Baby Prince Louis Dredges Up Old Memories of 1215

This post at Catholic Herald uses the announcement of Prince William’s new son’s name to remind us that the Hundred Years War was but one phase of a series of struggles between the French and English Crown that went on from the days of William the Conqueror until the English were run out of Calais 500 years later.

However, it’s little known that England was once ruled by a King Louis. After King John had gone back on all his promises made to the barons in 1215 (an agreement later known as Magna Carta) a number of them had invited the king of France’s son Louis to become king, who claimed the throne through his wife, a granddaughter of Henry II. While John was in the north Louis arrived in Kent unopposed and at St Paul’s was proclaimed king, had the backing of most of the barons and controlled two-thirds of the country.

485px-Louis8lelionThat Louis – known as Louis the Lion – wasn’t just the son of the King of France, he was the heir to the French Throne. Which means if he’d pulled off his attempt to gain England, he would have been king of both realms, two centuries before Henry V of England tried it after his triumph at Agincourt. It’s one of history’s great “what-if’s”. Such would have altered almost the entire history of both countries.

And yet, I must point out that the key word is “if”. As in, that’s not what happened. John was still alive, and just because he’d been run out of London didn’t mean he’d been actually removed from power.

However, King John then died of dysentery and entrusted the great knight William Marshal to defend his nine-year-old son Henry and the now septuagenarian regent promised to carry the boy on his shoulders. People thought it unfair to blame the young boy for his father’s sins and besides which the French in London had made themselves unpopular, and as John Gillingham put it, “done nothing except drink all the wine in the city and then complain about the ale” when that ran out. Marshal defeated the French and their English supporters, and ‘King Louis’ was wiped from the historical record. (You can read all about this in 1215 and All That.)

So Louis the Lion never controlled the whole of the country, made no important acts, and left within a few years. He never claimed the English throne again, nor did his heirs claim it. To be fair, he didn’t have much time, reigning as Louis VIII of France for only three years, mostly spending it Crusading against the Cathars in Languedoc, before dying of dysentery and leaving the throne of France to his underage son, who became St. Louis. Still, that’s not what I would call “ruling as King of England”.

There were several “almost kings” of England. Some are fairly well-known, like Harald Hardraada (the also-ran of 1066) and Bonnie Prince Charlie, others, like Lady Jane Grey and James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth, are relatively obscure. Louis the Lion is both one of the most obscure, and most successful “almosts”. History often dances on the edge of a knife like that…


With Monarchy, the Name of the Game is Longevity.

At present time, Queen Elizabeth II has been on the English throne for 61 years. If she lasts another three, she’ll tie the record for the longest reign by a British monarch (my money’s on her doing it. She’s only in her 80’s, and her mother lived to be 100). There’s a reason that The King’s Speech was such a big hit: very few people are old enough to remember anyone else being on the throne. There’s a level of legitimacy in that all its own.

The nature of the monarch is sacral, traditional. Aristotle wrote of the earliest kind of Greek monarchy, that “was exercised over voluntary subjects, but limited to certain functions; the king was a general and judge, and had control of religion.” (Politics, III.xiv) They “embody the law.” This is more or less the role that Elizabeth, as a constitutional monarch, has; she decides not a single political question, but all political action occurs under her crown. Her authority is non-existent, her legitimacy, absolute. She is a sacral figure, quasi-mystical. And thus, the longer a monarch hangs around, the greater that legitimacy grows.

There are places where monarchs do more than that. Michael Totten just posted a dispatch from one such place, Morocco, where the King, Mohammad VI, is a real king, a giver of laws and settler of causes. One would have to be an American to be surprised that Morocco is one of the more liberal and tolerant places in the Arab world. Mohammad VI has been the beaux ideal of an enlightened monarch: liberalising institutions, permitting a modicum of free press, setting free the political prisoners of his father Hassan II. He does this without fear, because, like Elizabeth, his legitimacy is without question: his family has ruled Morocco since the 17th century, and his people believe him a stabilizing force: Continue reading → With Monarchy, the Name of the Game is Longevity.