A Medieval Trope and Medieval Connections in “The English Civil War”

“The long catalogue starts at ‘the beginning of His Majesty’s reign’, in 1625, when Charles was aged twenty-four. The king himself is not blamed for them. At this stage the conventions of deference still persuaded MPs to attribute misrule to evil advisors and conspirators around the monarch.” (Worden, 5-6)

“The king was in the meantime at Westminster, where he attended the conference on the image_flores_open_large9th of October, as he had promised the nobles, in order to consult with them as to the reforms necessary to be made in the kingdom; but the evil advise which he followed presented this being carried out…The bishops, on hearing these words, as if with one voice threatened to excommunicate by name the principal amongst these evil advisors of the king…” (Roger Wendover, Flores Historiarum, 572)

As some of you may know, I recently defended my MA thesis, part of which focused on the influence the Second Barons War (1258-1265) ┬áhad on national identity in thirteenth-century England. In many ways, the English Civil War reflects many of the issues at stake in the Second Barons War, most notably issues of ancient laws and customs (referring to the “good laws” of the Anglo-Saxon past), the prerogative of the king in matter of finance, and the king’s ability to select his own advisors. The parallels for me are almost too incredible and familiar, a point which I would like to stress in this blog post.

A common trope in medieval history was indirect criticism of the king through complaint targeted at his advisors. There are a few practical reasons to do this: one, to avoid personally offending the king, an act that could cause WLA_vanda_Cast_of_Tomb_Effigy_Henry_IIIloss of favor and royal patronage; another is to avoid breaching what I will call the king’s “majesty,” or in other words criticizing the institution itself, the physical embodiment of the people and nation (in most cases those two things were one and the same). In my MA thesis I call this idea into question to a degree. Scholars have often taken any criticism of the king’s advisors to mean criticism or personal grievance towards the king himself. Indeed, they suggest that the advisors were mere scapegoats for the actual inadequacy and incompetence of the king. However, as I point out, in the case of Henry III it appears as though the evils attributed to Henry’s advisors came be seen in both lights. In fact, the nobles seeking amends for injustices done on the part of the royal government are both levied against the misconduct of royal advisors (as illustrated above in the second quote) and the king’s reliance on them. In this case, I make the argument that the nobles were careful to aim their attacks at Henry’s advisors, in part to be careful not to implicate the king himself, the embodied nation, in unlawful behavior. Along with this, the nobles are also critical of the king’s reliance on such men, prompting a call by a group of reformist barons to question the prerogative of the monarch to appoint and maintain his own council.

It seems to me that the opponents of Charles in Parliament in the 1620s may have been doing the same thing. If we are to follow the narrative given by our textbook and Worden, and indeed believe that there were no calls for complete reform and change to monarchial prerogatives, then the MPs may have been conscious not to go against the grain of the social order and to implicate the king personally in the misrule of his kingdom. In this case, what would be the benefits to separate the misrule of the kingdom from Charles and place the blame on his advisors? One possible explanation could be the age of the king, though I am a bit dubious. Charles was 24 when he came to the throne, and while he was not very old, he certainly was not all that young. For example, Henry III came to the throne at the age of 9 and the English kingdom was overseen by a regency council (the composition of which and change of said composition over time is another discussion entirely) until he declared his minority over at the age of 17. Henry continued to Peter_des_Roches__2be heavily influenced by his advisors, the most prominent of which, Peter des Roches (effigy pictured), had been one of the original thirteen entrusted by King John to oversee the minority of Henry. The sources indicate (Flores Historiarum among them) that Henry was often chastised in public by his advisors, even into his maturity, and public acknowledged to have often been under the thumb of those who were supposed to advisor but ultimately execute the will of the king.

Here is where we get an interesting parallel, though. As we know, Charles was profoundly influenced by his father’s favorite, the Duke of Buckingham, and his hatred was so prominent that he was assassinated in 1628. Was it that Buckingham proved to be the perfect scapegoat for the misdeeds of Charles or was there perhaps something to the evil advisor corrupting the king? As things turned out, though, the impetus of the English Civil tumblr_niyrhlpZLG1r65o3qo2_1280War perhaps can be better attributed, at least in part, to the personality of Charles himself and not to his evil advisors. In the case of Henry III, however, the nobility refused throughout the baronial reforms of the 1250s and civil wars in the 1260s to personal implicate the came himself for the misrule of the kingdom, but rather continued to lay the blame on his advisors, who they viewed as the true source of corruption and injustice. A reading of the events and the responses of Henry himself suggests that he was fully aware of choses that he made, and indeed even that he used the scapegoat of his advisors as a way to placate the nobility while he maneuvered to consolidate his own power.

I had intended to talk a little bit about the use of medieval “ancient” laws and customs in the rhetoric leading up to the English Civil War (and knowing me and my problem with brevity, it would have been a lengthy discussion), but I will save that for another blog post if people are interested in reading about it.


One thought on “A Medieval Trope and Medieval Connections in “The English Civil War”

  1. I thought this was a really interesting comparison between a medieval example with Henry III to Charles I, and really made me think about the concept of blaming the “evil advisors”. This is even a trope that goes beyond the tiny English borders though, and could even be seen with the emperors of China!

    Something that came up to me when I was reading this was how much of an influence religion played into this trope, especially when the concept of “divine right of kings” became popular. If a king was so close to God, how could he possibly be at fault for the supposed misdeeds of his reign? And since England was never successful at becoming an absolute monarchy (I would say Henry Tudor was much closer to it than the Stuarts ever were), it is easier to look at other possible players.

    I can’t say too much more about this without looking more into it, but I just wanted to throw in my initial thoughts in before I forgot it!

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