Ethelred the Pious
One of the most persistent ideas in Western Christendom has been the idea that somewhere, somehow, there ought to be an Emperor of the West. At various times in history certain states and dynasties have been recognized, usually by the Popes, as possessing the Imperial dignity.
The character of the Western Empire has changed over time. The original empire, a direct continuation of the late Roman Empire, famously fell in 476. The Carolingian Empire had a definite administrative structure, descended from the Frankish kingdoms, but from the start it was an imperium plurimarum nationum, and the Frankish tendency to subdivide the realm among sons and grandsons encouraged still more fragmentation. So the Empire became more of a historic and religious ideal than an actual fact. The Tolosan Empire, established in 977, was a sprawling concatenation in the same vein. In the eleventh century the Burgundians established a new empire on firmer ground, more compact and more based on cities and sea power than their predecessors.
For a complete list of rulers, see Roman Emperors.
The late Carolingian empire
The idea of empire was revived with Charlemagne, King of the Franks, who was crowned Roman Emperor by the Pope in 800. Over the Ninth Century, the realm was divided and reunited repeatedly, but the Carolingian dynasty remained on the Imperial throne. Charles the Fat finally reunited most of the Frankish territories in the 880s, but by then there was no reversing the empire's terminal decline. Political unity did not revive the imperial institutions' degradation and replacement by the rule of local counts. In the early decades of the Tenth Century, Viking raids began to take their toll on the northern reaches. The Empire broke apart for the last time in 932.
Charles the Fat
The Viking conquest of England diverted Norse attacks on the Empire for a time. Many of Scandinavia's ambitious young men saw more opportunity in acquiring land in England than in raiding the Franks. The attacks that were made were rather small-scale. Sigfred, a Danish chieftain and early king of Denmark, attacked Paris in 885. But unlike OTL, he did so without the great leader Hrolfr the Northman, who was subduing the Saxons in Devon and the Welsh in Cornwall at the time. The Viking band that sailed up the Seine that year was a good deal smaller than in OTL, since England was drawing off so many of the Vikings' energies.
Count Odo, defending Paris, drove the Danes off easily. Instead of bravely defeating a mighty army, he drove off a petty raiding party. He never became a famous general, and never was elected king of the Western Franks.
In OTL, the Norman raids had destroyed the West Francian nobles' faith in Charles the Fat. They deposed him and chose Odo, a more effective general. In EtP, neither Charles the Fat nor Odo had to contend with these raids - though he still had to deal with Arab attacks on the Mediterranean coast, feuding nobles in Italy, and above all, Magyar attacks. Charles was generally perceived as an effective ruler who balanced these threats and administrated the sprawling empire as effectively as could be expected. Thanks to the general faith in Charles and the imperial office he represented, the Carolingian Empire was able to continue for a little longer.
Louis the Wary
(OTL Louis the Blind): 889-915
Louis was Charles' adopted son. He was only a child when his father died leaving him as sole heir. His youth was spent establishing control of the empire, but he eventually was acknowledged in all regions of Francia. The disastrous Italian campaign that resulted in his blindness in OTL did not happen. He was killed in battle against the Magyars.
Charles the Simple and the Robertian rebellion
Louis the Wary had barely been able to claim the inheritance as it was, and after his death the empire fractured again. The imperial title was won by Charles the Simple, King of West Francia. His cousin Carloman of Carinthia was made King of East Francia, ruling Germany and Italy.
During Charles the Simple's reign, Viking attacks resumed after a 40-year lull. This time the raiders came from England in force beginning in the 920s. The new round of attacks tore the Carolingian empire apart at last. Unable to drive back the English, Charles was forced to enfeoff them on wide lands north of the Seine, afterwards called Angelania. Count Robert of Paris, a cousin of Odo, condemned the Emperor's failure and began his revolt. Ultimately he captured Emperor Charles, who died in prison. The nobles of the northwestern part of Francia recognized Robert as King of Neustria and repudiated the rule of the Carolingians.
Arnulf and the collapse of the Frankish Empire
In the wake of the rebellion, the Carolingian line lost the confidence of the German dukes in East Francia. When Carloman of Carinthia died, the dukes met and elected their own king from the Conradine dynasty of Franconia.
Arnulf, Charles the Simple's heir, remained in control of a rump Frankish state in Lotharingia, Frisia, the March of Angelania, and a few odd West-Frankish counties that had not supported Robert's rebellion. Arnulf had the support of the Pope and clergy throughout the crumbling empire, as well as many of the Italian secular magnates; but by then the Western Empire was as good as gone. The rulers of the southern kingdoms (Aquitania, Burgundy, Provence, and Italy) nominally reigned in the Emperor's name but were completely independent in practice and often at war with one another.
