top of page

Abbot Suger and the Conception of Capetian Kingship in the 12th Century

The narrative of the twelfth century is one defined by kingship, religion, and violence. The crusades in the East, combined with a crisis of violence in continental Europe, redefined the conditions in which an individual could attain power. This century thus witnessed a contemporary intellectual current focusing on the nature and concept of kingship. One such scholar who dominated this field was Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis. During his lifetime (c.1081 to c.1151) he witnessed the reigns of three successive Frankish kings; he rose to become abbot of a highly acclaimed monastic community; and unlike his contemporaries, had an active role in kingship and secular politics as regent of Francia, c.1147–1149. Suger was a remarkable scholar, historian, and statesmen whose texts have brought historians a wealth of insight on an individual’s perspective of kingship. The primary thesis of this essay is that whilst Suger’s concept of kingship is traditional and defines the role as being a protector and administrator with special religious attributes, he is also a keen historian who places more emphasis upon Carolingian and crusading legend than the divine right witnessed by ecclesiastic contemporaries such as Guibert of Nogent. Venturing beneath the superficial analysis of Suger’s texts will demonstrate distinct contradictions and inconsistencies regarding hierarchy and feudal structure. These inconsistencies lead to this essay’s secondary thesis: Behind Suger’s concept of kingship is an ulterior motive to expand, strengthen, and maintain the power of Saint-Denis through the ruling king. Evidence of Suger’s influence on Louis VII seal, the emphasis of Louis VI as a vassal of Saint-Denis, and the creation of false charters among other examples, corroborate this thesis which aligns with the historiography of James Naus.

When Suger wrote The Deeds of Louis the Fat, The Illustrious King Louis son of Louis, and The Book of Accomplishments during his Administration, he had acquired over six decades of wisdom and judgements which he sought to present through his writing. As such, it is difficult to justly encapsulate everything within Suger’s lifetime into this essay. Limited word count has meant that the Deeds will be the major focus of this essay as this is regarded as Suger’s most influential text on concepts of kingship. As such, The Illustrious King Louis son of Louis, and The Book of Accomplishments during his Administration are used as supporting evidence. The Vita Ludovici regis outlines with clarity the traditional image of kingship Suger sought to present, specifically through three overarching themes: (1) Administrator of the kingdom; (2) A protector of the poor and churches; and (3) A figure with virtuous attributes and religious association. Superficially, these themes complement a traditional royalist perspective of kingship, yet within each theme, there are complexities, inconsistencies, and distinctive perspectives.

The King as an Administrator

In the prologue of the Deeds, Suger writes to Lord Josselin regarding Louis VI’s “wonderful valor in administering the affairs of the kingdom.”1 Suger conceived that as an administrator of the kingdom, the king was responsible for the defence of the nation against foreign and domestic enemies. Domestic threats during Louis’s reign are a particular point of interest as it provides an insight into Suger’s perspective of the twelfth-century feudal structures, as well as the relationship between the king and those within the hierarchy. Jean-François Lemarignier has outlined a theory that, presented within the Deeds, Suger perceives royal suzerainty at the pinnacle of feudal ties.2 The concept of suzerainty is best exemplified through the example of the Auvergne campaign. In the first campaign against Count William VI in c.1122, Count Fulk of Anjou, Count Conan of Brittany, the count of Nevers, and many other magnates owed their feudatory and allegiance to Louis VI.3 Equally, during the second expedition in c.1126, Louis’s suzerainty is demonstrated by his host which consisted of the “Count Charles of Flanders, Count Fulk of Anjou, the count of Brittany, a host from Normandy that owed tribute to the English King Henry, some barons, and enough of the magnates of the kingdom to have conquered even Spain.”4 In this passage, Suger regards Louis as the highest feudal lord in France to which barons, counts, and magnates owe their direct feudatory and allegiance. The intervention of the duke of Aquitaine, however, shows the complexities and paradoxes of this perceived suzerainty. After seeking peace, the Duke William of Aquitaine met with Louis, and Suger details that the duke said, “For even as justice demands the service of a vassal, so it also demands a just lordship. The count holds the Auvergne from me, which I in turn hold from you.”5 Notably, Suger details that the duke “addressed him as his lord”,6 once again highlighting Louis’s supreme suzerainty. In this campaign, Louis is extending his jurisdiction over a sub-vassal who does not have direct feudatory from him. As Louis holds suzerainty over the duke and his lands, by extension this means he holds suzerainty over the sub-vassal. This prompts the notion that land-based fief is regarded as more important than personal relationship. To Suger, as Louis is the king of Francia and all the kingdom’s land, his land fief prompted an authority and obligation which personal ties could not, thus why he intervened against a sub-vassal whom he had no diplomatic and personal connection with.

