Charles III, Holy Roman Emperor

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Charles III, Holy Roman Emperor
Emperor of the Romans

Emperor of the Carolingian Empire
Reign 12 February 881 – 11 November 887
Coronation 12 February 881, Rome
Predecessor Charles II (877)
Successor Guy of Spoleto
King of West Francia and Aquitaine
Reign 12 December 884 – 11 November 887
Coronation 20 May 885, Grand
Predecessor Carloman II
King of Italy
Reign 22 March 880 – 11 November 887
Coronation 12 April 880, Ravenna
Predecessor Carloman
Successor Berengar I
King of East Francia and Alemannia
Reign 28 August 876 – 11 November 887
Predecessor Louis II
Successor Arnulf
Spouse Richgard/Richardis of Swabia (m. 862)
Bernhard (illegitimate)
Father Louis II
Mother Emma of Altdorf
Religion Roman Catholicism

Charles III (German: Karl III.; b. 839 in Francia; d. 13 January 888 in Neudingen (Donaueschingen), Carolingian Empire), also known as Charles the Fat, was a Germanic nobleman and Frankish ruler. He was the King of Alemannia from 876, King of Italy from 879, Holy Roman Emperor (as Charles III) from 881, King of East Francia from 882, and King of West Francia from 884. Charles, childless by his marriage to Richgard/Richardis, tried to have his illegitimate son by an unknown concubine, Bernhard, recognised as his heir in 885, but this met with opposition from several bishops. He was deposed in East Francia, Lotharingia, and possibly Italy (there the records are not clear) in 887 which arked the final disintegration of the empire of Charlemagne.


Charles was the youngest son of Louis the German and great-grandson of Charlemagne. Granted lordship over Alemannia in 876 by the divisio regnorum (division) of Louis the German's kingdom]], he succeeded his 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 nephew 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.

Charles was the youngest of the three sons of Louis the German, first King of East Francia, and Emma, a Welf. An incidence of demonic possession is recorded in his youth, in which he was said to have been foaming at the mouth before he was taken to the altar of the church. This greatly affected his father and himself, he was described as "a very Christian prince, fearing God, with all his heart keeping His commandments, very devoutly obeying the orders of the Church, generous in alms-giving, practising unceasingly prayer and song, always intent upon celebrating the praises of God."

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.

Though West Francia 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 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 attackers up the Seine to ravage Burgundy, which was in revolt. When the Vikings withdrew from West Francia next spring, he gave them 700 pounds of promised silver. Charles's prestige in France was greatly diminished.

With Charles increasingly seen as spineless and incompetent, matters came to a head in late 887. In the summer of that year, having given up on his son's succession, Charles received Odo and Berengar, Margrave of Friuli, a relative of his, at his court. He may have accepted neither, one, or both of these as his heir in their respective kingdoms. His inner circle then began to fall apart. First, he accused his wife Richgard/Richardis of having an affair with his chief minister and archchancellor, Liutward, bishop of Vercelli. She proved her innocence in an ordeal of fire and left him for the monastic life. He then turned against Liutward, who was hated by all, and removed him from office, appointing Liutbert, Archbishop of Mainz, in his stead.

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 Bernhard 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.


Charles III died just a few weeks after his deposition in January 888. His empire broke divided, 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 Wido von Spoleto (Guy III), 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.

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