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Dec. 10, 2021

65: War for the Throne Part I

65: War for the Throne Part I

The Carolingian House enters a crisis that threatens its existence in West Francia.


Human beings are pattern-seeking mammals. As we evolved we watched our fellows die from snakes, spiders and other threats and we developed innate fears and responses to that which might hurt us. As humans developed reasoning faculties and consciousness we applied our need to form logical patterns to the world, to make sense of what seems like random chaos. We invented mythology for natural phenomena we could not explain, theories on intrinsic morality and perfect existences. Yet, there was a problem: these beliefs, created by reason, grew and expanded until they created paradoxes. Early ideas became bogged down with increasingly-complex myths and theories on the world. Thus, homo sapiens, through their unparalleled ability to reason, became the least rational creatures on the planet.

A central tenet to human irrationality is our misunderstanding of our past selves. From time immemorial to the present, people have claimed that history is a long series of moral lessons. This theory goes that just and rational societies flourish, while unjust societies decay. If a once just society crumbles it must be because they became decadent. This lingering idea doesn’t hold up to facts. History is not a morality play; it’s a farce. Were the Romans any more moral or rational than the Gauls before they slaughtered or enslaved two-fifths of their entire population? Were the Franks more moral or rational than the Gallo-Romans? Considering their every joke ended with, “And then I killed him,” I suspect not. I have spent over a decade studying history and earned my doctorate just this year, and in all my studies I have learned that things happen because they do. So that was all time well-spent.

Today we’re talking about the end of the Carolingian dynasty, the fall of the Frankish imperial experiment and the beginning of France. From the deposition of Karl der Grosse in 887 to the coronation of Hugh Capet in 987 the Carolingians and Robertians engaged in a one-hundred year struggle for the throne of West Francia. Historians commonly claimed that the Carolingian house fell from power because its rulers were weak, incompetent, immoral and given to infighting. Moreover, they claimed that the failure of the Carolingians led to the rise of feudal society, wherein the king was just one noble among many, and power devolved to numerous duchies, counties and other subdivisions. Modern historians have reexamined these claims and found there is no basis for this moralistic interpretation of French history

First, the Carolingian house did not fall from power due to weak leaders. If anything, the Carolingians became stronger as time progressed and their dynasty was established. Ludwig could depose nobles much more easily than his predecessors. When Boso of Provence first declared himself king the living Carolingian rulers all united against him, crushing the upstart. The Carolingians were also not incompetent. In fact, they were probably the best-educated Christian rulers outside of Byzantium and had a remarkable bureaucratic apparatus. They were not immoral by the standards of the time, and in fact stringently upheld public morality as a source of their power. As for infighting, they did engage in a fair amount of that, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as under the Merovingians. One major reason for this was that Merovingian noblemen had concubines and produced many sons, leading to a divided inheritance which naturally led to fighting. The Carolingians tried to avoid this by limiting themselves to one wife at a time, for the most part, and not dividing inheritance. Yet, even though the Carolingians had less civil wars than the Merovingians, limited male offspring meant there were only so many men of Charles Martel’s house who could take up power. This, more than anything is why the Carolingians failed; they literally ran short of men to take up the throne.

Now let’s talk about the other myth I mentioned: that the failure of the Carolingians led to the rise of feudal society. Noble families were powerful members of society going back to the Merovingians. Don’t forget, it was an upstart house, the Pippinids, who overthrew them! Charlemagne, with his larger-than-life persona and incredible bureaucracy kept his nobles in line, but this wasn’t necessarily because of his military power. Likely, the nobles realized they had more to gain from imperial patronage than opposition and so they kissed the ring and bowed the knee in exchange for honores for themselves and their descendants. Charlemagne’s successors frequently struggled with noble rebellions, as aristocrats sometimes calculated that they could get more through demands than subservience. These two were not mutually exclusive; some nobles, like Robert le Fort, rebelled against Charles the Bald to secure his rights, then when he was satisfied, became a loyal vassal to his king.

