Hugh Capet, King of France

Hugh (c. 939-996) is the namesake of the Capetian dynasty, the first king. The Capetians reigned in an all-male succession to 1328. Through collateral lines his descendants ruled up to and after the French Revolution. Text of the oath he swore at his coronation is included.

He was anointed on 1 June 987 by archbishop Adelbero of Reims at Noyon.

This post goes beyond b-m-d (born-married-died), but let’s start off with genealogical tables to get the big picture.


Here is Table 1 from Medieval France: An Encyclopedia, for an overview of the Capetians:

Here is Michael Idomir Allen’s Table 8, which he put together for his translation of Pierre Riché’s The Carolingians. This table offers an overview of the House of Vermandois and the Herbertines. Note Robert who married Beatrix. He is Robert I, Hugh’s grandfather:

Here is Allen’s Table 4, which shows Hugh’s descent from the Robertians (or Robertines):

Constance Bouchard’s table of kings, dukes and counts (T1) show that they descend from Charlemagne. Her main point in the entire article at the American Historical Review is to show that new noble families emerged in the Medieval Age, who were not necessarily connected to long family lines.

For us, however, we focus on the Hugh the Great and Hugh Capet:

For a discussion of Robert’s marriage to Beatrix and her ancestry, click on Herbert I, Count of Vermandois, and scroll down to the addendum.

See below for the basics of Hugh’s marriage and children.


It is important to realize that France as we know it today was not even close to being unified in the Medieval Age. It was broken up into a patchwork of duchies and counties, overseen by dukes and counts. They tirelessly competed with each other and the kings of “France.” The Capetians actually ruled over what is called Lesser France. It is the area around Paris and Orleans, including the Ile-de-France or Isle of France. The Ile or Isle of France was not a standard island as we think of it today, but a surrounding land area to Paris. It was the base of the Capetians.


Personal Traits

Born in about 938-40, Hugh was the son of Hugues (Hugh) the Great and his third wife Hedwig, daughter of Heinrich I, King of Germany and sister to Otto I the Great, Holy Roman Emperor. Hugh Capet is traditionally considered the founder of the third dynasty of French kings (Merovingians and Carolingians were the first and second ones before him). He got his name from chapet, a short cloak, or more likely from the word for monastic cape or cloak (chape or cappa), since the Robertines were lay-abbots.

Not much is known of Hugh’s appearance or private life. Various Medieval writers said he was a son or uncle or nephew or grandson of a butcher, and not a very good one. Another historian who lived later called him a squire. In the fourteenth century songs of deeds (chansons de geste) presented him as a poor boy, but who participated in knightly tournaments. He also fathered bastards. But all this is fictional. The genealogical tables show his noble birth.

The Church

The Robertians found it politically expedient or profitable to be pious and to cooperate, if not submit, to the church. And they were sincerely devout, as well, but only devout according to their times. Fighting for peace (i.e. expanding one’s landholding) or persecuting Jews and heretics were allowed, for example. But so were genuine acts of charity, as typically practiced in his times. Hugh gave his cloak to two poor fishermen to keep them warm. Piety produced modesty. One day, as he walked to church at St. Denis, he was shocked to see a couple making love. He threw his fur cape over them and entered the church to pray for their souls (Bradbury p. 70). Further, to express his piety, he went on pilgrimages, for example, to the tomb of St. Maieul at Souvigny. He walked barefoot carrying the reliquary of St. Valery on his shoulders.

In 1050 the story spread that he had a vision of St. Valery, who appeared to him and promised the throne to his heirs but only to the seventh generation. This story became significant when the seventh generation approached. Of course, the number seven is a significant biblical number meaning completeness. If the seventh king’s advisors had realized it, they could have told the opposition and doubters not to take the number literally.

Fighting and deception about church appointments occurred. An issue of church appointments: Adalbero died, and a monk Gerbert sought the archbishopric of Reims, but Hugh did not give it to him, but was persuaded by Gerbert’s rival, Arnulf, the bastard of Charles of Lorraine. Arnulf promised to deliver Laon to Hugh (Charles had taken it in retaliation for not being selected king). Hugh and his son Robert embarked on a campaign to take Laon from Charles. They decided to excommunicate him, and Laon was delivered to them by Bishop Ascelin. Charles and his people were taken prisoner, and in 992 he died in prison, probably poisoned.

Meanwhile Gerbert had run to Rome to complain about his rejection. Hugh and Robert decided to try the case at a national council on 17 and 18 June 991, attended by only a few bishops. They gave the See to Gerbert. This verdict defied the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, who favored Arnulf. Pope John XV summoned the king of France and his son to Rome. They refused to attend. A second assembly at Chelles in 993 confirmed Arnulf’s ejection and Gerbert’s selection. However, in a further twist Ascelin planned to hand over France to Holy Roman Emperor Otto III in exchange for the archbishopric of Reims, but the French bishops supported Hugh Capet, thus ruining Ascelin’s plan. Gerbert simply gave up and went to Rome and was granted the archbishopric or Ravenna, until soon after he was made Pope Sylvester II.

This period saw the Peace of God movement arise. A meeting of the bishops of Aquitaine, overseen by Gombaud archbishop of Bordeaux at Charroux, in 989, issued three decrees: (a) Churches should not be entered by force; (b) soldiers should not steal from peasants or the poor; (c) those who attacked clerics were to be excommunicated. A similar assembly at Narbonne in 990 added a similar point: Nobles should not seize church lands. An assembly at le Puy in 994 offered protection to merchants through oaths sworn over relics.

The Peace of God spread so widely that it sparked the Truce of God movement, which limited war by forbidding it at certain times and on certain days. The king was the main source of enforcing it. He could intervene beyond his demesne (kingdom) to keep order with church approval.

