Monday, January 25, 2021


 Insurrection, rising up against one's government, is serious.  And yet it has a strangely well established spot in American popular culture.  The American Revolution (actually not a social revolution like the French Revolution but a war of independence) is always framed as freedom-loving folks rising up against an oppressive government.  Star Wars is a series of stories about overthrowing the Evil Empire (you'd think they'd figure out that building a vulnerable spot into every Death Star was a bad idea).  The Hunger Games is about a bold, rag-tag group of freedom-lovers destroying the evil, oppressive Capital.

Even gun-rights advocates say that we need guns to defend ourselves against an oppressive government, although the Second Amendment discusses bearing arms as an act under government direction ("...a well regulated militia..."), and, let's face it, even the best-armed private citizen isn't going to have a lot of luck against a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

Nonetheless, the US has been a remarkably stable democracy for close to 250 years.  Certainly there have been isolated revolts against the government (like the Branch Davidians), but the only really concerted insurrection was the Civil War of the 1860s, which was actually more an effort to take the South off to be its own country than an effort to change the central government itself.

 There were insurrections in the Middle Ages and early modern period, usually framed as overthrowing the king.  This was a little tricky because although medieval kings were not "divine right" kings (the way some later kings tried to define themselves), there was a sense that in overthrowing a king one was overthrowing a form of government that, at least in structure, mirrored the Kingdom of God.  That meant that once the king was gone, it was appropriate to put in a new king (here the American Revolution differed, though there was serious thought of declaring George Washington a king).

As I've discussed earlier (see details here), the Merovingians, the family that ruled France in the early Middle Ages, were overthrown in 751 and replaced by the line of Carolingian kings.  The excuse was that the Merovingians had become hopelessly incompetent.

 The Carolingians too had revolts against them.  When Louis II of France died in 879 after a short reign, Boso of Burgundy declared himself French king, rather than the child Louis III.  It didn't work, and he ended up king only of Burgundy and Provence, with his own brother fighting against him, but it is interesting to note that this non-Carolingian king had given himself a royal aura by having his sister marry one Carolingian king and himself marrying that king's niece.  King Charles the Simple was deposed as incompetent in 923 and replaced by Robert I, a hero of the Viking wars.  The Carolingians came to a final end in 987, when Robert's grandson Hugh Capet became king of France, deposing the last, incompetent Carolingian and beginning the Capetian line.  You've probably noticed a pattern here.

In the late Middle Ages, however, the usual explanation for replacing a king was not that he was incompetent but that he was a tyrant.  Late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England witnessed struggles between a number of men of the royal line, all cousins, during the last years of the Hundred Years War (as discussed in an earlier post), and, more viciously, during the War of the Roses, with the argument for insurrection always being that the current king was a tyrant (plus evil).  This continued into the early modern period, with the brief reign in England of Mary Tudor ("Bloody Mary") before Elizabeth I became queen, the deposition and beheading of Charles I in 1649, and, after Charles I's son was (eventually) brought back to the throne, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that deposed (but didn't need to behead) Charles I's grandson James II.

And then there's the French Revolution, which was both a social revolution (ending official nobility) and eventually an overthrowing of the monarchy—originally the revolutionaries were going to allow the French king to stay on as a constitutional monarch (like England after 1688).  But that's a different story.

Maybe the real moral of the story is that those practicing insurrection over the centuries have been strangely unwilling to change the form of government, just the individual at the head, and that tyranny and incompetence are the favorite rationales.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

For more on kings, government, and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see the ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon.  Also available in paperback!


  1. Hi, I've enjoyed your articles. Question: I've traced some of my ancestors back to several Dukes of Acquitane in the 700s - can you tell me how or if these Dukes are connected to Charlemagne? I've read that C appointed Counts in various parts of his territory, but have not seen any reference to Dukes he appointed.
    thank you

  2. Dukes were essentially the same as counts, except with more power and controlling more territory/multiple counties. Aquitaine was tricky because the leaders there always tried to act independently, which is why Charlemagne named his young son Louis King of Aquitaine, to reestablish authority over the region.
    See my blog post on dukes and counts.

    1. PS Here's the link: