Today, on the 3rd of July 987, Hugh Capet was crowned King of France. He was the eldest son of Hugh the Great, Duke of the Franks. When his father died in 956, teenaged Hugh inherited his estates, becoming a vassal to the Carolingian king Lothair III (sometimes called Lothair IV).
Lothair of France had obtained the throne in 954. Born in 941, he was a boy of thirteen at the time of his accession, so Lothair was under the guardianship of his uncle Bruno, Archbishop of Cologne and brother of Otto I, known as Otto the Great, who was German king and Holy Roman Emperor. Later, in 956, Bruno was made Hugh’s guardian. Having Bruno as the regent of Western Francia during Lothair’s minority, Otto also had the powerful French princes under his control.
With Bruno’s advice, young Lothair invested Hugh’s younger brother, Otto, with the Duchy of Burgundy in 956. He also gave Paris and the title of Duke of the Franks to Hugh. The kingdom was under the Ottonian (German) influence until the guardianship of Archbishop Bruno of Cologne ended in 965. But once Lothair grew up, he began to crave independence and started ruling along, appointing his own councilors.
Lothair of France
In the 10th century, West Francia was a small kingdom. It included the western part of Charlemagne’s Empire, but it nevertheless didn’t include future eastern and southeastern parts of France such as Burgundy and Provence. Brittany, as well as the Duchies of Normandy and of Burgundy were nearly independent. By the time Hugh and Lothair were born, the authority of Carolingian kings had been diminished by the increase in power of their own vassals. Unlike later kings, French monarchs were elected by nobility between 888 and 936.
West Francia under the control of Carolingian kings
As the boy-king and the boy-duke reached adulthood, Lothair led his army into Lorraine, and Hugh was one of his generals. Lorraine was part of the Holy Roman Empire, which meant the war against Otto II, the new King of Germany and the emperor. The Imperial forces invaded West Francia in 978, and at first, the campaign was successful for them as they reached the city of Paris, but Hugh’s army was quick enough to stop their advance, forcing them to retreat. Afraid of Hugh’s rising power, Lothair met with Otto II and signed a peace treaty without consulting Hugh.
The result was that the power struggle between King Lothair and Hugh Capet intensified. Many nobles associated Lothair with the Ottonian dynasty, fearing that the Germans would attempt to make France a vassal state of the Holy Roman Empire. This gave Hugh a chance to make new alliances within the realm. As Hugh gained the support of Adalberon, Archbishop of Reims, Lothair was left a nominal leader. Lothair and Hugh were both good generals, but the king could not carry on the legacy of the Carolingian kings who conquered vast territories in the past.
In his letter to some lord, Adalberon of Reims wrote:
“Lothair is King of France in name alone; Hugh is, however, not in name but in effect and deed.”
Lothair’s project of his heir Louis’ marriage to Adelaide-Blanche of Anjou (they were a mismatched couple due to their twenty-five-year age difference) did not lessen Hugh’s power at all. When Adelaide left her husband in 984 two years after the wedding, Lothair’s plans to establish himself as the only heir of the Carolingian Empire were crushed.
King Lothair suddenly passed away in early 986 when he intended to launch a new campaign against the Holy Roman Empire. His son and heir, Louis V, ruled for less than a year until he died childless in May 987, becoming the last French monarch in the Carolingian line.
At the time, ascension to the throne in West Francia required approval of powerful lords of the kingdom and assent of Archbishop of Reims. Hugh had become an ally of Adalbero of Reims long before Louis V’s untimely death, and he had long gained the support of the Frankish nobility.
Adalbero, Archbishop of Reims, addressed the nobility, praising Hugh Capet:
“Crown the Duke of the Franks. 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 had a long and difficult path to power. Being a Robertian by blood, he was a descendant in the illegitimate line from Charlemagne. He had enough royal blood coursing through his veins to rule the French realm.
In his adolescence, Hugh got the nickname “capet” from the cape he wore, so the new ruling dynasty was called the House of Capet. He started the slow transition to hereditary monarchy by having his son, Robert, crowned in December 987, soon after his own coronation. After the direct Capetian line died out in 1328, all of the French future rulers were from the cadet branches of the Capets – the Houses of Valois and of Bourbon.
All images are in the public domain.
Text © 2019 Olivia Longueville