Circumstances of Usurpation

There was a fascinating study about Bombus terrestris — European buff-tailed bumblebees — that was recently published in Royal Society Open Science:

Social insects are well known for their high level of cooperation. Workers of the primitively eusocial bumblebee Bombus terrestris are able to produce male offspring in the presence of a queen. Nonetheless, they only compete for reproduction, in the so-called competition phase, when the workforce is large enough to support the rearing of reproductives … In this study, we have examined the influence of chemical cues from the nest wax on the onset of worker reproduction … We suggest that wax scent enables workers to time their reproduction by providing essential information concerning the social condition of the colony.

Long story short, when the hive gets too full — and thus needs to break up or break off into other hives with the excess — the wax produced changes and causes some of the workers to start making boy babies (the future drones of a new queen).

So, that’s how some eusocial insects do it, but what cues inspired medieval courts know when a revolt had a good chance to put a new ruler on the throne?

Seriously. In spite of the Game of Thrones level violence and conflict in premodern courts in England, most rulers kept their tushies firmly ensconced on the throne with no big rebellions or revolts threatening to unseat them. Revolutions and rebellions were chancy things, and kings had enough of a power base that any challenger was fighting a metaphorically uphill battle against a well-defended position. Generals tended not to send foot soldiers uphill against well defended positions because even if you won the resulting casualties to your forces would render it a Pyrrhic victory. How did a power-hungry opportunist know when the grabbing was good?

It cannot just be that a king was too weak to rule. Infant and child kings often held the throne even when there were adult male kinsmen in court who could contest the crown. Henry VI was only nine months old when he became king, and he held the throne for forty years despite his waffling nature and lack of charismatic kingship. It wasn’t until he was entirely mentally unfit that his cousin Richard, the 3rd Duke of York, tried to displace him. Edward VI was a young child when Henry VIII died, but Edward was king until his early and natural death as a teenager.

I think the “wax” in the case of monarchial overthrow comes in the form of a perfect storm of 1) a reasonably legitimate contender for the crown, 2) unpopularity of the current ruler, 3) a lack of male heir or some reasonable-sounding dispute about the legitimacy of a male heir, and 4) enough noblemen seeing a chance to get some gain for themselves under the new regime and thus access to sufficient military force in the form of peerage-controlled troops.

When the Duke of Normandy, William the Bastard, made his attempt on the English crown, it was because he was thought to have been heir to Edward the Confessor until recently and the current king, Harold Godwinson, was not especially popular and his claim to the throne was not air-tight. Even then, it was only the military defeat of King Harold in 1066 that made William the Bastard into William the Conqueror.

Likewise, the Empress Maltilda’s throne was challenged because she was a woman, and only her personal determination kept the conflict with her cousin Stephen of Blois a civil war instead of an outright usurpation. Matilda’s son, Henry FitzEmpress, was only able to come to the throne again without serious bloodshed because Stephen’s male heir Eustace had died and Stephen’s popularity had waned to such an extent – due to his inability to stop the constant civil war and anarchical conditions in England — that his only surviving son William was passed over as heir in favor of Henry II. Stephen understood William was too young and support for the Blois rule was too weak to be in a strong position to fight Henry II in further conflict.

Henry II would later have troubles of his own when two of his sons by Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry the Young King and Richard the Lionhearted, rebelled. Neither could depose the strong and popular Henry II.  After the death of Henry the Young King, Richard’s alliance with French king Phillip II and the defeat of Henry II’s forces at Ballans meant that Richard was crowned Richard I upon the death of his father, in spite of Henry II’s wishes to make his youngest son John his heir. John would become king after Richard died childless, but was such a weak military leader that he lost most of England’s lands on the continent and became known as John Lackland.  Nonetheless, John was never deposed and his nine year old son became Henry III after John’s death.

Henry III’s son, Edward I, would rule England with an iron fist, but his son Edward II would be deposed in favor of his eldest son, Edward III. There is still historical debate about whether or not Edward II was murdered after his dethronement, but the important thing is that Edward II wasn’t strong enough — brutal enough — to hold onto power during a time of socioeconomic turmoil AND a viable alternative to head the realm. Richard II, the grandson of Edward III, would be deposed by his cousin Henry of Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV, because Richard had not had the military success of his sires … and thus lacked the means to bully or buy loyalty from his nobles.

Socioeconomic instability was the fertile soil in which insurrection grew. Only the monarchs who were dab hands with sharp shears could keep their gardens tidy.

England’s bloodiest civil conflict, the War of the Roses, would occur among Edward III’s great-grandchildren and their offspring.  Henry VI, the grandson of Henry IV and son of Henry V, ruled for decades but was mentally ill. Thus his cousin, Richard, 3rd Duke of York, who was a direct descendant of Edward III by Edward’s second surviving son, Lionel of Antwerp, became de facto king. Moreover, Richard of York tried to close off the route for an alternative heir by claiming that Henry VI’s only son, Edward of Lancaster, was fathered during an adulterous affair. Although Henry VI’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, made a valiant attempt to keep the throne for their son, the Duke of York’s heir, Edward, Earl of March, defeated and killed Edward of Lancaster in battle and was himself crowned King Edward IV.

Ironically, when Edward IV’s own young son, Edward V, inherited the crown, he and his younger brother was declared illegitimate and his throne was usurped by Edward IV’s brother, Richard III. In turn, Richard was overthrown in battle by Henry VII, the son on Henry VI’s half-brother, Edward Tudor. The opening for the first Tudor king was created as much by the fact King Richard had been left without an heir by the death of his only son as it was by the instability caused by the mysterious disappearance and death of King Richard’s nephews.

It makes one realise why Henry VIII might have been inspired to kill all his cousins before he left his crown to his own son, Edward VI. Cousins were clearly dangerous to young kings and kings without heirs.

All in all, it’s safer to be a queen bee than an British king.

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