Tyranny, Tyrannicide and Medieval Political Theories of Kingship (31 October)


Gustave Doré’s 1857 illustration of Canto XII from Dante’s Inferno, depicting tyrants submerged in a river of boiling blood

The medieval period was obsessed with notions of kingship and tyranny. Writers from across western Europe, in both Latin and vernacular languages, interrogated concepts of legitimate leadership across a great variety of forms and genres. The ‘Mirror for Princes’ genre was one of the most well-known (and most direct) forms of such interrogations. Examples of this genre – emerging from as early at the ninth century – typically offered actual or imaginary leaders advice on the conduct of kings, often through forms of historical, legendary and biblical exempla. The great histories of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries similarly could employ examples of the reigns of former kings as mirrors to their own times, often using the obliqueness of time to both codify and conceal contemporary political commentaries. Those same centuries saw the flourishing of a new body of political treatises that would address kingship in even more direct fashion, including such works as John of Salisbury’s Policraticus (c. 1160) and Thomas Aquinas’ De regno (1267), which we will read this month.

Medieval notions of kingship and tyranny were influenced by a vast, and ever-growing, spectrum of texts, including the Bible, the works of Augustine, classical and contemporary histories, and the works of classical philosophers, such as Cicero and Aristotle. These political theories wove together divergent currents of thought that were both ancient and modern, attempting to reconcile theological discourses with philosophical concepts of natural law and the all-important question of tyrannicide. Moreover, they were also written for a wide spectrum of audiences, dedicated to Kings, Chancellors, and Archbishops, and read at both European courts and the Papal curia. The breadth of this readership meant that the didacticism inherent in any work on kingship must be carefully moderated and modulated in accordance with the demands of those leaders. Furthermore, the fascination with legitimate kingship and its tyrannical (but not altogether indistinguishable) other extended beyond the philosophical treatise, textbook and Latin history, and the genres of romance, fable and hagiography, among others, would frequently interrogate and dramatize notions of correct leadership, political legitimacy, usurpation and tyrannicide.

The Intellectual History of Tyranny

The word ‘tyrant’ originally derives from the Greek word ‘tyrannos’ (τύραννος), meaning ‘monarch’ or ‘leader of a polis’. In its earliest-recorded context, the term signified a authoritarian ruler, free of negative or illegitimate connotations. It was not until around the fifth century BCE that a distinction arose between a legitimate ruler, who ruled with the support of government and a tyrant, who did not. The first major interrogation of tyranny was conducted by Socrates (c. 470 – 399 BCE), who argued that, just as subjects had a duty to obey the laws, the ruler had a duty to ensure that laws were made honestly and with legitimate reason. Once one of these precepts were violated, the ruler was deemed a tyrant and the contract between polis and ruler was broken. This left subjects free to break the law in the service of the common good and, in certain situations, justified tyrannicide.

This view was broadly corroborated and expanded by later classical intellectuals, including Plato (c. 428 – c. 347), Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) and Cicero (106 – 43 BCE). However, despite the post-Classical importance and prevalence of both Platonism and Neoplatonism, very few of either Plato’s or Aristotle’s works were available in the Middle Ages. As a result, the structuralist conception of government laid out in Book Seven of Plato’s Republic was glimpsed only through the works of Cicero, whose own De re publica was written in imitation of Plato’s great work and, emerging later still, through the works of Aristotle.