Since the fall of the Roman Empire, and arguably during the lengthy period of political reforms from the 3rd to 5th centuries, power had been devolving. The Roman Empire achieved centralized power through the centrality of Rome. Rome was in the center of the Roman Empire geographically, and it was also a marvel of the classical world. At its height in the 1st through mid-2nd century, the city of Rome had over a million inhabitants, compared to the entire population of Gaul which was roughly five million. Just imagine, one city dwarfing entire massive regions of territory on the periphery. But the Roman city-system collapsed, and across Europe peoples and political power spread out into the countryside. Where the people were, so was production, wealth and political capital. In a world with few large cities, the ruler of a collection of villages could amass some power. The Vikings exacerbated regionalization as local lords became the front-line defenders against swift enemy raids. Thus, the old historical interpretation which claims that a decadent series of kings failed to meet the challenges of their time, giving space for nobles to seize power, is false. Quite the opposite; decadent kings didn’t crash a working system. Powerful kings, such as Charles Martel, Charlemagne, Louis the Pious and his sons, managed to enforce centralized rule at a time when Europe was naturally devolving power. That they managed to create such powerful monarchies and centralized bureaucracy is a testament to their ability to buck one historical trend, the exodus of people from crowded urban spaces, with another historical trend, the development of the church as an institution for administration, welfare, law and education, while relying on an existing cultural idea: that even great lords should submit to a powerful central ruler who naturally exercised authority over vast regions. All this is to say that the Carolingian Empire did not collapse and its ruling house fall because they became decadent. The descendants of Charles Martel accomplished incredible things, but their line dwindled and those that were left struggled to hold on against Viking and Islamic raids, Magyar attacks in the east, and rebellions from powerful nobles.

When last we left off Emperor Karl der Grosse died. The only Carolingian in the west, another Charles, was a minor. Instead of coronating him, the majority of nobles in West Francia rallied around Odo, the hero who led the defense of Paris in 885-886 against a Viking siege. Odo’s rise was contested, first within Neustria. When it became apparent Odo was angling for the throne, Walter the archbishop of Sens, searched for a Carolingian to take the throne. Guy of Spoleto was Walter’s first choice, and Guy travelled all the way to Langres where he was crowned king. But few aristocrats recognized him, and he left West Francia for Italy, where he later took up the titles of King of Italy and Emperor of the Romans, though by then the latter hardly meant anything. Walter’s second choice was Arnulf, King of East Francia, who had deposed Karl der Grosse. But Arnulf was busy securing his rule and he preferred to recognize Odo as a junior partner than seize direct power over this distant territory. With no other choice, Walter grudgingly crowned Odo at Compiègne on 29 February 888, then in a larger ceremony at Reims that November, making him the first non-Carolingian king recognized across West Francia. He was also the first descendant of Robert le Fort to claim kingship, though he would not be the last, as his descendants ruled France for just under a millennia, with some notable gaps involving head-chopping.

Odo could not have known his importance to European and world history. At the time he seemed like a placeholder until the young Charles came of age. He was also not the only claimant in West Francia. Count Ramnulf II of Poitiers claimed kingship of Aquitaine, Rodolphe was elected King of Upper Burgundy and Louis of Provence held the south of Burgundy. But those lords and their realms never achieved the same power of the King of West Francia, whose territories included all of the north except Brittany, the center and center-west, and the middle-south. Count Ramnulf died within two years and his descendants did not bother claiming kingship, accepting the traditional title of ‘Duke of Aquitaine.’

Rapidly after the death of the Emperor Karl der Grosse, Rodolphe had himself declared King of Burgundy, though his territory was much smaller than traditional Burgundy and centered around Lake Geneva. But he was an ambitious man who tried to take advantage of the chaos by marching north to claim Lotharingia. Rodolphe conquered a huge swathe of territory around Alsace-Lorraine, which he held for about five minutes before Arnulf arrived to bring him back to earth. After some choice words from emissaries Arnulf let Rodolphe keep his minor kingdom so long as he never tried anything absurd like that again.

In 887 Boso of Provence died and passed on his title to his son Louis. Louis styled himself as king, though for a long time he only held his small ancestral land around Vienne. As a pretender-king Louis spent a good deal of time fighting Muslim mujahadin who established a fortress at Fraxinet, halfway between modern-day Toulon and Nice. From here, Muslim raiders could sail up the Rhone and seized the passes of the Western Alps. In 900 the people of Italy sought to depose King Berengar I, due to his inability to repulse the Magyars, and invited Louis to become their king. Like Rodolphe, Louis leapt at the chance to expand his power and took the throne. But the Magyars overwhelmed Italy’s eastern frontiers and the Italians quickly turned against Louis. In 905 Berengar caught Louis in Verona and stabbed out his eyes. Louis returned to Provence, where he became a figurehead while his cousin Hugh of Arles ruled.

