A Sad Story About Why Charles the Simple Succeeded Odo

We’ve discussed Charles the Simple’s succession to the West Frankish throne a little bit before, but never really gone into detail about one question which has always bugged me: why did Odo let Charles succeed him? OK, sure, we can talk about Charles’ dynastic legitimacy and his hereditary claim to the throne, and that may have been a factor. Certainly, later sources put Odo and Charles in some kind of ward/guardian situation; but this is basically ahistorical and the result of working backwards from eleventh century expectations. The main practical reason that Charles ends up as Odo’s successor is that, over the course of several years of peace negotiations but most crucially in late 897, as Odo lies on his deathbed, Odo conceded that role to him. So, to reframe the question, why was Odo so willing to negotiate?

It can’t be because Charles posed a significant military threat. The high point of the rebellion of which Charles was the figurehead was right at the start, in 893 and 894. After 895, when the siege of Laon which Charles conducted with Zwentibald failed, the young ruler’s situation was pretty dire. From the beginning, his rebellion was riven with internal dissent, and by the last years of Odo’s reign virtually everyone had jumped ship. All of Charles’ backers – even Archbishop Fulk of Rheims, who was in loco parentis to the young man – went back to Odo’s side (in Fulk’s case only briefly, but his persistent opposition to Odo and support for Charles was the exception in these years). Odo was able to confiscate the rebels’ castles, estates and resources. Charles had no money, no troops, and no friends.

It is very surprising, therefore, that Odo condescended to negotiate from this position of superiority, yet in 896 he did so. Not merely did he do so, but he was – according to the Annals of Saint-Vaast – active in encouraging his followers to lend their support to Charles as his successor. What could his motivations for such a thing have been? One option is that he was a far-sighted statesman, who could see that the best way to repair the damage the civil war had caused the realm was to allow Charles to succeed him whilst negotiating for the best deal for his followers after his own death. This is not an implausible option, and certainly it seems like Odo’s brother Robert of Neustria was well-placed to be honourably received by the king after Odo’s death. But was there more at work?

Perhaps the general sense of malaise hanging over Odo’s court by 895 had something to do with it. Morale on Odo’s side, even the king’s own morale, seems to have been declining. Abbo of Saint-Germain-des-Prés complained in an addition to his Bella Parisiacae Urbis that the king whom he had once praised as a glorious Viking fighter was now useless and apathetic: he heard of Vikings raiding across his kingdom, and declared he simply didn’t care. Certainly his pacific tendencies after 895 form a contrast with his bullish approach before that year.

However, there may be more to it than that Odo was simply ground down by war. A neglected carmen figuratum, a picture poem in praise of Odo written around 893, ends with a prayer that God will bestow a son on Odo.

The manuscript in question being this one, Berlin Staatsbibliothek Fragm. 89, fol. 8r (source)

A second poem, in praise of Odo’s queen Theodrada, accompanies the first. However, evidence of Odo actually having any children is generally conspicuous by its absence. (There is a bizarre document purporting to be from the early tenth century from the Breton monastery of Redon which mentions the presence of one ‘Guy, son of King Odo of France’ – however, this is transparently a later forgery and Guy did not have any historical reality.) These poems are interesting because they are signs that, a brief way into Charles’ rebellion, Odo had dynastic ambitions. A clear inference, therefore, is that something had changed by 896, and the most obvious thing is that Theodrada had died. It would have been quite possible for Odo to remarry, of course – one thing that always surprises me about Odo is how young he was, being only in his early thirties when he became king – but that was a way in the future and Charles’ rebellion was a problem now. It seems that Odo’s ambitions to have a male heir were buried with his wife. Under these circumstances, negotiating with Charles was the option of least resistance. If Odo couldn’t be succeeded by an heir of his body, he could at least ensure that the crown went to someone with a good claim, and try and prevent a war such as he had been fighting for the previous several years from breaking out anew on his death.

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One thought on “A Sad Story About Why Charles the Simple Succeeded Odo

  1. I really do think its very hard not to feel sorry for Odo. Certainly later historians did – Richer of Rheims saw him as a heroic yet beleaguered warrior king trying to make a statesman-like effort in keeping the realm safe and in and in good order yet ground down by stress and ill-health. He then claims that after Odo finally gave in and made the agreement with Charles the Simple he died of dementia – obviously this is mainly a plausible invention, based on Richer’s very sophisticated knowledge of Classical medicine (he didn’t make that hellish road trip to Chartres for nothing) , but he clearly noticed, more sympathetically by comparison to the much more contemporary Abbo of Saint Germain des Pres, that Odo’s increasing lack of willpower to deal with his enemies within and without was down to growing ill-health from stress.

    Its so easy for us to forget that being a ninth century king really was such a high-stress job. Its worth noting that the only Carolingian rulers who managed to live past sixty are Charlemagne, Louis the Pious and Louis the German. This is even more significant given that (in great contrast to the dynasty that came before them) pretty much all the Carolingians died in their beds, with quite a few of them dying of strokes and other illnesses obviously related to a high-stress lifestyle.

    Also Odo’s marital and sexual history really does show that Carolingian marriage reform was internalised by elite men. Like why didn’t Odo try divorcing Theodrada or why didn’t he remarry after her death? Of course, Odo might have internalised more Carolingian reform than many other aristocrats – he was educated at Saint Denis, after all. But still its interesting to draw connections, and more broadly tells us that the purpose of royal marriage was about a lot more than just siring heirs – Henry VIII has a lot to answer for!

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