Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Question from Nedra - King vs. Emperor

A question I'd like to ask is about emperors vs. kings. Since Henry VIII was made King of Ireland in 1542, couldn't he be considered an Emperor?

As an empire is made up of multiple kingdoms as I understand it, wouldn't having 2 kingdoms
qualify him as an Emperor? Why wasn't Britain considered an empire back then?

Also, why didn't James I step-up his title and call himself an Emperor too? He was King of Scotland, England, and Ireland.


  1. "Where by divers sundry old authentic histories and chronicles it is manifestly declared and expressed that this realm of England is an empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one supreme head and king, having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial crown of the same."

    Henry certainly saw himself as an emperor, although I think at this time (1533), Ireland was entirely peripheral to his vision. This quote above featured in the Act in Restraint of Appeals (to the Pope), setting forth the doctrine that England was an independent and autonomous "empire," owing no fealty to any temporal or spiritual power outside the king.

    I think there was also ego playing into Henry's wish for England to be thought an empire. He insisted on retrieving his old Papal title of "Defender of the Faith" from a complaisant Parliament in the 1540s -- a title he was very proud of, which set him on the same level as Francis I and Charles V, who had their own Papal titles -- and here, about a decade earlier, by having England described as an "empire," he asserted his demand to be considered equal to Charles V, his chief enemy.

    However, while England was now an "empire," it existed mostly as such for Henry's diplomatic and political purposes at home and abroad. There was hardly a rush to address Henry as "emperor," either inside England and certainly not on the Continent. Europeans thought Henry was just blowing smoke; to them, there was just one "emperor," the Holy Roman Emperor, the inheritor of the old Roman Empire (even though it was now mostly Germany), elected by select spiritual and temporal German princes but traditionally crowned by the Pope. Possibly, in the full rush of his defiant challenge to Charles V in the 1530s, Henry meditated setting up a challenge to the Emperor -- there had been anti-Emperors in the medieval past, just as there had been anti-Popes -- but I suspect he would have found minimal useful support to carry it off.

    His claim to the royal title in Ireland may have played into his concept of England as empire, though. I think previously the kings of England claimed at most to be "lords" of Ireland, but Henry was very intent to amplifying his regal state as much as possible. But I don't think the style of "emperor" was ever introduced into government documents or correspondence.

    As for James, it's just a guess, but I'd assume that with his Puritan domestic opposition and grandiose foreign policy plans he was unwilling to annoy people by claiming to be Emperor. At home, he was well aware of the grumbling at his attempts to establish a union between England and Scotland; claiming to be emperor would probably have triggered the English Civil War even earlier. Abroad, he was trying to facilitate an alliance with Spain for much of his reign, so there was no point in antagonizing the Spanish king's close relation and ally the Holy Roman Emperor -- especially when James' daughter's only hope of being restored to the Palatinate was through the Emperor's good will. (It was taken away from her husband in punishment for his "usurpation" of the throne of Bohemia.) James wished to the "Rex Pacificus," the conciliator, not emperor.

    It was Disraeli, in the 19th century, who arranged for Queen Victoria to be Empress -- but only of India, not of Great Britain. Disraeli and Victoria were realistic about the sour taste the name "Emperor" -- associated with reactionaries, tyrants and the deprivation of basic freedoms on the Continent -- might leave in the ordinary Briton's mouth.

  2. Foose has provided an excellent answer to this question, but I would like to add a few tid-bits.

    As Foose notes, Henry VIII certainly saw himself as an emperor. And he did so as early as 1513 in documents published following his victory at Tournai. Just 4 years later, in 1517, Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of Durham, assuaged Henry's pique at learning he was ineligible to be elected Holy Roman Emperor by reminding Henry that "the Crown of England is an Empire of hitselff, mych better then now the Empire of Rome: for which cause your Grace werith a close crown."

