High Middle Ages: Political Developments

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High Middle Ages: Political Developments


Selection of Kings. Much of the security and many of the problems faced by the largest and most populous kingdoms of the post-Carolingian Middle Ages can be traced to the ways they chose their kings and how they viewed those monarchs once they had been selected. In the case of Germany and France, the new era began when the last Carolingian king was replaced by a non-Carolingian ruler; for England it started with the succession to the monarchy after the death of William the Conqueror. (Scandinavian, Spanish, and eastern European kingdoms are not be considered here both because of their size and their frequent lack of stability.)

Election Method. Arnulf, the king of the East Franks and victor over the Vikings at the battle of the Dyle in 891, was succeeded by his young son, appropriately named Ludwig III the Child, who died without an heir in 911. With his death the eastern branch of the Carolingian dynasty perished. The East Frankish nobles thus became the first to have to choose a non-Carolingian king, and they did so by the election method. In other words, when a king died, his successor would not necessarily be his son. Instead, the more powerful nobles of the realm, serving as electors, would meet and decide, generally among themselves, who would succeed the deceased king. From a twenty-first-century viewpoint this system might seem more democratic and therefore present more of a consensus and fewer disagreements, and the first election certainly seemed to verify this view, as Conrad I, the duke of Franconia, was easily elected and reigned from 911 to 918. (Franconia was Germany’s second most powerful duchy, but as Henry, the duke of the most powerful duchy, Saxony, was quite old and expected to die soon, the electors passed him by.) However, such a system was fraught with potential and eventual problems. For one thing, if there were two (or more) strong candidates who vied for the kingship that obviously only one of them could hold, the loser and his supporters generally became bitter and dissatisfied with the selection, sometimes even waging civil war against the new king. This rivalry was exemplified in the election of 1125 when, after the death of King Henry V, the electors in Germany chose the duke of Saxony, Lothar of Supplinburg, over the nearest relative to childless Henry, Frederick the One-Eyed, Duke of Swabia. Immediately, a struggle between the two, Lothar, of the Guelf house, and Frederick, of the Ghibel-line house, ensued. Eventually, this struggle would develop into a civil war that would spread throughout Germany and Italy and last until the beginning of the fourteenth century.

Frederick Barbarossa. A second disputed election occurred in 1152 when Frederick Barbarossa, the duke of Swabia, won the throne over Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony. For most of his reign Frederick was forced to fight for control of the kingdom against Henry and his supporters, a fight that even took him by various expeditions into Italy, against the many city-states that did not support his kingship. Ultimately, it made him one of the strongest kings of medieval Germany; it was, however, a reputation that was gained only on the blood of large numbers of Germans and Italians.

Voice of the Pope. Another problem that came with the election system of naming a new king was that these German rulers were to be, by tradition, the descendants of Charlemagne’s title, Holy Roman Emperor. Yet, this came about only if the pope at the time of his election deemed

that king worthy of being named as Holy Roman Emperor. Thus, the voice of the pope also played a role in the election of a new emperor, although to be historically accurate only rarely did the will of the papacy matter to the German electors. What resulted, however, was several German kings who were not named as Holy Roman Emperor. Moreover, when there was a politically aggressive pope on the throne, he would sometimes go to great lengths, even to excommunication, to try and remove a German king from the throne whom he particularly disliked. Thus, Pope Gregory VII not only excommunicated King Henry IV twice but also tried to provoke a rebellion against him among the other German nobles. (Henry’s response was to march to Rome, imprison the pope, and name an “anti-pope,” Clement III, in his stead, Clement then naming the king as Holy Roman Emperor.) While Pope Innocent III, who had supported a candidate he named as emperor, Otto IV, excommunicated the elected king Frederick II no fewer than three times, once for simply planning a Crusade without the pope’s permission. (Frederick’s response was to simply ignore the pontiff, who after all had limited political and military powers.) So, while on the surface the electoral system seemed more democratic and reliable, it must be blamed for the political chaos and civil war that was evident throughout much of the history of the

German kingdom (including Italy) from the twelfth century until the end of the Middle Ages.

Hugh Capet. The French, who named their first non-Carolingian king later than the Germans, would not repeat their neighbors’ problems. Instead, at the death of their last Carolingian king, Louis V, in 987, the power to select a new king was held completely by the duke of the Franks (whose power base lay in the lands around Paris), Hugh the Great, and his son, Hugh Capet. At the death of the childless Louis, Hugh Capet immediately and without opposition named himself king. In addition, he brought into this enterprise the archbishop of Reims, the most revered ecclesiastical leader in France, who signed on to this exchange of power when he crowned Hugh as king by declaring that he was receiving the crown “by divine right.” God had determined that he was to be king. This declaration, while seemingly only a disposable addition to the naming of this new king, set a precedent in France that was tied to the kingships of no other European kings: God wanted Hugh Capet and his successors to be kings, and, therefore, anyone opposing them would be opposing God. Cynically, one would think that such a belief would not have affected any baronial opposition to the French king, and yet, despite the presence of often far more powerful lords than the kings they served under, such as the dukes of Normandy, the counts of Aquitaine, and the counts of Flanders, few rebellions against the Capetian dynasty are recorded during their uninterrupted rule from 987 to 1328.