After Karl der Grosse’s death, four power-hungry men claimed kingship, but only Odo had any serious power. Ramnulf’s Kingdom of Aquitaine lasted a mere two years, dying with him. Rodolphe failed to take Lotharingia and ruled a small, though very scenic, realm around Lake Geneva. Louis of Provence failed to take Italy and contested power with Muslims from Al-Andalus. While these minor kings did not threaten Odo, their secessions proved he was weaker than his Carolingian predecessors. Odo was then occupied with Viking attacks and keeping the Neustrian aristocracy in check. Moreover, by this time the royal treasury was empty. Turns out you can only pay off so many Vikings before you run out of money, quick tip for everyone out there. At least Odo recognized his economic dilemma and cut spending. But a king who cannot grant land or distribute money to his vassals is a weak king. Historian Jim Bradbury writes, “When Odo tried to pass lands to the count of Berry at the expense of [Guillaume] the Pious of Aquitaine, he failed. One of Odo’s grants was made ‘so far as the count himself consents’.” The aristocracy naturally filled the political and economic void left by the monarch, strengthening their hold on localities.

While Odo was politically weak, he was still a great general and soldier. In 888 the king met a Viking raiding party at Montfaucon-d’Argonne. Odo took a blow to the head but he survived and his forces won the battle. He won a second battle at Clermont, then a third on the River Allier. Odo’s military prowess, combined with Magyar attacks on the east, kept Arnulf from invading West Francia.

Even as Odo dealt with foreign attacks he had to contend with a noble revolt in 893 by a cabal of largely Austrasian nobles centered around Fulk, Archbishop of Reims. Archbishop Fulk never accepted Odo as the rightful ruler and that year he crowned the Carolingian Charles, son of Louis the Stammerer, as king. Odo and his base of support in Neustria contended with the Austrasians. Even as Fulk condemned Odo as illegitimate, he remained a great military leader, while Charles was not even a man. Odo quickly took Reims, while Charles fled east to take refuge with Arnulf, before moving southwest to the lands of Richard le Justicier, lord of Burgundy, not to be confused with its neighbor to the east, the Kingdom of Burgundy. While there Charles hired Vikings to attack Odo, which was not that unusual at the time, though the chronicler Flodoard condemned the hiring of pagans to fight Christians. Odo won every battle but King Arnulf of East Francia favored his relative. The two kings met at Worms in 895, where Odo agreed to cede territory around Laon to Charles and recognize him as his successor.

Charles did not have to wait long. King Odo fell ill at La Fère in the north, lapsed into a coma and died on 1 January, 898. His remains were interred in Saint-Denis, alongside most of the kings of France. Odo was a great king at a time when kings were not great. As Bradbury writes, he personally led his country’s defense against the Northmen, winning “seven battles in five years and [causing] the Vikings to flee on nine other occasions,” while improving Frankish fortifications. He recognized that the crown was broke and he reined in spending. He dealt fairly justly with nobles and compromised to safeguard the realm. His acceptance of Charles kept a succession crisis from breaking out, which could have devastated the country.

As great as Odo was, he was not a Carolingian, so when he died the throne passed to his opponent Charles, later known as Charles le Simple, Charles the Simple. Charles’ moniker used ‘simple’ in its traditional sense, as in without guile or malice. If he were to be named today, we would call him something like, “Charles the Honest.” If you’re keeping score, he is Charles III, as Charlemagne was Charles I and Charles the Bald was Charles the II.

While Charles was only just a man, Odo’s brother Robert, was a powerful and respected noble. After Odo’s death he became the most powerful noble in West Francia by virtue of his status as the head of the House of Robert le Fort. But Robert acquiesced to his brother’s agreement and bent the knee to Charles. In exchange for his support, Charles made him Marquis of Neustria and the land between the Seine and the Loire, enhancing his power even further.

