Hugh Capet inaugurates a new dynasty whose house and offshoots will rule France for 800 years.
On 3 July 987 Hugues Capet, known in English as Hugh Capet, was elected King of the Franks at Noyon. The Carolingian House had failed in the west. The only remaining Carolingian was Charles Duke of Lower Lorraine, who committed treason by betraying the Franks in favor of the Germans in a bid to usurp the crown from King Lotaire. Charles was universally hated, while Hugh was well-loved for his defense of West Francia against the Germans and Normans. Moreover, Hugh was the head of the House of Robert le Fort, making him the most powerful man in the kingdom. His brother Otto-Henry I was Duke of Burgundy and added his considerable might to Hugh’s bid for the throne. The counts of Blois and Anjou were vassals of the Robertians, while the Normans were by that time his allies. Finally, Baldwin IV of Flanders supported Hugh in exchange for receiving the title of Count. Of the roughly 15 great noble lords all supported Hugh’s election to the throne save for Charles who ruled Lower Lorraine and the Count of Vermandois, whose family were the perpetual rivals of the Robertians.
Aside from his many noble allies the Catholic Church also supported Hugh. The Robertians were great patrons of the church and had a reputation for godly behavior. Their name ‘Capet’ probably refers to their regular practice of wearing a monastic hood called a ‘cappa.’ Hugh regularly prayed for the poor, favored holy men, went on pilgrimages and participated in holy rites such as carrying reliquaries. Hugh understood the power of symbolism. During his coronation he borrowed a ceremony for Biblical Hebrew kings and prophets and began the practice of French kings being anointed with oil by the archbishop at Reims. What separated Hugh from Pepin the Short, the first Carolingian to usurp the throne, is that Hugh was directly related to two kings. His grandfather was Robert I while his great uncle was Odo I. On his mother’s side he was related to the Ottonians who were then the Emperors of the Germans. This pedigree helped to legitimize Hugh, though for the rest of his life he carried the stink of usurpation.
At this point there really was no good time to come to the throne of France, and yes we’re going to call it France from now on. By 987 France was divided into fifteen great realms. The crownlands were a pathetic series of small blots on a large map, though what little land belonged to the king included heavily populated areas such as the territory that stretched from Paris to Orléans. Regional lords were remarkably powerful and posed a challenge, if not an outright threat, to the king. Yet, if there was any time to take the throne, this was probably the best. First, France’s greatest threat, the Holy Roman Empire, was in the midst of civil strife. Between 983-996 there was no Holy Roman Emperor as Otto III was a child and various factions fought for power. Second, the major outside invasions had largely ended. After centuries of raiding the Vikings were no longer raiders but conquerors who established themselves in Britannia and Normandy. The Magyars were settling in Hungary while the Iberian Muslims contended with Christians in the north and rival Muslims in North Africa.
Hugh Capet was a far-sighted king…in some respects, we’ll get to that later. Hugh could not read or write in Latin, but he made sure that his son received a top-tier education by entrusting him to the cathedral school at Reims in 983 where he was under Gerbert of Aurillac’s tutelage. He knew that his reign would always be contested but he did everything to ensure his son would not face the same challenges he did. On Christmas Day 987 Hugh had his son Robert II crowned co-king, so that, when he died Robert II would already be the rightful king of France. Hugh even had the Papacy accept Robert II’s kingship, claiming that if Muslims attacked the kingdom he would have to leave his realm to defend Christendom while Robert II maintained peace within the kingdom. Spoiler alert, Hugh never actually fought against Muslims but he was able to use anti-Muslim fears to get the Pope on his side.
