Charlemagne was great, but his son Louis the Pious may have been even better (Hangin’ with the Carolingians part 4)

[This is part four and the final selection of my series of articles entitled: “Hangin’ with the Carolingians.” The Carolingian dynasty, which encompassed nearly two centuries (AD 686-c.900), is a fascinating era. To this point, the articles have discussed the crowning of Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Venerable Bede’s take on Lent. In Part 4, I would like to introduce you to Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious (reigned AD 814-840). I hope you will find Louis to be a follower of Christ whose faith and life are worth emulating.]

Marriage between church and state has always been perilous. On the surface, a religious-political union may look like a good idea. I mean, wouldn’t it be advantageous to both parties if the state could provide the church with freedom and means for proliferation while the church could inform and educate the populous on social, political, and economic matters?

If we were only talking about institutions, perhaps. Ah, but institutions don’t exist in and of themselves. They are made up of people; and when people are involved, things are never perfect. No institution has ever been responsible for evil, nor has any thought or idea. Institutions, systems, and ideologies all have the same weakness – human beings are sinful creatures. Such is the case with church/state issues.


The Carolingian-led Holy Roman Empire represents one of the last successful attempts to renew marital vows between the church and state in order to unify the religious and political interests of an entire continent. As has been demonstrated in parts 1 and 2 of this series, Charlemagne himself may have never been fully convinced the union was a good idea. Nevertheless, he formed the Holy Roman Empire as an institution which was meant to be strategic for conquest and necessary to reform the Church. For nearly a century, the Church and the state worked successfully together and accomplished many great things for God’s Kingdom, humanity, and the propagation of knowledge in Europe.

It is my contention that the Holy Roman Empire was at its best in terms of accomplishing the will of God not under the leadership of Charlemagne, but rather at the hands of his successor.


Lou's Le Debonai - Louis the Pious

When Charlemagne died in AD 814, his only surviving son Louis I (AD 778-840), whose patronage of the Church earned him the nickname Louis the Pious, was called upon to fill his father’s shoes. They were big shoes indeed, both literally and figuratively. In many ways, Louis was the final bright spot on the mantle of the waning Carolingian dynasty.

The task of following Charlemagne was so immense, in fact, that Louis was never able to accomplish it. He was not as intimidating or cunning of a leader as his father. Neither was he as savvy a politician and strategist.

Thegan of Trier, who served and wrote a biography of Louis, commented that his only fault was putting too much trust in the bad advice of his advisers. According to another biographer, “The envious could find only one fault to which [Louis] had succumbed: he was too merciful” (The Astronomer, The Life of Emperor Louis, prologue, Noble translation).

In ecclesiastical matters, however, Louis far surpassed his father. Charlemagne had always viewed the Frankish throne as a priestly sort of role; a political ruler appointed by God who also maintained influence in matters of spirituality. Louis, on the other hand, believed it to be God’s will that the Church, with Christ as its head, should hold the highest position of influence over spiritual matters on earth. Like his father, though, Louis believed the Church and monasticism were in great need of reform. For this reason, Louis maintained a heavy-handed authority over the church, which included veto power over papal appointments and decisions.

Whereas Charlemagne’s biographers most often wrote of his royalty and conquests, those who penned Louis’ stories describe his deep relationship with God and commitment to the Church above any accomplishment. Ermoldus Nigellus, a monk who served three generations of Carolingians, said of Louis: “Caesar, you surpass celebrated rulers in wealth and arms, and even more in the love of God.”

One might argue that it was Louis’ commitment to Christ which eventually earned him the largest share in his father’s kingdom and the throne after his father’s death. Ermoldus tells the story of an occasion when a renowned priest named Paulinus had visited Charlemagne’s palace. Paulinus was struck by the authenticity of Louis’ faith and commended him to his father. Perhaps it was his commendation of Louis to Charlemagne which sealed the former’s fate as the Emperor-to-be. In fact, it is believed that Paulinus was the one who first ascribed Louis with the title “pious”. What follows is Ermoldus’ account:

While Charlemagne was still king, the priest Paulinus had come to the holy Palace on the king’s order. One day as the priest was praying and singing in the palatial chapel, Charlemagne’s oldest heir, Charles the Younger, came through the chapel. Charles paid the neither the priest nor the altar any attention and simply passed through the chapel. Next came Charlemagne’s second son Pippin, the military hero. He too passed through the chapel and ignored the altar.

