I’ll Bite Your Kneecaps Off! Boso of Provence and Keeping Going after Massive Political Damage

Way back in the day when I first started doing Charter A Week, I did a fair few posts on Boso of Provence. That was a while ago now, so for those who are just joining us, Boso of Provence was the erstwhile brother-in-law of the West Frankish king Charles the Bald. He married the daughter of the king of Italy, and enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top in the last few years of Charles’ reign, a prominence he more-or-less managed to keep up in the reign of Louis the Stammerer. After Louis died in 879, however, Boso ignored his two teenage sons and had himself declared king at the fortress of Mantaille by a congress of Burgundian and Provençal bishops. However, in 880 a combined force of Carolingian rulers led an army south to deal with him, taking Mâcon and besieging Vienne. Most of Boso’s key supporters abandoned him; and this is where we left him: late in 880, a neutered force, his support lopped off, destined to be a hedge-king skulking about the mountains of the French Prealps for the rest of his life. This is, I would venture to say, basically the standard story about Boso. However, since I wrote those posts, I’ve come across a few things and I’ve started to wonder whether Boso was less a spent force and more the Carolingian political equivalent of MRSA.

Boso’s kingdom. c. 883 (source)

You see, after the success of the 880 campaign, the Carolingian rulers leading the army started to drift apart. Charles the Fat wanted to get to Italy to succeed his late brother Karlmann of Bavaria, and Louis III was panicked by reports that his northern army had met a serious defeat at the hands of a Viking force in Flanders. The end result was that they buggered off to do their own thing, leaving Carloman II to handle the anti-Boso action. And, with his support not entirely eradicated, he seems to have been able to slowly grow stronger and resist the Carolingian armies.(*) For one thing, it took another two years to take Boso’s fortified capital of Vienne itself. An attack in 881 appears to have done nothing, certainly not in terms of Boso’s support. Indeed, Regino of Prüm (writing a bit later) takes care to note that none of Boso’s supporters ever betrayed him to the Carolingians despite significant material inducement to do so. Archbishop Otrand of Vienne, one of his most important supporters, had gone so far as to imprison the bishop of Geneva. At the same time, Bishop Adalbert of Maurienne attacked and imprisoned Bishop Berner of Grenoble. These two bishops had been at each other’s throats for years, but it is possible that one or the other of them was a supporter of Boso, giving Adalbert his excuse for invasion.

With that said, Vienne was taken in 882, and the devastation was massive – a charter a few years later was dated by the ‘destruction of Vienne’. This left Boso reliant on the support of the mountainous provinces of eastern Provence, and that wasn’t a great base for launching any serious attacks on his opponents. Still, there are signs Boso had a resurgence towards the end of his life. In 887, Count Odilo of Die issued a charter dated by Boso’s reign as king. We also have signs that he was being sought ought by Provençal churchmen: around this time he issued a lost diploma for the church of Valence, and we also have evidence of grants to the churches of Vienne and Lyon (although it is possible that these might have been death-bed grants, it still implies there was enough of a tie there for these churches to accept some ideologically pointed gifts, such as crowns). If we’re feeling generous, there might even be some evidence from silence – despite his importance in the politics of the 870s and early 880s, Bishop Adalgar of Autun is conspicuously absent from the sources for the reign of Charles the Fat, which could possibly hint at his renewed support for Boso.

We also have a little bit of evidence for Charles the Fat’s response to this. Regino says that he allowed the Viking fleet which besieged Paris in 885-886 into Burgundy to punish a revolt against him there. This can’t be true of the bits of Burgundy the fleet actually went to – Sens, Auxerre, and Langres all show up as loyal to Charles in summer 886 – but it could indicate Charles knew about rumblings from Boso’s old heartlands in southern Burgundy and northern Provence. A more problematic, but potentially more interesting, source is a diploma of Charles the Fat for the church of Nevers, dating to 885. It claims to have been petitioned for by William the Pious, son of Aquitaine’s most important magnate Bernard Plantevelue. In the diploma, Charles recalls ‘the unbroken loyalty of [William’s] father Bernard… [who] with tremendous courage, inner strength, and unending loyalty set himself against… the tyrant Boso and his followers’, in the course of which battle he died. Now, as this diploma currently stands it is a forgery of c. 950-1100 (not least because we know Bernard Plantevelue was still alive in summer 886!). However, it’s a weird thing for a forger in the decades around the millennium to toy with – William and Bernard’s family had long died out by then, and their memory was kept, if anywhere, at Cluny (in the Mâconnais) or in Auvergne, not at Nevers. However, they had ruled Nevers back in the day, and maybe there was some information the forger had access to – otherwise, it’s a very odd thing to put in there, as it doesn’t serve the church’s interests and it doesn’t add formal authenticity to the document. If Bernard Plantevelue did die against Boso in autumn 886, then, it could be a sign that Charles was taking his old rival more seriously than historians have yet realised.

