House of Lilies: The Dynasty that Made Medieval France by Justine Firnhaber-Baker - review by Levi Roach

Levi Roach

Hugh Do You Think You Are?

House of Lilies: The Dynasty that Made Medieval France


Allen Lane 448pp £30

When Adalbero, archbishop of Rheims, stood up to speak at a gathering of the leading French magnates in Senlis in late May 987, all eyes were on him. Only a few weeks earlier, the young French king, Louis V, had died unexpectedly in a hunting accident, raising serious questions about the succession to the throne. Louis was no more than twenty-one at the time and had left no legitimate heir. The strongest biological claim lay with his paternal uncle, Charles of Lorraine. But Charles was duke of Lotharingia (alias Lorraine) within the neighbouring German realm, a situation which raised questions about his loyalty. He was also deeply unpopular among the ruling elite of France. This opened the door to another candidate: Hugh, duke of the Franks, the kingdom’s leading magnate, whose power base lay strategically between Orléans and Paris. Hugh numbered kings among his own ancestors and was champing at the bit for a chance such as this. 

As France’s leading churchman, Adalbero had a special part to play in proceedings. His own loyalties were clear from the start. Adalbero had been at loggerheads with Louis at the time of the latter’s death and had little to win from the succession of Louis’s uncle. In the weeks following the king’s tragic accident, Adalbero had carefully stage-managed affairs to the maximum benefit of Hugh. He pre-empted an attempt by Charles to have himself declared Louis’s heir, insisting that the subject be considered at a general assembly of the kingdom’s great and good. He then arranged for this event to take place at Senlis, just north of Paris, a site conveniently within the sphere of influence of Hugh. Here, Adalbero’s first move was to contend that succession to the throne should be decided not by inheritance (or at least not by inheritance alone) but by suitability. He then went on to outline Charles’s failings, which were manifold and grievous: Charles was lethargic, beholden to a foreign monarch and – worst of all – married to a low-born woman. By every conceivable measure, Charles was unfit for office. In contrast, Hugh was a man renowned for his deeds, nobility and wealth – a reliable protector of the common weal. According to Adalbero, the choice was a stark one: ruin with Charles or glory with Hugh.

As had been the plan all along, those present quickly agreed to Hugh’s succession. Only a week later – a clear sign of undue haste – Hugh was formally crowned and consecrated at Noyon, with Adalbero presiding. At the time, few could have imagined that this would mark the start

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