At some point in the third quarter of the tenth century, several military commands appeared on the river Scheldt, based at Antwerp, Ename and Valenciennes. By the year 1000, their purpose was clear enough: defending Lower Lotharingia against attacks from the counts of Flanders. However, their original purpose is a bit fuzzier. The extant debate in historiography pitches one side which sees them as creations of the mid-960s, after the death of Duke Godfrey of Lower Lotharingia from plague whilst on campaign in Italy; and another which places their genesis in the early-to-mid-970s, responding to the return from exile of the sons of Reginar III, who had a military following, a lot of claims to land, and a grudge. (The wars began in 973 and kept going for years.) Basic to all these claims is the idea that from the very beginning the Flemish marches were a creation of the Ottonian emperors.
However, I wonder if we might not benefit from inverting our perspective. As I have written about before, when Count Arnulf the Great of Flanders died in 965, Lothar launched an invasion to take over as much of Flanders as he could get. Eventually, he grabbed most of the southern portion and placed his own man (Baldwin Baldzo) in the north, watched over by Queen Gerberga and Lothar’s brother Charles. This was presented to the East Frankish king Otto the Great – possibly as a fait accompli – and he signed off on it. One of the reasons he signed off on it was that he was keen to get back to Italy, where he spent most of the years from then until his death, bringing with him his heir Otto II and a surprisingly large chunk of the Lotharingian nobility.
Nothing about this time period is easy or clear – in fact, I’ll put an asterisk next to all the seemingly simple statements of fact which would require a lengthy discursive footnote to justify – but there are hints that Lothar took advantage of the cats being away to try and spread his influence across the Lotharingian frontier. Let’s work north-to-south. From the latter part of the tenth century, we find scattered references in our sources to a ‘county of Ghent’ which did not exist in Arnulf the Great’s time. In 969, however, we find Lothar granting Count Dirk of Holland ‘the forest of Waas in the same county’.* One of our sources explicitly equates the county of Ghent and the pagus of Waas. It may well be that Lothar deliberately sliced off an area of territory around Ghent to give to Dirk in return for the count’s support. Notably, despite the fact that Baldwin Baldzo had been put in place by Lothar as the guardian of the child-count Arnulf II, we find Dirk and Arnulf together in Ghent a few days before Lothar’s grant*.
Even more interestingly, Dirk’s donation was witnessed by Godfrey the Prisoner, count of Verdun. Godfrey’s powerbase lay around Trier and Verdun, and he had no existing ties to the Scheldt region – except one. Probably around this time*, he married Matilda Billung, the widow of Baldwin III of Flanders and Arnulf II’s mother. It is also around this time that Godfrey and Matilda were endowed with a significant estate at Ename. This is extremely unlikely to have belonged to either of them as their own hereditary property, and Matilda is also unlikely to have received it as a dowry from Baldwin. It has been suggested that Ename was a strategic wedding gift from the Ottonians. However, we know that the (by this point recently deceased) Queen Gerberga held estates in this area, just up the river at Krombrugge. Given this, Lothar is as if not more likely a source for this estate than the Ottonians.
This leaves Valenciennes. Valenciennes had been a Carolingian royal estate in the ninth century, but had been badly hit by Viking attacks. I need to do some more reading about this – Leeds’ library doesn’t have the relevant books – but it could well have belonged to Gerberga by the mid-tenth century as well. More significantly, though, Count Arnulf of Valenciennes (whose career would stretch well into the eleventh century) emerges into our sources in the 960s* as a man whose interests and estates were split between Lotharingia and southern Flanders. In fact, he seems to have acted as Queen Gerberga’s advocatus when she donated Meerssen to Saint-Remi in 968*.
However, there is more. Later in 969, Archbishop Odalric of Rheims died. His successor was Adalbero, a canon of the church of Metz. Metz’s cathedral was one of the tenth century’s ‘episcopal finishing schools’, so this is not by itself surprising; but more significant than his ecclesiastical background is the fact that he was Godfrey of Verdun’s brother. In light of all of the above, the shadows thrown by our sources come together to form a picture that looks rather like Lothar was trying to weave a network of alliances covering the whole of northern Lotharingia, infiltrating himself into a area stretching from the Netherlands to Luxembourg. This was probably not, originally, intended as a military rather than a political network. Archaeological excavation at Ename has revealed that at this time it was set up as a trading rather than a military site. The transformation of the site into a military base probably did come in the 970s with the return of the Reginarids, which pushed Godfrey and Arnulf away from Lothar and towards Otto II.
It is questionable whether Lothar’s plan would have worked that well anyway. Godfrey and especially Adalbero turned out to be very canny political operators, neither of whom cared that much for Lothar’s interests. Still, it’s worth thinking about Lothar’s part in the story of these marches, because otherwise we run the risk of putting the Ottonians at the centre of everything, perpetuating the stereotype of the West Frankish rulers as weak and lacking initiative. Quite apart from anything else, this doesn’t explain anything about late tenth century politics. By the 970s and 980s, Lothar thought he could fight and win against the Ottonians, and he was never definitively proven wrong. His schemes came to an end with his death in 986, and the reaction against them led to the end of his dynasty as kings in 987. As such, putting Lothar back in his place as a major Lotharingian player is key to explaining political changes which had repercussions for centuries afterwards.