In contrast to the relatively clear-cut and homogenous attitude to tyranny (and, indeed, tyrannicide) evidenced by Classical philosophers, these theories became complicated with the emergence of Christianity, and especially the Church’s prohibition on murder. For instance, despite his familiarity with the works of Cicero and Neoplatonists such as Plotinus, Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 CE) wrote nothing that could properly be termed political theory. As a result, both medieval and modern scholars have tended to extrapolate theories of statesmanship, kingship and tyranny from arguments on legitimate rule in a bid to construct something akin to an Augustinian theory on tyrannicide. These arguments have typically centred on Book XIX of his City of God. In Chapter 14 of that book, Augustine establishes a broad framework for the relationship between the ‘rulers’ and the ‘ruled’, arguing that ‘those who care for the rest rule (the husband the wife, the parents the children, the masters the servants); and they who are cared for obey (the women their husbands, the children their parents, the servants their masters)’ (City of God, XIX, 14). Although Augustine argues that slavery itself (in this interpretation analogous to the subjects of a ruler or tyrant) is only possible in a postlapsarian world, he argues that it must be tolerated because:

the apostle admonishes slaves to be subject to their masters, that they may themselves make their slavery in some sort free, by serving not in crafty fear, but in faithful love, until all unrighteousness passes away, and all principality and every human power be brought to nothing, and God be all in all. (City of God, XIX, 15)

This passage, read in this interpretive framework, has been broadly interpreted as Augustine’s belief that a tyrant, or unjust ruler, must be tolerated in this world because anything temporal is secondary to eternal life.

As a result, whilst tyranny remained a discourse that was both available to and utilised by medieval writers and historians, it would not become the subject of interrogation or theorisation in the Latin Middle Ages until 1159, when John of Salisbury (c. 1120 – 1180), one of the most important figures of the twelfth-century renaissance, completed his Policraticus – a political treatise dedicated to then-Chancellor Thomas Becket. A long, wide-ranging work that covers such issues as the body politic, kingship, contemporary history, the vices of the court and contains a sustained attack on flatterers, the Policraticus is most famous for its defence of tyrannicide. John’s is a powerful and comprehensive theory of tyranny, arguing that there are different types of tyrant: private tyrants, ecclesiastical tyrants and monarchical tyrants.

Whilst the Policraticus had a relatively small reach in the years following its completion, by the thirteenth century its influence was so wide that Frédérique Lachaud has rightly defined the text as ‘a cultural phenomenon’.[1] The full text survives in 60 manuscripts, and many more in abbreviated forms. More broadly, it was summarised, paraphrased, quoted, and even directly plagiarised, throughout the coming centuries and influenced the work of many twelfth- and thirteenth-century theologians, legalists, historiographers and poets, including: Peter of Blois (c. 1130 – c. 1211), Nigel Longchamp (d. 1200), the anonymous author of The Song of Lewes (1264), and Henry of Bracton (d. 1268), author of an extensive treatise on common law. It continued to be of influence in the early modern period, being printed at least twice in the sixteenth century (Paris, 1513; Leiden, 1593), and was almost certainly known to Ben Jonson who drew much material from it in Timber.

By the thirteenth century, however, the intellectual world was being revolutionised again by the mass translation of the works of Aristotle, including the Nicomachean Ethics and Politics. These translations, and the commentaries that soon followed, galvanised intellectual – and, consequently, political – thought and life; many of the men responsible went on to write significant commentaries on tyranny, applying the structural analyses of Aristotle to their own political circumstances. Robert Grosseteste, the influential Bishop of Lincoln, was responsible for the first extant Latin translation of the Nicomachean Ethics and notably sent an abbreviatio of his memorandum on tyranny to Simon de Montfort in May 1250. However, it was the Dominican Friar, Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) who truly epitomised and championed the synthesisation of Aristotelian thought with the principles of Christianity.

Aquinas’ theories of kingship and the construction of society are based largely on Aristotle’s own distinctions (Monarchy, Autocracy/Tyranny, Aristocracy, Democracy, Oligarchy). Drawing, again, on the works of Aristotle, Aquinas argues that man is an inherently social and political creature. Unlike animals, which are each equipped with the necessary senses and instincts to survive entirely alone, man, he argues, is equipped with the reason necessary to gain knowledge, materials, aid and services from others better suited to each task than himself. This necessitates the existence of a collective, which, he argues, must be governed and led – preferably, as we will see, by a single individual. This Aristotelian and structuralist conception of society is the principal framework for his theories of both kingship and tyranny. Although Aquinas addresses these themes in a number of his works, including his Commentary on the Sentences (1252-56), and Summa Theologiae (1265-74), it receives its most extensive and exclusive treatment in the De regno (1267). This was Aquinas’ longest exclusively political work and was originally intended for Hugh II of Lusignan, King of Cyprus. However, following the intended recipient’s death in 1267, Aquinas abandoned the work, completing only the first Book and the first six chapters of Book Two. The work was taken up and completed by Tolommeo of Luca.