This passage and campaign demonstrates the confusing and paradoxical feudal system of the twelfth century as the lines which defined the hierarchy, and the nature of feudal relationships was becoming blurred. Suzerainty and feudal relationships became a primary tool for Louis and his government, and Suger thus understood feudalism through the notion of Mouvance.7 In the Deeds, Suger denotes the term feodum to the select principalities and vassals whom Louis had overlordship of. In c.1109, Suger writes to the envoys of Henry I of England that “Your efforts have gained for you the duchy of Normandy by the noble leave of the lord king of the French. […] the duchy was given in vassalage as fief by that same munificent right hand.”8 Further, he held that “Louis, king of the French, conducted himself toward Henry, king of the English and duke of the Normans, as toward a vassal, for he always kept in mind the lofty rank by which he towered over him.”9 According to Suger, royal policy focused on strengthening ties between the king and his great vassals, even though according to the Auvergne campaign, Suger also perceives physical land-based fiefs as being stronger than personal ties. Louis’s ability to administer justice, however, was strengthened by the aid of bishops and vassals, as exemplified in the campaigns against Henry I of England (c.1109-1118) and Emperor Henry V (c.1124). The twelfth century, however, saw a shift in power which placed great vassals almost equally among the king, resulting in a relationship and service that was mutual rather than owed.10 Suger subscribed to this concept as shown through his interactions with Count Theobald in c.1137. Theobald’s brother, Stephen, had ascended to the English throne and as count, Theobald held Auxerre, Maligny, Ervy, Troyes, and Châteauvillain as fiefs from Duke Odo II of Burgundy which placed him as a strategic asset.11

Suger, in an attempt to admit Theobald to the king’s entourage, continuously referred to him as Palatine, and writes “For it was our intention to bind that man to the lord king by an oath of fidelity since he excelled all in the kingdom in his faith and oath and legitimacy of his decrees”.12 This scenario demonstrates that Suger saw personal relationship as a strong approach to feudal relationship, even though this contradicts the previous example of land-based fief at Auvergne.

Jean Dunbabin complicates this further by adding that many feudal arrangements were simply documentary record with clear frameworks that could be enforced in the lord’s court.13 As such, what do these conflicting concepts on the nature of feudalism mean for Suger’s perception of kingship? A possible theory is understanding that within the pyramid of feudalism, fief was the base, the king was the summit, and what connected the dots in between was personal relationship. This results in the concept Suger presents; that a king ruled over his people because he ruled over the land. However, this alone seems far too superficial, and as stated by Andrew Lewis, Suger defined the officium regis.14 These contradictions, I believe, show that structures of feudalism were fluid and Suger was able to influence and wield these concepts to the scenario presented. In simple terms, Suger himself defined what feudalism meant in a situation which is why his concepts contradict over time. In the example of Theobald, Suger saw personal relationship as the effective feudal tool to secure strategic alliances, whilst at Auvergne, the land-based fief was able to create a chain of authority that personal relationships could not. What is certain, however, is that although the nature of feudalism was fluid, Suger placed Louis at the summit of this hierarchical pyramid.

The King as a Protector

Suger also defines kingship as “namely safeguarding the churches, protecting the poor and the needy, and working for the peace and defence of the kingdom.”15 Suger reiterates this throughout his life as he writes in The illustrious King Louis, son of Louis that Louis VII “attacked the count of Clermont and his allies” because he was told “about the savage attacks on churches” and thus “encouraged him to avenge the poor and the imprisoned”.16 This concept is a notion of kingship that Suger shares with his contemporaries. Written in The Murder of Charles the Good, Galbert of Bruges provides a close copy of Suger’s statement when he writes about the Count Charles of Flanders: “he had presided over the kingdom for seven years like a father and protector of churches of God, generous towards to poor.”17 Ivo of Chartres, however, differs in his approach as “Time and time again he pointed out the necessity of harmony between kingship and priesthood”18 which suggests a mutual relationship between the king and the church. Suger’s approach contrasts Ivo as rather than a mutual relationship, Suger believes it is the role of a king to protect his church, people, and kingdom. This is particularly interesting as within The Ecclesiastical History [Book XI], Orderic Vitalis states that after his coronation, Louis VI asked “for help from the bishops all over the kingdom to put an end to the oppressions”,19 which corroborates Ivo’s concept that the relationship between the king and church is mutually based, rather than what Suger describes as the king appearing as a vassal of the church.

This is one of the great contradictions of Suger as on one hand Suger upholds the Mouvance concept that “The king holds from no one” as he is the summit of Suger’s political and feudal hierarchy, yet Suger also upholds that the king must be “safeguarding the churches” and thus does not hesitate to present Louis VI as a vassal of Saint-Denis. In the dispute between Adam of Saint-Denis and Burchard of Montmorency, “news of the conflict, when it reached him, bothered the lord Louis and made him angry” resulting in Louis as king-designate waging war on Burchard on behalf of Saint-Denis. Furthermore, when Louis assembles his host against the threat of Emperor Henry V, Suger writes that “He then took from the altar the standard belonging to the county of Vexin, which he held as a fief from the church”. Thus, in the same way Louis’s vassals hold land as a physical fief from him, he held this standard as a fief from Saint-Denis. In Suger’s mind therefore, this responsibility of the king to protect the church was to be exercised on the behalf of his abbey. This clearly contradicts the Suger’s Mouvance concept that “The king holds from no one” as he is presented as being a vassal of Saint-Denis and the church. This exception, however, extends further than just the church as Louis is also presented as a subject of his land, vassals, and people, according to Suger. He writes about Louis before he was crowned, stating: “A hundred complaints against this forceful and criminal man (Count Ebles of Roucy) had been tearfully lodged with the lord king, but the son heard only two or three before he angrily assembled a medium sized host.” Whilst there is an argument that this is an example of Louis’s virtue being greater than his fathers, thus making him a greater king, it also demonstrates that Louis is subject to the people. Lastly, in the dispute between Count Matthew of Beaumont and Hugh of Clermont, Hugh immediately went to the king-designate and “defender of the kingdom” Louis to ask for his help against Count Matthew. Louis “extended his hand in alliance, promised to give aid, and sent away the man who hope had made joyful; and this hope did not disappoint him.” Once again, this blurs the lines of feudal hierarchy as the king is subject to his vassals, church, people, and kingdom and thus this creates a paradox within feudalism, prompting questions about who is truly subject to whom.

