Boldness as a Symbol in Medieval England


By: Andre Lopes Massa

The death of King Henry I only legitimate son, William, in 1120 had left a major crisis of succession in England. Prior to the conflict that would grip England in later years, William I and William Rufus had built a strong foundation of kingship for the Norman dynasty quelling rebellion in the North, building a strong defense in the West by incentivizing the conquering of Welsh territory, and by driving Malcolm, King of Scotland, further North and building castles in Newcastle to consolidate England’s border and territorial gains in the North. William I and William Rufus had demonstrated complete royal authority to crush dissent and keep barons subservient through the ideology that the King is the ultimate lord and that all land that the barons had were simply gifts from the King. However, the death of Henry I in 1135 without an illegitimate heir created a rift between Matilda, daughter of Henry I who was supported by the barons, and Stephen, who ascended to the throne of England through the help of his brother Henry of Winchester. In the face of rebellious and misbehaving barons and a collapse of royal authority during the Anarchy, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Henry of Huntington reinforced the notion of a strong kingship characterized by boldness through a willingness to take charge on the battlefield to serve as a model of strength and the conviction to break social norms to show that there was no power greater than one own’s kingship.

Henry of Huntington’s characterization of kingship is one of both boldness on the battlefield that subjects can look up to and one of effective decision-making and risk taking that is needed to shift the fortunes of a strong king in any situation. Huntington’s praise of Stephen is a strong indication that he believed a strong kingship involved being bold enough to turn any situation in your favor. In describing Stephen’s prowess on the battlefield, Henry of Huntington writes, “Whereupon the king’s lighting showed itself, as wielding his great battle-ax, he slew some and scattered others. Eventually the royal battle-ax was shattered by incessant blows. He drew out his sword, worthy of a king, and performed wonders with his right hand until the sword, too, was shattered.” (Henry of Huntington, The History of the English, pg. 80). Nothing could be bolder than for a king to still dominate the battlefield and charge forward despite the fact that his first weapon had shattered. Henry acknowledges Stephen as a role model that his subjects can look up to as a model for strength that they could follow into battle, a theme that Geoffrey of Monmouth would echo in his fictional account of England’s prosperity under Arthur. In a similar manner to Henry of Huntington, Geoffrey would describe Arthur’s exploits on the battlefield as bold acts that solidified his strong kingship. To Geoffrey, Arthur represented a model of strength and authority that barons could unite under in an era where barons uniting under a single ruler seemed unthinkable. In describing Arthur’s prowess on the battlefield, Monmouth writes, “He drew his sword Caliburn, called upon the name of the blessed Virgin, and rushed forward at full speed into the thickest ranks of the enemy. Every man whom he struck, calling upon God as he did so, he killed at a single blow. He did not slacken his onslaught until he had dispatched four hundred and seventy men with his sword Caliburn. When the Britons saw this, they poured after him in close formation, dealing death on every side.” (Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, pg. 217). Arthur’s boldness with regards to charging headfirst into battle with just a single sword against a swarm of enemy is similar to the boldness to of Stephen charging into his enemy fearlessly despite the fact his battle-ax had shattered. Both accounts of boldness paint the picture of a kingship of boldness that barons would follow into battle with hopes of emulating the power of their role models. Though Stephen would be captured by Empress Matilda, the fact that Stephen’s army would capture Robert in order to free their King and that his freedom was well received by the English nobility (Henry of Huntington, The History of the English, pg. 81) is proof that Stephen’s example of boldness on the battlefield set an example of strong kingship that his subjects desired to follow, much like the flock of Britons who followed Arthur into the heat of battle.

While boldness on the battlefield was one of the aspects that Henry of Huntington and Geoffrey of Monmouth agreed were necessary for a strong kingship, boldness in the court, the boldness to break superstition and conventions were another example of strong kingship. In the narratives of Arthur’s behavior at his own court and Stephen’s appearance in Lincoln on 1146 are two prime example of both men’s desire to break away from external factors of superstition and social norms that would make them subservient to another. In describing Stephen’s visit to Lincoln on Christmas Day in 1146, Huntington writes, “King Stephen showed himself in the kingly regalia in the city of Lincoln, where no other king-deterred by superstitious persons-had dared to do so. This shows that King Stephen possessed great boldness and a spirit that was not fearful of danger.” (Henry of Huntington, The History of the English, pg. 85). In ignoring well-established superstition, Stephen had showed himself to be undeterred by any outside force except his own conviction. In an era where loyalty was scarce and divided, this conviction that Stephen showed through his boldness was necessary to cement his royal authority because it showed that there was no power greater than Stephen that the greatest power he has is the blood that runs through his veins. This conviction through boldness is similar to the boldness Arthur shows when he held court in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s depiction of his life. Monmouth writes of Arthur’s conviction, “The Archbishops were led forward to the palace, so that they could place the royal crown upon the King’s head. Since the plenary court was being in his own diocese, Dubricius made ready to sing mass in celebration of the moment when the King should place the crown upon his head”. (Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, pg. 228). It was a well established tradition that it should be the archbishop who should place the crown on the king’s head as a symbol that the power of God flowed into the King from the Church, but, in a style foreshadowing Napoleon and demonstrating a boldness that characterized a strong kingship, Arthur blatantly defied that social custom to assert his own conviction in the same manner Stephen did by visiting Lincoln to assert that the power of God was seized by none other than himself, that there was no power greater than his own kingship. It is the emphasis on boldness that characterized the understanding of strong kingship for both Henry of Huntington and Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Works Cited

Greenway, Diana E.. “1000-1087: The Coming of the Normans.” The history of the English people, 1000-1154. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. 6-34. Print.

 

Thorpe, Lewis G. M.. The history of the Kings of Britain. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966. Print.

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