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Coronation of Louis the Pious as King of Aquitaine.

The Troubled Reign of Louis the Pious, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire


Louis I (byname the Pious, the Fair, or the Debonair) was a King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor belonging to the Carolingian Dynasty. He lived between the 8 th and 9 th centuries AD and reigned for 26 years. His reign was the longest of any medieval Holy Roman Emperor until Henry IV. Louis succeeded in holding the Carolingian Empire together during his rule. Nevertheless, the empire was divided between his sons after his death, which led to the birth of France and Germany.

Louis the Pious’ Childhood Empowered Him with Experience

Louis the Pious was born on the 16 th of April 778 AD in Cassinogilum (today the commune of Chasseneuil-du-Poitou in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of France). His father was Charlemagne, while his mother was Hildegard of the Vinzgau, the emperor’s second wife. At the age of three, Louis was crowned King of Aquitaine. He held this position until he succeeded his father as King of the Franks in 814 AD and gained much experience in the art of rulership during his time there.

In 813 AD, Charlemagne had Louis crowned as his co-Emperor, a custom borrowed from the Byzantine and Roman Empires. In the following year, Charlemagne died and King Louis the Pious became the new King of the Franks. The succession went smoothly, as by the time of Charlemagne’s death, Louis was his only surviving legitimate son. Louis had an older half-brother, Pepin the Hunchback (whose legitimacy has been debated) and two older brothers, Charles the Younger, and Carloman, renamed Pippin. All three sons died before their father, leaving Louis as Charlemagne’s sole heir.

Louis the Pious (Adrian Barlandus / Public Domain )

Off to the Nunnery – A Ploy to Hold Power?

Charlemagne died in 814 AD and was succeeded by Louis. As the new King the Franks, and Holy Roman Emperor (after his coronation by Pope Stephen VI in 816 AD), Louis began to reform the empire in accordance to Christian values. For instance, at Aachen, where Charlemagne had established his imperial residence, Louis had the city’s prostitutes expelled. He did not spare his unmarried sisters either, who were notorious for having sexual liaisons with different men. Although they were sent to nunneries so that they may mend their ways, it is possible that Louis did so to prevent them from marrying powerful men who would later come to threaten his authority.

Values Enforced for Unity or Control?

Louis also saw Christianity as a means of unifying the Holy Roman Empire , which was in fact a conglomeration of peoples from various ethnic, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds. Benedict of Aniane, was appointed as the emperor’s chief advisor on religious matters and was tasked with the reformation of the Frankish church. Additionally, during Louis’ first year as emperor, about 40 diplomas (legally binding written documents) were issued throughout the empire. In these diplomas, Louis sought to portray himself as a ruler whose subjects were first and foremost Christians. He offered a vision of empire based on the unity of its people through the Christian faith. It is due to Louis’ commitment to mold the Holy Roman Empire as a Christian state that earned him the epithet ‘the Pious’.

Louis the Pious, contemporary depiction from 826 as a soldier of Christ, with a poem of Rabanus Maurus overlaid. (Lestath / Public Domain)

Louis the Pious, contemporary depiction from 826 as a soldier of Christ, with a poem of Rabanus Maurus overlaid. ( Lestath / Public Domain )

Did Louis the Pious have a Succession Plan in Place?

In 817 AD, just three years into his reign, Louis had already begun to plan for his succession. The result of this was the Ordinatio imperii , which divided the empire amongst his three sons, Lothair, Pepin, and Louis. Lothair became co-emperor with his father, while Pepin and Louis became king of Aquitaine and Bavaria respectively. The sons of Lothair, Pepin, and Louis were to be their fathers’ heirs, though if any of them died without issue, his realm would be inherited by the eldest surviving brother.

Louis the Pious and envoys. (Wikimedia / Public Domain)

Louis the Pious and envoys. (Wikimedia / Public Domain )

Discord and Civil Wars become a Family Event

Although Louis did what he could to ensure an orderly succession in the event of his death, he was less able to prevent the disorders during his reign. Louis had to launch military campaigns against the tribes living on the borders of the Holy Roman Empire, as these were beginning to stir trouble. Moreover, Louis had to fight three civil wars against his own sons and was even deposed by them once. Nevertheless, Louis would ultimately emerge victorious and continued to rule until his death.

Louis the Pious horse and King at battle. (Wikimedia / Public Domain)

Louis the Pious horse and King at battle. (Wikimedia / Public Domain )

Louis the Pious’ Sons Split the Empire

On the 20 th of June 840 AD, Louis died on Petersau, an island in the Rhine River near Ingelheim. He was buried in the Abbey of Saint-Arnould in Metz. Following the death of Louis the Pious, civil war broke out among his heirs. Louis the Pious sons’ warfare was settled in 843 AD with the signing of the Treaty of Verdun. This treaty not only ended the civil war but lead also to the formation of France and Germany.

The Treaty of Verdun divided territories of the Carolingian Empire into three kingdoms which influenced inheritances and conflicts in Western Europe as late as the 20th century. (Olahus / Public Domain)

The Treaty of Verdun divided territories of the Carolingian Empire into three kingdoms which influenced inheritances and conflicts in Western Europe as late as the 20th century. (Olahus / Public Domain )

Top image: Coronation of Louis the Pious as King of Aquitaine.   Source: (Grandes Chroniques de France / Public Domain )

By Wu Mingren


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Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Louis-I-Holy-Roman-emperor
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Available at: https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/louis-the-pious-5578.php

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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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