Some Issues in Aquitanian History, pt. 8: Becoming the Counts of Clermont

If Louis V was the new hotness, the career of Bishop Stephen of Clermont’s nephew Guy shows that the power of the more rooted families was by no means old and busted.

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Pictured: Guy of Clermont and Louis V (source: property of Columbia Pictures)

Guy’s attempt to assert his power in Auvergne after Stephen’s death was less showy than that of the Carolingians, but led to longer-term success. Guy appears a few times in Stephen’s reign, first appearing around 950-960 when he must have been fairly young, and then appearing in the Rigald charter we discussed previously as a viscount, signing after his brother Robert. Robert appears to have been the older brother, and to have died around the same time as Bishop Stephen: a charter of May 980 (which is, frustrating, the only document of Guy’s dossier which is dated) has Guy, ‘viscount of the city of the Auvergne’, making a donation for the souls of both men.

It’s an interesting document. May 980 is more-or-less right the time that Louis V is being made king of Aquitaine, so it’s interesting that the donation is of property in southern Burgundy to the abbey of Cluny and that most of the ‘old families’ of the Auvergne appear to be witnessing – it implies they’re not in Aquitaine at that moment. Guy does Bishop Stephen’s old trick of putting himself at the head of a prayer association of his relatives. The introduction of the charter announces that this should be known to ‘everyone… to wit, kings and dukes and counts’, which is very much not Stephen praying for the reigning monarch but hasn’t cut them out the loop either. It’s also interesting that Guy is called viscount rather than ‘count’ here. My suspicion is that this is Guy – and the ‘old families’ more broadly – hedging their bets and waiting to see how Louis V’s kingship works out. After all, Louis’ connections, although significant, weren’t with them…

After the early 980s, though, Guy was more open about his power. At some point, perhaps in 984, Guy was at some more gatherings of the ‘old families’. Two charters, one to Sauxillanges and one to Brioude, feature two different men named Viscount Bertrand donating to these abbeys with Count Guy as their overlord: the donation of Bertrand, husband of Faith, has Guy as Bertrand’s almsman, to whom he entrusts the carrying-out of the donation; the other charter is by Guy’s brother Bertrand husband of Arsinda, where he is viscount and Guy is count. There is some overlap in the witness lists – a scribe named Stephen, a guy named Gozbert – which makes me think these donations are connected. If so, 984 would be a reasonable guess at the year – the first donation is a larger gathering, which suggests a church festival. It took place on a Sunday in March, and as it happens between the early 980s and Guy’s death c. 990 the only year Easter took place in March was 984. This logic ain’t exactly watertight, but it’s a reasonable stab, and in any case I’d be mildly surprised if Guy wasn’t up and running with his full suite of claims to authority by the mid-980s anyway. The difference here would be the chronology – I suspect that these charters are the ‘old families’ actually acknowledging that Guy is now preeminent amongst them, although obviously I can’t prove that.

Certainly, by what must have been the mid-980s because Guy’s career isn’t that long, he was referring to himself in a charter as princeps Arvenorum, ‘prince of the men of the Auvergne’ (coincidentally this was what Vercingetorix was called, but I’m 95% sure that’s a coincidence), again donating for Stephen’s soul. He makes appearances in a couple more charters, always with some specific reference to his predominant position – for Prior Eustorgius of Clermont Cathedral, Guy was ‘my lord’; for Hugh the priest – who was evidently a member of the same social cluster – he was ‘our defender’.

Guy died around 990, but his brother William became count in his stead, and his descendants after him. The later counts don’t appear to have had to fight for their position in the way Guy did, so clearly he did a good job. In fact, the right of the rulers of Clermont to be counts was retroactively accepted around 1020 – when King Robert the Pious confirmed Guy’s 980 donation to Cluny, Guy was named as count, not as viscount. The line of counts continued until the fourteenth century, so of all the attempts to rule Auvergne it was the longest-lasting. However, that longevity came with a price. We’ve seen Guy using some of the same techniques of legitimation as Stephen, but on a smaller scale. The prayer community wasn’t as large, nor was it any longer connected to the kings. In fact, Guy seems to have worked largely on getting his face-to-face subordinates to acknowledge his superiority in their own documents. This led to a shrinking of the political community, pretty much back to just the ‘old families’ of the Auvergne. There was, however, a closer successor to Bishop Stephen in terms of reach and ambition if not blood, and like Guy he would leave a long-term legacy to the European world – but his would go far beyond the confines of the county of Clermont.

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