Why Alcuin Joined Charlemagne’s Court

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In 781, Alcuin had a choice. Should he accept an offer from Frankish King Charles (Charlemagne) to teach in the brand new Palace School or should he continue serving as master of the Cathedral School of York as he had for 15 years?

At the time, the Northumbrian was about 46. (His exact birthdate is unknown; the estimate is 735, which is good enough for me.) He had been with the York school since he was a child, placed there by his noble parents. York was a prestigious place, second only to Canterbury. York’s archbishop, Ecgberht, was King Eadberht’s brother.

Alcuin proved to be an apt pupil and said the school taught him “with tenderness of a mother’s love” and “a fatherly chastisement.” He attracted the attention of Ælbert, the master of the school, and Ecgberht.

In the morning, Ecgberht taught Latin literature, Greek, Roman law, astronomy, music, and theology such as the New Testament.  Ælbert’s subjects were rhetoric, grammar, jurisprudence, poetry, astronomy, and the Old Testament. The students attended Mass at midday, followed by dinner and recreation, which included discussions and debates of the morning’s lesson. At vespers, students knelt for blessing.

Alcuin also might have grown up hearing about missionaries such as Willibrord and Wigbert, who tried to convert pagan peoples on the Continent. He likely knew about Boniface and the nuns and priests who followed him across the channel to strengthen Christianity. Alcuin would have been 19 when Boniface was martyred.

All this must have instilled a deep faith and devotion to scholarship in him. Later he would write, “My master Ecgberht used to tell me that the arts were discovered by the wisest of men, and it would be a deep and lasting shame if we allowed them to perish for want of zeal. But many are so faint-hearted as not care about knowing the reason for such things.”

Alcuin at Charlemagne's court

1830 painting by Jean-Victor Schnetz (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

When Alcuin was 20, Ecgberht sent him to the Continent to acquire books to enrich York’s library, an expensive and hazardous mission. Alcuin risked his ship sinking, bandits on the road, being robbed by hosts, and sudden turns in the weather. Books were precious. Made of sheepskin, a large tome could require a whole herd. They were copied by hand, and those beautiful illuminations and ornate covers added to the price.

Yet York had a collection to boast about. It included work by Greeks and Romans (Aristotle, Virgil, Cicero, and Lucan), Church fathers (Jerome, Ambrose, Hilary, Augustine, Leo, and Gregory the Great), historians (Bede and Aldhelm), and grammarians (Donatus, Probus, and Phocas).

We don’t know how long Alcuin’s first errand for the archbishop lasted, but it likely took months. At home, the political situation was unstable. Alcuin thought King Eadberht, the archbishop’s brother, had a prosperous, harmonious, and militarily successful reign. But in 756, when Alcuin was 21, Eadberht suffered a disastrous defeat. Two years later, the king received the tonsure and joined his brother at York. The king’s successor, his son Oswulf, was murdered a year later.

In 766—and two more Northumbrian kings later—Ecgberht died. Ælbert succeeded the archbishop, and Alcuin, newly ordained a deacon, became master of York’s school. Alcuin must have been a good teacher. He attracted students from all over Britain and abroad, including Frisia and Ireland.

Politics remained volatile. In 774, another king seized the crown after his predecessor was deposed and exiled. Four years later, Ælbert resigned his archbishopric to retire, and Alcuin’s friend Eanbald succeeded him.

Alcuin at Charlemagne's court

19th century image (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In 779, yet another king ascended to the Northumbrian throne: Ælfwald, son of the murdered Oswulf and grandson of Eadberht. Although Alcuin admired Eadberht, he didn’t think much of the current king: “From the days of King Ælfwald fornications, adulteries, and incest have flooded the land, so that these sins have been committed without any shame and even with the handmaids of God.” (Ælfwald reign ended with his murder in 788.)

Ælbert died in 780. Soon after, Eanbald sent Alcuin to Rome to fetch a pallium (a woolen band with pendants that symbolize authority). Alcuin was on his way home when he met the king of the Franks. What was running through Alcuin’s mind when Charles asked him to come to the Frankish court?

