Royal Charters: Sources for the Study of the Early Capetian Kings


The study of the early Capetian kings, from Hugh Capet to Philip I, is a period of vague understandings, especially when compared to that of the Empire. The study of this period has been greatly furthered by the information contained in the royal diplomas. These charters, however, are very limited, especially when compared to both the number and the details of those from the Empire.

It is important to note that the administrative machinery of the Empire was far more advanced than was that of the Capetians. The early Capetians, with a much smaller demesne to govern, subscribed and issued far less actae than their German contemporaries. The Emperors had a huge territory to administer; hence, they needed to keep clear and plentiful records. When they travelled throughout their lands and held court, they very often issued charters to enforce a decision or to govern their lands.

The Capetian kings, with a smaller demesne, travelled less widely and, in addition, had a smaller area to govern. The early French kings acted more as local lords than their German counterparts. This means that a less elaborate and less detailed chancery was used by the early Capetians. Even so, these charters give valuable information that would otherwise remain unknown.

Information Contained in the Charters:

Charters, firstly, detail the wanderings of the king. This is very important. Monarchies of the Middle Ages were ambulatory governments. Kings ruled in person; to govern, the king would travel from place to place, hold court and issue charters expressing his rule and judgment. Without an itinerant king, royal authority in an area could be quickly forgotten and replaced by another power. Charters give a place and a date for these visits, which enable historians to follow the king in his wanderings.

Secondly, charters identify those who attended the king’s court. Each act, at least until the end of Philip’s reign, was signed by the magnates of the kingdom, usually the archbishops, counts and dukes, and as the circle of royal influence diminished, local lords and castellans. This is important because it identifies those who held influence at any given time. More importantly, especially when dealing with the Capetian monarchy, it demonstrates the ever diminishing influence of the kings.

An Evolving Monarchy: Charters as Evidence:

The early French kings, Hugh and Robert II, held court in a greater area of the kingdom than would Henry I and Philip I. Both Hugh and Robert also held courts that were well attended by the magnates of the kingdom a situation that was however much changed by the time of Philip’s reign. His area of influence had greatly diminished; it was limited to, almost exclusively, the area around Paris. In addition, the nature of Philip’s courts changed, less and less of the greater magnates of the kingdom attended. These were replaced by the lesser nobility of his immediate lands. In short, Philip’s court had devolved to an assembly of local lords and castellans.

Ideology and Charters:

Lastly, royal diplomas help to illustrate the ideas that kings held of their power and their title. The opening clauses of these charters are examples of the king’s view of his power. For example, Philip was king of the Franks by the grace of God, was a general introduction used throughout his charters. Some diplomas would also advance concepts of royalty, usually by quoting biblical sources. Ideas of what were considered great kings were often quoted in these clauses. In addition, forgiveness, justice, even-handedness and charity were the pillars of good kingship. Philip’s charters abound of such depictions.

These clauses enable historians to analyse ideas of kingship, both local and international. Philip reigned during one of the great intellectual conflicts of the medieval period: the Investiture Contest. His charters are an excellent source in understanding his view concerning royal power as opposed to those of the reforming clergy. Moreover, Philip could use his charters as a method of propaganda to further his claims and his authority.

Although the number of early Capetian royal charters is less numerous and less detailed than those produced by the German chancery, they are still a very important tool in understanding the functioning and ideas of the early Capetian monarchy. They are, in fact, the best and most precise sources available.