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This chapter looks at two ways that contemporaries sought to deal with the fundamental unpredictability of the dynastic world. The scientific approach was to look for predictions in the stars, and astrology was a learned practice in many of the courts of the medieval world. There are surviving horoscopes for many medieval monarchs and astrologers received the patronage of such rulers as Manuel Comnenus, Frederick II and Alfonso the Wise. A tradition of Christian criticism of astrology did not make much impact on this courtly obsession. A less scientific method of divining the future was to have recourse to prophecies and visions, either those of contemporary visionaries or those recorded in ancient books. The Vision of Charles the Fat is analysed in detail as an example of the former, the Prophecies of Merlin as an example of the latter. Merlin’s prophecies spread throughout Europe and generated a large body of interpretation. They offered a tempting key to dynastic events, and their ambiguity meant they could be continually adopted to new situations and given new meanings. The chapter concludes with the case study of Eleanor Cobham, duchess of Gloucester, who efforts to divine the dynastic future brought about her downfall.
This chapter looks at “new men” who created ruling dynasties, beginning with the foundation legends of the Piasts of Poland and Premyslids of Bohemia and moving on to Adam of Dryburgh ’s portrayal of the roots of the major dynasties of his own day. Dynasties that came to power through usurpation, such as the Carolingians and Capetians, sought to stress or fabricate biological links with the previous dynasty, just as the marriage of Henry I of England and his queen Edith/Matilda could be seen as uniting the blood of the Wessex and Norman kings. New dynasties often meant exclusion of members of old dynasties, and two notable examples of such excluded dynasts, Charles of Lorraine and Edgar Atheling, are discussed. The most remarkable new dynasties were those that founded new kingdoms, such as the Norman kingdom of Sicily.
Throughout medieval Europe, for hundreds of years, monarchy was the way that politics worked in most countries. This meant power was in the hands of a family - a dynasty; that politics was family politics; and political life was shaped by the births, marriages and deaths of the ruling family. How did the dynastic system cope with female rule, or pretenders to the throne? How did dynasties use names, the numbering of rulers and the visual display of heraldry to express their identity? And why did some royal families survive and thrive, while others did not? Drawing on a rich and memorable body of sources, this engaging and original history of dynastic power in Latin Christendom and Byzantium explores the role played by family dynamics and family consciousness in the politics of the royal and imperial dynasties of Europe. From royal marriages and the birth of sons, to female sovereigns, mistresses and wicked uncles, Robert Bartlett makes enthralling sense of the complex web of internal rivalries and loyalties of the ruling dynasties and casts fresh light on an essential feature of the medieval world.
This chapter looks at elective monarchy and also the way dynasties interacted with powers of a non-dynastic nature. The papacy is a notable example of elective monarchy but the most important case of elective kingship is the Holy Roman Empire, where the long-term dynasties of the tenth to thirteenth centuries never completely eroded the elective principle, and where the later Middle Ages saw seven different dynasties in power. Although the Church offered the chance of ecclesiastical office to members of the aristocracy throughout Europe, the ruling dynasties did not follow their practice of placing younger sons in the Church to any extent, though royal women were placed in monasteries. Republics, though rare, could be found in Venice and Iceland, and embryonic republican institutions arose in many of the larger cities, and this often led to conflict between towns and their nominal dynastic overlords, notably in the case of the Holy Roman Emperors and the Lombard Leagues of northern Italy. Relations might also be tense between dynasties and the kingdoms they ruled, where the community of the realm, perhaps organized in representative estates, might well decide it had its own interests distinct from and possibly antagonistic to its dynastic sovereigns.
This chapter begins by discussing the ways that kings tried to ensure that they would be succeeded by their sons, through designation or coronation in the father’s lifetime. Such strategies would also remove the danger of interregna, kingless gaps between reigns. Written rules of succession are also found, increasingly frequently in the later Middle Ages, a period that also saw the development of formal titles for the heir, such as Dauphin and Prince of Wales, although such titles did not in fact make the succession any more secure. Eventually it came to be commonly held that the heir succeeded immediately on the king’s death. Since kings’ sons were brought up to expect to rule, they sometimes became impatient waiting for their fathers to die and this could lead to armed conflict between father and son. The short life expectancy of the medieval period also meant that kings often died while their sons were young and hence decisions had to be made about whether to accept a minor king. Some systems, e.g. the Irish, excluded this possibility, but there are at least 90 medieval cases, when arrangements for some form of regency were necessary, with all the competitive politics it involved.
