Anger, Astonishment, and other Reactions: A Medieval King’s Emotional Behaviour

[A]s though he [Henry III] was infected by fury, being unable to contain his anger, he raised his voice in uproar, and ran furiously away from all who were in his chamber.1

Medieval kings such as Henry III (r. 1216–72) are regularly described in chronicles as angry—especially when challenged—and they often expressed their anger in excessive gestures. This particular passage was written by Matthew Paris, a monastic chronicler famous for not holding back his opinion on either kings or popes. Presumably his accounts of these emotional gestures might be shaped by his judgement on the king and a desire for a colourful narrative. But are these the only ways of interpreting such descriptions of royal emotional behaviour? Are they merely a means to an end, removed from reality?

It certainly is impossible to fathom how the king actually felt. This is the general consensus among researchers in the field of ‘history of emotions’, but that does not mean that researching emotions and reactions should be neglected. Scholarship can still gain much from paying close attention to how a medieval king reacted.

Let us look at the long, conflict-ridden reign of Henry III, for example. He had to deal with rebellions by various nobles at the beginning of his reign, the barons joining forces in 1258, even before the battles of Lewes (1264) and Evesham (1265) and his own arrest by Simon de Montfort between those battles challenged him. How was this king described as coping with all these different kinds of upheaval? We can imagine that he was indeed angry, as described by Matthew Paris. But while we cannot know whether this was actually the case, we can ask how he was expected to react in these situations, and what was plausible.

Dealing with descriptions of emotions is complex because numerous factors must be considered. The problems already begin with the definition of the word ‘emotions’. Does this term refer to inner emotions, to their expression, to gestures, or does it include all those levels?2  My Ph.D. project uses the term ‘emotional behaviour’ to widen the focus and to avoid an unrealistic reduction to just one emotion. Although it might start as an anachronism, this term is used as a methodological tool. Its starting point are words and behaviours that are understood as emotional today in order to then narrow the subject down while collecting and comparing these descriptions.

But how can we find out what lies behind contemporaries’ descriptions of the king’s anger? The answer, as so often in modern scholarship, is comparison. While sources are often compared to trace which events might have happened, this approach is also useful when trying to find out what emotional reactions are plausible, especially when comparing completely different kinds of sources. Do the same emotional reactions to the same situations appear across genres?

Royal anger, for instance, appears not only in chronicles but also in letters issued by the king’s chancery. While chroniclers provide us with colourful expansive narratives of gestures that are often excessive, royal letters are (normally) much more concise. They are a type of source that aims to communicate the king’s orders and not primarily to tell a story (although they certainly sometimes do so). In royal letters written to convey orders or notifications, the king’s enemies are frequently declared to be ‘in the king’s anger’ (ira), a phrase which often appears together with them being in the king’s indignation (indignatio).3  To be released from the king’s anger and to return to his grace required a second letter.

Thus on the one hand we have chancery letters that use highly formulaic language to communicate the king’s will, but on the other, there are narrative sources that are shaped by their own language, their view of the king, and by the social milieu in which they originated. It seems as if these two types of sources have no common ground, especially concerning emotional behaviour. But on closer inspection, there are similarities after all.

One example is a description of Henry III’s conflict with Hubert de Burgh, Earl of Kent (1170–1243) in 1232, in which, according to a patent letter, the king was moved by pity (rex pietate motus) and granted the rebellious earl mercy.4  A similar description can be found in two chronicles, the Flores Historiarum by Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris’s already-mentioned Chronica Maiora. Roger explains the king’s change of heart by saying that Henry did not want to be seen as a tyrant, while Matthew later describes this as an act of mercy (misericordia) and adds the gesture of ‘bowing in mercy’ to Wendover’s account (flexus in misericordiam).5  The king’s emotional behaviour is thus similar across very different types of sources. And while the different conditions that shaped each text must be identified and considered, there appears to be a shared set of emotional reactions to certain situations. This observation leads me to wonder whether kings were expected to act in a certain way: was there a specific kingly (emotional) behaviour, a habitus?6  And were different kings also perceived as behaving with their own idiosyncrasies? These are the questions which my Ph.D. project ultimately aims to answer.7

A scholarship awarded by the GHIL gave me the opportunity to focus on Henry III’s letters patent, which I examined in order to discover the exact phrases they used, and to answer questions about the contextual embedding of certain ‘emotional’ words. The printed editions of Henry’s correspondence from 1232 until the end of his reign only contain calendars of the letters; thus it was indispensable to look at the preserved rolls held by the National Archives (TNA C66/43-91). The upheaval faced by Henry resulted in a great deal of communication, as can be seen by the vast number of letters issued during his reign. The patent rolls for the fiftieth year of Henry’s reign alone (1265–6) comprise forty-six membranes of parchment .8  But do they contain emotional words? There is certainly more to find than simply anger. A review of the terms used reveals that the emotional words vary. While the king’s anger occurs frequently to communicate a fall from grace is already underway, other expressions of discontent might not have had the same strong political effect. But they would still have startled their recipients in some way.

