Tuesday, February 13, 2018


The death of King Charles IV of France in 1328 precipitated a dynastic crisis. Charles’s father, Philip IV of the house of Capet, had left three sons to continue his line; within fourteen years, all three were dead without male issue. Philip’s only surviving child was Isabella, widow of King Edward II of England; the year before Charles’s death, Isabella’s 14-year-old son had succeeded in the Plantagenet line as Edward III. The quandary was exacerbated by the fact that Philip V, the elder brother and immediate predecessor of Charles, had revived the ‘Salic’ law of the ancient Franks, which excluded women from the royal succession: any claim by Isabella herself was thereby foreclosed. There was however no explicit obstacle to succession in the female line; and English opinion tended to the view that the French throne should pass to Edward III as the nearest surviving male kinsman of Philip IV. The French magnates promoted instead the claim of Philip of Valois, the nephew of Philip IV through his brother Charles, Count of Valois. On 29 May 1328 Philip was crowned king of France at Reims, the sixth of his name.

Arms and the Men

From a narrowly dynastic perspective, the great Anglo-French conflict that ensued can be seen as a war of succession between the houses of Plantagenet and Valois. Hostilities commenced in 1340 in the wake of a dispute over Edward’s feudal obligations to Philip and his provocative assumption of the title ‘King of France’. Edward and his successors used that title uninterruptedly from 1369 until the 1410s, when the stunning conquests of Henry V in Normandy opened the way for a compromise: by the Treaty of Troyes (1420), the English recognized Charles VI (great-grandson of Philip VI) as the true king of France with the stipulation that on Charles’s death his son-in-law – none other than Henry V – would succeed to the French throne. Dis aliter visum: on the deaths of both Henry V and Charles VI within a few weeks of each other in 1422, it was Henry’s infant son who fell heir to both realms; Henry VI became the only English monarch to qualify as a de facto king of France. The union of the French and English crowns was nonetheless a dead letter: the final act of the war opened with the advent of Joan and the coronation of Charles VII at Reims (1429). Fighting continued until the French victory of Castillon (1453).

With the outbreak of dynastic war between the houses of York and Lancaster in 1455, the English were no longer in any position to pursue their claim to the French throne; peace between England and France was formally concluded by the Treaty of Picquigny (1475). The English lost all their continental territory except Calais, finally captured by the Duke of Guise during the reign of Mary I (1553–1558). The English were definitively expelled in 1563, and the next year Elizabeth I relinquished her claim to the city in exchange for a cash settlement. Although the Stuart monarchs of the following century retained the title ‘King/Queen of France’, subsequent accessions of territory would be confined to the British side of the Channel. During the reign of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuarts, the Act of Union joined the Kingdom of England and Kingdom of Scotland in the Kingdom of Great Britain (1707); a further Act of Union in 1800 formed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. King George III chose the latter occasion to renounce his claim to the French throne, defunct since 1792. The Jacobite pretenders, for their part – ‘James III’, ‘Charles III’ and ‘Henry IX’ – styled themselves ‘King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland’ until the death of the last in 1807.

Arms Race

The rise and fall of the English claim to the throne of France can be traced in the forms of the English and British royal arms current over the 461 years that intervened between the initial assertion of Edward III and the definitive renunciation of George III. The arms inherited by Edward III in 1327 dated to the reign of Richard I; the device comprised three gold lions passant guardant arranged vertically on a red field. In 1340, the year in which he asserted his title to the French throne, Edward quartered the Plantagenet arms with the royal arms of ‘France ancient’ – a powdering of gold fleurs de lis on a blue field. After a short-lived modification in 1395 under Richard II, who impaled the attributed arms of Edward the Confessor with those introduced by Edward III, Henry IV (1399–1413) reverted to the previous configuration, but with a significant change: the fleurs de lis were reduced to three to conform to the arms of ‘France modern’ adopted by Charles V in 1376. It is this form of the Plantagenet arms that is represented on the shield surmounting an inscription preserved at Rome’s Venerabile Collegio Inglese – the English College in Via Monserrato:

Photo: Anthony Majanlahti

These two conjoined devices, owed to the law of succession, England [and] France bestow upon their king. 1412. Lawrence Cache made me.

