Brothers-in-Arms: The Treaty of Liège (Feb 854)

One of the enduring fascinations of the medieval world for the present is the way it pitches high politics as family drama. The cosily intimate domestic squabble prosecuted on the battlefield is an inherently gripping story. Notoriously the Carolingians have a great deal to offer for aficionados of familial conflict in the Middle Ages. This is also an interesting period in the study of diplomatic relations. The middle of the ninth century saw three brothers – Lothar I, Louis the German and Charles the Bald – who all ruled separately as independent monarchs over a population of elites that saw themselves as part of a wider shared Frankish and Christian community. Their struggles against each other married dysfunctional family relationships with matters of state in front of an aristocratic audience who could easily change allegiance or refuse to participate. The Treaty of Liège of February 854 serves as a sort of sequel to my previous post on the Treaty of Valenciennes. But it also offers a window into the way the brothers sought to communicate the rightness of their respective causes to each other, and to the watching Frankish nobility.

‘Hlotharii et Karoli Conventus Leodii Habitus’, in MGH Capit. II, no. 207 (pp. 76-8).

The most serene Emperor Lothar:

  1. We wish all those who are faithful to us to know that in the past year we have frequently sent invitations to our most beloved brother Louis in order that we might have a common conversation with our faithful and with his concerning the Lord’s will, insomuch as He wishes to send inspiration, and that we might manage and ordain the advantage of God’s holy Church and the common progress, honour and needs of ourselves and our men. But because our aforesaid brother has because of some sort of impediment put off coming until now, as we had hoped, We were unwilling to set it aside in such a way that we did not usefully come together. 
  2. Now we want you to be sure of our coming together, because, with Christ propitious, we want to come together indissolubly in thought and deed in accordance with God’s will, for the salvation of the holy Church and for our and your common advantage and needs, so that we may be one in Christ and you may be one with us.
  3. Understand that we grant to you a law of the kind which our ancestors, that is, our father and grandfather, conceded to and conserved for your ancestors, and we wish to respect it in every way inviolably and incorruptibly, in both present and future times.

The most glorious king Charles: 

  1. Accordingly, we have for this reason delayed having this meeting up until now, because we wished that our aforementioned brother would meet with us as well and attend the same meeting with us. But because he, being hindered by some impediment, neglected to come, we, having heard the disturbance which his son is attempting to cause, wished to ally with each other. Know therefore that we shall be together in prosperity and adversity; nor, with God’s help, will any trifling offence be able to separate us from that love by which we are bound together by fraternal bonds. Rather, wherever we are in need of reciprocal comfort and assistance, as far as the Lord permits, we desire to be supported and sustained by each other, and we wish to bring one another assistance against every earthly enemy.
  2. But if our same brother delays coming to us in the manner that we desire and send to him, we are united to each other such that one shall provide such comfort and assistance to the other wherever it is necessary from this time forward, as we have said above, so that each can rest assuredly in the kingdom that has been entrusted to him by God. And if either one outlives his partner, let him who is left keep his nephews under their tuition and protection together with their father’s kingdom, so that they may be so fortified against the machinations of adversaries with the help of God that they can rest assuredly in the kingdom of their father.
  3. Therefore, We desire Your Devotedness to know for certain that we truly recognize that we have offended God in many things and have carelessly troubled your minds, so have made a vow to, by Christ’s favour, make every effort to amend all of these things so that we might be able to appease God and give satisfaction to Your Devotedness. When a greater number of our faithful men shall come together, or when our aforesaid brother, as we have commanded him to, shall come, if he wishes to come, We will take care to keep you informed of all things in whatever way will be agreeable to you, such that you might truly know us to want to observe and keep our promise most fully and in every way.
  4. In addition, let your skill and the skill of everyone discover it in common, that for this reason we earnestly wished to announce these things to you in this sacred place so that you may know that we will inviolably observe everything which we say, with the favour of the Lord and the support of his saints in whose presence they are announced. 

