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The third chapter in the volume’s third thematic strand (Individuals and Institutions) is dedicated to kingship and consensus in the age of William the Conqueror. After exploring the scholarly status quo and the historical and Biblical foundations of medieval kingship models prevalent in the Anglo-Norman world of the eleventh century, the chapter turns to a discussion of the writings of William of Poitiers and his contemporaries, before scrutinising the application of these kingship models to the everyday realities of the Conqueror’s cross-Channel realm.
Kings could propose an heir, but they could not guarantee his (or, more rarely, her) succession. They could, however, prepare heirs for the moment when they would have to convince the people at large that they deserved to inherit the throne. Chapter 6 follows the several stages in which heirs demonstrated their suitability for the throne, and the means they had at their disposal to ensure that they had the backing they needed. It does so by tracing the ideal type of royal heir from designation (often in childhood) to a ruler’s death. Topics discussed include the political and literary education of princes, the entry into adulthood as signified by knighting and marriage, and taking charge of the funeral proceedings for a recently deceased king. Each demonstrated adherence to abstract norms of royal lordship – that is, moral suitability. Each also served more pragmatic ends. They allowed an heir to gain experience, allies and resources with which to pursue a claim to the throne. As in the creation of kingship, suitability and might went hand in hand with right.
The conclusion draws together key themes. In particular, it deals with the question of the people and with change over time. On the one hand, the ‘people’ below the ranks of elite churchmen and aristocrats were excluded from the king-making process. On the other hand, their welfare was central to the moral framework of kingship. How could this tension be reconciled? How could it be utilised and exploited by political actors? Furthermore, accounts of king-making projected an ideal of timelessness: rulers merely continued a long line of kings, for example, and were but the most recent in a sequence of leaders of a community. Public acts like designation, election or inauguration hearkened back to an ideal status quo ante rooted in the Bible. What did this mean for historical change? How did contemporary observers deal with issues of a ruler’s life cycle, or with the span of individual experience? How could change be incorporated into an ideal of timelessness?
What are we talking about when we talk about high medieval Latin Europe? That is the key question underpinning the first chapter. It draws attention to shared political structures and the common cultural framework within which men and women of the central Middle Ages engaged with the practice and the ideal of kingship. In sketches both the resources and means of governance at the disposal of rulers and ruled, and the intellectual toolkit available to them in thinking about the role and purpose of the king’s office. The chapter furthermore highlights what sets the period apart from the Carolingian era and the later Middle Ages, and explores how people viewed their part of the world as a coherent whole, related to but distinctive from the Islamic world and Byzantium.
Almost every royal succession involved an act of election, partly because, in practice, most successions were disputed, and because there were several candidates for the throne. Even heirs who had been designated and accepted during their predecessor’s lifetime had to have their title confirmed by their leading subjects. Chapter 7 explores the normative framework of elections, and two of its underlying principles: unanimity and probity. In theory, electors merely confirmed a choice that god had already made for them. Yet what did it mean in practice, especially if there were several claimants, if a chosen heir turned out to be inept or tyrant, or if he was under age? And the precise meaning of abstract norms was open to debate, and had to be defined through consensus. Unanimity alone, for instance, was never sufficient: it had to be the right kind of unanimity, reached for the right reasons and by the right people, and it could be achieved over time. Equally, electors were supposed to ensure the moral probity of the king – because that reflected their own moral character. How, then, could that be accomplished? How could consensus be created?
For kingship to be more than testimony to an individual’s ambition, it had to be passed on to the next generation. In theory, that should be a ruler’s eldest son. In practice that occurred in only a third of royal successions. Almost by definition, successions were therefore moments of uncertainty – for the realm, for a dying king’s relatives, for his dependents and followers. Yet because successions were inherently uncertain, the people at large played a far more significant role than scholars have often recognised. They would be called upon to conform a proposed settlement, for instance, but they were not bound by it. On a ruler’s death, it fell to them to reconsider and confirm. In other instances, they had to choose between a range of candidates with equally valid claims. Matters were complicated further by the fact that successions were supposed to be organised according to principles of descent and suitability. Ideally, each reinforced the other. In practice, the latter was frequently used to trump the former. Legitimacy was therefore in the eye of the beholder, which made it all the more important that the selection of an heir was recognised and accepted by the people at large.
In order for kingship to be legitimate, it had to be recognised. Only tyrants and usurpers would claim a royal title. Righteous rulers had their dignity thrust upon them. Yet a process of recognition also carried risks: the ability to award or confirm a royal title carried with it a responsibility to ensure that only those suitable of so elevated a dignity received it. Confirming tyrants cast into doubt one’s own legitimacy. Failing to come to the defence of a ruler one had recognised signalled that one lacked judgment, power or authority. Building on biblical, classical and patristic models, awarding royal titles meant that one was responsible for the conduct of the king. Yet that created a tension, given that kings were supposed to be beholden to nobody but God – one could not be a king unless one held power greater than that of a mere prince, but if one allowed others to intervene in the affairs of one's own realm, that power was called into question. Chapter 4 explores how high medieval observers engaged with these issues. It does so in relation to recognition both external (from popes, emperors or neighbours) and internal (from subjects and erstwhile peers).
Chapter 9 discusses royal inaugurations. It starts out with three particularly well-documented case studies: the enthronement of Emperor Conrad II in 1024, of King Richard Lionheart of England in 1189 and of King Alexander III of Scotland in 1249. The chapter draws attention to the variety of practices adopted in high medieval Europe, and shows that inaugurations cannot be reduced to just one event, but that they include a series of interlocking acts, such as the inauguration itself, but also processions and feasts. Each stage was designed to reinforce basic principles of the royal office, to ensure the continuity of the realm and to display the right order of the world. Particular attention is paid to the process of inauguration as reflecting the status not only of the ruler, but also of his leading subjects, and to the relationship between the ruler and the divine. Kingship was inherently sacred and sacral, but that meant something quite different in a high medieval context than in the modern imagination.
The introduction sets the scene. It places the book in a broader historiographical context, and outlines the key research questions underpinning it. It introduces key concepts, such as political culture, and outlines the range of sources used: chronicles, annals, saints' lives, liturgical texts, letters and charters. It draws attention to rapid changes in the political geography of medieval Latin Europe, and the self-perception of its inhabitants in relation to Byzantium and the Islamic world. The introduction also marks out what is new and different about the book: its focus not on the ruler, but on his subjects; their role in choosing a king, in defining the framework of rules for the successful exercise of the king’s office; and the extent to which they could also frame the practice of royal lordship. A defining theme is that these issues can best be explored by adopting a transeuropean perspective, which has not so far been attempted.
Chapter 10 continues the theme of royal inaugurations as a process, covering the events immediately following on from a ruler’s enthronement to his first few years on the throne. Having been awarded a royal title did not inure a king against challenges and rivals. It normally took about 3–4 years before a ruler’s grip on power was secure. Successful rulers were those who overcame challenges during these years, while those who failed might either be disposed or replaced, or struggle to assert their authority fully across the realm. Key to success was a new king’s ability to demonstrate that he abided by the normative framework of royal power. He ruled for the common good, not for private gain. Yet what did this mean in practice? How could he win over those opposed to his kingship, erstwhile competitors and disappointed nobles? What was the role of the his subjects during these first few years? How could they seek to shape the governance of the realm? What was the role of force, and how did it relate to the doing of justice? How could generosity be balanced with equity? How did rulers deal with acts of disruption and dispute?