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On this day in history: February 12, 881. Charles III “The Fat” was Crowned Emperor by Pope John VIII.

Charles III (June 13, 839 – January 13, 888), also known as Charles the Fat, was the Carolingian Emperor from 881 to 888. King of East Francia, 882-887. King of West Francia 884-887, Holy Roman Emperor, 881-887.

The youngest son of Louis the German and Hemma, Charles was a great-grandson of Charlemagne (Charles the Great) He was the second-last emperor of the Carolingian dynasty and the last to rule, briefly, over a re-united Frankish empire.

Over his lifetime, Charles became ruler of the various kingdoms of Charlemagne’s former Empire. Granted lordship over Alamannia in 876, following the division of East Francia, he succeeded to the Italian throne upon the abdication of his older brother Carloman of Bavaria who had been incapacitated by a stroke. Crowned Emperor in 881 by Pope John VIII, his succession to the territories of his brother Louis the Younger (Saxony and Bavaria) the following year reunited the kingdom of East Francia. Upon the death of his cousin Carloman II in 884, he inherited all of West Francia, thus reuniting the entire Carolingian Empire.

Nickname and number

The nickname “Charles the Fat” (Latin Carolus Crassus) is not contemporary. It was first used by the Annalista Saxo (the anonymous “Saxon Annalist”) in the twelfth century. There is no contemporary reference to Charles’s physical size, but the nickname has stuck and is the common name in most modern European languages (French Charles le Gros, German Karl der Dicke, Italian Carlo il Grosso).

His numeral is roughly contemporary. Regino of Prüm, a contemporary of Charles’s recording his death, calls him “Emperor Charles, third of that name and dignity” (Latin Carolus imperator, tertius huius nominis et dignitatis).

On July 18, 880, Pope John VIII sent a letter to Guy II of Spoleto seeking peace, but the duke ignored him and invaded the Papal States. John responded by begging the aid of Charles in his capacity as King of Italy and crowned Charles Emperor on February 12, 881. This was accompanied by hopes of a general revival in western Europe, but Charles proved to be unequal to the task. Charles did little to help against Guy II. Papal letters as late as November were still petitioning Charles for action.

In some lists of the kings of France both Charles the Fat and Charles the Simple are listed as Charles III. I have also seen some lists where Charles the Bald is listed as Charles I of France and Charlemagne is listed as Charlemagne instead of Charles the Great without an ordinal. The lists where Charles the Bald is listed as Charles I, Charles the Fat is listed as Charles II. There are some lists that omit Charles the Fat entirely.