The Marriage of Lothair and Theutberga

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The Marriage of Lothair and Theutberga


A Necessary Divorce? One of the best-known cases of a contested marriage in the early Middle Ages—involving Lothar II, King of Lotharingia (Lorraine), and his wife, Theutberga—illustrates the tensions between the secular and ecclesiastical visions of marriage and the issues that were at stake on both sides. In 858 Lothar sought to divorce Theutberga because she had not borne him children. He wanted to marry his concubine, Waldrada, so that he could legitimize the children he had had by her and thus secure the inheritance of his kingdom. This practice had been common among the European aristocracy, who needed to assure an heir in order to avoid civil war and

unrest on a leader’s death. In Lothar’s case his uncles were prepared to split Lorraine between them if their nephew remained without a legitimate heir.

Grounds for the Divorce. In order to make sure that he received his divorce, Lothar leveled several charges, including premarital sexual activity and incest, against Theut-berga. Lothar claimed that before their marriage, Theutberga had had sexual relations with her brother, Hubert. Lothar acknowledged that he had waited more than two years to make his allegations. He also admitted that he had given Theutberga her Morgengabe (morning gift), an act by which a husband recognized that his wife had come to him a virgin, but explained that Hubert and Theutberga had engaged in anal intercourse, so she had technically been a virgin when she married. Moreover, despite the impossibility of becoming pregnant through anal intercourse, Lothar went so far as to accuse Theutberga of having conceived her brother’s child and then having had an abortion. There is no clear explanation for why Lothar felt it necessary to make this outrageous charge.

Trial and Appeals. Theutberga proclaimed her innocence and sought to be exonerated by one kind of trial by ordeal, in which a knight chosen to be her champion fought another surrogate chosen by Lothar. Her champion won, thus affirming her innocence. Lothar, however, did not accept the verdict and imprisoned his wife. Under the stress and coercion of imprisonment, Theutberga gave a confession to the king’s chaplain. When the written version of this confession was presented at a synod held in Aachen in 860, however, Theutberga refused to repeat her confession publicly. Acting under Lothar’s influence, the bishops at this synod ordered her to retire to a convent to await the annulment of her marriage. At this point, Lothar began to live with Waldrada. When another synod met later that year, Theutberga was threatened with torture and consequently confessed to the charges against her in front of the assembled bishops. She then sought refuge at the court of one of Lothar’s uncles, Charles II (the Bald), King of France. The bishops suddenly became hesitant about acting on Lothar’s charges, and instead of authorizing his marriage to Waldrada, they appealed to Archbishop Hinc-mar of Reims, one of the leading canon lawyers of the day, for his legal opinion and advice.

Treatise on Divorce. After examining the evidence in the case between Lothar and Theutberga, Hincmar, who had been a supporter of Charles the Bald for many years, wrote De divortio Lotharii et Teutbergae (On the Divorce of King Lothar and Queen Theutberga, 860), a treatise that became one of the foundations of the canon law on marriage. In his treatise Hincmar affirmed the legitimacy of trial by ordeal and dealt in a straightforward fashion with the impossibility of a virgin conceiving a child through anal intercourse and then aborting the fetus. Providing a detailed explanation of how conception occurred, he demonstrated that this fanciful allegation had no basis in fact. He also argued forcefully that adultery, if proven publicly and by witnesses, was only grounds for separation; it was invalid grounds for divorce. So, even if Lothar’s accusations were true, this guilt would only allow him to put Theutberga in a nunnery, it would not be grounds for annulling the marriage so that he could marry another woman while Theutberga was alive. Moreover, Hincmar argued, the bishops were too lenient toward Lothar, because they tolerated his living with Waldrada prior to his being granted a divorce. Lothar was, therefore, guilty of adultery, for which the bishops should have censured him.

