In May 987, Louis V fell off a horse and died. His cousin Hugh Capet took the throne in a coup, only to be opposed by his uncle Charles of Lower Lotharingia. The two men fought a civil war which lasted for almost three full years, ending in March 991 and starting in late April or May 988.
…Hang on. That doesn’t sound right.
Yes, today we’re looking at the coup of Charles of Lotharingia, an event which is normally taken completely for granted but which probably shouldn’t be. For once, his motivation is probably clear – legitimate sons of kings were prima facie candidates to be kings themselves, and Charles had previous form plotting against his brother Lothar in 978*. It’s his timing that’s the issue. Charles apparently saw Hugh Capet being crowned but waited for almost a whole year before making his own move. This is an important delay, passed over by historians who see Charles’ move as self-evident; but I want to ask: why then? Why not a year earlier, after Louis’ death? The longer Charles delayed, the more time Hugh had to entrench himself. I don’t want to overstate this, because there clearly were coup attempts which were launched years after a new king’s succession, but not a lot and the delay did hurt the plotters’ legitimacy. So here are a few options:
1) “Charles didn’t wait, actually.” This answer would short-circuit the question, but unfortunately it would also have to be based on Richer of Rheims’ account. Richer describes how, after Louis’ death but before Hugh’s election as king, Archbishop Adalbero of Rheims went from Senlis to Rheims itself, where Charles approached him to beg for his support in becoming king. Adalbero refused and went back to Senlis, where he made a speech supporting Hugh. We’ve seen before that Richer is not an amazing source for political details, and this case is no exception. The journey from Senlis to Rheims was (pace Robert-Henri Bautier) completely pointless, and the timings are off. They’re not completely impossible, but they do require everyone involved, especially the ageing Adalbero, to move at courier speeds the whole time. In fact, Richer is probably referring to a meeting between Charles and Adalbero which happened later and in a different place, and which he probably knew through the same source we do, which is to say the letters of Adalbero’s secretary (and later pope) Gerbert of Aurillac. This does bring us, though, to the next option, which is:
2) “Ottonian backing!” Ah, the ole’ tried-n-true. However, evidence here is very indirect indeed. We know Charles was at the Easter court of the young Otto III at Ingelheim in April 988, immediately before he attacked Laon. What transpired there is unknown, but later in the year Theophanu tried to arrange a truce between Charles and Hugh and probably some kind of negotiated settlement. This does not, to me, suggest wholehearted support. I have trouble with this whole picture, honestly: relations between Theophanu and Hugh weren’t great, but they weren’t awful either – chilliness is one thing, but three years earlier the West Frankish king had been actively at war with the Ottonians! I’m unclear, therefore, on what Theophanu’s motivation for supporting Charles was supposed to be.
3) “Hugh Capet’s regime was running into trouble.” Again, not obvious. Hugh Capet is known to have sent an angry letter to Archbishop Seguin of Sens, who was dragging his feet about professing loyalty. He also besieged a guy called Odo Rufinus at Marçon in summer. Odo is sometimes argued to be a cat’s paw for Odo I of Blois (and sometimes, through him, of Charles), but the chain of logic there is very tenuous.** This is about it – over winter 987/988, Hugh was able to describe his realm in a letter as ‘very quiet’. If Hugh had any problems, they were more to do with lack of enthusiasm than opposition; but this doesn’t present much of an opening for a would-be pretender. In the closest comparable case, that of Hugh’s great-uncle Odo and Charles the Simple, King Odo had committed a series of patronage blunders and high-handed executions which had provoked a general crisis. There’s nothing like that in Hugh Capet’s case.
4) “Hugh Capet was distracted.” The king’s letter describing his kingdom as ‘very quiet’ was addressed to Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona. Borrell had been sending panicked letters not only to Hugh but also to Lothar and Louis V ever since Barcelona had been sacked by the Andalusi vizier al-Mansur in 985. All three kings had had some sort of interest in leading aid to Borrell, but the turmoil in the north of the realm under Lothar and Louis had prevented anything concrete from happening. Hugh Capet appears to have the time and energy to try and put something together. He used his planned expedition to browbeat Adalbero of Rheims into crowning his son, Robert the Pious, as king at Christmas 987, and at around the same time sent a letter to Borrell asking him to send guides into Aquitaine. Hugh’s sincerity has been doubted, but I don’t think the grounds for that are particularly good – our evidence does all point to his intentions to lead an army southwards. Notably, between Christmas 987 and Easter 988 we have no idea what he was doing. Robert’s coronation was at Orléans, the gateway to Aquitaine, and I think it’s perfectly reasonable that Hugh actually did go south. However, we can also be reasonably sure that Borrell didn’t meet him – Hugh’s letter suggests that Borrell was thinking of making terms with al-Andalus, and after over two years of delay I don’t blame him – and the whole thing came to nothing. I like this explanation conceptually – ‘the king and most of his army are far away and getting further’ presents a good tactical scenario for Charles to opportunistically take advantage of. However, the big question mark is the chronology, and this requires a second paragraph on…
…the Flemish succession.