The reason for why Suger’s perspectives differ from his contemporaries is a complexing one. Suger may have placed more emphasis on the oaths of Louis coronation than contemporaries as he is developing a concept of national kingship. At his coronation, Louis swore an oath to preserve the rights of, and defend churches. Later in the ceremony a further oath was sworn as Louis accepted the sceptre in which he declared rectitude regis – a protection of the people in general.20 Suger’s emphasis on the “poor” can thus be attributed to the Peace Movement.21

Such oaths may suggest why contemporaries share similar perceptions as medieval intellects drew upon, and were influenced by such ceremonies, but for Suger, he amalgamated these oaths into one concept that he defined kingship by. The importance of these oaths are demonstrated in a letter that Suger sent to Louis in c.1140 where he instructs Louis to return and deal with the enemies of his kingdom for fear that he appear to be “guilty of violating the professio and the juramentum which [he had] made before God when receiving the crown and realm.”22 He notably reiterates and emphasises a connection between the king, crown, and land by which the king was not only a feudal lord, but a monarch of the whole kingdom. Suger particularly demonstrates this in the account of the threat made by Emperor Henry V when he writes that Louis:

“Sent forth a mighty call for all France to follow him. The customary fighting spirit of France became angry at this unaccustomed brazenness of its enemies. Stirring itself on all sides, it sent forward select forces of knights, […] From all directions we gathered together in great strength at Reims. Numerous hosts of knights and foot soldiers came into view.”23

The assembly of magnates under the king’s call to arms evokes a great national spirit. In the wake of a potential threat to the kingdom of France and to the French, all nobles owed their service to the king. Suger’s idea of national kingship reiterates the idea that he is the summit of the French political pyramid. However, this concept also relates to domestic defence as Louis is the defender of the poor and churches which is why, for example, Louis intervened against a sub-vassal at Auvergne. Suger’s letters provide particularly noteworthy evidence about who fidelitas was owed to. He instructs the bishop of Chartres that his fealty is owed “to the king and the kingdom”, and archbishops and lay vassals owed their fealty “to the king and crown”.24 Combining the role of king with the crown and kingdom demonstrates that Suger seemingly merges the obligations of Louis as a monarch and feudal lord. Furthermore, evidence shows Suger consciously incorporating the concepts of the crown and kingdom intofeudal culture. From the c.1140s, Suger restricts the term regnum to only be used in conjunction with the Ile-de-France.25 Furthermore, in c.1149, Suger made fidelity to the king and realm a customary condition for the return of the regalia to Goslin of Chartres, and in c.1150, Suger’s acts of the royal chancery, once again, bound the concept of the realm with the crown.26

The King as a Sacral Figure

Even to those unfamiliar with medieval history, the concept of a ‘Divine right of rule’ is a well- known one as it has endured and reoccurred through centuries of royal history. The so-called, thaumaturgic power of the Capetian kings is explicitly discussed by Guibert of Nogent, but as noted by Marc Bloch, there is an absence of divinity in perceptions of kingship in the intellectual current of the twelfth century.27 In the Histoire de sa vie, c.1053-1124, Guibert describes the hereditary and tradition divine power and ‘royal touch’ of Louis.28 He describes a situation at Laon whereby a crowd, sick with scrofulous, came to Louis to be cured. According to Guibert, the king surrendered to their prayer and was overcome by divine power and thus touched the sick and drew a cross on them to cure them – two gestures which Marc Bloch states endure long into the Early Modern era of European kingship.29 Such a royal miracle witnessed and described by Guibert is not necessarily shared by Suger. The Deeds contains very few examples of Capetian divinity. One such example Suger describes is that Louis, at his coronation, cast away “the sword of secular knighthood” and, “girded him with the ecclesiastical sword for the punishment of evildoers.”30 In a later passage, regarding the conflict with Hugh of Le Puiset, Suger writes that the church “pleaded that the king, as the representative of God, render free the part that belonged to God, whose image he maintained and kept alive in his own person.”31 Whilst these examples would suggest Suger’s perception of kingship complements Guibert’s ‘divine-king’, Suger does not portray Louis as a sacral figure, and places little emphasis on royal consecration. In Louis’s coronation, of which the is chapter is titled Sublimacio in regem, Suger says very little about the coronation ceremony, only that the archbishop:

“Took from him the sword of secular knighthood, girded him with the ecclesiastical sword for the punishment of evildoers, and joyfully crowned him with the diadem of the kingdom. With the approval of the clergy and the people, he devoutly handed him, along with the other royal insignia, the scepter and the rod that symbolize the defense of the churches and the poor.”32

Nowhere in this chapter does Suger describe a consecratio, instead he deploys secular expressions: “anointment” and “crowning”. Suger extends this concept to state that becoming king has no effect on Louis’s nature, character, or religious association. Suger states in the following chapter that “Louis, king of the French by the grace of God, could not put aside what he had grown accustomed to do in his youth, namely safeguarding the churches, protecting the poor and the needy, and working for the peace and defence of the kingdom”33 which suggests a continuity between Louis before being anointed king and after, thus showing no attainment of divinity when crowned. In the Deeds, there is no record of a divine inspiration, thaumaturgic power, or royal touch, which is bestowed onto Louis once he becomes king. Any divine aid given by God is also received in battles before his coronation. Bloch speculates that the lack of divine inspiration among contemporaries is in support of Gregorian ideas.34 As such, Suger’s Deeds is part of the collective reform movement which sought to remove such power from perceptions of kingship as they believed it allowed kings to enslave the papacy and clergy.35 Such influence is significant as it allows us to understand how Suger crafted the Capetian image and why he places so much emphasis on legitimising Louis’s rule through a military and historical scope, rather than relying on a divine right.

