Hugh Capet[a][b] (c. 941 – 24 October 996) was the first King of the Franks of the House of Capet from his election in 987 until his death. He succeeded the last Carolingian king, Louis V. Hugh was a descendant of Charlemagne through his paternal grandmother.
Hugh Capet was born into a well-connected and powerful family with many ties to the royal houses of France and Germany.[c]
Through his mother, Hugh was the nephew to Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor; Henry I, Duke of Bavaria; Bruno the Great, Archbishop of Cologne; and finally, Gerberga of Saxony, Queen of France. Gerberga was the wife of Louis IV, King of France and mother of Lothair of France and Charles, Duke of Lower Lorraine.
His paternal family, the Robertians, were powerful landowners in the Île-de-France. His grandfather had been King Robert I. King Odo was his granduncle and King Rudolph was his uncle by affinity. Hugh's paternal grandmother was a descendant of Charlemagne.
After the end of the ninth century, the descendants of Robert the Strong became indispensable in carrying out royal policies. As Carolingian power failed, the great nobles of West Francia began to assert that the monarchy was elective, not hereditary, and twice chose Robertians (Odo I (888–898) and Robert I (922–923)) as kings, instead of Carolingians.
Robert I, Hugh the Great's father, was succeeded as King of the Franks by his son-in-law, Rudolph of Burgundy. When Rudolph died in 936, Hugh the Great had to decide whether he ought to claim the throne for himself. To claim the throne would require him to risk an election, which he would have to contest with the powerful Herbert II, Count of Vermandois, father of Hugh, Archbishop of Reims, and allied to Henry the Fowler, King of Germany; and with Hugh the Black, Duke of Burgundy, brother of the late king. To block his rivals, Hugh the Great brought Louis d'Outremer, the dispossessed son of Charles the Simple, from his exile at the court of Athelstan of England to become king as Louis IV.
This maneuver allowed Hugh to become the most powerful person in France in the first half of the tenth century. Once in power, Louis IV granted him the title of dux Francorum ("Duke of the Franks"). Louis also (perhaps under pressure) officially declared Hugh "the second after us in all our kingdoms." Hugh also gained power when Herbert II of Vermandois died in 943, because Herbert's powerful principality was then divided among his four sons.
Hugh the Great came to dominate a wide swath of central France, from Orléans and Senlis to Auxerre and Sens, while the king was rather confined to the area northeast of Paris (Compiègne, Laon, Soissons).
The realm in which Hugh grew up, and of which he would one day be king, bore little resemblance to modern France. Hugh's predecessors did not call themselves kings of France, and that title was not used by his successors until the time of his descendant, Philip II. Kings ruled as rex Francorum ("King of the Franks"), the title remaining in use until 1190 (but note the use of FRANCORUM REX by Louis XII in 1499, by Francis I in 1515, and by Henry II about 1550, and on French coins up to the eighteenth century.) The lands they ruled comprised only a small part of the former Carolingian Empire. The eastern Frankish lands, the Holy Roman Empire, were ruled by the Ottonian dynasty, represented by Hugh's first cousin Otto II and then by Otto's son, Otto III. The lands south of the river Loire had largely ceased to be part of the West Francia kingdom in the years after Charles the Simple was deposed in 922. Both the Duchy of Normandy and the Duchy of Burgundy were largely independent, and Brittany entirely so—although from 956 Burgundy was ruled by Hugh's brothers Otto and Henry.
In 956, when his father Hugh the Great died, Hugh, the eldest son, was then about fifteen years old and had two younger brothers. Otto I, King of Germany, intended to bring western Francia under his control, which was possible since he was the maternal uncle of Hugh Capet and Lothair of France, the new king of the Franks, who succeeded Louis IV in 954, at the age of 13.
In 954, Otto I appointed his brother Bruno, Archbishop of Cologne and Duke of Lorraine, as guardian of Lothair and regent of the kingdom of France. In 956, Otto gave him the same role over Hugh and the Robertian principality. With these young princes under his control, Otto aimed to maintain the balance between Robertians, Carolingians, and Ottonians. In 960, Lothair agreed to grant to Hugh the legacy of his father, the margraviate of Neustria and the title of Duke of the Franks. But in return, Hugh had to accept the new independence gained by the counts of Neustria during Hugh's minority. Hugh's brother, Otto received only the duchy of Burgundy (by marriage). Andrew W. Lewis has sought to show that Hugh the Great had prepared a succession policy to ensure his eldest son much of his legacy, as did all the great families of that time.