Competing Jurisdictions. Another area that Hincmar explored was the competing religious and secular jurisdictions over marriage. He said that secular society had the power to regulate the social aspects of marriage, such as the transfer of property, and the right to concern itself the political implications of a union. The Church, on the other hand, had jurisdiction over the moral and sacramental aspects. Thus, Hincmar advised that the proper procedure was for Lothar to accuse his wife in secular court. If she were found guilty, and accordingly sentenced to death, she could appeal to the ecclesiastical court. This court would certainly commute the sentence and enjoin a penance, which normally would involve ten years of penance and perpetual chastity. Her marriage to Lothar, however, would still be valid. It was, therefore, indissoluble, and the king could not dismiss his wife and marry Waldrada.

A New Strategy. Lothar continued to press his case for another two years, but he did not go so far as to marry Waldrada in the face of Hincmar’s decision. He called another synod, at which he complained that his sexual needs were not being met and asserted that, if Theutberga had not polluted the marital bed by her incest, he would gladly have reconciled with her. This synod declared the marriage null on the grounds of incest; Lothar married Waldrada, and she was crowned queen. Nevertheless, he was still unsure of the legal standing of this marriage. In 863 he convened a synod at Metz and offered completely new grounds for confirming his second marriage, alleging that he had actually been married to Waldrada all along, and Theutberga’s brother had bullied him into marrying Theutberga.

Papal Intercession. At this point Theutberga appealed to Pope Nicholas I, alleging she had been coerced to make her original confession. Pope Nicholas sent a team of clerics to investigate, instructing them to examine Lothar’s allegation that he had married Waldrada before Theutberga and to discover whether he had, in fact, married Waldrada, with a dowry and witnesses, according to the rituals of the Church; whether they had been publicly accepted as husband and wife; and, if so, why Lothar had repudiated Waldrada so he could marry Theutberga. If this early marriage to Waldrada had not occurred, said the Pope, Lothar must be reconciled with Theutberga if she were again found innocent of the various allegations that had been made against her.

The Pope’s Ruling. The Pope’s representatives found Theutberga innocent of Lothar’s allegations. Consequently, Nicholas called his own synod, canceled the findings of the Metz synod, and removed from office those who had participated in it. Finally, he ordered Lothar to reconcile with Theutberga. In 865 Theutberga was again formally recognized as queen of Lorraine, and twelve of Lothar’s chief noblemen were required to take oaths guaranteeing that she would be well treated. One observer of the reconciliation, Bishop Adventius of Metz, reported that Lothar and Theutberga attended mass, ate together, and then, according to rumor, went to bed to discharge their conjugal duties.

New Appeals and Resolutions. This optimistic report did not close the case. Within months of the reconciliation with Theutberga, Lothar was again sleeping with Waldrada. In 866 he brought force to bear on Theutberga, making her appeal to Pope Nicholas for a divorce on the grounds of sterility and the alleged prior marriage of Lothar and Waldrada. She also requested permission to enter a convent. Nicholas remained unmoved, however, replying that sterility was not grounds for divorce. Moreover, he said, Theutberga’s sterility was not caused by her body, but rather by Lothar’s iniquity. Finally, even if she took religious vows, the Pope said, Lothar would not be free to marry again. A year later, when it was rumored that Lothar intended to murder Theutberga so he could marry Waldrada, Nicholas declared that even if his wife were dead, Lothar could never marry Waldrada because he had committed adultery with her. The following year Theutberga went to Rome to appeal to a new pope, Adrian II, for freedom from her unhappy marriage. She is reported to have said that she preferred fleeing to the pagans over seeing Lothar again. Ultimately, both Theutberga and Waldrada entered religious life, and Lothar sought absolution from Pope Adrian. In 869 Lothar died without a legitimate heir.

Defining Church Jurisdiction. The divorce case of Lothar and Theutberga established some important points concerning Church jurisdiction over marriage. Hincmar’s treatise and the various papal judgments categorically rejected several grounds for divorce that secular society considered valid. Thus, they confirmed and strengthened the religious principle that a marriage was indissoluble.


Jane Bishop, “Bishops as Marital Advisors in the Ninth Century,” in Women of the Medieval World: Essays in Honor of John H. Mundy, edited by Julius Kirshner and Suzanne F. Wemple (Oxford & New York: Blackwell, 1985), pp. 53–84.

James A. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

Frances Gies and Joseph Gies, Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages (New York: Harper & Row, 1987).

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The Marriage of Lothair and Theutberga

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