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March 19, 2022

69: Robert II

69: Robert II

Robert II ascends to the throne. The second Capetian, he must rule a kingdom even as many of his vassals consider him an illegitimate ruler.


Robert II was probably born in the city of Orléans in 972, the youngest child and only son of Hugh Capet and Adelaide of Aquitaine. Hugh was poorly educated, having little knowledge of Latin, and so sent his son to Reims where he was educated by renowned scholar Gerbert of Aurillac. Robert II became a passionate scholar with particular fondness for theology and music. At some point in his youth Robert II fell deathly ill. In desperation, Hugh and Adelaide donated a golden crucifix to the church of Saint-Croix in Orléans, at which point Robert II made a full recovery. Robert II’s early experiences shaped the man for the rest of his life as he became a Scholar-King and a devout patron of religion. Robert II is known to history as le Pieux, the Pious, and le Sage, the Wise.

On 3 July 987 Hugh Capet became King of the Franks. Six months later on 30 December, Hugh elevated his son to the role of junior king. In truth, Robert II was more of a prince charming. One chronicle records that he was tall, muscular and handsome, with smooth long hair and a thick beard. He was light-hearted and well-loved. As historian Jim Brewer notes, “Robert enjoyed singing in church and hunting, and was constantly reading holy works – at prayer all hours of day and night. He carried a library around with him. He frequently pardoned sinners and thieves, as well as conspirators against his life. Once he reversed a death penalty, simply instructing the guilty not to do it again!”

While his father was busy defending Francia and his house from rival nobles, Robert II ingratiated himself with the church. He hosted synods which included bishops from across the realm. He took part in processions, often personally carrying relics. He sponsored churches and monasteries and administered aid to the poor. He composed new hymns when he wasn’t busy singing the old classics. He prayed long and often. According to Brewer, “Once he insisted on washing the feet of over 160 clerks with his own hands and drying them with his own hair, in emulation of Christ…Robert was the first Capetian said to heal by touch or through a miracle, inspiring the later medieval belief that French kings could cure scrofula by touch. Once when Robert washed his hands, a blind man asked to have the dirty water thrown over him; the king obliged and the blind man saw.”

Robert II’s piety did have a dark side, as he was virulently anti-Judaic. He supported the forced conversion of Jews and allowed their expulsion from cities. In 1007 a probably false report came from the Holy Land that Jews had betrayed Christians in Jerusalem resulting in their execution by Muslims. In response, Robert II led a series of persecutions against Jews that was so brutal even the Pope condemned his actions. Moreover, Robert II responded to a rise in unorthodox belief by burning heretics at the stake.

Robert II’s love life was a constant source of drama. While he grudgingly married Rozala, Countess of Flanders, as soon as his father died in late 996, he divorced her, though he kept her dowry, which included the important cities of Montreuil and Ponthieu. This angered the Flemish, though they could not afford to oppose him so long as the Holy Roman Empire threatened the county.

Once he had sidelined his first wife Robert II married Bertha of Burgundy. This was incredibly controversial for a number of reasons. First, Robert II was already married and not all bishops accepted the annulment between him and Rozala. Second, Bertha was his third cousin, making the marriage incestuous. Finally, Robert II was the godfather to one of Bertha’s children. Robert II ignored all of these taboos and had the archbishop of Tours marry them in front of those French bishops who did not openly oppose the marriage.

If Robert II thought that he could get away with a scandalous marriage because he was king he was living in the wrong era. The King of the Franks was not nearly so important that he could defy Biblical law, and the Popes were not so impotent that they would ignore it. The German Emperor Otto III put his finger on the scale and pushed Gregory V to condemn the union. Robert II was excommunicated, those bishops present at his marriage were censured and the officiating archbishop was deposed.

