My Weekly Reader 7 June 2019.

Often times, modern readers misunderstand the monarchies of the Middle Ages.  They know that monarchy came to seem so tyrannical to the people of the 18th and 19th centuries that an “Age of Revolutions” took place between 1775 and 1850.  If they are lucky, they’ve seen Kenneth Branagh’s version of “King Henry V”: a king both conscious of his own humanity and imperious in his ambitions.  People may believe that Medieval kings wielded immense power.

They did not, or at least not necessarily.  For one thing, Medieval kings could be certain only of the troops and taxes they raised from their personal lands.  Beyond that, they had to rely upon their “vassals,” who owed a specified amount for support for a limited time each year.  In times of tumult, some of these vassals might increase their own power and independence relative to that of their king.  To take an extreme case, in 1066, the Duke of Normandy—a vassal of the King of France—invaded and conquered the neighboring kingdom of England.  Thereafter, the Duke of Normandy was a vassal of the French king, but the King of England was the independent equal of the King of France.  So, that’s concerning, as young people say.

For another thing, kings were just men who had inherited a crown.  A few were suited to be great kings, many were suited to be ordinary kings, and a few were—spectacularly—not suited to be kings at all.  King Henry IV displaced (and probably murdered) King Richard II.  His son, King Henry V, was a great soldier who might have turned into a great king.  His victory at Agincourt resulted in the Treaty of Troyes, which made Henry V the heir to the French king Charles VI.  England and France would be united under one ruler.  A super-state that could dominate Europe loomed on the horizon.  When Henry V died very young, his son became king when he was one year old.  King Henry VI of England[1] was “simple-minded,” mentally-unstable, and gender-dysphoric.  Not a good combination for a Medieval king.[2]

The weakness of Henry VI empowered other men.  On the one hand, great nobles led the fight to hold on to England’s French empire.  The long war exhausted both countries.  Oddly, defeat in that war discredited King Henry VI more than it did the men who had insisted on waging the war.  On the other hand, the descendants of the deposed King Richard II began to assert their claim to the throne.  Richard, Duke of York, began what came to be called “The War of the Roses” (1455-1485).  That civil war ended, at first, in a “Yorkist” victory.  Then the victory proved unstable, thanks largely to the efforts of Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s queen.[3]  However, in the end, the House of York trampled down the House of Lancaster.[4]  The once-again-deposed king, Henry VI, soon died under murky circumstances.  “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun/son of York.”

It was a short summer.  Soon, a distant relative of Henry VI overthrew the last Yorkist king, Richard III.  Nature better endowed King Henry VII to be king than it did King Henry VI.  However, only Henry VII’s grand-daughter Queen Elizabeth I, matched him and “the former lions of your blood” in ability.  So, monarchy was a bit of a crap-shoot.  So, Revolution is…?

[1] Lauren Johnson, The Shadow King: The Life and Death of Henry VI (2019).

[2] Or a modern elected president.  Not that I think President Trump is gender-dysphoric.  Far from it!

[3] She was more man then most men.

[4] Lancaster, not Lannister, but that seems to be where George R.R. Martin found his inspiration for “Game of Thrones.”

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