I’ve briefly mentioned Hugh the Abbot before, but we’ve never had cause to talk about him properly, and we should probably remedy that. So, Hugh the Abbot. By origin, he’s very closely tied to the Carolingians. He was the cousin of Lothar II through his mother, of Charles the Bald through his father, and through his father as well the nephew of Louis the German. As such, he spent the 850s and 860s bouncing between the three kingdoms, at one point being granted the archbishopric of Cologne by Lothar II (albeit unsuccessfully). When that gambit failed, Hugh went back to Charles the Bald, and did so with remarkable good timing.
In 866, Robert the Strong was killed at the Battle of Brissarthe. He wasn’t the only Frankish magnate to be killed by Vikings, but his death left a very important vacancy. The western parts of the West Frankish kingdom – the region around the Loire valley known as Neustria – were something of a disaster area for Charles the Bald. He was crushingly defeated there a number of times, and there was always something to worry about – if it wasn’t Frankish rebellion, it was Viking raids; if it wasn’t Viking raids, it was Breton attacks; and usually it was several of these in combination. The Bretons were perhaps the most dangerous: Charles had to make significant territorial concessions. To give you some idea of the significance of this, Rennes is still part of modern Brittany (and Nantes only isn’t due to local rivalries): these areas have never been recovered. The solution Charles hit on was to put Robert the Strong in undisputed charge of the Neustrian March, loaded up with so many resources and so much status that he could not be seriously opposed. Robert, though, was killed only a year after taking up the role, and Charles handed it off to Hugh.
Hugh did a fantastic job. We spoke a couple of weeks ago about how Viking attacks could be warded off by being more dangerous than elsewhere, and, after a bad patch in the 850s and 860s, Hugh’s tenure on the March saw a couple of decades of respite. This was bad for the Anglo-Saxons, where the Great Army of the late 860s and 870s probably had rather more reinforcements than would otherwise have been the case, but good for the Franks. This was not a purely military thing, moreover: Hugh the Abbot led a trend toward ‘governmentalising’ Neustria, making its government more formal and its society more rigid. But that’s a post for well down the line – today, let’s talk high politics.
You see, from the late 870s onwards, and especially under Carloman, Hugh the Abbot became the magnate in the West Frankish kingdom. He wasn’t quite utterly predominant, but he was clearly front of the pack. And this had its benefits:
In the name of Lord God Eternal and our saviour Jesus Christ. Carloman, by grace of God king.
If We lend the ears of Our Piety to the petitions of servants of God and pay heed to their advantage, We are confident that God Almighty will make repayment on the matter.
Concerning which matter, We wish it to be known to the industry of all the people of the holy Church of God and Us, both present and future, that after the death of the venerable abbot Sadrebert, the requests of the monks came before Our Clemency through the intercession of Hugh [the Abbot], most venerable of abbots. They humbly asked, displaying on hand the precepts of Our grandfather and father, to wit, the august Charles [the Bald] and Our pious father and most pious of kings Louis [the Stammerer] of divine memory, in which is contained how Our grandfather and father enriched from their goods of their property a little monastery founded in honour of the Holy Saviour in the district of Atuyer, which was once named Alfa, for their everlasting reward, and place Abbot Rotfred from Montiéramey which is called the New Cell, an active man, in charge therein during his lifetime.
Therefore, the monks of the aforesaid place appealed to Our Royal Highness that we might receive the same little monastery, in memory of Our grandfather and father or Our grandmother and mother, under Our immunity; and confirmed by a precept of Our authority whatever had been bestowed there by Our aforesaid grandfather and father. And because they had lately lost Abbot Sadrebert, a man worthy before God, they humbly asked that We might establish a man named Rotfred as abbot in his place, whom they witnessed was commendable in his life and habits.
