The founder of the Capetian dynasty of French kings (987–1328), Hugh Capet was born the second son of Hugh the Great, duke of Francia and count of Paris, and Hedwig, sister of Otto I, the emperor of Germany. In 961 he was made duke of Francia, holding vast fiefs in these regions and administering considerable power over the Neustrian nobility.
Around 970 he married Adelaide, sister of William IV, duke of Aquitaine and Poitou. The union with Adelaide added influence and prestige to Hugh, whose powers already were superior to those of the nominal king of France, Lothair (954–986). Hugh’s rising power provoked a conflict with the king, which became especially apparent from c. 980.
In May 985 Gerbert of Aurillac, the future Pope Sylvester II (999–1003), spoke of Hugh as “king ... not in name, but in effect and deed,” while Lothair was “king of France in name alone.” A year later Lothair died and his son Louis V the “Sluggard” ascended the throne, only to die a year later without an heir. Upon his death, on May 21, 987, Hugh was unanimously elected as the king and on July 3 he was crowned at Noyons.
His power extended over feudal domains and towns in the areas of Paris, Orléans, Senlis, Chartres, Touraine, and Anjou, while vassals, who might challenge his authority, held other parts of France. Shortly after his coronation Charles of Lorraine, Louis V’s uncle, presented his claims to the throne, although Adalberon dissuaded him from using force against the new king.
In 988 the townsmen of Laon handed their city over to Charles, and Hugh failed to recapture it. Hugh’s power was challenged not only by his lay rivals, but also by some ecclesiastical authorities. In 989 Adalberon, bishop of Reims, died and his place was taken by Arnoulf, who refused to acknowledge the Capetian rule and attempted to restore the Carolingian dynasty, with Charles of Lorraine as the king. Gerbert switched sides too, for a brief time, proclaiming Charles as the legitimate king and calling Hugh the “interrex,” or temporary king.
Charles had Laon and Reims in his hands. The significance of the control over the latter city was twofold, for Charles exercised his power not only over his secular subjects, but also over the archbishop, who crowned kings. The situation was highly unfavorable to Hugh, who acted decisively to restore his power. On March 991 Arnoulf and Charles were captured and imprisoned.
In the same month the bishop of Laon returned to Hugh and left his town exposed to the king’s mercy. The Council of St. Basle (June 17–18, 991) deposed Arnoulf and elevated Gerbert, who changed sides again, to the archbishopric. The deposition of Arnoulf and installation of Gerbert consolidated Hugh’s royal power, while the cities of Reims and Laon seemed to stay loyal to him. Charles and his family died in captivity.
The papacy remained silent regarding the deposition of Arnoulf. It was probably under the influence of Otto III, the German emperor (983–1002) that John XVI (985–996) banned the appointment of Gerbert. Hugh sought to gain the support of the French churchmen against the pope, who was in that time a puppet in the hands of the German emperor. He bequeathed lands to monasteries and defended their rights against lay lords and bishops.
Between 991 and 996 Hugh and his son issued a number of charters. Most of Hugh’s barons recognized his authority and suzerainty, but there was one last attempt to overthrow him. In 995 Odo of Blois and Adalberon, bishop of Laon, attempted to reinstall a son of Charles of Lorraine as the king. Their plan was revealed and crushed.
In order to consolidate the power of the nascent dynasty, Hugh sought a suitable mate for his son, Prince Robert, later Robert II the Pious (996–1031). After he failed to obtain him a bride from the Byzantine court, he married him to Rozola Susanna, the widow of the count of Flanders and daughter of a former king of Italy. The marriage likely took place in 989 and lasted until 992, when Robert divorced his wife, who was about 15 years older than he.
Hugh died in October 996, while on a military campaign near Tours. Perhaps an insignificant figure compared to his later descendants, Hugh was remembered as a symbol of the French monarchy and was commemorated in the literature of the High and Late Middle Ages, chiefly in the chanson de geste genre, as well as in some English literary sources.
The Capetian dynasty ruled in France until 1328. Their authority was largely decentralized until the end of the 12th century, mainly because of the emerging power of the Norman dukes, who also ruled as kings of England since the Norman Conquest of England of 1066 and exercised control over Normandy, Anjou, and Aquitaine from the ascension of Henry II Plantagenet in 1154. The Aragonese Crown periodically encroached on some of southern territories.
Royal power became increasingly centralizing under Philip II Augustus (1180–1223), who reconquered Normandy from the hands of John the Lackland of England (1199–1216) in 1204 and annexed considerable territories of Languedoc, in the course of the Albigensian Crusade (1209–29) and the war against Pedro of Aragon (1213). Philip’s heirs adopted the same policy of expansion and consolidation, including Louis VIII (1223–26), Louis IX the Saint (1226–70), Philip III the Bold (1270–85), and Philip IV the Fair (1285–1314).
The latter had three sons, Louis X (1314–16), Philip V (1316–22), and Charles IV (1322–28), who died without heirs. As the result, the rule of the direct Capetian kings came to its end and the Crown passed to the dynasty of Valois, a branch of the Capetian family. The death of the last Capetian led also to the outburst of the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) between England and France.