Charles the Simple was first and foremost a Carolingian, meaning he had a claim to the entire empire and King Charles wanted to expand into the heartland of Lotharingia. He got his chance in 899 when Arnulf died. Arnulf had left Lotharingia to his illegitimate son Zwentibold. Zwentibold was wildly unpopular, which is not necessarily surprising. I’m no Frankish noble, but I imagine they wouldn’t be thrilled to hear that their new overlord was the bastard son of a usurper. I mean, one has to have some propriety. A cabal of aristocrats invited Charles to invade and he rapidly took Aachen the northwest. But the powerful regional bishops refused to recognize the western king, forcing him to abandon the Middle Kingdom in favor of Ludwig IV.

The next decade of Charles’ reign was largely uneventful, which is usually a good thing. Charles held off Viking attacks, sponsored churches, and generally looked after the welfare of his kingdom. He was a just king and earned the moniker ‘Simplex’ in Latin, or ‘Simple’ in French, for his even-handed administration of justice.

The year 911 began a momentous change in French history. That July Rollo, the Viking ruler of Rouen, besieged Chartres with a sizeable force. King Charles arrived with his army and Robert of Neustria led a cavalry contingent which overwhelmed the Vikings. Rollo’s men ran for their ships but recognized that the main host of Franks would reach them before most could board. With no other option than to make a last, desperate stand, the Vikings took the livestock from the ships, slaughtered them and used the corpses as barricades to block a cavalry charge, which was especially effective since the smell of the carcasses might frighten the animals. Rather than continue the attack, Charles decided to negotiate with Rollo. Charles gave Rollo the offer a lifetime: the crown would recognize Rollo as Count of Rouen. In exchange, Rollo would accept baptism and defend the northern coast from further Viking attacks. Rollo must have chuckled at his continued good fortune. He had failed to besiege Paris in 885-886, but Karl der Grosse still paid him off and let him raid Burgundy. Then 15 years later he failed to besiege Chartres and Charles made him a count! Rollo failed upward in a big way. Later that year the two signed the Treaty of St-Clair-sur-Epte, formalizing their agreement. Rollo became the most powerful man in a region which very quickly came to be known as Normandie, the land of the “Northmen.”

Charles recognized that his title as king meant much less than it did just a few generations prior. He was not even the most powerful man in his own kingdom, that was Robert. But as king he did have the power to recognize nobles and bestow titles on them. Thus, he duly appealed to various powerful men to keep his aristocracy in line. Aside from uplifting Rollo, Charles recognized Guillaume III, great-grandson of Ramnulf I, as Duke of Aquitaine and Richard le Justicier as marquis of Burgundy. Charles’ appeals to his vassals discouraged them from rebelling, though he simultaneously gave them more power, at a time when aristocratic power was waxing and monarchical power was waning.

After saving Chartres and dealing with the crisis in the west, Charles turned his attention to the east. That same year Ludwig IV died, sparking a succession crisis in Lotharingia. Charles invaded and again rapidly took the country. This time the nobility recognized him as their king. Even as Charles ceded power in his own realm he took another.

As time progressed Charles lost his political magic. First, his popularity declined due to continual raids in his territory. The Vikings raided the northern frontiers and sailed down major rivers to sack cities. Muslim pirates from Fraxinet ravaged the south and sailed up rivers spoiling even more territory. Added to this was the new threat posed by Magyar horsemen. The Magyars were a new group that arrived in Europe from the Central Asian steppe. Like the Huns, they were brilliant horsemen who could strike a town and retreat with plunder before being caught by a larger army. These peoples settled in the lands formerly held by the Huns, and later came to be known as Hungarians. The Magyars devastated East Francia and Italy, but they also penetrated into Lotharingia and even raided as far west as Alsace.

Charles could only do so much about these attacks, which damaged his prestige. But he made matters worse by spending the vast majority of his time in West Francia, alienating the aristocracy of Lotharingia, who wanted an accessible king, especially during a time of crisis. Again though, this wasn’t entirely Charles fought as his nobles in West Francia refused to leave their lands to defend Lotharingia. While Charles wanted to help Middle Francia he didn’t have the manpower, though he still deserves blame for claiming lordship of an area he could not protect.

Charles’ third mistake was his favoritism for a middling lord named Hagano, a relative of his first wife. Hagano became Charles’ favorite counsellor and the king gave him numerous monastic land grants, much to the irritation of the great nobles of the realm. The chronicle Flodoard recounts, “In the year 920 from the Lord’s incarnation, almost all the counts of Francia gathered at [Soissons] and abandoned their king Charles,” when he refused to dismiss Hagano. Only a handful of notables remained faithful to Charles, among them Heriveus, archbishop of Reims. King Charles had grown stubborn and he refused his vassals demands. He tried to rule his lands with what forces were still loyal to him and fought with the German king Heinrich der Vogler, Henry the Fowler, so named because he was out birding when he was informed he would be the next king of East Francia. Meanwhile Robert was preoccupied fighting Vikings in Brittany and the Loire.

The final straw came when Charles tried to seize the historic Chelles Abbey and give it to Hagano. Aside from being a prestigious holy site, Chelles’ abbess Rothilde was Robert’s sister-in-law. This outraged Robert’s son Hugh, who raised an army of 2,000 men. These men joined with Lotharingian soldiers and Robert’s own men to chase down the king. The two armies maneuvered around each other, gathering their allies, most notably Rodolphe Duke of Burgundy, son of Robert le Justicier. By now Charles’ army was primarily composed of Lotharingians who demanded booty and didn’t care about the property of Western Franks leading them to ravage Reims. Because of these actions Flodoard recounts that Charles lost men every day while Robert gained soldiers.

As Robert approached Charles fled east across the Meuse. The Western Franks argued that because the king had abandoned his realm he had also abdicated his throne. On 29 June 922 the Archbishop Heriveus crowned Robert King of France, having turned on his former master. Robert began negotiations with King Heinrich to ensure peace between the two. Meanwhile his son Hugh honored the alliance between the west and middle Franks by marching into Lotharingia and lifting Charles’ siege on count Gislebert’s castrum.

Now Charles was in a bind. He was unpopular in both of his kingdoms and his forces dwindled daily. He had to take bold action, and he recrossed the Meuse to lead a final battle against the usurper-king. On 15 June 923 Charles and his forces arrived at Soissons and charged upon Robert’s encampment while they were in the middle of eating lunch. The sudden attack caught the West Franks off-guard and King Robert was killed in the fighting. His son Hugh and Heribert, count of Vermandois rallied their forces and carried the day. Hugh chose not to pursue Charles as he mourned the death of his father and short-lived king. Meanwhile, the remaining Lotharingians abandoned Charles, leaving him with virtually no friends or allies in all of Francia.

Charles then made a desperate ploy and hired an army of Vikings to help him regain the throne. Alarmed, the West Franks called on the powerful Rodolphe, Duke of Burgundy to their aid. Rodolphe’s forces arrived just in time and camped on the River Oise, between the Northmen and Charles’ forces. Outmaneuvered, Charles fled eastward while the Vikings abandoned the futile struggle.

Now the Western Franks had to choose who their new king would be. Hugh was the obvious choice, but Heribert adamantly objected. Likewise, Hugh rejected Heribert. Thus, the Franks compromised and acclaimed Rodolphe Duke of Burgundy as their new king on 13 July 923, my birthday! The 13 July, not 923; I’m not that old, though I do remember my first video games being on floppy discs. Rodolphe would be the only king between 888 and 987 who was not either a Carolingian or a Robertian, though he was Hugh’s brother-in-law, and son-in-law of the recently-deceased King Robert.

Speaking of Carolingians, Charles was in it deep. His forces abandoned him, alongside the church. All he had, was his bloodline. Using this last weapon, Charles sent out emissaries to the lords of West Francia, reminding him that he was their rightful king. Heribert, Count of Vermandois, responded to the summons and invited Charles to his castrum at Saint Quentin. Now, you really have to wonder how desperate Charles was that he would fall for this trap. Heribert’s leadership a few months prior during the Battle of Soissons was a big reason why Charles lost his throne in the first place. And the new king was Heribert’s brother-in-law! Even if Heribert despised Rodolphe, why would he risk everything to overthrow him and place an unpopular man on the throne? Given how well Charles had governed, he probably recognized that this was a trap. But Charles was either going to retake the throne or lose everything. As it turned out, he lost everything, Heribert seized him and made him his hostage. When Charles’ wife Edgifu heard about this she fled across the Channel with their one-year old son Louis rolled in a bundle of fodder to conceal him. The young boy grew up in Wessex under the protection of his grandfather Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great who had defeated the Great Heathen Army. Back in Francia he became known as Louis d’Outremer, Louis from overseas.

