The Carolingians once ruled France, Germany and Northern Italy. Under Charlemagne, they had revived the Imperial title in the West. Western Europe’s borders and 1,000 years of war between France and Germany owe their roots to a family spat between three brothers that was papered over by the Treaty of Verdun in 843. The treaty divided the Frankish Kingdom into three parts. West Francia – modern France – went to the youngest brother Charles II the Bald. East Francia – Germany – went to the middle brother Ludwig II the German. Middle Francia – modern Netherlands, Alsace, Lorraine, Provence, and North Italy went to the oldest brother the Emperor Lothair. After this great division the Frankish custom of dividing the kingdom among the sons followed by the tendency of the Carolingians to die without any sons weakened these states and the dynasties.
Lothair’s realm was divided among his three sons – all of whom were dead by 875 without any male heirs – commencing the century long fight between France and Germany for their share of what was once Middle Francia and then the Kingdom of Lotharangia.
East Francia was briefly united under Ludwig’s son the Emperor Arnulf (his only legitimate grandson). However, Arnulf left only one legitimate son. On the death of Ludwig IV the Child in 911 at the age of 18 Carolingian rule in East Francia ended.
In West Francia the Carolingians struggled on. Here the dynasty faced two calamities. First a series of sudden deaths – Charles the Bald in 877, his son Louis II the Stammerer in 879, and the Stammerer’s two sons Louis III in 882 and Carloman II in 884 left one last male Carolingian the 6 year old Charles the Simple (son of Louis II). This was unfortunately at a time when the fury of the Northmen was unleashed on Europe. The Vikings almost conquered England and laid siege to Paris. With the nobility unwilling to crown a child, they invited a son of Ludwig the German – Karl III the Fat (not generally counted in the ordinal numbering of French Kings). Karl proved inept and on his death in 888 the nobles elected the hero of the siege of Paris – Odo Count of Paris – as King. This gave the Carolingians a rival dynasty to contend with and ultimately led to their demise.
Charles the Simple did become King on the death of Odo in 898. His reign is notable for the grant of the land now known as Normandy to Rolf the Walker. He got sucked into enforcing his claims to Lotharangia and his favoritism to certain nobles led to a revolt and his deposition. Charles’ rival Robert I (brother of Odo) was killed in the battle that captured Charles and was succeeded by his son in law Raoul. Charles’s son Louis fled to the security of the court of his English grandfather Edward the Elder and grew up in the court of his uncle Athelstan the Glorious. Charles died in prison in 929 and Raoul died in 936.
By this point France was essentially divided up among the great duchies/counties – Aquitaine Anjou, Normandy etc. Royal authority was essentially notional. Robert I’s son Hugh the Great was the ruler of much of the area between the Loire and Seine up to Normandy and Anjou. But the nobles could not agree on who they would support as King. The young Louis in England was a good compromise. And so under Louis IV d’Outremer (i.e. from overseas) the Carolingians returned to the French throne. The royal domain was essentially non-existent – Laon and a few other cities in the North of France. Louis IV (who showed some ability) and his son Lothaire would spend their reigns fighting the German Emperors for Lorraine and trying to win what was becoming a losing fight against the Robertians – Hugh the Great and his son Hugh Capet. By the time Lothaire died in 986 observers were referring to him as King in name only.
The 19 year old Louis V who ascended to the throne in 986 later earned the sobriquet qui nihil fecit (the King who did nothing). He inherited his father’s battles with the Robertians and the German Emperor’s meddling with the French clergy. But a year later he died from a fall from his horse at the age of 20 leaving no mark on history other than the permanent dynastic shift about to occur. His uncle Charles, Duke of Lower Lorraine was the dynastic heir – but by intriguing with the German emperor against his own brother Lothaire got the stench of treason associated with him. The nobles decided to elect Hugh Capet as King of the Franks and the dynasty that would now be known as the Capetians ruled France for the next 900 years – branches of this house still reign in Spain and Luxembourg.
Like their immediate Carolingian predecessors, the first Capetians would barely be first among equals with the great feudal magnates. It would take the reign of Philippe II 200 years later and the destruction of the Angevin Empire to turn a notional kingship into a reality and to turn the title Rex Francorum (King of the Franks) to Roi de France (King of France).