Fairly early in Robin Hood (2010, dir. Ridley Scott), King Richard the Lionhearted (Danny Huston) gets killed by a crossbow bolt during a siege. When Robin (Russell Crowe) tells a royal official about this, the man replies, “The king is dead; long live the king.” The same thing happens when Robin later tells the Queen Mother Eleanor (Eileen Atkins, doing a not too bad Katherine Hepburn impersonation). The sentence gets said, and Eleanor immediately moves to put Richard’s crown on her son John’s head.
“The king is dead; long live the king” is the sort of thing that people say in historical movies occasionally, but no one ever explains what it actually means. The now-standard wording was first used in 1422 in France, but the concept itself dates back further. The phrase encapsulates the legal principle, expressed in French, of le mort saisis le vif, which means “the dead seizes the living”. In this phrase, ‘seizes’ does not refer to grabbing something but rather to seisin, the legal right to possess landed property. The phrase means that the legal title to a property passes from the deceased to the deceased’s living heir at the moment of death. The instant the father dies, his son gains title to his property; there is no period where the property is left legally ownerless.
When applied to a king, the concept of le mort saisis le vif means that the crown and kingdom pass from the dead king to his heir at the moment of death, so that there is never a moment when the kingdom has no king. So the saying is really expressing that “the (old) king is dead; long live the (new) king.”
However, the concept of “the king is dead; long live the king” had not yet been articulated in England in 1199. It was first expressed as a principle in 1272, when Henry III died while his son and heir Edward was out of the country on the 8th Crusade. Fearing a civil war, when Henry died, the Royal Council declared “The throne shall never be empty; the country shall never be without a monarch.”To understand why the Council did this, you only have to look at the previous two centuries of royal successions. In 1066, William the Conqueror took the throne of England by conquest, claiming that he had inherited it from his distant cousin Edward the Confessor and that Harold Godwinson had usurped it. In 1087, William was succeed by his son William II Rufus, even though William had an older son, Robert Curthose. Rufus’ claim, as we’ll see, was based on the fact that William I had not been king of England when Robert was born. The fact that Rufus had Robert in captivity at the time also helped the claim. When Rufus died in a hunting accident (or was it?) in 1100, he was succeeded by his younger brother Henry I.
Henry I’s only legitimate son William Adelin died in a shipwreck in 1120, and Henry spent the last 15 years of his life trying to orchestrate the succession of his daughter Matilda. But when Henry died in 1135, his nephew Stephen of Blois seized the throne and spent the next two decades fighting first Matilda and then her son Henry. Stephen finally reached a peace deal with Henry that allowed Stephen to stay king on the condition that he disinherit his son in favor of Henry. In 1154, Stephen died and Henry promptly became king as Henry II.
When Henry died in 1189, his son Richard took the throne. When Richard died, his brother John became king. When John died in the middle of a rebellion, his infant son Henry III was crowned, but it was a close thing because so much of the English nobility was hostile to John. So in 1272, when Henry died, in the previous two centuries there had only been one entirely stable father-to-son transmission of the crown (Henry II to Richard I). The Council articulated the principle of le mort saisis le vif to try to clarify the rules around the crown. Edward didn’t have to wait until his coronation to become king, because that event would be months in the future; rather, Edward was already king without knowing it.
Modern Americans tend to assume that monarchy always follows the rule of primogeniture, that the oldest son inherits the crown. But that’s not necessarily true. Many cultures have used other systems to determine who inherits the crown. The ancient Egyptians had no clear rule at all about which son would become pharaoh. Early Germanic society used a rather loose system in which descent from the previous king was only one of several important factors. It was just as important that the new king be a strong military leader, which means that if the old king’s son was a child he would be passed over for some other relative. Perhaps in a few decades he might assert a claim to the throne, but he wasn’t qualified yet because he was simply too young. In early medieval France, there was a strong tendency for a king’s surviving sons to split the kingdom up, so that each one became a king. As a result, the kingdom would fracture into several temporary kingdoms until one branch of the royal family managed to reunify France by conquest.
In the 11th century, French nobility began to embrace the system of primogeniture as a way to prevent the breaking up of family property between multiple sons (which tended to drive the family into poverty over a few generations). The kingdom came to be seen as something that couldn’t be divided, so it should pass to the oldest son. But what about a case like England in 1087? William the Conqueror was king of England, but his oldest son Robert wasn’t heir to the kingdom when he was born because William acquired the kingdom after Robert’s birth. So it made sense to William I that he should divide his property between Robert, who inherited William’s French territories, and Rufus, who got England.
An even messier issue occurred when Henry II died. Henry had four legitimate sons who had survived to adulthood: Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, and John. Henry declared his eldest son his heir and had him undergo a coronation ceremony; for that reason the son is often called Henry the Young King. But the Young King died in 1183, while his father was still alive. The system of primogeniture was not yet fully in place. As long as the Young King was alive, there was no disputing that he ought to inherit everything. But now that he was dead, did everything have to pass to Richard, or was there room for Henry to make other arrangements? Ultimately Richard’s political strength compelled Henry to accept Richard as his heir.
But when Richard died, things were murkier. Under normal circumstances, Richard’s heir should have been his younger brother Geoffrey. But Geoffrey had died in 1186, leaving a young son Arthur. Under strict primogeniture, Arthur ought to have inherited from Richard. But Arthur was two generations removed from Henry II, while John was only one generation removed, and the rule of primogeniture was not yet so solidly in place as to exclude John’s claim by proximity to Henry II. Furthermore, Arthur was only twelve years old, while John was an adult.
In 1190, Richard had designated Arthur was his heir, but as he was dying in 1199, Richard declared John his heir, acknowledging that the boy would not be able to stop John from claiming the throne. The idea that the king had to be a strong military leader still mattered and Arthur clearly wasn’t. But Arthur (or perhaps his mother Constance) wasn’t happy with this. Arthur sought support from King Philip II of France, who played Arthur off against John.
In 1202, when Arthur laid siege to Eleanor, Richard and John’s mother, John caught Arthur’s forces by surprise and took him prisoner. In 1203, Arthur died in captivity under mysterious circumstances. There are various stories of what happened to him. Various stories have him stabbed to death by John and thrown into the river or being starved to death. Either way, John’s claim on the English throne was secure.
So when Robin gives Eleanor Richard’s crown and she promptly puts it on John’s head, Ridley Scott is glossing over a whole lot of details and putting an anachronism in her mouth.
Want to Know More?
Robin Hood is available on Amazon.
If you want to know more about some of the kings mentioned here, David Douglas’ study of William the Conqueror is as old as I am, but still a very good biography, while Frank Barlow has written a nice work on William Rufus. W.L. Warren has written excellent books on Henry II (English Monarchs) and King John (English Monarchs). For Richard, you might look at John Gillingham’s study of Richard I.