The 9th Century Papacy and the divorce of Lothar II

Written by Alex Traves. Edited by Nathaniel Robinson.

Lothar II was King of Lotharingia, the lands between modern day France and Germany, between 855 and 869. His father, Lothar I, had been the Holy Roman Emperor, and while he was still alive he forced the younger Lothar to marry a woman named Teutberga, a member of a powerful Frankish family, in order to gain Teutberga’s family’s political support. Lothar II, however, had a mistress called Waldrada, whom he wished to take as his wife instead of Teutberga, but his father forbade it as Waldrada’s family were less powerful. Upon his father’s death things changed for Lothar II and much of his reign was concerned with attempting to divorce his official wife Teutberga, and install Waldrada as his Queen.

In 857, Lothar began this endeavour in earnest, by accusing his wife of terrible sins like incest, sodomy and infanticide, and it was to the church that he looked for help. Teutberga was subjected to an ordeal by water, whereby a stone was placed at the bottom of a boiling pot of water, and the accused had to retrieve the stone, and if they were innocent then God would heal their wounds. If their wounds did not heal quickly God had judged them guilty. Fortunately for Teutberga, she survived the ordeal and Lothar had no choice but to reinstate her as his wife and Queen.

Things changed again in 862, when Lothar ceded land to Emperor Louis II, in return for his support in the divorce case. He then cast Teutberga aside again, but this time he convened a synod of bishops at Aachen, and again a year later at Metz, who confirmed the divorce and named Waldrada as Lothar’s legitimate wife. At this point it would have seemed to Lothar that he had finally achieved his aim. What he had not considered was the possibility of papal intervention. It is important to remember that papal authority up until this point had not become as ingrained and well respected as it would become in later centuries.

Pope Nicholas I, upon hearing of the decision of the Lotharingian bishops, was not pleased. The Archbishops of Cologne and Trier journeyed to Rome to present Lothar’s case to Nicholas, in an attempt to gain papal approval for their decision. The Pope responded by deposing both Archbishops and excommunicating them from the church. He then declared the synods of Aachen and Metz to be null and void, arguing that the authority of bishops derived from the Pope himself, and therefore bishops, regardless of who appointed them, could not act independently of the papacy. In other words, the Pope was no longer merely a symbolic paternal figure, he wielded genuine power and authority not just over the actions of bishops, but over secular kings as well.

Lothar did not take the news well. He and Louis assembled their forces, marched on Rome and attacked the city, but the Pope would not change his mind, and threatened them both with excommunication. For a second time in 865, Lothar was forced to restore Teutberga. It was now suggested that Teutberga was infertile, therefore incapable of providing Lothar with a legitimate heir, which added to the urgency of his situation. For a further two years, Lothar’s attempts at divorce were thwarted, until the death of Nicholas in 867. Lothar himself immediately left for Rome to visit the new Pope, Adrian, who he hoped would be more sympathetic to his predicament. Although we do not know exactly what Adrian said to Lothar concerning the issue, it was of little consequence, for Lothar died of a fever on his return journey in northern Italy in 869. He had no legitimate heirs, and his uncles Charles the Bald and Louis the German divided Lothar’s kingdom between them. Waldrada’s son by Lothar, Hugh, was denied the throne of Lotharingia on the grounds of being illegitimate. It was during this period that the idea of legitimate and illegitimate children began to be purported by the church, which together with an increasingly proactive papacy, ensured that Lothar’s plans to marry his lover and name his son Hugh as his heir would never come to fruition.

The divorce case of Lothar II marked a turning point in the relationship between kings and the papacy. Tensions continued to exist long after this event, culminating in the Investiture Crisis around 200 years later, which was a dispute between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor over who was responsible for the appointment of bishops. The impression of papal authority over the affairs of secular kings and the appointment of local bishops ultimately became a defining feature of the European religious landscape for centuries to come, and this was at least in part because of the failed divorce case of Lothar II.