Hugh Capet Is Elected to the French Throne Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Hugh Capet was elected to the French throne, reestablishing the principle of hereditary succession. Capet also founded the Capetian Dynasty, which ruled France continuously from 987 to 1328, perpetuating monarchal authority.

Summary of Event

Hugh Capet was described by contemporary sources as a man of “nobility and vigor,” but neither his character nor his appearance emerges from the scanty source material dating from his reign. Nevertheless, he founded a dynasty that ruled without interruption for almost three hundred years and under whose rule emerged the beginnings of the nation of France. [kw]Hugh Capet Is Elected to the French Throne (987) [kw]Capet Is Elected to the French Throne, Hugh (987) [kw]French Throne, Hugh Capet Is Elected to the (987) Hugh Capet Capetian Dynasty France;987: Hugh Capet Is Elected to the French Throne[1330] Government and politics;987: Hugh Capet Is Elected to the French Throne[1330] Hugh Capet Lothair Louis V Charles of Lorraine Robert the Pious Adalbero of Reims Gerbert of Aurillac

An artist’s rendition of the election of Hugh Capet.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

The situation in the region known as Western Francia was not propitious in 987 for the beginning of the reign of Hugh Capet and his Capetian successors. During the ninth and tenth centuries, the descendants of Charlemagne who ruled the territory steadily lost power to the landed nobility, especially those entrenched in large feudal principalities such as the duchies of Normandy, Burgundy, and Aquitaine, and the counties of Champagne and Anjou. Clashes between the monarchs and these powerful barons were frequent, and at virtually every point the great nobles proved their determination to hamstring the authority of their king. Indeed, even before Hugh’s election, the nobles had already deposed of two Carolingian monarchs and had elected three of Hugh’s relatives as kings. The first, after the dethronement of Charles the Fat in 888, was Hugh’s great-grandfather Odo; later, with the deposition of Charles the Simple in 922, Hugh’s grandfather Robert and then Hugh’s granduncle Raoul had been chosen as kings. In each case, however, the kingship had been returned to the Carolingians, but precedents for an elective monarchy had been set.

The powers of the king declined dramatically during the tenth century, as the ongoing deposition and election of monarchs by the nobles reveal. Further, the lands under royal authority continued to shrink until the royal principality included little else than the lands immediately surrounding Paris.

With the election of his son Robert the Pious as his successor in 996, Hugh Capet ensured that the kingdom would pass on to his direct descendant. In this miniature from a fourteenth century manuscript house at the Burgundy Library, Brussels, King Robert composes in Latin.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

In 954, Lothair Lothair (king of France) became king on the death of Louis IV. Because Lothair was only twelve, his uncles protected his rights. In so doing, they called on Hugh Capet for succor and support of the young king, which Hugh Capet granted. On Lothair’s death, his son Louis V Louis V (king of France) was elected king; however, he survived his father by only one year. Louis V’s nearest blood relative was his uncle, Charles Charles of Lorraine , the duke of Lorraine.

It has been suggested that Charles’s claim was overlooked on the basis of his marriage to a woman of lower birth; others suggest that Charles’s shifting allegiances cost him the throne. It is also possible that Hugh Capet’s relationship through his mother to Otto II contributed to his appeal to the assembled nobles and Church officials responsible for electing a king. In any event, at an assembly at Senlis in 987, Hugh Capet was considered to be the more attractive candidate, and he was elected king in spite of Charles’s claim. Though Charles and his few supporters tried to appeal to the concept of legitimate succession by birth, his claims were countered and frustrated by the intrigues of two of Hugh’s most active supporters: Adalbero Adalbero of Reims , the archbishop of Reims, and his secretary Gerbert of Aurillac, one of the most respected scholars of the tenth century and later Pope Sylvester II Sylvester II (pope) .

According to the sources, Adalbero of Reims flatly denied any principle of hereditary right, affirming instead that the crown was conferred only through election by the nobles of the kingdom. Ironically, Hugh himself quickly reestablished hereditary rights by installing his own son as heir shortly after his own ascension.

In 987, Hugh himself was far from being more powerful than the nobles. His county of Paris, the only realm he could call his own, was small, poor, and badly organized compared with great feudal lands such as Normandy and Champagne. Indeed, he could scarcely control the lesser nobles who were his vassals within the county of Paris, let alone the powerful dukes and counts throughout the realm. Hugh at his accession was perhaps the weakest of the great lords of France, and it had been made clear at the outset that he held his throne only at the sufferance of the nobility and the Church.

Significance

The election of Hugh Capet was an event of prime importance in the history of France, in spite of the fact that the decentralization of political power and the decline in royal authority continued on for another century. In the first place, he successfully defended his throne against the intrigues and armed revolts launched against him by Charles of Lorraine, thereby preserving the throne for his Capetian descendants. He apparently also continually insisted on recognition of the theoretical supremacy of the crown over the claims of nobles and upon the unique nature of the royal dignity. Furthermore, it would appear that he began the policy of gradual accumulation of power through the legal exercise of rights as feudal suzerain, directing his efforts primarily at trying to subdue the nobles within his own territory.

There is also evidence to suggest that Hugh resorted to diplomacy more frequently than to war to establish his claims. Some historians claim that this is because he knew he was likely to fail on the battlefield. Finally, in seeing to the preservation of his royal line, he encouraged the reestablishment of the principle of hereditary succession. With the election and consecration of his son Robert the Pious Robert II the Pious (king of France) as his successor in 996, Hugh Capet ensured that the kingdom would pass on to his direct descendant. The facts that the Capetian kings enjoyed remarkably long reigns, the average being thirty years, and were generally able to pass the crown to mature males were, of course, caused more by chance than astuteness. The device of crowning the heir apparent during his father’s lifetime was not abandoned until the reign of Philip II (1179-1223), and the practice of insistence on royal prerogatives and gradual extension of monarchical authority through the exercise of feudal law was carried on by Hugh’s successors.

Hugh’s greatest accomplishment was, quite simply, the founding of a dynasty. It was for his heirs to establish the centralized monarchical authority of the later Middle Ages.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duby, Georges. France in the Middle Ages, 987-1460: From Hugh Capet to Joan of Arc. Translated by Juliet Vale. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991. A noted French historian traces the development of the French state during the Middle Ages, paying particular attention to the intellectual climate of the time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dunbabin, Jean. France in the Making, 843-1180. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. A thorough political history of France, covering the end of the Carolingian Empire through the rise of the Capetian Dynasty and the formation of the French state. Includes a comprehensive bibliography and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fawtier, Robert. The Capetian Kings of France: Monarchy and Nation, 987-1328. Translated by Lionel Butler and R. J. Adams. Reprint. London: Macmillan, 1962. Long considered the standard text of the roles played by the Capetian kings in the creation of a French dynastic state, this book stresses Capetian continuity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hallam, Elizabeth M, and Judith Everard. Capetian France, 987-1328. 2d ed. New York: Longman, 2001. This excellent and scholarly book is firmly grounded on the most basic and practical aspects of the Capetian era. It contains narrations of political events as well as clear analyses of social and economic conditions. Includes maps, genealogical tables, and a bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">James, Edward. The Origins of France: From Clovis to the Capetians, 500-1000. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. A thorough study of the Carolingian background of Capetian France with an extensive bibliography. This work offers a counterpoint to Duby’s interpretation of the same period.

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