Emperor Louis the Pious (r. 814-840) had a complicated family life. Louis’ first wife was Irmengardis, with whom he was married from 794 until her death in 818. She bore Louis a daughter and three sons, the former being Hildegard (b. 802) and the latter being Lothair (b. 795), Pippin (b. 797) and Louis “the German” (b. 804). The emperor started planning the succession for these sons as early as 817, when he made Lothair his co-emperor, and appointed Pippin as king of Aquitaine and Louis “the German” as king of Bavaria. The sons of the emperor were apparently satisfied, at least at that time, with the arrangement. Yet, one year after the death of Irmengardis, Louis the Pious remarried. His second wife was Judith and she bore him two children, Gisela (b. 821) and Charles “the Bald” (b. 823). Emperor Louis’ sons by Irmengardis never warmed up to Judith and they thought that she held too much influence over their father. Most of all, they were irritated at the birth of Charles, as any land granted to him would come at the expense of the other brothers’ kingdoms.
The real troubles started in 830. That year, after the emperor had ordered land in Alamannia to be handed over to Charles, a coup prompted by anti-Judith sentiment in the palace was successfully launched with the support of Lothair, Louis and Pippin. Louis the Pious was stripped of power and Judith was sent away to a nunnery. Even so, the old emperor had been playing politics for a long time, and Louis the Pious managed to regain control before the end of the year. With Louis the Pious back on the throne, his wife and son were returned. Yet, the cycle continued—Pippin was forced to hand over the kingdom of Aquitaine to Charles in 833, followed by another successful coup by Irmengardis’ sons in 834 (resulting in Judith being sent once again to a nunnery), only for Louis the Pious to regain control before the end of the year. The year 838 was a momentous year for Charles; that year, his half-brother Pippin died and his other half-brother, Louis, had been stripped of all lands except Bavaria. As a result, only two sons were still in the emperor’s favor when Louis the Pious decided to redraw succession in 839—everything but Bavaria was split in half and Charles took the west, while Lothair claimed the east.
Peace, however, hinged on the unmaintainable status of Louis the Pious being alive. As could be expected, when the old emperor died in 840, civil war immediately erupted between Lothair, Charles and Louis. This war between brothers, interestingly enough, soon expanded even to one of their sisters.
Hildegard was the sister of Lothair and Louis and also the half-sister of Charles. She had been appointed as abbess of St. Mary in the city of Laon, consequentially placing her in the domain of Charles. Unfortunately, Hildegard showed great favoritism for Lothair, who, since the death of his father, had been trying to force both Charles and Louis to recognize him as the new emperor of the Franks.
In October, 841, the armies of Charles and Lothair were having a staring contest from their separate camps near Paris. As such, Charles had his troops marching throughout northeast France, scouting for enemies and looking for passes that needed defending. Following such orders, a high profile sworn man of Charles by the name of Adalgar found himself traveling around the city of Laon. Yet, unbeknownst to him, there was an odd surprise lying in wait.
While in the vicinity of Laon, Adalgar was ambushed and arrested by rebels who favored Lothair instead of Charles. The rebels locked their captive in the city of Laon, which turned out to be in complete insurrection. Adalgar’s absence, however, did not go unnoticed, for word almost immediately reached Charles that one of his vassals had been kidnapped. Spies and informants were also able to discover the identity of the Laon rebel leader. It was none other than Hildegard, abbess of St. Mary, and half-sister of Charles.
Upon hearing the news, Charles immediately gathered an elite, but sizable, group of fast riders and galloped through the French countryside during the night to reach Laon by 10:00 in the morning. Charles set up camp and besieged the surprised city, making sure to let the inhabitants inside know that he already had enough men to storm the city if needed.
Seeing an army outside of her city’s gate made Hildegard regret her rash decision to capture Adalgar, especially when some of those besieging soldiers lit torches and moved menacingly toward the town when night fell. Fearing the destruction of her city, Hildegard released Adalgar and promised to peacefully surrender Laon over to Charles, if only he would move his army a safe five miles from the city. With his vassal released, Charles agreed to withdraw to nearby Samoussy. The following day, Hildegard swore fealty to Charles and relinquished the city without a fight. Charles showed mercy to his rogue half-sister, and she continued to live for about a decade after her rebellion.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Charles the Bald welcomes monks from Tours who bring the Vivian Bible which contained this miniature (c. 9th century). Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Scholz and Barbara Rogers. Ann Arbor Paperbacks / University of Michigan Press, 1972.