The Carolingian dynasty was a family of Frankish tribe nobles who came to rule over much of western Europe from 751 to 987. The dynasty’s most prominent member was Charlemagne. The family originally served as hereditary mayors of the palace of Austrasia, the northeastern section of the kingdom of the Franks comprising modern-day eastern France, western Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, under the ruling Merovingian dynasty.
Pepin (or Pippin) I of Landen (580–640) assumed the position of mayor of the palace during the reign of the Merovingian king, Clotaire II (584–629). The post of mayor of the palace, known in Latin as maior domus, came to hold decision-making authority, while the king served as a reigning figurehead.
Pepin I’s daughter married the son of Saint Arnulf, bishop of Metz (582–640), uniting two of the most prominent Frankish noble families. Their son, Pepin II of Heristal (c. 635–714), continued the family’s dominance, conquering Neustria, the western section of the kingdom of the Franks comprising most of present-day northern France, in 687.
He became mayor of the palace in Austrasia, Neustria, and Burgundy. The names used to identify the family (Pippinid or Arnulfing) derived from one of Pepin II’s grandfathers. Later known as the Carolingian family, the Pippinid family made the post of mayor of the palace hereditary. The most famous Carolingian mayor of the palace was Charles Martel (686–791)—known variously as Carolus Martellus in Latin or Charles “the Hammer” in English—who served as mayor of the palace of the three Frankish kingdoms.
In 732 he won the Battle of Tours, which halted an advancing Muslim army from overrunning western Europe. According to Frankish custom, following Charles Martel’s death, his position was divided between his two sons, Pepin III (714–768), known as “the Short,” in Neustria, and Carloman (710–754) in Austrasia.
Pepin III secured papal and noble support to seize power. Pepin III, reuniting Austrasia and Neustria into one kingdom, usurped the Crown of the Merovingians to become the ruling king in 751. He became the founder of the Carolingian dynasty as King Pepin I. The pope anointed Pepin I, also granting him the title of Roman Patrician.
Pepin I also created the Papal States out of conquered territory in central Italy, giving it to the pope to administer. Following Pepin I’s death, his kingdom was divided equally among his two sons, Carloman (755–771) and Charlemagne (c. 742–814). Following Carloman’s death in 771, Charlemagne became sole ruler.
Charlemagne (known as Carolus Magnus in Latin, Charles the Great in English, and Karl der Grosse in German) expanded the Frankish empire toward the south, conquering much of southern Germany, including Bavaria and Saxony, and northern and central Italy, to reunite most of the former Western Roman Empire. Charlemagne’s empire came to include present-day France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and parts of Italy and Spain.
He continued his alliance with the pope in Rome, promoting religious reform and cultural growth. Consequently Pope Leo III (d. 816) crowned Charlemagne Roman emperor on December 25, 800. The coronation solidified the alliance between the Carolingian emperors and the pope, who provided his blessing on Frankish conquests, which resulted in the spread of Christianity.
In 806 Charlemagne created a plan for the division of his empire among his sons. However on Charlemagne’s death in 814, his sole surviving son, Louis I (778–840), known as “the Pious,” came to the throne. Both Charlemagne and Louis I worked to centralize authority throughout the empire. They appointed nobles as administrators, leading to the development of a feudalistic society under the emperor.
After Louis I’s death, his three sons, Lothair (795–855), Louis “the German” (804–876), and Charles “the Bald” (823–877), fought for control of the Frankish empire. In 843 the Treaty of Verdun divided the empire into three segments (West Francia, Middle Francia, and East Francia) among each of Louis I’s sons.
Under Carolingian rule, cultural and linguistic divisions occurred within the Frankish Empire. The eastern Frankish people retained their Germanic dialects, while the western Franks spoke a language that developed into Old French, an amalgam of Gallo-Latin and Germanic dialects. The division of the Frankish Empire was not only a political delineation, but also a cultural and linguistic one.
Following Lothair I’s death in 855, Middle Francia was divided among his sons and renewed tensions arose between the various factions of the Carolingians. The Carolingians maintained control of Middle Francia, which became the kingdoms of Lotharingia and Provence, and Lombardy, the eldest retaining the empty title of emperor until 899.
Despite ensuing rivalries and invasions, the Carolingians retained control of the eastern portion of the Frankish Empire until 911. East Francia served as the nucleus for the later Holy Roman Empire, sometimes referred to as the First Reich (First Empire). Over time East Francia’s political centralization dissolved into regional duchies, which operated as petty kingdoms. Such fragmentation continued, with local rulers promoting their own interests and autonomy within the kingdom as a whole.
Following the death of Louis “the Child” (893–911), the last Carolingian ruler, nobles eventually elected Henry the Fowler (876–936), duke of Saxony, to succeed. Sometimes referred to as the Ottonians, after Henry I’s son Otto I (912–973), who was crowned first Holy Roman Emperor in 962, the dynasty presented themselves as continuous successors to the Carolingians.
The duchies’ powers increased as the Holy Roman Emperors did not assume their position through a blood link, but rather by election from the rulers of the most prominent kingdoms within the empire. Consequently they ruled over a confederation of sovereign territories, rather than a feudal empire.
West Francia (known variously as Francia Occidentalis and the Kingdom of the West Franks), the western portion of the former Frankish Empire, was dominated by several feudal lords, who elected the count of Paris, Hugh Capet (938–996), as king of France in 987 following the death of the last Carolingian ruler. He became the founder of the French royal house, the Capetians (987–1328), which included the later cadet branches: the Valois (1328–1589), the Bourbons (1589–1792, 1814, 1815–30), and the Bourbon-Orléans (1830–48).