The final way in which Hugh cemented his son’s accession was through marriage alliances. As any good medieval king knows marriage is an important political tool to shore up one’s reign and not something silly like a bond of love between two people. In 988 Hugh immediately aimed as high as he could and had Adalbero, archbishop of Reims write letters to Basil II and Constantine VIII, the joint-emperors of Byzantium, asking for a bride for his son. The Byzantines had previously sealed marriage alliances with the Ottonians but with the Holy Roman Empire in chaos and its ruler five years old the French monarch became Europe’s hottest bachelor. In the letter, Hugh proposed a marriage alliance uniting France and Byzantium against German incursions into Italy, something which probably appealed to the Byzantines who had to contend with both Islamic naval raiders in the south, invading Germans in the north and rebellious Italian lords, well, everywhere. Historians are unsure how informed Hugh was about the Byzantine family, and whether he was asking for a specific bride or would settle for any ol’ Greek princess. If he did know about Byzantine royal women then he was probably asking for Anna, daughter of Romanus II and Theophano, who was about the same age as Robert II. However, that year Anna would not go west but north and she married Vladimir I, the Grand Prince of Kiev. Together they Christianized the pagan people of Kievan Rus. While Hugh’s advisors drafted the letter they never actually sent it and instead Hugh married his son to Rozala Countess of Flanders and daughter of Berengar II King of Italy.
Charles of Lower Lorraine was that special kind of privileged person who believed it was his right to lead a country even if everyone loathed him. In 988 he assembled an army and stealthily marched on Laon. His allies in the fortified city opened the gates and Charles’ men stormed inside where they captured the bishop Ascelin. In response, Hugh first turned to the church to put down his rival. He held a synod which excommunicated Charles. Hugh then marched on the city, but the fortifications held and Charles repulsed the king. Shortly thereafter Bishop Ascelin escaped by descending from a tower via rope, at which point he joined Hugh. Hugh returned the following year and led another siege but was repulsed a second time.
Meanwhile, Hugh faced a crisis of a different sort when Archbishop Adalbero died in 989. Hugh sped to Reims to select Adalbero’s successor. Gerbert of Aurillac waited for Hugh with full expectations that the king would make him the new archbishop, given his former support during Hugh’s election to kingship, his reputation as one of France’s greatest scholars and the fact that he taught Robert II. Gerbert was quickly disappointed as Hugh decided to sideline him in favor of Arnulf, the illegitimate son of the former King Lotaire. Hugh hoped that by getting a Carolingian on his side, albeit an illegitimate one, he could put an end to Charles’ rebellion. Arnulf swore on the Eucharist that he would remain loyal to Hugh, then proved it by immediately betraying him and handing over the city to Charles. Whoops. To make matters worse, Gerbert also joined Charles as an act of vengeance, because at this point it looked like Hugh’s reign might end very quickly. Ascelin joined the party, appealing to Charles and Arnulf who restored him as bishop of Laon. Following the treacherous bishops were the treacherous lords. Conrad of Burgundy, Herbert of Troyes and Odo of Blois sided with Charles, the last of which seized Melun thanks to the treachery of Viscount Gautier. In one move, Hugh had delivered much of France to his enemy.
But Hugh wasn’t without allies. His brother Otto-Henry of Burgundy remained loyal, as did Fulk Nerra of Anjou, who sided with Hugh against his rival in Blois. Hugh also gained the supported of Richard I of Normandy, Guillaume IV of Aquitaine and Baldwin IV of Flanders, who joined him in retaking Melun. When the king captured Melun he had Gautier and his wife hanged by their feet until death.
Charles had benefited greatly from perfidy amongst his enemies but treachery goes both ways. On 29 March 991, on Palm Sunday, Charles and Archbishop Arnulf visited Laon. There, Bishop Ascelin’s men captured the two and turned them over to Hugh. Charles was sent to Orléans where he died shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, Hugh led a church council of the bishops of France, who deposed Arnulf in favor of Gerbert. This caused a row with the Papacy which declared that only his Holiness had the right to depose bishops, something which Hugh and the French clergy finally acquiesced to in 997. Arnulf was again the Archbishop of Reims, though with no living, legitimate Carolingian left he abandoned his scheming ways. As for Gerbert of Aurillac, he went on to become Pope Sylvester II in 999, just two years after being deposed, which is one of the most incredible medieval examples of failing upward.
