Loyalty and Regime Change in Neustria, part 1: Old War Stories

I was going to write about the conference I was at in Tübingen over the weekend, but I need to do some reading for it and I still don’t have library access here; and I’ve decided not to put up the legendary bigamous lesbian nun property magnate commune of Chartres until I’ve got you all good and hyped for it. So, this is the first of two posts where I try and solve a small issue which has been bothering me about one of the most important political changes of the whole post-Carolingian period. This one is largely background – the meat will be in a few days.

In my last post, I mentioned that the West Frankish kings of the mid-tenth century weren’t necessarily always in the kingdom’s driving seat, and for no king is that truer than Louis IV. Louis was born in 920 or so, the son of Charles the Simple (AKA the greatest Frankish king) and Eadgifu, the daughter of King Edward the Elder of England (the first of the three English kings called Edward who, for reasons of pro-Norman snobbery you’d really think would have died out by now, doesn’t get a number). When he was a toddler, his father was overthrown and imprisoned, and his mother fled with him to England for fear of what the victorious opposition might do to them.

He grew up in England until 936, when Charles’ eventual successor King Ralph died. Upon Ralph’s death, the West Frankish magnates, led by Hugh the Great, ruler of Neustria (the region of France between the Seine and the Loire rivers), decided to recall Louis to Gaul and make him their king. So far, so good. However, Hugh was largely interested in Louis’ value as a puppet king; and as Louis had no particular desire to be such, he and Hugh soon came to blows. The war began in 937, and kept going until 950. The issue at stake: how much real power would Louis be permitted?

Louis was, quite possibly, the most successful Carolingian monarch, at least in proportion to the resources he began with. His opponent was much richer and much more entrenched in Frankish politics, with more allies and more subordinates. However, while Louis was often on the back foot, his improvisational resistance kept him a player – until he was captured by Vikings and sold to Hugh in 945. Hugh stripped him of – apparently literally – all his estates and fortresses, leaving him nothing but his title.

Louis had only one string left to his bow: his marriage ties. His wife Gerberga – a fascinating, powerful woman who will probably merit several posts in future – went to her brother King Otto the Great of Germany, who arrived with a large army to put Louis back on his throne. After several years of campaigning, Otto effected a division of the kingdom, and peace was made in 950.

This wasn’t the end of things, though. In 954, Louis died by falling from his horse (just like the previous King Louis and the next King Louis), leaving the throne to his son Lothar, who was about fourteen or so. Gerberga – possibly because Otto was at this point caught up in fighting a very large-scale rebellion in Germany – appealed to Hugh as the best way to guarantee her son’s rule; and so Hugh came once more to his old puppet-master role. He and Lothar together attacked Poitiers, seemingly in an attempt to force the Duke of Aquitane, William Towhead, to submit to Hugh. At the same time, Gilbert, ruler of Burgundy, died, leaving his duchy to Hugh, fulfilling a long-standing objective of Hugh’s policy: the control of Burgundy.  King subdued, Burgundy gained, Aquitaine next: everything looked good, but at this propitious moment, in 956, Hugh died. And then everything changed…

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