The West was dominated by Otto I, who had defeated the Magyars in 955, and in 962 assumed the restored imperial title. The new emperor increased his power over Western Francia with special attention to certain bishoprics on his border; although elected by Lothair, Adalberon, Archbishop of Reims, had imperial sympathies. Disappointed, King Lothair relied on other dioceses (Langres, Chalons, Noyon) and on Arnulf I, Count of Flanders.
In 956, Hugh inherited his father's estates, in theory making him one of the most powerful nobles in the much-reduced kingdom of West Francia. As he was not yet an adult, his mother acted as his guardian, and young Hugh's neighbours took advantage. Theobald I of Blois, a former vassal of Hugh's father, took the counties of Chartres and Châteaudun. Further south, on the border of the kingdom, Fulk II of Anjou, another former client of Hugh the Great, carved out a principality at Hugh's expense and that of the Bretons.
The royal diplomas of the 960's show that the nobles were faithful not only to the Duke of the Franks, as in the days of Hugh the Great, but also to King Lothair. Indeed, some in the royal armies fought against the Duchy of Normandy on behalf of Lothair. Finally, even Hugh's position as second man in the kingdom seemed to slip. Two charters of the abbey of Montierender (968 and 980) refer to Herbert III, Count of Vermandois, while Count of Chateau-Thierry, Vitry and lay abbot of Saint-Médard of Soissons, bearing the title of "Count of the Franks" and even "count of the palace" in a charter of Lothair.
For his part, Lothair also lost power with the ascendance of the Ottonian monarchy. It waned by participating in the gathering of relatives and vassals of Otto I in 965. However, from the death of the emperor in 973, Lothair wanted to revive the policy of his grandfather to recover Lorraine, "cradle of Carolingians". Otto's son and successor, Otto II, appointed his cousin, Charles, brother of Lothair, as Duke of Lower Lorraine, to the king's fury, who was at enmity with his brother. During the summer of 978, he decided to take action.
In August 978, accompanied by the nobles of the kingdom, Lothair surprised and plundered Aachen, residence of Otto II, forcing the imperial family to flee. After occupying Aachen for five days, Lothair returned to France after symbolically disgracing the city. In September 978, Otto II retaliated against Lothair by invading France with the aid of Charles. He met with little resistance on French territory, devastating the land around Rheims, Soissons, and Laon. Otto II then had Charles crowned as King of France by Theodoric I, Bishop of Metz. Lothair then fled to the French capital of Paris where he was besieged by Otto II and Charles. Sickness among his troops brought on by winter and a French relief army under Hugh Capet forced Otto II and Charles to lift the siege on November 30, and return to Germany. On the journey back to Germany, Otto's rearguard, unable to cross the Aisne in flood at Soissons, was completely wiped out, "and more died by that wave than by the sword." This victory allowed Hugh Capet to regain his position as the first noble of the Frankish kingdom.
Until the end of the tenth century, Reims was the most important of the archiepiscopal seats of France. Situated in Carolingian lands, the archbishop claimed the primacy of Gaul and the privilege to crown kings and direct their chancery. Therefore, the Archbishop of Reims traditionally had supported the ruling family and had long been central to the royal policy. But the episcopal city was headed by Adalberon of Rheims, nephew of Adalberon of Metz (a faithful prelate to the Carolingians), elected by the King Lothair in 969, but who had family ties to the Ottonians. The Archbishop was assisted by one of the most advanced minds of his time, the schoolmaster and future Pope, Gerbert of Aurillac. Adalberon and Gerbert worked for the restoration of a single dominant empire in Europe. King Lothair, 13 years old, was under the tutelage of his uncle Otto I. But upon reaching his majority, he became independent, which defeated their plans to bring the whole of Europe under a single crown. Therefore, they turned their support from Lothair to Hugh Capet.
