A Look Back at Germanic Medieval Monarchies
The Medieval monarchial format can be found in many aspects of the ancient Germanic societies. The kings were chosen by their birth and did not have “unlimited or arbitrary power.” (1) They had to be of royal blood but their power was only what the people had ultimately given them.
Germans allowed the leaders (chiefs) to handle the minor issues without the involvement of the tribe. Yet, the whole tribe along with the leaders handled the larger issues with the king leading the way with his argument. (2) The king was a leader who could not brandish power at a whim. He was a leader who managed the minor issues and looked to the whole tribe to help manage the larger issues with more voices to help direct him. It was teamwork.
Monetary tribute to the king could also be found in the German tribes during that time. When someone was convicted of a crime, they paid a fine of which “half of the fine is paid to the king or to the state.” (3) The king received items of value, cattle or horses in the case of the Germans, to help support him and to give him tribute. His position was acknowledged and supported.
There was no question that the king worked for the people but was also supported by them so they could focus on doing their job.
The Role of the Germanic King
The Germanic monarchial roots can be described as a leader who was supported by the people and who worked with other leaders, chiefs, to help the country through the difficult times. The king was a leader who did not lead alone. The chiefs had a part in the tribe’s leadership and held the king accountable.
The king could not use his power in any manner. Important decisions were brought before the tribal council by the king. The council could reject the king’s proposal or accept it. The king did not have absolute power. (4)
Evolution of the English Monarchy
One of the medieval monarchies that evolved from this Germanic format was the English monarchy. It could be found as early as the ninth century with King Alfred in having the king selected “by the leaders of the community.” (5) This leader was victorious and brave in battle. He was a man to be honored and followed because he fought to win and his people fought for him. (6)
The king only had the power that was granted to him based on his ability to lead and win against the enemy. (7) This was not something to be taken lightly in the German tribes or in medieval England.
Borrowing from Germany
The English government was made up of many courts that presided over the people. This Germanic heritage was kept in various forms when William the Bastard conquered England. (8) Even after the Magna Carta was implemented, the English drew from the Germanic leadership.
The king could not arbitrarily use his power. He was limited by the leaders, barons, who were to take part in the major decisions that affected the country. The people had a say and could not be found at the mercy of the king for any little thing. A process had to be followed, and the king could not be the final judge. (9)
The English monarchy was a medieval version of the Germanic monarchies that established many of the nations of the Middle Ages. The Germanic tribes called for an organized way to rule with power distributed among various leaders. No one leader could take control or use his power to harm the nation.
A leader, allowed to rule by the people and the chiefs, had to be worthy of that leadership and the honor given to him. Though chosen by blood, that same blood didn’t necessarily make a great leader. Much of it had to be learned and accepted. Rulers who refused caused tension and even war.
(1) Tacitus, “Germania,” Medieval Sourcebook, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/tacitus1.html, accessed March 31, 2011.
(5) Norman F. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages: A Completely Revised and Expanded Edition of Medieval History, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1994), 95.
(7) Cantor, 164.
(8) Ibid, 278.
(9) Ibid, 452–454.