After Soissons: The Last Years of Charles the Simple (923-929)
By Fraser McNair
Reti Medievali Rivista, Volume 18, Number 2, 2017
Introduction: In Autumn 923, desperate for allies, King Charles the Simple went for a private meeting with Count Heribert II of Vermandois, looking to gain his support. Instead, Heribert seized and imprisoned him. The key moment for the end of Charles’ reign was the battle of Soissons, fought on the 15th June 923. Charles, who had provoked the battle, sustained a strategic defeat, and was abandoned by most of his army. The West Frankish rebels gave their loyalty to Ralph, ruler of Burgundy, who would stay on the throne until 936. Charles remained a prisoner for the rest of his life. This fact is often taken for granted by historians; yet on reflection it must rank as amongst the most remarkable aspects of a remarkable reign.
Attempts to depose Carolingian monarchs, although by no means universally unsuccessful, were usually difficult and always risky. Charles’ great-grandfather, Louis the Pious, had been overthrown and imprisoned by his sons, but had returned to power within a few years. Charles’ cousin, Pippin II of Aquitaine, was deprived of power by Charles the Bald several times, but was able to mount frequent comebacks. Charles’ son, Louis d’Outremer, was captured by Vikings and thrown into prison; but eventually he too was released and restored to power.
Imprisonment did not necessarily neuter kings politically, and for an imprisoned king to stay imprisoned was rare. Removing a king from power permanently required the political will and finesse to not only orchestrate such a profound re-alignment of the political scene, but to ensure that the change stuck. This was no small task, and – evidently – few could successfully pull it off. The end of Charles’ reign, in this light, is noteworthy (although perhaps unfortunately so for him) because he could not mount a comeback. Even here, though, the process of his removal was drawn out over several years and remained at the focal point of West Frankish politics.
Despite this potential interest as a case study, historians have not tended to pay Charles’ later years any particular attention. In his extremely useful account of the early and mid-920s, for instance, Büttner makes no mention of Charles’ political role after his imprisonment. Even the most recent and in-depth study on Charles’ reign, by Geoffrey Koziol, goes as far as Charles’ imprisonment and no further. This is largely because Koziol’s focus is on Charles’ diplomas and Charles issued none after 923; nonetheless, it leaves an important historiographical gap.