Robert II could not afford the condemnation of the church when he had based his whole identity around his piety. Moreover, he was only the second Capetian monarch, and many still considered his father a usurper. Robert II wanted to expand his territory and was then campaigning in central France. Finally, his marriage was unfruitful; after 3 years Bertha gave birth to no children, save one stillborn son, which some took as a sign of God’s displeasure. That April, Gerbert of Aurillac became Pope Sylvester II. Despite being Robert II’s former tutor, Sylvester II upheld the excommunication. Robert II bowed to the immense pressure and in the year 1000 he separated from his wife, at which point he was readmitted to the church.

If Robert II’s romantic life was a mess he aimed to make up for it on the battlefield. As the head of House Capet and King of the Franks, Robert II was the great power in the north. Meanwhile, his power south of the Loire was mostly ceremonial as the great lords ruled autonomously. In 1002 Robert II’s uncle Henri Duke of Burgundy died, leaving his realm to his stepson Otto-Guillaume. In 1003 Robert II united with Richard II of Normandy and invaded Burgundy, taking Avallon and Auxerre.

In 1004 Robert II aimed to strengthen his grip on the south by marrying Constance of Arles, daughter of Guillaume of Provence, who famously expelled the Muslim mujaheddin from Fraxinetum in 972. Like his first marriage, this was a union for political reasons and the two had little love for each other. Their personalities frequently clashed: Constance was reserved, frugal and adhered to the expectations of her station. Robert II was generous to an extreme, outgoing and cavorted with commoners, beggars and the sick. According to the chroniclers, Constance gifted her husband a silver decoration for his lance. When Robert II saw a poor man he regifted the object to him, angering the queen. On two separate occasions Robert II witnessed thieves stealing royal belongings, and in both cases the king protected the thieves from the Queen’s wrath, claiming that they needed wealth more than the royals did. Aside from personal differences, southern Franks were culturally linked to Italy and distantly to Byzantium. They wore lighter, more form-fitting clothes which the more conservative northerners viewed as scandalous. The southern men Constance brought to court also shaved their beards in Italian fashion, which the northerners viewed as unmanly.

Tensions between the king and queen reached a high in 1008 when she conspired with a rebellious noble to murder one of Robert II’s friends, who supported the king’s attempt to dismiss her and remarry Bertha. I’ll back up a bit as there’s some important context that needs addressing. While Robert II was expanding south he did face problems in the north. His two most powerful vassals, counts Fulk Nerra of Anjou and Odo II of Blois were bitter rivals. Their mutual animosity benefitted Robert II because it meant they weren’t conspiring against him, but it also meant they caused chaos in the region. While Hugh Capet had mostly sided with the Angevins, Robert II believed Fulk was becoming too strong. This angered Fulk who was an utterly ruthless man; when his first wife Élisabeth de Vendôme failed to produce heirs he accused her of infidelity and had her burned alive. Robert II’s decision to side with Odo II angered Fulk who viewed the about-face as a betrayal. In 1008 Fulk decided to send a message to Robert II and sent twelve men to ambush the king while he was hunting. The soldiers did not touch the king, but they did murder his friend Hugues, Count of Beauvais. Robert II suspected that Constance had plotted with Fulk because Hugues had been one of Bertha’s supporters at a time when Robert II schemed to dismiss his wife in favor of his ex, and true love.

Robert II was furious and decided to have his vengeance on both conspirators. First, he had the nobility and the church condemn Fulk; which was not a hard thing to do given that he had burned his wife alive a few years prior. Isolated, Fulk decided to lead a pilgrimage to Jerusalem as an act of penance. Fulk’s absence meant the count of Blois could seize some Angevin territory, which satisfied Robert II. While Fulk went to Jerusalem, Robert II went to Rome to ask the Pope to annul his marriage to Constance so that he could remarry Bertha. The Pope refused and Robert II resigned himself to holy matrimony. He banished Bertha from the court, finally giving up any attempt to sanctify their forbidden romance. Yet, not everything was bad between the king and queen, despite the odd assassination plot here and there. In 1007 she gave birth to a healthy boy, who Robert II named after his father. In 1008 she gave birth to a second son, Henri, and in 1011 gave birth to their last healthy son, Robert. While their marriage was tremendously unhappy it achieved everything a medieval marriage was supposed to: it united two powerful houses and produced male offspring.