Competition for the Throne

Hugh became Duke of Francia and Aquitaine in 961, five years after the death of his father Hugh le Grand (the Great). He had landholding and influence over Neustria (south of Normandy), which made him more powerful than King Lothar (Lothair) I (r. 954-86). Remember, France at this time was a patchwork of principalities, duchies, and counties. This disunity means that from 980 on, Lothar and Hugh and other dukes and counts will be in conflict.

In the tenth centuries (900s) there was hesitation in accepting a non-Carolingian as king. They did not realize, perhaps, that Robert I (r. 922-23), Hugh’s grandfather, married Beatrix, who was the daughter of Herbert I of Vermandois, a direct descendant of Charlemagne (see Allen’s Genealogical Table 8, above). If they realized this, then they also knew that other candidates had a better claim to the kingship because Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, bequeathed the entire empire to his three sons, while Hugh’s ancestors, nephews of Louis the Pious, who ruled Italy in the ninth century, were subservient. The bottom line is that neither Hugh nor his contemporaries saw him as a Carolingian, but a Robertian.

Nonetheless, with the deaths of Lothar (Lothair) (986) and Louis V (987), Hugh rose to the throne on 1 July 987, by Adalbero archbishop of Reims, at Noyon. He was consecrated in the same place by the same archbishop on 3 July 987, being anointed with the holy oil used for Clovis (a Merovingian). And so Hugh became God’s representative on earth. Since Hugh is considered the first king of the Capetians, this anointing set the precedence for the archbishops to consecrate the kings at Reims. Hugh had his son Robert crowned soon after in Orléans in December 987. So Robert was Rex designatus or king designate. Now succession would be easier and clearer than it would be without the consecration. Later kings designated their sons in this manner.

This is the text of the oath that Hugh swore:

I, Hugh, who am about to become king of the Franks, by divine favor, on this day of my coronation, in the presence of God and the saint, promise to each one of you to preserve for you the canonical privilege, law and justice, which are due to you, to defend you with all my power with God’s help, as it is just for a king to behave in his kingdom towards each bishop and towards the Church which is committed to him. I promise to distribute justice to the people who are in my care, according to their rights. (qtd. in de la Croix)

All his successors repeated this oath up the French Revolution, which began in 1789. The oath establishes the supremacy of the church and requires a definite commitment to it.

The Medieval France: An Encyclopedia says that Hugh was strong as a duke, but weak as the king. He could not assert his authority in the Carolingian aristocratic model since he was not a Carolingian and his base was small. He had to seek legitimacy from the church and his powerful neighbors, like William V of Aquitaine and Richard II of Normandy. They rallied to him, but only in exchange for greater autonomy. Ecclesiastical approval and popular support was a problem for centuries afterwards. In other words, Hugh was not as wealthy and powerful as his successors will become and several of his predecessors were, particularly the great Charlemagne.

Family Facts

Hugh married Adelaide of Poitou in the summer of 968, daughter of William, Count of Poitou, Duke of Aquitaine, by Adele, daughter of Rollo of Normandy. Rollo was the Viking great-great-great grandfather of William the Conqueror.

Hugh and Adelaide had one son:

(1) Robert, soon to be King of France, Robert II

They had two daughters:

(1) Hawise (or Hawidis, Hadwidis or Hathuidis, etc.), who married Regnier IV, Count of Hainault.

(2) Gisela, who married Hugues (Hugh) I, seigneur of Abbeville, etc.

On 24 Oct 996, Hugh died on campaign near Tours, probably from smallpox, and was buried in front of the altar of the Trinity in the basilica of St. Denis. Adele died 15 June 1003-05.


Robert I (r. 922-23) (House of Robertines)

Hugh the Great (r. 938-956)


Hugh Capet (r. 987-996)

Robert II (r. 996-1031)

Henri I (r. 1031-60)

Philip I (r. 1059 or 1060-1108)

Louis VI (r. 1108-1037)

Louis VII  (r. 1137-1180)

Philip II Augustus (r. 1180-1223)

Louis VIII (r. 1223-1226)

Louis IX, the Saintly King (r. 1226-1270)

Philip III (r. 1270-1285)

Philip IV (r. 1285-1314)

Louis X (r. 1314-1316)

Philip V (r. 1316-1322)

Charles IV (r 1322-1328) (last Capetian king)


These two dynasties lived before the Capetians.

Charlemagne: Interesting Facts and Stories

Pippin, Son of Charlemagne

Bernard, King of Italy

Pippin, Great-Grandson of Charlemagne (transition to the House of Vermandois)


Herbert I, Count of Vermandois

Herbert II, Count of Vermandois


Matthias Becher, Charlemagne, trans. David S. Bachrach (New Haven: Yale UP, 1999, 2003).

Constance B. Bouchard, “The Origins of the French Nobility: A Reassessment.” The American Historical Review vol. 86, no. 1, Feb 1981, 501-32.

—, Those of My Blood: Constructing Noble Families in Medieval Francia (U Penn P 2001)

Jim Bradbury, The Capetians: Kings of France (Continuum, 2007).

Ivan Gobry, Robert II: Fils de Hugues Capet, Histoire des Rois de France (Pygmalion, 2005).

Medieval France: An Encyclopedia, eds. William W. Kibler and Grover A. Zinn (New York: Garland, 1995).

Pierre Riché, The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe, trans. Michael Idormir Allen (U Penn P, 1993).

Douglas Richardson, Royal Ancestry: A Study in Colonial and Medieval Families, 5 volumes (Salt Lake: Published Privately, 2013). (It is worth noting that Richardson does not include Bouchard’s very helpful book in his bibliography.)

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