Carolingian dynasty

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Carolingian dynasty
Imperial dynasty
Country Carolingian Empire/Holy Roman Empire
Lombard Kingdom
Duchy of Bavaria
Duchy of Bohemia
Founded714 (714)
Founder Charles Martel (688–741)
Final ruler Adelaide of Vermandois (died 1120/1124)
Estate(s) Palace of Aachen (seat)
Dissolution1120 (1120)/1124 (1124)
Deposition877 (Charles the Bald's death)

The Carolingian dynasty (known variously as the Carlovingians, Carolingus, Carolings, Karolinger or Karlings) was a Frankish noble family founded by Charles Martel with origins in the Arnulfing and Pippinid clans of the 7th century AD. [1] The dynasty consolidated its power in the 8th century, eventually making the offices of mayor of the palace and dux et princeps Francorum hereditary, and becoming the de facto rulers of the Franks as the real powers behind the Merovingian throne. In 751 the Merovingian dynasty which had ruled the Germanic Franks was overthrown with the consent of the Papacy and the aristocracy, and Pepin the Short, son of Martel, was crowned King of the Franks. The Carolingian dynasty reached its peak in 800 with the crowning of Charlemagne as the first Emperor of Romans in the West in over three centuries. His death in 814 began an extended period of fragmentation of the Carolingian Empire and decline that would eventually lead to the evolution of the Kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire.



The Carolingian dynasty takes its name from Carolus, the Latinised name of Charles Martel, de facto ruler of Francia from 718 until his death. [2] The name "Carolingian" (Medieval Latin karolingi, an altered form of an unattested Old High German word karling or kerling, meaning "descendant of Charles" cf. MHG kerlinc) [3] [4] or "the family of Charles." [5]


Traditional historiography has seen the Carolingian assumption of the Frankish kingship as the product of a long rise to power, punctuated even by a premature attempt to seize the throne through Childebert the Adopted. This picture, however, is not commonly accepted today. Rather, the coronation of 751 is seen typically as a product of the aspirations of one man, Pepin, whose father, dynastic founder Charles Martel, had been a Frankish high court official military commander, and of the Roman Catholic Church, which was always looking for powerful secular protectors and for the extension of its spiritual and temporal influence.

The greatest Carolingian monarch was Charlemagne, Pepin's son. Charlemagne was crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III at Rome in 800. [6] His empire, ostensibly a continuation of the Western Roman Empire, is referred to historiographically as the Carolingian Empire.

The Carolingian rulers did not give up the traditional Frankish (and Merovingian) practice of dividing inheritances among heirs, though the concept of the indivisibility of the Empire was also accepted. The Carolingians had the practice of making their sons minor kings in the various regions (regna) of the Empire, which they would inherit on the death of their father, which Charlemagne and his son Louis the Pious both did for their sons. Following the death of the Emperor Louis the Pious in 840, his surviving adult sons, Lothair I and Louis the German, along with their adolescent brother Charles the Bald, fought a three-year civil war ending only in the Treaty of Verdun in 843, which divided the empire into three regna while according imperial status and a nominal lordship to Lothair who at 48, was the eldest. [7] The Carolingians differed markedly from the Merovingians in that they disallowed inheritance to illegitimate offspring, possibly in an effort to prevent infighting among heirs and assure a limit to the division of the realm. In the late ninth century, however, the lack of suitable adults among the Carolingians necessitated the rise of Arnulf of Carinthia as the king of East Francia, a bastard child of a legitimate Carolingian king, Carloman of Bavaria, [8] himself a son of the First King of the Eastern division of the Frankish kingdom Louis the German.


It was after Charlemagne's death that the dynasty began to slowly crumble. His kingdom would end up splitting into three, each being ruled over by one of his grandsons. Only the kingdoms of the eastern and western portions survived, and would go on to become the countries known today as Germany and France. [9] The Carolingians were displaced in most of the regna of the Empire by 888. They ruled in East Francia until 911 and held the throne of West Francia intermittently until 987. Carolingian cadet branches continued to rule in Vermandois and Lower Lorraine after the last king died in 987, but they never sought thrones of principalities and made peace with the new ruling families. One chronicler of Sens dates the end of Carolingian rule with the coronation of Robert II of France as junior co-ruler with his father, Hugh Capet, thus beginning the Capetian dynasty. [10] The dynasty became extinct in the male line with the death of Eudes, Count of Vermandois. His sister Adelaide, the last Carolingian, died in 1122.


Carolingian denier of Lothair I, struck in Dorestad (Middle Francia) after 850. Karolingische denier Lotharius Dorestad.jpg
Carolingian denier of Lothair I, struck in Dorestad (Middle Francia) after 850.

The Carolingian dynasty has five distinct branches: [11]