Indeed, for the Ottonian to make France a vassal state of the empire, it was imperative that the Frankish king was not of the Carolingian race, and not powerful enough to break the Ottonian tutelage. Hugh Capet was for them the ideal candidate, especially since he actively supported monastic reform in the abbeys while other contenders continued to distribute church revenues to their own partisans. Such conduct could only appeal to Reims, who was very close to the Cluniac movement.
With the support of Adalberon of Reims, Hugh became the new leader of the kingdom. In a letter Gerbert of Aurillac wrote to Archbishop Adalberon that "Lothair is king of France in name alone; Hugh is, however, not in name but in effect and deed."
In 979, Lothair sought to ensure his succession by associating his eldest son with the throne. Hugh Capet supported him and summoned the great nobles of the kingdom. The ceremony took place at Compiègne, in the presence of the king, of Arnulf (an illegitimate son of the king), and of Archbishop Adalberon, under Hugh's blessing. The congregation acclaimed Louis V, following the Carolingian custom, and the archbishop anointed the new king of the Franks.
The following year, Lothair, seeing the growing power of Hugh, decided to reconcile with the Emperor Otto II by agreeing to renounce Lorraine. But Hugh did not want the king and the emperor reconciled, so he quickly took the fortress of Montreuil, and then went to Rome. There he met the emperor and the pope, with his confidants Bouchard of Vendôme and Arnulf of Orléans. Tension mounted between Lothair and Hugh. The king married his 15-year-old son Louis to Adelaide of Anjou, who was then more than 40 years old. She brought with her Auvergne and the county of Toulouse, enough to pincer the Robertian territories from the south. However, the marriage failed and the couple separated two years later.
At the death of Otto II in 983, Lothair took advantage of the minority of Otto III and, after making an alliance with the Duke of Bavaria, decided to attack Lorraine. Hugh was careful not to join this expedition.
When the king took Verdun and imprisoned Godfrey (brother of the Archbishop of Reims), Adalberon and Gerbert sought the aid of the duke of the Franks. But the king's enterprises came to naught when he died in March 986.
Louis V, following Louis IV and Lothair, declared that he would take the counsels of the duke of the Franks for his policies. It seems the new king wished to launch an offensive against Reims and Laon because of their rapprochement with the empire. Sources are vague on Hugh's role at this time, but it would be his interest to limit the king's excessive pretensions. Louis summoned the archbishop of Reims at his palace at Compiègne to answer for his actions. But while hunting in the forest of Senlis, the king was killed in a riding accident on 21 or 22 May 987.
In May 987, chroniclers, including Richerus and Gerbert of Aurillac, wrote that in Senlis, "died the race of Charles." However, even if Louis died childless, there remained a Carolingian who could ascend the throne: Charles, Duke of Lower Lorraine, brother of Lothair, uncle of Louis V, first cousin of Hugh Capet through their mothers.
This was nothing extraordinary; it was not the first time that a Robertian would be competing with a Carolingian. In the time of Hugh the Great, the Robertians found it expedient to support the claim of a Carolingian. By 987, however, times had changed. For ten years, Hugh Capet had been openly competing against his king, and appeared to have subjected the great vassals. And his opponent Charles of Lorraine was accused of all evils: he wanted to usurp the crown (978), had allied himself with the emperor against his brother, and had defamed Queen Emma of Italy, his brother's wife. The archbishop of Reims convened the greatest lords of France at Senlis and denounced Charles of Lorraine for not maintaining his dignity, having made himself a vassal of the emperor Otto II and marrying a woman from a lower class of nobility. Then he promoted the candidacy of Hugh Capet:
Crown the Duke. He is most illustrious by his exploits, his nobility, his forces. The throne is not acquired by hereditary right; no one should be raised to it unless distinguished not only for nobility of birth, but for the goodness of his soul.
Hugh was elected and crowned rex Francorum at Noyon in Picardy on 3 July 987, by the prelate of Reims, the first of the Capetian house. Immediately after his coronation, Hugh began to push for the coronation of his son Robert. The archbishop, wary of establishing hereditary kingship in the Capetian line, answered that two kings cannot be created in the same year. Hugh claimed, however, that he was planning an expedition against the Moorish armies harassing Borrel II, Count of Barcelona (a vassal of the French crown), and that the stability of the country necessitated two kings should he die while on expedition. Ralph Glaber, however, attributes Hugh's request to his old age and inability to control the nobility. Modern scholarship has largely imputed to Hugh the motive of establishing a dynasty against the pretension of electoral power on the part of the aristocracy, but this is not the typical view of contemporaries and even some modern scholars have been less skeptical of Hugh's "plan" to campaign in Spain. Robert was eventually crowned on 25 December that same year.
