The Tria Regna pt. 1: The Land

Historiographical Introduction

Aquitaine, Burgundy, Neustria. These are the three great subdivisions of the West Frankish kingdom for decades after the end of the Carolingian empire in 888. Known, sometimes, as the tria regna, the ‘three kingdoms’, under the respective rules of William the Pious, Richard the Justiciar, and Robert of Neustria, are obvious starting points for historians who want to look at the political world after the end of the Carolingian empire and, well, I’m evidently no different.

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The Tria Regna. Red is Neustria, orange is places under looser Neustrian control. Blue is Aquitaine, yellow is places disputed between Aquitaine and Burgundy. Green is Burgundy. Bourges, disputed between all three, is in purple.

With that said, I’m increasingly less comfortable with the way the three are lumped together. Most of the work on the ‘first wave of territorial principalities’ is pretty old by now, and the frameworks analysis are hung within are pretty much those which they were hung in thirty years ago. It’s probably time to look again at this period. With that said, this blog says right on the ‘About’ page that it’s a vessel for getting things written down, and this series on the tria regna – however many weeks it takes – is going to be more thinking out loud than usual. I can’t even promise a conclusion at the end! But, if I don’t write this down, I’ll never get these thoughts in so much as a policy document, let alone something coherent and polished. Thus, what I plan on doing is going through a number of themes for each regnum, and seeing what emerges.

The Ninth-Century Background

In the mid-ninth century, all three areas were part of a band of territories where the most intensive competition for honores was played out. If, within the West Frankish kingdom, some places – like Champagne – were locked down under direct royal lordship; and others – like Rouen – seem to have been backwaters, a banana of land stretching roughly from Tours to Lyons via Bourges looks to have been a particularly fertile place for conflicts over land, office and status.

The western valley of the Loire – Robertian Neustria, as it would become – was taken out of the game relatively quickly. This region was directly proximate to both the sea (and thus the Vikings) and Brittany (and thus the Bretons). The interaction of Bretons, Vikings and rebellious Frankish magnates created a kind of resonance effect which led to Charles suffering substantial military defeat and territorial losses which haven’t yet been made up – to date, Rennes and Nantes, lost by Charles, are still part of Brittany. Eventually, in the name of consolidating his command structures, he endowed a magnate named Robert the Strong with a vast number of honores (lands, offices, status) based on the abbey of Saint-Martin of Tours. Robert didn’t live long enough to enjoy it, as he was killed in battle in 866 shortly after receiving these honores, but the aim seems from the very beginning to create an institutional framework for the Loire, as Hincmar of Rheims records the Charles sent another man, Hugh the Abbot (of whom we have lately heard), loco Rotberti – ‘in Robert’s place’, taking over his resources and role. The position isn’t named, or conceived of terribly clearly, but there’s clearly an element of institutional continuity here, which lasted down to the tenth century.

However, the ‘south’ of the kingdom (used here to denote the lands south of a line drawn between northern Poitou and Dijon) was still an active spot in competition for honores. Irritatingly, for a crucial couple of decades there were no fewer than three major players in this region called Bernard – Bernard Plantevelue (‘Hairypaws’), Bernard the Calf, and Bernard of the Auvergne – and the situation is not helped by the fact that the main narrative sources aren’t terribly interested in affairs in this area. Still, it seems apparent that this part of the kingdom was a fertile area for treason, murder, and becoming very wealthy and powerful in the 860s and 870s – one of the abovesaid Bernards (Plantevelue) murdered another one for his honores, and the magnate Boso, whose power-base was in the valley of the Saône, became the most powerful man in Louis the Stammerer’s kingdom before declaring himself king after Louis’ death (abortively, as it turned out).

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Even his only surviving royal diploma is forged…

This is not to say that the area, or at least all of it, was a playground for secular magnates. One important regional difference is the much more active and important role of both the episcopate and the West Frankish king in Burgundy. Whilst at the end of Charles the Bald’s reign figures such as Boso of Provence and Bernard Plantevelue held important clusters of Burgundian honores, the local episcopate remained powerful and became more so by the end of the century. By the end of the Carolingian empire in 888, the most powerful figures in the region were the court-focussed bishops such as Geilo of Langres and Adalgar of Autun. The same is not true in either Neustria or (for the most part; Bourges is an exception) Aquitaine: the archbishops of Tours and bishops of Clermont, for instance, are almost totally obscure during this period.

Similarly, kingship was felt much more immediately in Burgundy, and particularly in some parts of it such as Auxerre, than in Aquitaine. Charles the Bald and his successors visited the area more frequently, and had closer ties with (particularly) the regional bishops. This had been the case for a while, in fact – during the invasion of Charles’ kingdom by his brother Louis the German in 858-859, Burgundy had been the region of Charles’ steadiest support. By contrast, whilst royal authority was important in Neustria – the office of its ruler remained a royal appointment – the kings rarely visited there; and Aquitaine was never under West Frankish control to the extent of the other two areas.