Here is my speculation. He might have craved stability on the political front. In the past 10 years, Northumbria had three kings, and the current one was leading his realm into immorality. Charles had ruled the Franks alone since 771. Twice divorced, the king of the Franks had his own shortcomings, but he was a steadfast husband to his current wife. More important, he was an ally of the pope and providing missionaries like Alcuin’s friend Willehad with the military support for they needed to bring Christianity to pagans. In the Frankish court, Alcuin could interact with scholars from Italy, Francia, Ireland, and Hispania. He would still teach. His students would be the royal family and their close friends.

The prospect of leaving York might have been nerve-wracking, yet the opportunity to do something different might have excited him. Alcuin returned to York to get his superior’s permission to join the Palace School in Francia. With that choice, he would help build the intellectual foundation for Charles’ empire.

Sources

Alcuin: His Life and His Work, by C.J.B. Gaskoin

Alcuin, by E.M. Wilmot-Buxton

Alcuin” by James Burns, The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 16 Jun. 2018 [].

The Oxford Companion to British History (2 ed.), edited by Robert Crowcroft and John Cannon

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

This post was originally published on English Historical Fiction Authors.

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A Tough Choice for Boniface

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It’s a bit of a cliché, but as I compared Archbishop Boniface in 741 and his mentor, Bishop Willibrord, in 714, I thought history was repeating itself.

Frankish Mayor of the Palace Pepin died in 714, and his surviving relatives (plus a couple of other people for good measure) fought for power. Willibrord had to choose a side, and he made the right one with Pepin son’s Charles Martel (Charles the Hammer).

Fast-forward to 741. Another mayor of the palace, Charles Martel, died, and the three sons born within wedlock were fighting over who should rule Francia. Whom should Boniface side with?

Karlomann, the eldest and most groomed for power, who is allied with his full brother, Pippin? Or the half-brother Grifo, the teenage son of Charles’s influential second wife, Swanahild?

See my post about Boniface’s choice on English Historical Fiction Authors for more.

Saint Boniface

Illustration by By Cornelis Bloemaert (1603-1684), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Portable Reliquaries: Bringing the Medieval Pilgrimage Home

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In 757, if we are to believe the Royal Frankish Annals, Tassilo, the teenage duke of Bavaria, visited Frankish King Pepin and swore his fealty to the monarch and his sons on the relics of five saints. He touched the bodies of Dionysius, Rusticus, Eleutherius, Germanus, and Martin.

Scholars have said the Frankish annalist might have exaggerated the nature of the visit, as medieval writers were wont to do to please their bosses, in this case Pepin’s son Charles (Charlemagne). In reality, the visit might have been one of friendship rather than submission. Besides, that’s an awful lot of saints to bring to this occasion, considering the need for security and holy men. But for storyteller purposes, to have Tassilo swear on all those saints would have made his alleged disloyalty decades later all the more horrendous and justify Charles deposing his cousin.

Imagining massive processions and huge reliquaries carried by carts or multiple men, I was inclined to believe that part about the saints not really being present at the meeting. Then I encountered portable reliquaries in my research for Queen of the Darkest Hour. Perhaps, it was possible to bring a token from all those saints—not whole skeletons but tiny items connected to the divine and imbued with miraculous power.

Portable reliquaries were common throughout the West in the early Middle Ages, when travel was expensive and dangerous. Although every Christian aspired to go to Rome at least once, many could not afford the trip. The pilgrims who made the journey likely wanted to make the most of it, and a portable reliquary allowed them to do so. About five inches tall, the reliquaries were easy for one person to carry. With them, a pilgrim could bring a physical part of their faith home and interact with it. They would remain in the presence of the saint throughout their life, and they could bequeath this precious gift to their children.

Portable Reliquaries

From the treasury of the Basilica of Saint Servatius, Maastricht, Netherlands

This might be a good time to define just what a relic is. It was a physical thing connected to Jesus or one of the saints. It could be a pebble from a holy tomb, some dust from the tomb’s base, a vial of oil from a lamp burned over the tomb, a bone chip, a hair, a splinter of the true cross, a shred of clothing, or twigs from trees where the shepherds watched their flocks by night. It need not be large.