Charles of Lorraine, the Carolingian heir, contested the succession. He drew support from the Count of Vermandois, a cadet of the Carolingian dynasty; and from the Count of Flanders, loyal to the Carolingian cause. Charles took Laon, the seat of Carolingian royalty. Hugh Capet and his son Robert besieged the city twice, but were compelled to withdraw each time. Hugh decided to make an alliance with Theopano (regent for her son Otto III), but she never replied.
When Adalberon, Archbishop of Reims, died, the archbishopric was contested by his right-hand man, Gerbert of Aurillac, and Arnulf, illegitimate son of King Lothair of France (and nephew of Charles of Lorraine). Choosing Arnulf to replace Adalberon seemed a great gamble, but Hugh made it anyway, and chose him as archbishop instead of Gerbert, in order to appease Carolingian sympathizers and the local populace. Following the customs of those times, he was made to invoke a curse upon himself if he should break his oath of fidelity to Hugh. Arnulf was duly installed, and was confirmed by the pope.
Yet to Arnulf the ties of blood with his uncle Charles was the stronger than the oath he had given Hugh. Gathering the nobles in his castle, Arnulf sent one of his agents and opened the gates of the city to Charles. Arnulf acted as if terrified, and took the nobles with him to a tower, which he had emptied out of supplies beforehand. Thus was the city of Reims compelled to surrender; to keep up appearances, Arnulf and Charles denounced each other, until Arnulf swore fealty to Charles.
Great was the predicament of Hugh, and he began doubting whether he could win the contest by force. Adalberon, bishop of Laon, whom Charles expelled when he took the city, had sought the protection of Hugh Capet. The bishop made overtures to Arnulf and Charles, to mediate a peace between them and Hugh Capet. Adalberon was received by Charles favorably, but was made to swear oaths that would bring curses upon himself if broken. Adalberon swore to them all, "I will observe my oaths, and if not, may I die the death of Judas." That very night the bishop seized Charles and Arnulf in their sleep, and delivered them to Hugh. Charles was imprisoned in Orléans until his death. His sons, born in prison, were released.
This betrayal, which occurs in the very movement of the Peace of God (the council of Charroux, 989), strongly strikes the imagination in the southern half of the kingdom: Adalberon is totally discredited in these provinces and the image of Hugh Capet is tarnished. The ruthless war against Charles of Lorraine in Laon and Reims (988–991), known by the story of Richerus of Reims and the letters of Gerbert, made the king hostile in the eyes of some of the churchmen.
For a long time it was stated that the southern subjects had consistently rejected the first Capetian. Recently, studies have issued nuances. It seems that the rejection is political (the capture of Charles of Lorraine) rather than dynastic. The Duke of Aquitaine refuses to submit to his king, "condemning the crime of the Franks [the capture of Charles]" and the Bishop of Laon is compared to Judas the "traitor." Finally, they make peace on the banks of the Loire. This remark is even more explicit in the city of Limoges. Acts say that until 988, Hugh and his son Robert were recognized by the date of their reign "regnante Ugo rege anno II et Rotberto filio suo anno primo" ("signed the second year of the reign of King Hugh and the first of his son Robert"). But a few months later, the charters are not dated by their reigns: it seems that the change is due to the knowledge of the capture of Charles of Lorraine and the betrayal of Adalberon, bishop of Laon. Once made aware, the southern cities would have rejected the legitimacy of Hugh and Robert.
After the loss of Reims by the betrayal of Arnulf, Hugh demanded his deposition by Pope John XV. But the pope was then embroiled in a conflict with the Roman aristocracy. After the capture of Charles and Arnulf, Hugh resorted to a domestic tribunal, and convoked a synod at Reims in June 991. There Gerbert testified against Arnulf, which led to the archbishop's deposition and Gerbert being chosen as replacement.