The Capetian Image

What is particularly notable about Suger is how he constructs and twists a narrative to favour and bolster Capetian image and rule. The Deeds is an interesting work to analyse as it contains inconsistencies in its events whereby some events are emphasised more than others, some are missed out entirely, and some happen in different time periods than they should. This suggests a great deal about the values and image Suger is attempting to portray and impart on Louis and concepts of kingship. Suger completed the Deeds in c.1127, only to later write about the illness, death, and burial of Louis in c.1137, thus leaving out a decade of events and information.36 He particularly moulds the perception of kinship around the backdrop of the crusades to connect the image of a king with a soldier and crusading hero. Within the Deeds, 25 of its 32 chapters involve a military event, with two further chapters being associated with crusading events. Was Suger’s concept of kingship expressed in the Deeds an attempt to parallel the narrative of the crusades? Clearly, Suger was a great negotiator between the ideal vision of kingship and the realities of politics. His chapter about the infamous crusading hero, Bohemond of Antioch, sandwiched amongst Louis’s military successes was no coincidence. According to Orderic Vitalis, Bohemond sought allies in the western Europe and as such, sent his cousin to Philip to arrange a marriage with Constance, Louis’s sister.37 Vitalis then describes the chronology whereby Bohemond then weds Constance and “urges those who bore arms to attack the Emperor with him, promising them wealthy towns and castles” in return.38 Suger recalls this story in his chapter of Bohemond with an emphasised reference to his crusading virtue, for example “He had won fame and renown among the people of the East, and the Saracens themselves praised his noble deeds, which could never have been done without the help of God.”39 Notable, however, is that Suger states that “The lord pope Paschal had sent him [lord Bruno, bishop of Segni] in the company of the lord Bohemond to summon and urge people to make an expedition to the Holy Sepulcher”40 even though this crusade was to attack the Byzantium empire, not Jerusalem. Suger clearly did not mistake Constantinople for Jerusalem but paralleling this crusade with the crusading spirit of c.1095 connects the Capetians to the heroism they previous were excluded from. Suger would have witnessed as a young adult that Philip did not join the crusade, and though Philip’s brother Hugh did join, he later returned in c.1100 with shame. Thus, Suger focuses on Bohemond’s fame in conjunction with his marriage to Louis’s sister to build connections between the crusading heroes and the Capetians. Suger, of course, was not the only one consciously trying to make a connection to the crusades as Philip, within a decade of Jerusalem being captured, married four of his five children to veteran crusaders and their children.41 Suger is thus able to carefully construct a narrative and image of kingship positioned between idealism and the realities within politics. It also shows, however, that he perceives Louis as a soldier-king, as the Deeds focuses on military expeditions, crusading and military virtues, and the protection of the church, poor, and kingdom.

Appropriately stated by James Naus, it was Suger, more than anybody else, who fashioned the Capetian image in the first half of the twelfth century.42 Instead of a king which claimed divine right to rule, Suger instead plays the role of a historian by perceiving twelfth-century kingship as a renaissance of Carolingian and Merovingian legend. Suger’s emphasis on such a concept is demonstrated by iconography of Louis VII that he influenced in the c.1140s. The seal of a king contains an abundance of symbolism that represents his sovereign authority, and as such, Suger’s influence on the sigillography of Louis VII seal represents a lifetime’s accumulation of understanding of kingship. What is especially notable about Louis’s seal is that it deployed a new type of throne, an ‘X’ shaped folding chair that was adorned with lion heads. This is particularly notable as it refers to the throne of Dagobert, the Merovingian king, thus showing an attempt to connect the Capetian image to the Merovingian legend.

The symbolism, however, extends to encompass a long history of kings and emperors. Emperor Otto I, in c.962, adopted the seal of the Byzantium imperial bull which depicted a full face bust with a sceptre and globe.43 In c.966, Lothar III propagated this seal but replaced the sceptre with a baton. This seal would endure through the reigns of Hugh Capet and Robert the Pious.44

Meanwhile, in c.997, Emperor Otto III adopted a seal whereby he was enthroned and crowned on a Carolingian throne whilst holding a fleur-de-lis sceptre and globe.45 This was adapted by Henry I to be holding a fleuron whilst wearing a fleur-de-lis crown.46 Philip later changed the image of the throne between c.1078-80 to a design created by Lothar I, as described in his psalter of c.845, that utilised the throne of King Solomon as depicted in Kings 10:18-20. This design, which Louis VI also adopted, consisted of an armchair with lion heads and feet. The accumulation of this history is that Louis VII’s seal is a complex symbolic combination of biblical, Ottonian, Byzantine, Merovingian, and Carolingian components (Fig. 3). Suger also influenced the seal of Louis VII by transitioning from an applied seal to a pendant which allowed for iconography on the seals reverse.47 During his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, Louis added ET DUX AQUITANORUM on the reverse which shows a conscious choice to include the title without presenting it as equal to the role of king.48 After Suger’s death and Louis’s divorce to Eleanor in c.1175, he adopted the fleur-de-lis on the pendant’s reverse side, thus embodying the political ideology Suger perceived.49

Ulterior Motives & Saint-Denis

Suger is set apart from his contemporaries as he was able to craft the image of kingship and the Capetians in the twelfth century in a prolific way. Such an image, as already witnessed, is partly influenced by ecclesiastical and intellectual reform, yet it is the status and politics of Saint-Denis that is the single greatest influence on Suger’s perception of kingship. Suger’s constant pursuit to rebuild and bolster the status of Saint-Denis that was jeopardised by Philip explains the inconsistencies, paradoxes, and confusion within his perception of kingship.