In one case Henry reacted with astonishment (mirari) to Boniface, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was coercing certain people to pay him tithes granted by the Pope. Such expressions may also be intensified by adjectives such as quamplures (‘very much’).9  It is not clear, however, whether the meaning of mirari was as strong as its translation as ‘astonishment’, used in the Calendar of Patent Rolls, suggests.10  Other cases in which these expressions appear present the king as ‘astonished’ when a tournament was held against his will.11  There are further variations of this expression on the part of the king. The words of him being ‘moved’ often came along with his ‘astonishment’. Since these are the king’s letters, the chancery might have been using these words communicating the king’s orders with a certain political goal in mind, such as to emphasize the urgency of the order, or to justify the king’s position in a conflict. A comparison of such phrases could reveal more specifically what was associated with ‘astonishment’. Was it a weaker wording that concealed the king’s anger, but had a similar effect on the recipients of the letters? And was the chancery using these words to meet the expectation of a royal habitus?

Correspondence with the king held in The National Archives provides further material concerning the question of whether ‘astonishment’ is a specifically royal emotional expression. A letter sent by William Marshal, Second Earl of Pembroke to Henry III speaks of the former as ‘much astonished’ (valde miratus) that Henry had not told him about his attack on the Earl of Aumale.12  This letter might indicate that the expression of astonishment is not specifically royal. However, nothing can be said about the reaction to this letter and whether the use of this expression was an affront to the king precisely because it could be understood as adopting royal behaviour.

Although so far, I have more questions than answers, consulting the exact phrases of royal letters and their general background, form and context shows the great potential of these sources. They brought me closer to identifying the conditions that influenced the use of certain phrases, to understanding why they were used, and helped me to better perceive the plausibility and function of the chroniclers’ narratives. The king is (supposed to be) angered, but he is also astonished and moved. The simplicity of these expressions, with no additional description, and the contexts in which they were used, might provide an insight into how functional they were. At the same time, they might show how different emotional words could be understood politically, even if this political language did not necessarily refer to a specific royal behaviour.

My Ph.D. thesis will compare Henry’s emotional reactions with those of his father, King John (r. 1199–1216). This twofold comparison, between distinct kinds of sources and between two kings, promises insights into what motivated the diverse descriptions of emotions. It may be possible to identify how much should be understood as shaped by the conditions of writing, and how much reflected a kingly habitus, whether one generally expected of kings, or one seen as specific to an individual monarch.

The featured image shows King Richard I of England depicted in a manuscript illumination from The British Library, London, Royal MS 20 A II, 8r. Artwork in the public domain, photograph courtesy of The British Library.

  1. Matthaei Pariensis Monachi sancti albani, chronica majora, ed. Henry R. Luards, vol. 5 (London, 1880) (Rolls Series 57), 326: ‘quasi furia invectus, nec se prae ira capiens, vocem cum clamore exaltavit, et omnes qui in sua camera fuerunt, velut furiosus aufugavit.’ []
  2. Rüdiger Schnell, Haben Gefühle eine Geschichte? Aporien einer History of Emotions, 2 vols. (Göttingen, 2015), vol. 2, 771. []
  3. E.g. J. E. A Jolliffe, Angevin Kingship (London, 1955; 2nd edn. 1963; repr. 1970), 101. []
  4. The National Archives (hereafter TNA) C 66/43, m. 9d. []
  5. Matthew Paris, Chronica majora, ed. Henry R. Luards, vol. 3 (London, 1876) (Rolls Series 57), 233. []
  6. With reference to Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, tran. Richard Nice (London, 1984 edn. 2010). []
  7. My Ph.D.thesis is entitled: ‘Grim Look and Teeth-Gnashing: Conditions of Constructing John and Henry III’s (Emotional) Behaviour in Chronicles and Letters (1199–1272)’. I cannot thank the German Historical Institute enough for providing me with the opportunity to consult the patent rolls of Henry III held at The National Archives. []
  8. TNA C 66/84. []
  9. TNA C 66/73, m. 13, 9 Jan. 1259: ‘miramur quamplurimum et movemus.’ []
  10. Calendar of the Patent Rolls Preserved in the Public Record Office: Henry III, A.D. 1258–1266 (London, 1910), 8. []
  11. TNA C 66/90, m. 29. []
  12. TNA SC 1/4/70: ‘Per multorum relationem didici quod exercitum vestrum coadunastis, comiti Albemarle propter quosdam excessus suos impugnaturi. Haec autem audiens, valde miratus sum quod nihil inde mihi significastis.’ W. W. Shirley (ed.), Royal and Other Historical Letters Illustrative of the Reign of Henry III, (Rolls Series/Chronicles and Memorials), 2 vols. (London, 1862–66), vol. 1, no. 147. Even though an edition of this letter is already available in this case, there were several other letters that have not yet been edited and contain interesting reactions. []

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Christina Bröker

Christina Bröker is a doctoral candidate at Regensburg University and a researcher at Paderborn University, where she works on the emotional repertoire of medieval English kings.

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