Heroes of the Middle Ages  by Eva March Tappan

Hugh Capet

I t has already been said that Charlemagne was a German. He, of course, spoke German, but even in his day the people in the western part of his kingdom, in what is now the land of France, used a language that was beginning to approach somewhat to what is now known as French. This change had begun long before, in the days when the country fell into the hands of the Romans, who introduced their own language, the Latin.


An Ancient Castle at Clisson, France

Now if a new language were introduced into any country to-day, few people would speak it correctly, and it was so in France. The people mixed the new tongue with their own. For instance, when a Roman wished to say of or to he usually added a letter or two to the noun following. The people of France used the prepositions de or à, and did not trouble themselves to change the noun. Other words or expressions were made simpler or altered in much the same way, and before the end of the tenth century, the people of France were speaking a language that was composed of a little Celtic, a little German, and a great deal of Latin; but the Latin had become quite different from that used in Rome. This mixture was rapidly turning into French as it is spoken to-day.

The French people, then, differed in language from the Germans, and many of the nobles were feeling more and more strongly that they did not wish to be ruled by a German, but by one of themselves, who would talk French and feel and think like a Frenchman, one who would be satisfied with ruling France and would not be ever thinking of forming an empire and becoming emperor.


A Celebrated Feudal Castle in Touraine, France

In 987, there was an excellent opportunity to put a new family upon the throne, for the last of Charlemagne's direct descendants, Louis the Child, had just died. The great barons met together to choose a ruler. They decided upon Duke Hugh Capet, and he became king. He had little more power, however, than some of his counts and dukes; and it may be that he sometimes wished he was still a duke, for some of the nobles refused to accept him as their ruler. There is a story that one of his vassals, that is, one who held land from him by feudal tenure, overran the district of Touraine, and forthwith began to call himself Count of Tours and Poitiers. "Who made you count?" demanded Hugh; and the independent vassal retorted, "Who made you king?" Indeed, if the brave men of Normandy had not stood by him, Hugh would have had a hard struggle to keep his throne. He meant not only to keep it, but to hand it down in his family, and only a few months after his election he asked his nobles to elect his son Robert king also. Then, while he lived, he reasoned shrewdly, Robert would help him govern the kingdom, and at his death there would be no question as to who should rule, and no division of the kingdom. At first the nobles hesitated a little. "We cannot elect two kings in one year," they gave as an excuse; but at length they yielded, and Robert was crowned.

This was the beginning of the rule of the powerful Capetian family which was to hold the throne of France for more than three centuries. Gaul, or France, had been ruled for many years by Romans and by Germans, but Hugh Capet was a Frenchman, ruling French people, the first king of France.