One reason for this is that, for much of the period in question, Aquitaine had its own sub-king. (Neustria briefly did as well in the 850s, when Charles set up the west as a kind of Baby’s First Kingdom for Louis the Stammerer, but this was fairly short-lived and doesn’t seem to have had much effect. Continuity with the Neustrian regnum of the Merovingian period appears to have been entirely absent.) The Aquitanian sub-kingdom was a long-lived and relatively serious institution: it persisted on-and-off for most of the ninth century, and several of its holders, such as Charles the Bald’s son Charles the Child, appear to have made a serious effort to be taken seriously as proper quasi-kings. Consequently, West Frankish authority in the region generally operated at more of a remove than elsewhere.

A coin of Pippin II, king of Aquitaine (when not deposed or imprisoned).

Whether as cause or consequence, Aquitaine also had more of regional identity. It is common, although not universal, for charters to be dated by the West Frankish king, identified as ‘King of the Franks and the Aquitanians’, indicating a consciousness of separation in the region. This isn’t to suggest that there was some yearning for national freedom in the breast of all true Aquitanians, but it was a potential resource seemingly not available in Burgundy or Aquitaine, where regional identities are a lot less visible. The foundation documents of the abbey of Vézelay refer to it being placed in the regnum of Burgundy; several decades later, the poet Abbo of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, author of a poem about the Viking attack on Paris in 886, was very vocally Neustrian – but both of these are hard to parallel.

The Hour Cometh…

At the end of the ninth century, then, we have three very distinct regions. Well over to one side is Neustria, relatively tightly unified, administratively focussed, in royal gift, and already under the control of a single lay magnate. Aquitaine and Burgundy are more similar to one another, but still important differences emerge. Both are part of a ‘contested belt’, but Aquitaine has both more contestation and a stronger regional identity, and even semi-separate political framework, whereas Burgundy is distinguished by royal presence, both per se and through powerful and well-connected bishops. The first question to ask next time, then, is what happened, how did they all end up under one dominating lord, and is this a significant as it looks?

Loyalty and Regime Change in Neustria, part 2: The Keys to the Kingdom

So, as of last time, Hugh the Great, duke of the Franks and master of kings, had died at the height of his power. What happened next? Hugh left split his domains between his two (presumably) oldest sons, Hugh Capet, the later king, and Odo. Hugh got Neustria (Paris, Orléans, and the Loire valley) and Odo got Burgundy – but in both cases, only for a given value of ‘got’.

Here, we must introduce a new character: Theobald the Trickster, count of Blois and Tours. Theobald had been Hugh the Great’s chief leg-breaker – it had been he, for instance, who had been Louis IV’s jailer after he was sold to Hugh in 945. After Hugh the Great’s death, he seems to have actively and aggressively expanded his power, capturing the cities of Châteaudun, Chinon, and Évreux on the southern border of Normandy. He also seems to have excluded Hugh Capet from exercising his father’s authority – in one memorable charter, he and his ally Count Fulk the Good of Angers are referred to as ‘by the generosity of the Lord, the administrators and governors of the [realm of Neustria]’ – Hugh doesn’t get a look-in. This is sometimes referred to as Hugh’s minority, but he was probably around 940 or so, making him around 16 when his father died and around 18 when the charter mentioned above was issued – easily old enough to be considered an adult. (King Lothar, as a parallel, took over his father’s role at a slightly younger age.) So it looks awfully like Theobald locked Hugh out deliberately.

The fallout from Hugh the Great’s death is fascinating, and I would probably argue for it being either the most or the second-most important moment in tenth-century West Frankish politics. This will not be last time I’ll come back to this time, so for the moment, here’s that question which bothers me about Theobald’s role: why did he do it? Why betray the son of his lord and benefactor?

Obviously, were I a Victorian (and even if I were a distressingly large number of modern people), I’d say it’s because he’s a Treacherous Aristocrat in the Century of Iron, Motivated only by Greed and Short-Term Advantage™. This is roughly on the level of accusing him of being naturally inconsistent because he’s French, and doesn’t work on its own terms – if Theobald were really interested in maximum returns from the new duke, why oppose him when it would be easier and less potentially perilous to simply sell him your services? Hugh’s brother Odo was fighting for his rights in Burgundy at this point, and Theobald had useful connections there – all he’d need to do was get Hugh to pay him, I don’t know, northern Burgundy for his help, and he would have made an easy profit. It must be that something actively drove Theobald out of Hugh Capet’s camp.

Hugh Capet was not an unknown quantity. Charter evidence indicates that his father had been putting him on the political stage, as it were, since he was a small child – his first appearance in the documentary record is in 946, and he witnesses charters alongside his father several times thereafter. Theobald and Hugh knew each other – so what didn’t Theobald like?