Today we are reading extracts from John of Salisbury’s Policraticus and Thomas Aquinas’ De regno to interrogate how political thought on both kingship and tyranny evolved over the course of the Middle Ages.


Questions/Topics for Consideration:

  • How do these texts present a) kingship and b) tyranny? To what extent are the two constructions inter-reliant and interrelated? How do these constructions vary between texts?
  • To what extent are these texts similar? Different? What are the effects and meanings of these similarities and differences?
  • How do these texts negotiate authority – whether secular, religious, textual, patristic?
  • What do they mean for contemporary kingship and constructions of kingship?
  • As texts fundamentally to do with power, how does the nature of the dialectic between text and power function in each source?
  • How political are the texts themselves?
  • Thinking of your own research and what you know of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century contexts of these texts, how do their theories (and the repercussion of those theories) impact or reflect broader societal and literary concerns?
  • How do these texts make use of their authorities both implicitly and explicitly?

[1] Frédérique Lachaud, ‘The Medieval Afterlife of the Policraticus’, in A Companion to John of Salisbury, ed. by Christophe Grelland and Frédérique Lachaud (Leiden: Brill, 2014), pp. 377-438 (p. 377).


Saint Simon? The Death of Simon de Montfort in Contemporary Chronicles


Statue of Simon de Montfort on Haymarket Clock Tower in Leicester

Thirteenth-century England was characterised by periods of civil strife. King John’s refusal to uphold the Magna Carta, despite having signed and ratified the document only weeks earlier, brought the country to a civil war in 1215 that would last for two years. Magna Carta itself was based on Henry I’s Charter of Liberties and defended individual and ecclesiastical rights with a view to limiting the despotic nature of Angevin kingship. After King John’s death from dysentery in 1216, the nine-year old Henry III was crowned and, on 12th November 1216, the Magna Carta was reissued in his name. Although many of the barons were now reconciled with the new king, the war continued until September 1217, partially as a result of the international policies of the French Louis VII. Although conditions initially improved under the young Henry III, by the 1250s the now-older king’s reckless and uncontrollable spending, combined with his preference for foreign favourites, had sown the seeds of discontent that eventually culminated in a Second Barons’ War (1264 – 1267).


Overview of Simon de Montfort’s Life and the Second Barons’ War

Simon de Montfort (c. 1208 – 4 August 1265) was the son of a Frenchman, also Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. He was brought up in France and came to England in 1229 with no knowledge of English. Upon his arrival, de Montfort gave up his right to his familial lands in France and, instead, petitioned for English inheritance, which he was accordingly granted.

His position as a close favourite of Henry was cemented when he married the King’s sister, Eleanor, in January 1238. However, the friendship was not to last and, early in 1239, de Montfort and his family fled court. Simon departed for the Holy Land as part of the Barons’ Crusade, returning in late 1241 to assist Henry in his campaign against Louis IX. Despite this reconciliation, the years following were turbulent and Simon’s relationship with the King fluctuated wildly. By 1254, Simon was at the head of baronial opposition in parliament and, at the ‘Mad Parliament’ of 1258, the barons, led by de Montfort, succeeding in convincing Henry to ratify the Provisions of Oxford, which reasserted the rights of the barons to governmental representation and demanded that parliament meet three times a year. Despite this initial success, in 1261 – and with the assistance of Pope Clement IV – Henry III revoked his assent to this legislation and, by 1263, the early battles of the Second Barons’ War were underway.

On 14th May 1264, the King and Prince Edward were taken hostage at the Battle of Lewes. Simon de Montfort became the de facto ruler of the kingdom and Henry III was, again, forced to assent to the Provisions of Oxford. Although this left the barons in a strong position, the Pope issued bulls of excommunication to de Montfort and many of his supporters (although there is considerable debate as to how official these excommunications were). In May 1265, Prince Edward escaped and amassed an army of royalists and baronial defectors, including Gilbert de Clare, de Montfort’s former ally. The massacre of Simon the Younger’s army in a night-time raid at Kenilworth further weakened the barons’ position and, at the Battle of Evesham on 4th August 1265, they were defeated. Simon de Montfort was killed and his body mutilated. His hands and feet were cut off and sent to different corners of the country whilst his decapitated head, with his testicles ‘hung on either side of his nose’, was sent to his wife. Despite de Montfort’s death, the war rumbled on. An effort to broker peace was attempted in 1266 through the Dictum of Kenilworth (31 October 1266), which overturned the Provisions of Oxford, re-established royal prerogative and, in return, saw Henry reconfirm the Magna Carta. The final barons surrendered in the summer of 1267 and the war was over. Whilst Henry III and the papacy forbade any popular veneration of Simon de Montfort or the reporting of his miracles, his illegal, popular cult continued to garner support across the country.

Like the Becket Affair, the Second Barons’ War engendered an enormous amount of literary production. Political songs in Latin, Anglo-Norman and English were written to celebrate Simon de Montfort’s victory at the Battle of Lewes (1164) and to bewail his death a year later. Contemporary monastic chronicles of the day expanded their remits from local, institutional concerns to include an account of the conflict and miracle collections were compiled by William de Rishanger and monks at the Abbey of Evesham. The majority of these accounts were profoundly pro-baronial in their biases and many constructed Simon de Montfort as a martyr.

This month we are reading two extracts from contemporary Latin chronicles of the death of Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham and the fragments of two late-thirteenth century motets celebrating Simon’s sanctity.


The Chronicle of Melrose

The Chronicle of Melrose covers the period between 745 and 1270. It was written at the Cistercian Abbey of Melrose, on the Scottish border and, in the twelfth century, was a source text for a number of important chroniclers – including Roger of Hoveden. Like almost every other contemporary chronicle of the Second Barons’ War, the Chronicle of Melrose is profoundly pro-baronial in its biases.


The Westminster Continuation of the Flores Historiarum

The Westminster Continuation extends Matthew Paris’ Flores Historiarum from 1265 to 1307 and is an extremely contemporary source for the Second Barons’ War – and the only extant pro-Henrician one. The bias of this chronicle is perhaps not surprising considering that Henry III was the abbey’s benefactor and patron and his government was located next door to the abbey itself.


Miles Christi and Salve Symon

These are two late-thirteenth century fragmentary motets (a piece of choral music, usually sung unaccompanied and regularly included in liturgical offices) celebrating Simon de Montfort. They are found, respectively, in Cambridge, St John’s College, MS 138 (f. 1) and Cambridge, Jesus College, MS QB 5. These fragments illustrate that, despite the popularity of his cult, Simon de Montfort was celebrated in official liturgical offices for at least some time after his death.


Topics for discussion

  • How does each text present the reasons for the conflict? How do they construct their respective protagonists and antagonists?
  • What role does law, nationality and religion play in each of these chronicles? How are they manipulated and to what effect?
  • How does rhetoric function in these texts?
  • How do we read the rhetoric of sanctity bestowed on Simon de Montfort by the Melrose Chronicle and the two fragmentary motets? How is it legitimised? What are its purposes? How problematic is the translation of such rhetoric to a secular figure?
  • What use do the texts make of authority?
  • What is the role of an anti-monarchical and anti-papal popular saint?