    English kings had worn closed crowns (a circlet with arches extending over the top of the head) since the reign of Henry IV. And that closed crown was deemed an "imperial crown" at least as early as the reign of Henry V, in recognition of the terms of the Treaty of Troyes naming Henry V as heir to Charles VI of France. Later, Henry VII's coinage actually depicted him wearing a closed imperial crown.

    Historian David Armitage (in The Ideological Origins of the British Empire) argues that the phrase in the Act in Restraint of Appeals of 1533 asserting "this realm of England is an Empire" was therefore not a novel claim, but was instead intended as public confirmation of a status that most men had recognized and accepted for over a century.

    Henry chose to highlight this pre-existing status less for territorial reasons than for reasons of personal ego. He wanted to appear the equal of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, even if he was not Charles' equal in fact. In the 16th century, however, there was only one "official" imperial title in Western Europe: that of Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Despite his own grandiose sense of self, Henry was not so ego-maniacal as to attempt to create a second imperial title within Europe. Such a move, especially after the break with Rome, would surely have sparked a continental and Roman Catholic alliance that may well have crushed England. Henry wisely chose to assert a historical claim to imperial status rather than attempt to create a new imperial title.

    Henry contented himself with transforming what had been simply a claim of overlordship of Ireland into kingly rule by having the Irish Parliament elect him as "official" King of Ireland. And while Henry certainly engineered this additional title, it is important to note that he did not simply assume it himself. Instead, he followed at least the appearance of being freely elected to it. Because the Pope publicly opposed Henry's claim to the title, it was necessary to observe all the legal niceties in order to avoid open opposition from continental Catholic powers. But as a king of multiple realms (Henry was King of England, King of Ireland, claimed suzerainty over Scotland, and asserted a claim as rightful King of France), Henry had considerable legitimacy after 1542 to a claim of imperial status.

    Henry VIII was also the first English monarch to insist on being addressed as "His/Your Majesty." Prior to that, English monarchs were addressed as "His/Your Grace." The additional prestige associated with the term "majesty," previously used principally in association with the deity, bolstered Henry's sense of personal magnificence.

    The reasons why James VI&I did not pursue an imperial title are perhaps a little more complex than Foose allows. As noted, the only imperial title in existence in Western Europe had always been that associated with the Roman Empire. It is therefore perhaps difficult for us today to appreciate the awesome symbolism once associated with an imperial title. No other European monarch would claim an imperial title until Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor of France early in the nineteenth century. Emperors thereafter became quite common in the nineteenth century, so that there were separate emperors of France, Germany, Russia, Brazil, Mexico ... even the tiny Caribbean nation of Haiti had a emperor for a brief period. And Europeans began to become more familiar with the exotic Asian empires of Persia, China, and Japan, as well. Though almost commonplace after 1804, "Emperor" was a a unique and awe-inspiring title before then.

    Thus when James VI of Scotland became also King of England in 1603, most Europeans knew only of the Holy Roman Emperor. For James ... or any other European monarch ... to claim the title of Emperor would surely have “annoy[ed] people” (to use Foose’s wonderful understatement) just as Napoleon outraged the world of 1804 and plunged Europe into an intercontinental war. Yet I have to doubt that the notion of styling James as Emperor ever crossed anyone’s mind in England or Scotland in the early 1600s. I believe there was just too much symbolic importance attached to the title and thus none but an ego-maniac of Napoleon’s stature would even have thought to reach that high, much less transform those thoughts into action.

    Disraeli did engineer conferring the title of Empress of India on Victoria, but again the reasons are a bit more complex. By the time the title was conferred in 1876, two of Victoria’s daughters had married continental emperors or emperors-to-be (of Russia and Germany). Because empresses-consort have greater precedence than queens regnant, Victoria’s daughters were her social-political superiors, something Victoria found deeply “unnatural.” Victoria “allowed” Disraeli to push for naming her as Empress of India because it gave her equal status with her daughters and made the British crown equal in symbolic status to those of France, Germany, and Russia.

