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  • Published on: 21st September 2019
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The Carolingian dynasty saw its strongest years under Charlemagne and Louis, as a vast and united empire, ruled by skilful leaders. However, towards the end of Louis the Pious’ reign the empire began to struggle. This was due to five key factors; civil war, fragmentation of rule, the rise of the aristocracy, invasions and a dynastic crisis. To a large extent such factors of decline can be attributed to the actions of the Carolingian family - many issues arose from internecine hostilities which caused distractions, drained resources, left an empire riven by conflict and offered the opportunity of increased power to the nobility, and to invade swiftly to groups such as the Vikings. By the years of dynastic crisis, in 874, the empire was significantly weaker than the unified Francia left by predecessors. The final reign of Charles the Fat can signify that this lack of continuity and constant infighting brought the collapse of the dynasty.

During the Carolingian decline, intra-familial conflict can be seen to weaken and distract the empire. Division within the dynasty provided a distraction from external threats and forced increased reliance on the nobility. For example, conflict during ‘The Brothers War’ highlights how such civil fighting allowed invaders to take advantage - In 840 whilst Louis, Charles and Lothar battled around the Rhine, ‘(Danish Pirates had) meanwhile sailed down the Channel and attacked Rouen.’ They then ‘plundered the town with pillage, fire and sword (and) slaughtered or took captive the monks and the rest of the population.’ This incident explicitly highlights how the preoccupation of the sons and the concentration of their armies around the Rhine, allowed for invaders to swiftly violate native Frankish populations, with little resistance. In addition, the use of resources against each other meant a weaker army to face such invasions. Battles could be notoriously violent - the poet Englebert suggested ‘no slaughter was ever worse on any field of war.’  Although a soldier of Lothar’s losing side and therefore not representative for all involved, Englebert’s recount can be useful in suggesting the lengths in which fraternal loyalty would be disregarded to advance themselves and therefore their fixation on victory. This further supports that civil war was a dangerous distraction, which could therefore suggest the Carolingian decline was their own fault, to some extent – disagreements between siblings could largely have been solved through less destructive means. Furthermore, the animosity amongst the brothers undermined the strength of the unified empire Carolingian predecessors had left behind, as ‘it allowed independent-minded Frankish aristocrats to strengthen their own positions by playing members of the royal house against one another.’ Throughout the war, in attempts to guarantee allegiance and support, the brothers gave or promised royal attributes to aristocrats who supported them. This left the family’s wealth depleted and therefore vulnerable in the future – for example, the halt in the expansion of the empire, meant resources which built wealth were finite and therefore should have been used tactfully. As a consequence, civil war would therefore act as a catalyst for declining power in the future, preventing rulers from regaining control. Consequently, in conclusion the effects of intra-familial conflict in weakening the Carolingian dynasty suggest that, to a significant extent, they are responsible for their own downfall.

Carolingian power was further weakened by disunited and fragmented rule. This would promote continued fighting, disturb settlers within the empire and allow for the new kingdoms to drift. Under Charlemagne and Louis the Pious the empire was integrated in political unity, however the resulting peace terms from ‘The Brothers War’ meant that the realm was subdivided under the Treaty of Verdun (843). The treaty outlined new Kingdoms, each ruled by one of Louis’ sons, however such division left opportunity for the brothers to invade each other, in efforts to extend their own Kingdoms. For example, Louis the German invaded Charles’ West Francia in 858, hailing the need to liberate the West Franks who ‘could no longer bear the tyranny of Charles.’ This continuation of battle would exacerbate the consequences of war on power previously outlined. The calls for liberation also highlight the lack of loyalty between the new Kings, who were not well established, and their subjects. This weak relationship is also suggested by narratives who were ‘more likely to be openly critical of Carolingian rulers (after Charlemagne and Louis). This was partly a consequence of the splitting of the empire into kingdoms which developed their own historiographical traditions.’ This can suggest not only a decline in respect, and therefore power over citizens but how the kingdoms began acting as separate empires – for example, the creation of separate Annals (of St. Bertin and Fulda). Therefore, although the treaty was not out of the ordinary in the sense that this kind of tradition was common, upheld even by Charlemagne in which ‘many (of his) territories were ruled by others on his behalf,’ circumstances such as strained fraternal relations, allowed the kingdoms to drift as separate entities, with a decline in common ground. To conclude, the result of divided kingdoms saw continued fighting and the loss of absolute power over subjects. This suggests that if the empire had remained as one united force, power may have remained stronger - meaning decline can be seen to be partly the responsibility of the Carolingians.

