Friday, February 7, 2020

Getting rid of a monarch

In the US this week an ultimately unsuccessful effort was made to convict and remove the president. It thus seems like a good time to talk about getting rid of a medieval monarch.  After all, you can't just drag a king (or a president for that matter) to the curb on Blue Box day (or Major Appliance Disposal day).

As I have discussed earlier, medieval kings were not absolute rulers (that developed only in the post-medieval period with kings like Louis XIV of France).  But they were still hard to get rid of if those around them didn't like what they were doing.  One possibility was always assassination, as Julius Caesar had been murdered by his sometime-friends in 44 BC, because they were hoping (erroneously) that with him gone, Rome would go back to being a Republic rather than being ruled by emperors.

Once Europe became Christian, the option of murdering people, even kings thought to be on the wrong path, seemed less viable.  Other ways were often sought.  The most famous example is probably the replacement of the Merovingian dynasty on the Frankish throne by Pippin "the Short," father of Charlemagne, in 751.  The official story was that Pippin, the mayor of the palace for the last Merovingian king (sort of like chief of staff or secretary of state), who had actually been running the kingdom, asked the pope if it was right for an incompetent to have the name of king, and the pope said no (25th amendment!).  Pippin deposed the king and had himself elected by the Franks, anointed and crowned by the bishops, and blessed by the pope.

(This official story appears for the first time 40 years later and seems dubious.  I'll discuss it properly another time.)

Deposing incompetents continued.  Among Charlemagne's descendants, Charles the Simple was deposed and locked up when he didn't seem to be doing his job protecting France from the Vikings.  In England in 1066, Harold Godwinson was declared king, but Duke William of Normandy claimed that Harold was an oath-breaker, that he (William) had been promised the English throne, and he took the throne by force.  This didn't count (maybe) as assassination because Harold was an oath-breaker and died in battle.

Sometimes kings were just threatened with deposition.  In England in 1215, the great barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta, a document spelling out the rights of the great lords and churches of England, if he didn't want to be deposed.  John grumbled and complained and tried to get out of it, but he died the next year (natural causes), which certainly solved the barons' immediate problem.

At the end of the fourteenth century in England, King Richard II again seriously displeased the barons, who thought he was acting as if he were above the law.  The final straw was when he seized the duchy of Lancaster, held by his first cousin Henry.  Henry raised an armed rebellion and captured Richard.  Parliament, coming into its own in the late Middle Ages, declared that Richard had broken England's laws and forced him to abdicate in 1399.  Henry became King Henry IV, claiming his right to the throne by inheritance, by conquest, and by act of Parliament.

Parliament entered the picture again in 1461, when Henry IV's grandson Henry VI, who came to the throne as a baby and had serious mental health issues as an adult.  During his periods of incompetence, England was ruled by various relatives, with Parliament's support, but this was complicated by the relatives' fights with each other and Henry's efforts to regain control.  We're here plunging into the War of the Roses, which I won't discuss here, but Henry was finally conquered and deposed in 1461, with the combination of conquest and Parliamentary support leading to the reign of his third cousin, Richard III.  The same set of circumstances that had led to Henry IV becoming king led, two generations later, to his grandson Henry VI being kicked off the throne (but at least left alive).

In late medieval France meanwhile, during the Hundred Years' War, during the phase when the English were winning, they were able to get the "dauphin," the heir to the French throne, declared illegitimate, by having his mother attest that the boy's father was someone other than the late king.  This got him out of the way, but only until Joan of Arc's angel voices told her he really was legitimate the whole time and got him crowned as Charles VII (see more on Joan here).

You will note that medieval people rarely just tossed (or killed) a king.  There was always an effort to justify, usually on the basis of abuse of power by the king, sometimes on the basis of his legitimacy.  Getting the great lords on board was usually Step One.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval kings, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in print!

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