Charles was without a friend in the world. Only one noteworthy man spoke out in his favor: Rollo, who appealed for his release. This probably wasn’t for altruistic reasons, and Rollo certainly knew Heribert would never release Charles. Naturally, once Heribert gave him a firm ‘no’ Rollo then claimed that his oaths of loyalty were moot, as he had made them to Charles personally, not to the Frankish throne. Using this flimsy excuse, Rollo marched westward plundering and pillaging. The new King Rodolphe responded with a brutal invasion of Normandy, devastating the land with fire and sword. After months of fighting the two agreed to a new compact: Rollo would accept Rodolphe as king and in exchange he expanded his territory to include Bayeux and the province of Maine, enlarging Normandy from a pocket of territory around Rouen to most of the northern coast east of Brittany.

Charles would remain Heribert’s prisoner and his own personal bargaining chip for the rest of his life. Heribert regularly threatened to release Charles and stir up rebellion unless King Rodolphe gave him lands and titles, which is how he made his first son Eudes the Count of Laon and his second son Hugh the archbishop of Reims. Heribert exploited this threat until Charles died in 929 while imprisoned at Péronne.

While the Western Franks were occupied with civil war, the East Frankish king Heinrich conquered most of Lotharingia. Since King Rodolphe was not a Carolingian he had no claim to the land or loyalties of the people who lived there, and so there was little he could do even if he wanted to. Rodolphe mustered an army and marched to meet Heinrich, but when he saw the German king’s large forces the two agreed to a peace, with Heinrich firmly in control of Middle Francia.

By the time Rodolphe took the throne the position of king was even less meaningful than before. The great lords increased in power and Normandy and Aquitaine were virtually independent. Flodoard recounts that at the beginning of 924 Rodolphe levied a tax across all of West Francia to pay the Northmen to keep the peace. Then he marched with a force to Aquitaine to ensure the loyalty of Duke Guillaume II, who had delayed in recognizing him as king, though in fairness, West Francia had three kings in two years so bending the knee each time there was a new king must have been exhausting, and terrible for the joints. When Guillaume learned Rodolphe was coming he raised his own force. The two armies stared each other down from across the Loire near Autun. The two spent the entire day sending emissaries back and forth, until, unexpectedly, late that night, Guillaume crossed the river to personally meet with the king. The Duke dismounted in a show of submission and approached his sovereign, who remained on his horse. Rodolphe leaned down and kissed him on each cheek, and the two came to an agreement.

If Rodolphe was hoping he could solve all his problems through diplomacy he was sorely mistaken. Even as he pacified the southwest and north a whole new threat emerged from the southeast. For decades Italy had been ruled by King, later Emperor, Berengar. Berengar was initially unpopular because he couldn’t stop the Magyar raids into Italy. At some point, the emperor switched tactics and instead of fighting the raiders he regularly paid them off. Berengar gave away so much money and titles to the Magyars that he barely had any left for the Italian nobility. The disaffected aristocracy turned against Berengar (again) and invited King Rodolphe II of Burgundy, not to be confused with King Rodolphe I of West Francia, to be their new ruler. With the Italians against him, Berengar rallied his Magyar vassals who devastated Italy. According to Flodoard, “They set fire to the rich and populous [city] of Pavia, destroying vast resources there. Forty-four churches were set afire and the bishop of that city, along with the bishop of Vercelli, who had been with him, were killed by the fire and smoke. From the almost innumerable multitude of inhabitants of Pavia, only 200 are said to have survived.” What few people survived, “gave the Magyars eight measures of silver gathered from the ashes in the remains of the city, thus ransoming the life and walls of the empty [city]. When this was completed, the Magyars crossed the steep ridges of the Alps and came into Gaul.” In response, King Rodolphe II and the local lords pursued and defeated what Magyars they could find, though a sizeable host raided Gothia on the southern coast, before a plague struck them down.