In correspondence to Carolingian decline, the aristocracy gained in influence and could therefore hold some responsibility for the weakening of the dynasty’s control - In order to sustain support for themselves, the Kings frequently bought loyalties from the aristocracy, in exchange for royal property. This short-term solution however, created long-term problems as the ‘nobility … secured a greater degree of independence within their own localities, at the expense of royal authority,’ which left the King in a weaker position, with less popular support and a reliance upon an aristocrat in control of that area. This could suggest that the King is responsible for a decline in his own power, as it was the decision to relinquish land which caused it. Although it could be argued that the positive benefits of Königsnähe meant the aristocracy would ensure these areas loyalty to the king, some magnates had power across borders and therefore undermined this. ‘Werner, for example, was a count in Louis’ kingdom, but had family interests beyond, notably in the middle kingdom.’ This left both Kings Louis and Lothar in vulnerable positions, as neither were able to depend on his loyalty. Had the empire remained unified, this would not have been such a problem.  In addition, their power left the Kings puppets of the nobility – in order to maintain their allegiance. For example, the roots of Louis’ invasion of West Francia in 858 include ‘influential nobles (who were) … resentful of the power of Charles’ son.’ This exemplifies the potential strength of the nobility, in being able to dictate the details of invasions to the King. Aristocratic potential is also evident from the ability of magnates to ensure Louis III and Carloman succeed Louis the Stammer in 879. The motivation for this, was likely to manipulate the young Kings into figure-heads and ‘in reality (have) the great magnates rule the kingdom.’  This highlights how noble power escalated from pockets of land and was built on through aristocratic initiative. To conclude, the rise of the aristocracy can be seen to significantly limit the power of the Carolingians. It is likely that the initial cause for this upsurge was the donation of land – which were errors made by the dynasty and therefore suggests that decline, to some extent, was their own fault.

An alternative, yet persistent threat to Carolingian rule in the ninth and tenth centuries were invasions, which were perpetuated by poor handling of them. For example, in reports of the siege of Asselt in 882, in the Annals of Fulda, Charles the Fat is heavily criticised - ‘the army … regretted that such a prince had come to rule over them, who favoured the enemy’ and that ‘he had made the man who had been the greatest enemy and traitor to his kingdom into a co-ruler of it.’ This may highlight the King’s weak position and inability to counter-attack, or a lack in leadership skills. Although from the Annals of Fulda, and therefore largely anti-Charles and with selective themes, the account is still useful as it emphasises that Charles was not in a position to successfully fight the invaders. This could suggest that invasions were a symptom of decline, rather than a cause. This may be supported by the timings of attacks, which imply that the Vikings chose to invade whilst the empire was engaged in conflict and therefore weak – they ‘took advantage of the quarrels between his (Louis the Pious’) son’s after his death.’ It is thought the Viking’s first began invasions in Northern Europe around the late 830s, which coincides with rising fraternal tensions before The Brothers War in 840. This is further supported by Hoyt and Chodorow who suggest ‘the royal government, even in the moments when it was not engaged in internecine warfare, could not muster its resources to meet such raids.’ The timings of invasions, including the Vikings, suggest that raiders were taking advantage whilst the empire was weak. Therefore, the involvement of invasions in weakening Carolingian power can be seen as the fault of the dynasty to only a limited extent, as ongoing infighting intensified the problem.

Towards the end of the 9th Century, a dynastic crisis was emerging. The rapid succession of Kings between 874 and 884 can be seen to weaken the dynasty. ‘Royal succession created tensions within the kingdom as aristocrats and neighbouring rulers … reposition(ed) themselves.’ The lack of continuity meant no monarch could develop authority over the kingdom and allowed for the nobility to increase their influence. In addition to this, by 885 Charles the Fat had inherited the entire empire, which in itself caused difficulties. He could no longer offer the Königsnähe the aristocracy had become accustomed to. This left him vulnerable, with few allegiances, and with depleted wealth – lack of expansion meant resources were finite and not replenished.  Charles was also troubled with illness (referenced as a ‘sick man’, in 876) and so is largely seen as a ‘do nothing’ king. A physically weak King, with few resources is consequently unlikely to be a strong leader and therefore may symbolise the Carolingians as weak.

To conclude, the argument largely suggests that the Carolingians were largely responsible for their decline in power. Civil war and fragmentation drained resources, provided distraction from both internal and external threats to power, caused fragmentation and left the dynasty vulnerable. Unavoidable instances, such as Viking invasions and dynastic crises were perpetuated by these too – the dynasty would collapse from within, ultimately as a result of the inability of the Carolingian family to cooperate and rule in peace and harmony.

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