Aquitaine, Burgundy, Neustria. These are the three great subdivisions of the West Frankish kingdom for decades after the end of the Carolingian empire in 888. Known, sometimes, as the tria regna, the ‘three kingdoms’, under the respective rules of William the Pious, Richard the Justiciar, and Robert of Neustria, are obvious starting points for historians who want to look at the political world after the end of the Carolingian empire and, well, I’m evidently no different.
With that said, I’m increasingly less comfortable with the way the three are lumped together. Most of the work on the ‘first wave of territorial principalities’ is pretty old by now, and the frameworks analysis are hung within are pretty much those which they were hung in thirty years ago. It’s probably time to look again at this period. With that said, this blog says right on the ‘About’ page that it’s a vessel for getting things written down, and this series on the tria regna – however many weeks it takes – is going to be more thinking out loud than usual. I can’t even promise a conclusion at the end! But, if I don’t write this down, I’ll never get these thoughts in so much as a policy document, let alone something coherent and polished. Thus, what I plan on doing is going through a number of themes for each regnum, and seeing what emerges.
The Ninth-Century Background
In the mid-ninth century, all three areas were part of a band of territories where the most intensive competition for honores was played out. If, within the West Frankish kingdom, some places – like Champagne – were locked down under direct royal lordship; and others – like Rouen – seem to have been backwaters, a banana of land stretching roughly from Tours to Lyons via Bourges looks to have been a particularly fertile place for conflicts over land, office and status.
The western valley of the Loire – Robertian Neustria, as it would become – was taken out of the game relatively quickly. This region was directly proximate to both the sea (and thus the Vikings) and Brittany (and thus the Bretons). The interaction of Bretons, Vikings and rebellious Frankish magnates created a kind of resonance effect which led to Charles suffering substantial military defeat and territorial losses which haven’t yet been made up – to date, Rennes and Nantes, lost by Charles, are still part of Brittany. Eventually, in the name of consolidating his command structures, he endowed a magnate named Robert the Strong with a vast number of honores (lands, offices, status) based on the abbey of Saint-Martin of Tours. Robert didn’t live long enough to enjoy it, as he was killed in battle in 866 shortly after receiving these honores, but the aim seems from the very beginning to create an institutional framework for the Loire, as Hincmar of Rheims records the Charles sent another man, Hugh the Abbot (of whom we have lately heard), loco Rotberti – ‘in Robert’s place’, taking over his resources and role. The position isn’t named, or conceived of terribly clearly, but there’s clearly an element of institutional continuity here, which lasted down to the tenth century.
However, the ‘south’ of the kingdom (used here to denote the lands south of a line drawn between northern Poitou and Dijon) was still an active spot in competition for honores. Irritatingly, for a crucial couple of decades there were no fewer than three major players in this region called Bernard – Bernard Plantevelue (‘Hairypaws’), Bernard the Calf, and Bernard of the Auvergne – and the situation is not helped by the fact that the main narrative sources aren’t terribly interested in affairs in this area. Still, it seems apparent that this part of the kingdom was a fertile area for treason, murder, and becoming very wealthy and powerful in the 860s and 870s – one of the abovesaid Bernards (Plantevelue) murdered another one for his honores, and the magnate Boso, whose power-base was in the valley of the Saône, became the most powerful man in Louis the Stammerer’s kingdom before declaring himself king after Louis’ death (abortively, as it turned out).
This is not to say that the area, or at least all of it, was a playground for secular magnates. One important regional difference is the much more active and important role of both the episcopate and the West Frankish king in Burgundy. Whilst at the end of Charles the Bald’s reign figures such as Boso of Provence and Bernard Plantevelue held important clusters of Burgundian honores, the local episcopate remained powerful and became more so by the end of the century. By the end of the Carolingian empire in 888, the most powerful figures in the region were the court-focussed bishops such as Geilo of Langres and Adalgar of Autun. The same is not true in either Neustria or (for the most part; Bourges is an exception) Aquitaine: the archbishops of Tours and bishops of Clermont, for instance, are almost totally obscure during this period.
Similarly, kingship was felt much more immediately in Burgundy, and particularly in some parts of it such as Auxerre, than in Aquitaine. Charles the Bald and his successors visited the area more frequently, and had closer ties with (particularly) the regional bishops. This had been the case for a while, in fact – during the invasion of Charles’ kingdom by his brother Louis the German in 858-859, Burgundy had been the region of Charles’ steadiest support. By contrast, whilst royal authority was important in Neustria – the office of its ruler remained a royal appointment – the kings rarely visited there; and Aquitaine was never under West Frankish control to the extent of the other two areas.
One reason for this is that, for much of the period in question, Aquitaine had its own sub-king. (Neustria briefly did as well in the 850s, when Charles set up the west as a kind of Baby’s First Kingdom for Louis the Stammerer, but this was fairly short-lived and doesn’t seem to have had much effect. Continuity with the Neustrian regnum of the Merovingian period appears to have been entirely absent.) The Aquitanian sub-kingdom was a long-lived and relatively serious institution: it persisted on-and-off for most of the ninth century, and several of its holders, such as Charles the Bald’s son Charles the Child, appear to have made a serious effort to be taken seriously as proper quasi-kings. Consequently, West Frankish authority in the region generally operated at more of a remove than elsewhere.
Whether as cause or consequence, Aquitaine also had more of regional identity. It is common, although not universal, for charters to be dated by the West Frankish king, identified as ‘King of the Franks and the Aquitanians’, indicating a consciousness of separation in the region. This isn’t to suggest that there was some yearning for national freedom in the breast of all true Aquitanians, but it was a potential resource seemingly not available in Burgundy or Aquitaine, where regional identities are a lot less visible. The foundation documents of the abbey of Vézelay refer to it being placed in the regnum of Burgundy; several decades later, the poet Abbo of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, author of a poem about the Viking attack on Paris in 886, was very vocally Neustrian – but both of these are hard to parallel.
The Hour Cometh…
At the end of the ninth century, then, we have three very distinct regions. Well over to one side is Neustria, relatively tightly unified, administratively focussed, in royal gift, and already under the control of a single lay magnate. Aquitaine and Burgundy are more similar to one another, but still important differences emerge. Both are part of a ‘contested belt’, but Aquitaine has both more contestation and a stronger regional identity, and even semi-separate political framework, whereas Burgundy is distinguished by royal presence, both per se and through powerful and well-connected bishops. The first question to ask next time, then, is what happened, how did they all end up under one dominating lord, and is this a significant as it looks?