The Royal Finger in the Episcopal Pie under the Last Carolingians

As has been hinted at a few times already on this blog, the later Carolingians are not supposed to have been very effective kings. There have already been a few attempts to change that view, but it’s still basically true that if your standard of ‘effective kingship’, in terms of geographical range and agency is, say, Charlemagne, the last couple of generations of Carolingian kings tend to get looked down on.

This is perhaps a touch unfair. Given that, through no fault of their own, the resources of the West Frankish kings were at one point reduced to a brother-in-law and a prison cell, it could well be argued that they did pretty well for themselves. Moreover, I’m finding more and more evidence that, in basic terms of range and authority, the penultimate Carolingian king, Lothar, had a surprisingly long reach (and, it must be said, I’m not the only person finding this).

Recently, I was reading through the Chronicle of Saint-Pierre-le-Vif, an abbey in the Burgundian city of Sens. Sens, for most of the tenth century, is supposed to have been locked down by the Robertians – Odo and Robert I, both Robertian kings, were crowned by the archbishops of Sens. Imagine my surprise when, reading about the late tenth-century archbishops, I found that they were consistently described as holding their position by royal gift. This isn’t even a trope on the part of the author, because only these bishops are described this way. So what’s the king doing where he’s not supposed to be powerful enough to be?

But this isn’t the only place where Lothar’s influence was felt in episcopal elections. There are several dioceses outside of what is normally considered to be King Lothar’s regular beat (which is the royal heartland around Rheims and Laon) where he put bishops in their sees, including Langres, Le Puy and Le Mans. These last two are particularly interesting, because they’re well outside the royal sphere of influence – Aquitaine and Neustria are supposed, by this point, to have been out of the Carolingian ambit since the turn of the tenth century.

There are also several other sees where I think that royal influence can be inferred, including Chartres (which I’m pretty sure of), and Nevers; and several more which would repay investigation, particularly Clermont, whose bishops basically ran the Auvergne by the 960s, and who, for reasons I’m as yet unsure of, had a particular fondness for royal authority, including ordering their monks to pray for the reigning monarch, a practice with no real contemporary parallels.

The real question hanging over all this is ‘how much did this matter’? The reign of King Lothar is bedevilled by a lack of sources – he is the only French monarch between about the seventh century and the Third Republic where there are multiple years where we have no idea at all about anything he did. So it remains to be seen whether or not these bishops, having been put in their seats with royal help, kept up contacts with the royal court.

In some cases, it’s very likely they did. An original charter from 978 (the date on the document is wrong, and that year is the only time everyone in the witness list was alive at the same time) shows the bishops of Lothar’s court in action. The witness list includes a goodly number of familiar faces: his allies Gibuin, bishop of Châlons-en-Champagne (a see usually under royal control no matter what), Adalbero, bishop of Laon (of tagline-of-this-blog fame), Liudolf, bishop of Noyon (Lothar’s nephew). So far so good. But we also have Natrand of Nevers, Seguin of Sens, Widric of Langres, and Ralph of Chalon-sur-Saône. All of these bishoprics except Langres, whether due to distance or opposing political influence, are not usually considered part of Lothar’s sphere of influence – and yet here they are. Moreover, this is just before Lothar’s attack on Lotharingia, possibly indicating that they even provided him with military service.

If these bishops did keep up links with Lothar’s court, this dramatically changes our view of the last Carolingians. Lothar wasn’t necessarily another princeling with an extra card in his hand due to being a literal prince – he could have been a savvy political operator, exploiting the opportunities offered by episcopal successions to extend his powerbase over a large chunk of the West Frankish kingdom. There’s more research needed to be done here, and I will keep you posted.

(And for those of you thinking ‘that sounds like the Ottonian kings of Germany’, well, at some point, if there’s interest, I might put my argument about why Lothar is an Ottonian king…)

7 thoughts on “The Royal Finger in the Episcopal Pie under the Last Carolingians

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