Kings and sons: princely rebellions and the structures of revolt in western Europe, c.1170–c.1280

Henry IIKings and sons: princely rebellions and the structures of revolt in western Europe, c.1170–c.1280

By Björn Weiler

Historical Research, Volume 82, Issue 215 (2009)

Abstract: Uprisings by royal sons against their fathers were a common phenomenon in the politics of medieval Europe, but one that, so far, has not been fully explored in the context of the thirteenth century. This was, however, a period during which numerous norms and mechanisms were developed that continued to define the Latin West well into the early modern period. This article uses three case studies (England 1173; Germany 1234; and Castile 1282) to outline both shared features of medieval European politics at large, and characteristic differences between central regions of the medieval West.

Introduction: In 1173, the eldest son of Henry II of England, Henry the Young King, aided by his brothers, and with the backing of King Louis VII of France and the count of Flanders, rebelled against his father. The uprising soon spread from across the Channel to Britain, where the earls of Chester and Leicester joined the revolt, as did the king of Scotland. Despite its initial success, and partly perhaps because it brought together such a disparate group of men, the rebellion collapsed. In September 1173, the earl of Leicester was beaten, and at Easter 1174 a royalist army defeated and captured the king of Scotland. By September, the Young King, too, submitted.

This article will take the Young King’s uprising as the starting point for a series of more wide-ranging questions. Henry II’s problems with his progeny were by no means unusual. In England, William the Conqueror had faced similar challenges from his eldest son, while, in the thirteenth century, Henry III was to be opposed repeatedly by his heir, the future Edward I. Nor was the 1173 revolt the end of Henry II’s parental troubles: in 1183, the Young King rose in arms again, and this time the revolt was cut short only by his death, while Henry died six years later, waging war on his son Richard. Neither was this a particularly English problem. The 1173 revolt was, in fact, representative of a phenomenon in evidence across the medieval West: that of an uprising led not by disgruntled lords, but by a ruler’s chosen heir. Young Henry’s revolt should also be distinguished from other kinds of dynastic dispute: this was not a conflict over the rules of succession, nor was it concerned with controlling the government of an under-age king. That this kind of revolt was universal does not, of course, mean that it was either ubiquitous or that it occurred regularly: there were rulers like Frederick Barbarossa who were quite capable of ruling jointly with their sons, and of doing so harmoniously. Equally, the kings of France were blessed not only with a line of unbroken dynastic descent, but also with the absence of filial rebellion. Even so, a sufficient number of these incidents survive for them to be recognized as a familiar element in the political history of the Latin West.

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