The Birth of the Monarchy out of Violent Death

The Birth of the Monarchy out of Violent Death: Transformations in Kingship from late Antiquity to the Tenth Century

By Joachim Ehlers

German Historical Institute London Bulletin, Vol.26:1 (2004)

Murder of Dagobert II - carving from the crypt at Stenay-sur-Meuse.

Introduction: There were many motives for murdering a king. One of them has not, so far, been systematically investigated, although it was of the utmost significance for the constitutional history of Europe. This motive is the monarchy itself — its establishment on the basis of collective forms of rule at the end of Christian late Antiquity. William Shakespeare, who, among the greats of world literature, had the most profound understanding of the specific character of monarchical rule, had his Richard II acknowledge violent death as an integral part of the existence of kings:


For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been depos’d, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping kill’d,
All murthered—for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court …

The significance of this close link between kingship and violent death can already be observed among the barbarian peoples at the time of the migrations. This is connected with the way in which these kingdoms came into being, growing out of the successful conquests of groups of warriors who had come together more or less voluntarily, and whose leaders had found acclaim because of their successes.


The future of such bands of warriors, however, depended largely on the fate of their leaders. If they were murdered or killed in battle, the group’s independent existence in many cases came to an end. If leaders survived, however, and left behind inheritable sons, then quite different conditions set the tone as soon as in the next generations. It was no longer a matter of joining such a band—its members were born into it, so that notions of natural as well as historical identity were developed, leading to ethnogenesis. If such a process continued undisturbed for any length of time, a people emerged, ruled by a dynasty.

Naturally, dynasties arose only retrospectively, when a long chain of succession had been realized. Because this essentially depended on biological chance, ways of regulating it were constantly being sought. The less kingship and rule were seen as an institution and an office, the more they depended on individuals, and the greater the temptation to change conditions by eliminating such people.

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