To Suger, Philip was a terrible king who “did nothing worthy of the royal majesty” and as such, “did not take care of either his kingdom or the health of his noble and handsome body”.50 Philip rose to power when the royal house fortunes were low, he was reluctant to give up the power of appointing bishops, he did not care for ecclesiastical reform, and he appropriated the income of bishops that were vacant or absent for the treasury. Philip’s most controversial problem, however, was that “he was carried away by lust for the married woman he had carried off and gave himself over to gratifying his desires”.51 Such a marriage in c.1092 would lead to an interdict issued by the pope. Philip had therefore heavily damaged the image of France and Capetian kingship, but his most striking blow to Suger was his decision to be buried at Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, as it had been tradition that the Frankish kings were buried at Saint-Denis.52 The accumulation of this fact and Philip’s reign, is why Suger spent a lifetime rebuilding the status of Saint-Denis, crafting the Capetian image, and overturning Philip’s legacy. Suger did this by interweaving kingship with Saint-Denis. As stated previously, Suger subscribed to Mouvance, the notion whereby the sovereign king ruled over all those within his kingdom because he ruled over the land. Though Suger promotes the concept that the king “holds from no one” – not even as a vassal of the emperor or pope – he contradicts this by continuously presenting Louis as a vassal to Saint-Denis. Suger, and by extension Saint- Denis, was re-established as the “patron and protector of the realm of France” in the c.1120’s as Philip’s crown was returned to Saint-Denis, and Louis VI was bestowed the relic of the saint’s banner whilst he declared himself a vassal of the abbey for the county of the Vexin.53

What is particularly notable about these events is that whilst Louis visited Saint-Denis in c.1122 to return the crown, Suger writes that this happened in c.1124 alongside Saint-Denis bestowing the relic to Louis, and the subsequent gifts and privileges given in return for this by Louis.54 This shows an ulterior motive behind the Deeds and Suger’s writing as this text places emphasis on lesser events and changes the certain dates to fit the purpose of reinforcing the image of the king and Saint-Denis.

Suger’s perceptions of kingship and the pursuit to connect Saint-Denis to the king contains a far deeper narrative whereby Suger builds an enterprise of forging documents and traditions to link Saint-Denis to the Carolingian and Merovingian legend. Suger, through his influence of Louis VII seal, is clearly tactile in utilising the history of Francia and legendary kings to authenticate and legitimise the rule of Louis VI and VII. It is no coincidence that the throne used by Louis VII in his seal was held and restored at Saint-Denis by Suger, but Suger’s fascination and utilisation of Frankish legend is witnessed throughout his lifetime. In c.1109, Suger commissioned and created a solemn liturgical ceremony to commemorate the memory of Dagobert, the first Frankish king who was buried at Saint-Denis.55 Furthermore, Suger emphasises and writes about an ancient custom to sit on Dagobert’s throne when receiving the first homages from the great lords of the realm which reiterates the concept that the king was the apex of feudal kingship.56 Such emphasis on Dagobert provides a longevity in the fidelity owed to Saint-Denis by kings which is also emphasised in the De Administratione as Suger states, “I used to read the ancient charters of possessions in the archives”.57 A longevity in the history of kingship and fidelity legitimises Suger’s claims of Saint-Denis’s primacy above all other Frankish churches. Suger, however, also fabricated documents and charters to strengthen the image of the king and Saint-Denis through the Carolingian legend. The Descriptio qualiter Karolus Magnus, fabricated at Saint-Denis by a monk, sought to authenticate the relics of Saint-Denis, namely the nail and crown of Christ brought back from Constantinople by Charlemagne, and later donated by Charles the Bald.58 Another fabricated charter, said to have been given by Charlemagne, explicitly emphasises Saint-Denis’s status and superiority over all other churches, and stated that the consecration of the king can only happen at Saint-Denis.59 In the same way Suger claims that Louis owes fidelity to no one but serves his kingdom through Saint-Denis, this charter by Charlemagne declares that he holds his realm from God and through Saint-Denis.60 The impact and influence of such charters and documents is difficult to prove, but one particular custom from this charter by Charlemagne can suggest that Suger’s campaign of forgery was, to an extent, successful. According to the charter, a chevage of four gold bezants was granted to Saint-Denis and Charlemagne requested that his nobles do the same.61 Unfortunately, by the end of Louis VII reign, and long after Suger had died, Queen Adele had reduced Saint-Denis’s role in royal-affairs and Louis VII would be buried at Barbeaux. Suger’s legacy and concepts of kingship, however, would endure as Louis VII’s son, Philip Augustus, placed four coins on the altar at Saint-Denis and declared the protection of the abbey – the same custom recorded in Suger’s false charter.62

C. Van de Kieft places this charter between c.1156-1165 during the abbacy of Odo of Deuil. He states that it was not in Suger’s character to do such a thing as fabricate false documents, charters, and myths.63 This charter, however, parallels and complements the themes of kingship that Suger has perceived throughout his lifetime as shown throughout this essay and thus it should be attributed to Suger. This charter, alongside other connections to Carolingian and Merovingian kings created a web of forged documents which legitimised the authority of the king as the feudal summit, and by extension, legitimises the power and status of Saint- Denis and Suger.