This is the oath which they swore to one another:

From this day forth, if our brother Louis (or his sons) is breaking or will break the oath he swore to us, regarding that part of the realm which you have received as your share from him, insofar as the Lord give me the power to do so, if you ask it I will offer you help with your defence against him, and against his sons and against all others who wish to take it from you without just or reasonable pretext. And if I should outlive you, I will not take away from your sons that part of the kingdom which you have received as your share from me and my brother but will consent for them to have it. And if they or their faithful men ask for help in defending against our brother, his sons, and anyone, so that they can hold it, I will aid them as far as I can, so long as you and your sons give us the same aid and do not part with us.

Regular readers will remember that when we last left Charles and Lothar in November 853 things were looking pretty good. The situation was stable enough that Charles could concentrate on domestic affairs and the two brothers went through a number of items concerning the church and the law. By February 854 things were considerably less rosy. In late 853, leading Aquitanians had invited the second son of Louis the German, Louis the Younger, to become their king. Charles had only recently won the last war for Aquitaine and had managed to alienate an important kindred of magnates by having an otherwise unknown Gauzbert beheaded in March 853 for similarly mysterious reasons. These rebel Aquitanians received a positive reception from Louis. Alarmed by the alliance between his brothers and annoyed at getting shut out of the question of Lothar’s inheritance, Louis was inclined to support the venture. As news of this development spread, Charles became increasingly concerned that Lothar might decide he was a bad bet and reach out to Louis instead. The result was another meeting between Charles and Lothar, this time at Liège in February 854, where the brothers made their military and political alliance explicit in this treaty.

psalter

Some dubious looking brethren assembling in the Stuttgart Psalter, Württembergische Landesbibliothek Stuttgart, Bibl. fol. 23.149v.

This background emerges in the text of the treaty. In order to keep Lothar invested in the alliance, Charles promises to protect his children’s inheritance if Lothar predeceases him (Charles c.2; oath). The treaty is very clearly aimed at Louis, inviting him to join them in their alliance (Lothar cc.1-2; Charles c.1), but warning him that an attack on one will be counted as an attack on the other (Charles cc.1-2; oath). Special reference is made to the ambitions of the younger Louis in Aquitaine, with Louis the German called upon to restrain his son (Charles c.1), and the brothers specifying that their alliance would also apply against Louis’ children (oath). Even as they threatened him, Lothar and Charles were probably sincere in inviting Louis to join them, at least in the short term. Both would benefit from peace as Charles dealt with his problems in Aquitaine and Lothar would get the agreement of both of his brothers for his succession plan.

But there was another audience for the treaty, and that was a Frankish elite that was largely tired of internecine conflict. Family drama is entertaining from a distance, but participants in it need to find ways to make other people care about and adopt their cause as their own. By publicly offering Louis a place at the table, Lothar and Charles were deflecting blame for subsequent fighting while suggesting a means by which the multipolar Carolingian world could be peacefully organised. For anyone watching who felt that the problems besetting the empire had more profound causes, they also promised to discuss ecclesiastical matters and to undertake measures that would win back divine favour (Lothar c.2; Charles c.3). Lothar placed particular emphasis on the laws initiated by Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, assuring that the brothers would follow and keep the legal protections accorded to their people (Lothar c.3).

A further, more speculative, point. Liège was an important site in Lothar’s realm, which benefitted Charles in that it meant that the emperor publicly committed to the alliance in front of an assembly of his own people, making it harder to weasel out of it without losing face. I’m struck by the reference to the oath being sworn in a sacred place (Charles c.4), and I wonder if it means that it is being taken in St Lambert’s Cathedral. Liège had been patronised in the early eighth century by the Carolingians as an alternative to Maastricht. Liège was also the centre of Charles Martel’s power in the civil wars that followed the death of Pippin II, and as much the cradle of the Carolingian dynasty as anywhere else. While it is almost certainly a coincidence, I can’t help wondering if there was a deliberate choice made in making this treaty about the need for family unity in a place intimately associated with the beginning of that family, in a cathedral dedicated to a bishop who had been killed as a result of civil conflict (slightly awkwardly by Pippin of Herstal).