Pope John XV rejected this procedure and wished to convene a new council in Aachen, but the French bishops refused and confirmed their decision in Chelles (winter 993–994). The pope then called them to Rome, but they protested that the unsettled conditions en route and in Rome made that impossible. The Pope then sent a legate with instructions to call a council of French and German bishops at Mousson, where only the German bishops appeared, the French being stopped on the way by Hugh and Robert.
Gerbert, supported by other bishops, advocates for the independence of the churches vis-à-vis Rome (which is controlled by the German emperors). Through the exertions of the legate, the deposition of Arnulf was finally pronounced illegal. To avoid excommunication of the bishops who sat in the council of St. Basle, and thus a schism, Gerbert decided to let go. He abandoned the archdiocese and went to Italy. After Hugh's death, Arnulf was released from his imprisonment and soon restored to all his dignities. Under the auspices of the emperor, Gerbert eventually succeeded to the papacy as Pope Sylvester II, the first French pope.
Hugh Capet possessed minor properties near Chartres and Angers. Between Paris and Orléans he possessed towns and estates amounting to approximately 400 square miles (1,000 km2). His authority ended there, and if he dared travel outside his small area, he risked being captured and held for ransom, though his life would be largely safe. Indeed, there was a plot in 993, masterminded by Adalberon, Bishop of Laon and Odo I of Blois, to deliver Hugh Capet into the custody of Otto III. The plot failed, but the fact that no one was punished illustrates how tenuous his hold on power was. Beyond his power base, in the rest of France, there were still as many codes of law as there were fiefdoms. The "country" operated with 150 different forms of currency and at least a dozen languages. Uniting all this into one cohesive unit was a formidable task and a constant struggle between those who wore the crown of France and its feudal lords. Therefore, Hugh Capet's reign was marked by numerous power struggles with the vassals on the borders of the Seine and the Loire.
While Hugh Capet's military power was limited and he had to seek military aid from Richard I of Normandy, his unanimous election as king gave him great moral authority and influence. Adémar de Chabannes records, probably apocryphally, that during an argument with the Count of Auvergne, Hugh demanded of him: "Who made you count?" The count riposted: "Who made you king?".
Most historians regard the beginnings of modern France as having initiated with the coronation of Hugh Capet. This is because, as Count of Paris, he made the city his power centre. The monarch began a long process of exerting control of the rest of the country from there.
He is regarded as the founder of the Capetian dynasty. The direct Capetians, or the House of Capet, ruled France from 987 to 1328; thereafter, the Kingdom was ruled by cadet branches of the dynasty. All French kings through Louis Philippe, and all royals since then, have belonged to the dynasty. Furthermore, cadet branches of the House continue to reign in Spain and Luxembourg.
All monarchs of the Kingdom of France from Hugh Capet to Philip II of France were titled King of the Franks. Philip II of France was the first to use the title of King of France. Many people make this minor error in writing or doing genealogy.
A number of other daughters are less reliably attested.
According to tradition, sometime in 981, Hugh Capet recovered the relics of St. Valery, which had been stolen by the Flemmings, and restored it to the proper resting place. The saint appeared to the duke in a dream, and said: "For what you have done, you and your descendants shall be kings to the seventh generation." When he became king, Hugh refused to wear the insignia of royalty, hoping that it would extend his descendants' reign by one generation.
By the literal interpretation, Capetian kingship would thus have ended with Philip Augustus, the seventh king of his line. Figuratively, seven meant completeness, and would mean that the Capetians would be kings forever. In fact, Capetian kingship lasted until 1830 in France, although the current King of Spain and Grand Duke of Luxemburg are Capetians.
|Ancestors of Hugh Capet|
[...] Louis XII, 1499 [...] LVDOVIVS XII FRANCORUM REX MEDILANI DUX [...] Francis I, 1515 [...] FRANCISCUS REX FRANCORUM PRIMUS DOMINATOR ELVETIORUM [...] Henri II, 1550? [...] HENRICVS II FRANCORVM REX
Hugh CapetDied: 24 October 996
Hugh the Great
|Duke of the Franks
|Merged in Crown|
|King of the Franks
987 – 996
with Robert II