Loyalty and Regime Change in Neustria, part 2: The Keys to the Kingdom

So, as of last time, Hugh the Great, duke of the Franks and master of kings, had died at the height of his power. What happened next? Hugh left split his domains between his two (presumably) oldest sons, Hugh Capet, the later king, and Odo. Hugh got Neustria (Paris, Orléans, and the Loire valley) and Odo got Burgundy – but in both cases, only for a given value of ‘got’.

Here, we must introduce a new character: Theobald the Trickster, count of Blois and Tours. Theobald had been Hugh the Great’s chief leg-breaker – it had been he, for instance, who had been Louis IV’s jailer after he was sold to Hugh in 945. After Hugh the Great’s death, he seems to have actively and aggressively expanded his power, capturing the cities of Châteaudun, Chinon, and Évreux on the southern border of Normandy. He also seems to have excluded Hugh Capet from exercising his father’s authority – in one memorable charter, he and his ally Count Fulk the Good of Angers are referred to as ‘by the generosity of the Lord, the administrators and governors of the [realm of Neustria]’ – Hugh doesn’t get a look-in. This is sometimes referred to as Hugh’s minority, but he was probably around 940 or so, making him around 16 when his father died and around 18 when the charter mentioned above was issued – easily old enough to be considered an adult. (King Lothar, as a parallel, took over his father’s role at a slightly younger age.) So it looks awfully like Theobald locked Hugh out deliberately.

The fallout from Hugh the Great’s death is fascinating, and I would probably argue for it being either the most or the second-most important moment in tenth-century West Frankish politics. This will not be last time I’ll come back to this time, so for the moment, here’s that question which bothers me about Theobald’s role: why did he do it? Why betray the son of his lord and benefactor?

Obviously, were I a Victorian (and even if I were a distressingly large number of modern people), I’d say it’s because he’s a Treacherous Aristocrat in the Century of Iron, Motivated only by Greed and Short-Term Advantage™. This is roughly on the level of accusing him of being naturally inconsistent because he’s French, and doesn’t work on its own terms – if Theobald were really interested in maximum returns from the new duke, why oppose him when it would be easier and less potentially perilous to simply sell him your services? Hugh’s brother Odo was fighting for his rights in Burgundy at this point, and Theobald had useful connections there – all he’d need to do was get Hugh to pay him, I don’t know, northern Burgundy for his help, and he would have made an easy profit. It must be that something actively drove Theobald out of Hugh Capet’s camp.

Hugh Capet was not an unknown quantity. Charter evidence indicates that his father had been putting him on the political stage, as it were, since he was a small child – his first appearance in the documentary record is in 946, and he witnesses charters alongside his father several times thereafter. Theobald and Hugh knew each other – so what didn’t Theobald like?

In 943, the ruler of Normandy, William Longsword, had been murdered. His son and heir, Richard the Fearless, was at the time a small child, and so a free-for-all over what would happen to Normandy resulted. Eventually, what seems to have happened is that Hugh the Great, allied to a Northman cabal, had left Richard in place in Rouen under his tutelage, whilst accepting the rule of a pagan Viking named Harald in western Normandy. At this time, though, the important city of Évreux in southern Normandy seems to have come under Theobald’s auspices – its bishop is found in his retinue by the late 940s.

By the time of Hugh the Great’s death, Richard the Fearless seems to have worked his way towards a closer alliance with Hugh and his family. The historian Dudo of Saint-Quentin claims that Hugh the Great betrothed his daughter Emma to Richard before his death. Dudo was writing a tendentious piece of Norman ducal propaganda, and so this claim is surrounded by panegyric addressed to Richard, and its chronology is all over the place. However, the contemporary chronicler Flodoard does record that Richard and Emma married in 960, and that after that Hugh and Theobald were hostile. It may be that, leaving aside Dudo’s extraneous verbiage, the basic elements of his story – that Richard was betrothed to Emma before Hugh the Great’s death and had a more prominent place in Hugh Capet’s entourage afterwards because of this – are roughly correct.

In that case, the potential threat to his control of Évreux might have been an important push factor leading Theobald to oppose Hugh. It might even have been that the idea of handing land back over the Normans from whom Hugh the Great had captured it only a decade or so before was morally repugnant to Theobald, although this is speculation. To my mind, though, whatever the specific factors behind Theobald’s decision, a sense comes through that his opposition to Hugh Capet followed on from his role under Hugh the Great – a sense that he could hold up the elder Hugh’s legacy better than his son could, that after risking life and limb in service to his ruler, he wasn’t going to be pushed out in favour of parvenu Northmen by the son. Of course, looking at the ideological aspect of Theobald’s conflict with Hugh is another long essay, and this has gone on for two posts already, so I’ll leave it here. As I said, though, this is not the last time I’ll come back to this…

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