Viewed from a distance, this treaty was a success. The alliance between Lothar and Charles held down to the former’s death a little over a year and a half later, at which point Lothar’s sons succeeded as planned. Looked at more closely, this outcome had relatively little to do with the treaty. Lothar had talks with Louis later in the year, forcing Charles to hold another meeting with the emperor, this time at Attigny, to remind him of the agreement, distracting him from affairs in Aquitaine. Undeterred by the alliance, Louis the Younger had travelled to Aquitaine to claim the throne in early 854. Although support for his bid was not as strong as he had been promised, he managed to make trouble until he went home in the autumn.

Charles’ dealing with these problems owed fairly little to the vision of family comity found in the treaty of Liège. There is no evidence that Lothar intervened in the conflict. Rather, Charles neutralised Louis the German by encouraging Slavs and Bulgars to attack the East Frankish kingdom, leaving him unable to support Louis the Younger. He also may have divided the Aquitanians by releasing the imprisoned Pippin II, who immediately gathered many of the people who might have otherwise backed Louis the Younger. The Treaty of Liège may have promised a concert of Carolingian princes working in amity to resolve problems. The reality was altogether messier and depended more on the politics of division than of unity.

What Counts As Precedent? Royal Authority over Episcopal Elections

During their heyday, the control that the predecessors of the Carolingian family as kings of the Franks, the Merovingian dynasty, exercised over the choice of bishops within their kingdoms had been quite substantial, both in practice and in theory. In 549, for instance, the council of Orléans had legislated that no-one could become bishop ‘without the will of the king, along with an election by the clergy and people’; and by early medieval standards you can’t say fairer than that. (There was also a long tradition of conciliar statements during this period which were opposed to royal influence in episcopal elections, but they seem to have had less impact in practice.) These conciliar decrees stuck around – the MGH edition is made up of no fewer than eleven manuscripts, which given that someone like, say, Flodoard survives in about three is a pretty generous distribution.

Consequently, looking at things over the long term, it is fair to say that whatever was happening in the late- and post-Carolingian period, it’s part of an ongoing fluctuation of royal control over bishoprics which won’t actually become overwhelmingly dominant until the Early Modern period. That said, one thing which has been striking me lately is how this longer tradition seems to be ignored by tenth-century figures.

In 920, a dispute erupted over the bishopric of Liège. A cleric named Hilduin, supported by the ruler of Lotharingia, Gislebert, took over the see with support of Henry the Fowler, king of Germany and against the rule of this blog’s old friend and Best King Ever, Charles the Simple. In response, Charles summoned a council to judge Hilduin and impose his own candidate Richer, and to explain his reasoning he sent a round letter to the bishops of his realm (translated here). The claims made in Charles’ favour during the course of this dispute have been called a ‘high point of royal absolutism in control over the Church’, and this letter is no exception. Charles calls Hilduin out, citing ‘the book of royal capitularies, which says that “if anyone presumes to a dignity they have not earned from a prince or just lord, let them be considered a sacrilege.”’ Among other things, this seems to equate bishoprics with other honores the king could bestow, which is quite a spectacular claim.

What’s interesting here, though, is that it comes from the capitulary collection of Benedict Levita, a ninth-century composition. Looking at the authorities which Charles (or the person writing in his name) cites to justify the king’s position, a pattern emerges. For one thing, virtually everything cited is actually a forgery from the Dionysian Collection of canons; but taking them at face value, most of what is cited falls into three categories: Roman church councils (Nicaea, Chalcedon, an African council), Late Antique papal letters, and Carolingian-era capitulary collections. What’s doubly interesting is what each type of source is cited to justify. The Roman councils are cited against the crime of simony, and most of the papal letters and Martin of Braga against stealing Church property. The big thesis statement about royal control comes from Benedict Levita. Merovingian canons are conspicuous by their absence, be they never so useful in this case.

This seems to say something interesting about what Charles’ court considered to be authoritative. When faced with a situation where it needed to make a strong statement about royal authority, it looked towards the traditions of something which was very definitely from its own political culture, not from the Merovingian period. This in turn implies that, whatever one can say about long-term fluctuations in royal authority, Charles perceived himself as doing something that, if not new, exactly, was at least specifically Carolingian.