of the East Franks (later Germany). Upon the death of his cousin Carloman II, he inherited all of West Francia (later France) also, thus reviving, if only briefly, the entire Carolingian Empire.
Usually considered lethargic and inept — he is known to have had repeated illnesses and is believed to have suffered from epilepsy — he twice purchased peace with Viking raiders, including at the famous siege of Paris in 886. Nevertheless, contemporary opinion of him was not nearly so negative as modern historiographical opinion, which itself is seeing a turnaround.
In AD 859, Charles was made Count of the Breisgau, an Alemannic march against southern Lotharingia. In 863, his rebellious eldest brother Carloman revolted against their father. The next year, Louis the Younger followed Carloman in revolt and Charles joined him. Carloman was invested with Bavaria as co-king. In 865, the elder Louis was forced to divide his lands amongst his heirs: Bavaria went to Carloman; Saxony (with Franconia and Thuringia) went to Louis; and Alemannia (Swabia with Rhaetia) went to Charles. Lotharingia was to be divided between the younger two.
When, in 875, the Emperor Louis II, who was also King of Italy, died, having come to terms with Louis the German whereby Carloman would succeed in Italy, Charles the Bald of West Francia invaded the peninsula and had himself crowned king and emperor. Louis the German sent first Charles and then Carloman himself, with armies containing Italian forces under Berengar of Friuli, their cousin, to possess the Italian kingdom. This was not, however, successful until the death of Charles the Bald in 877.
In 876, Louis died and the inheritance went as planned after a conference at Ries, though Charles received less of his share of Lotharingian than planned. In his charters, Charles' reign in Germania is dated from his inheritance in 876.
In 880, Charles joined Louis III and Carloman, joint kings of West Francia, in besieging Boso of Provence in Vienne from August to September, but they failed to dislodge him. Provence was legally a part of the Italian kingdom (from 863). In August 882, Charles sent Richard the Justiciar, Count of Autun, to take the city, which he did (in September). After this, Boso could not regain most of his realm and was restricted to the vicinity of Vienne.
As emperor, Charles began the construction of a palace at Sélestat in Alsace. He modelled it after the Palace at Aachen which Charlemagne, whom he consciously sought to emulate, as indicated by the Vita Karoli Magni of Notker the Stammerer, had built. As Aachen was in the kingdom of his brother, it was necessary for Charles to build a new palace for his court in his own power base of western Alemannia. Sélestat was also more central to the Empire than Aachen.
In February 882, Charles convoked a diet in Ravenna. The duke, emperor, and pope made peace and Guy and his uncle, Guy of Camerino, vowed to restore stolen papal lands. In a March letter to Charles, John claimed that the vows went unfulfilled. In 883, Guy, now Duke of Spoleto, was accused of treason at an imperial synod held at Nonantula late in May. He returned to the Spoleto and made an alliance with the Saracens. Charles sent Berengar, equipped with an army, to deprive Guy of Spoleto. Berengar was initially successful until an epidemic of disease, which ravaged all Italy, affecting the emperor and his entourage as well as Berengar's army, forced him to retire.
In 883, Charles signed a treaty with Giovanni II Participazio, Doge of Venice, granting that any assassin of a doge who fled to the territory of the empire would be fined 100 lbs of gold and banished.
From 882 to 884, the Wilhelminer War dominated the Marcha Orientalis (later Austria). Arnulf of Carinthia, Charles's illegitimate nephew, allied with the rebel Engelschalk II against Charles' appointed margrave in the region, Aribo. Svatopluk I, ruler of Great Moravia, took up Aribo's cause and, at Kaumberg, in 884, took oaths of fidelity to Charles. Though the emperor lost his vassals of the Wilhelminer family and his relationship with his nephew was broken, he gained powerful allies in the Moravian dux and other Slavic duces in the area.
In 885, fearing Godfrey and his brother-in-law, Hugh, Duke of Alsace, Charles arranged for a conference at Spijk, near Lobith, inviting the Viking leader to fall into a trap. Godfrey was executed and Hugh was blinded and sent to Prüm.
Perhaps Notker was awaiting Bernard's kingship, when Prüm would be avenged.
After the failure of his first attempt, Charles set about to try again. He had the term proles (offspring) inserted into his charters as it had not been in previous years, probably because he desired to legitimise Bernard. In early 886, Charles met the new Pope Stephen V and probably negotiated for the recognition of his son as his heir. An assembly was planned for April and May of the next year at Waiblingen. Pope Stephen cancelled his planned attendance on 30 April 887. Nevertheless, at Waiblingen, Berengar, who by a brief feud with Liutward had lost the favour of the emperor, came in early May 887, made peace with the emperor, and compensated for the actions of the previous year by dispensing great gifts.
