The Legitimacy of The King

Janina Ramirez: Her series on the Hundred Years War on BBC4 is revealing on the legitimation of the King.
Janina Ramirez: Her series on the Hundred Years War on BBC4 is revealing on the legitimation of the King.

Much of the history of the infrastructure of State harkens back to feudal and older systems of clan based fealty, where one clan is in the ascendant, and brings other clans under its wing, and the head of the clan asserts a right to rule through strength and politics.  Francis Fukuyama talked a lot about that in his book on The Origins of Political Order.  This kind of authority is still seen today in monarchial type totalitarian states like Saudi Arabia and (formerly) Ba’athist Iraq.  There are some similarities with Bashar al Assad’s Syria, but they are limited.  Wiliam Dalrymple‘s latest book Return of a King reminds us that Hamid Karzai, the current leader of Afghanistan, comes from the same tiny sub-tribe from whence the original ruler of Afghanistan hailed during the British War there in 1839.  The Divine Right of Kings was a principle that emanated from Reformation Europe, and in particular from a Theologically thin doctrine hastily assembled to facilitate Henry VIII.  This doctrine was in a sense the harbinger of modern secularism; the French Revolution abhorred the gap between rich and poor, and questioned how righteous the King really was, ultimately resulting in the schism between Church and State.

BBC4 are running a series on the Hundred Years War which has some interesting snippets.  In particular, the legitimating effect of Agincourt on the rule of Henry V is emphasised in the second programme, recently broadcast.  Henry needed that win to cement his authority, to legitimise his reign, so the narrative goes.  Two thoughts occurred to me as I considered this.  In the first instance, the word legitimate relates to both a child in a marriage, and to a king on his throne, as it does to a State itself.  The king and the state in old monarchial dialogues, are inseparable   In that haunting line from The Last King of Scotland, Idi Amin bear-hugs his diminutive Scottish companion declaring “I am Uganda!”  Shakespeare’s histories constantly reflect the health of the nation in the health of the monarch.   The king, and the state, are inseparable, as are the legitimacy of each.

The second thought that occurred to me was that Henry needed to exercise his authority in a very masculine way in order to copper-fasten his claim to the throne.  He needed to be strong, to be seen to be strong, and to be capable of leadership.  There is something comforting in this – hereditary entitlement was not sufficient to assure the persistence of the crown.  Some semblance of control needed to accompany any claim.  There is some evidence that this persists today, though the exercise of control by faceless elites in media and commerce in particular means that personification of control is more difficult to nail down, and therefore more difficult to hold to account.

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