In 1015 Robert II reignited the war in Burgundy, taking Dijon and Sens. While at Sens he deposed the local count Rainard II, called ‘the Mad.’ Rainard II claimed to be the King of the Jews. When an archbishop approached to give him a greeting kiss on the cheek he turned, dropped his trousers and mooned him. When Robert II took Sens they found Rainard II running away naked for unknown reasons.

I have no transition from that. In 1017 Robert II uplifted his son Hugh as junior king, while he made his second son Henri Duke of Burgundy. Like his father, Robert II secured the succession of his children and the fledgling dynasty before his death. In 1021 Étienne, count of Vermandois, died without an heir. Robert II, Odo II of Blois and Fulk Nerra of Anjou all had claims to the territory. In complete contrast to the previous decade, Robert II now worried Odo II was getting too powerful and Robert II decided he would take what lands he could while favoring Fulk and the Angevins. Robert II summoned his old ally Odo II to court where he planned to press his claim. But Odo II realized Robert II was going to seize what he viewed as his, and refused to come. Instead, he prepared to war against Fulk for the lands. After a five-year war the Angevins expanded, with royal support.

While Robert II was an ambitious monarch he recognized the limits of his power. In 1024 a conspiracy of Italians offered him the crown of Italy but he declined, knowing it would antagonize the German emperor. Instead, Robert II allowed the Germans to pursue their claims to Flanders and Italy while he sought to incorporate Burgundy and Alsace. Robert II’s son and junior king Hugh was outraged his father would not secure the crown of Italy for him and launched a rebellion. But as the headstrong youth rode to Compiègne he fell from his horse and died on the 17 September 1025.

What followed was a miniature succession crisis. As the eldest surviving sibling Henri was by rights the next king. Yet, he had a reputation for laziness and loose morals, such that even his own mother wanted to pass him over in favor of Robert junior. Robert II senior refused his wife’s wishes yet again, and on 14 May 1027 he made Henri the junior king while Robert junior became the Duke of Burgundy. As is the case with every good compromise, neither side was happy. Henri seemingly did not want to give up Burgundy. Meanwhile many nobles convinced Robert junior that he should be king; perhaps most of these were genuine supporters, though one cannot help but imagine that some nobles just wanted to stir up chaos within the Capetian house to weaken the monarchy. In 1030 both sons launched rebellions against their father. However, these were short-lived and the family was reconciled at Poissy that year.

On 20 July 1031, Robert II died at the age of 61, having reigned in his own right for nearly 35 years. Like his father, Robert II was not a celebrated or revered king. He was a monarch of France at a time when monarchs were remarkably weak. Yet, like his father he expanded the royal domain. He navigated noble rivalries to his advantage, never allowing one house to become too powerful at his expense. He maintained peace with the Germans who expanded into Flanders and northern Italy, leaving Robert II to pursue his claims in Alsace and Burgundy. He patronized the church, leading to the expansion of religious institutions, including the Abbey of Cluny, one of the most important monasteries of the medieval period. He supported the Peace of God movement which protected the innocent across his realm, and which I will have much more to say about in the next episode. He secured the succession of his sons and left behind a stronger kingdom than he had inherited.

Robert II had his faults. He persecuted Jews and burned heretics alive. His dissolution of his first marriage threatened his alliance with the County of Flanders. His second marriage was condemned by the Pope. His third marriage was unhappy and resulted in his wife conspiring to assassinate his friend. Despite all these detriments, Robert II did the most important thing an early Capetian could have done: he survived. He became a strong link in a new chain. Every half-decent early Capetian monarch who maintained their power reinforced the legitimacy of their house. At a time when feudalism was in full swing and large magnates dominated the landscape, holding the line was still a major accomplishment for most kings, and Robert II had achieved far more than that.


Encyclopedia Britannica

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