  1. The Lombard branch, or Vermandois branch, or Herbertians, descended from Pepin of Italy, son of Charlemagne. Though he did not outlive his father, his son Bernard was allowed to retain Italy. Bernard rebelled against his uncle Louis the Pious, and lost both his kingdom and his life. Deprived of the royal title, the members of this branch settled in France, and became counts of Vermandois, Valois, Amiens and Troyes. The counts of Vermandois perpetuated the Carolingian line until the 12th century. The Counts of Chiny and the lords of Mellier, Neufchâteau and Falkenstein are branches of the Herbertians. With the descendants of the counts of Chiny, there would have been Herbertian Carolingians to the early 13th century.
  2. The Lotharingian branch, descended from Emperor Lothair, eldest son of Louis the Pious. At his death Middle Francia was divided equally between his three surviving sons, into Italy, Lotharingia and Lower Burgundy. The sons of Emperor Lothair did not have sons of their own, so Middle Francia was divided between the western and eastern branches of the family in 875.
  3. The Aquitainian branch, descended from Pepin of Aquitaine, son of Louis the Pious. Since he did not outlive his father, his sons were deprived of Aquitaine in favor of his younger brother Charles the Bald. Pepin's sons died childless. Extinct 864.
  4. The German branch, descended from Louis the German, King of East Francia, son of Louis the Pious. Since he had three sons, his lands were divided into Duchy of Bavaria, Duchy of Saxony and Duchy of Swabia. His youngest son Charles the Fat briefly reunited both East and West Francia – the entirety of the Carolingian empire – but it split again after his death, never to be reunited again. With the failure of the legitimate lines of the German branch, Arnulf of Carinthia, an illegitimate nephew of Charles the Fat, rose to the kingship of East Francia. At the death of Arnulf's son Louis the Child in 911, Carolingian rule ended in East Francia.
  5. The French branch, descended from Charles the Bald, King of West Francia, son of Louis the Pious. The French branch ruled in West Francia, but their rule was interrupted by Charles the Fat of the German branch, two Robertians, and a Bosonid. Carolingian rule ended with the death of Louis V of France in 987. Charles, Duke of Lower Lorraine, the Carolingian heir, was ousted out of the succession by Hugh Capet; his sons died childless. Extinct c. 1012.

Grand strategy

Carolingian family tree, from the Chronicon Universale of Ekkehard of Aura, 12th century Stammtafel der Karolinger.jpg
Carolingian family tree, from the Chronicon Universale of Ekkehard of Aura, 12th century

The historian Bernard Bachrach argues that the rise of the Carolingians to power is best understood using the theory of a Carolingian grand strategy. A grand strategy is a long term military and political strategy that lasts for longer than a typical campaigning season, and can span long periods of time. [12] The Carolingians followed a set course of action that discounts the idea of a random rise in power and can be considered as a grand strategy. Another major part of the grand strategy of the early Carolingians encompassed their political alliance with the aristocracy. This political relationship gave the Carolingians authority and power in the Frankish kingdom.

Beginning with Pippin II, the Carolingians set out to put the regnum Francorum ("kingdom of the Franks") back together, after its fragmentation after the death of Dagobert I, a Merovingian king. After an early failed attempt in c. 651 to usurp the throne from the Merovingians, the early Carolingians began to slowly gain power and influence as they consolidated military power as Mayors of the Palace. In order to do this, the Carolingians used a combination of Late Roman military organization along with the incremental changes that occurred between the fifth and eighth centuries. Because of the defensive strategy the Romans had implemented during the Late Empire, the population had become militarized and were thus available for military use. [13] The existence of the remaining Roman infrastructure that could be used for military purposes, such as roads, strongholds and fortified cities meant that the reformed strategies of the Late Romans would still be relevant. Civilian men who lived either in or near a walled city or strong point were required to learn how to fight and defend the areas in which they lived. These men were rarely used in the course of Carolingian grand strategy because they were used for defensive purposes, and the Carolingians were for the most part on the offensive most of the time.

Another class of civilians were required to serve in the military which included going on campaigns. Depending on one's wealth, one would be required to render different sorts of service, and “the richer the man was, the greater was his military obligation for service”. [14] For example, if rich, one might be required as a knight. Or one might be required to provide a number of fighting men.

In addition to those who owed military service for the lands they had, there were also professional soldiers who fought for the Carolingians. If the holder of a certain amount of land was ineligible for military service (women, old men, sickly men or cowards) they would still owe military service. Instead of going themselves, they would hire a soldier to fight in their place. Institutions, such as monasteries or churches were also required to send soldiers to fight based on the wealth and the amount of lands they held. In fact, the use of ecclesiastical institutions for their resources for the military was a tradition that the Carolingians continued and greatly benefitted from.

It was “highly unlikely that armies of many more than a hundred thousand effectives with their support systems could be supplied in the field in a single theatre of operation.” [15] Because of this, each landholder would not be required to mobilize all of his men each year for the campaigning season, but instead the Carolingians would decide which kinds of troops were needed from each landholder, and what they should bring with them. In some cases, sending men to fight could be substituted for different types of war machines. In order to send effective fighting men, many institutions would have well trained soldiers that were skilled in fighting as heavily armored troops. These men would be trained, armored, and given the things they needed in order to fight as heavy troops at the expense of the household or institution for whom they fought. These armed retinues served almost as private armies, “which were supported at the expense of the great magnates, [and] were of considerable importance to early Carolingian military organization and warfare." [16] The Carolingians themselves supported their own military household and they were the most important “core of the standing army in the” regnum Francorum. [17]

It was by utilizing the organization of the military in an effective manner that contributed to the success of the Carolingians in their grand strategy. This strategy consisted of strictly adhering to the reconstruction of the regnum Francorum under their authority. Bernard Bachrach gives three principles for Carolingian long-term strategy that spanned generations of Carolingian rulers:

The first principle… was to move cautiously outward from the Carolingian base in Austrasia. Its second principle was to engage in a single region at a time until the conquest had been accomplished. The third principle was to avoid becoming involved beyond the frontiers of the regnum Francorum or to do so when absolutely necessary and then not for the purpose of conquest”. [18]

This is important to the development of medieval history because without such a military organization and without a grand strategy, the Carolingians would not have successfully become kings of the Franks, as legitimized by the bishop of Rome. Furthermore, it was ultimately because of their efforts and infrastructure that Charlemagne was able to become such a powerful king and be crowned Emperor of the Romans in 800. Without the efforts of his predecessors, he would not have been as successful as he was and the revival of the Roman Empire in the West was likely to have not occurred.

See also

References and sources

Related Research Articles

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  14. Bachrach, 55.
  15. Bachrach, 58.
  16. Bachrach, 64.
  17. Bachrach, 65.
  18. Bachrach, 49–50.