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What to do with a simple-minded ruler: a medieval solution

The thirteenth century saw the reigns of several rulers ill-equipped for the task of government, decried not as tyrants but incompetents. Sancho II of Portugal (1223–48), his critics said, let his kingdom fall to ruin on account of his “idleness,” “timidity of spirit,” and “simplicity”. The last term, simplex, could mean straightforward, but here it meant only simple-minded, foolish, stupid. The same term was used to describe the English king Henry III (1216–72), as well as John Balliol, the hapless king of Scotland (1292–96) appointed by England’s Edward I. As the elites of these kingdoms knew too well, it could happen on occasion that a man rose to officewhether he had been born to claim it, had won the right to hold it, or had found it thrust upon himwho did not have the intelligence to wield power.

Such a situation was dangerous, for subjects would suffer. In Portugal, it was claimed that Sancho’s inability to govern had allowed Church liberties to be attacked, women to be defiled, and the common folk to be oppressed. England’s Henry III had frittered away his resources, monies needed desperately to maintain his government; the result, it was claimed, was that Henry did not even have the cash to buy food and drink for his household and had turned to seizing victuals from his people, leaving them impoverished. The subjects of John Balliol had, perhaps, the most to fear from their king’s simplicity: John was incapable of standing up to Edward I, when a stand was needed urgently to defend his people from the bullying English king.

The people of Portugal, England, and Scotland knew of a potential solution to the problem of their simple-minded rulers: the rex inutilis theory (literally, “useless king”). This was a tenet of Church law that provided, when a bishop was too infirm to fulfill his duties, for the appointment of a coadjutor to exercise power on his behalf. The theory could be applied to lay rulers too, though it addressed here the problem of incompetence rather than infirmity.

King John, his crown and sceptre symbolically broken and with an empty coat of arms as depicted in the 1562 Forman Armorial, produced for Mary, Queen of Scots. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

It was the pope who held the power to pronounce a king rex inutilis. The papal court was like a medieval United Nations: its interests ranged from the making of peace between polities to the proper conduct of rulers, and the well-being of all those under the Church’s care. To this end, the pope had a mighty moral weapon in his arsenal: he could depose rulers and free subjects from their oaths of fealty or, as in the case of a rex inutilis, take effective power from his hands.

This supreme authority was utilised by Innocent IV in 1245 to pronounce Sancho II rex inutilis. Innocent was responding to the complaints of Sancho’s subjects, though the decision was eased by Sancho’s failure to advance the ongoing war against the Muslim rulers of southern Iberia, a war invested with a high priority by the papacy. The subjects of other foolish rulers could not be so confident of papal sympathy. The pope was never likely to act thus against England’s Henry III, for example, a papal vassal who, it was hoped, would lead an army to conquer Sicily on the papacy’s behalf.

What, then, was to be done? In England, and later in Scotland, a group of bishops and barons took matters into their own hands. In 1258, a gang of England’s barons marched on the King’s Hall and forced a cowering Henry III to hand the reins of government to a council. Although Henry recovered power briefly, he was soon defeated in battle by Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, who established a new council to rule the kingdom on a permanent basis. The council only lasted 15 months, however, for its baronial leaders were cut down in battle in 1265. This episode, in which subjects sought to solve the problem of an incompetent ruler by seizing power and establishing conciliar government, has been justifiably called the first English revolution.

Such a move was completely radical. There was no ideological framework authorising subjects to remove their ruler (this right lay solely with the pope), let alone to replace the existing system of government. Those seizing power were driven by a sense of urgency, the belief that “something must be done,” rather than by theoretical justifications. This meant that those revolutionaries tasked with producing a justificatory casethe Montfortian bishops and prelatesfaced a near-impossible task. They had to produce arguments from scratch, in the crucible of political crisis. Despite their prodigious learning, they could find no persuasive precedent, biblical or historical, that justified a revolution.

This was one instance, albeit extreme, of the many attempts made in the Middle Ages to constrain rulers whose inability to rule justly and wisely threatened the well-being and liberty of their subjects. “For since the governance of the realm is the safety or ruin of all,” argued the Montfortians, “it matters much whose is the guardianship of the realm; just as it is on the sea, all things are confounded if fools are in command.”

Featured image credit: Detail of a miniature of John, king of Scotland, being brought before Edward I. Public Domain via the British Library.

Recent Comments

  1. Claudia Strachan

    That is really interesting, thank you!

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