Suger, and his Texts

Questioning the nature of The Deeds of Louis the Fat, the illustrious King Louis son of Louis, and The Book of Accomplishments during his Administration reveals how they compare to contemporaries, as well as what ulterior motivations behind these texts may be. This essay places a large emphasis and reliance on The Deeds as this text offers an abundance of evidence and insight into Suger’s perceptions of kingship. As mentioned, it is notable that Suger expresses Louis’s duties and services, both ecclesiastical and lay, through a military scope. Does this, therefore, parallel contemporaries and other writers of the genre, especially with the backdrop of the crusades? The Vita Ludovici Regis is often placed comparatively with Norman chronicles such as William of Poitiers’s Gesta Guillelmi and Wipo of Burgundy’s Gesta Chuonradi II imperatoris as such texts contemplate and present ideologies of kingship.64

These accounts, however, provide a relatively accurate chronology of a reign, whereas each chapter within Suger’s Vita Ludovici can be seen as a single event whereby each “historical action is inaugurated by a disturbance to an existing situation, followed by the king’s attempt to deal with the consequences of that disturbance, [concluding] with the restoration of “correct” order”.65 Another factor that sets the Vita Ludovici apart from these contemporaries is that Suger conflates, misinterprets, and misses out events in Louis’s reign, and thus he is very selective about the information that is provided. This does not necessarily mean we should disregard Suger’s writing, clearly, he carefully placed emphasis on events that complement the Capetian image and his perceptions of kingship which allows historians to understand how elements of the sovereign image was conveyed.

The Vita Ludovici has also been compared to Einhard’s Vita Karoli Magni, yet Suger’s Vita lacks the classical ‘Suetonius’ prototype structure that biographies, such as the Vita Karoli Magni, commonly followed.66 Thus, Suger is particularly unique in producing a text that is a history and biography of a king but does not completely fit the constraints of the respective genres. As such, scholars have pointed towards Helgaud of Fleury’s history of Robert the Pious as a text which aligns closer with Suger’s Vita.67 Significantly however, Helgaud’s text is inspired by the genre of hagiography. And thus, combines biographical themes with hagiographical. The monastic communities of Fleury and Saint-Denis were closely connected and were known to trade manuscripts frequently.68 It is, therefore, plausible that Suger would have been aware of, and potentially have read, Helgaud’s text. Notable is that Helgaud’s text also conflates and misinterprets events of Robert’s life, in the same way Suger does about Louis, whilst also continuously reiterating his military, personal, and religious virtues and prowess. It is thus highly plausible that Suger was influenced by Helgaud when writing, and thus the Vita may also be a semi-hagiography alongside a biography and chronicle. A complexity of this theory, however, is that whilst Suger does discuss God and divine aid to Louis, Suger supported the Gregorian movement which sought to remove the divinity of kings. Perhaps Suger’s hagiographical themes are to emphasise the glorification of Louis as a special figure rather than any specific associations to sainthood or divinity.

In conjunction with being semi-hagiographical, Suger’s Vita also fits into a one final genre which provides an extensive insight into Suger’s motivations. William of Saint-Denis, upon Suger’s death, wrote The Life of Suger to celebrate such a prolific figure of Frankish history. Within this text, William describes that Suger “took every occasion during the summer and winter to read or listen to a lengthy reading after the evening meal, or to instruct those sitting with him by telling famous stories” and that “when he was in a light-hearted mood, he talked about his own deeds, or the deeds of other brave men that he had seen or learned about; and several times he talked until midnight.”69 Suger was a prolific orator who loved to tell tales and glorify brave, famous, and virtuous figures of history and give lessons whilst doing so. As such, the Deeds can also be seen as fitting within the genres of a ‘panegyric’ and ‘Mirror for Prince’. Throughout this essay, the idea that Suger crafted the image of kingship has been reiterated, and so if we analyse the Deeds under the scope of these genres, we can plausibly argue that it glorifies kingship, but also contains instructions on what it means to be king. It is noteworthy that the opening paragraph and chapter of the Vita was part of a series of lessons composed by Suger for the anniversary of Louis's death at Saint-Denis.70 As such, Suger is using the Deeds and his other texts to actively influence the Capetian image of Louis and his successors, a task also demonstrated by Suger’s influence on Louis VII’s seal. This ensures the concepts of kingship perceived by Suger are continued, and the status and role of Saint- Denis in kingship endures in successive generations.


There is such a wealth of detail, analysis, and evidence throughout Suger’s life, texts, and letters that this essay is but a microcosm of Suger’s understanding of kingship. A deeper and extensive analysis of all three of Suger’s texts would support the claims made and reveal more evidence on Suger’s perceptions of kingship, insight into his own reign of St-Denis, his role as regent, and his influence on Louis VII. Though questions about his texts, administration as abbot and regent, and theories lesser theories on kingship may remain, he is clearly a distinguishable and unique figure among his contemporaries and has been an immeasurable aid to Historians studying twelfth century France.

His texts provide an insight into the elements which craft kingship, feudalism, and medieval politics. In Suger’s mind, the king is an illustrious figure who is the summit of feudalism. He is associated with the excellentia, celsitudo, and magnificentia of the regia majestas, and exercises officium regis.71 As such, he embodies military and religious virtues of bravery, piety, and kindness. He safeguards the kingdom, churches, people, and poor, as an administrator of justice and defender of the kingdom.