And it could look quite ordinary. The pilgrim had no objective way of knowing if the twigs were really from a saint’s favorite tree or a nearby woodpile, and some sellers of relics were less than scrupulous. The pilgrim was better off collecting a relic on site rather than buying one. Whatever the form, the objects made events in Christian history real.

To transport the relics, medieval pilgrims could carry a block of wood carved into the shape of a purse and hollowed out. As they traveled, they could collect relics of the saints they visited. The relic was wrapped in a bit of linen or silk, perhaps cut from discarded church hanging or liturgical vestments. Sometimes the cloth was stitched to secure the relics and labeled with a scrap of papyrus.

Once filled, the purse was sealed with a plug or sliding panel. To make this carved wood fitting for saintly objects, the purse was covered with a gilded metal, then stamped or decorated with gemstones or ivory. After chains were attached, the portable reliquary could be hung from a church beam or in a chapel, put on a bedpost, worn around the neck, or carried in a procession.

Portable Reliquary

From the church treasury of Saint Catherine’s Church, Maaseik, Belgium

If the reliquary belonged to a church, a holy man could use it to raise revenue, heal the sick with its miraculous powers, bring warring factions to the peace table, or seek intercession during a famine or other natural disaster.

In a palace, the reliquary gave the king an aura of holiness, and it was handy when it came time for a vassal to swear an oath. It was one thing to offend a human lord, but quite another to anger a saint.

Whether Tassilo made a vow (assuming he did) while touching the actual saints’ bones or a portable reliquary with tiny objects, the promise was just as sacred.

Photos by Kleon3, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sources

“Portable Christianity: Relics in the Medieval West (c. 700-1200)” by Julia M.H. Smith

Carolingian Chronicles, which includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers

Originally published Aug. 28, 2018, on English Historical Fiction Authors.

Beyond Baby-Making: The Role of Carolingian Queens

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Although seldom mentioned in annals, queens in Carolingian era (eighth and ninth century Francia) had a much more important role than a casual 21st century observer might think.

If the king did not already have heirs, the queen’s primary role was to produce healthy sons to inherit the realm, and some kings tried to divorce wives unable to bear children. My main characters’ inability to conceive becomes a point of contention in my first novel, The Cross and the Dragon. Paradoxically, in my third book, Queen of the Darkest Hour, the king does not want too many sons born in wedlock because each one of them expects kingdom when his father dies.

Yet a queen’s responsibilities went beyond baby-making, and if the question of heirs was already settled, she could have tremendous influence.

Bertha Broadfoot, 1848, by Eugène Oudiné

Bertha Broadfoot, 1848, by Eugène Oudiné at Luxembourg Garden, Paris (copyrighted photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons).

The ninth-century treatise The Government of the Palace says the queen’s role is “to release the king from all domestic and palace cares, leaving him free to turn his mind to the state of his realm.”

This does not mean the queen is relegated to the role of housewife. In the Middle Ages, the personal and political were intertwined. The queen was the guardian of the treasury, and she controlled access to her husband. Alcuin, an influential scholar, wrote to the queen to find out where Charlemagne was spending the winter.

When houseguests were foreign dignitaries, royal hospitality was key to international relations. Hospitality was more than just showing good manners. Frankish royalty would want their guests to report to their own rulers that the palace was beautiful and sturdy, the baths were hot, the table was laden, the host well dressed, and the guards and servants well cared for. All signs of power, important to project even to one’s own allies whose support could shift.

Of course, this time period was hardly ideal for women. Girls as young as 12 or 13 were considered marriageable, and their families chose their husbands. Among aristocrats, marriage was most often for political reasons. Canon law gave women the right to consent to a marriage at age 15 or 16, but that could be beaten or starved out of them.

However, the reason for this post is that too often women are portrayed only as victims and not as full human beings who could influence events around them and contribute to their societies. Carolingian queens certainly did both.

Sources

Women at the Court of Charlemagne, Janet Nelson

Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, Pierre Riche (translated by Jo Ann McNamara)

Rebuilding Paderborn: Charlemagne’s Political Statement

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For Frankish King Charles (Charlemagne), building a palace at the Saxon settlement of Paderborn was a way to physically impose his will—a tangible symbol of his might. To make that symbol even more tangible, he held an assembly there in 777.

