June 15th, 1215. A field in Runnymede. After months of tense negotiations that went so far as to involve the Pope as arbiter, King John of England is forced by his barons to sign a charter that set out to severely curtail his rights as king. Among other things this charter stated that all citizens of England had a right to be tried by the laws of the land and not to be punished arbitrarily at the whim of the king. It set up a council of barons that declared they had the right to arrest the king and confiscate his lands if he failed to live up to the concessions made in the charter. In essence, this charter declared that the king was not above the law. This was Magna Carta.
I’m pretty sure that anyone who speaks English and has gone to school has heard of the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta was the foundation of constitutional government. But taken within the context of the time in which it was enacted, it is a powerful sign of the constant struggle in the Middle Ages between monarchs and their vassals.
Something that I think modern people forget is that royal rule in the Middle Ages wasn’t always absolute. In fact, it fluctuated wildly depending on who the monarch of any given kingdom was and how much power they wielded. Time and again through the Middle Ages the nobility rose to eclipse the king in terms of wealth, power, and prestige.
I’ve been taking a look at topics that arise in my forthcoming novel The Faithful Heart these last few weeks. The question of who was really in charge of the day to day life in a Medieval shire definitely plays a part in this book. Several decisions are made at what we would consider to be a local level that have an enormous impact on the lives of the people of Derbyshire. Readers may notice that a lot of power is wielded and armies are raised without the direct influence or say-so of the crown. But how realistic is this?
As I discussed way, way back months ago in my post The Truth About Feudalism, Medieval society was strictly hierarchical. The king sat at the top of the hierarchy and the lords of the land swore their fealty to him. The lords, in turn, had their own vassals, lesser freemen and peasants, who swore fealty to them. Those at the top swore to protect and provide for those under them while those underneath provided their lord or king with money, labor, or military service. Ideally it was a utopic situation where everyone got what they needed and everyone was taken care of.
Yeah. Things are rarely ideal.
The reality was that like the children’s game “King of the Castle”, someone was always trying to knock the man at the top off his pedestal. The Middle Ages were a cauldron of constant battle, as witnessed by the myriad of castles throughout Europe. Someone was always fighting someone. Most of these wars were personal wars, not international ones. The power of the king could only extend so far and when any given lord became powerful enough to defeat his neighbors, he turned his sights on the king himself.
Strong kings had no problem holding onto their kingdoms. Weak kings had serious problems on their hands.
Take, for example, an 11th century lord who was known as William the Bastard. True, he was Duke of Normandy (and oh my gosh, it’s quite a story of how he got that position considering he was illegitimate!) but that wasn’t good enough for him. He had a vague connection to the English king Edward the Confessor. When Edward died childless and Harold Godwinson was raised to the throne in 1066, William pretty much said “to hell with that!” and raised his own army to jump across the Channel and invade. Well, as we all know, William traded the tag “the Bastard” for “the Conqueror” and revolutionized the kingdom of England.
This is a classic case of a noble becoming more powerful than a monarch and overthrowing them. William the Conqueror had a very good relationship with Edward the Confessor. Edward himself was well-respected for his effectiveness as a monarch and his piety. King Harold was a disaster. He couldn’t hold his own nobles together. William walked right in with his personal army and squashed the Anglo-Saxon king. But then he laid down the law, building castles, instituting taxes, and more or less turning the English social order on its head. He was able to maintain his position through the strength of his army and the effectiveness of his government.
Every English king from the Conqueror on faced rebellion of some sort or another. After all, William had risen from the ranks of the nobles to take over an entire country, so what was to say someone else, someone with a shred of a claim to the throne, couldn’t do the same? And guess what? They did. When William the Conqueror died his son William became king. All right and good like it should have been. When William II died his brother Henry came to the throne. Still following legitimate lines of succession. But when Henry I died, rather than his daughter Matilda becoming queen regent as was planned, his nephew, Stephen of Blois, snuck in and had himself crowned King Stephen, thus causing a messy civil war as Stephen and Matilda fought for the throne. The country was divided. Central government all but disappeared. The barons took sides and rode the war out by doing whatever they wanted at home, including building castles and raising their own armies.
When Henry II, Matilda’s son, crossed the Channel with an army like his grandfather the Conqueror in 1153, he was strong enough to batter King Stephen into submission. When Stephen died in 1154, Henry was pretty much king in everything but name anyhow. Henry II was an awesome king, strong, smart, and effective. As soon as he became king he flexed his royal muscles, tearing down the castles of his rival lords who had become too strong and re-imposing the scuttage tax, money paid in lieu of military service, so that he could hire an army to keep his nobles in line. He was an intelligent, charismatic man who knew how to rule and how to demand that the nobles accept his authority.
Unfortunately for England, Henry II was followed by a king who wasn’t only weak, he was absent for most of his reign, our old friend King Richard the Lionheart. Once again power shifted back to the lords, aka the barons, who got used to administrating their own lands and running their own show. Which brings us back to where we started, King John and the Magna Carta. King John tried to be a strong king like his father but the barons, used to things the way they had been under Richard I, wouldn’t have it. Voila! Magna Carta.
So why did I just run through 150+ years of English royal history in three seconds? To point out that royal power in England during the time that The Loyal Heart and The Faithful Heart take place was far from absolute and assumed. For someone to be raised to the position of earl, for example, was to give them the power to rule in miniature over the lives of all of the people in their area. It gave them the potential to rise even higher if they had the guts to do it.