Parallel Wannabes: Hugh of Alsace and Boso of Provence

One curious thing about the 860s, 870s, and 880s is the rise of what I call the Carolingian ‘demi-monde’, which is to say the people who aren’t 100% throne-worthy but who have got good enough claims if you look at them in the right light. The most famous of these is my boy, Charles the Simple, whose mother was maybe-maybe not married to his father, and whose royal credentials were doubted not least by other kings of the time. However, there was no shortage of bastards, quasi-bastards, legitimate sons who had been sent into the Church, and powerful and prestigious in-laws. I was thinking about two of these people recently, because their careers offer an interesting compare-and-contrast exercise.

Boso of Provence, of course, we are very familiar with on this blog; but what about Hugh of Alsace? Hugh was the bastard son of Lothar II of Lotharingia, Charles the Bald’s nephew and focal point of one of the ninth century’s biggest scandals. Lothar, you see, hated his wife, Teutberga, and wanted to marry his former concubine Waldrada, Hugh’s mother. For a variety of reasons, his attempts failed and Hugh remained a bastard. Lothar did nonetheless try and set him up with a position, endowing him with lands in Alsace. From that base, he tried to improve his position at several points across the late 870s and early 880s. Hugh’s efforts were already underway in 878, where he seems to have taken advantage of the death of Charles the Bald and was excommunicated for it at the Synod of Troyes. In 879, though, Hugh went harder. The Annals of Saint-Vaast even show him trying to behave like a real king, leading an army against a Viking force marauding in Brabant. He lost, which probably didn’t help his case; but his support was nonetheless pretty significant. In his account of this year, Regino of Prüm names some of his supporters, and he was followed by a number of powerful counts not just from Alsace but also from further north as well. One of these names is particularly interesting: Count Theobald. Keep him in mind, because we’ll come back to him later.

Hugh’s streak of military misfortune continued in 880, when a combined East and West Frankish force attacked and defeated him at Attigny. Hugh was forced to flee, and sent to the East Frankish king Louis the Younger to negotiate terms. Louis probably gave him the abbey of Lobbes, and at Easter 881 followed that up with a substantial gift of lands and honores. However, Hugh rebelled again soon afterwards, and Louis sent an army to pursue him. When Louis died in 882, though, Hugh was able to negotiate with Louis’ brother and successor Charles the Fat for a landed base around the city of Metz. Regino of Prüm has some scurrilous gossip about Hugh’s activity during these years, accusing him of having his former guardian Count Wigbert and his follower Berner murdered, the latter in order to marry his beautiful wife Frederada. If any of this is true, it was probably a purge of his supporters whose loyalty he couldn’t count on – Wigbert seems to have switched his support to Charles the Fat. However, Regino seems to have disliked Hugh personally – he certainly knew him well enough. With his inner circle secure, Hugh sent to his brother-in-law, the Viking king Guthfrith, and together they plotted to launch a coup.

A seventeenth-century image of Regino, our source for much of this information (source).

Throughout his career, Hugh crossed over several times with Boso. Remember Count Theobald from a couple of paragraphs ago? Theobald is particularly significant because he was a) Hugh’s chief general and brother-in-law but also b) Boso of Provence’s cousin. In fact, when Boso issued his Montiéramey charter as a prelude to becoming king himself, Theobald subscribed to it. This probably suggests an alliance between the two men, even if we don’t know precisely what that consisted of. It is significant in this context that after Hugh’s defeat in summer 881, he was pursued into Burgundy – it is quite possible the two would-be kings joined up. Count Theobald, incidentally, kept a foot in both camps. By 887, he seems to have been a Bosonid loyalist: a charter recording a court hearing he oversaw was dated by Boso’s death.

Given their parallel careers, it is striking how differently they were treated by the ‘canonical’ Carolingian kings. Boso was pursued with vindictive hatred for years by multiple kings, whereas Hugh continued to gain reconciliation and forgiveness seemingly no matter how many times he rebelled. The difference between them seems to have been their own responses to overtures from the Carolingians. Boso was offered terms once, in 880, and turned them down. He was answered with war to the knife. By contrast, Hugh was quite happy to take an outstretched hand when it was offered.

What finally brought Hugh down was his alliance with Guthfrith. He was summoned to Gondreville by Charles the Fat, where he was blinded. Charles’ position was unusual. He was trying to secure the succession of his bastard son Bernard. This meant that Hugh was more of a threat than he had been in the past – after all, if Charles’ bastard could succeed, so could Lothar II’s. Hugh was imprisoned in the monastery of St Gallen, where he lived out the rest of his days.  

The intertwined rebellions of Hugh and Boso tell us something quite interesting about Carolingian responses to revolt. With their own family, as well as with nobles, the chief aim was not to crush traitors or enemies of the state, but to quickly and pragmatically restore peace as effectively as possible. In this regard, the least forgivable offense was not taking up arms against the king – it was refusing to be forgiven.


2 thoughts on “Parallel Wannabes: Hugh of Alsace and Boso of Provence

  1. Really interesting – it’s great to see these kinds of parallels explored!

    Something occurred to me in terms of how Hugh and Boso were treated differently. Hugh, even though a bastard, was still a Carolingian by blood and in different circumstances could have been a legitimate king of Lotharingia. Boso, on the other hand, was only related to the Carolingians indirectly by marriage, so never had true legitimacy – at least in the eyes of the other Carolingians – and was seen as more of a threat to the dynasty’s right to rule. A bit simplistic perhaps, but important to never underestimate the importance of blood.


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