Divided Loyalties in the Medieval World

To whom should one pledge fealty? Lord, king, brother or nation?

miniature showing a battle, from 'The Book of Feats of Arms and of Chivalry', by Christine de Pisan, French, 1434.© Bridgeman Images

Jo Johnson, the younger brother of the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, recently blamed divided loyalties for his resignation as Cabinet minister and MP. Citing ‘unresolvable tension’ between family loyalty and the national interest, he found the time had come to quit his governmental roles. David Gauke, one of those to have recently lost the Conservative Party whip, admitted that many MPs have had to ‘wrestle with conflicting loyalties’ in the past few months, as Brexit rips a hole through traditional ties of party and family.

In the early 1960s, opponents of John F. Kennedy questioned whether it was appropriate to have a Roman Catholic president due to dual loyalties between his country and faith. Under Richard Nixon, George W. Bush and, more recently, Donald Trump, the presidents’ leading advisers have been expected to be loyal to the point of skewing, or even eschewing, truthfulness and morality. Yet Julia Gillard described herself as Kevin Rudd’s ‘loyal’ deputy after she ousted the Australian Prime Minister in 2010. How could this be? Her loyalty, she argued, was directed towards the nation rather than the leader: the country was her higher loyalty.

Conflicting loyalties can create genuine dilemmas: loyalties frequently clash and the choice over which one to follow can be anguishing. As the philosopher Troy Jollimore explains in his book On Loyalty (2012), it is impossible to create a universally accepted hierarchy of loyalties in which one outranks another. Do we accept that loyalty to family trumps loyalty to one’s nation? What about loyalty to one’s religion and one’s political allegiance?

Some have been forced into a decision, such as Thomas More, who chose faith over Henry VIII. Pragmatism could be an option and it undoubtedly saved lives, although others remained true to their principles. Some could not reconcile their allegiances and continued to be loyal to the ‘losers’, such as the Jacobite Scots, who remained faithful to Charles Edward Stuart (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’) through the loyal toast to ‘the King’. Or take the example of Thomas Tresham who, when attainted for fighting against Edward IV at the Battle of Towton in 1461, cited his lifelong loyalty to the previous king, Henry VI, as something he ‘durst not disobey’.

In trying to navigate conflicting loyalties, we might turn to medieval literature: the Arthurian legends talk of Lancelot’s love for both Arthur and his queen Guinevere as one of the causes of the demise of the Round Table, for example. Advice manuals on chivalry and military behaviour also addressed torn loyalties, such as that of Christine de Pisan (d. c.1430), whose writings focused on politics and morals. Her work became popular on both sides of the Channel and some were printed. One such piece was Le Livre des Faits d’Armes et de Chevalerie, translated by William Caxton as The Book of Fayttes of Armes and of Chyvalrye in the 1480s. This is an unusual example of a book on knightly conduct written by a woman in the Middle Ages. In four books the author offers her opinions on matters including the manners belonging to a good captain, undertaking an effective siege and whether the blind should be compelled to pay ransom. Christine also offers advice on divided loyalties; although the context is medieval warfare, parallels with today’s scruples are clear.

What, for example, should we do if our loyalties are divided between our immediate lord and our sovereign: if both ask us to fight, who should we choose? Although we are bound naturally to our lord through fealty, the lord is himself bound to the sovereign – it is therefore one’s duty to obey the king. The quandaries get more difficult. If two lords are at war and the king calls on the followers of both to fight for him, what should the followers do? By right and law, they are bound to leave their lords and follow the king. The reason being that a king’s war is undertaken for the good of the people, unlike private wars; and a king has higher jurisdiction over a lord. But what happens if a lord supports two kings who both ask for assistance in military campaigns? Which king does he support? After all, as Christine states, ‘impossible it is to be in two places at once’, and the lord would perhaps be forgiven for not sending aid to either king. The answer is that the lord should go himself to one king and send some of his men to the other, thus avoiding calls of disloyalty from either.

But what if a lord serves two kings who go to war against each other and the lord is forced to choose sides and fight? It is a seemingly impossible quandary over torn loyalties, not unlike that faced by Jo Johnson and his colleagues. Here, concrete advice from Christine is elusive. It would be impossible for the lord to adopt the above approach and send men to both kings as they would end up fighting each other. The best approach is to come to one’s own decision. Either ‘choose the one that him best shall please’, or go to neither and endeavour to broker peace between them: pragmatism could prevail in the medieval period, just as it can today.

We often hear that loyalty is a forgotten virtue. ‘There’s no loyalty in football today’ is a familiar refrain from the terraces. But exactly when was the golden age of loyalty? The medieval period? In Christine de Pisan’s time (the early 15th century), loyalty was also a thing of the past. She talks of ‘the little truth and fidelity that this day runneth through all the world’. Another writer, the Catalan mystic Ramon Llull, was saying the same thing well over a century earlier. Naturally there were those who apparently epitomised loyalty, such as Edward, the Black Prince. Yet today’s refrain that loyalty is a thing of the past evidently goes back a long way: although the context was different, people were antagonising over divided loyalties just as much 600 years ago as they are today.


Matthew Ward is British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Nottingham University, studying medieval loyalty.