Richard III, Game of Thrones, and Invading France

Pretty much everybody else on the interweb-thingy has had their fourpenn’orth about last week’s reburial of King Richard III, and I suppose it was only fitting that the events divided opinion just as sharply as the Marmite Monarch himself – depending on your point of view and which bloggers and tweeters you read, either a dignified and appropriate paying of respects or a ludicrous and unjustifiably expensive pantomime (accompanying those other ongoing panto spats, namely ‘He killed his nephews!”Oh no he didn’t!’ and ‘It’s not him at all!”Oh yes it is!’). I’m not going to get involved in any of that, calling upon the historian’s ancient and infallible get-out clause of ‘it’s not my period’, but I thought I’d pick up on just one element that some of those tuning in to the Dead Dick show might have thought a bit odd: namely, the inclusion of ‘King of France’ among his titles, and the appearance of the French royal arms on his new tomb.

The reason for this, of course, can be found in the causes of ‘the Hundred Years War’, which ended just a few months after Richard’s birth. Philip IV, King of France, who reigned from 1285 to 1314, had three sons, and might have gone to his grave assuming that the royal House of Capet’s succession to the throne was secure. But each of the three succeeded in turn and did not reign for very long: Louis X from 1314 to 1316, Philip V from 1316 to 1322, and Charles IV from 1322 to 1328. None of the brothers fathered a son. In 1316, France adopted the Salic Law, specifying that the throne could pass only to males and only through male lines. This barred from the succession the sister of the three short-lived brothers, namely Isabella, the Queen of King Edward II of England. On Charles IV’s death, therefore, the throne of France passed to the brothers’ first cousin, Philip, Count of Valois, who thus established the new royal dynasty of that name. Isabella refused to accept this and asserted her right in the name of her son, the new King Edward III. Some ten years later, this claim provided the pretext for the outbreak of the war between England and France. From then on, Kings of England also included ‘King of France’ among their titles, and the Fleur-de-Lis of France were quartered with the three lions of England on the royal standard.

Royal standard of later medieval kings of England

Royal standard of later medieval kings of England

(Incidentally, the reigns of the last Capet kings, and the subsequent clash of claims to the throne of France, inspired a series of historical novels, The Accursed Kings, by the French author Maurice Druon. These were read in turn by an American novelist, who took elements of Druon’s stories, mixed in ingredients from England’s Wars of the Roses, added extra dragons, and came up with a moderately successful series of his own, now best known by the title of the first book, Game of Thrones.)

The English monarch’s claim to the French throne remained a live political issue throughout the long duration of the wars, providing, for instance, the theoretical justification for Henry V’s Agincourt campaign (Shakespeare gave the Archbishop of Canterbury a very long and convoluted speech explaining the Salic Law in Act I Scene II of Henry V, which must have had the Globe audience snoring en masse in the aisles). But after the final English defeat at the battle of Castillon in 1453, the claim became increasingly academic, if not somewhat ludicrous, even though, until 1558, England still possessed a tiny foothold on French soil (the Pale of Calais). English Kings, notably Henry VIII, still went campaigning in France from time to time, but not even Bluff King Hal ever seriously expected to conquer the entire country and become its king. Yet his successors maintained the theoretical claim, counting King of France as one of their titles, until 1802, when it was abandoned in the Treaty of Amiens – ironically, at a time when France had no King, but was under the rule of First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte.

During what really is my period, namely the seventeenth century, the claim to the French crown led to all sorts of oddities and logical nonsenses. For example, both Charles II and James II were exiled in the land of, and directly subsidised by, King Louis XIV, the man whose throne they claimed as their own. And for a brief period just after the Restoration, it seems as though Charles II made at least a half hearted attempt to assert his rights as ‘King of France’. The title given to General George Monck, the man who restored him to the throne, was Duke of Albemarle – but Aumale, from which the name was taken, was in Normandy. (And although the claim to the French throne was abandoned in 1802, the claim of English monarchs to be the Dukes of Normandy survives to this day, notably in the Channel Islands where Queen Elizabeth II is toasted as le duc.) The claim to the French throne is also the only possible justification for some dubious legal chicanery in naval warfare, as I noted in Pepys’s Navy:

Meanwhile, in a breathtaking reassertion of claims to sovereignty over large parts of France that would not have displeased his predecessor King Henry V, James’s patent of appointment [as Lord High Admiral of England], ratified on 29 January 1661, also named him as Lord High Admiral of Normandy, Calais, Gascony and Aquitaine, and a further patent of 20 February 1662 added Dunkirk, barely nine months before Charles II (whose titles still included ‘King of France’, the legal basis for James’s appointments) sold the town to Louis XIV. This was not just quaint legalism, nor nostalgia for lost glories. When hostilities with the Dutch loomed and eventually broke out openly in 1664-5, James was able to use his splendid medieval titles to issue letters of marque and reprisal to local privateers from Dunkirk and Honfleur, a strategically astute act which threatened any Dutch shipping that attempted to run up or down the English Channel by hugging the neutral French coast.

The claim to the French throne may have been abandoned in 1802, but when I was at Oxford, the university possessed an Invade and Conquer France Society. (From memory, though, the ‘invasion’ never actually got further than the wine section of a hypermarket in Boulogne.) In 1982, at the height of the Cold War and in the immediate aftermath of the Falklands War, the society’s chairman wrote to Foreign Secretary Francis Pym to assert that France was the real national enemy, and that British foreign policy should be adjusted accordingly. ‘Due to other preoccupations’, wrote the suave and deadpan Pym, ‘the repossession of Normandy, Aquitaine, Maine, Touraine, Anjou etc may have slipped a little in the table of British foreign policy objectives over the last 600 years.’ Richard III, King of England and France, would have been appalled by such out-and-out defeatism.



  1. Jane Stemp says:

    You and I must have been up at Oxford at about the same time… I almost missed the Falklands War, owing to a series of essay crises…


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