Charles probably abandoned his plans for Bernard and instead adopted Louis of Provence as his son at an assembly at Kirchen in May. It is possible, however, that the agreement with Louis was only designed to engender support for Bernard's subkingship in Lotharingia. In June or July, Berengar arrived in Kirchen, probably pining to be declared Charles's heir; he may in fact have been so named in Italy, where he was acclaimed (or made himself) king immediately after Charles's deposition. Odo, Count of Paris, may have had a similar purpose in visiting Charles at Kirchen. On the other, hand the presence of these magnates at these two great assemblies may merely have been necessary to confirm Charles' illegitimate son as his heir (Waiblingen), a plan which failed when the pope refused to attend, and then to confirm Louis instead (Kirchen).
When Carloman II of West Francia died on 12 December 884, the nobles of that kingdom invited Charles, to assume the kingship. Charles gladly accepted, it being the third kingdom to "fall into his lap. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Charles succeeded to all of the kingdom of Carloman save Brittany, but this does not seem to have been true. It is likely that Charles was crowned by Geilo, Bishop of Langres, as rex in Gallia on 20 May 885 at Grand in the Vosges in southern Lorraine. Though Geilo even developed a special West Frankish seal for him, Charles's government in the West, however, was always very impersonal and he left most day-to-day business to the higher nobility.
Though West Francia (the future France) was far less menaced by the Vikings than the Low Countries, it was heavily hit nonetheless. In 885, a huge fleet led by Sigfred sailed up the Seine, for the first time in years, and besieged Paris. Sigfred demanded a bribe again, but this time Charles refused. He was in Italy at the time and Odo, Count of Paris, sneaked some men through enemy lines to seek his aid. Charles sent Henry, Count of Saxony, to Paris. In 886, as disease began to spread through Paris, Odo himself went to Charles to seek support. Charles brought a large army and encircled the army of Rollo and set up a camp at Montmartre. However, Charles had no intention of fighting. He sent the defenders down the Seine to ravage Burgundy, which was in revolt. When the Vikings withdrew from France next spring, he gave them 700 pounds of promised silver. Charles prestige in France was greatly diminished.
Charles issued a number of charters for West Frankish recipients during his stay in Paris during and after the siege. He recognised rights and privileges granted by his predecessors to recipients in the Spanish March and Provence, but especially in Neustria, where he had contact with Nantes at a time when the Breton duke Alan I was known to be powerful in the county of Nantes. It is probable that Charles granted Alan the right to be titled rex; as emperor he would have had that prerogative and Alan's use of the title appears legitimate. A charter datable to between 897 and 900 makes reference to the soul of Karolus on whose behalf Alan had ordered prayers to be said in the monastery of Redon. This was probably Charles the Fat.
In that year, his first cousin once removed, Ermengard, daughter of the Emperor Louis II and wife of Boso of Provence, brought her son Louis to him 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 whole realm and the imperium. On 11 November, he called an assembly to Frankfurt. While there he received news that an ambitious nephew, Arnulf of Carinthia, had fomented a general rebellion and was marching into Germany with an army of Bavarians and Slavs. The next week saw the collapse of all his support in East Francia. The last to abandon him were his loyal Alemanni, though the men of Lotharingia never seem to have formally accepted his deposition. By 17 November, Charles was out of power, though the exact course of events is unknown. Asides from rebuking his faithlessness, he did little to prevent Arnulf's move — he had recently been ill again — but assure that Bernard was entrusted to his care and possibly Louis too. He asked for a few estates in Swabia on which to live out his days and thus received Neidingen. There he died six weeks later, on 13 January 888.
Charles' empire broke asunder, never to be restored. According to Regino of Prüm, each part of the realm elected a "kinglet" from its own "bowels". It is probable that Arnulf desired the whole empire, but the only part he received other than East Francia was Lotharingia. The French elected Odo, though he was opposed at first by Guy III of Spoleto, who also opposed Arnulf in Lotharingia. Guy sought the kingship in Italy after his failures in Francia, though there Berengar had already been crowned. Louis was crowned in Provence as Charles had intended and he sought the support of Arnulf and gained it, probably through supplication to him. Odo would eventually submit to Arnulf's supremacy as well. In Upper Burgundy, one Rudolph, a dux of the region, was elected as king in a distinctly non-Carolingian creation, probably the result of his failure to succeed in the whole of Lotharingia. In Aquitaine, Ranulf II declared himself king and took the guardianship of the young Charles the Simple, the Carolingian heir to the West, refusing to recognise Odo's election.
It is unknown if these elections were a response to Charles's East Frankish deposition or to his death. Only those of Arnulf and Berengar can be certainly placed before his death. Only the magnates of the East ever formally deposed him. He was buried with honour in Reichenau after his death and the Annales Fuldenses heap praises on his piety and godliness. Indeed, contemporary opinion of Charles is consistently kinder than later historiography, though it is a modern suggestion that his lack of apparent successes is the excusable result of near constant illness and infirmity.
Charles was the subject of a hortative piece of Latin prose, the Visio Karoli Grossi, designed to champion the cause of Louis the Blind and warn the Carolingians that their continued rule was not certain if they did not have "divine" (i.e. ecclesiastical) favour.
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