Suger’s theories also contain confusion, inconsistencies, paradoxes, and contradictions regarding theories of suzerainty and the oaths taken at the coronation. Whilst Suger is seemingly part of the Mouvance movement and states “The king holds from no one”, Suger consistently provides examples where the king is subject to his great vassals and church – especially Saint-Denis. Although Suger is a royalist and idealises kingship, he denies and neglects the divinity of a king in accordance with the Gregorian movement. As such, the king is not one who rules as a divine figure with divine right. Suger’s utilisation of the crusades and themes of heroism portray kingship through a military scope, and thus the king is a soldier- king legitimised through his connections with crusading heroes as well as past Merovingian and Carolingian legends.

Suger’s conception and influence the image of kingship is one of the most prolific elements of Capetian ideology, yet it also allows us to understand Suger’s ulterior motives on bolstering the status of Saint-Denis. The creation of liturgical sermons, forged documents, and charters connection Saint-Denis to kingship allows us to understand how important the king was to the prominence of Saint-Denis. Suger’s texts that can be perceived as a Mirror for Princes, as well as his influence on Louis VII’s seal and emphasis on Dagobert demonstrates that Suger relies on the past to endure and progress into the future.



1 Suger, “The Deeds of Louis the Fat” in Selected Works of Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, trans. R. C. Cusimano and J. Moorhead (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2018), p.23

2 Andrew W. Lewis, “Political and Social History” in Abbot Suger and Saint-Denis: a symposium, ed. Paula Liber

Gerson (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986), p.49

3 Suger, The Deeds of Louis the Fat, p.133

4 Ibid, p.135

5 Ibid, p.137

6 Ibid, p.136

7 Jean-François Lemarignier, Le Gouvernment royal aux premier’s temps capétiens (987-1108) (Paris, 1965), p.171

8 Suger, The Deeds of Louis the Fat, p.72

9 Ibid, p.111

10 Michel Bur, “A Note on Suger’s understanding of Political Power” in Abbot Suger and Saint-Denis: a symposium, ed. Paula Liber Gerson (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986) p.74

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Jean Dunbabin, “Aristocratic Life” in France in the Making 843-1180 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p.358.

14 See the essay by Andrew W. Lewis, “Political and Social History” in Abbot Suger and Saint-Denis: a symposium, ed. Paula Liber Gerson (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986), p.45-54.

15 Suger, The Deeds of Louis the Fat, p.64

16 Suger, “The illustrious King Louis, son of Louis” in Selected Works of Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, trans. R. C.

Cusimano and J. Moorhead (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2018), p.151

17 Galbert of Bruges, The Murder of Charles the Good, trans. James Bruce Ross (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), p.79

18 Margot Elsbeth Fassler, and Robert Tangeman, The Virgin of Chartres, Making History Through Liturgy and the Arts (Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2010), p,257

19 Orderic Vitalis, “The Ecclesiastical History [Book XI]” in The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis Vol VI, Books XI, XII, XIII, trans. Marjorie Chibnall (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1978), p.157

20 Andrew W. Lewis, “Political and Social History”, p.51

21 Ibid.

22 Albert Lecoy de la Marche, “Oeuvres completes de Suger” Société de l’Histoire de France, Vol.139 (Paris,

1867), p.259

23 Suger, The Deeds of Louis the Fat, p.128

24 Albert Lecoy de la Marche, “Oeuvres completes de Suger” pp. 257, 267, 277. See also Suger’s remarks about his own fidelitas to the king and archbishop of Reims (pp. 256, 261)

25 Eric Bournazel, “Suger and the Capetians” in Abbot Suger and Saint-Denis: a symposium, ed. Paula Liber

Gerson Gerson (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986) p.60

26 Ibid.

27 Andrew W. Lewis, “Political and Social History”, pp.50-51

28 Marc Bloch, Les Rois Thaumaturges (Paris: Armand Colin, 1961), p.35

29 Ibid, pp. 35-37

30 Suger, The Deeds of Louis the Fat, p.63

31 Ibid, p.86

32 Ibid, p.63

33 Ibid, p.64

34 Marc Bloch, Les Rois Thaumaturges, pp.120-121

35 Ibid, pp. 29-32, 120-124

36 James Naus, “Suger of Saint-Denis and the ideology of crusade” in Constructing Kingship: The Capetian Monarchs of France and the Early Crusades (Manchester University Press. 2016), p.64

37 Orderic Vitalis, “The Ecclesiastical History [Book XI]”, p.71

38 Ibid.

39 Suger, The Deeds of Louis the Fat, p.43

40 Ibid, p.45

41 James Naus, “Suger of Saint-Denis and the ideology of crusade”, p.69

42 Ibid, p.60

43 Brigitte Bedos Rezak, “Suger and the Symbolism of Royal Power: The Seal of Louis VII” in Abbot Suger and Saint-Denis: a symposium, ed. Paula Liber Gerson (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986), p.95

44 For Hugh Capet’s seal see: Marjolaine Caucheteux-Chavannes, “Les Sceaux des rois de France, D’Hugues Capet à François I (987-1547)” Thèse d’École des Chartes (Paris, 1962); For Robert the Pious’s seal, see: Louis Douët d’Arq, Collection de sceaux, 3 vols. (Paris, 1863-68), vol.1, no.31.