On March 30th 988, Count Arnulf II of Flanders died. On May 20th, the imperial court was at Braine-le-Comte, a little north of Mons, where Otto III issued a diploma for the abbey of Blandijnberg at the intervention of Counts Godfrey the Prisoner and Arnulf of Valenciennes. Probably some time after that, Gerbert of Aurillac wrote a letter in Adalbero of Rheims’ name to Archbishop Egbert of Trier, the relevant part of which goes:
We are somewhat agitated though, that you told us what was happening in your parts so late, and chiefly concerning the case of your brother and nephew. Indeed, as soon as We had read your news, we received Our messenger from the palace, who confirmed that Arnulf’s son has received everything which was his by the king’s gift. In this, we have no other solace save that We know that the knights disagree strongly with him.
This is an opaque letter which admits several possible interpretations, but one in particular stands out to me. There are other possibilities, but it seems to me vanishingly remote that the ‘son of Arnulf’ in question is anyone other than Baldwin IV of Flanders. Similarly, whilst the king in question could be Otto III, it is overwhelmingly probable that it’s Hugh Capet. What this means is that odds are good that Hugh Capet was far enough north to hand out Flemish honores in April, while Charles was at the Ottonian Easter court, which makes a putative southern distraction improbable.
But why is Adalbero opposed to Hugh giving Baldwin his father’s lands, and why are Egbert’s relatives, the counts of Holland, involved?
5. “Backing, but not from the Ottonians.” We know about Charles’ presence at the Ingelheim assembly from two letters, one from Gerbert and one in the name of Adalbero of Rheims, the latter written during Hugh Capet’s siege of Laon in summer 988. It appears that Gerbert was pretty keen on Charles. By the time Adalbero’s letter was written, though, the archbishop was more hostile. By that point in summer, Adalbero was opposed to Charles, but at Easter he appears to have been more cautious about taking sides, concerned that Charles had limited support amongst the West Frankish magnates.
At this point, we come back to Gerbert’s letter. Jean Dunbabin argues that this letter may well show that Arnulf of Holland was backed by Adalbero as the new count of Flanders over the (very young) Baldwin IV, who may have been accused of being illegitimate. This is a plausible argument; but to what end was Adalbero’s support given? Let us imagine the following sequence of events: Charles of Lotharingia approached Adalbero of Rheims at Ingelheim, seeking his support. Adalbero, who was not the most whole-hearted supporter of Hugh, equivocated but was basically positive, if cautious. However, because Charles did not have widespread support amongst the West Frankish nobility, Adalbero said that Charles needed to bolster his following. Flanders, whose count had recently died, would be a useful thin end of the wedge – if it could be controlled. Charles spread rumours that Baldwin IV was illegitimate, supporting the claims of Count Dirk II of Holland. There were good reasons to hope that this would work – the lower-level elite of Flanders (milites, which I have given here as ‘knights’) preferred an adult ruler such as Dirk to that of a child like Baldwin. However, Charles jumped the gun and attacked Laon before the Flemish affair was done. Egbert was not able to communicate with Adalbero in time. Dirk II died in early May and Hugh Capet swooped in, granting Flanders to Baldwin and marrying Baldwin’s mother, Arnulf’s widow Rozala (who now took the name Susannah), to his son Robert the Pious. Dirk II’s son Arnulf of Holland and grandson Dirk III tried to keep pushing their claim; but faced with the collapse of his plot, Adalbero dropped Charles and the rest is history.
This is, of course, conjecture, but it is a useful hypothesis which explains a lot of things. First, as Dunbabin points out in her article, the counts of Holland seem to have lost control of Ghent and Waas at about this time, something which may well have resulted from their failed coup. Similarly, argues Dunbabin, Rozala’s assumption of the name Susannah could be easily explained if she was being accused of adultery. Moreover, Charles had pedigree in using these types of accusations, which were otherwise rare in an Ottonian context, having made the same charges against his sister-in-law Lothar’s wife Emma. This sequence of affairs also explains the tone of the letter – why Adalbero and Egbert are on the same side in this matter, why Adalbero doesn’t seem all that concerned, and why speed was of the essence. It fits neatly with Charles’ background: he had long-standing associations with Flanders ever since the 960s, had been an ally of Egbert’s in the 980s, and seems to have been an ally of Adalbero’s during the reign of Louis V. Finally, it is the best explanation I can think of, or that I’ve read, as to why, after a year’s delay, Charles acted when he did.
*Although odds are pretty good that, despite the historical consensus, he was never actually crowned at that point. I’ve got a translation post coming out probably in March or April where I’ll discuss this further.
** A generation later, there was a man named Odorus who was Odo I’s distant kinsman. If Odorus was the same man as the mid-eleventh century ‘Odo the Red’ from the Loire valley, and if Odo the Red was related to Odo Rufinus, and if Odo Rufinus’ putative kinship with the count meant that he was Odo I’s vassal then it is possible that this was a portion of a larger struggle rather than just a purely local affair.
I’m used to wobbly conjectures, but this is something else.