In each case, the priest neither rose or bothered to address either of the king’s eldest sons. When Louis came through, however, he “quickly embraced the altar as a supplicant and prostrated himself. Louis tearfully prayed for a long time, asking Christ, heaven’s king, to help him. On seeing this, the priest got up from his seat, eager to address a holy man of such piety . . . At that point Louis stretched out his body in reverence before the priest. Paulinus raised up the pious king and, after singing a hymn, said various things to him. ‘Go,’ he said, ‘to Charles on account of your piety.'”

From Ermoldus Nigellus, In Honor of Louis, in Noble, 141, paraphrased.

For Louis, the spread of the Christian faith was of greater importance than was the spread of the empire. As the Holy Roman Empire continued to expand throughout Europe, Louis focused on the spiritual battles that were faced. In his defeats of the Moors, for example, Louis would immediately destroy their demonic places of worship and dedicate their conquered cities to Christ. As the empire spread north, on the other hand, Louis found the imperial brand on the church to be a stumbling block for many to receive the gospel. This was particularly true of the Scandinavian vikings, who had begun conquering much of northern Europe and viewed conversion to Christianity as an unnecessary “submission to rulers whose realms they were raiding” (Latourette).

In other words, Louis sought to remove the state as a barrier to authentic Christian conversion. The marks of an authentic Christian leader are humility, pure motives, and Christ-centered action. In these regards, Louis the Pious rises to the top among the Carolingians as one who followed Christ with passion and believed the Gospel was indeed good news of greater value than any political aspiration. Louis’ reign was fraught with conflict and never reached its potential. As believers around the world pray and seek authentic Christian leaders in the twenty-first century, perhaps another Louis will emerge to remind us that we will only thrive according to the ferocity with which we pursue the Living Christ.


Louis Crowned King of Aquitane by Charlemagne when he only around 3-5 years old.

Louis was born around AD 778 at Cassinogilum while Charlemagne was in another part of Europe. He was the fourth son of Charlemagne. His mother was Hildegard, who was Charlemagne’s second wife among nine. His marriage to Hildegard was the first of substance, however; and at the time of his death Louis was the oldest living male heir from the marriage.

When he was only around three years old, Louis was sent to the city of Toulouse in southwestern France and made King of Aquitane. Throughout his adolescence, Louis served with his father and brothers and continued to gain more leadership responsibilities. In 813, when Louis was around the age of 35, he was named co-emperor with the aging and ailing Charlemagne. When Charlemagne died on January 28, 814, Louis became the sole-Emperor of the Frankish kingdom and the new leader of the Holy Roman Empire.

Louis kept Einhard, who had been one of his father’s most essential spiritual advisers, close by his side. Einhard’s biographies of Charlemagne and Louis remain some of the most valuable and reliable in existence. Louis also appointed Benedict of Aniane, a Benedictine monk who had also served Charlemagne, his official adviser on monastic issues. Eventually, the Benedictine rule of the sixth century became standard once again.

Louis’ unique commitment to the church set him apart from his father in many ways, which in turn led to waning support from his father’s constituents. The Holy Roman Empire faced opposition on many fronts and endured several tragedies within. In the midst of difficulty, Louis often had bad influences around him. According to Justo González,

Louis was a conscientious ruler, but not a good judge of character. He continued the reformation of monasteries under the leadership of Benedict of Aniane. He also ordered that two-thirds of the money received as tithes be given to the poor. And he sought to give the church more autonomy by reverting to the old custom of allowing bishops to be elected by the people and the clergy. But there were many, including some bishops, who took advantage of his longanimity, and the last years of his reign were marred by civil wars in which Louis’ sons and their partisans fought each other as well as the emperor.

As González mentioned, Louis’ greatest challenge was likely that which came from within his own household. As you will see, his legacy left the middle ages some descendants with unforgettable names.

His sons Lothair I, Louis the German, and Charles the Bald, each sought a larger share of their father’s inheritance and to gain the throne upon his death. When Louis died in AD 840, the Holy Roman Empire was divided among them. Each of the three had scandalous and inconsistent rules over their parts of the Empire. By the time the empire passed to Louis’ grandchildren, the Holy Roman Empire had ultimately collapsed. There was a slight resurgence under his grandson, Charles “the Fat” of France (reigned from 881-887), most of the empire was reunited but then divided after his death. Finally, the Norsemen and Arabs arrived and finished the job. The Holy Roman Empire was broken into pieces and the Carolingian dynasty would never return to prominence. The last of the Carolingians, Adelaide the sister of Odo the Insane, died in AD 1122.

Bibliography: Thomas F.X. Noble. Charlemagne and Louis the Pious: the lives by Einhard, Notker, Ermoldus, Thegan, and the Astronomer. (PSU Press, 2009).
View the Google Books version here.

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