Perhaps that is why Paderborn made an attractive target. The Saxon peoples and Franks had a long history of fighting each other. Although the Saxons didn’t write down their side of the conflict, they likely saw Charles as an oppressor. In 778, with Charles occupied in Hispania (Spain), Saxons rose up against the Frankish king and burned down the palace. Charles rebuilt it and held another assembly there in 785. The Saxons again destroyed the palace in 794. Charles rebuilt it again.

Paderborn

Photo of 21st century Paderborn by Andreas Nowak (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Each time, it was an expensive endeavor for the materials, including imports befitting a palace, and craftsmen’s labor. The complex featured two large buildings: an audience hall and a church. About 34 feet wide and more than 100 feet long, the audience hall was a blend of Germanic and Roman architecture. It was made of mortared rubble and plastered and painted on the inside. And the church, when rebuilt in the 790s, was enlarged and include an outdoor platform for a throne.

Why make this investment—twice—in such hostile territory? Charles was proving was the ruler, and attempts to destroy his power were futile.

With that in mind, below is how I chose to portray how Fastrada, my heroine in Queen of the Darkest Hour, sees Paderborn as she arrives for the 785 assembly in Paderborn during the continuing wars with the Saxons.

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Inside the bulwarks, her jaw dropped. The palace and church sat atop an incline, and their towers peeked from the walls surrounding them. But she was equally amazed by houses and huts in front of her.

“It looks like a Frankish city!” she said.

Charles grinned. “We were not going to let Widukind’s little fire defeat us.”

Fastrada reached for Charles’s hand. It had been seven years ago, when she had seen twelve winters, but she had not forgotten her father’s grim face when he recounted how Widukind’s Saxons had destroyed Paderborn while the Franks were doing God’s work in Hispania. Now that the city was rebuilt, what better way to show Charles’s power than to hold the assembly here?

Only the peasants who emerged from their homes were different. The men wore knee-length tunics and sheepskin cloaks similar to the Frankish style, but they had long hair and beards. The women favored sleeveless dresses held with brooches and covered their hair with voluminous veils. The expressions on their faces were mixed. Some people seemed curious; others were glowering.

The travelers rode toward the city’s center, passed through another gate, and entered a courtyard. Among the smaller structures and livestock pens stood the manor, a large, rectangular two-story stone building with square windows. The stone church about the same size was a few paces away. Fastrada straightened her shoulders. She was mistress of the palace and of these lands.

Inside the manor, the great hall would inspire awe in its guests. Bordered with delicate carvings near the ceiling, the plastered walls were painted with murals of saints and a Latin inscription in red letters. The columns were topped with thin pieces of marble forming geometric designs. Lamps overhead and a huge hearth would give the vast room its light after the sun set. Now, the windows were open for the summer air, and the hall was sweetened with the smell of fresh rushes on the floor. Opposite the entrance, Charles’s throne, made even higher with five steps, sat on a dais, and Fastrada’s ornately carved chair was beside it.

“This is what we need at Aachen and Ingelheim,” Charles whispered.

Nonfiction Sources

The Origins of Medieval Architecture: Building in Europe, A.D. 600-900, by Charles B. McClendon

Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers

No One Would Believe an Oath Stops Murderers

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The ninth century monk Notker the Stammerer has an interesting take on the discovery of the plot to overthrow Charlemagne in 794:

This son of Charles had been plotting the death of the emperor with a gathering of nobles, in the church of Saint Peter; and when their debate was over, fearful of every shadow, he ordered search to be made, to see whether anyone was hidden in the corners or under the altar. And behold they found, as they feared, a clerk hidden under the altar. They seized him and made him swear that he would not reveal their conspiracy. To save his life, he dared not refuse to take the oath which they dictated: but, when they were gone, he held his wicked oath of small account and at once hurried to the palace. (From The Monk of Saint Gall: The Life of Charlemagne, Internet Medieval Sourcebook, Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies)

So, let me get this straight, a group of men bent on treason and murder would release someone who overheard their plot merely because he promised not to tell? While a medieval audience might believe the conspirators would not wish to desecrate the church (and anger God) by spilling blood within it, I think even they would have a hard time believing the would-be killers would simply walk away from the clerk under those circumstances.

