Sunday, May 19, 2013

Henry VI and the Weird European Model of Kingship

There was something wrong with Henry VI of England. We don't really know what, but he suffered from long bouts of complete withdrawal from the world, and even when he was "sane" he was not quite right. Here is one assessment:
Henry himself was a gentle, devout and kindly man, but he was said to have been "unsteadfast of wit". He did not appear to enjoy wearing the magnificent clothing expected of a sovereign and often dressed simply "like a farmer". Unlike his warlike father, Henry possessed a strong aversion to violence and was deeply, even obsessively, devoted to religion.
Does that sound like the sort of person you would want to lead your country in a time of war? The royal family's own web site says,
Henry's cultural patronage and genuine interest in education (he founded Eton and King's College, Cambridge) were outweighed by his patchy and partisan interest in administration.
I have been thinking about this because I am listening to an ok historical novel about the period, which depicts people desperately trying to get King Henry to make any decision.  Sometimes he simply will not, leaving them floundering. But when he does, they treat it as a royal pronouncement. As if he weren't a moron who should not have been trusted with running a farm, let alone a kingdom.

In the late Middle Ages, Europe settled on a model of kingship that we now think of as normal: the eldest son inherits the throne, regardless of whether he is in any way suitable. He is the king, and that's that. But this rigid succession is very unusual in history. In many more societies, the new king had to be a capable leader. He was usually drawn from the royal family, but there might be many claimants: all the old king's sons, along with his brothers, nephews, and even cousins. The decision of which man to crown was made in various ways. The old king might try to settle the throne on his favorite heir before he died, or the aristocrats of the kingdom might get together and choose one of the potential claimants, or there might be a civil war with the last man standing becoming he king. But the people of the realm would not sit back and watch the throne pass to an idiot or a weakling.

Even stranger to most of humanity was the European habit of crowning children. When Henry's father died, he was only a year old, but he still became the king. In the picture above, Henry's mother presents him to the nobles of the realm. Henry was actually crowned when he was eight, and all the nobles did homage to him. To an eight-year-old! Is that not insane? Do you know any eight-year-olds?

You've all seen the Lion King, I suppose, but did it ever strike you how weird it is that they have a big ceremony and hold up this little baby and all the huge elephants and rhinos and all the other animals bow to it? It is perfectly true to the European model of kingship, but it is also utterly absurd.

This is Edward VI, the eventual product of Henry VIII's mad quest for a male heir. He was no great shakes, either, although it is hard to know since he was made king at nine and died when he was 15. And after he died the crown passed according to the rigid interpretation of the law to the Catholic Mary Tudor, plunging England into religious turmoil, and then after she died to the Protestant (and very strange) Elizabeth, who had spent her whole life under what amounted to house arrest. This is completely insane.

How Europeans came to arrange things this way is a mystery. It wasn't just kingship; all the noble families adopted similar policies, and it came to be more and more the rule that properties passed intact to the eldest son, rather than being divided among all the children, or all the sons. It may have grown out of a longing for stability, bred by centuries of disorder. But however it happened, it led us into a crazy world of mature men and women bowing down to babies, and lunatics holding power over great kingdoms.

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