In 943, the ruler of Normandy, William Longsword, had been murdered. His son and heir, Richard the Fearless, was at the time a small child, and so a free-for-all over what would happen to Normandy resulted. Eventually, what seems to have happened is that Hugh the Great, allied to a Northman cabal, had left Richard in place in Rouen under his tutelage, whilst accepting the rule of a pagan Viking named Harald in western Normandy. At this time, though, the important city of Évreux in southern Normandy seems to have come under Theobald’s auspices – its bishop is found in his retinue by the late 940s.

By the time of Hugh the Great’s death, Richard the Fearless seems to have worked his way towards a closer alliance with Hugh and his family. The historian Dudo of Saint-Quentin claims that Hugh the Great betrothed his daughter Emma to Richard before his death. Dudo was writing a tendentious piece of Norman ducal propaganda, and so this claim is surrounded by panegyric addressed to Richard, and its chronology is all over the place. However, the contemporary chronicler Flodoard does record that Richard and Emma married in 960, and that after that Hugh and Theobald were hostile. It may be that, leaving aside Dudo’s extraneous verbiage, the basic elements of his story – that Richard was betrothed to Emma before Hugh the Great’s death and had a more prominent place in Hugh Capet’s entourage afterwards because of this – are roughly correct.

In that case, the potential threat to his control of Évreux might have been an important push factor leading Theobald to oppose Hugh. It might even have been that the idea of handing land back over the Normans from whom Hugh the Great had captured it only a decade or so before was morally repugnant to Theobald, although this is speculation. To my mind, though, whatever the specific factors behind Theobald’s decision, a sense comes through that his opposition to Hugh Capet followed on from his role under Hugh the Great – a sense that he could hold up the elder Hugh’s legacy better than his son could, that after risking life and limb in service to his ruler, he wasn’t going to be pushed out in favour of parvenu Northmen by the son. Of course, looking at the ideological aspect of Theobald’s conflict with Hugh is another long essay, and this has gone on for two posts already, so I’ll leave it here. As I said, though, this is not the last time I’ll come back to this…

Loyalty and Regime Change in Neustria, part 1: Old War Stories

I was going to write about the conference I was at in Tübingen over the weekend, but I need to do some reading for it and I still don’t have library access here; and I’ve decided not to put up the legendary bigamous lesbian nun property magnate commune of Chartres until I’ve got you all good and hyped for it. So, this is the first of two posts where I try and solve a small issue which has been bothering me about one of the most important political changes of the whole post-Carolingian period. This one is largely background – the meat will be in a few days.

In my last post, I mentioned that the West Frankish kings of the mid-tenth century weren’t necessarily always in the kingdom’s driving seat, and for no king is that truer than Louis IV. Louis was born in 920 or so, the son of Charles the Simple (AKA the greatest Frankish king) and Eadgifu, the daughter of King Edward the Elder of England (the first of the three English kings called Edward who, for reasons of pro-Norman snobbery you’d really think would have died out by now, doesn’t get a number). When he was a toddler, his father was overthrown and imprisoned, and his mother fled with him to England for fear of what the victorious opposition might do to them.

He grew up in England until 936, when Charles’ eventual successor King Ralph died. Upon Ralph’s death, the West Frankish magnates, led by Hugh the Great, ruler of Neustria (the region of France between the Seine and the Loire rivers), decided to recall Louis to Gaul and make him their king. So far, so good. However, Hugh was largely interested in Louis’ value as a puppet king; and as Louis had no particular desire to be such, he and Hugh soon came to blows. The war began in 937, and kept going until 950. The issue at stake: how much real power would Louis be permitted?

Louis was, quite possibly, the most successful Carolingian monarch, at least in proportion to the resources he began with. His opponent was much richer and much more entrenched in Frankish politics, with more allies and more subordinates. However, while Louis was often on the back foot, his improvisational resistance kept him a player – until he was captured by Vikings and sold to Hugh in 945. Hugh stripped him of – apparently literally – all his estates and fortresses, leaving him nothing but his title.

Louis had only one string left to his bow: his marriage ties. His wife Gerberga – a fascinating, powerful woman who will probably merit several posts in future – went to her brother King Otto the Great of Germany, who arrived with a large army to put Louis back on his throne. After several years of campaigning, Otto effected a division of the kingdom, and peace was made in 950.

This wasn’t the end of things, though. In 954, Louis died by falling from his horse (just like the previous King Louis and the next King Louis), leaving the throne to his son Lothar, who was about fourteen or so. Gerberga – possibly because Otto was at this point caught up in fighting a very large-scale rebellion in Germany – appealed to Hugh as the best way to guarantee her son’s rule; and so Hugh came once more to his old puppet-master role. He and Lothar together attacked Poitiers, seemingly in an attempt to force the Duke of Aquitane, William Towhead, to submit to Hugh. At the same time, Gilbert, ruler of Burgundy, died, leaving his duchy to Hugh, fulfilling a long-standing objective of Hugh’s policy: the control of Burgundy.  King subdued, Burgundy gained, Aquitaine next: everything looked good, but at this propitious moment, in 956, Hugh died. And then everything changed…