45 Brigitte Bedos Rezak, “Suger and the Symbolism of Royal Power: The Seal of Louis VII”, p.96

46 Ibid.

47 Albert Lecoy de la Marche, Les Sceaux (Éd.1889) (Paris: Hachette Livre, 2018), p.91.

48 Brigitte Bedos Rezak, “Suger and the Symbolism of Royal Power: The Seal of Louis VII”, p.99

49 Louis Douët d’Arq, Collection de sceaux, vol.1, no.37

50 Suger, The Deeds of Louis the Fat, p.61

51 Ibid

52 Ibid.

53 Ibid, p.131

54 James Naus, “Suger of Saint-Denis and the ideology of crusade”, p.64

55 Brigitte Bedos Rezak, “Suger and the Symbolism of Royal Power: The Seal of Louis VII”, p.98

56 Suger, “The Book of Accomplishments during his Administration” in Selected Works of Abbot Suger of Saint-

Denis, trans. R. C. Cusimano and J. Moorhead (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2018), p.112

57 Ibid, p.72

58 On the description of Descriptio qualiter Karolus Magnus, see Léon Levillain, “Essai sur les origins du Lendit,” Revue historique Vol.157, (1927): 241-76. Alongside the nail and crown of Christ, this charter also authenticated the sword, lance, and battle standard of the old emperor.

59 Eric Bournazel, “Suger and the Capetians”, p.61

60 Ibid.

61 Ibid.

62 Ibid, p.66

63 C. van de Kieft, “Deux diplômes faux de Charlemagne pour Saint-Denis du XIIe siècle.” Extrait de la revue Le Moyen Age, Vol. 64, no. 4, (1958), p.421

64 James Naus, “Suger of Saint-Denis and the ideology of crusade”, p.67

65 Ibid.

66 A ninth-century manuscript containing Einhard’s text was housed in the library at Saint-Denis during Suger’s lifetime. This manuscript is catalogued as Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Lat. 4628A. See Donatella Nebbiai-Dalla Guarda, La Bibliothèque de l’abbaye de Saint-Denis en France du IXe au XVIIIe (Paris, 1984), p. 215

67 James Naus, “Suger of Saint-Denis and the ideology of crusade”, p.67

68 Ibid, p.81

69 William of Saint-Denis, “The Life of Suger” in Selected Works of Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, trans. R. C. Cusimano and J. Moorhead (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2018), p.194

70 See footnote a. in Suger, The Deeds of Louis the Fat, p.24

71 Andrew W. Lewis, “Political and Social History”, p.51


Primary Sources

Galbert of Bruges. The Murder of Charles the Good. Translated by James Bruce Ross. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

Suger. “The Book of Accomplishments during his Administration.” in Selected Works of Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, translated by R. C. Cusimano and J. Moorhead. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2018.

Suger. “The Deeds of Louis the Fat.” in Selected Works of Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, translated by. R. C. Cusimano and J. Moorhead. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2018.

Suger. “The illustrious King Louis, son of Louis.” in Selected Works of Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, translated by R. C. Cusimano and J. Moorhead. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2018.

Vitalis, Orderic. “The Ecclesiastical History [Book XI].” in The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis Vol VI, Books XI, XII, XIII, translated by Marjorie Chibnall. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1978.

William of Saint-Denis. “The Life of Suger.” in Selected Works of Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, translated by R. C. Cusimano and J. Moorhead. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2018.

Secondary Sources

Bloch, Marc. Les Rois Thaumaturges. Paris: Armand Colin, 1961.

Bournazel, Eric “Suger and the Capetians.” in Abbot Suger and Saint-Denis: a symposium, edited by Paula Liber Gerson, 55-72. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986.

Bur, Michel. “A Note on Suger’s understanding of Political Power” in Abbot Suger and Saint-Denis: a symposium, edited by Paula Liber Gerson, 73-76. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986.

Caucheteux-Chavannes, Marjolaine. “Les Sceaux des rois de France, D’Hugues Capet à François I (987-1547)” Thèse d’École des Chartes (Paris, 1962)

Douët d’Arq, Louis. Collection de sceaux, 3 vols. Paris, 1863-68.

Dunbabin, Jean. “Aristocratic Life” in France in the Making 843-1180. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Fassler, Margot Elsbeth; Tangeman, Robert. The Virgin of Chartres, Making History Through Liturgy and the Arts. Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2010.

Guarda, Donatella Nebbiai-Dalla. La Bibliothèque de l’abbaye de Saint-Denis en France du IXe au XVIIIe. Paris, 1984.

Lecoy de la Marche, Albert. “Oeuvres completes de Suger” Société de l’Histoire de France, Vol.139 (Paris, 1867), p.259

Lecoy de la Marche, Albert. Les Sceaux (Éd.1889). Paris: Hachette Livre, 2018.

Lemarignier, Jean-François. Le Gouvernment royal aux premiers’ temps capétiens (987-1108). Paris, 1965.

Levillain, Léon. “Essai sur les origins du Lendit,” Revue historique Vol.157, (1927): 241-76

Lewis, Andrew W. “Political and Social History” in Abbot Suger and Saint-Denis: a symposium, edited by Paula Liber Gerson, 49-54. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986.

Naus, James. “Suger of Saint-Denis and the ideology of crusade” in Constructing Kingship: The Capetian Monarchs of France and the Early Crusades, 59-84. Manchester University Press. 2016.

Rezak, Brigitte Bedos. “Suger and the Symbolism of Royal Power: The Seal of Louis VII” in Abbot Suger and Saint-Denis: a symposium, edited by Paula Liber Gerson, 95-104. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986.

van de Kieft, C. “Deux diplômes faux de Charlemagne pour Saint-Denis du XIIe siècle.” Extrait de la revue Le Moyen Age, Vol. 64, no. 4, (1958)

49 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page