This chapter looks at cultural expressions of dynastic consciousness. Some dynasties associated themselves with a particular saint, on occasion one drawn from their own family, as in the case of Wenceslas and the rulers of Bohemia or St Louis and the Capetians, and such family connections were publicly celebrated in images and writing. Murals and statues of forebears conveyed a message of dynastic continuity, and examples can be found from the Carolingian period down to the late Middle Ages, with notable cases being the forty-one statues of kings of France in the royal palace in Paris and the nineteen of the counts of Barcelona and kings of Aragon in the royal place in Barcelona. The development of heraldry in the twelfth century presented a new, public and visual, way of expressing dynastic identity, and royal families adopted them early. By the end of the Middle Ages, elaborate coats-of-arms conveyed elaborate genealogical information. Simultaneously, graphic family trees were devised and developed, with sophisticated illustration and layout. In late medieval England they often took the form of long parchment rolls, ideal for expressing descent through time. Bernard Gui’s Tree of the Lineage of the Kings of the French is analysed in detail.
So why did the dynastic system of political power come to an end? The first answer is that it didn’t completely. Apart from the few remaining countries where hereditary monarchs still exercise real political power, there have also been some modern dictatorships where sons have been groomed to step into their father’s shoes, as in the case of North Korea, and even in democracies there have been political dynasties producing recurrent presidents. Nevertheless, direct transmission of ruling power through inheritance has virtually disappeared. Office has been distinguished from property, the latter being quite legitimately transmitted on family lines, while the former cannot be. And this distinction was made during the period of the dynastic system. A French lawyer writing in 1419 puts it very clearly: ‘The lordship that the king has in the kingdom is of a different kind from the lordship of property that is transmitted through family inheritance.’
This chapter deals with family dynamics other than the father-son relationship. In the early middle ages, and in some parts of Europe later than that, the claims of younger sons could be met by dividing the kingdom, and some of these divisions marked European history ever after (the consequence of the Treaty of Verdun are discussed in detail). But once unitary succession had been established in the major kingdoms, as it was by 1100, kings had either to remove their younger brothers by force or devise ways of satisfying their ambitions. This could sometimes be done by giving them apanages, portions of the royal estate, but this presented the problem of reintegrating them. Kings also faced ambitious and sometimes ruthless uncles. Cousin conflict could become lethal, as in the conflict between France and Burgundy. The later part of the chapter discusses issues around queens consort: their vulnerability to charges of adultery, their complex relations with their sons, and the role of royal stepmothers.
This chapter discusses the life-expectancy of rulers, the frequency of violent death in different times and places and burial practices. Some dynasties developed long-lasting mausolea, notably the kings of France at St.-Denis, but in other realms there were changes in the choice of royal burial church, sometimes reflecting changes in dynasty, sometimes alterations in the territory of the kingdom. Reinterments of the royal dead, which were not rare, had public political significance. There is discussion of the physical qualities of tombs, their material, grave goods and epitaphs, and also the development of tomb effigies, including the joint effigies of kings and queens sometimes found in the later Middle Ages. The burial of body parts in different places multiplied centres of remembrance, despite official disapproval of the practice by the papacy. Finally, cases of damnatio memoriae, the conscious desecration of enemy tombs, are discussed.
Monarchies are now rare in the world, numbering around twenty in a system of almost two hundred independent states, but for hundreds of years monarchy was the way that politics worked in most countries. And monarchy meant power was in the hands of a family – a dynasty – and hence politics was family politics. It was not elections or referenda that shaped political life, but the births, marriages and deaths of the ruling family. This added further unpredictability to the unpredictable business of ruling. Even in modern Western democracies there have been political dynasties producing recurrent presidents, such as George Bush (1989–93) and George W. Bush (2001–9) in the USA, although this is rare. And the crucial thing about these democracies is that while George W. Bush could legitimately inherit personal property from his father, he could not inherit office.
This chapter discusses queens regnant and empresses regnant, women ruling in their own right. It is based on a provisional list of 27 cases. The earliest (in the frame of this book) are in Byzantium, Irene (797-802) and the sisters Zoe and Theodora in the eleventh century. The title of the latter is clearly seen as hereditary right, even though it seems that only slight efforts were made to ensure biological continuity of the dynasty. In contrast, the earliest western European case of a queen regnant, Urraca of Leon-Castile, shows how persistently her father sought to obtain a male heir, although he was willing to see her as his successor when he was left without one. The cluster of twelfth-century cases, Urraca, Melisende of Jerusalem and (ultimately unsuccessfully) Matilda. of England are analysed, and the issue of misogyny in the sources discussed. Female sovereigns are much more common in the Mediterranean and Iberian realms than further north. Though they are rarer in the thirteenth century than in the twelfth, fourteenth or fifteenth, this seems to have been purely circumstantial. The one explicit attempt to exclude women from succession, in late medieval France, is the result of one specific political crisis.