    The title was also a (largely unsuccessful) bid on Disraelis’ part to lure Victoria out of the seclusion she had entered on the death of her husband in 1861. Disraeli wanted to flatter Victoria back into public life. It was also a recognition of the approaching 40th anniversary of her accession in the following year. Finally, the title had valid historic precedent within India. As the new overlords of a multitude of still-existing Indian kingdoms, British monarchs had a claim to the ancient title of Samrāṭ, as emperors of the Indian sub-continent were known. The title may have been limited to the Indian realm in part because of the growing republican movement in England that Disraeli was trying to counter, a movement that stemmed in large part from Victoria’s self-imposed seclusion. With English republicanism at an all-time peak, it would have been folly and perhaps political suicide to name Victoria Empress of the entire British Empire.

  3. One other point I forgot to include: legitimate changes in royal titles, especially changes that increase the prestige and symbolic power of the holder, are not customarily enacted by the person seeking or holding the title. Only tyrants assume titles and status for themselves. Instead, holders of royal and imperial titles and offices are "elevated" to the rank by freely-given consent of their subjects. As noted in another post, an important part of any coronation ceremony is the "Recognition," during which the officiant asks those assembled whether they accept the individual as rightful and legitimate holder of the office being conferred. Theoretically, the right of refusal exists, though it has never been exercised in an English coronation.

    Henry was elected to the Kingship of Ireland; he did not assume it for himself. Even Holy Roman Emperors are elected. They did not automtically inherit, nor did they assume the title by fiat.

    Thus James VI&I could not have "step[ped]-up his title and call[ed] himself an Emperor" without being deemed a tyrant. The title could only be conferred on him by Parliament.

  4. I was thinking about the title of Emperor in Europe. Napoleon would appear to be the first challenger to the Holy Roman Empire, but I recall Peter the Great styled himself specifically as Emperor of Russia in the early 18th century, not just "Tsar" -- itself derived from "Caesar" and assumed by his ancestor Ivan III when he married a Byzantine princess of the last dynasty at Constantinople and laid claim to the leadership of the Orthodox world through her. It is generally thought that the title of "Emperor of Russia" was part of Peter's drive to Westernize by adopting a title recognizable to Europeans and also to establish his equality with the Holy Roman Emperor, with whom he hoped to link his family.

    I don't know if Peter's emperorship counts as much as Napoleon's does, though. Russia was at that time only beginning to be accepted (and feared) as a power on the European continent. To be Emperor of Russia might have seemed to the average European like being Emperor of China -- not really affecting the traditional authority of the Holy Roman Emperor.

  5. Also, phd historian, do you think Henry harbored any serious potential imperial ambitions in the late 1530s, with all that cozying up to the Schmalkaldic League and the marriage to Anne of Cleves? For a while it looked like the Emperor's authority was failing in Germany. One of Henry's ancestors had been elected the "King of Almain" (actually King of the Romans, but I guess the English saw the imperial title more matter-of-factly as King of Germany); perhaps if things had gone the right way for the Protestants in Germany, Henry could have challenged Charles V as a kind of anti-emperor, rallying other disaffected domains and subjects of the Habsburgs. (He might have nurtured a lingering grudge at not being elected emperor back in 1517, and cherished a desire to hit back.)

    There may not be enough evidence to support this, but I think for a while Cromwell and Henry had very grandiose ambitions for countering the Emperor at his weakest point.

  6. Foose, I have to think that the English were too xenophobic, even in the 1600s, to seriously contemplate an alliance of such strength and depth with contintental powers that it might legitimately be called an "Empire." Henry might very well have fantasized about becoming a second European emperor, but I have to believe he possessed sufficient political acumen to realize that even a man of his strong personal will and determination was unlikely to be able to hold such an "empire" together for long. Henry had plenty of evidence avaailable for what could go wrong in an empire simply by glancing southwestward to Low Countries and the Italian peninsula, as well as Germany. Henry had to have realized, despite his early continental ambitions in France, that ruling multiple lands with multiple languages, customs, legal systems, and religions would have been an insurmountable task.

    Henry may have wished it, but I doubt he ever seriously considered pursuing it.


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