Henry I. If the French succession system proved to increase the power and security of its kings and the German system proved to weaken and endanger its kings, the English system might be said to have fallen in between. William the Conqueror’s victory at the Battle of Hastings (1066) gave him a military legitimacy over the English kingdom, which he quickly parlayed into an absolute kingship. Lords in England were set up by him from those who had distinguished themselves in the conquest. They were his companions, faithful to him as their leader and devoted to him for their titles and land. However, when William died in 1087, there became some confusion over which one of his three sons should rule over England and Normandy. Before he died, William had named his eldest son, Robert, as duke of Normandy and his second son, William Rufus, as king of England. Why did he split his holdings? And why had he given the duchy of Normandy to his eldest son, but the kingdom of England, certainly more independent from the French crown, if not more important overall, to his middle son? Was it possible that he saw in William Rufus a stronger leader? Actually, the latter point became moot when within a few years it proved that the strongest of all three of William’s sons was neither of those who inherited their father’s territories at his death but the youngest son, Henry. First, Henry took over the English throne when William Rufus was killed in a hunting accident, and then he rose against Robert, defeated him at the Battle of Tinchebrai in 1109, and took over the duchy of Normandy as well. Later, he also proved his military abilities and claim to his father’s territories by defeating his nephew, Robert’s son, William of Clito, at the battle of Bremule, despite the presence of the French king, Louis VI, in support of William of Clito. He also put down an uprising among his English nobles at the battle of Northallerton in 1138 (also known as the Battle of the Standard).

Strife among the Successors. The concept of “divine right” to rule might have saved Henry I in the latter conflict, as it had so often kept the French king from baronial uprisings, but such had never been declared in England. Nor would it be declared, and this situation meant that almost every king who sat on the throne there had to contend with noble uprisings and civil war. The most egregious of these would come at the death of Henry I when a dispute arose over who would succeed him as king. Henry’s named heir, his nephew Stephen, was quickly opposed by Henry’s daughter, Mathilda, who had her own English supporters. What resulted was a devastating civil war that lasted from 1139 to 1153. A second example of this type of baronial chaos occurred during the reign of King John, when in 1215 the lords of England forced their monarch to sign the Magna Carta, which gave them certain powers over the king, a move provoked by John’s loss of most of the English lands in France. A third example of baronial infighting can be seen during the reign of John’s son, Henry III, for despite weathering an earnest

effort to unseat him by one of his barons, Simon de Montfort, he was constantly forced to sign away more of his powers to the nobles in amended versions of the Magna Carta; eventually, this included the establishment of the first English Parliament. Put simply, without the “divine right” to rule provision of the French crown, the English kings were forced to prove their military leadership. Should they be strong military leaders, such as Henry I, Henry II, and Edward I, they had peace at home and conquest abroad; should they be weak military leaders, like Stephen, John, Henry III, or Edward II, they suffered internal uprisings and, generally, also suffered military losses to foreign powers.

Dual Kingdoms. Because of the protection of the English Channel, when these losses to foreign powers came, they came largely at the expense of English holdings in France. A curious thing occurred when William the Conqueror became king of England. This development meant that the king of England was also, as duke of Normandy, obligated to do homage to the king of France. Perhaps this is the reason why William separated the two holdings between his eldest sons at his death. However, because of Henry I’s dissatisfaction with this inheritance, the two lands once again became joined only a short time after the death of William. Furthermore, with the succession of Henry II to the English throne after the death of Stephen (the irony of this situation was that Henry II was Mathilda’s son, Stephen’s foe throughout almost his entire reign), the county of Anjou in France was also added to the English royal holdings, and with Henry II’s marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, so too was her inheritance, the duchies of Aquitaine and Gascony and the counties of Ponthieu and Poitou. As a result, when their son, Richard I (the Lionhearted), succeeded to the kingship of England, he held much more land in France than all of the other nobles combined, and certainly more than the king of France, Philip II (Philip Augustus). Of course, this situation led to the difficulties between those two kings on the Third Crusade (1189-1192) and to Philip’s attacks of these lands after he had returned from the Holy Land. Richard I, in returning from the Crusades and from his imprisonment by the duke of Austria, spent the rest of his life trying to defend those same French holdings; he would die after being shot by a crossbow during one of these wars. Ultimately, Philip II would defeat the armies of the Holy Roman Empire, England, and thier allies at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214. Philip II’s impressive victory there led to the confiscation of all of the other English lands in France except for Gascony. Yet, this was not to be the last English-French war, as the Hundred Years’ War (1337—1453) would prove.

Basis of Power. All of these royal selection systems produced powerful nobles. Because the early medieval tradition and policy of military obligation, once called by the generic title “feudalism,” had not changed with the selection of post-Carolingian kings, and in fact had been imported by William the Conqueror into England with his conquest, there was always a large political level of nobility that wielded power in their kingdoms. Furthermore, as can be seen, for example, in the problems that occurred between the English and French kingdoms; sometimes these nobles exceeded the wealth and power of the king himself. What must be recognized is that these nobles, too, based their power on their own military strength. To improve this strength these nobles practiced their military skills in tournaments and other displays, and to show their worth above those of the lower classes they practiced chivalry and built large stone castles.

Internal Threat. As no king anywhere in Europe before the fourteenth century possessed a “national” standing army, they were reliant upon the noble retinues to provide them with armies. This dependence produced two problems: first, it meant that any time a king wished to carry out a military expedition, either against an internal or a foreign foe, he was forced to rely on his nobles, some of whom simply did not reply to his requests; second, it also meant that any potentially rebellious noble had at least the kernel of an army that he could lead against the king in his own retinue. For any European king to begin to form a state in the early modern or modern ideal, he had first to remove this kind of power from his nobles. This development would not come until the last century of the Middle Ages.


Christopher Brooke, Europe in the Central Middle Ages, 962-1154, third edition (Harlow, U.K. & New York: Longman, 2000).

R. H. C. Davis, A History of Medieval Europe: From Constantine to Saint Louis (London & New York: Longmans, Green, 1957).

John H. Mundy, Europe in the High Middle Ages, 1150-1300, third edition (Harlow, U.K. & New York: Longman, 2000).

Brian Tierney and Sidney Painter, Western Europe in the Middle Ages, 300-1475, sixth edition (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998).