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How was the power of a King limited in the Middle Ages?

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Answered 2010-08-01 22:01:22

The powers of kings and emperors were limited in various ways. Very few kings of the Middle Ages attempted to assert unlimited power, and came too close usually met with trouble.

First of all, in some countries, such as Scotland and the Holy Roman Empire, the monarch did not come to the throne by inheriting it. These monarchs were elected by groups of powerful men who had their own agendas and who had things to demand in return for their vote. In the Holy Roman Empire, three of the seven electors were bishops, whose primary allegiance was not even to the emperor they elected, but to the pope.

Second, almost all of the medieval kings were limited by the Church, since the pope, and even bishops, had the power to excommunicate them, which freed anyone who owed them debts of honor from those debts. These debts included oaths of support and loyalty, and they included binding treaties. Without these, a king was in trouble, so kings were very reluctant to cross the Church. We have histories of a number who were excommunicated, including King John of England, but there were not all that many.

Some kings had charters they granted that had to be honored. A king who did not want to honor a charter could be excused from it by the pope, as King John was excused from honoring the Magna Carta, but it did not always work out the way he wanted.

Kings could also have other debts of honor. As a matter of practicality, the feudal hierarchy of the Middle Ages, which was based on oaths of mutual support, limited the power of monarchs by distributing power among the various members of the nobility. A king who alienated his vassals could find himself very alone.

Some kings were vassals of other kings. For example, the kings of England were theoretically vassals of the kings of France for their lands in France, though they were not for their lands in England. Kings of Scotland were vassals of the kings of England, for Scotland, until King Robert asserted independence.

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