Good Guy Hugh the Great

Well, I’m in Leeds now. It’s not so much that everything’s sorted – much remains to be done – but I have an office and I’m sitting in it and so blog can be written. Onwards! Last week I put up a charter translation, which pointed towards this blog post. I mentioned when I was leaving Germany that it made sense to put all the arguments I had about the political narrative of tenth-century West Frankish history in separate articles so that, someday, I could write a book for a general audience without getting bogged down. Fairly high up my to-do list, then (largely because big chunks of it were already written and even partly footnoted) is a short piece on our old friend, the succession to Ralph of Burgundy.

The basic point of this, which I will rehearse in brief here, is not to make any big splash with new information, but to reinterpret what we already know. “So, like most of medieval history then?”, I hear you say. Good point well made, reader; but in this case we’ve ‘known’ something for rather longer than usual and it has remained unchallenged – as far as I know, at all. But on really trying to set down the state of affairs, I think that the consensus is all wrong and a bag of chips.


That consensus in a nutshell. I presume if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you already know the events, but if not, briefly: in January 936, King Ralph of the West Frankish kingdom, whose core support base was Burgundy, died. As king, he was succeeded by Louis IV, an exile who had lived his entire life in England; as duke of Burgundy, by his brother Hugh the Black. After Louis was crowned, he and Hugh the Great, the so-called ‘duke of the Franks’ and the magnate who had organised Louis’ crowning, attacked Burgundy, seizing the north of it from Hugh the Black. This was an unscrupulous attack carried out at Hugh the Great’s instigation and for his profit, snatching northern Burgundy from the rightful heir, Hugh the Black; and the only reason it could be done was because Louis was a helpless pawn completely under the power of Hugh the Great, whose only interest lay in exploiting the king’s presence to increase his own power, leaving Louis helpless and dependent.

Now, in recent works this is presented a bit less moralistically than it was in the early twentieth century, but it’s still more-or-less the same argument. However, it hinges on the idea that a) Hugh the Black was the ‘rightful heir’ to a ‘duchy of Burgundy’ and b) Hugh the Great was shortsightedly self-serving. I’ve argued against the first point here (Hugh the Black was an outsider to much of his brother’s core regions, and there’s no reason to think that men who had been operating in Ralph’s royal court would not look to the next royal court – rather than a not-so-local potentate – as his successor); but the second is also important.

Historians have long appreciated that kings and nobles were not always and inherently antagonistic such that the kings had to keep unruly and unscrupulous aristocrats down before they tore polities apart in pursuit of their own profit. This appreciation can sometimes seem to stop at around 870. But let’s look at Hugh the Great’s actions. We have a new king. He’s young, and unlike his almost-as-young East Frankish counterpart Otto the Great, he’s inexperienced. He has no West Frankish allies, and a lot of the old royal lands and palaces in the north-east are contested (thanks, Heribert of Vermandois!). But, there are these other guys to the south, in Burgundy, who were in with the last king, and who have no particular love for his brother’s attempts to impose himself on them by force…

Seen in this light, Hugh the Great’s campaign against Hugh the Black looks like a good-faith attempt to set Louis up as successor to Ralph’s power in the region of Burgundy. Certainly, not a disinterested one – Hugh the Great was made lay abbot of Saint-Germain-d’Auxerre – but this was just allowing Hugh an office which had for most of the late ninth century been attached to his particular bloc of lands and offices. (Hugh’s Neustria was actually much more formal than Ralph’s Burgundy, and maybe I should do a post about that…) But Ralph of Burgundy had not been a negligible figure, and asserting Louis as his heir in Burgundy made sense as a way of ensuring that Louis would also be a figure to reckon with.

Why did Hugh want Louis to be a figure to reckon with? Because useless kings were… erm, useless. If, as Hugh could reasonably expect, he would be the most important figure in Louis’ regime, then he needed the king to be rich and powerful, or else he couldn’t reward Hugh or judge in his favour in any meaningful way. He’d just be a useless appendage of Hugh’s own power. Moreover, in the 930s this wasn’t just hypothetical. Less than ten years before, Heribert of Vermandois had tried that sort of puppet arrangement with Louis’ imprisoned father, Charles the Simple, who – absent any particular power of his own – could add nothing to Heribert’s own resources except an alliance with the Normans, who were so suspicious of Heribert’s treatment of the king that they ended up demanding enough in the way of hostages to be rather counter-productive.

Hugh the Great, then, emerges not as a grasping aristocrat exploiting a helpless king, but as a man who, for his own benefit certainly but that makes it no less illustrative of how politics worked, tried to turn an exile king into a political force to be reckoned with.


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