Freely acquiescing to their prayers, because they were just and reasonable, We established and confirmed the precepts of Our grandfather and father; and We placed the abbot whom they requested, that is, Rotfred, in charge of that place and congregation; and We subjected the monastery of Alfa there with all its appendages, and as well the goods which were bestowed there through the largess of Our grandfather and father, as is contained in their precepts. That is, on the condition and in such a way that the aforesaid Abbot Rotfred, the same monastery and its monks and their dependents with everything legally beholden to it should perpetually endure under Our mundeburdum and tutelage, corroborated by the authority of this testament of Our Royal Dignity, such that no-one should presume to send a monk from another place into their monastery, not create any officeholder within their congregation except from those who were raised there from infancy in accordance with the Rule, and let them have permission to elect an abbot from within themselves, not from amongst outsiders, in accordance with the institution of Saint Benedict.
We also establish that neither count nor other judicial power should presume to receive or exact any timber-fees or harbour dues or vehicle-fees or mooring-fees or billeting or hospitality or other service or render from them in any places – that is, counties, cities, or markets – in Our realm to which they or their dependents travel for their needs, except in those places in which We have conceded through Our precept that they should be gotten. Rather, let them more freely and devotedly exhort for all time the clemency of God Almighty for Us and Our glorious fathers the august Charles [the Bald] and King Louis [the Stammerer] and Our glorious grandmother Queen Ermentrude and Our mother Ansgard and Our dearest brother Louis [III] and the state of Our realm, and endure perpetually under Our tutelage, as We have established.
But that this largess of Our authority might in God’s name obtain greater vigour of firmness, We confirmed it below with Our own hand and We commanded it be undersigned with the impression of Our signet.
Sign of Carloman, most glorious of kings.
Norbert the notary subscribed.
Given on the 10th kalends of February [23rd January], in the fifth year of the reign of Carloman, most glorious of kings, in the first indiction.
Enacted at the public palace of Compiègne.
Happily in the name of God, amen.
Pray for Honoratus and Leotheric, who ambasciated this, and for their dead brother Helmuin.
It must be said that being simply a venerabilissimus abbas is not the most exalted Hugh appears in charters from around this time. About eight months later, in a diploma for the cathedral at Orléans, Hugh got to be the inclitus ac venerabilis Hugo abbas, tutor noster ac regni nostri maximus defensor, which is Latin for ‘like a boss’. So it’s clear that Hugh was a very dominant figure on the political scene – you don’t get to be the king’s ‘famous and venerable guardian and the greatest defender of his realm’ without being powerful indeed.
So why didn’t I translate that diploma? Because this one illustrates a theme which is going to be important for the next century plus. When Hugh first made his appearance in West Frankish affairs, he was made abbot of the monastery of Saint-Germain d’Auxerre, right in the heart of Burgundy. He was chased out in the 860s, but, as this charter shows, kept his interest in Burgundian affairs. Of course, part of his presence in this diploma is simply that he is the go-to man at court, but it’s also that he’s got history with this region as well. We’ll see at other points people connected with both Tours and Paris with Burgundian interests, but this shows quite nicely the dispersed interests of men at the highest ranks of Frankish society.
The word ‘Reichsaristokratie’ (‘imperial aristocracy’) is hovering uncomfortably around this group. The idea here is that the Carolingian super-elite was composed of people whose lands were not simply provincial, but spread around a number of places within the Carolingian empire. This distinguished them from their forebears and from the ‘territorial princes’ who came afterwards, who were basically-provincial, and made them more invested in the continuation of Carolingian government. I say ‘uncomfortably’ because the idea that there was something special about the highest levels of the Carolingian aristocracy having widely-dispersed interests does not seem right to me. Before he was ever king, Hugh Capet (Hugh the Abbot’s successor in Neustria and possible namesake) had interests in the Loire valley, the Seine valley, Burgundy, and Lotharingia. This change therefore looks to me to be a change in historiographical emphasis above all… But as it happens this is a theme we’ll pick up in the main blog post in a fortnight’s time.
On the flip side of Hugh’s power, and by extension of Carloman’s, you don’t get that powerful in the faction-ridden world of the 880s without making some powerful enemies as well, and next week, we’ll be looking at some of them.