The text of the inscription comprises a single elegiac couplet: hēc cōniūnctă dŭō sūccēssūs dēbĭtă lēgī | Ānglĭă dānt rēgī Frāncĭă sīgnă sŭō. Although it is metrically unexceptionable by Ovidian standards, the couplet exhibits a distinctively medieval feature: word-rhyme. By contrast with some of the more extravagant specimens of medieval Latin versification, extra-metrical embellishment is here limited to a chiastic structure (A-B-B-A) by which duo at the caesura and legi at the end of the first verse are mirrored in the second by regi and suo. In medieval Latin prosody, such couplets are known as versus cruciferi (cruciform verses).

The shield at the Venerabile Collegio dates to the year before the death of Henry IV, who introduced the form of the Plantagenet arms that it bears, and three years before Agincourt, where Henry V set the stage for the English reconquista of Normandy. Although the English claim to the throne of France was by then more than seven decades old, the language of the inscription reflects the vigor with which it continued to be maintained. The quarrel between the houses of Plantagenet and Valois had taken its rise from a dynastic situation unprecedented in the Kingdom of France: a putatively proximate heir whose claim to the throne was in right of his mother. The categorical formulation that appears in the text – ‘law of succession’ – reflects a determination to present the issue as settled; and indeed no sooner had Edward III laid claim to the French throne than English jurists set about building a case to support his title. While they did not challenge the French exclusion of female claimants, the lawyers did reject the contention that the ban extended to cognates (relatives on the female side). Given that Edward, the nephew of Charles IV, was the late king’s kinsman in the second degree, the claim of Philip of Valois – Charles’s cousin and thus his kinsman in the third degree – was patently inferior.

Arms Akimbo

The substantial continuity of Henry’s claim (and escutcheon) with that of Edward III masks a momentous rupture: his deposition of Edward’s grandson, Richard II, in 1399. Henry was at the time ‘Henry of Bolingbroke’, eldest son of John of Gaunt and heir to the Duchy of Lancaster. Henry’s usurpation of his cousin’s throne set the stage for a bloody dynastic dispute among the numerous progeny of Edward III – the so-called Wars of the Roses. Notwithstanding the pernicious consequences of the Lancastrian usurpation, both Edward IV of the house of York and Elizabeth I of the house of Tudor reverted to the arms of Henry IV in preference to alterations operated by their immediate predecessors. The first durable modification to the arms of Henry IV came with the accession of James I of the house of Stuart (1603), who quartered the royal arms of England with those of Scotland. Under James, the arms of England and France were set in the first and fourth quarters; the arms of Scotland (featuring a framed red lion rampant against a gold background) were set in the second quarter and the arms of Ireland (a gold harp on a blue field) were set in the third – the first appearance of the arms of Ireland in the English royal arms.

A Farewell to Arms

Although the royal arms were abolished during the Commonwealth (1649–1660), they were resumed unchanged under James II and remained so until his deposition and final exile (1689). Under William and Mary, the device underwent changes reflecting the recognition of the pair by Scotland and William’s title as Prince of Orange. Queen Anne, Mary’s sister, reverted to the arms of James I: after the union of 1707, however, the royal arms featured the impaled coat of England and Scotland in the first and fourth quarters, while France modern occupied the second and Ireland the third. Upon the accession of George I (1714), the fourth quarter – hitherto identical with the first – was replaced by the complex Hanover device (comprising Brunswick, Luneburg and Westphalia). With the Act of Union of 1800, the fleurs de lis – part of the armorial bearings of all claimant kings of France since the time of Edward III – were permanently removed from the British royal arms. As of 1801, the arms of England were set in the first and fourth quarters, Scotland in the second and Ireland in the third; the arms of Hanover appeared on an escutcheon at the center surmounted by the Electoral Bonnet (emblem of the Electors of Hanover, replaced by a crown when Hanover became a kingdom in 1816).


Because the succession of Hanover was governed by the Salic Law, Victoria was excluded from its throne; the Hanoverian escutcheon and crown were removed from the British royal arms in 1837, which have remained unchanged since that date.

Cordial thanks to Anthony Majanlahti for alerting me to the presence of the inscription in the Venerable English College and for permission to make use of his photograph.