Hugh Capet and the Origins of France


On Christmas Day in 800CE Charlemagne was crowned emperor of a swathe of western and central Europe, but the fragmentation of this realm started quickly, with his descendants splitting the estate. Soon the empire of Charlemagne was ruled by a patchwork of his descendants, the later Carolingian dynasty. But around the region we now call France this patchwork began to increase as power devolved away from the central, usually Carolingian king, and to local magnates.

With royal / central power degrading, lower local powers took up the reins of government, religion and authority, and the western kingdom of the Franks became a mass of local power nodes only notionally under the kings. Vikings were able to land and establish themselves as Norman Dukes, and rival bases produced many rivals for the practical power.

Transition: The Robertines

The kings themselves were far from safe, with Charles the Fat being overthrown, the militarily successful Odo, son of Robert the Strong (hence them being called Robertines), being voted in as ruler to defend against northern raiders, and Odo being overthrown and replaced by the rival he’d beaten out, Carolingian Charles the Simple, who took the throne, losing it to Odo’s brother Robert I in 92;  the latter was killed in battle a year later. Charles the Simple was imprisoned, Robert’s son in law Rudolf / Raoul being elected king, and on his death in 936 the crown seemed poised for Robert’s son Hugh the Great to take the throne.

But Hugh didn’t want the throne, and moved to make a Carolingian, Louis IV (Louis d’Outremer), king instead.

Hugh Capet’s Inheritance

During this chaos Hugh Capet was born into the family of Duke Hugh ‘the Great’, whose estates formed a considerable power based around Paris and Orleans. On succeeding his father in 956 the younger Hugh was already a considerable rival to the region’s king, the Carolingian Lothar, who had succeeded Louis VI, a man who’d been relatively successful in maintaining his kingdom.

Power Struggles

In 970 Hugh marred the daughter of the Duke of Aquitaine, and fought to extend his power in the south west of what we now consider France, but with limited success. He had better luck in his alliances with Emperors Otto II and Otto III, in which he conspired against Lothar. He was assisted by Adalbero, Archbishop of Reims, and by 985 was the real power in the region; he just lacked the crown. Lothar, his resources stretched beyond usefulness by the powerful magnates, died and his son Louis V ruled from just 986 to 987, at which point an assembly of magnates were persuaded by Adalbero that the crown wasn’t heredity, didn’t have to go to a Carolingian, and could be voted to Hugh Capet.

The assembly decided the Carolinian claimant Charles of Lorraine should be overlooked in favour of Hugh, and he was crowned on July 5th 987. There had been non Carolingians before, and Hugh had power: this did not look like a vast break with the past. No one knew Hugh would be the first of fourteen ‘French’ Capetian kings, but he was the fourth of his family to hold the throne of this transitory polity. No one thought an era had ended or started, it was just a natural transition. Odo had been a much needed military ruler, Robert and Raoul filled the vacuum of the weak Charles the Simple, and Hugh Capet was deemed the best by the magnates around him: a local with a useable power base and some heritage of leading.

Kings of the Franks

Hugh may have held the power and the crown, but in practice this power was restricted to a region around Paris, even if the crown was notionally larger. He had to be careful if he wasn’t to be ejected. Charles of Lorraine maintained opposition until he was stopped, and local magnates warred, sometimes attacking Hugh when the latter took sides, but rarely being harshly punished as a result. Had everyone allied usefully against him Hugh may have had issues; instead opposition was divided, and Hugh took the step of organising the succession so that his son Robert would gain the throne. This included a coronation while Hugh was alive, and undoubtedly helped the Capetian dynasty to remain in power when Robert II / the Pious ruled from 996 to 1031.

The Franks.

The Early Capetians: Magnate Monarchs

But remain was pretty much all they did.

Their power was still restricted to an area no greater than some of their magnates, with whom they had to fight for primacy. The church, outlaws and the many local castles formed points the Capetians had to struggle with. Robert II was followed by Henry I and his Russian wife (1031 – 60), and they by their son Philip I (1060 – 1108). Louis VI made progress from 1108 to 1137 in securing power in their private realms, and managed to acquire a wealthy heiress for his son Louis VII (1137 – 80); she is better known as Eleanor of Aquitaine, and married more than one king. Indeed, it was another husband, Henry II of Anjou, latterly king of England and ruler of an ‘Angevin Empire’ which had much of its land in ‘France’, who posed a major threat to the direct Capetian line’s power over their kingdom. Nevertheless, Louis VII stopped Henry dominating him, and maintained the foundation for Phillip II, Augustus, the man who would transform France.

Kings of France