Arnulf had been crowned an Emperor but never ruled as one. When he died in 947, the title of Western Emperor was not restored.
The Tolosan Empire
Muslim invasions increased in Spain and Italy over the course of the 10th century. The Umayyad Caliphate in Kurtuba reached the zenith of its power under the vizier al-Mansur, who carried Moorish arms over the Pyrennes and to Sicily and the toe of Italy.
The Counts of Tolosa in Aquitania were the strongest of a large collection of local rulers struggling for power in that disunited kingdom. The Arab invasions required cooperation, however, and Count Raymond IV gathered an army of local knights and their retainers to make a stand at his capital town. Tolosa's successful resistance greatly enhanced its prestige, and Count Raymond soon began to call himself the Duke of Aquitania, a title that had belonged to the house of Poitiers. The Emperor belatedly confirmed the claim, transferring the title to Raymond and Tolosa. When the Empire melted away in 947, Raymond promoted himself to King.
Raymond's successor Bernard IV continued to hold the line against the Umayyads. The commander al-Mansur created a new northern command in 978, Al-Darra, which increased the pressure. Bernard transferred his capital north to Orlhac but was largely successful at keeping the attacks at bay.
Rome at the time was threatened by Arab raids from the south, and feuding Frankish rulers of Italy from the north. The preeminent Italian rulers were based in Provence, and in the 960s the Pope asked for assistance from Aquitania. An aging Bernard led a successful campaign into Provence and northern Italy and managed to win the title of King of the Lombards. Bernard's son Hugh continued the Italian campaigns, establishing himself as the leading power in the northern half of the peninsula. The Aquitanians were strong allies of the Popes against their local rivals, and out of this alliance came a restoration of the Imperial title. Hugh was crowned in the late 970s, restoring the Western Empire after a lapse of thirty years.
The empire of the House of Tolosa was fragile, however. The emperors' base was far to the west in land under constant threat of Arab attack. The sudden breakup of the Umayyad Caliphate in the early 1030s freed the local rulers of Al-Darra to launch wars of expansion that captured Tolosa and caused the disintegration of Aquitania. Meanwhile, a band of Norse raiders had re-captured the coastal city of Bordeaux and many were adopting Islam.
The Burgundian Empire
Stepping into the void was Godfrey IV, Duke of Burgundy, who absorbed northern Aquitania and created a consolidated state in central and southern Gaul. A quick foray into Italy was enough to secure the Imperial title. Godfrey ruled the empire from Pavia and Rome, establishing a state that would last for centuries.
The main challenge for Godfrey I and his immediate successors was asserting imperial control over the powerful noble families of Italy. Feudalism in the kingdom had not advanced as far as in France and Germany, but after several centuries of chaos, noble families and their vassals were an important layer in Italian society. The Burgundian Emperors managed to overcome this challenge and create an empire that was more centralized and urbanized than the empire of the Carolingians and Tolosans. Several factors helped them achieve this.
- Godfrey I had the benefit of a large royal demesne thanks to his earlier campaigns in Aquitania and Provence. The Aquitanian land beyond Auvergne proved difficult to hold and soon became a borderland between the Neustrians and the Moors; but the large Provençal estates gave Godfrey's heirs a large base of land with which they could use as a resource in the contest against the Italian nobles.
- The emperors made a strong alliance with the bishops in Italy's cities, who became the recipients of imperial favor in the form of privileges and donations of land. The fusion of imperial and ecclesiastical power that came to define the Burgundian Empire in Italy invites comparison to the early Byzantine Empire.
- The emperors also made common cause with the growing merchant class. Like the bishops, the citizens were based in Italy's cities and were outside the feudal system, so increasing their influence meant a steady increase in the importance of cities.
- Hastening this process was a series of revolts by the minor nobility,the largest of which occurred just after Godfrey I's death in 1059. After this revolt, the vassals lost not only privileges but also sizable pieces of land, which were parceled to the great nobles, the Crown, the Church, and to some cities themselves, contributing to the development of the Italian communi.
- Sea power became a factor from the time of Godfrey I's son, Godfrey II. He outfitted a fleet in Massilia and successfully campaigned against Arabs in Corsica and Sardinia. Massilia became Godfrey II's preferred place to hold court, and eventually it became the permanent imperial capital. Beginning at Pavia, Godfrey II also set up a line of customs posts along the Po River. These moves encouraged trade and helped focus the empire on the Mediterranean.