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Charles the Bald (June 13, 823 – October 6, 877), also known as Charles II, was a 9th-century King of West Francia (843–877), King of Italy (875–877) and Emperor of the Carolingian Empire (875–877). After a series of civil wars during the reign of his father, Louis the Pious, Charles succeeded, by the Treaty of Verdun (843), in acquiring the western third of the empire.

Charles was a grandson of Charlemagne and the youngest son of Louis I the Pious by his second wife, Judith, the daughter of Count Welf of Bavaria and Saxon noblewoman Hedwig. No surviving sources provide a record of Judith’s exact date and year of birth.

Charles was born on June 13, 823 in Frankfurt, when his elder brothers were already adults and had been assigned their own regna, or subkingdoms, by their father. The attempts made by Louis the Pious to assign Charles a subkingdom, first Alemannia (Germany) and then the country between the Meuse and the Pyrenees (in 832, after the rising of Pepin I of Aquitaine) were unsuccessful.

The numerous reconciliations with the rebellious Lothair and Pepin, as well as their brother Louis the German, King of Bavaria, made Charles’s share in Aquitaine and Italy only temporary, but his father did not give up and made Charles the heir of the entire land which was once Gaul.

At a diet in Aachen in 837, Louis the Pious bade the nobles do homage to Charles as his heir. Pepin of Aquitaine died in 838, whereupon Charles at last received that kingdom, which angered Pepin’s heirs and the Aquitainian nobles.

The death of the Emperor Louis I the Pious in 840 led to the outbreak of war between his sons. Charles allied himself with his brother Louis the German to resist the pretensions of the new Emperor Lothair I, and the two allies defeated Lothair at the Battle of Fontenoy-en-Puisaye on June 25, 841.

In the following year, the two brothers confirmed their alliance by the celebrated Oaths of Strasbourg. The war was brought to an end by the Treaty of Verdun in August 843. The settlement gave Charles the Bald the Kingdom of the West Franks (West Francia) which he had been up until then governing and which practically corresponded with what is now France, as far as the Meuse, the Saône, and the Rhône, with the addition of the Spanish March as far as the Ebro.

Louis the German received the eastern part of the Carolingian Empire, known then as East Francia and later as Germany. Lothair retained the imperial title and the Kingdom of Italy. He also received the central regions from Flanders through the Rhineland and Burgundy as king of Middle Francia.

Reign in the West

Shortly after Verdun, Charles went on to an unsuccessful campaign against Brittany, on the return from which he signed the Treaty of Coulaines with his nobility and clergy. After that, the first years of his reign, up to the death of Lothair I in 855, were comparatively peaceful.

In 858, Louis the German, invited by disaffected nobles eager to oust Charles, invaded the West Frankish kingdom. Charles was so unpopular that he was unable to summon an army, and he fled to Burgundy. He was saved only by the support of the bishops, who refused to crown Louis the German king, and by the fidelity of the Welfs, who were related to his mother, Judith.

In 860, he in his turn tried to seize the kingdom of his nephew, Charles of Provence, but was repulsed. On the death of his nephew Lothair II in 869, Charles tried to seize Lothair’s dominions by having himself consecrated as King of Lotharingia (Middle Francia) at Metz, but he was compelled to open negotiations when Louis found support among Lothair’s former vassals. Lotharingia was partitioned between Charles and Louis in the resulting treaty (870).

In 875, after the death of the Emperor Louis II (son of his half-brother Lothair), Charles the Bald, supported by Pope John VIII, traveled to Italy, receiving the royal crown at Pavia and the imperial insignia in Rome on December 25. As emperor, Charles combined the mottoes that had been used by his grandfather and father into a single formula: renovatio imperii Romani et Francorum, “renewal of the empire of the Romans and Franks”. These words appeared on his seal.

Louis the German, also a candidate for the succession of Louis II, revenged himself by invading and devastating Charles’s domains, and Charles had to return hastily to West Francia. After the death of Louis the German (August 28, 876), Charles in his turn attempted to seize Louis’s kingdom, but was decisively beaten at the Battle of Andernach on October 8, 876.

In the meantime, Pope John VIII, menaced by the Saracens, was urging Charles to come to his defence in Italy. Charles again crossed the Alps, but this expedition was received with little enthusiasm by the nobles, and even by his regent in Lombardy, Boso, and they refused to join his army. At the same time Carloman, son of Louis the German, entered northern Italy. Charles, ill and in great distress, started on his way back to Gaul, but died while crossing the pass of Mont Cenis at Brides-les-Bains, on October 6, 877.

Burial and succession

According to the Annals of St-Bertin, Charles was hastily buried at the abbey of Nantua, Burgundy because the bearers were unable to withstand the stench of his decaying body. A few years later, his remains were transferred to the Abbey of Saint-Denis where he had long wished to be buried, in a porphyry tub which may be the same one known as “Dagobert’s tub” (cuve de Dagobert), now in the Louvre. It was recorded that there was a memorial brass there that was melted down at the Revolution.

Charles was succeeded by his son, Louis. Charles was a prince of education and letters, a friend of the church, and conscious of the support he could find in the episcopate against his unruly nobles, for he chose his councillors from among the higher clergy, as in the case of Guenelon of Sens, who betrayed him, and of Hincmar of Reims.

Baldness

It has been suggested that Charles’s nickname was used ironically and not descriptively; i.e. that he was not in fact bald, but rather that he was extremely hairy. An alternative or additional interpretation is based on Charles’s initial lack of a regnum. “Bald” would in this case be a tongue-in-cheek reference to his landlessness, at an age where his brothers already had been sub-kings for some years.

Contemporary depictions of his person, e.g., in his Bible of 845, on his seal of 847 (as king) as well as on his seal of 875 (as emperor) show him with a full head of hair, as does the equestrian statuette (c. 870) thought to depict him.

The Genealogy of Frankish Kings, a text from Fontanelle dating from possibly as early as 869, and a text without a trace of irony, names him as Karolus Calvus (“Charles the Bald”). Certainly, by the end of the 10th century, Richier of Reims and Adhemar of Chabannes refer to him in all seriousness as “Charles the Bald”.

Marriages

In 842 Charles married Ermentrude, daughter of Odo I, Count of Orléans and his wife Engeltrude de Fézensac.
She died in 869.

In 870, Charles married Richilde of Provence, who was descended from a noble family of Lorraine.

With both wives Charles the Bald had many children.