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
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.
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:
SUCCESSUS DEBITA LEGI
ANGLIA DANT REGI
FRANCIA SIGNA SUO
M CCCC XII
LAURENTIUS CACHE ME FECIT
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.