Boso never got the chance to do more, because he died in early 887. And there’s a lot of maybes in the above. Nonetheless, I think most of them are plausible maybes. Even then, even accepting most of them all they add up to is a slower decline in the early 880s and a bit of a recovery in the late 880s. Still, that’s more than he’s been allowed thus far. It also makes his career more explicable: rather than an enormous rise and catastrophic fall, it lets Boso’s kingship evolve more naturally, and more accurately reflects the Carolingians’ ultimate failure to crush him completely once they were in a dominant position.

(*) PSA: if your doctor proscribes you a course of antibiotics, be sure to finish it even if you’re feeling better before the end!

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Charles the Simple’s First Invasion of Lotharingia

First, for what it’s worth, I’d like to express my support for my UK friends and colleagues striking over the proposed cuts to their pensions. Good luck!

Now, blog. One of the key planks in my argument for ‘Charles the Simple: Best King Ever’ is that he manages to successfully take and rule Lotharingia, something which is actually rather difficult in this period. This, though, passes over the fact that his successful attempt in 911 was actually his second, and it’s his first, in 898, which I’ve been revisiting recently, and which is interesting not least because of what it says about the military potential of late Carolingian kingship.

So, we’re in 898. Charles the Simple has been undisputed king of the West Franks for about four months, having spent most of his adolescence figureheading a largely-undermanned rebellion against the previous king Odo. During this rebellion, Charles turned out to have as many connections to Lotharingia as to the West Frankish kingdom, and was even able to pull on them to the extent of getting King Zwentibald of Lotharingia to come and give him a hand in besieging Laon, although it seems pretty clear that in this case Zwentibald was using Charles as cover to try and militarily extend his own kingdom westwards. In any case, some of the first things Charles does are to try and appeal to Lotharingians.

In particular, Zwentibald was at the time just finishing the first phase of a prolonged feud with a group of counts around Metz known as the Matfredings. Thanks to an intervention in May 897, Zwentibald and the Matfredings had been reconciled, but there were probable still tensions. Charles (and his eminence gris/substitute father figure Archbishop Fulk of Rheims) had actually had prior dealings with one of the Matfreding’s closest allies, Abbot Stephen of Saint-Mihiel, for whom, in February 898, Charles issued a diploma. This diploma did two things: 1) it confirmed property in Zwentibald’s kingdom and 2) confirmed property which Zwentibald had already confirmed himself, at his and Charles’ joint siege of Laon no less. I think one has to read it as Charles advertising himself as king for the Lotharingians and the Matfredings more specifically.

Zwentibald’s response, it appears, was to seek friends in the southern bit of Lotharingia, where the Matfredings were strong. Certainly, he reached out to Archbishop Radbod of Trier, and that’s as good an explanation for why as any I’ve seen. Problem was, Radbod had his own local rivals, and one of them was another Lotharingian aristocrat with ties to Charles from old, Reginar Long-Neck. Radbod was able to persuade Zwentibald to kick Reginar out of his court, and Reginar went all the way to Charles.

The chronology here is slightly unclear, but it seems that Charles was once again trying to push himself as king for the Lotharingians, because at the end of June 898 he was sitting on the river Aisne at Vienne-la-Ville, a boundary between his kingdom and Zwentibald’s, issuing diplomas for recipients on the Spanish March of all places. Why make people from Narbonne come to you so far north and east, rather than at Rheims or Laon? I reckon it’s because Charles is sitting there, displaying his appropriately kingly status, hoping that Reginar (and/or others) is going to come and say hello – which is exactly what Reginar ended up doing.

(Some historians have put Reginar’s appeal for Charles’ help a little earlier, and had the June diplomas as signalling the point when he was moving in with an army, but a) that makes the chronology of the fighting between Zwentibald and Reginar compressed to the point of unworkable and b) it doesn’t really fit with Regino of Prüm’s history of events, which strongly implies all of the fighting took place in Autumn.)

So, Reginar and another Lotharingian count, Odoacer, come and ask Charles for help. Charles and his men duly invade, going first to Aachen and then to Nijmegen. Zwentibald, meanwhile, heads south, but is able to gain Matfreding support and win over some key northern bishops, Franco of Liège and Dodilo of Cambrai. I am as of yet unclear why they go for him and not Charles, but go for him they do. Charles goes down to Prüm, probably although not certainly against the will of Regino of Prüm – for it is he – the then abbot*, and then there’s a stand-off, where neither side commits to battle, Charles goes home, and the matter rests there.

Conspiracy then follows, and Lotharingia actually ends up with Zwentibald’s young half-brother Louis the Child, but this is where the actual invasion stops, and it’s enough to pull out a few threads. First, Charles’ actual support in Lotharingia appears to have been very limited on this occasion, basically Reginar and a few mates. This means that their initiative, although useful in giving him an excuse to intervene, probably wasn’t all that helpful in terms of active support. Second, and further, Charles was clearly angling very strongly for someone to give him an excuse. Third, he was apparently by himself able to put together a credible enough army to mount a serious potential challenge to Zwentibald.