Medieval people believed oaths, especially those sworn on a saint’s relic, were sacred, and breaking them could bring divine retribution. But they had seen people break those oaths and shift loyalties. Even the conspirators would know oaths made under duress were invalid.

This is another reason Notker strikes me as the kind of guy who doesn’t let the facts get in the way of his story.

In the real history, Fardulf, a Lombard deacon and scholar, revealed the plot against Charles by his eldest son. Exactly how he discovered that plot is a mystery in the reliable sources, so I borrowed a tiny bit from Notker’s account for a scene in Queen of the Darkest Hour. Just enough to be believable.

Notker

Notker depicted in an 11th century manuscript (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s Not Me; It’s My Characters: Disabilities

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One of the toughest things for me as a 21st century novelist is when my medieval heroine believes something I find repugnant.

In Queen of the Darkest Hour, it was unavoidable. If we are to believe Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard, the monarch’s eldest son, Pepin, was hunchbacked. Medieval folk believed their rulers must be physically perfect, and a deformity or disability was a curse from God, angry about a parent’s sin. One early medieval mother wanted to sell her misshapen child into slavery to forget her sin of conceiving the baby on a Sunday.

If my villains were the only people to hold such prejudices, writing would be so much easier. Heck, I want readers to have someone to route against as much as I need a character for them to cheer on.

But my heroine, Queen Fastrada, is a medieval woman. Among the tidbits we know about the real woman, she was pious. The 787 entry in the Royal Frankish Annals has her and Charles praising God for His mercy when they are reunited in Worms after his journey to Italy. A 791 letter from Charles to her asks her to ensure that three days of litanies are carried out at home as they were in a settlement at the River Enns. The Franks literally want God on their side as they are about to go to war with the Avars.

In my novel, I took liberties with the truth; this is a work of fiction after all. But Fastrada was a real person, and I feel a responsibility to stick to what’s known about her where I can. So this medieval heroine has the biases and beliefs that come with her time. She perceives Pepin’s condition as a divine sign.

Pepin himself is a product of those times too. In my version of events—we don’t have anything to reveal the real Pepin’s thoughts—he believes his deformity is God’s retribution for a parent’s sin and resents it. And that anger drives him to plot against the person he holds responsible.

Hunchback of Notre Dame

MGM studio publicity still from the 1923 film Hunchback of Notre Dame (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Was Pepin the Hunchback Really Hunchbacked?

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In Queen of the Darkest Hour, I needed to make a choice: should Charlemagne’s eldest son, Pepin, have a deformed spine?

Pepin has been called Pepin the Hunchbacked through history—I did not make that up. We can credit (or blame) the monarch’s posthumous biographer Einhard, who described Pepin that way. He and Notker—a guy who embellished stories and made stuff up decades after the emperor’s death—are the only contemporary sources to do so.

Medieval writers did not stick only to known facts. Einhard already called Pepin’s mother a concubine rather than a wife. (Readers of this blog will remember why I think Himiltrude was indeed married to Charles.) Could Pepin’s physical imperfection be an invention to further delegitimize him? Such an imperfection would be a sign of God’s displeasure and make Pepin, who later rebelled against his father, unfit to rule.

Unless Pepin’s skeleton is found somewhere, the answer remains a mystery. As a novelist, I had to do what I always do: decide what works best for my story. Sort of. Pepin had stooped shoulders in my first two books, long before I knew I would make him a major character. In my version of events, he was stuck with the affliction.

His having a deformed spine worked to my advantage, after all. If the real Pepin was misshapen, we don’t know what he thought or felt. That is where the novelist steps in. It is possible he, like most medieval people, believed that his condition was God’s curse for a parent’s sin. And that provides the necessary resentment for him to plot against his father.

Construction of Aachen Palace

That guy on the ladder is supposed to be Pepin (15th century manuscript by Jean Fouquet, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Princess and Emperor’s Breakup

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One untrue tidbit from research for Queen of the Darkest Hour: Frankish Queen Fastrada was so envious that her stepdaughter would become Byzantine empress she thwarted the girl’s marriage plans in 788.