With his only rival for the throne dead, Hugh was secure in his power. So secure that his son felt he could finally separate from his wife. While Robert II had gone along with the wedding to Rozala on his father’s orders he was unhappy with the arrangement. He was a mere 16 years old when he married while she was in her thirties or forties, leading him to dub her ‘the Old Italian widow.’ With the kingdom at relative peace, Robert II dismissed her, though he kept her dowry. This outraged the Count of Flanders but without a major anti-Hugh coalition to join he could not openly challenge the king.
For the next five years Hugh fought an off-and-on war with Odo Count of Blois, until the rebellious noble died of a heart attack in 996. Divine favor appeared to be on Hugh’s side as in the years between 994-996 the leaders of Aquitaine, Maine, Burgundy and Normandy all died, leaving their titles to young sons, none of which challenged Hugh. By 996 Otto III became the Holy Roman Emperor and could have caused trouble for France. But Hugh gave him Verdun, pacifying the German whose attention turned to Burgundy and Italy.
In 996 Hugh went on a pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint Maieul when he fell ill. Pustules began breaking out all across his body, as he was probably afflicted by smallpox. As the king suffered, his son decided to give him one last grievance and announced his intention to marry Odo of Blois’ widow, Bertha of Burgundy. Hugh opposed the marriage with what little strength was left to him because the house of Blois was their enemy and because Bertha was Robert II’s third cousin, meaning the marriage would be considered incest by the church. Despite his condemnations, Robert II married her. On 24 October 996, Hugh died at Melun, around the age of 55, having ruled just over 9 years. His body was buried at Saint Denis, as would many of his successors.
Hugh’s reign has generally been regarded as a great moment in the history of France, while he is often seen as a weak and ineffectual king. Since Hugh made no claims to the entire Carolingian Empire and only sought to rule over the Franks, West Francia became France. Moreover, Hugh became the first of the Capetian dynasty, whose descendants ruled until the Revolution, then again briefly during the Restoration. It’s no coincidence that when the Revolutionary government stripped Louis XVI of his titles they renamed him ‘Louis Capet.’
Yet, while the name Capet carried on for 800 years there was no Hugh II. No future French monarch styled themself after the founder of their dynasty. This is because Hugh’s rule was short and inglorious. Unlike the great Merovingians and nearly all the Carolingians who cowed their nobility and ruled over the entirety of their countries, Hugh only directly ruled the northlands he inherited from his father and the small crownlands remaining. He took up the kingship at a time when kings possessed hardly any more political power than the great counts and dukes of France. He was not a powerful ruler, nor was he a great theologian or lawgiver. He led no great church councils or passed any new set of laws. He really couldn’t, since he was poorly educated and could not even read Latin.
Hugh’s greatest accomplishment was seizing power, holding onto it and securing the succession of his son. In retrospect, those are pretty major accomplishments. Before his reign, the realm had descended into a 99-year conflict during which three separate houses each seized the crown. Hugh was wise enough to navigate three tumultuous decades under King Lotaire, remaining mostly loyal throughout that period. He was wise enough not to take the throne in 986, and instead deferred to Louis V. When Louis V died in 987 Hugh had a reputation for faithfulness, intelligence and honor, all things which Charles did not. Upon ascending to the kingship he used his political savvy to divide his enemies, form valuable alliances and satiate his rivals, namely the Holy Roman Emperor. He acted like a rightful monarch from day one, established ties with Byzantium, the Papacy and other major powers and made allies with the church. He did make mistakes, most notably uplifting Arnulf to the position of Archbishop, but his flaws were understandable and not enough to sink his reign. In just 9 years Hugh laid the foundation for a dynasty that lasted eight centuries.
Jim Bradbury, The Capetians: Kings of France 987-1328, 2007.
Joel T. Rosenthal, “Education of the Early Capetians,” 1969.
A. A. Vasiliev, “Hugh Capet of France and Byzantium,” 1951.