Power Politics In Medieval Times

We have been exploring some of the great castles of Europe in the last few days…The castles were originally built primarily as a defensive fortress for the king and queen, or the knights rich enough to afford them, and for many of the wealthy royal families, like the Duke of Norfolk, who had tenuous political connections to the royal family, and wealthy clerics like Sir Thomas Beckett or functionaries like Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex and chief hatchet man for Henry VIII’s political adversaries…But life at court always centered around the ultimate source of power, the king and queen themselves…

The kings were believed to have been divinely appointed, and above mere mortals, and although they did not claim divinity like the Pharaohs of Egypt, they still had absolute power of life and death over their subjects…The English in the days of Henry the VIII had courts and lawyers and judges and juries, a whole legal system, but they also had dungeons and torture chambers and in the end, the King or Queen always retained the ultimate power of life and death over their subjects….




Life at the medieval court was full of intrigue and backstabbing, an ever shifting, always fluid balance of power as rivals all clamored to get the kings ear, and favorites were lavishly rewarded while those who fell out of favor were often tortured into confessions in the Tower of London and then summarily executed, either burned at the stake or beheaded, but none of these arrests, tortures and executions were done without the express knowledge and will of the King, who ruled as an absolute tyrant...

Queen Elizabeth I was herself briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London by her catholic sister Mary, after their father, Henry VIII died after a futile attempt to produce a male heir by breaking with the Catholic church and the very venal and political Pope, who would not grant him an annulment from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon…

He ended up establishing his own Protestant Church of England and ran through a succession of new wives, none of whom were able in the end to give him a healthy male heir to succeed him….According to my Google sources: “Henry VIII was king of England in 1534 and wanted an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. Pope Clement VII, considering that the earlier marriage had been entered under a papal dispensation refused the annulment, then King Henry VIII was excommunicated by Pope Paul III.



A separation had been wanted by various movements within the English church for sometime..The church at the time of his reign was the Roman Catholic Church, so to ensure the annulment of his marriage Henry VIII took the position of Supreme Head of the Church and it was renamed to The Church of England.

Maintaining a strong desire for traditional Catholic practices during his reign, many changes by reformers were unable to be made to the Church of England. The King or Queen are the head of the Church of England as constitutionally established by the state. Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I were the three children King Henry VIII left behind at his death, each of whom had a turn on the English throne.

Under his son Edward VI, more Protestant-influenced forms of worship were adopted, but he was a sickly boy appointed Regent at the age of 9 and who died at the age of 15…His sister Mary then became Queen of England… When Mary became Queen (Mary I) she returned England again to the authority of the Pope. An independent Church of England then was ended. During the reign of Mary I, many were burnt at the stake for their refusal to recant their changed faith. The honorable death of those burnt at the stake led to her nickname of “Bloody Mary”.




When Mary’s half-sister, Elizabeth I, became queen after Mary died childless, the new regime decided the direction of the church. Under Elizabeth I (from 1558), the church was moderately Reformed in doctrine, but also emphasized a union with the Roman church and their traditions with the Church Fathers.”

The palace intrigues, plots and power struggles only increased when Elizabeth I became Queen, because it was unheard of in those days for a woman to be a true head of state; women were considered to be inherently inferior to men and during the early years especially of Elizabeth I she was constantly being strongly advised and set up for an arranged marriage with numerous male possibilities…

Elizabeth was an exceedingly intelligent woman and a shrewd politician, and she adroitly played off one would be suitor against the other, pretending to be interested and then bailing at the last minute…Some of the more aggressive male royals around her, especially the Duke of Norfolk, then began conspiring with each other to have her assassinated, so that a male could claim the throne….This is all brilliantly documented in the 1998 Cate Blanchet movie “Elizabeth”….

So behind all the gracious finery and splendor of the palaces, the lacy curtains and elegant statuary, the vaulted ceilings and splendid artifacts lurked a deadly, constant power struggle, as every faction had their ax to grind…The court of Elizabeth I was just an extremely fertile ground for plots, treachery and double dealing because she was a woman, considered weak and unfit to rule alone, and because of the religious schism initiated by her father, Henry VIII….


The medieval courts in general were dominated by “a group of not-so noble Nobles who hung around a king’s corridors of power. They were dissolute, dissipated, degenerate, depraved—let’s just sum it up as ‘decadent’—to such an extent that every thing they touch became corrupted. Whatever country they were ruling was heading for doom while they played their spiteful little courtly games.”

So this was the reality of daily court life behind the mighty, massive castle exterior walls and moats and towers for defense from the enemy outside and the soaring, breath taking interiors of the palaces of the medieval days…

kings21cromwelland norfolkkings17courtscene



It was actually behind these gilded walls and the awe inspiring beauty, exquisite decorative influences, and priceless art and treasures on display inside these palaces that the real danger lurked….Inside the court, power politics ruled absolutely, and there were no limits to the avarice, greed and lust for ever more power and influence by the so called nobility….Plots, betrayals, intrigues, double dealings, lies and assassinations were all considered a normal part of daily life at court…

This is why kings and queens had royal tasters who would sample their food and wine, this was why the king relied so heavily on only his most trusted bodyguards, often trained since youth for their position and who swore a blood oath to protect their king on their lives; this is why so many power struggles took place under various kings, all in the name of greed and advancement for the winning party…

Fortunes in the medieval days could be made and power quickly amassed and consolidated if you were swift, shrewd, avaricious, brutal, ruthless and amoral enough…. But it was a deadly game, for if you chose the wrong side you could expect swift and fatal retribution…Both sides expected and gave no quarter…In matters of court, mercy was no virtue….

To paraphrase Shakespeare slightly, it is well said, “Heavy is the head who wears the crown”…

For more information on Henry VIII and the establishment of the Church of England, see: whychurchofchrist.com/…/church-of-england-established-in-1534-by-he

For more information and scenes of the interior palaces, check out:
OR https://www.pinterest.com/znurseryman/castle-interiors/

For more stories by John Whye, see http://www.johnwhye.com

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