In 925 the Normans broke their treaty and ravaged Frankish lands on their borders. Hugh repulsed what invaders he could while King Rodolphe summoned an army and took the fortress at Eu. Early the next year the king marched on Arras. There a Viking army attacked his camp in the middle of the night. Despite the surprise, Rodolphe led a ferocious defense and the Franks won a stunning victory, even though the king himself was wounded in the fighting. He recovered and marched on Aquitaine, to force Duke Guillaume II to renew his oaths of fealty which he had let lapse, when a Magyar force crossed the Rhine and Rodolphe had to turn around to face them.

Throughout his thirteen year-long reign Rodolphe marched back and forth, constantly quelling new Norman uprisings, defending against Magyar attacks, and fighting his brother-in-law Heribert, who had seized Laon and Reims. Though, Rodolphe did retake Reims in 931 and deposed the eleven-year-old archbishop, Heribert’s son. In 935 he besieged Dijon, which his brother Count Boso of Provence had captured. There he fell ill and in mid-January 936 he died. He was either 45 or 46 years old.

Rodolphe had served admirably and energetically. He administered justice and treated his subjects as well as one might be expected. He personally led men into battle and suffered injuries defending West Francia. He had all of Charlemagne’s vitality and courage, though half his intelligence and a sliver of his good fortune. While he reigned the various peoples of the kingdom he was fighting for were more loyal to their region or house than to the country. The Normans cared for the Normans and gladly raided their neighboring Franks. The Dukes of Aquitaine asserted their autonomy if not outright independence. Burgundy and Provence had already broken off into separate countries whose lords gave no allegiance to the king of West Francia. Brittany remained independent. West Francia was not so much a kingdom anymore, as it was a loose confederation of regions each ruled by lords, some of which were more powerful than the king. Meanwhile the Normans, Andalusian pirates and Magyars regularly raided.

Rodolphe ruled as well as any king could; in fact he probably ruled better than most. But West Francia was in the middle of an existential crisis. After all, what was West Francia? Seriously, what was it? There was a general ethno-linguistic commonality between regions as the people largely identified as Franks and many spoke a variant of Old French, though the language was nowhere close to being universal. From Pepin the Short until Karl der Grosse, West Francia had a strong king with a widespread administrative state. But that state was crumbling. When Charles le Simple took up the crown he ruled over the whole of Francia but was weaker than Hugh who ruled over regions within Francia. Hugh had incredible power in his regions, so while Charles’ power was widespread it was stretched thin, like butter over too much bread, as Bilbo Baggins would say.

Finally, West Francia did not have a raison d’être, a reason for existence, without a Carolingian monarch. In the medieval period, politics was personal, not so much institutional. Small landowners pledged their loyalty to mid-sized nobility, who in turn owed loyalty to the grand nobility, who in turn owed their loyalty to a king. This was not so much the law as it was custom, meaning that it depended on a specific type of person being king. Not just anyone could command the loyalties of the people of West Francia. Under Charlemagne West Francia was one political subdivision within a greater empire. The non-Carolingian monarchs had no claim to Italy or Lotharingia; they certainly had no claim to the German lands in the east. They didn’t even have much claim to Burgundy and Provence, which both broke off and formed their own kingdoms, while Aquitaine briefly did the same. Being ‘king’ was a role, not a position. Even though Odo, Robert I and Rodolphe sat on the throne with a crown on their head, to many that didn’t make them king. Some nobles believed that only the house of Charles Martel had been blessed by God to rule a new Roman Empire, and all other claimants were a danger to the empire and Christendom. Even if they didn’t ascribe to that belief, they could always use that excuse for why they rebelled.

What was West Francia? An anachronism. It was an outdated political expression which clung to life because there was no popular alternative. This anachronism is going to live on for another fifty-one years under three consecutive Carolingian monarchs. Then the Carolingian house will fall and with it West Francia. When West Francia dies, France will be born.


The Annals of Flodoard of Reims, 919–966, edited and translated by Steven Fanning and Bernard S. Bachrach, 2011.

Jim Bradbury, The Capetians: Kings of France 987-1328, 2007.