Toppling Tyrants: Early Medieval Approaches to Regime Change

By Harry Mawdsley

“[He] had very little sense. He conducted all his affairs without paying the slightest heed, till at length, employing a heavy hand against [his subjects], he was the cause of violent hatred and outrage among them”

Such was the damning description of Childeric II’s reign in Francia by one early medieval chronicler. The king’s arrogance ultimately led to his downfall in 675 when he had one of his nobles beaten contra legem, ‘illegally’ or ‘without due process’. Soon afterwards the aggrieved man gathered supporters and ambushed the king while he was out hunting. Childeric was stabbed to death alongside his pregnant wife Bilichild. The lesson? Kings who rode roughshod over the law might well come to a sticky end.

Worlds apart?

In the wake of ‘partygate’, it’s hard not to be drawn into parallels with Boris Johnson’s (alleged) flagrant disregard for Covid-19 regulations. The British public’s uproar has been considerable. It seems, like the nobles of early medieval Francia, we cannot abide rulers who place themselves above the law. But thankfully for Mr Johnson, the stakes for our leaders are not quite so high. All political careers may end in failure, but dismissal from office is rarely life-threatening in modern Britain. Former prime ministers can find lucrative work in the private sector, or on the after-dinner speaking circuit. They might even retreat to lavish garden sheds to write their memoirs. Early medieval kings could not expect such mercies. Indeed, the cruel fate of rulers like Childeric would seem to confirm our worst assumptions about the so-called “Dark Ages”—life was cheap, violence was endemic, and political conflicts were resolved at the point of a blade, not by letters to parliamentary committees.

A Bloodless Sanction

These assumptions doubtless hold a grain of truth. Early medieval politics was extremely violent (whether uniquely so is much more difficult to say). Yet it is important to add some nuance to the picture. This has been one of the aims of my current research project on exile in the early Middle Ages. During this period, those in power frequently banished their political adversaries—I’ve identified some 300 cases between 400 and 700 AD, a considerable number given the patchiness of the source record. The advantages of exile are clear enough. Unlike more extreme measures, it removed persons from the political sphere without the need for bloodshed. What’s more, it gave rulers direct control over their enemies. In the modern world, we usually define exiles as persons who have been forcibly ejected from their native countries or who have fled to foreign lands to avoid political or religious persecution. Such things also occurred in the early Middle Ages, but most exiles, and especially those considered politically-dangerous, were banished within the boundaries of their kingdom. Islands, frontier cities, and private residences were all used as places of exile, where offenders might be strictly monitored. In this way, exile effectively functioned as a form of custody—a modern equivalent would perhaps be the gulags of Siberia, which similarly blurred the lines between banishment and imprisonment. But while those infamous labour camps have become a byword for Totalitarian brutality, early medieval exile was explicitly framed as an act of clemency. This was important to kings, because contemporary ideas of good rulership, drawing on both classical and Christian traditions, emphasised the positive role of moderation. Exile thus struck a perfect balance between severity and leniency, neutralising threats while upholding kingly virtues.   

Figure 1. Merovingian Francia at its greatest extent. Public domain through Wikimedia.

The Rules of the Game

What does the popularity of exile tell us about the nature of early medieval politics? Above all, it demonstrates that while extreme violence was permissible, there were conventions governing its use. Certain targets were effectively off-limits—bishops, for example, were hardly ever executed despite being some of the most significant political players across early medieval Europe. Royal opponents were fairer game. But even then, there was a sense that such individuals should ideally be spared. This much is apparent from the criticism levelled at those who failed to follow this principle. In the aftermath of regime change, new rulers were therefore presented with a difficult dilemma: how to deal with the deposed king and his family? Murder might be the safer option, yet it was controversial. To put it in modern terms, the “optics” of it were bad, and this could not be ignored by usurpers. They needed to reassure their subjects that their seizure of the throne had been justified, and that they were more fit for royal office than had been their predecessor. Exiling their toppled opponents was a convenient way to achieve this.

Exile and Regime Change

Given the propaganda advantages of exile, it is perhaps not surprising that dozens of ousted royals were sent into banishment during the period. Some were imprisoned in fortresses or palaces where they were closely guarded and prevented from having contact with the outside world. With the development of ecclesiastical institutions across western Europe, it also became increasingly common to confine deposed royals in monasteries or to have them forcibly ordained in clerical orders. These ecclesiastical forms of exile were popular with the authorities as they fulfilled expectations of Christian mercy, while theoretically disbarring the victim from returning to secular life. But monasteries and churches were not prisons, and the success of ecclesiastical exile—like most forms of exile— depended upon the continuing acquiescence of the victim. Despite the threat of execution if they absconded, there are several examples of offenders rejecting their new careers in the church and making renewed bids for political relevance. But effective or not, the exiling of deposed royals demonstrates that regime change did not always have to be bloody. The fate of Childeric II, while by no means exceptional, was not exactly the norm either. Murder was but a single option among many, and not always the most prudent given the controversies that surrounded it. All this is to say that public opinion mattered in the early Middle Ages, and even the strongest rulers could not simply act as they pleased. To ignore such truths was to court with disaster. In this respect, if in no other, early medieval politics was perhaps not so very different from our own.

Harry Mawdsley is a Humboldt Postdoctoral Fellow at the Eberhard Karl University of Tübingen. His research focuses on law, society, and politics after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, and he is currently working on a book on exile in the early middle ages (c.400 – c.700).

Twitter handle: @MawdsleyHarry

Cover Image. Solidus of Childeric II. Public domain through Wikimedia.

Figure 1.  Merovingian Francia at its greatest extent. Public domain through Wikimedia.

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