A child’s rule did not inevitably lead to instability.
Boy kings have often been viewed as paradoxical to medieval ideals of royal rulership. This is thanks, in part, to the longstanding myth that strong, adult kingship equalled good kingship. Modern media does little to help dispel such an impression. Bratty boys, overbearing mothers, murderous uncles, power struggles and political decline are central tropes of child kingship as it is depicted in numerous books, films and TV shows. George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones provides an especially notorious example in its figures of King Joffrey and his mother, Cersei Lannister.
Children’s physical frailty, intellectual incapacity and social naivety certainly contrast with the paradigm of adult men anointed by God to wield military might in battle and dispense justice to their subjects. But a child’s succession did not inevitably lead to instability, much as an adult ruler could not necessarily ensure peace and prosperity. This simplistic picture overlooks children’s political significance within medieval society.
Periods of child kingship were hardly exceptional. Between 500 and 1500 nearly 100 emperors, kings and queens across the European continent and Byzantium succeeded as children under the age of 15. The practice of associative kingship – where rulers had their sons crowned during their own lifetimes – meant that many other boys became kings during childhood, even if it was several years before their fathers delegated any real power. In other cases, children were accepted as monarchs but died before inauguration could cement their position. The seven-year-old Margaret, ‘Maid of Norway’, died in 1290 while travelling to Scotland, where she had been recognised as Alexander III’s rightful heir following his death four years earlier.
The tendency to see the Middle Ages as chronologically and culturally amorphous has encouraged the automatic equation of a boy king with political crisis and disruption. Yet neither the experiences of child kings nor attitudes towards child rulership remained static over the entire period. Violence against boy heirs and kings had been a relatively common feature of early medieval dynasties, such as the Merovingians, who ruled the kingdom of the Franks between the fifth and eighth centuries. After the death of King Chlodomer in 524, his two young sons were assassinated by their uncles to prevent the boys claiming any share in royal power.
By the 11th century, youth was becoming an unconvincing argument for passing over a child’s claim to the throne. Royal children in many kingdoms were less at risk of murder or mutilation to eliminate them from the line of succession. Shifting inheritance practices also meant that young boys encountered fewer competing claims from adult kin such as half- or step-siblings.
A flourishing of positive cultural and artistic representations of boy kings accompanied the greater political stability of child kingship between 1050 and 1250. Writers and artists praised biblical and classical models of child rulers who had upheld just and moral rulership. Childhood and kingship were most prominently entwined in the apocryphal infancy stories of Christ which circulated throughout Europe during these centuries. In one narrative, probably written around 1230, Jesus’ childhood friends in Egypt crown and honour him as their king. A contemporaneous German fresco depicted Mary taking Jesus to school. For those familiar with such tales and images of Christ’s upbringing, the notion that divine and secular authority could be embodied in a young boy was hardly a novel idea.
The myth that medieval society recognised no concept of childhood has been influential in dissuading the acceptance of its political significance. But children could be important symbols of royal authority, playing crucial roles within the strategies and ambitions of ruling families. Adults sought and recorded the active political participation of infants, children and adolescents. When Louis VII of France made a promise to the town of Langres in 1179, he acted ‘with the assent and will of my son Philip’, stressing the importance of his 13-year-old son’s independent consent.
Kingdoms and communities were also primed to accept children as their kings. Young princes accompanied their parents to events of political and dynastic importance, such as meetings with other rulers, property transactions, feasts, the translations of saints’ relics and other ecclesiastical ceremonies.
Some kings even sought international recognition of their son’s position as heir and future king. As part of an agreement in 1212 between John, King of England, and William, King of Scots, William and his 13-year-old son, Alexander, swore their loyalty to John’s four-year-old son Henry, promising to help support the boy in his kingdom. Well before a child’s succession, political elites had often already demonstrated their commitment to the boy’s rule. They had a vested interest in supporting the child as king.
Queen mothers could also play crucial political roles during a period of child kingship, but both medieval and modern commentators frequently downplay their actions or cast them in a negative light. Royal women who governed alongside their young sons, such as Empress Agnes of Poitou, the mother of Henry IV of Germany, have been seen as domineering and over ambitious. In the eyes of medieval polemicists, women wielding such power was unnatural. Nevertheless, as an anonymous late-11th-century writer pointed out, even if some considered it ‘dishonourable for the kingdom to be administered by a woman … one may read of many queens who administered kingdoms with manly wisdom’.
Queens who returned to their natal families or inherited lands do not escape criticism but are accused of ‘abandoning’ their children. After Henry III was crowned King of England in 1216, William Marshal was chosen as the guardian of king and kingdom (rector regis et regni). Isabella, Henry’s mother, left the realm to pursue a more active role as countess of Angoulême, which she believed could aid her son’s claim as heir to the county. She continued to support Henry’s interests after she returned to France, in one instance acting in her son’s place to secure fidelity from the newly elected bishop of Limoges.
Child kingship may not have been the paradigm, but it was never the worst-case scenario. Tyrannous rulers, monarchs who rejected wise counsel, or the absence of a royal figurehead were all considered far more troubling prospects for a realm. A young boy could sometimes rule better through counsel with others than by relying on his own power at an older age, as the Cistercian monk Ælred of Rievaulx noted when describing the 12-year-old Malcolm IV’s succession as King of Scots in 1153.
Vincent of Beauvais went even further in asserting that ‘the first and best kings were children’ in an educational treatise addressed to the French queen, her young sons and their tutors in the 1240s. It is high time to reject entirely pessimistic views of medieval child kingship, especially those myths which equate a child’s rule with poor government.
Emily Joan Ward is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Edinburgh and author of Royal Childhood and Child Kingship: Boy Kings in England, Scotland, France and Germany, c.1050–1262 (Cambridge University Press, 2022).