The betrothal between Charlemagne’s eldest daughter, Hruodtrude, and Emperor Constantine was indeed thwarted, but there is no evidence that Fastrada was behind it, let alone motivated by envy. The reason for the breakup is the same as the betrothal: politics.

Let’s go back seven years to 781, when Hruodtrude was 6 and Constantine was 11, with his widowed mother, Irene, serving as regent. The couple’s parents agreed their children should wed—traditional marriage for medieval royals. The hope was to secure an alliance between the two most powerful realms in Christendom.

Coin with Constantine and Irene

Constantine and his mom, Irene (photo by PHGCOM, CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons)

For the time being, Hruodtrude would stay in her parents’ household. Irene sent a tutor to Charles’s court to teach the girl Greek and familiarize her with Byzantine customs. Perhaps the agreement was that Hruodtrude would move to Constantinople when she was a marriageable age, about 12 or 13.

All was not well at the time of the betrothal. In her court, Irene harbored one of Charles’s enemies: his ex-brother-in-law Adalgis. The son of the Lombard king Charles had deposed, Adalgis had escaped to Constantinople during Frankish-Lombard war in 773-74.

When Constantine turned 16, Irene did not give up her power. And then there was Irene’s habit of calling councils His Holiness did not approve. A believer in the power of prayer to win wars, Charles would not want to risk offending God.

The situation worsened in 788, when Adalgis tried to claim the Lombard throne, impossible without Irene sheltering him. Shortly after the Franks defeated him, the betrothal between Hruodtrude and Constantine was broken.

Both Charles and Irene take credit for the breakup. Constantine was upset to lose the Frankish princess, according to both Frankish and Byzantine sources. History is silent on Hruodtrude’s sentiments.

Himiltrude: Charlemagne’s First Ex-Wife

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Who was Himiltrude?

Was she Charlemagne’s first wife, whom he divorced to marry a Lombard princess? Or was the mother of Charles’s eldest son, Pepin, merely a concubine?

Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard calls her a concubine, and some scholars agree with him. But as you can see from the title of this post, I think she was a wife. Here is what Pope Stephen said in an angry letter to both Charles and his younger brother, Carloman, fearing one of the Frankish kings would wed the daughter of his political enemy, the king of the Lombards: “Moreover, most gentle and most gracious God-instituted kings, you are already, by His will and decision and by your father’s order, joined in lawful marriage, having accepted as most illustrious and noble kings wives of great beauty from the same land as yourselves.” (Charlemagne: Translated Sources by P.D. King.)

No one disputes Carloman was married. When he died in 771, his widow, Gerberga, fought for their sons’ rights. While Stephen’s successor, Hadrian, refused to anoint Carloman’s son, he didn’t argue they were bastards. He would have had an easier time if he could.

It makes no sense that Charles and Carloman’s father, Pepin, would arrange for only his younger son’s marriage when he planned to split the kingdom between his heirs, following Frankish tradition. A matter of political alliances, marriage was much too important to be left to young men. When Pepin died in 768, Charles was 20, and Carloman was 17.

Empress

Might Himiltrude have seen herself as an empress? (From Costume of All Nations, 1882)

Little is known about Himiltrude other than she was a Frankish noblewoman and Pepin’s mother. Her skeleton might have been found at the double monastery of Nivelles, which was connected to the royal family.

We don’t who was abbess at Nivelles at the time, so this allows a novelist some creative speculation. Might appointing Himiltrude to rule an abbey, and control its property and other assets, have been something of a divorce settlement to keep peace with her family?

Still, medieval women often did not go away quietly. Gerberga crossed the Alps and sought help from the ruthless Lombard king, the father of Charles’s second ex-wife.

As for Himiltrude, it is possible she bided her time and waited to see if Charles would treat her son right.

Might she have become bitter as she watched another woman’s sons be named heirs to the kingdom? Might she have plotted against her ex-husband to place her own son on the throne and become queen mother, the most powerful woman in Francia? At least one scholar has speculated as much, based on the little evidence that is available, and for me, that was good enough to incorporate into Queen of the Darkest Hour.