Dead King, Floppy Duchy: Burgundy, c. 936

OK, so on Wednesday I started talking about the history of the duchy of Aquitaine after the end of Guillelmid rule. During that process, I mentioned that Burgundy after King Ralph’s death was also very interesting, but that was really a separate post. So, this is that post, being something in the way of a side note. (Plus, posting it today gives me time to do a little more research on the Ratold Ordo!)

The first thing to do when dealing with the history of Burgundy is to acknowledge the intellectual debt I owe to the 2012 PhD thesis of Steven Robbie. I’ve never met Robbie. Friends in St. Andrews tell me he’s left academia and has no plans to publish the thesis; thankfully, it’s online, and highly recommended.

So (and here I follow Robbie fairly directly), the ‘founder’ of Burgundy, Ralph’s father Richard the Justiciar, built his polity out of duct tape, spit, and bloody-handed murder. His original power-base was a small group around Dijon and Autun (where he was by no means the most powerful figure – that would be the city’s bishop, Adalgar, who was a big damn deal). By taking advantage of the civil war between King Odo and Charles the Simple from 893 to 898, Richard was able to have Adalgar of Autun murdered, capture and blind Bishop Theobald of Langres, capture by force the city of Sens and imprison its archbishop Walter, and impose his nephew Ragenard as viscount of Auxerre.

Ralph followed in his footsteps, as has already been hinted. Richard appears to have been infirm for a few years before his death, and Ralph positioning himself as his successor within Burgundy proper. His position as regional strongman was upset but not ended by becoming king, and he also expanded his authority in the south-east through force, including capturing Bourges from Duke William the Pious, trying to capture Nevers multiple times – Nevers seems to have been something of a battleground during the 920s and 930s – taking over Mâcon after the death of William the Younger (much to the chagrin of Duke Acfred), and trying to thrust his way into Vienne.

It must be said, this is not how most of the other main regional blocs of the West Frankish kingdom were put together; William the Pious’ Aquitaine appears to have come to him largely through inheritance, and Robert of Neustria’s Neustria genuinely was an administrative unit he was granted. Thus, all of Ralph and Richard’s gains were subject to challenge. In Vienne, he seems eventually to have come to some kind of deal with Count Charles Constantine. Nevers and Bourges both required an awful lot of effort to hold on to. In Auxerre, Avallon, and Autun, in the north-west of Burgundy, the power of the family of the aforementioned nephew Ragenard increased, and indeed several members of it rebelled against Ralph; and there are whispers of disgruntlement in Sens.

It’s therefore unsurprising that when he died, ‘Burgundy’ appears to have been in trouble. Ralph had no son, and although we tend to assume that his surviving brother Hugh the Black was his due successor, there’s no reason to think that people at the time shared this opinion. Hugh’s lands were in Upper Burgundy (that is, the Kingdom of Burgundy rather than the duchy) and most of his support appears to have been in Mâcon. Thus, Flodoard describes him as ‘seizing’ Langres, presumably from the bishop, and being forced out by Hugh the Great and Louis IV; and indeed the main figures in the area in the mid-tenth century appear to have been the bishops, as it was before Richard’s capture of it. Bourges appears to have been already in the sphere of influence of Hugh the Great, and certainly Hugh the Black doesn’t seem to have done anything with it.

When Louis IV and Hugh the Great invaded Burgundy in summer 936, historians, as I said, have tended to see this as the Robertian launching a coup to seize the area from its rightful heir Hugh the Black by force of arms. But this rests on the assumption that Hugh the Black was the rightful heir. Louis and Hugh appear to have stuck to the north of the duchy, but they were visited there by Bishop Rotmund of Autun, whom they could not possibly have compelled to be there. Equally, from the area came representatives of the important abbey of Vézelay, and from a little further north Bishop Ansegis of Troyes. It is possible these latter two might have been carted off by force, but not Rotmund: the best explanation for his presence is that he thought the king, or Hugh the Great, but in any case not Hugh the Black, was the legitimate power in Burgundy after Ralph’s death. The mass of more-or-less disgruntled territories that Richard and Ralph had acquired had no particular unity, and so presented an opportunity for locals and outsiders to enrich themselves when Ralph died.

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