Fourth and finally, despite this his lack of Lotharingian support was key, because without overwhelming backing from the Lotharingian magnates, his army and Zwentibald’s appear to have been sufficiently well-matched that neither wanted to risk pitched battle. Pitched battle in this period, quite apart from the risk of losing, was morally-fraught, so one can sympathise with him here – but it did mean that the war was probably going to be negotiated out soon rather than later as soon as it became clear that no-one wanted to roll the dice. In these senses, in fact, the 898 invasion of Lotharingia by Charles the Simple is pretty typical, almost archetypical of inter-regnal warfare in the late Carolingian period.

*Simon MacLean thinks that Regino gave Charles help; this is possible but perhaps unlikely, insofar as one of Zwentibald’s first gifts in late autumn 898 is to Prüm…

888 And The Dynastic Crisis Which Wasn’t

Sorry about the lack of posts last week – I was on my way to one conference in Cork having just attended one in Canterbury. I’m back home in Brussels now, though, so this little moment of respite from your drab, wretched lives can once more take up its customary position.

The Canterbury conference provided the opportunity to vent a rant which has been building up for several years now. The end of the Carolingian Empire is usually ascribed to the ‘dynastic crisis’ of 888, when the Carolingian family ran out of legitimate, adult males to be king, and a gourmet selection of new, non-Carolingian, kings emerged. Thing is (to put it as bluntly as possible): I don’t think there’s anything ‘dynastic’ about this dynastic crisis. Carolingian legitimism – the idea that the Carolingian family was specifically owed the crown by virtue of its being the royal family – was either non-existent or the view of fringe weirdos.

Let’s confine ourselves simply to two of the sources most often pointed to as evidence for the legitimacy problem which affected the new kings by virtue of their not being Carolingian. First, Regino of Prüm. Regino wrote his Chronicon in the early tenth century, and here’s how he describes the events of 888:

‘After the death [of Emperor Charles the Fat], the kingdoms which had been under his rule, as though they did not have a legitimate heir, dissolved into pieces, and did not wait for a natural lord, but created kings for themselves from their own entrails.’ [source]

‘Legitimate heir’, ‘natural lord’ – sounds like Carolingian legitimism here, right? Well, not so much. In 887, as Regino describes it, the leading men of Charles’ realm had overthrown him and made his illegitimate nephew Arnulf of Carinthia ruler in his stead. Regino is more-or-less a supporter of Arnulf, and the reason that he talks about natural lords and legitimate heirs is not because Arnulf is a Carolingian, but because he’s already been made king! There’s a ‘natural lord’ because a duly-designated king already exists – and it is noticeable that when the new kings proffer due submission to him as their overlord, Regino starts presenting them as legitimate. Their dynastic affiliation doesn’t change, but his presentation of them does – whatever’s going on here, it’s not dynastic.

The second source is a letter (translated here) from Archbishop Fulk of Rheims seeking the aid of Arnulf in overthrowing the West Frankish king Odo on behalf of this blog’s favourite, Charles the Simple. Fulk refers to Odo as ‘not a member of the royal family’, and says that he ‘chose to have for his king he… who was from the royal bloodline [i.e. Charles the Simple]’. This is Carolingian legitimism here, but what’s interesting is that it appears to be fringe weirdness. Fulk’s professions of loyalty to Charles are somewhat disingenuous. In 888, he hadn’t supported Charles – or even Arnulf – but his own relative Guy of Spoleto, who became king of Italy, and whom Fulk had invited to become king in the West without any particular success. Fulk clearly indicates that his readers knew this, because he fills a good half the letter with rather weak justifications for why he did this, and it’s clear from context that what he refers to as the slanders and lies surrounding him at Arnulf’s court are in fact the well-justified scepticism of people whose memories stretch back longer than five years.

Fulk, it seems, disliked Odo intensely. He spent most of his reign in rebellion against him on any pretext, and it looks like his support for Charles was yet another one of these. (There’s more to his rebellion than personal dislike, of course, but it doesn’t detract from the main point.) It’s worth saying that his arguments don’t seem to have convinced many people – Arnulf didn’t join the war on Charles’ side, and Fulk’s party was consistently outmatched and defeated.

Carolingian legitimism, then, did exist, but its influence doesn’t seem to have been very great. Viewing 888 as this massive, seismic shift in the politics of Frankish Europe is somewhat misleading – in everything except which womb the king had come out of, the kingdom of Odo and that of the man reigning ten years before him, Louis the Stammerer, were basically similar. The imposition of later ideas about royal succession – and royal families – onto 888 has meant that historians have spent centuries seeing a gap where there isn’t one.