Charles the Simple’s First Invasion of Lotharingia

First, for what it’s worth, I’d like to express my support for my UK friends and colleagues striking over the proposed cuts to their pensions. Good luck!

Now, blog. One of the key planks in my argument for ‘Charles the Simple: Best King Ever’ is that he manages to successfully take and rule Lotharingia, something which is actually rather difficult in this period. This, though, passes over the fact that his successful attempt in 911 was actually his second, and it’s his first, in 898, which I’ve been revisiting recently, and which is interesting not least because of what it says about the military potential of late Carolingian kingship.

So, we’re in 898. Charles the Simple has been undisputed king of the West Franks for about four months, having spent most of his adolescence figureheading a largely-undermanned rebellion against the previous king Odo. During this rebellion, Charles turned out to have as many connections to Lotharingia as to the West Frankish kingdom, and was even able to pull on them to the extent of getting King Zwentibald of Lotharingia to come and give him a hand in besieging Laon, although it seems pretty clear that in this case Zwentibald was using Charles as cover to try and militarily extend his own kingdom westwards. In any case, some of the first things Charles does are to try and appeal to Lotharingians.

In particular, Zwentibald was at the time just finishing the first phase of a prolonged feud with a group of counts around Metz known as the Matfredings. Thanks to an intervention in May 897, Zwentibald and the Matfredings had been reconciled, but there were probable still tensions. Charles (and his eminence gris/substitute father figure Archbishop Fulk of Rheims) had actually had prior dealings with one of the Matfreding’s closest allies, Abbot Stephen of Saint-Mihiel, for whom, in February 898, Charles issued a diploma. This diploma did two things: 1) it confirmed property in Zwentibald’s kingdom and 2) confirmed property which Zwentibald had already confirmed himself, at his and Charles’ joint siege of Laon no less. I think one has to read it as Charles advertising himself as king for the Lotharingians and the Matfredings more specifically.

Zwentibald’s response, it appears, was to seek friends in the southern bit of Lotharingia, where the Matfredings were strong. Certainly, he reached out to Archbishop Radbod of Trier, and that’s as good an explanation for why as any I’ve seen. Problem was, Radbod had his own local rivals, and one of them was another Lotharingian aristocrat with ties to Charles from old, Reginar Long-Neck. Radbod was able to persuade Zwentibald to kick Reginar out of his court, and Reginar went all the way to Charles.

The chronology here is slightly unclear, but it seems that Charles was once again trying to push himself as king for the Lotharingians, because at the end of June 898 he was sitting on the river Aisne at Vienne-la-Ville, a boundary between his kingdom and Zwentibald’s, issuing diplomas for recipients on the Spanish March of all places. Why make people from Narbonne come to you so far north and east, rather than at Rheims or Laon? I reckon it’s because Charles is sitting there, displaying his appropriately kingly status, hoping that Reginar (and/or others) is going to come and say hello – which is exactly what Reginar ended up doing.

(Some historians have put Reginar’s appeal for Charles’ help a little earlier, and had the June diplomas as signalling the point when he was moving in with an army, but a) that makes the chronology of the fighting between Zwentibald and Reginar compressed to the point of unworkable and b) it doesn’t really fit with Regino of Prüm’s history of events, which strongly implies all of the fighting took place in Autumn.)

So, Reginar and another Lotharingian count, Odoacer, come and ask Charles for help. Charles and his men duly invade, going first to Aachen and then to Nijmegen. Zwentibald, meanwhile, heads south, but is able to gain Matfreding support and win over some key northern bishops, Franco of Liège and Dodilo of Cambrai. I am as of yet unclear why they go for him and not Charles, but go for him they do. Charles goes down to Prüm, probably although not certainly against the will of Regino of Prüm – for it is he – the then abbot*, and then there’s a stand-off, where neither side commits to battle, Charles goes home, and the matter rests there.

Conspiracy then follows, and Lotharingia actually ends up with Zwentibald’s young half-brother Louis the Child, but this is where the actual invasion stops, and it’s enough to pull out a few threads. First, Charles’ actual support in Lotharingia appears to have been very limited on this occasion, basically Reginar and a few mates. This means that their initiative, although useful in giving him an excuse to intervene, probably wasn’t all that helpful in terms of active support. Second, and further, Charles was clearly angling very strongly for someone to give him an excuse. Third, he was apparently by himself able to put together a credible enough army to mount a serious potential challenge to Zwentibald.

Fourth and finally, despite this his lack of Lotharingian support was key, because without overwhelming backing from the Lotharingian magnates, his army and Zwentibald’s appear to have been sufficiently well-matched that neither wanted to risk pitched battle. Pitched battle in this period, quite apart from the risk of losing, was morally-fraught, so one can sympathise with him here – but it did mean that the war was probably going to be negotiated out soon rather than later as soon as it became clear that no-one wanted to roll the dice. In these senses, in fact, the 898 invasion of Lotharingia by Charles the Simple is pretty typical, almost archetypical of inter-regnal warfare in the late Carolingian period.

*Simon MacLean thinks that Regino gave Charles help; this is possible but perhaps unlikely, insofar as one of Zwentibald’s first gifts in late autumn 898 is to Prüm…

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